The story of the lost sheep and that of the lost coin are deceptively familiar to most of us I think. Probably so familiar that we dont even notice that these are in fact extremely odd stories with an intricate network of relations and meaning woven into them.
As I heard it explain at Sunday school it went somewhat like this: The lost sheep that is the people who dont come to Church on Sunday, the people who arent Christians like us. They are a bit of a nuisance, because Jesus has to go look for them, but he really likes to find them and bring them back to the fold. There were also stories of converted criminals and bad adults turned good on Christmas night that went with the story and promises of Jesus great love finding us and bringing us back lovingly whenever we would go and stray. And the coin? Well the same thing really, a thing with a will of its own it clearly shouldnt have had because it should have stayed with the others and all would have been well
I dont know with what understanding of these stories youve grown up, or what your understanding of them is now. I, looking at them this week, found some new and very interesting angles, refreshing but also a bit unsettling. For one: in the end I wasnt quite sure anymore who, or what exactly was lost (and found) and also: that the prime focus of the stories is not what is lost, but rather what lets itself be found.
Let me explain.
We start the story with sinners and tax collectors visiting Jesus and some good old Pharizees standing nearby frowning at the ease with which Jesus seems to be mixing with these people.
It is to the Pharizees Jesus tells his story, starting with the sentence: "Who would not .."
Indeed, who would not, if they were a shepherd and lost a sheep leave 99 others to their own devices in the wilderness and go looking for this one stray sheep? Well, the answer is very plain and simple: Nobody! In his right mind that is. Although a sheep represented considerable capital and could be somebodys livelihood, surely a good shepherd would not leave his sheep in the wilderness but take them to the fold first before setting off to find the one lost sheep.
Who would not, if they were a homemaker and lost one coin out of 10 go and turn the house upside down to look for it? Everybody would! But I am quite sure nobody would throw a party after theyd recovered the coin, because that would cost probably a lot more than had been found!
Weve got an irresponsible shepherd here and a not so very capable budget manager.
I rather feel for the poor sheep left in the wilderness to fend for themselves, they get a very bad deal for staying close to the shepherd at all times. And I cant help but feel some disapproval at the spend thrift woman. Wouldnt she have been better off just quietly putting that unruly coin back into her piggy bank?
So who is lost in this story?
Well obviously the lost sheep and the lost coin start off as being lost, and clearly they are referring to the sinners and tax collectors that are visiting Jesus. They would have been considered "lost" by the Pharizees and by anybody with some sense of what was right and proper. They werent considered as people that needed to be found though, and it looks like they werent. It is them that do the finding, when they come and visit Jesus and hear about Gods inclusive love. It doesnt say they change their life after the visit, it just said that they visit and that they want to hear Jesus message.
The sheep and the coin are being found, and the rejoicing after, especially in the case of the coin is quite over the top. If we assume that the shepherd and the woman both refer to God or Jesus (interesting image of God as a home maker by the way) this not only means that they drop everything to go look for something or somebody that needs to be found, but that upon finding them there is quite extravagant joy on earth as well as in heaven.
Who would not? Is Jesus challenging the Pharizees to identify with the shepherd and the woman? Confronting them with extravagant behaviour to show them how stingy and calculating they themselves are?
Or are they the 99 good sheep? Doing the right thing but somehow missing out on the joy?
And who exactly are the converted sinners that heaven rejoices over right at the end of the story? Are they the sinners that have come to listen, or are they the Pharizees that fail to identify with the shepherd and the woman in the story?
And where are we in this very complicated and multi layered story? Perhaps in all places all at once?
Do we identify with the lost sheep? Feeling lost and lonely and times perhaps, straying from the flock, longing for some loving arms to lift us and bring us to somewhere warm and comfy? Feeling there are questions living in our hearts that set us apart from the 99 other sheep, things that separate us from the 9 other coins in Gods purse? Do we feel, sometimes, that we are not much good and not really a worthy part of the people that follow in Jesus footsteps without ever deviating left or right?
Or do we feel more at home with the 99 that have been left in the wilderness? It can feel that way sometimes cant it? And I bet its the way the Pharizees felt listening to Jesus story. Have you been trying hard, doing your very best and there you find yourself bewildered in the wilderness, looking for leadership, guidance, safety and comfort and all you get is a lot of other bleating sheep around you. Doesnt the Church feel like that at times? Bleating sheep, being very good at being good, staying together and working hard at following their Lord and shepherd and somehow not getting it entirely right. Ending up even more lost than the lost sheep ever was? (they went off on their own accord after all, they lost themselves, but the 99 are left!).
Do we identify with the shepherd? Joining in Gods effort to find what is lost, caring for whoever seems miserable and lonely and out of place. Seeking out outcasts, and accepting them with love?
Or with the woman, putting every effort into finding that one lost coin and then throwing a party. Is our joy quite over the top every time some minor progress is made in the quest for wholeness and healing of Gods world?
At the end of the story it is really quite clear who are lost. It is not the sinners and tax collecters. They have found the fount of wisdom, love and mercy.
It is the Pharizees who would rather lose one sheep than risk the 99 others, and who would never throw a party over just one coin lost and found.
Jesus, Gods love is lost on them, they dont understand his passion nor his extravagant love. It is, instead, found by the sinners and tax collectors. That finding in its turn causes joy in heaven, more than the 99 good sheep could ever have caused.