So, the thing about stories, really good stories is that they have a life of their own. I suspect that most of us have heard these parables of loss so many times that it is the many and varied of interpretations of these parables, which tend to stick with us, rather than the details and circumstances under which these particular parables were born and raised. I’m guessing that in vast majority of the interpretations of these parables, the shepherd, the woman, and the father are usually identified as a symbol for the MYSTERY which we call GOD.
But if this MYSTERY really is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also, and we are in GOD and GOD is in us, then every character in every parable you have ever heard is in GOD and GOD is in every character. Now this doesn’t really present much of a problem with the first two parables of loss. We can wrap our heads around GOD embodied in a shepherd, and even GOD embodied as the woman who losses her coin. We do tend to point to those characters in order to personify the MYSTERY. So that it’s not just the characters’ actions which are pointed to as the workings of DIVINITY, but the characters themselves are viewed as stand ins or symbols of GOD Himself or Herself. When we do see ourselves in the story we are usually the lost the lost sheep or the lost coin and we take comfort in the reality that no matter how lost we may become GOD the supernatural being, out there, or up there, will find us. But when we begin to see the DIVINE MYSTERY, the CREATOR of the Cosmos, and try to imagine the ONE WHICH IS the GREAT I AM, WHO I AM, I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE, YAHWEH as so much more than a person, well the idea of a shepherd, or a woman, or even the father who loses his son, these mere personifications begin to lose their ability to symbolize the MYSTERY.
So, today I’m inviting you to stop trying to identify the DIVINE MYSTERY as an individual person in these parables. I also want you to resist making the story all about you. Don’t try to see yourself as a character in the story. You’re not a lost sheep, or a lost coin, or even a lost child. It’s not all about you. Let’s try to focus on what is actually happening in the story.
If we begin with what is actually happening in these parables, we will have to confess that these parables of the lost and the found are simply outrageous. If we fix our gaze upon the surface, we limit the power of these parables to do what parables are designed to do, to turn worlds and lives upside down and inside out. These parables have an air of foolishness about them, if we see them as simple stories told by Jesus about the way a personified god loves us.
Surely, Jesus can’t be pointing to the GREAT I AM, the MYSTERY which we call GOD and saying that GOD is a fool. For: Only a fool…. Would leave ninety-nine sheep to look for one lost sheep. Only a fool…Would leave the ninety-nine unguarded: to wander aimlessly, to be ravaged by some unknown predator, to fall prey to who knows what. Only a fool would leave to search for the stray who might be wounded, damaged, dying, not interested in being rescued. Only a fool…Would risk a reputation as a wise shepherd, a careful guardian of the known and secure, to seek one lone sheep.
Only a fool…Would find. Would restore, would be a shepherd, foolish enough to care enough to save the lost, the wandering, the lonely, the one outside the bounds of the flock. Only a fool…Would sweep and sweep and sweep, leaving her purse unguarded, to search for one lone coin. Only a fool…Would search and look and scour and puzzle, bend and peer, lift and move everything, to find a single coin. Only a fool… Would resist the contentment, the satisfaction of a purse fat with nine shiny, weighty coins. Only a fool… Would rather be relentlessly looking – for one small, lone coin when nine, known and countable, are all that are really needed. A small but secure fortune in hand. Only a fool… Would fret about the loss of a small insignificant coin. Only a fool…Would know the joy, the absolute delight of finding — what really isn’t needed. Only a fool would rejoice with such extravagance. Only a fool would be such a steward as this. Only a fool would welcome home with joy and abandon a wayward child who had used, rejected, dishonoured, and then returned only to try to use them again. Only a fool, would run head-long, open armed to kiss such a wayward fool, extravagantly bestow more household treasures, and expect the faithful to join in the rejoicing.Only a fool, would cajole the self-righteous, indignant child to join the celebration.
So, if Jesus isn’t describing the characteristics of a personified deity, is Jesus actually teaching us how to embody the LOVE which is DIVINITY here in the world? These parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons, point us in a direction of a way of being in the world characterized by foolish and passionate abandon. What is the anonymous gospel-storyteller we know as Luke trying to tell his community with these parables? Did Jesus really believe that people ought to forsake everything they have in order to find the one thing they have lost?
Is the anonymous gospel-storyteller really saying that Jesus taught his followers to risk everything they have in order to find the one thing they have lost? Remember how many times these parables must have been told before they were written down. Remember the precarious nature of the lives of the people who first heard these parables. Why did they repeat these stories over and over again? Remember those first gatherings of the people who followed Jesus’ teachings met in secret because they feared for their lives. The occupying Roman forces not only publicly executed their teacher as a warning to any of Jesus’ would be followers, The Roman Empire, crucified as many dissenters as they could catch. Historians tell us that those roads which all lead to Rome, those roads were dotted with thousands of crucifixion sites. Thousands of rotting corpses were left nailed to crosses in order to terrify the masses into submission. The magnitude of loss was positively unbearable.
If we take off our rose coloured glasses, and pick up a pair of lenses permeated with the desire to resist persecution, violence, and the forces of Empire, these parables have the potential to inspire the kind of passion necessary to recover the one thing which is lost, justice. Justice without which there can be no peace. We can only begin to imagine the magnitude of what a conquered, oppressed, suffering people has lost.
But I suspect that justice, the kind of justice which ensures that everyone has enough so that everyone can live in peace, is something worth leaving behind everything you have in order to pursue. I suspect that even offering all you have to a wastrel and a scoundrel is worth a shot if it means finding peace.
I suspect that pulling brothers together who have genuine axes to grind is the kind of recklessness that is worth the risk, if those siblings can learn to work together to pursue justice.
Contemplating the miracle that these parables survived, were told over and over again, written down and preserved by people persecuted by empire, I have to believe that they are more than nice little stories all about how we should live.They have to be more than mere speculation about the character of YAHWEH, casting the CREATOR of ALL that is, was, and ever more shall be as a fool.
Because when you look at the shepherd, the woman, and the father in these parables, they come do come off as reckless fools, unless they are risking all that they have for the sake of something worth risking everything for.
These parables can’t just be about a lamb, or a coin, or even a couple of squabbling children. Nor can I believe that Jesus saw YAHWEH, the GREAT I AM as a fool.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the systems of domination and the pain inflicted by the unjust empires of our world. The reality of the systems in which we are intimately entangled is being played out on our screens. The injustice of it all explodes into our living rooms day after day. My own desire to resist the urge to respond to violence with violence weakens with every report of the injustices perpetrated as innocent lives are lost. I’m in real danger of losing my ability to follow Jesus on what appears to all the world to be the foolish path of non-violent resistance to empire. Not if it means risking all that we have for the sake of Jesus’ vision of peace through justice.
Sometimes, when I manage to muster up my courage and try to view these parables of loss through lenses of resistance, I can begin to feel a kind of reckless abandon welling up in me, inspiring the kind of passion, which tempts me to take leave of my senses, to risk everything for the sake of what is currently being lost. I can also hear the voice of reason condemning me as a fool. None of these parables is the stuff of everyday loss. I don’t think that Jesus, or his followers, or Luke, told these parables in order to teach their listeners about the character of YAHWEH.
Think about it, Jesus can’t have being trying to teach us that the DIVINE MYSTERY was a reckless fool. Nor were they trying to teach us to live as reckless fools. For none of us can do this kind of relentless, reckless abandon constantly. But I can, even now hear these stories told to inspire resistance to the violence and injustice of empire, for the sake of justice and peace. Living lives of reckless abandon is untenable. Jesus’ vision of the BASILEIA ton THEON, the Empire of DIVINITY, is not the world we live in.
The EMPIRE OF DIVINITY is not yet here. But there are times. There are times when … risks must be taken. Times when we must leave all that we have, all that we know, in order to seek, to find and to restore the lost, the abandoned, the wayward, and yes even the self-righteous religious types.
Yes, the shepherd should have been guarding the 99. Yes, the woman should have been content with her 99 coins. Yes, the father should never have trusted his sons with all that he had, and when his lost son showed himself to be untrustworthy, he shouldn’t have been welcomed with open arms, and as for the faithful, self-righteous son, well sometimes justice demands that we abandon the rules, if we are to achieve peace. Sometimes boundaries must be crossed in order to achieve justice.Peace-making requires risk-taking, and the reckless abandonment of some things we hold very dear.
When I can bring myself to read these parables through the lenses of resistance, I can begin to tell these stories as a call to resist. Resist making the characters in these parables all about us. Resist looking for a saviour in these parables who will find us and put everything back together for us. Resist reading into the parables a too small personal shepherd, woman, or father to act the part of a too small recklessly, foolish god. Resist the distractions of all that we have, all our treasures, our land, our homes, all the trappings of the empires in which we are entangled. Resist the empires to which we have lost the justice which has the power to create peace. Resist with reckless abandon, our fear of the very passions which flow from the LOVE which is the MYSTERY which allures us onto the pathways of justice and peace. Resist the illusion that finding what we have lost will be a sweet, harmless, story. Recklessly abandoning the status quo, is never sweet, never harmless.
The BASILEIA ton THEON may not yet be the world we live in, but the BASILEIA ton THEON is already here. They not yet but already here EMPIRE of DIVINITY is here in every stranger who welcomes a refugee, in every aid worker, doctor without borders, in every reckless fool who risks it all for the kind of justice which makes peace.
We don’t have to travel to Europe or Afghanistan, or Syria, or Myanmar to catch a glimpse of the EMPIRE of DIVINITY, for the not yet REIGN of LOVE is already here. You can catch glimpses of this LOVE resisting the violence of domination systems, in every champion of the environment, every compassionate advocate for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. You can see it in the reckless passion of justice-seekers fighting for affordable housing, equitable healthcare, and food security.
Jesus’ vision of peace through justice, what he called the BASILEIA ton THEON, the Empire of GOD, is the already but not yet SHALOM we long to find. It is the vison of the foolish who are prepared to risk it all for the sake of what we have lost, the SHALOM we long for. And each and every time we find what has been lost is a time for celebration. Especially when what was lost is restored.
So, when you catch a glimpse of the REIGN of LOVE, celebrate and as you celebrate remember to invite others into the party. What shalom there will be as SHALOM is restored through justice. When the peace which is lost breaks out and the lost, the forsaken, and the forlorn greet one another with open arms and go into the feast to celebrate, for what once was lost is found. Embrace the HOLY foolishness which lives, in, with, through, and beyond you. Risk it all for the sake of LOVE.