Seeking the Lost
The Gospel passage for today contains some familiar stories: stories about being lost, about seeking the lost, about celebrating when the lost is found. These stories, short as they are, raise a number of different emotions as we hear them.
Before we get to these stories today’s reading, however, we encounter a first, striking, emotion. Luke sets the scene for the stories about seeking the lost, with a brief vignette in which we encounter a striking emotion. We hear about the grumbling of some religious leaders. They are not happy. They look down their noses at Jesus. They know his reputation; it appears that he is challenging the established social order and upsetting the decorum and proprietary of society, once again.
Jesus is not doing what is expected. Instead of mixing with his peers, he has gone off to eat with those who are socially beneath him, those who are considered sinners, or probably even worse, those who work at collecting the exorbitant taxes for the Roman empire.
Sinners were those who had breached the conditions of the Law. Their lives were sinful because they had failed to live as holy people, committed to keeping the 613 laws that are recorded in the first five books of Hebrew Scripture, the books of the Law. And tax collectors were equally those who stood in breach of the requirements of the Law, by conducting their business in association with Gentiles, outsiders, considered completely unclean under the Law.
The scribes and the Pharisees do what we, perhaps unconsciously, do, even today: draw lines, set up barriers, establish boundaries, construct a clear sense of who-is-in and who-is-out. Sound familiar?
The first two verses in Luke 15 give us the framework for this story, a story that has two ‘lost things’ stories within it. Overall, we have a story about attitude, set in a culture with more religious rules than we are used to in our churches. 613 commandments is an awful lot to remember, and to follow! We today seem to do badly enough with the Ten Commandments; imagine how we would fare if we were required to implement 613 commandments in our daily lives!
Now, we need to be clear, from what we read in all four of our Gospels, that Jesus is not criticising the Pharisees and scribes for following these rules. In Luke, Jesus recognises that these religious people genuinely worked hard to understand the Law and live by it. In Jewish tradition, all of these commandments—all 613 of them, not just the Big Ten, but all 613 commandments—were, they all agreed, decreed by God.
They were all given to Moses when he met with God on the top of Mount Sinai; not just the Ten, written on stone for all to see, but the full 613, passed on by word of mouth, from Moses, to Aaron, to the Elders of the people, and then to the Judges who had been appointed by Moses; and the tradition of the Pharisees was that those Elders and Judges then taught those laws to their students, and those students became teachers, or rabbis, and passed the commandments on to their students, who in turn became teachers … and so the chain of tradition continued, for generations, until eventually the priests, in the time of Exile, wrote down those commandments and commented on them in the books of Leviticus, complementing the narratives that had been shaped in the books of Exodus and Numbers.
So, the commandments of the Law were agreed by everyone—Jesus, his disciples, the scribes, the Pharisees, even the Sadducees and the priests—all of these agreed that these 613 commandments were given by God. They were all part of the Law. They were all integral to the Covenant between Israel and the Lord God. They all wanted to keep them, to remain within the Covenant, to continue as Holy people.
Jesus does not criticise the scribes and Pharisees for keeping those laws. Jesus criticises the leaders’ hardline attitude to those who did not or could not live by these laws, those who therefore might be called ‘lost’. It is this aspect of being ‘lost’ that Jesus goes on to talk about. He engages in debates with the religious leaders—vigorous, robust, intense debate!
In the view of the Pharisees and scribes, people such as the tax collectors were probably seen as traitors to their faith. They took money from their Jewish brethren and gave it to the hated Roman overlord. They engaged in daily interactions with the unclean, unholy, Gentiles who ruled over them. Those tax collectors, even if Jewish, were regarded as outsiders. Unclean. Lost to the Covenant, outside the Law.
The description of other people as “sinners” could have referred to a number of things. They might have been lepers, or beggars, or the poor who could not afford to make sacrifice. They also might have been petty thieves, or other people who regularly mixed with Gentiles, or political rebels, or simply ‘unclean’ Jews who had become lax in keeping the law, failing to obey some of many of those 613 laws. Whatever they were, the Pharisees and scribes probably thought they were lazy, or weak, or rebellious. And they probably thought it was their own fault that they were sinners.
So the counsel that they give to others is stay away from them. Stay away, because they are the wrong crowd, and they are likely to lead you astray. Stay away, because they are not from our tribe. We are different. They will be problems for us. So, stay away from them. Not, go and seek them out. But, stay away from them!
I wonder : have you heard this sort of thing before?
Have you yourself said it before?
To be sure, these religious authorities had good biblical backing for this attitude. Be holy, for I am holy, says God, in the book of Leviticus, a number of times. Touch no unclean thing, says Isaiah. Purge the sinner from your midst, says Paul in 1 Corinthians. Pure religion is to care for widows and orphans in their distress, and keep oneself unstained from the world, says the letter of James.
But how many of us tend to hang around with people just like ourselves? People who share our own world view and our own interests? We feel happier and more comfortable around people who are like us, who are part of our culture, and like the things we do. This attitude, from Jesus, is hard for us to follow.
Looking out for the lost
Jesus is not saying that there is no risk involved with hanging around people who may have some bad habits. But Jesus is also saying this is not an excuse to leave the lost to fend for themselves. If we stick to our own groups, and ignore these others, we are just ensuring that they remain lost. Lost coins and lost sheep cannot find themselves. And neither, Jesus is implying, can lost people. They need our help. We need, like the woman and the shepherd, to set out, to search for the lost.
So to Jesus, when people get lost, it is up to the community to go out and find these lost individuals, and help them to find their way home. This is very evident in the story of the prodigal son, which comes immediately next in chapter 15 of Luke, but has been separated off into a reading for another Sunday. (We heard it earlier this year, during Lent.)
In that story of seeking the lost, the father sees the son while he is a long way off, and goes running to meet him. The father’s action makes it possible for the son to feel welcome, and forgiven, and valued. He makes him feel safe. Would it have been the same if the son had to come into the house and had to beg for forgiveness without this welcome? Probably not.
The imperative for us
So, these three stories reinforce, for us, the importance of seeking the lost, searching for those who are not of our tribe, and setting out to find them, to connect with them, to include them in our circles of friendship.
Last week, in our workshop after worship, we focussed on what assets we have, and what we might do in mission because of those assets. One group started with people, and particular with the rich personal relationships that we enjoy and appreciate amongst ourselves … and started to ponder, how might we build on those relationships of caring and helping, as we reach out to other people?
Another group noted that the geographical location of our church, across the road from St Benedict’s and the HOME units, and also close to the Council buildings, the Multicultural Centre, and the important service provided by Headspace. What would our mission look like, this group wondered, if we were to have conversations with people in those places, to see how we might work together to serve the community of Queanbeyan?
The ideas generated during last week’s workshop require us to commit, to seeking the lost, to searching out people beyond our immediate circle, to step outside of the tribe and seek to engage with those who are different from us. To do so is to be faithful to the call of Jesus, to seek the lost, to take the initiative, to be more inclusive, to broaden our community.
To put this into our framework, we might think of the group to which we belong and which nurtures us and supports us best of all. How do other people become a part of such a group? Do you think it is easy for a stranger or someone who is alienated from you, to approach you in that group? It is very hard to do this unless someone from that group welcomes you and extends the hand of friendship to you. And if you are someone who feels they are on the edge of society, such as an indigenous person, this is even harder.
We need to help those who are lost and wandering and bring them back. That means going out to people. It means doing mission and ministry outside of the church and congregation. Mission and ministry happens on the edge of the congregation, and of our social groups. The shepherd ventures out into the mountains, on the edge of the wilderness, and does not stay in the flock, as he searches for the lost sheep. The woman finds the coin, not by looking in the usual places, but by seeking it elsewhere.
Then, Jesus takes the task of restoring the lost this a step further. It is not enough to just hang out with the lost, and to make them welcome, or to be happy ourselves that they are found. Jesus says that the very angels in heaven rejoice whenever someone who is lost is found. All heaven is keen to seek and find the lost.
And this is why Jesus eats with sinners. Jesus makes them welcome, and leads them to repentance, forgiveness and wholeness. Jesus recognises that these are the people who need help – to be found, to be welcomed, to be restored. And as Jesus ate with the lost, so should we.
Finding the lost
Who are the lost people of our society, the ones that either you live or work with in this community? How do we treat these people as a congregation or as ourselves?
Who in this congregation seeks out the lost, and in what way are they found? What are their stories and do we share them? Are we listening to them in the same way the father listens in the story of the prodigal son? Do we rejoice with them?
We should never make assumptions about the lost people of our society. Our task is to go out into the community, to the edges of the community, out to find lost people and welcome them, not to sit in judgment of them. We are called to follow the shepherd, not the flock. We are required to venture to the margins. And when we make an effort to find and welcome the lost, we can be very surprised by the results.
And, finally, we need to think about our own ‘lostness’, and open ourselves to God’s transforming grace. When we are transformed, and when we become the people of justice that God calls us to be, we become agents of God’s grace, and can offer healing and acceptance to the lost: the weak, the marginalised, the oppressed and the discriminated against in our society.
I close with a reflective prayer written by a Sarah Agnew, who is currently serving as one of the ministers at Canberra Central Church in Forrest, not far from Parliament House. Let us pray, reflecting on our own lostness, and from this, be inspired to reach out to others around us, to seek the lost in our midst.
I am the lost sheep,
by what seemed greener.
Jesus, search for me,
and bring me home.
I am the lost coin,
as little, too little.
Jesus, search for me
and help me shine.
I am the grumbler,
at your welcome of – ‘them’.
Jesus, search for me,
show me your way.