There are three parables in Luke chapter 15. In this part of the gospel, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, having ‘set his face’ to go to Jerusalem, and what we know will happen there (9:51). The chapter begins with a comment by Luke that ‘ALL the tax collectors and sinners’ are flocking to listen to him. The religious and legal authorities: Pharisees and scribes (it’s usually the other way round!), are grumbling that ‘this fellow’ (clearly not a nice respectable, man), welcomes sinners! This is not about how unwelcoming Jews are, but about the ‘snobby’ people who run the place. Is it Luke’s view?
So, Jesus tells a parable; he tells three! – Luke’s introduction to the story doesn’t seem to fit the stories.
The three parables are related in that they are each about loss; a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost boy – son – which we won’t be looking at today; we’re looking at the first two. Before we look at the text it might be worth mentioning an important issue about the way we look at the text. I know I’ve said this before, and I am likely to mention it again, but looking for how Jesus denigrates Judaism, his own religion, at the expense of Christianity doesn’t help; but is hard to forget after 2,000 years of such a tradition.
So, the first parable is about a man who loses a sheep. His flock of 100 sheep is modest; many might have had just a handful, or even one or two; better-off people would have 2 or 3 hundred, or even more. So he’s not rich or poor. Somewhere in between.
Having lost the sheep he leaves the 99 – probably in the hands of friends, we’re not told. But he doesn’t rest until he finds his sheep. When he does, he puts it tenderly (I’ve added that word) on his shoulder, and when he gets home he throws a party to share his joy.
You may have seen ancient images of a beardless young man with a sheep on his shoulders; it’s called a kriopheros, meaning ‘ram carrier’, an image of the god Hermes; but later, Christians used the same image to portray Jesus the ‘Good Shepherd’, perhaps with this parable in mind. And It’s hard to tell which is which.
Notice that, in the story, the sheep doesn’t sin, or repent. It might have been relieved to have been found. But the story is about the man’s relentless search.
The second story is about a woman who has ten drachmas – a Greek (silver) coin, worth the same as the Roman denarius. You probably know that Greece still uses the drachma. Most commentators suggest having ten drachmas means she’s poor; but she might be of modest means; and she does have her own money. (Again, this is not story about how badly the Jews treated their women, unlike Christians. That is almost ironical.)
But the central point of the story is about her relentless search for her lost coin. She lights a lamp and sweeps the house, searching for her coin, until she finds it; then she invites her friends and neighbours to a party to celebrate her find, and share her joy.
(There was a parishioner, a regular communicant, in a congregation where I was incumbent, in Bow; she came from a very poor background on an estate in Aberdeen where the local church was Anglican. She had four children whom she cared for very much. She once lost her benefit cheque, and was quite desperate, traumatised. But when she found it, she called her friends around for a party. I think she must have spent a large proportion of the cheque on the party. I was relieved I only found out about the party after it happened.)
Again, the parable is about the relentless search by the woman. And, unlike the shepherd, she admits that she lost the coin. The coin doesn’t sin, or repent, As if it could.
If these stories are about God, they are about, God, represented by a shepherd, not uncommon in the Old Testament; and God represented by a woman, less common, but God’s relentless search for us. Always and constantly.
If a man could care so much about his lost sheep and a woman about her lost coin, how much more might God care about us?
We are living in very troubled times as we seem to pass from one disaster to another: the financial crash (in 2007/8), Austerity, Brexit, Covid, the environmental crisis evermore noticeable, energy prices on an alarming rise. We have every reason to be traumatised.
And now, as a nation, as communities, as individuals, we are overshadowed by a loss, in the death of Queen Elizabeth; who, whatever else we know about her, genuinely cared about her duty to all of us, cared about us. In our grief let us be aware of the God we, and she, believe in who cares for us, who will relentlessly seek us out. Let us pray that we may be aware of God’s love for each and every one of us. Amen.
God save the King!