I was born and raised a Roman Catholic, or at least I’m pretty sure the plan was for me to be raised Roman Catholic. When I was still very young I turned away from the church, because parts of my early experience served to alienate me from all things religious or spiritual. But, one thing I do remember enjoying as a child was all the great stories.
Even the gospels considered on their own are filled will wonderful stories about the life and ministry of Jesus, and we know that Jesus himself used stories and parables as one of his primary ways of sharing the good news of God’s Kingdom. Maybe that’s because Jesus grew up formed by the rich tapestry of story and poetry in Hebrew scripture, and maybe it’s because these kinds of stories can offer us so many levels of meaning through which God speaks to us. Today, for example, we heard the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, stories about the joy of finding something lost, some small part of the whole that needs to be recovered and embraced. We’ll begin by looking at the inner meaning, the message leading us to our heart of hearts.
Parables often use a variety of symbols and metaphors to convey this kind of inner meaning, sometimes taking the form of particular numbers. In the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, we’re told it’s not just a herd of sheep or a handful of coins, but 100 sheep, and 10 coins.
In the early church, and in ancient Hebrew writing, the numbers ten and a hundred were associated with a kind of unity or wholeness arising from the many being joined into one. If we’re missing one sheep out of a hundred, then, or one coin out of ten, it’s not just that we’re missing one, we’re losing the integrity of the whole, the perfection that comes from knowing God’s Kingdom in all its fullness.
Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century theologian, saw the lost sheep as “our lost humanity” brought back to wholeness by the saving power of Christ, the incarnate Word. Likewise, Saint Irenaeus compared the return of the lost sheep as a uniting of earth and heaven, the mundane and the divine, through our restored humanity.
Another early church father, Origen, while commenting on the parable of the coin, compared the inside of the woman’s house to our inner life, the lost coin to the hidden parts of ourselves that when brought to light restore us in God’s image. He writes “She had lighted the lamp and swept out the house, and it was there that she found her silver coin. For your part, if you light your ‘lamp’, if you make use of the illumination of the Holy Spirit, if you ‘see light in his light’, you will find the silver coin in you… [this]… image may indeed be obscured by neglect, but never destroyed by evil. The image of God remains in you always.”
Now, besides this inner meaning, there’s also Jesus’s audience to consider, a group of grumbling Pharisees and scribes. They murmured their sound of complaint and indignation while witnessing Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors, something especially offensive in ancient Israel where food laws separated the properly observant from those considered outcasts.
On one level Jesus challenges the Pharisees to be more inclusive. He’s saying, look, you of all people should be serving those who need it most, bringing those led astray to the mercy and grace of God. If we all truly believe in the saving power of Yahweh shouldn’t we be embracing all lost sheep instead of ostracizing them?
On another level, Jesus probably wants the Pharisees to recognize themselves as being a bit lost. He wants them to see the separation they insist on between themselves and those they exclude as a symptom of the separation in their hearts. Jesus often calls them hypocrites, because with all their focus on cleaning the outside of their immaculate cup, they’re blind to the sin within. So Jesus hopes the parables kindle some recognition in the Pharisees, helping them embrace their own lost coins, the parts of themselves shrouded in darkness, the parts that if kept in shadow only serve to maintain the separation between their innermost selves and God. And, of course, we’re probably meant to understand that we all have a little Pharisee in us, we’re often all too willing to point a finger when we should be looking in the opposite direction.
Another message from these parables comes from an assumption Jesus is making, namely that finding the lost sheep and discovering that lost coin is truly possible, and he wants to share the excitement and joy of this reality with us. It seems so basic we might not even feel we need to be reminded of it. On some level we do acknowledge it, especially when we’re reciting prayers and hymns in church, and yet we often act as if this truth isn’t alive in our hearts. It might look like settling into a sense of helplessness about our own lack of worth, feeling like we’re not really deserving of God’s forgiveness or healing. Or maybe we keep forgetting the true worth of others, especially others we might grumble about, and so we pigeonhole people into convenient boxes, not seeing them as Jesus did, as infinitely beautiful mysteries of God’s love.
I think one of the reasons I fell away from my Catholic roots is that the church of my youth seemed most concerned with fire and brimstone, with pointing a finger at all us horrible sinners, and peddling guilt like candy. You’re only hope, it seemed, was that if you assented to a certain list of beliefs then you had a shot at something better after you die.
Now, it’s true, in one sense, that we live in a fallen world — our tendency to sin and hurtful behavior is fairly obvious, but if that were the only message of the gospels it wouldn’t be much in the way of news, let alone good news.
In trying to describe the essence of the good news, the most crucial piece of being a Christian, Marcus Borg once summed it up with the word “transformation,” transformation of the individual, of communities, and of the world, typically in that order. And he observed that simply believing the right things didn’t seem to have much transformative power. He wrote “It is about a change of heart. It is about the transformation of ourselves at that deep level that shapes our vision (how we see), our commitment (our loyalty, allegiance), and our values (how we live).”
This transformation, this change of heart is an ongoing process, one started by our Beloved God who created us in His image, and the only thing we need to do is surrender to God’s will for us. It does help, though, if only to renew our hope and trust, to be reminded, to remind each other, that transformation is possible, that the one sheep can be found, that the one coin is hidden somewhere in the house just waiting to be brought to light with joy.
The resurrection promised us after dying to whatever keeps that one coin hidden in the shadows, the promise of eternal life, of seeing ourselves and the world in the light of Christ, is not reserved for what happens to us after we die. The way of Jesus means taking each passing moment as an opportunity for surrender to God’s Love. And as we practice allowing ourselves to simply rest in Christ’s embrace, we begin to realize that this joy Jesus talks about isn’t just an emotion we feel, it’s who we’re meant to be. When we sweep our inner house and find our true selves, seeing ourselves as God sees us, we understand that we are the peace and joy Jesus wants to share in the world.
You know, I often feel that God must love stories, too, and that the Holy One, our Beloved Creator, is most attentive to our stories, and to our collective story. Like any good story, there’s multiple levels of meaning to find, to live through, and to grow with, and when we let God be the author, we can be sure the story brings transformation, healing our separation from God, from ourselves, and from each other. Some days it’s easy to forget that this story is true, that in this life we’ve been given all things are possible with God. We can find those lost coins deep within us and be made whole again, becoming a source of peace and joy for all the other lost sheep out there. And our story as Christians isn’t over as long as there’s one lost coin to find, one lost sheep to welcome back into the fold.
The way of Jesus was never meant to be easy, but that’s our calling, to courageously surrender to God in each moment. And so for the sake of Christ we become the transformation we seek, sharing peace and joy in our communities, and inspiring the world to a new story, the story of God’s beautiful Kingdom.
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