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The Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

Parables of Lost and Found 

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...The first point I want to make here is the setting of these three parables. The setting of the three parables is that Jesus is responding to a criticism of the Pharisees and the scribes who are murmuring about him because he receives sinners and eats with them. Now I’ve said this before but it’s important to say it again, when you see the word sinners in the gospel, don’t think of it in a way that we think of it. So for example, when Pope Francis was first elected pope, he was asked the question, “who is or Jorge Bergoglio? Who is Pope Francis?” And he said, “I am a sinner.” So what the pope was saying when he expressed those words is an act of humility, to recognize that “Hey, I am the pope, but I am a sinner like everyone else.” So all human beings are sinners. We are all born into a state of sin under the power of original sin and we all are inclined to commit sin. So we are sinners. That’s what the common expression, the common meaning of the expression in English today means. It means the fact that we fail, we miss the mark, we fail to love God as perfectly as we should, we fail to love our neighbor.

But that’s not what the word “sinners” means in the gospel. In the gospels, when you hear them talk about sinners, it’s a technical expression. It refers to people who were violating the Law of Moses, who were violating the Torah, and they were doing it in a public way and in a grave way. So people whose sins were both public and grave. So the best example of this I can think of is King Herod and his wife Herodias. So Herod is in a public and permanent state of adultery because he’s married his brother’s wife and the law forbid that kind of marriage and you have one of the commandments, the sixth commandment, that says, “you shall not commit adultery”. The same thing with a prostitute or a harlot, if they were known publicly for being a harlot, they would be referred to as a sinner. A tax collector was someone who was known not just for colluding with the Roman government, but they were also known for thievery; they were known for extortion. That would break the commandment, “you shall not steal.” So whenever you hear tax collectors and sinners grouped together in the gospel, it’s talking about people who were widely known to be living in a kind of flagrant violation of the law, especially of the Ten Commandments. So Jesus is obviously receiving sinners, so he’s welcoming these people and he’s even eating with them. In Luke’s gospel, think back here to chapter 7. When the sinful woman comes into the house of the Pharisee and anoints Jesus’ feet, he receives her, he doesn’t reject her, and he doesn’t tell her to get away, right? He’s open to her. And that’s scandalizing some of the Pharisees and the scribes because they were known for their fidelity to the Jewish law. They were known for keeping the law as strictly as possible. So it looks like Jesus is being lax about the law. He’s being lax about sin, right?

And to this day the same kind of scandal can happen if the pope or if a bishop or some public religious figure welcomes state politicians. You know, sits down and has a banquet with a prime minister, or a president, or some leader who’s known to have done evil things or who may be rumored to have extorted, or be in violation of certain laws against human rights. “How could this pope or bishop dine with this person? Is it a condonement of that public sin?” So that’s the same kind of scandal that Jesus appears to be causing with his interaction with sinners and tax collectors. And so the religious leaders of the day are concerned about that, the scandal that he’s giving. And in response to that, he gives these three parables: the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable…although we call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son, that’s the famous name for it, in context with Luke, I actually think the better name is the Parable of the Lost Son. As we’ll see, that’s how the father refers to his son. He was lost and is found. And as part of this triad of parables, that’d be a better name because that’s the theme that’s running through all three. So let’s walk through them.

Before we look at each parable, just a real quick reminder. Whenever we want to interpret the parables of Jesus, remember they are not just nice stories from farm life about the kingdom of God, they actually tend to be shocking and they tend to be surprising and, as I’ve told my students over and over again, if you want to get the heart of the parable, there are two keys: the nimshal, which is the statement at the end of the parable, which will usually tell you the point or the upshot, but then also (here’s no Hebrew word for this), the twist. There’s usually some twist, there’s some surprising element in the parable. And in a long parable you can actually have multiple twists. You can have more than one. So as we work through it, let’s look at what’s the twist? What’s the nimshal? And then how do the three parables go together with the theme of lost and found.

Let’s look at the lost sheep. So he says, “what man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one doesn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he’s found it?” So pause there. Immediately, we already run into the first twist, the first surprising element, and it’s this: No shepherd in his right mind is going to leave ninety-nine sheep behind to go look for one sheep. Notice, he doesn’t say he puts them in a fold, right, that would make sense. He says he leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness. He leaves in the desert. Well that’s precisely where sheep tend to get lost or are exposed to wolves or exposed to thieves, they don’t have any natural form of protection. That’s why the shepherd is with them in the wild. He goes into the wilderness with them to protect them. Like Psalm 23, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He leads me…” He leads me through the wilderness. He leads me to still waters so that the sheep will drink the water. The shepherd is the protector. “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me” because they protect me from threats. They guide me, but they also protect me. So the shepherd is the sole source of protection for his flock. Well if he’s in the desert, no shepherd in his right mind is going to leave ninety-nine sheep behind to go look for one sheep. What he would do is put them in a fold and then go look for the one sheep. But this shepherd is kind of crazy. He’s not very responsible. So immediately Jesus would have the attention of his 1st Century Jewish audience when he says “What man of you if he’s lost one sheep, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine and go look for that one?” And the answer to the question is, well none of us would do that because we are not stupid. So this shepherd seems to be a little off his rocker. He doesn’t seem to be quite all there. So Jesus says he goes, he finds that one sheep, he puts on his shoulders and he brings it home rejoicing. And when he gets home, he calls his friends and neighbors together and he says, “Rejoice with me, for I found my sheep that was lost.”

The second twist. If you know anything about farming or agriculture, you know that animals in fields get lost all the time. So I grew up in South Louisiana, there’s lots of cow pastures around here. One of my cousins, when I was growing up, lived near lots of cow pastures. We would play at the house and cows would break out all the time, they would get lost, especially if a sow was about to calf, a lot of times they’ll want to go look for a safe hiding place (maybe in the woods), someplace they can bed down and have the baby. And so what you would end up having to do, the farmer will have to…it’s evening, they’re rounding up the cattle, we have to go look for this sow and we have to go find this lost cow and bring her back. Well I can tell you right now that any farmer that goes find a cow and bring her back to the fold is not going to go home and call all of his neighbors, “Hey everybody, you know Sue got out tonight, we found her, we brought her home, let’s have a party.” That’s an overreaction to what would be a pretty ordinary occurrence. And that’s just with cattle. Sheep would be even more inclined to wonder off. So having a sheep go astray is a pretty common element of the life of a shepherd. It would not be the cause for this kind of exuberation, to have a banquet.

So the second aspect of the parable that’s surprising is well “which one of you wouldn’t call his friends and neighbors to say come to my house and rejoice? I found my sheep which is lost.” The answer is none of us would do that, because this happens all the time. So now that  he has their attention, what’s the point? “Just so I tell you, there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” Ah! Now we’ve got the nimshal, now we’ve got the upshot, the point. This isn’t really about (you know) best practices in shepherding, this parable is about God, represented by the shepherd (that would be a normal representation for a Jewish audience, to think of the Lord as a shepherd) and the sheep, represented by Israel. This is a standard thing in the Old Testament; Israel gets compared to a flock. And then the one sheep that goes astray represents a sinner, somebody who’s life has lead them astray, somebody who’s life has become a life of disobedience to the law; who is lost, not physically, but spiritually through sin; whether its adultery, like the sinners, or theft, like the tax collectors. They are the lost sheep. And so what Jesus is doing is saying, “just like God goes out and seeks for the lost, I’m not going to wait around. I’m going to go and seek out the tax collectors and the sinners”, because there is going to be more joy in Heaven over them than over righteous people who don’t need any acts of repentance.

But then again you might think, “Well wait, doesn’t everybody need to repent?” Well yeah sure, but there are grades of sin in the new covenant and in the old. Certain sins you could deal with just by going to the Temple, offering your sacrifices, but other sins, like adultery and others, would cut community, would break communion with the Temple and with other members of the community. So they were grave violations of law...

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