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LOST ARE ESPECIALLY WELCOME 1 Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Have you heard of a new scheme called Neighbourhood Return? It’s a voluntary and independent initiative run by the Neighbourhood and Home Watch Network although you might have heard about it through the Thames Valley Police email alert system. If a neighbour of yours with dementia had gone missing and you were free to help search for them in your immediate vicinity, and maybe save their life, you might be prepared to help. You can register and help if you are available and someone has gone missing. Just think, if that were your relative or neighbour, wouldn’t you want some way of being able to get help to find them and return them to safety?

Parables of lost and found
Jesus’ parables of lost and found are some of his best known ones. After the lost sheep and coin ones comes also the one we often call the “Prodigal Son”. They’re great for childrens’ Bibles and are easy to understand on one level. But Jesus didn’t tell his parables for entertainment or in a kind of vacuum – there was always a reason, a point to them. Luke introduces the lost and found stories by telling us that there were two opposite reactions to Jesus’ teaching. Tax-collectors and sinners were attracted – they came near to Jesus – but Pharisees and scribes grumbled and disapproved of Jesus’ acceptance of the people they found unacceptable. What was going on? Well, the Pharisees and scribes were not bad in themselves. They were doing their best to follow the laws of Moses and the prophets – their Bible. They sought to be faithful to God and how they understood he wanted them to live. They had high standards and were respectable people. But Jesus had a problem with them because they could easily miss the point. They were so focussed on keeping the letter of the law that they sometimes missed its spirit.

Things often came to a head when a different set of people got up close and personal with Jesus – those often referred to as tax-collectors and sinners. Unlike our professional and (we hope) respectable Inland Revenue employees, the tax-collectors in Jesus’ day were seen as collaborators. The Roman empire ruled over the lands of Judaea and Galilee where Jesus lived and his people. They exacted taxes and used willing employees from amongst the people they occupied. It’s as if a Palestinian worked as a civil servant for the Israeli government in the Gaza Strip. In order to survive or perhaps take advantage of their situation, tax-collectors would take more than they were supposed to and keep some of it. They were cheats as well as traitors in the eyes of people like the Pharisees and scribes. Sinners may not necessarily mean those of a doubtful moral standing – though of course, one of that class, prostitutes, were often found near Jesus. But it may refer to those people who regularly transgressed the strict religious laws like money lenders who charged interest which was forbidden in Jewish law. Jesus wasn’t deliberately associating with people who had no morals – many so-called “sinners” were people driven to desperate measures in order to make ends meet. Those measures meant that their way of life made them unclean or unlawful so far as the laws of Moses and the traditions of the Pharisees were concerned. They weren’t necessarily bad people in themselves. When Jesus did come across the morally fallen he would urge them to improve their ways. But there were huge numbers of poor and struggling people in Jesus’ day and he understood how difficult life could be for them. Jesus’ teaching and healing attracted those stuck in an endless cycle of poverty and oppression – they felt they had a champion in him.

Two lost and found stories
The respectable but tiny middle and upper classes grumbled about Jesus’ popularity with the poor and struggling masses. They wanted to discredit him, take away from his appeal by pointing out what rotten company he kept. But Jesus’ spiritual authority shone through and gave him a place from which to criticise his critics. Parables were powerful and they eventually contributed to the plot against him. But through the parables the poor could see light, could see things from the perspective of heaven. Instead of intellectual arguments (which Jesus was quite capable of holding his own in if occasion demanded it), he told stories with a twist. Shepherds were unclean according to the religious regulations. But at least they could earn some kind of living. Imagine! Jesus calls out to his hearers, rotten and respectable. Imagine! This shepherd has a perfect flock – it’s got exactly 100 sheep in it. One evening as the shepherd brings them all back to the stone pen for safety against the wild animals and the dark, he can only count 99. This shepherd cares for his flock so much that he goes out searching for the missing one. Imagine again! Imagine the party when he comes back with the errant sheep over his shoulders! God and heaven are like that if a so-called sinner lets God look for him and bring him home.

Imagine again! Jesus says. Women were of little or no account in his culture. But if they were lucky, they got a dowry – often coins which they would wear in a string around their heads. If they were widowed, at least this was a form of life insurance. So how upset would a woman be if one of her complete set of coins went missing somewhere? She spares no effort to track it down. Imagine the relief of her friends and neighbours when she finds it again! Do you know – God is like such a woman, Jesus exclaims! God’s angelic friends and neighbours are delighted when a missing person lets God bring them back to the light.

The point of the parables
We know the third of this set of three parables and Jesus changes some of the details third time round in order to bring home the message of the first two. In some ways it is a stand alone parable and can distract us from the thrust of the first two, so we have not read it today. In the third re-telling of the lost and found the searcher is a grieving father and the searched is an errant son. The point about the first two parables is that the searcher and the sought out have a key relationship to each other. The shepherd and the woman can act, can take action – the action of searching. The sheep is an animal and the coin is inanimate. They are passive – they have gone missing for whatever reason but they cannot find their way back. They have to “wait” until they are found. It is only in the third parable that the one being searched for contributes to his being found – comes to his senses and begins to make his way back. Even then, though, he doesn’t expect to be included inside the sheepfold; he doesn’t expect he could go back on the string of coins on the woman’s forehead. The surprise for him and in that story is his father’s attitude that includes him completely and unexpectedly.

The Pharisee who got it
There was a Pharisee who got it. (Well, there were others as well), but this one stands out especially because he tells us about his own journey towards being found. Just listen to what this god-fearing, law-abiding, upstanding and thoroughbred theological expert writes about himself: even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence…. I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief. Extraordinary!
And he goes on: The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance,
that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example. It is a Pharisee who’s turned to Jesus and is now saying that the one who was looked down on by the Pharisees of the day is actually authorised by God.

What does all of this mean for us? The message is one of judgement to all whether we are more like the Pharisee or more like the sinner. To those who think of themselves as respectable the message is: take a leaf out of St Paul’s book! To those who think of themselves as not being good enough even to darken the doors of a church, God is searching for you and longs to find you! You are the missing 100th sheep, the missing 10th coin: God will not rest until he has brought you home! Like the missing person with dementia – sometimes we are not even aware of being lost. God sends out a search party and can bring the ignorant wanderer back to safety. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith