1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So 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? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And 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.’ 7Just 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, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When 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.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
This set of parables reminds me of Samson. No, not the Old Testament strong man with the long, flowing hair, but the sheep in Australia. He was found in 2014 after having wandered off the farm for a long time, no one knows how long, from what I can tell. Somehow, he wandered back onto the farm where he was seen pretty quickly. What stood out about him was not the crazed look of an animal who hasn’t had enough to eat or that fact that he had become a little skittish around the domesticated animals. What stood out was his fleece. His wool. It had grown so long that, when he was sheered, he lost over 60 pounds. 60 pounds of wool! That’s like losing a 6-year old. He had been out, lost, wandering around and, when he was found, he was 60 pounds lighter.
I’m not sure Jesus would have known about other sheep like Samson when he was telling this story, but, apparently, Jesus gets a little goofy when he’s hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. He seems to be having a good time when he is approached by Pharisees and scribes, asking him how he could possibly eat with these people. I mean, at this time, it wasn’t like now. Now, you can grab a quick bite to eat, have a casual conversation over coffee, and not actually have any strong associations or ties to that person. Back then, eating was reserved only for people for whom you had great affections for. You didn’t eat with business acquaintances or people with whom you had a grudge. Eating together was a statement about who you cared about and stood beside. I wonder if the Pharisees were jealous that they saw Jesus laughing and eating with these people when, just a few weeks ago, we read about Jesus being hosted by a Pharisee. Maybe they were confused that he could actually befriend both parties. Maybe they were jealous that he didn’t reserve a place for them. Maybe they were just really mad that Jesus was breaking the purity codes that they so strongly upheld. Either way, they see him laughing and they begin grumbling.
So, in a rather cheeky mood, Jesus tells these two parables. First off, what shepherd doesn’t leave the 99 to go after the one? The answer is…none of them. No one. There would be no shepherd in their right mind that would leave 99 other sheep to wander and get lost while looking for the 1 who got away. That’s just bad business sense. Then Jesus asks a second question: what woman, after finding a coin worth about a day’s wage, doesn’t throw a party for all her friends and neighbors? The answer is…no one! If I find some money coat pocket, I might send my wife a text, I might even bring it up in conversation with a friend later, but there’s no way I’m going to find the money and then use it to throw a party celebrating the fact that I found the money. That just doesn’t make sense.
Amidst this joking and absurdity, though, Jesus is making a strong, bold, radical statement. Just like eating with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus is not saying that this is the way people operate, that shepherds are really bad at math and that women will throw a party for any reason. Instead, he is telling the religious elite how he operates. Jesus is the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after the 1 that got away. Jesus is the woman who tirelessly searches for the coin and then spends it on feeding her friends. The economics that Jesus is talking about here are vastly different from the economics of the world. Jesus’ love and grace and energy to save those who are lost never runs out.
It’s important to notice something here. Neither the sheep nor the coin does anything to be found. The shepherd and the woman seek them out, tearing the place apart, looking in every cave and under every couch cushion, until they are found, until they are saved, until they are celebrated. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make any sense for Jesus to do this unless Jesus is driven by a love greater than we will ever understand. It doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t seem fair. That’s grace. That’s mercy.
And this grace, this mercy and love, leads to repentance. Repentance is a churchy word that people use to basically stop sinning, but the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, doesn’t meet to stop something, but to start something. It means to change the way you’re thinking or encountering a change of heart. And Christians haven’t always been the best at helping people realize that a change of heart, a change of thinking, is not the first step. Street preachers and well-meaning conversations that call for repentance tend to do so with an urgency and an emphasis on making you think the right way. But pay attention to the order in our parables for today – before Jesus talks about repentance, he talks about a shepherd finding his sheep, before Jesus talks about repentance, he talks about a celebration.
This love, this joyful, celebratory, lost-but-now-I’m-found love, is what changes us. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not about behavior modification, it’s not about training us to “be good” so that God will love us. The gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that even before we can think about “being good”, we are already being loved. Before we could ever love our enemies, we are loved. Before we can ever think about living well, living in a way that builds up all people and works for the good of all, we are built up and sustained by the grace and gift of God.
Think about this: your sin was taken to the cross before you could ever ask for it, though you could never earn it, and that is what leads to repentance. Not fear and the threat of condemnation or separation from God, but the comfort of knowing that God is with you.
I think back to Samson (again, not the Old Testament strongman with flowing hair, but the sheep). Before they knew if he would escape and run off again, before they tried to figure out why or how he did it in the first place, they first took the weight of years of unkept wool off him. His owners lightened him (literally). When he was found, he was given a chance to walk around without the weight of his wandering. They cut off 60 pounds of past mistakes, of wandering aimlessly, and then he was reintroduced to the farm, reintroduced to his flock.
That’s what happens here. Jesus the shepherd finds you, takes your burden, and then introduces you back to the flock. That’s what happens in baptism, as we proclaim that through the work of the Holy Spirit, you are raised to new life. That’s what happens in Holy Communion when we declare that the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthens you and keeps you in grace. That’s what happens when we confess our sin each and every week, knowing that you are forgiven and loved before you are changed. So come, let’s celebrate, the lost coin has been found and the lost sheep returned. Amen.