Commentary on Luke 15:1-10
On a recent trip to the dentist, the dental assistant asked me about the significance of the tree in the Bible that has 99 leaves. As someone identified as a religious leader, I’m used to obscure or intense questions. But this one had me stumped. There were trees in Genesis and Revelation, prophetic trees, and fig trees in my mental database, but no trees with 99 leaves.
He said he heard about it from a worship song, so I finally just asked him to sing it. “He leaves the 99.” I then recognized the song “Reckless Love” and we had a good conversation about the parable on which it is based: the lost sheep in Luke 15.
Perspective and focus are important aspects of this set of parables; articulating and considering them provide an interesting entry point for preaching reflection. “Reckless Love” is written from a first-person perspective; the voice understands that it is the one that is lost, the one God has left the 99 to find. The song praises the extravagant, undeserved love of God that is shown to the singer, who experiences God’s love in “being found.”
The initial perspective of the text is somewhat different. Jesus speaks to a group of people who resent his inclusive welcome to all, especially tax collectors and sinners. They are focused on how Jesus’ attention on those deemed undeserving undermines his authority in their view. He responds to their criticism with a parable that shifts the focus to the expectations of those in authority to seek the lost, and the joy experienced when the lost one is returned to community.
The audience, the Pharisees and scribes, are placed in the parable by Jesus: “Which one of you…?” Jesus calls them to identify with the role of a concerned shepherd, a move that creates both connection and contrast. Jesus appeals to their sense of obligation and caregiving associated with leadership while simultaneously establishing his own authority as the seeker of the lost. While this tactic summons their sense of responsibility, it also potentially creates a contrast between those in authority and Jesus as God’s agent. Would each of those Pharisees and scribes truly leave 99 healthy sheep to find one that is lost? Or is their character different from the shepherd in the parable? And even if they wanted to leave the 99, is it wise or good stewardship to do so?
Jesus’ query to his critics challenges those in religious leadership to consider how they relate to God’s work among the lost. But ultimately, the focus here is on God’s orientation as the seeker, and Jesus as God’s agent in that endeavor. The parable ends on the joy of the shepherd shared collectively with his friends and neighbors.
So how does this translate into a sermon in a world of economic stress, national political conflict, gun violence, global war, and the damage done to our institutions and communities during the past few years of pandemic? What needs to be said and heard? The move to identifying the hearers with the lost is understandable and potentially life-giving; it is the relief expressed in “Reckless Love.” But an immediate association potentially oversimplifies the current situation for weary hearers as well as skims the surface of the depth of God’s commitment to all. A good sermon will sit with the tensions present in the text and in the Body of Christ.
For those at home in the religious community, there is an edge to this parable; the 99 are left in the wilderness, vulnerable, while the lost 1 is found. During a time when some may be wondering where God is, or what God is doing, “seeking the lost” may be the right answer, but it’s one that potentially leaves the 99 feeling alone. For leaders, clergy and lay alike, who are fatigued from the past few years, chasing down another wayward sheep may not sound like good news. And while the return of sheep to the community is welcome, it also creates the possibility of resentment and conflict.
Burnout and exhaustion are realities for communities and their leaders. Scattered congregations awaken at different rates and times to the reality that they will not be going back to 2019. Leaders wonder how—or how urgently—to pursue those who have drifted. Small cores of people who have kept the lights on and the bills paid find themselves increasingly stretched and wondering if there will be enough and how to inspire others to help.
The second parable, of the woman seeking her lost coin, speaks to this dynamic. Verse 8 is brief but describes potentially hours of work, as the woman turns her house upside down in search of the lost coin. Anyone who has ever searched for an important document, a particular tool, or a single Lego or puzzle piece, knows the feeling. Here the risk is not in leaving the 99 alone, but in expending energy, resources, and time that might not be recognized, rewarded, or replenished.
This parable, like the last one, culminates in joy at finding the lost. The repetition is important, emphasizing joy as an integral part of finding what is lost. The theological implication of connecting God with the shepherd and the woman means that God is 1) a seeker who 2) is not fatigued and 3) experiences joy and fosters celebration when the lost is found.
The absence of joy, whether in Jesus’ critical audience or in the pandemic-weary contemporary hearers, closes us off to the reward of God’s labor. The burden of seeking the lost is not solely ours. We are the ones who get to rejoice in God’s work among us. Our work involves preparing ourselves and our communities to receive those God brings in and figure out a way to work together in this new world.
God still rejoices in us. Putting one more piece of the puzzle into place in God’s community is cause for celebration. The persistence and resilience of the Christian community in recent struggles is gratifying to witness. The joy of God is Good News, both for the 99 and for the 1.