Lost sheep

15 September 2013
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 19C (RCL)
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Psalm 14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Jeremiah’s prophecy for this week is almost unremittingly pessimistic. He does include the line, “Yet, I will not make a full end,” but without any further detail, and it appears to be a later insertion. Jeremiah had good reason for his predictions — he was probably writing between Babylon’s first conquest of Jerusalem, when they made it a client state, and its final destruction. Jeremiah could see the political writing on the wall.

It would be easy, during this time, to take Jeremiah’s pessimism and run with it. We have the situation in Syria looming, and it things look pretty grim there. I suppose we could even go further and talk about how European powers had made Syria a client state before World War I, and then turned it loose between the wars. They propped up a minority group as way of ruling the larger group, and now we’re seeing the attempt of the persecuted majority trying to return to power. Jeremiah was watching similar realities in geo-politics in his day: when elephants fight, it is the who ants die. And as Assad and his minority struggle to hang on to power, many ants will die. The situation is as bleak as Jeremiah’s.

The Gospel takes a completely different line. The two parables we hear this week are the first part of a set of three, the third of which is the prodigal son. The Pharisees and scribes grumble that Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners, the kinds of people he encouraged his host back in chapter 14 to invite to his dinners. The prodigal son is probably a parable about the inclusion of Gentiles in Christian worship. When the elder brother (the good Jew who has observed Torah faithfully) comes in from the fields, he hears “symphonia kai choron” — symphonies and choruses, the musical accompaniment to Greek comedies and tragedies. He is hearing the introduction of Greek elements into Christian worship. The Greeks, of course, had squandered their heritage (see Romans, chapters 1 and 2 for a similar treatment).

The first two parables of the trio then deal with the inclusion of other sorts of non-desirables within the Christian community: the “lost sheep” of the house of Israel, and women. When Jesus sends out the twelve, he sends them specifically to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” and not to the Samaritans or Gentiles. These are the tax-collectors, prostitutes, sinners and broken.

The question Jesus asks the scribes and Pharisees is phrased to expect the answer, “Why, everyone, of course!” “Who among with 100 sheep, who loses one, would not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go searching for the one?” The real answer, of course, is “no one in his right mind.” Think of all the things that could happen to the 99 while searching for the one. So, why is Jesus so confident that his hearers would leave the 99 and look for the one? How many of his hearers (or Luke’s for that matter) owned 100 sheep? Probably not many. Five or six sheep, maybe. So, if a shepherd had 100 sheep, they were probably not his. If he loses one, the owner of that one would extract the cost from the overall pay of the hireling — economic disaster. In a panic, he might go off looking for the one, hoping the 99 would be ok.

The scribes and Pharisees, the addressees of this parable, could be imagined as the shepherds for the sheep of Israel, and the implication is they have failed at their job. The fact that there are tax collectors and sinners means they have not kept the sheep all together. And, the sheep are not theirs, but God’s (see Ezekiel 34). God rejoices over the recovery of the one sheep that had fallen through the cracks — a different view of the owner of the sheep.

And the woman. Her ten drachmae is not a lot of money. It would be unusual for a woman to have coins. Perhaps this is her dowry. Here, comparisons with the tenderness of God portrayed in the prophets comes into view. God’s heritage is poor, but every bit of it is valuable. The care the Pharisees and scribes should be exercising involves guarding the community that is left, even in its current circumstances. Both the shepherd and the woman return and celebrate, by inviting their friends and neighbors, exactly the people Jesus instructed his host in chapter 14 not to invite, because they could repay the invitation. Here, the friends and neighbors are the friends and neighbors of a hireling shepherd and a woman with a tiny dowry. They cannot repay. The scribes and Pharisees should see their connections to these people, rather than be trying to improve their status by climbing into banqueting circles.

Tax collectors (at least those down the food chain) and other collaborators were probably reduced to these circumstances in order to make a living. They had been pushed or fallen through the cracks of the social network, despised and outcast. Jesus points our loyalty toward people like these. In our day, we are probably the scribes and Pharisees, meant to gather up the lost, but worried instead out our position. Jesus is asking us to take the role of the hireling shepherd and the woman in the parables and rejoice at the restoration of community at the small scale. What might our response to the situation in Syria look like if that were our focus?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *