It is curious that we, who would follow Jesus, are often found putting our main effort by way of response into the intentional religious setting of a Church service instead of focussing on the dealings of the day-to-day world where his teachings and parables suggest the reality of the kingdom is to be found.
Think not only of the number of times Jesus uses meal-times to make his points – but also the number of earthy and counter cultural parables he uses to unsettle the comfortable and bring hope to those whom society counts of little importance. Here for example, the over-riding and almost hidden metaphor in today’s story is that of the non-discriminatory table around which all must be made welcome.
Before rushing to the parables themselves, we might remember their setting. Remember Luke tells us the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling and saying of Jesus, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Technically we should note in passing, Jesus is often himself classified as a Pharisee as far as many commentators are concerned, particularly since the Pharisees were part of a fairly eclectic group trying to reform Judaism to make it more accessible to the common people. In the gospels however, when Pharisees are mentioned it is often as the group among them who today we might describe as fundamentalist nit pickers and who would no doubt have been offended that Jesus was far less concerned than they were with tradition and convention.
Notice Jesus does not deny their charge of him being accused of sharing food with sinners. Indeed he seems to welcome it and, rather than suggest why his opponents are wrong, he explains why it important to welcome and show hospitality to those who seem undeserving. Here he appears to say the sinners are worth worrying about because, no matter how insignificant they might appear, to Jesus they matter as individuals and are therefore worth caring about.
To comprehend the revulsion generated by Jesus sharing food with sinners, we need to be reminded of the Jewish purity laws. Part of this would have been fear that the lax choice of company might also mean the risk of ignoring laws for the presentation of food eg the tithing of food and the inclusion of incorrectly prepared food might which have made the meal unacceptable. Even the Psalms are reminders, and Psalm 1 declaims Blessed is the person who does not keep company with the ungodly.
Even if Jesus himself was not technically a rabbi he was apparently accepted as a sage or a teacher and as such would be expected to have somewhat higher standards of observed conduct than would be the case for lowers orders of society.
The parable of the lost sheep loses something in the retelling for our 21st century modern society and in this country today at least, today the shepherd would be just as likely to be found on a four wheel farm bike with the farm dogs on hand to do the real work. In Jesus’ day the shepherd would have been much less respectable – and I relate to Glynn Cardy’s chosen equivalent illustration of the tow truck operator on his way to an accident when he stopped to lend a hand to on old man fallen over in the gutter. As for women, we should remember the standard daily prayer of the orthodox Jew which included thanking God that he was not born a woman. In that context the woman relegated to sweeping the house was hardly the acceptable way for finding another metaphorical description of God.
Women and shepherds were at the bottom of Palestinian society, so for Jesus’ accusers, to find him using these figures as metaphors for a caring God chasing after those considered the least of value, would be uncomfortable enough, but the real twist in the tail of today’s parables comes with the suspicion that if the one we seek to follow, cares about the least in our society, maybe, just maybe we are being asked to do the same.
When Jesus is talking of rejoicing in heaven, or the metaphors of the shepherd with the missing sheep – or the woman with the lost coin, our attention rightly goes to spirit of what he was saying rather than worrying over much about any literal interpretation. Nor do we need to concern ourselves with the possible implausibility of his examples for our day and age.
As it happens both of his chosen examples would have been well understood by the people of Jesus’ time. For the shepherd to lose a single sheep in a situation of low profit margins would represent unacceptable economic loss, and for the woman to lose a coin in an age where saving was extremely difficult and a woman’s savings might be absolutely critical when establishing her dowry – chasing after a single missing coin would also make perfect sense.
Jesus in this exchange with his detractors is also challenging a common understanding. Remember it was not his concern for sinners that was upsetting to his critics. The standard approach to sinners was that they should be made to see the error of their ways so that they might return to being acceptable in the eyes of the Priests. All Pharisees would have shared his hopes in the reform of those who were straying from the religious norms of the day. Where Jesus varied from his critics was that he saw the sinner of value before they reformed – where as to the traditionalists – they wanted evidence of reform as a prerequisite for becoming acceptable.
This brings Jesus teaching into our present. Jesus still disturbs if we listen to the challenge of his parables. Like Jesus are we treating those who fall from grace as already being of value, and in particular of value to the point where we are happy to seek out their company – or like the nit pickers and fundamentalists of his day, do we want the sinners to reform before we consider they are worth our time?
We can seem to have all the theoretical positions in the world, but the ultimate test is in which parts we incorporate into our thoughts and actions. I guess part of the answer to how much we truly value in these parables is in who we are currently prepared to entertain, and in whose company we ourselves are found.
This is where we encounter the real bite in the story of the lost sheep.
So Jesus poses the question, “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?” Well if your community is anything like mine, I would suggest the answer may well be….. no-one!
The lost in this day and age are often left lost. This is why the gap between the rich and the poor steadily grows. This is why prisoner rehabilitation is left woefully short of resources. This is why there has been diminishing Government support for anti-household-violence schemes and the lack of interest in accepting more refugees. Child poverty in this country has increased over the last few years and the international rates of slavery and child prostitution are showing no signs of diminishing. It must be admitted that at best these are only probable indicators of a prevailing disinterest in those who have lost their way. At the same time it would also be true that if there were more in our community caring about the lost we could be more confident that our society would be the happier for the concern.
There is a huge difference between our acknowledging Jesus’ words and actions by listening to such accounts read in our churches – and the alternative of bringing ourselves to the point where we share his ideals by our own actions. Luke portrays a Jesus who engages with the fundamental Jewish precept that Heaven and Earth are supposed to reflect one another as a whole. If we can only make the leap to realise that parable can also offer personal challenge then maybe we can find ways of living our response.
Jesus appeared to teach the ideal of on Earth as it is in Heaven. There is obviously a huge range of perceptions as to what Jesus meant by heaven, but in parables such as the lost sheep and the lost coin Jesus seems to be insisting we seek the heavenly meaning in the human valuing of the human soul. He goes further and asks us to find such valuing in the shape of offered hospitality – and by implication – in the nature of the table we offer to others.
In a relatively recent talk on BBC’s Thought for the Day, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby likened our perception to those at the crucifixion of Jesus. “What you see”, he said “depends on where you stand”. In the same way, if we choose to stand looking at the word pictures of parables as mildly interesting portrayals of Jesus’ expressions of thought – that is exactly what we will see. If, on the other hand, we stand expectantly seeking guidance for our personal journeys in the parables, we are far more likely to notice both their offence and their challenge. The choice of where to stand as always is ours.
We can find wisdom in unexpected places and despite my personal difficulties in accepting some of the themes of the Harry Potter books I was quite taken with the following.
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Our question then of ourselves as we return to the world is simply this. Where are we with our choices?