This is the last week in our parables series, and the stories we’ll hear today are likely quite familiar to us – focused on a lost sheep and a lost coin, these are the parables that lead up to the story of the Prodigal Son. Together, those three form a triad of what was lost, then found—stories of grief and anxiety and rejoicing.

As we listen, I want us to pay attention to a couple things:

First, pay attention to the framing: who is Jesus talking to when he tells these stories, and who is Jesus talking about?
Second, in the parables themselves, how is the lost item found?

Scripture: Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ 
So he told them this parable: ‘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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 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.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
‘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? 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.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

There are several things in these twin parables that would’ve caught the attention of Jesus’ original listeners – both tax collectors and Pharisees.

First of all, the people he’s describing are pretty well-off. When Jesus asks “which of you, having 100 sheep…”, he likely would’ve heard “psshhh. Not me!”

Even having 10 silver coins was a rarity – and to have enough money (and irresponsibility) to lose one of them to begin with was mind-boggling.

Rather than the lost sheep and the lost coin, these could easily be called ‘The Parables of the Irresponsible Owners.’

A second surprise would’ve been their celebratory response: this was not just relief that they had found what they’d lost—it was cause for a community celebration: their flock, their accounts, were now complete again. Wholeness had been restored, and that meant rejoicing together.

Luke frames these stories for us in a way that interprets them as allegories of repentance and forgiveness. But who’s doing the repenting? Surely not the sheep, who has no idea that it’s done something wrong and doesn’t choose to go back on its own, or the coin, which is an inanimate object and thus incapable of either straying or repenting.

The one who changes, and does something different, is the shepherd who realizes one is missing and goes off in search of it. The one who turns her life upside down trying to make things right is the woman who lost the coin.

That changes the allegory a bit: usually, the shepherd and the woman are seen as the God-characters, meant to show us the extreme measures God will employ to find us when we’ve lost our way.

And perhaps that’s still true—Jesus is absolutely doing things differently. Jesus isn’t sitting in the Temple or the synagogues, waiting for those who need instruction and care to come to him. He’s hanging out in the sketchy parts of the city. He’s having dinner with Zacchaeus and talking with the ones labeled ‘sinners.’ He’s turning expectations upside down, searching desperately for what was lost. He’s willing to go to extreme measures to restore the community to wholeness.

This is an enormous source of hope and comfort for those of us who, like the hymn says, are prone to wander.

But even that connection, that metaphor, isn’t perfect—God was not the irresponsible one who just let us wander off unnoticed, or dropped us behind the couch and forgot.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and remember who Jesus is talking to, and why. The scribes and Pharisees are upset because Jesus is spending his time with the ‘wrong’ people. In some ways, they seem to think he’s rewarding bad behavior by hosting tax collectors for dinner and chatting with the wrong people in the marketplace. Jesus uses these stories of precious things lost, then found, to explain what he’s doing and why.

So perhaps these parables aren’t about righteousness and self-righteousness at all.

What if we read them, instead, through the lens of community and wholeness?

What if we put ourselves in the shoes of the shepherd and the woman? When was the last time we took stock not only of our material and spiritual blessings, but of our relationships, our families, and our community?

For the religious leaders, this was an invitation to see differently. Instead of a ‘sinners’ category, where those who failed at faithfulness were all lumped together, Jesus invites them to see people. People who were infinitely valuable and worthy of seeking out, of being restored to community and relationship with God–and instead of blaming or shaming them, to take responsibility for initiating and maintaining that relationship.

Always the good shepherd, Jesus refused to be content until the community was whole. And so, the challenge for the Pharisees is our challenge, too.

New Testament Scholar Dr. Amy-Jill Levine says it this way: “If this fellow can experience such joy in finding one of a hundred sheep, what joy do we experience when we find what we have lost? More, if he can realize that one of his hundred has gone missing, do we know what or whom we have lost? 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—or him or her—again?”[1]

If I had a dollar for every person who’s ever told me they were afraid to come to church for fear of being judged, rejected, shamed, or blamed, I wouldn’t have to worry about my student loans.

It’s a terrible stereotype, really, and it always makes me sad—because that’s not the church I know and love, and that’s definitely not the God I know.

But every stereotype starts somewhere. And so before we can follow Jesus out into the world, we also need to take the time to pause and take stock of our own hearts. What part of me is lost? Is there shame and judgement lurking in a hidden corner? Do I still carry the hurt someone else inflicted on me? Do I have the courage to truly forgive someone else’s wrongdoing? Can I be the one to build bridges and reconcile with the people I’m pretty sure are wrong?

Sometimes, healing takes longer than we’d like it to. Sometimes, we need some extra help along the way. Most of the time, it will take the gifts and presence and love of many of God’s beloved children to rise to this challenge and claim this responsibility of reconciliation for ourselves.

But at the end of that seeking, there will be rejoicing. And not just the quiet ‘yes!’ of a job well done, but the loud laughter and singing of a great banquet—where we will gather together with Christ himself, who will rise to greet each and every one of us: ‘welcome home, beloved. Come, rejoice! For what was lost is found, and my family is whole again.’

[1] Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (p. 45). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.