The key to the two stories of lost and found is the accusation by the religious leaders that Jesus sits and eats with sinners. Can you imagine this congregation declaring that one or more people were sinners, and were to be excluded? This seems petty by todays standards, but there were two concerns. The first was practical, that association with people declared to be sinners could result in a religious man and Jesus was known to be one - becoming ritually unclean. Should that happen the man would be unable to participate in the religious life of the community until he had been declared "clean" himself. The second had to do with the custom of socially excluding all who were morally or ritually unclean and Jesus broke this convention. Jesus told the parables to demonstrate the lengths to which God will go to seek out even one person who has become apart from the community.
It would not have been lost on his accusers that Jesus places a shepherd, not high on the social ladder, and a woman in the roles of God. Not only do they both search, but there is rejoicing when the lost is found. This would not have been well received by his accusers, as his words cast them in an unfavourable light, since they were as "shepherds" to Israel, and he drew unfavourable comparisons between them and God.
The shepherd story is particularly "over the top". Jesus begins asking which of the listeners would, on finding one sheep was lost, leave the other 99 and go searching for it. The reply would be a ringing "AS IF.....". In reality no man would leave 99 for the sake of just one. It is fanciful, absurd, reckless. The likely fate of the 99, left alone, does not bear thinking about. Yet the parable speaks of the unbelievable importance the shepherd, in the place of God, places on even one who is lost.
The parable of the woman and the lost coin is more complex. Women wore a string of coins across their foreheads to display the money paid in their dowry. To lose even one coin was a personal disgrace. The thoroughness of the womans search is understandable, as is her invitation to others to share in her joy when the lost coin is found.
But another more subtle point is drawn here it is not only that the coin is lost, but the loss diminishes the situation of the one losing it. When any one is "lost" for any reason, there is a real cost and loss to the community in which it occurs. Consider homelessness which can be a consequence of marriage or family dysfunction. The Salvation Army assisted 143 people sleeping rough over the last year, and there are thought to be at least 160 in this condition. The Lord Mayors foundation CEO said about 15,000 people are homeless across Melbourne. Apart from the emotional cost of loss, are costs of crime, and medical conditions which fall to the public health system as homeless people succumb to conditions aggravated by their condition. Loss is more than just displacing something, it affects the wholeness of the community. Where ever people are lost, there are profound and often uncounted costs which can be avoided where people are returned to the community.
As you hear these parables, I wonder with whom or what you identify? Are you the shepherd seeking, or the woman sweeping? Do you presume you are the one who cares so much that you leave everything and seek the one, or so anxious to find the precious lost object that you work without rest until you have found it?
Are you the sheep lost and frightened, or the coin lying silent among the straw in the darkened recesses of a Palestinian house? Who we identify with affects the way we understand this parable. Jesus teaching suggests no accusation or judgement upon the lost one. The parables describe the searcher who places a high value on the lost one, and above all want it restored to the unity and fellowship of the others. When we are alienated from family or community it is easy to begin to feel of little worth, yet in Gods strange economy the lost one is of greater value than the 99. Remember that song "The streets of London" The sense of low self worth is a dreadful reality for many homeless homelessness follows a succession of blows to self esteem Unemployment - redundancy", "being let go", or the sack; anyone who has written job applications only to have every one rejected knows how devastating that can be. Or alienation or estrangement from a community following marriage failure - whether you initiated it or not. It was among people in such a state of mind that Jesus sat down and honoured by sharing a meal. It was to such that he conferred again the sense of personal value and self worth they ceased to hold. To us, in our moments of self doubt, Jesus seeks us out through the Holy Spirit, or the intervention of a Christian sister or brother and reassures us that we are OK, that we are of value, that we matter.
There is also the aspect of being pursued and searched for by God. It is sobering and humbling to think that God cares for us so much that we would be the one for whom he seeks, no matter how low or dispirited we may feel. If the idea that Jesus tells us that Gods care is so great he will seek us out is uncomfortable, then sit with that discomfort and marvel the new perspective of God that Jesus reveals.
There are two responses we are invited to make. The first is to simply accept this unusual dimension of the love of God for us. The second is to respond to such gracious, undeserved love with penitence and a commitment to God in all things. At this, Jesus tells us, there will be an outpouring of joy, as would be seen when a much loved but lost friend was found after a search.
These parables were told in response to an accusation that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them. They tell us that the love of God excludes no person, but desires their return to community, actively seeks them out, and rejoices at their return and their new self awareness and penitence. This we are asked to reflect upon, and to gratefully accept. Amen.