The Gospel text from Luke yesterday was the familiar parable of the lost sheep, which begins, “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
The text goes on to tell about the shepherd finding the lost sheep, carrying it on his shoulders and telling his buddies to come party with him, that he had found the lost sheep. (And since this text was written, I doubt that there are many churches which don’t have the cheesy painting of Jesus carrying the sheep, big smile on his face and all). However, when I was thinking on this text last week, I kept getting stuck at the question Jesus asks, “Which one of you…?” Now, I don’t know much at all about sheep-herding, but to me any shepherd who would leave 99 sheep in the wilderness to go chase after 1 lost sheep is a damn fool. “In the wilderness” is the key here. Now, if he had gotten a buddy to watch the 99 while he hunted for the lost one, or he put the sheep in a pen while he went searching, that would be one thing. But no, he leaves them in the wilderness! And in Scripture “wilderness” is a place of unknown and unsafe, a place where the bad lurks to pounce on the defenseless. How foolish this shepherd acts. Foolish, that is, to everyone involved in this story except that one lost sheep, who gets found because of the foolishness of the shepherd. To that one sheep, what the shepherd does is good news indeed.
What the Pharisees and scribes grumbled about in this text is that Jesus was acting foolish. Forget what you’ve heard (or at least what I have heard for as long as I can remember) about Pharisees being snobs or self-righteous, etc, because these guys really were the good guys. And forget the pity you may have felt for “wee little Zaccheus” when he had to climb a tree to see Jesus, cause Zaccheus, as a tax collector, was a crook. He used the power of the hated Romans to not only collect tax to prop up a pagan regime but also used the power he wielded to take his own little cut of the action. In short, the Pharisees are good, taxt collectors are bad. (If your church was looking for a new treasurer, you’d be smart to get the Pharisee. He’d do a great and honest job. The tax collector might rob you blind. And if you’re looking for good givers, again you’d opt for the Pharisee, he’d be the tither of the two.) And the Pharisees were right to grumble, cause Jesus was being foolish, sitting at the table with tax collectors and all other sorts of sinners.
These folks are sinners, Jesus, the best way to deal with them is to live a life separate from them, and in your actions apart from them they might see the error of their ways and return to the fold. But Jesus, you don’t go hang out with these folks, the Pharisees grumbled. But Jesus, like the shepherd, is foolish. He chases after those who are lost (but loved), not to make them right but because he loves them. Not because it makes sense, cause in the end these kinds of actions by Jesus is gonna get him killed. Jesus, the foolish shepherd. Foolish, that is, except to the sinners he chases after. To these folks, what Jesus does is good news indeed. And now the hard part: If we’ve ever been that lost sheep who has experienced some sense of what the foolish good news of God’s love is all about, then this memory of good news is now our call to new life, that we become foolish in our own ways, out of the comfort of the 99 and away from the safety of the “saved” and into whererever it is that good news is being shared or needs to be shared.
This past week I was at our region’s Assembly. One of our exercises was forming “breakout groups” to imagine around the question, “What will the church look like in 5 years?” So much of the sharing in my group focused on what we need to do to bring people into church, whether it be some kind of music or a cool type of program, etc. All good and safe ideas. Not much foolishness being shared around the room, though.