The Lost Sheep
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15: 1-10
“Rejoice with me because I have found my sheep that was lost.” — Luke 15:6
This parable is one of three that occur together in the first half of Luke’s 15th chapter. In my New Testament each has a heading, “The Lost Sheep,” “The Lost Coin” and “The Lost Son,” respectively. The last one is also known as “The Prodigal Son.” The common element in these three parables is ” the alarm of loss and the joy of finding again,” and the fact that the alarm and joy belong to the principle protagonist, the shepherd, the housewife and the father, not to the sheep, the coin or the prodigal son. So the bedrock assumption of the teller of these parables is the urgent concern of the principal protagonists, and not the feelings of the secondary players. Much as we would like to dwell on the feeling of being lost as we experience it, we are invited rather to think about the joy of finding again, that is the shepherd’s joy not the sheep’s fear.
Parables, as we have agreed in our Bible class discussions, are riddles not allegories, so as easy as it is to say that the shepherd is God and the sheep is I, we must resist that comfortable (allegorical) interpretation, or at least postpone it until we have earned it. Let us imagine we are solving a riddle rather than interpreting an allegory and proceed accordingly.
A man with 100 -1 sheep cannot rest before he has restored the number to 100; the woman with 10 -1 coins is compelled to search until they are ten again; the man who had 2-1 sons cannot find joy until the missing one returns and they are two again. What is it, the meaning of this riddle?
Clearly the numbers are important; each riddle puts them first, “There was a man who had 100 sheep (vs. 4),” a “woman who had ten coins (vs. 8),” “a man who had two sons (vs. 11).” Is this a clue? Yes it is! The riddle invites us to think about sets that are broken: the set of 100 is now 99, the set of 10 is nine and the set of 2 is 1. In each case there is something missing and the hole it leaves cries out to be filled.
We note also that the hole grows larger with the telling: one-hundredth, one tenth and one half respectively is missing. Is this idea of escalating proportions important? Or is not important to the point of the numbers something else? We don’t know.
Two of our riddles appear to moralize. The editor of the gospel of Luke gives the first one a context of sinners and thus the moral meaning, “Do not neglect sinners because they are part of the whole and the hole in the whole made by their absence must be filled, because the set must be fully restored. The father of the lost son makes it clear that what matters most to him is that the family is complete once again. While these two have a strong element of love and compassion, the woman and the necklace is about another human drive, to restore symmetry and harmony. (The 10 coins were presumably strung together on a necklace of the kind one can see on Mid-Eastern women to this day. She perhaps also had a possessive reason since these strings of coins, if they were gold, were accepted ways of storing wealth. We are getting warm I think.
It now occurs to me that the Hebrew word “shalom” which is still the accepted greeting in Hebrew, cognate with the Arabic “salaam,” means “wholeness” before it comes to mean “peace.” This discloses that peace in our tradition means communal wholeness, and when I greet you with “shalom” I am saying, “I recognize you as part of the whole to which we both belong, and so there should be no rivalry between us. The Hebrew for “righteousness” (tzedakah) is another word for the state of “shalom,” that is, having been reintegrated after having been expelled. The “righteous” person is one who is in good standing with the community. The duty of the judge is to find ways to bring someone who, because of his deeds, has expelled himself from the community, back in.
The Apostle Paul calls the work of God in Christ the “justification of sinners,” which means the restoring of those cast out, to standing in the community. For this reason he can say that those who believe in Christ and thus allow him to rectify (justify) their good standing in the human community, beyond the distinctions of religion, class and gender, are all one in their common humanity. Thus the healing of the violence-wracked world goes through the expelled and then reintegrated scapegoat – the social outcasts, the scoundrel sons, the smelly goats and the politely unacceptable. These are the ones God’s kingdom desires most. (Bear in mind that there are many wolves in sheep’s clothing and that Our Lord did say that the crooks and whores go into the Kingdom before the fastidious moralists and the lords of religious institutions).
Note that the reintegration takes place before the outcasts are worthy of being welcomed back. Repentance is the decision to return, like the lost son, in order to be changed and restored by membership in the group. One does not change so as to reenter the group; one reenters the group in order to change. This is the very meaning of grace- the acceptance of the unacceptable. If it were otherwise it would not be grace but justice, not a gift but just desserts.
I must stop here because the more I excavate the meaning of these parables the deeper I dig the well of understanding and the more I am obliged to go on and on. Let’s answer the riddles’ question, “What is it?” Are these parable/riddles telling us that God cares more for the one lost item than for the many that do not go astray? Perhaps, but we should have to think a lot more to understand that point. Let’s just settle for the simple meaning we have established: the whole is more than the sum of its part, but without the full sum of its parts it is nothing. The one expelled and absent item is worth more than the whole because without it the whole cannot be a whole. That is, if we think we can make a perfect community by simply driving out the undesirables, we are fatally wrong.
I bet you have not thought of those parables in quite this way before. This is my final last sermon here. It sums up what I have tried to do in the 39 years I have been here: to preach sermons that make you think, and think not about many interesting things but about the few important things, and especially the reflections that arise from the one question asked simply by our presence in this world, namely, “Is there GRACE and WHERE SHALL WE FIND IT?” I have answered, “Yes!” to the first and “Jesus Christ” to the second, consistently and unceasingly. If you take nothing else from today’s sermon take that “Yes” and call on that “Name.”
I read yesterday that Lee Kwan Yew the formidable founder of modern Singapore and one of the truly great personages of our time, now aged 87 and fading, spends time each evening talking to his virtually comatose wife and then prepares for bed by meditating. He uses a mantra for meditation given him by a friend. It is “Maranatha.” Lee Kwan Yew is not a Christian but he likes the sound of the mantra. He thinks it means “Jesus come to me!” and is content.
It is, in fact, Aramaic and its strict meaning is “OUR LORD, COME!” It is not a prayer for Christ’s personal presence to me, but for his second coming to restore and reintegrate the wholeness of the world, beyond accusations, rivalries, the distinctions made by violence and the expulsions made by envy.
I hope I have always preached the Christ who heals the whole world, and left my own little self nonchalantly to His mercy…but…”Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.” (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy).