We have all seen a little child in the moment when she discovers that she is lost. Herexpression changes from mild boredom or distraction to self-consciousness; the day-dream she was having vanishes and suddenly she sees herself in the store or on the sidewalk, not holding a hand of anybody, not knowing where mommy is, having no idea in which direction to go – standing there dazed and confused – just before the terror-feeling emerges and the panic overwhelms her.
We have all been in her shoes, we know that feeling. Probably that childhood terror at being lost is the source of that quick jab in the gut we feel, even as adults, as we suddenly snap back from mind-wandering and (for those of us who do not have a GPS for help) realize that this road is not the right one; nothing is familiar; we’ve made a mistake; we are at least for this moment, lost.
Lost in the Cosmos
I don’t know if there is one single feeling
that seems to capture the essence of the human condition better than the sensation of being lost. Lostness is not only an external condition, we feel lost from our inner selves as well. Walker Percy’s book “Lost in the Cosmos” asks us why we are surprised at how we look in a mirror or a photo? Why is it so hard to “be yourself”? What does it even mean?
The recently concluded TV series “Lost” had over 15 million viewers every week. Somehow the setting captured many of our imaginations; we identified with plight of the characters. There they were, living as lost ones, marooned on an island after crashing into it with people they don’t know and didn’t choose, not even grasping who they themselves were in their lives before the crash. Lostness is not our chosen state, but is the essence of our condition.
Parables of Lostness
I wanted to start with the feeling of lostness because the texts we read from Luke’s gospel are about lostness. A shepherd with 100 sheep learns that one has been lost; a woman who had ten coins notices that one is lost. There is a third story of lostness which follows these two – the story of the lost son, which we refer to as the story of the “Prodigal Son”. Luke put them all three together, and they do fit together, but the story of the Prodigal Son is so rich all by itself that we save it for its own Sunday. Today we will look at these two parables of lostness, the lost sheep and the lost coin.
In one sense, these are about as plain and obvious as parables can be: the one who lost
something searches for it, finds it, then rejoices. So too God rejoices when one person who has been lost is restored. The shepherd finds the sheep and rejoices, the lady finds the coin and rejoices; how much more joy must God feel when a lost person is found and restored?
But let us not be so quick to move on. There is a depth of teaching here that we all need to plumb together; we will see that this text is for us, today, and that we need its message.
The Company You Keep
First, as we slow down to notice the details of these parables, we pay attention to the setting. As Jesus continues his long journey from Galilee down to Judah, towards Jerusalem, he encounters various people. Some are sympathetic; Luke tells us that
1” all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.”
Others oppose him, looking for ways to undermine his popularity.
2 “ And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus gives opponents plenty of ammunition to use against him, welcoming people like “tax collectors” – notoriously corrupt extortionists whose job it was to fleece people of small means to finance their Roman oppressors.
Jesus welcomed “sinners” in general – who were they? Unspecified people, perhaps, who simply did not bother themselves with trying to keep the Law of Moses.
Jesus not only “welcomed” such people into his company, he went so far as to share meals with them; remember this is the ancient world: sharing a meal is sharing a life-source. In many ways you are not just “known by the company you keep,” rather, sharing a meal means that you are the company you keep.
Luke lets us hear the reaction to Jesus’ welcoming and his table fellowship:
2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling
Since we have slowed down we can note that “grumbling” was the characteristic speech of the Israelites in the wilderness – where they were, shall we say, “lost” for 40 years?
And slowed down as we are, now we can pay attention to the sleight-of-hand that Jesus has just accomplished. “Tax collectors” are not like coins that accidentally rolled into a dark corner after slipping between the fingers. “Sinners” are not like little sheep that stray off absent-mindedly without an inner compass. Being lost is an accident. How can Jesus expect anyone to think of “tax collectors and sinners,” people who willfully, repeatedly, purposefully do what is wrong as merely “lost”?
Lost sheep need finding; lost coins need finding. Tax collectors need to be tarred and feathered, right? And “sinners” may need a whip, or a jail – or worse, don’t they?
Unless perhaps Jesus has a lot more insight into the nature of evil than we do.
Who would “choose” evil?
Nothing is more “obvious” to us than that evil is most often chosen behavior. We like to say to each other, along with singer Sufjan Stevens, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes; I’ve made a lot of mistakes” – because “mistakes” sound so accidental. “Oops; was that your foot I just stepped on? Sorry; my mistake.” But in truth, like Adam and Eve, we reach for the apple because we want to taste it, not because the serpent had overwhelming arguments nor that it held a gun to our heads. We choose evil.
People choose to shortcut safety precautions out on the oil drilling rig when money is at stake, never mind for the moment the risk to lives, the environment and livelihood of thousands. That’s not an accident.
People choose to sell financial “securities” knowing that they are full of worthless debt, regardless of who will get left holding the bag after they take their commissions. That’s not an accident.
And people fly planes full of people into buildings full of people in order to kill as many as possible, and that is not an accident.
People do all kinds of things: sell drugs, pull triggers, put down falsified numbers, deceive, distort, discriminate, lie, abuse, abandon, all on purpose. (Is that the end of the story? Is that all there is to say about evil in the world?)
So, let us continu on with the story from Luke: he repentance part. Yes, it’s great when “sinners” “repent.” Yes, as Jesus suggested, it should indeed be a cause for rejoicing among God and all the angels when one of these purposeful, intentional sinners wakes up, has a “moment of clarity” looks at themselves and says, “you horrible person!” It is cause for joy when you hear them say to themselves “Better come clean now and admit the truth! Better grovel and wear the “woe is me” shame-face for all to see. Wear the scarlet letter around town; why not? You deserve it!” It feels so good to hear someone else say they were wrong! Who doesn’t rejoice at repentance?
All that joy is somehow different if the person repenting was merely lost, like an ignorant sheep or a rolling coin.
Evil Choices of the Lost Souls
Why do we choose evil? Isn’t it because we are indeed lost? If we could see the whole picture, the helicopter view of the world and our place in it; if we could see where we had come from and where we were going – if we could see our lives, in other words, not from down at knee-level where the toddler cannot find mommy, but from God’s view – where we are never lost, then we might see:
- we didn’t need to take the short-cut, falsify the form, put a thumb on the scale, sell bad for good, or harden our hearts to the appeal; that God would have provided or helped us to live with less;
- we didn’t need to take revenge; that God would have accomplished justice;
- we didn’t need the escape-chemicals; that God could help us through that horrible dark feeling
- that every fear-based evil choice comes from our own lostness.
And if we could understand ourselves as lost people in need of finding, perhaps we could begin to look at other people as lost souls too. If our evil choices come from our perception that we are not going to get what we need any other way, in other words, from fear of being vulnerable, unprotected, lost, perhaps others share that terror too.
Perhaps if we understood, from God’s view, that we are all in this together, like the people on the island in “Lost”, we would be willing to “eat with tax collectors and sinners” because we understood that lots of their chosen behavior has its ultimate roots in their lostness; that many evils come from vain, ridiculous, even hurtful attempts to find mommy in a world that feel so menacingly vacant.
At the root of Jesus’ willingness to eat with “tax collectors and sinners” was not moral confusion. His openness was not from ignorance of the evilness of evil nor from softness about it. Rather he understood evil as lostness, and set out to be a finder.
In or Out?
In the end of the story, the lost people who recognized their own lostness and were willing to repent, to turn around and go another way, to be found by the Shepherd, to be swept up by the Lady, got to sit with each other at a table of rejoicing. By contrast, the ones who were not willing to think of themselves as lost nor to accept other lost souls end the story out in the grumbling wilderness, where lostness is lostness indeed.