Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
When I came to look at this passage, I was rather dispirited. These two stories are generally told as part of a trio with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. “Whoopie”, I thought, “The Prodigal Son.” There’s a story to get your teeth into.
It begins in V11.
So we’re left with these two little stories which are generally seen as the starter to the main course of the Prodigal Son, the soup rather than the meat.
Perhaps that’s why the compilers of the Lectionary chose to end at v10 today, to ensure that we give these little nuggets of teaching due attention, these little nuggets that have a touch of the Sunday School about them – and we all know the meaning in these parables: the shepherd and the woman stand for God who seeks the lost and when they repent, there is rejoicing in Heaven. There we go! Job done! Coffee anyone?
So the challenge has to be to find something new in what is so familiar that we tend to slide over it, “Yeah, yeah, we know this one.”
I think the first thing that strikes me about these parables is they are quite passive in the sense that we are pretty much observers to the stories. Two scenarios are presented to us as an audience and, short as they are, they each have a beginning, a middle and an end and each parable is resolved with a good outcome. As I’ve already said, we know from way-back the moral of the stories and because they are resolved happily there doesn’t, on the surface, seem very much for us to do – other than assent, because the resolution is in God’s hands and at God’s initiative.
Where’s the challenge?
We know that Jesus used parables to their greatest effect when they spoke to the lives of his audience. Yes people in his original audience would easily identify with the scenarios. They were often poor, so the story of the lost coin would have significant resonance there, and many kept their own livestock because theirs was often a subsistence existence and the loss of one animal would have untold negative consequences. Well, in the relative poverty stakes none of us here can count ourselves as that poor and yes, I know Brunel keeps rabbits but livestock? Really?
These examples don’t speak to our generation in the way they spoke to Jesus’ original audience. Perhaps the second parable speaks to the house-proud, (and my personal strategy on that is to leave a duster ostentatiously lying about in the generally forlorn hope that Rachel will believe I’ve actually been doing something around the house), but tidiness isn’t really the point of the story.
So we have two parables of how the lost were found and we know, in a general sense, who the lost are – other people: people who don’t know God; people who don’t have a relationship with the living Christ; people who see no place in their lives for the sort of spirituality Christianity offers. Not bad people as such - people who in many senses live lives much like ours but without the added dimension of a daily experience of the grace, the love and the forgiveness of God in their lives and who, like the sheep and the coin, have no sense of being lost and who would probably be very offended at the very idea.
Recognising that sort of shifts the dynamic of the parables away from the passive way they seem to be presented. We know these people. They are family members, friends, neighbours, co-workers and fellow students. They are no longer abstract, anonymous beings and because we know them, the emphasis of their being found shifts from God to us: they become our responsibility. Now, there’s a challenge. How are the lost found if we know who and where they are? (And just as a passing thought, this speaks to the reality of our diocesan Leading Your Church In To Growth initiative.)
Is the problem that we tend to think of the lost as those on the very fringes of society? The homeless, the beggar, the addict, the offender, the refugee? Those who, rightly, we think need the specialist help of outside agencies because we don’t have the skills and resources to support them? Well, they’re there too, numbered in the lost, and perhaps we are right not to get too involved with those needing specialist help because there are others who work exclusively with them, but that doesn’t let us off the hook with the rest, those we come into contact with on a daily basis and to whom we can relate. The bottom line is that we number ourselves with the found and the experience of that should, surely, be enough for us to want to share that same experience with others.
On Friday night we had a little community event in our street. I got into conversation with someone I hadn’t met before, a very personable and socially able man who, inevitably, asked me what I do. “I’m a vicar.” I said with a certain degree of misgiving because that does tend to be a conversation killer, but actually it wasn’t and I was left pondering my own somewhat apologetic attitude. I’m embarrassed about being ordained? Perhaps I’m guilty here of projecting that diffidence about my faith on to you. Am I right in assuming that what was true of me on that occasion is also true of you: that you feel awkward about initiating discussions about personal faith and belief? And are you sitting there now thinking, “Good grief, if he can’t do it, what hope is there for us?” But actually that was a very fruitful conversation and it led to a discussion about my role as a prison chaplain and how small acts of kindness and friendly words become moments of grace for those I meet in the prison.
There’s a famous quote from St. Teresa of Avila which I’m sure we’ve used in our own liturgy on a number of occasions: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.”
There was a picture that turned upon my Facebook feed yesterday: it shows a shocked couple looking at a letter. “It’s from our church. We’ve been called up for active duty.”
It really is down to us and if we don’t yet feel too confident about being theological in our conversations we need to recognise that this isn’t the only way to be “out and proud” followers of Christ. If “talking the talk” is too challenging, we can “walk the walk” and show in the way we live our lives that we are disciples. In doing so we may well plant a seed that others might water and harvest.
There’s a young man called Tim Haigh who comes into the prison as a volunteer. He’s an ex-offender, a former drug user and general thug. He’s now a Christian who has written a book called “The Leopard Who Changed His Spots” which charts how he had an encounter with the risen Christ at the point of his lowest despair. It talks about being found. It talks about redemption and its being read by literally hundreds of prisoners, many of whom have started to come to chapel. Now one of the key things about his story is that on a number of occasions in his early life, Tim came into contact with Christians who planted seeds for him in much the same way that he is now planting seeds for others. They may come to fruition immediately or it may take decades, but the seeds are planted.
In our own small ways we can be - indeed already are - like Tim. We may not have dramatic life-changing stories to share, but what we say and how we behave plants seeds for others. We may be the ones who reap the harvest of the seeds planted by others and we may simply be the ones who plant the seeds but you can’t have one without the other and so perhaps we shouldn’t feel awkward about our fumbling attempts to share our faith because we don’t know how or when the Holy Spirit will water the seeds and tend the new growth.
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.” Let’s renew our understanding of the implications of that today and commit ourselves to being more up-front and less apologetic about sharing the good news of the Gospel with those we meet.