When our Story Fails (Luke 15:1-10; 1 Tim. 1:12-17)
Somewhere deep in our memory is a story that we probably all share. It happened when we were young, maybe we were tagging along with mom at the mall or maybe we went with our family to the fair. Something caught our attention. It might have been someone’s pet or toy—maybe we just started daydreaming. Then, for a moment at least, we couldn’t see our parents. It might have been only a split second or maybe it was even a few minutes. Either way, somewhere in the sequence there was a period of stomach-churning anxiety, the deep dread of being lost in a big, complicated world. We may not have known much, but we knew we didn’t know how to get back to what was familiar.
Sometimes we experience the same emotion, the same feeling in our stomach, when we realize that our assumptions about God or the Bible or whatever have just evaporated. Sometimes too when a loved-one dies or the faults of a mentor are exposed: Where am I? What can I count on? Will I ever regain my confidence? This happens to us as individuals, but it also happens to corporate things, like the church. Where once we positioned ourselves in a narrative of progress, we know all too well now, that story doesn’t hold. Ours is not a myth of triumph—not totally, not even mostly. Now it is one of decline and loss. The line on the graph has bent the other way.
How many of our friends from the church of our childhood are still part of the Christian community in any meaningful way? What’s more, the comfort we want to derive from the growth of the church elsewhere is hollow. How do we know their future is not like ours? The testimonies we hear of conversion and faith are matched by those of disillusionment and abandonment. It may well be true that we brought this upon ourselves but that does nothing to ease our anxiety or erase our disorientation.
It is no wonder then that the opening sections of John 15 are some of the most loved in all the gospels. The picture of Jesus as the good shepherd was loved by the ancient church; it shows up frequently in their art. It may be that we are drawn as much by the statistics as the story itself. It’s not just that the shepherd searches for lost sheep. The impact comes from the fact that he would search for one! We can think of writing-off one. But we’ve been that one, alone, lost vulnerable.
The shepherd goes out to search for the one. We’re thankful for that.
In his letter to Timothy Paul writes from a similar perspective: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
This is an interesting passage from Paul. He usually begins letters by expressing thanks for God’s work in the community receiving his letter. Here he reflects on this own story, and here too Paul gives us a different perspective on what it means to be lost.
There are times when we are lost and we know it—it’s terrifying. But there are other ways to be lost. Paul was an enthusiastic fundamentalist—extremely confident. It was only after his encounter with Christ that he was able to look back and acknowledge that he acted in “ignorance.” Only after the encounter did he see himself no longer as the righteous protector of God and true faith but as the “worst of sinners.” With the church’s litany of failure thoroughly enmeshed with its success, can we hope for anything different?
It is the mercy of God is what makes the difference in both scenarios, the lost-and-knows-it-sheep, as well as the lost-and-ignorant-Paul. Paul says, “I was shown mercy so that in me . . . Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience. . . .” The sheep doesn’t have to say anything; it’s clear that it being brought back is only a result of the shepherd’s care. The point is even more obvious in the story of the coin. Lost phones can ring, lost cars can connect to satellites, but coins can’t do anything to be found. They just sit there, wherever there is, until someone finds them. The hinge between lost and found is God’s loving intervention.
But you and I are neither sheep, nor coins. And we should notice that the two stories in Luke (the lost coin and the lost sheep) are told to the religious leaders who question Jesus’ presence with the sinful. The story of the lost sheep begins, “Suppose one of you . . .” Jesus puts his audience in the place of the shepherd, not the sheep. What does that mean?
It means that the stories are chiefly about God: God is like the shepherd, God is like the woman. The stories highlight God’s action not our own. We should know, then, that God searches. We should know that God is concerned with the one.
But who is ‘lost’? It’s one thing to talk about sheep and coins and tent-making Paul thousands of years ago but what’s the link today? Who are “the lost?” The phrase is used quite a bit in evangelical circles, usually drawn from a part of Luke just a few chapters after the stories we’ve read. It’s comes from Luke 19:10, where Jesus is responding to a repentant, and wealthy, collector of taxes. Jesus says (vv. 9-10), “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
My guess is that when Jews heard Jesus say this, or tell the story from Luke 15, they would have connected the dots to Ezekiel chapter 34. Part of that chapter reads this way:
(vv.1-6) The Word of the LORD came to me: “Son of Man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel” . . . “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.” (v. 11) “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.” (v.16) I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak . . . I will shepherd the flock with justice.”
What’s the point? Notice that “the lost” are from Abraham’s line. This isn’t an evangelistic phrase as such. We should know that we are capable of being lost, of not getting it. Our readings suggest that we should cultivate a humility that guards against the fact that we might be ignorant of the fact that we’re lost. We should be leery of guarding our misconceptions from the truth. Jesus was trying to correct the Pharisees in Luke 15. They thought they knew where they were. Paul was a Pharisee, and in that sense he was lost, whether he knew it or not.
But notice too that the phrase “the lost” does refer to something, even if it isn’t those outside the faith. Sometimes my gut response to the misapplication of the phrase is to simply dispense with the notion. If the lines are blurred, if Paul, you and I may not be where we think we are, why talk about “the lost” at all?
That doesn’t work though. It doesn’t work because with that we lose the notion that there is any distinction between the Zacchaeus who over-billed on taxes and Zacchaeus who rightly returned money that wasn’t his. If we dispense with the notion we lose the distinction between Paul-the-persecutor and Paul-the-bearer-of-good-news. There is a difference between living in line with God’s kingdom and not.
Our readings today encourage us because they show that God seeks the lost, us/them, and because God reveals where we truly are. In this there is hope. We hope for the day when God will gather his sheep. We hope too for God’s merciful intervention in our own lives, in the life of the church. In the words of the Psalmist (14:7) “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the Lord restores his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!”