Runaway sheep

Shepherd

Pentecost 16

Luke 15:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who, to our advantage, seeks out the lost and brings them home. Amen.

 “Perverse and foolish oft I strayed, and yet in love he sought me,and on his shoulder gently laid, and home rejoicing brought me.”

 This much loved hymn expresses Victorian sentiments of the gentle Jesus meek and mild. It is the view of Jesus with which many of us grew up. Jesus is innocuous, undemanding and above all tolerant of our little foibles. There is nothing in this image of Jesus to challenge or confront us, only the assurance that despite our failings, Jesus will seek us out and lovingly bring us home.

 The picture of a placid, non-threatening Jesus is a far cry from the New Testament Jesus especially as experienced by the Pharisees. Jesus was as critical of them as they were of him. The Pharisees, with the scribes saw themselves as the guardians of the law. They had assumed the role of maintaining the purity of Israel. They were trying to ensure that Israel, which had been under foreign domination for centuries, could find its way back into God’s favour. They were good, upright citizens, faithful observers of Jewish law and guardians of its traditions. Despite this Jesus seems to have it in for them.

 In this morning’s gospel they are grumbling – as well they might. No respectable person associated with tax collectors who were reviled and avoided because they were in the employ of the oppressors – the Romans. Worse still, they took advantage of their position to enrich themselves at the expense of their fellow Israelites. Anyone who ate and drank with them would have been considered tainted by association. According to the Jewish laws of purity, this would make them ritually unclean.

 Jesus response to the Pharisee’s grumbling is to tell a number of parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost sons. The first two are short and succinct and have a number of parallels. Both begin: “If you had many and lost one …?” The expected answer is: “I would search for it.” When the lost is found everyone the whole community – friends and neighbours – rejoices. That makes good sense. A farmer cannot afford to lose even one sheep and a poor woman would be significantly poorer if she lost the equivalent of a day’s wage.

 So far, so good – our sympathy extends to the foolish sheep who has wandered away, and we can understand that the rejoicing when what is lost is found. To us, as presumably to the tax collectors and sinners, these parables are re-assuring and comforting. God will seek us out even if we do stray from the path. For the Pharisees however, the parables tell is a different story. Their attitude antagonism towards Jesus and towards the tax-collectors informs us that they have no conception of their being lost – just the opposite. They do not need God to find them, they believe that they have remained within the fold and that this is the appropriate way to win God’s approval. That God would seek out sinners, rather than expecting them to change their lives is inconceivable, shocking and even offensive to those who carefully regulate their lives in order to avoid doing anything that would earn God’s disfavour.

 In these parables, Jesus radicalizes the idea of God. God is not a judge carefully sifting out the good from the bad instead God is the shepherd who goes to a great deal of effort to find the troublesome sheep or the woman who spends all day looking for just one coin. This is quite a different view of God, from the God who rewards those who, like the Pharisees, obey the law, fast when appropriate and who studiously avoid the immoral and unethical.

 What sort of God turns a blind eye to the sinful? What sort of God ignores the achievements of the “good” and rejoices when he finds the errant? To add insult to injury, Jesus implies through his imagery that the shepherd God abandons the good sheep while he treks after the one that has wandered. Those who have done the right thing are left to fend for themselves in the wilderness! The bad sheep is not only sought out, but instead of being censured for its behaviour, is the centre of attention and a cause for celebration! Such an image of God appears to make a mockery of the Pharisee’s attempts to be righteous.

 The parables of the lost lose their impact if we don’t attempt to see how outrageous and confronting they were in their original context. The parables challenged conventional wisdom and threatened the status quo. In this instance, the parables justify Jesus’ scandalous behaviour, and at the same time they undermine any notion the Pharisees might have had of a God whose idea of justice is to punish the sinful and reward the good. Jesus’ actions and teaching explode the notion of a God who rewards and punishes according to what a person does and does not do. Jesus’ whole life is a demonstration of God’s unconditional, undemanding love.

 No one deserves God’s love, but God loves anyway. The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are comforting and reassuring as the hymn makes clear, but if, like the Pharisees, we think that God’s love extends only to those of us who are already found, then we have missed the point. God’s love cannot be limited and will continue to seek out those who have not yet been found and God will rejoice and celebrate no matter how unworthy, how sinful or profligate they have been.

The after-life will be full of the unexpected as God celebrates the entrance of many whom we might think should be excluded and this is just the point Jesus is making – no one who turns to God will be turned away. In the present, we must withhold our judgement so that in the future we are not caught unawares when we who are sinners, are caught up with all the other sinners whom God has gathered and brought safely home.

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