Saturday, September 15, 2007
Of Sheep and Coin
In Luke the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin and for that matter the lost son (the prodigal) all are set in the context of Jesus speaking to the Pharisees and the scribes who were grumbling about the sinners who were coming to hear Jesus preach.
The Pharisees were a branch of Judaism who took great stock in following the rules, who even enacted laws around the Mosaic law so that a follower would not inadvertently break one of the rules of faith. This wasn’t just the law of the land. These were the laws of the land and of God; no separation of church and state here. Following the law was not only patriotic and part of the social contract; it was integral to one’s life with God. And to eat with sinners, such as tax collectors--those Roman partisans, was a sign Jesus was not as holy or as patriotic as the Pharisees demanded. To be lax in following the law was to mean that one was lost.
Jesus’ Good news is not necessarily good news to the Pharisees. Jesus’ good news was that God’s mercy was greater than the Pharisee understood it. He knew that law was not the important thing, nor was patriotism—it was the relationship with God that was paramount. To be found was what was important.
To be the lost sheep in Jesus’ story meant that life was far more than expediency. No shepherd would leave the ninety-nine on the hillside to go looking for one lost one. That would leave the bulk of his responsibility unprotected. Would a woman clean her whole house to find a drachma? Perhaps, but it was clear that God would leave the whole flock to find one sheep that was lost and would clean the whole house to find one silver coin.
Jesus was setting up a new idea for the Pharisees and the scribes. He was saying that God’s mercy was far more benevolent than was the righteousness of the law. It meant that God didn’t abide by the rules because he was greater than the law. It meant that God’s mercy trumped the law all of the time. And that trumping of the law was open to all of humankind. God’s desire to look for us was far more important than the law, far more than what humans could do on their own.
Being found was more important than being right.
All too often we get the idea that Christianity is about doing the right thing. And I would suggest that it is only a small part of what Christians are. We stand in the mercy that God has found us, that God went looking for us and that God loved us enough to gather us, and rejoiced knowing that we have been found.
My experience of conversion to God’s love is not based upon my finding God, or my turning my life over to Jesus. It was the profound sense of moving from the sense of being lost and then knowing that I had been accepted just as I was. I didn’t have to clean up my act. I didn’t have to promise anything. I didn’t even have to be baptized, though I was eventually to be a part of the Church. But the profound sense of being FOUND, of being in the right place with a God who conveyed that God was happy that I was found was what allowed me to follow Christ.
Now I want to change to be all I can be before God. Now I want to follow God’s law because I know joy in righteousness. But it is not because I am commanded to. It is because my God found me and loved me just as I was that I am able to return thanks by endeavoring to be faithful.
Am I law abiding? Mostly, but not for the same reasons I once followed the law. Am I faithful? I try to be, but not for the same reasons. Now, law is not a binding thing. Now, rules do not chafe because the law of love is paramount. Law is the contract that I observe for the sake of humanity because God wants me to live with others in harmony. But the law does not take the place of the mercy that God calls from me because I have first known God’s mercy.
Jesus sat with the sinners and tax collectors. He associated with those that the Pharisees would never deign eat with because he knew that the law was not what was important. What was important was the relationship with God that told him that law was invented for humans not for God. God’s mercy is God’s exuberant response to our being found. When we allow ourselves to be found, when we quit running away, God’s joy flows through us as if we are being carried in the embracing arms of a shepherd or honored by a woman who is proud of her inordinately clean house.
The good news of Christianity is that we CAN be found by a God who has given it all so that we might be able to know the security of salvation. The gospel is about knowing that the kingdom is to be lived-out knowing of that salvation, that security, that found-ness. It is when we can live in that state of being found we can also be merciful. And if there is anything this world needs at present, it is mercy, God’s and ours.