The story is told of a man who called the doctor and said rather frantically, “My wife is pregnant and her contractions are only two minutes apart!” The doctor replied, “OK calm down, is this her first child?” No you idiot,” the man shouted, “this is her husband!”
In our gospel reading today there was a question of identity as well. There was a question about who were the people God was interested in. There was the question about who was God? Again, context is always important. In this situation we see that the Pharisees and Scribes were really irritated because Jesus was allowing sinners and tax collectors to come and listen and learn from him. The Pharisees and scribes were people who worked really hard at being good and at following the Law of Moses. The term ‘sinners’ here means Jews who had abandoned the Jewish religion—usually this meant they were involved in occupations that Jewish law forbade. They mixed with the non-Jews, they worked on Sabbath days, and they did things that were against the religious law. In the Jewish religious community there was an understanding that God’s people were not to consort with sinners; in fact rabbis were not to even teach one who was a sinner. And this is exactly what Jesus was doing; he was not only allowing those who were known as sinners to listen and learn from him, he was encouraging them! The Jews had strict rules about keeping oneself clean and pure. The reason was good; they were trying to please God. After all, it was God who wanted the Jews to live in a manner that was different than the pagans around them. It was God who had mandated the dietary laws that separated them from their neighbors. It was God who mandated the liturgical laws that made certain things and people clean and unclean, holy and common. Remember what happened to the Israelites in 722 and 586 BC? Israel had become like her pagan neighbors, had begun worshiping idols, and God punished the Jews by having other nations invade Israel and then deport them. Remember what happened during the time of Ezra? God became very unhappy with his people because they intermarried with their neighbors. So what is going on here? Is God through Jesus saying it is OK to be involved with sin? Is Jesus saying, “God doesn’t really care how we live? God was just kidding about all those laws he gave to Moses?”
First, we know that Jesus is absolutely for keeping oneself pure and unstained by the world around us. Jesus is strongly against sin; when we sin we not only harm ourselves but we harm those around us. Sin is a poison and results in spiritual death. Remember the first sermon Jesus preached was, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” Repent means to feel remorse, feel crummy about doing bad things and change. And Jesus also said “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus himself had and wants his followers to have a high standard of moral living. So Jesus is not minimizing any standards of God. Right is still right; breaking the commandments of God is still wrong.
Without minimizing sin, Jesus wants people to understand who God is and what He is like. To do this Jesus tells three stories about lost things. In these first two stories the lost item is not the focus—the focus is on the one who lost the sheep and the one who lost the coin. In the first story the shepherd with one hundred sheep would be part of the middle-class economically speaking. Each sheep is valuable. One day when he was out with his sheep in the fields, he noticed that one of his sheep; it was that Fluffy one, Fluffy3-spots was missing. So he leaves the 99 sheep to look for Fluffy. Maybe he had some assistant shepherds who watched the 99 other sheep; maybe he did not. The point of the story is that the shepherd is so concerned for Fluffy 3-spots that he is willing to leave the rest of the sheep to find him. When he finally finds him, the shepherd picks him up and carries him back home. Now Fluffy is a full-grown sheep; he is not a lamb. Unlike the pictures where we see where the shepherd holding a lamb in the crook of his arm as if it was 4 or 5 pounds; here the shepherd has to do a fireman carry. He puts Fluffy across his shoulders. Adult sheep weigh between 80 and 120 pounds—sometimes more. This is an effort, it’s a big deal; also remember that the land in Israel where the sheep would graze is hilly, sometimes even mountainous. So he is carrying this sheep across his shoulders up and down hills. This is a lot of work! But notice when he finally gets home, look at his reaction. Now if you or I had this sort of day we might stagger in the door and turn to our wife and say, “Wow, what a rotten day at work I had. That dad gum Fluffy 3-Spots got lost. I had to look all over creation for him. I finally found the stupid thing and got him back home. Dang, my neck hurts and my shoulders ache from carrying that goofy sheep for hours. Please bring me a cold one while I lie down and rest on the lazy-boy.” No, that is not what he does at all; in fact, just the opposite happens— He gets home and bursts in the door and says, “Honey, let’s have a party!” and he has his friends and neighbors over and opens up the bar and they drink and celebrate and he says over and over, “I found Fluffy and brought him back! Yea!”
And look at the next story. A woman loses a silver coin. Now the coin is not a coin from her coin purse; these coins would have been part of her dowry and were worn as ornamental decorations on her headdress. It could be compared to a diamond in a woman’s wedding ring today. So these coins are very significant to her. Not only important to her emotionally, but it is valuable. Her dowry, of which this is part, was her social security or her retirement or her insurance in case her husband dies. So what does she do when she loses the coin? She carefully sweeps the house looking for her coin. The houses of the poor people did not have windows per se so the house would be quite dark even in the daytime; furthermore they had straw over the dirt floor as well. That is why she needs the lamp and has to go very slowly and carefully. When she finds the coin, she calls her friends and neighbors and again she doesn’t grumble about the losing of the coin instead she is thrilled that she found it. “You’ll never guess what happened to me today! I lost one of my coins! But thank heaven, I finally found it!”
Identities, who is who? Surprise! The shepherd and the woman represent God Almighty! And through them we see how God and even all of heaven feels when people repent, when they are found and come to Him. When someone stops trying to make life work on his own, when a person stops trying to find fulfillment in life through money or pleasure or possessions or position, instead of that this person turns to God; and when that happens those who are in heaven throw a party! God the Father and all the millions of mighty and powerful angels throw a party; they have balloons, high five each other, and let off fireworks and everything. Well, to be really honest, I am not really positive about the balloons, the high fives and fireworks, but Jesus is very clear about the joy and celebration. What Jesus shows us about the attitude of God the Father is quite frankly, revolutionary. God seeks out and rescues the lost ones, the ones who have not been following God’s ways, just like Jesus is doing and welcomes them into His kingdom.
And then to answer the other question, ‘who are the people God is really interested in; who does he really care about? It turns out that He values each of us. He values the ones who are trying to serve him right now and He values the ones who are living their lives in total rebellion. He wants all humanity to be in relationship with Him. Yes, God is holy and righteous and He does expect His children to want to be like Him, holy and righteous. But what the religious and the not religious did not know was that God is compassionate and loving as well! God will forgive us and in fact is eager to forgive us and wants us to turn to him. God is out looking for us because He wants people, the humanity made in his image, to have life; and God knows that life, true life, is only found with him through Jesus! Amen