Short Stories By Jesus: Lost Sheep, Lost Coin
September 17, 2017
by Rev. Melanie Homan
View, print or save PDF: Sermon.09.17.17.Lost Sheep Lost Coin
(Short Stories By Jesus Sermon Series)
“Lost Sheep, Lost Coin”
September 17, 2017
Rev. Melanie Homan
15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “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? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 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.
8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins,[a] if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Every Thursday I work from home. I lug a bunch of books home with me on Wednesday night, and I spend the day on Thursday reading, praying, and writing my sermon for Sunday. I need uninterrupted quiet time to think through my ideas, and that’s what I get every Thursday. Blessed quiet.
Yet this past Thursday I was restless. I had read through the chapter in Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus on the lost sheep and the lost coin earlier in the week. The night before, we had our first small group discussion on the material, and I just wasn’t sure what to make of Levine’s assertions.
As I shared with you last week, in many ways, the purpose of the parables is to confuse. It’s to reveal and conceal at the same time. Parables are like riddles that make you say, “I don’t get it.” “I don’t understand.” “What is Jesus trying to teach us?”
And right off the bat, Levine reminds us that Luke might be attributing some of the “teaching words” in the parable to Jesus, but they’re really his own addition – his own interpretation of Jesus’ teaching. The reason she suggests this is because we have three different versions of the parable of the lost sheep. There is one in Matthew, one in Luke, and one in the Gospel of Thomas.
Keep in mind that Luke is writing down these parables of Jesus forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. He’s writing to the early church, and he’s already writing down the teachings of Jesus’ through the lens of the community he is writing to, and what he thinks they need to hear.
For Luke, the point of the parable of the lost coin and the lost sheep seems to be, “God rejoices in the sinner who repents” and “God graciously offers forgiveness and reconciliation”.[i] The backdrop for these parables is a disagreement about who gets to be at the dinner table with Jesus. The Pharisees and scribes are unsettled by Jesus. They are grumbling, because “Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In our house, whenever we have my parents over for supper, there is an argument. Rylee will sit down and say, “Nana, you sit here, and Papa, you sit here.” And Dylan will say, “NOOOOOOOOO!!! Nana, you sit here by me, and Papa, you sit here by me!” And even though we are all sitting at the same table together – it doesn’t count unless our “honored guests” are sitting right next to them. Which is impossible and requires all sorts of negotiating to get everyone seated in a satisfactory way. Jesus should be sitting at the table and sharing meals with the righteous. But instead, he keeps sitting down and eating with “THEM”. The other. How dare he! Luke has Jesus conclude the parable of the lost sheep with the words, “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10) Luke tries to clear up the confusion of the parable by giving us a clear explanation of its meaning. For Luke, Jesus’ teaching is simple. It’s about repentance and forgiveness.
Which is different than the context of Matthew and the “point” of the parable for Matthew’s audience. In Matthew, Jesus is talking to the disciples and his concern is for how they are treating children – the “little ones” in their midst.
10 “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.[b] 12 What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of your[c] Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
And then there is the Gospel of Thomas. Here’s the back story on the Gospel of Thomas – it’s a collection of sayings of Jesus that were part of the Gnostic tradition. They were early Christian writings, just like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but they weren’t included in the original canon of books that a bunch of early church leaders decided were going to be the “official” books of the Bible. Think about it – there were a lot of writings in the early church about Jesus, and they needed to come up with a plan to figure out which ones were legit and which weren’t. And the ones they decided weren’t legit – were ordered to be destroyed. So the Gospel of Thomas was hidden in order to not be destroyed and they hid it so well, it wasn’t discovered until 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. So it’s not officially part of our New Testament canon, but it’s still relevant for our study. Over half of the sayings found in the Gospel of Thomas can be found in similar form in our other Gospels.
So here’s the version we find in the Gospel of Thomas: “Jesus said, ‘The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine and looked for that one until he found it. When he had gone to such trouble, he said to the sheep, ‘I care for you more than the ninety-nine.’” The end. No moral lesson attached to this saying of Jesus. Just favoritism for the largest sheep.
So which is it? Who is the correct interpreter of this parable? Is it Luke? Matthew? Thomas? Amy-Jill Levine? This was the source of my restlessness on Thursday. I lugged home this stack of books, and I read them. I read what Alan Culpepper had to say about this parable in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. I read what Fred Craddock had to saw in the Interpretation Bible Series. I read what Bernard Brandon Scott had to say in his hallmark book on the parables of Jesus. Robert Farar Capon’s The parables of the kingdom…I read and read and read.
These are all trusted sources that pastors go to when they are trying to understand scripture, and I was left wringing my hands because every single source had a different take on these parables. They couldn’t even agree on what the parables should be called – The parable of the lost sheep? The lost coin? Or, as Levine suggests, the parable of the ‘Initially Oblivious Owner’ and ‘The woman who lost her coin’?
Which one is it? Who has it right? I don’t get it! But these parables – they conceal and reveal at the same time. And each scholar comes at it from their own perspective. Levine has a strong critique of the way the parables have been used in the past to symbolically elevate Christianity and villainize Judaism. She makes some good points that we have to take a hard look at. But I don’t completely agree with all of her assessments, either. She dismisses a lot of the scholarship done around the role of shepherd in the1st century, insisting that the negative portrayal of shepherds in the Mishnah was not common. She writes it off as the opinion a rabbi who was “a second century snob”. That sort of dismissal is too easy.
Along with Matthew, Luke, and Thomas, I’m going to lay two additional interpretations of the parable side by side for you to consider. Not because you should “pick” one, but to show you the abundance of different and valuable learnings we can take from one simple parable of Jesus.
Here is Amy Jill-Levine’s take in a nutshell: The owner of the sheep realizes that he has lost something of value. The flock is incomplete. It doesn’t matter how big or small the flock is, it is missing one. He seeks out the one that is lost, and then rejoices and has a big party to celebrate his finding the lost one. Levine asks us to consider, “What joy do we experience when we find what we have lost?” And, do we even know when we have lost something? “When was the last time we took stock, or counted up who was present rather than simply counted on their presence?” “Will we take responsibility for the losing and what effort will we make to find it again?”[ii]
Here’s another take. From Allen Culpepper. In Luke, there’s a tension between the tax collectors/sinners and the Pharisees/scribes and it gets amplified over who Jesus spends time with at the dinner table. The righteousness of the one group created a self-imposed barrier of getting to share in a meal with Jesus because they would not sit at a table with sinners. Everyone wants to sit next to Jesus at the table, but that becomes impossible because they won’t sit down together. Alan says that this parable is not meant to call out sinners to repentance as much as it is calling the “righteous” to join the celebration.” Whether you will join the celebration is important because it reveals whether your relationships are based on “merit or mercy”. “Those who find God’s mercy offensive can not celebrate with the angels when a sinner repents, thus excluding themselves from God’s grace.”[iii]
He tells this Jewish story to illustrate his point.
There once was a hard working farmer who fell upon the greatest of gifts.
The Lord appeared to this farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbour.
The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle and was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred. Then he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land.
Rather than celebrating God’s goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbour had received more than he. Finally he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye.
And God wept.
There is room for all of us at the table with Christ, if we are willing to embrace and celebrate God’s mercy.
May God’s Spirit continue to work among us, to give us wisdom and insight each time we hear one of Jesus’ teachings. Amen.
[i] Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories By Jesus, HarperOne, 2014, page 29.
[ii] Levine, page 45.
[iii] Culpepper, Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, Luke, page 298.