Dear Working Preacher,
Narrative time bombs.
That’s what Eugene Peterson once described parables as, and I think he’s right. Which is what can make reading and preaching them so vexing. We want to explain parables, usually reading them either as analogies to be decoded or puzzles to be solved. Either way, we try to tame them, even domesticate them, when all along parables favor detonation over explanation.
The closest thing in our experience to a parable is probably a riddle, something that takes a little figuring out, for sure, but whose real meaning can’t be reduced to an equation, usually sneaks up on you, and almost always has something of a kick to it. Which means that more often than not, it’s only a while after you’ve read a parable that it really hits you, setting off a series of possibilities and experiences you couldn’t have imagined when you first read it.
Take today’s reading from Luke, for example. It narrates two of three parables in a row on being lost and found, each of which has the potential to surprise and disrupt our usual notions of the religious life. But you have to slow down to catch it. The context Luke supplies is critical. Jesus is upsetting the religious authorities. And, although we know this, it’s important to remind ourselves that these aren’t bad folks — they’re the ones who really care about their faith, the first-century equivalent of elders, church council members, and Sunday School superintendents. Interestingly, they’re upset not because of what Jesus says, but rather because of the company he keeps. He’s hanging out with, talking to, and most notoriously sharing meals with sinners. That last part — about eating — is important, because table fellowship implies a certain familiarity, even intimacy. And the folks Jesus is eating with are the lowest of the low: tax collectors, the turncoat locals who make their living squeezing their neighbors on behalf of the Roman Empire, and sinners, a name reserved for those whose lifestyle has put them beyond the bounds of moral society.
As Luke tells it, Jesus is attracting these ne’er-do-wells in droves and driving the respectable religious authorities a little bonkers, and so he tells them — both groups, apparently — a couple of parables. Now, again, be careful — we’re so eager to read parables as puzzles that it’s easy to miss the ridiculous, almost biting irony in each one. Because when Jesus says “which one of you…” and then goes on to paint a scenario, most of us take him at face-value. But think about it. Which one of us, quite honestly, if we had a hundred sheep and lost one, would put the other ninety-nine at risk to search for the stray? Because that’s what Jesus is really asking. We assume he means that we put the ninety-nine into a nice, clean sheep pen first and then go out looking. But Jesus says, which one of you wouldn’t leave them in the wilderness — you know, where they could go astray themselves or become the prey of wolves quicker than you can say, “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep.” Framed that way, the answer to Jesus’ question is, “nobody.” Nobody, that is, is quite that stupid, or reckless, or foolhardy to leave ninety-nine perfectly intact sheep to go after the one stray. No. You cut your losses and move on. That’s what a shepherd with any sense would do, at least.
Now consider the second parable. This one makes a little more sense at first: if you had only ten coins and lost one, you’d search, too, sweeping and sweeping until you find it. But once you found it, would you really call your friends and invite them to rejoice? After all, you don’t invite neighbors over to rejoice — that is, celebrate — without hosting them for a meal. So, let’s try that again: which one of you would search all night for your silver coin and then spend probably twice that much in celebrating your find with your friends? Again, nobody! At least nobody with any sense.
But that’s’ just it, you see. When it comes to God’s children — God’s lost, confused, hurting children — God has no sense. God would risk everything to find one of them — one of us! — and having found a lost and beloved child — give everything again to celebrate. There’s only one kind of word for this behavior — desperate. That’s right. God is desperate for us, desperate to find us, desperate to redeem us, desperate to draw us back into God’s abiding, abundant love.
There’s a saying about parenthood that I’ve always found incredibly, and sometimes painfully, true: a parent is only as happy as his/her least happy child. Now think about this in relation to God our heavenly parent. No wonder Jesus says there is more joy in heaven when a single sinner repents than ninety-nine of the righteous. The more lost a person is, the greater cause for celebration when that one is found. I mean, it’s good news when you comes home from the hospital after having a cast set on a broken arm, but it’s incredibly, unbelievably great news when you come home after surviving cancer.
And so God comes in Jesus searching for all of God’s lost children, and inviting those of us that have been found to do the same. Because when you’re lost, at least according to this parable, there’s not much you can do. Jesus doesn’t set out a formula about repenting first, or set down four spiritual rules, or even compose a “sinner’s prayer” for us to recite. I suppose Jesus figures that often you don’t even know you’re lost in the first place.
But you do know when you’ve been found. Sometimes, in fact, it’s only when you’re found that you realize you were lost at all. Which means, oddly, that while there’s nothing to do when you’re lost, there’s all kinds of things to do once you’ve been found: like tell, share, shout, give thanks — in a word, rejoice. The primary character of the Christian life, from this point of view, isn’t morality, or repentance, or discipline, or obedience, or any of the other hundred things we might suspect. These things are all good, just not primary. What seems to be primary here is joy, the joy that comes from knowing that though you once were lost, you now are found.
I think that’s what the Pharisees forgot — how incredibly, unbelievably joyful it is to be sought, found, and loved by a devoted, desperate parent. They remember the importance of obedience, discipline, morality and the like, but they forget the joy of being found.
Thanks for reminding me of such joy, Working Preacher. After all, it’s easy to forget amid the hustle and bustle of this life that what I’m called primarily to do is rejoice — for my being found, for your being found, and for the promise that God is still desperately searching, sweeping, and looking for God’s lost and beloved children and won’t quit until we’re all found.
Yours in Christ,