At our Wednesday morning Bible Study, some students mentioned that the parables of Jesus had lost their relevancy because they were too agrarian with all their sheep, seeds, stalks of wheat, soil and fish metaphors. Some folks thought we needed to contemporize the parables to make them punchier and more meaningful. Here’s a new version for one of today’s parables that might better resonate with us at Christ Church.
"Which choir director, (with 100 choir members) who loses one tenor, does not leave the 99 sopranos, altos and baritones in the wilderness and go after the one tenor who is lost until she finds him? When she finds him, she lays the tenor on her shoulders and rejoices. When she comes home, she calls the entire congregation saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my tenor who was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one tenor who repents and returns to the choir than over 99 righteous sopranos, altos and baritones who need no repentance.”
The parables of the lost sheep and lost coin are part of a trilogy. Immediately following today’s text is the third in the triad, which is of the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The entire trilogy is a set piece whose meaning is found in the first two verses: “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
The religious authorities are once again grumbling, engaging in the character assassination of Jesus as they seek to disparage him as an immoral person, unfit to be a bearer of God’s message. By doing this, they hope to undermine his reputation and turn his followers against him (Sounds like a political campaign, doesn’t it?). Today, they condemn his association with notorious sinners: Tax collectors, who were Jewish and worked for the Roman Empire; and sinners, who included those who broke the moral laws and those who did not maintain ritual purity as practiced by the Pharisees.
Religious authorities applied the Law harshly, lacking forgiveness, compassion and grace. The authorities were also highly adept in pointing out the inequities of others while boasting of their own purity, often seeing themselves in a perfect relationship with God – and therefore righteous.
In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly addressed how exclusionary and hypocritical this belief system was and how it damaged the fabric of society. Jesus disapproved of this behavior in his words and deeds, which was why he intentionally associated and dined with those hated tax collectors and sinners. By doing this, he showed that there is no one, regardless of their sins, real or perceived, who is beyond the love of God. God desires all of us to be in a right relationship with God.
Last Sunday, we baptized baby Sean Alejandro. In the rubrics for the Baptismal liturgy tells us that “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” Once that relationship is established between God and the newly baptized, nothing can break it. I would push that theological envelope even further: I believe that indissoluble bond already exists between God and all humanity – Christian and otherwise, baptized or not. That bond is established by the sheer fact that we are creatures created in the image of a loving God. God loves us and always will love us.
To undergird that message of this indissoluble bond (which is not believed or practiced by the religious authorities), Jesus tells these three parables about being lost and found:
The first two parables start with common daily events in that culture: a shepherd loses a sheep from his flock, and a woman loses one of her ten denari. Notice how these parables emphasize the person’s absolute commitment to find what is lost (By the way, the shepherd and the woman represent God and the sheep and coin, children of God). Action verbs are used for the shepherd and not the sheep: Leave, go after, finds, lays it on his shoulders, rejoices, comes home, and calls together his friends.
Action verbs are also used in the tale of the woman: Light a lamp, sweep the house, search carefully, finds, and calls together her friends. The parallels of these stories emphasize the relentless seeking of God, who is committed to find the otherwise hapless lost sheep and the passive lost coin.
No repentance on their part is required (As if sheep and coins can repent!).
A stunning theological conclusion happens in both parables: “there will be more joy in heaven” and “joy in the presence of the angels of God” when what was lost is found. Heaven celebrates when a lost person is found and returned to right relationship with God. These parables reveal a divine point of view that reframes why seeking and finding matter.
Theologian Joseph Fitz Myer puts it well: “Repentance does not take place without the provenience and the initiative of the gracious shepherd.” Repentance finds its origins in God, and it occurs because God took the initiative to affect it.
This truth gets vividly portrayed in the Prodigal Son:
““When [the prodigal son] was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again. But the father wasn’t listening (Luke 15:20-22).”
The son is far off when his father spots and runs towards him with his arms open to embrace and kiss him. After the father does this, the son begins to repent. The father is so joyful to have his son back that he doesn’t hear his son’s repentance. The son has already been forgiven because he wanted to return to his father. This powerfully tells us that repentance finds its origins in God’s indissoluble love. We aren’t required to repent to receive God’s love. He always loves us.
This parable also results in rejoicing. The son is finely dressed, wearing the family ring, a fatted calf is roasted, and a huge party ensued. Rejoicing when a lost person was found and restored to right relationship with God did not square with the religious practices of Jesus’ time, especially as it occurred before repentance was offered. It frequently doesn’t with our own religious practices as well.
The irony and lesson in these three parables lies in the statement “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.”
This was a poignant dig at the religious authorities, who believed in their own righteousness, their own perfectness in the eyes of God. None of us is truly righteous, at least not all the time. All of us get lost now and then. None of us can claim to be better than another: Holier than thou doesn’t fly in God’s reign. These parables point a finger at our religious hypocrisy.
Op-ed writer Nicholas Kristoff recently wrote an article titled, “What Religion Would Jesus Belong Too?” He writes, “One puzzle of the world is that religions often don’t resemble their founders.”
He then quotes Brian McLaren who states, “Our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for.”
It is this very behavior that Jesus condemns in the Pharisees and scribes who strayed far from what the Law of Moses intended. Kristoff continues, “[If religion] were less about preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity and more about tackling human needs around us, this would be a better world –and surely Jesus would applaud as well.”
Is Jesus a member of this church? Are we finger pointers at others’ faults or do we embrace those who have been labeled as outside of God’s love? Does Jesus applaud our seeking and finding the tax collectors, the sinners and yes, even the lost tenors and welcoming them as beloved children in the fold of God’s love? When we do that, we hear his applause, we know his love, and the reign of God draws ever closer to us. Then the party begins!