By Linda Rex
September 11, 2022, PROPER 19—The other day I drove downtown to do something at the Howard Office Building. I used my GPS to remind me of how to get there, but as I was leaving the parking lot to head home, I decided I could find my way home without help. About ten minutes later, I realized I was headed the opposite direction from where I needed to go, and that I was thoroughly lost. Grumbling with frustration, I finally pulled over and got out my phone for directions to get back home.
Being lost means that fundamentally, underneath all of the lostness, lies the reality that one has a home to return to. There are some people today who do not have a home to return to—they long for a home, a place of settled rest where they are beloved and safe. Others have a house, but it’s not much of a home. They may have a place to live, but there is no sense of welcome or peace in that place they go to after work each night. Some of us are simply looking for a spiritual home—a place where all the time, we are accepted, loved, welcome, and included.
In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Luke 15:1–10, we find Jesus feeling right “at home” with tax collectors and sinners—people that the Pharisees and scribes of that day excluded from the community of faith. Jesus included them in his life, fellowshipping with them, and drawing them close into relationship with himself in spite of their failure to live up to the expectations of their religious leaders. These people who had no spiritual home were finding their home in Jesus, and he wanted the leaders to understand that if anyone was really lost in the situation, it was those who believed they were already found.
Receiving criticism for welcoming tax collectors and sinners, Jesus began a series of parables about lostness and foundness. He told a story of a shepherd who had a hundred sheep, one of which had wandered away. This good shepherd knew each of his sheep so well that he was very aware when one of them left the flock. So, he put the others in the care of those who would watch over them, and went to find the lost sheep. His purpose was to bring the lost sheep back home, to be cared for and kept safe with him. He took whatever risks were necessary, took however long it took, and endured whatever deprivations, struggles, and suffering were required so he could bring home the single sheep that was lost.
Significantly, the shepherd’s attitude about the whole process, in spite of the inconvenience to himself, was joy. He didn’t lash out at the sheep when he found it, nor did he reject the sheep for what it did by wandering away. Instead, the shepherd picked up the poor bedraggled sheep, wrapped it around his neck to carry it on his shoulders, and made himself fully responsible for its care. He did the heavy work of bringing the sheep home and making sure it was safely back in the sheepfold.
This is such a profound picture of our Lord and what he has done for us in his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. As our Good Shepherd, he was willing to set aside the comforts and privileges of his divine home for a time in order to find us in our humanity in the wilderness of evil, sin, and death, to bring us back home to our Father. As we read in Hebrews 12:2, Jesus willingly and joyfully underwent this self-offering for our sakes, finding us in our lostness, and in spite of the supreme cost to himself, bringing us to safety and rest in his Father’s arms.
What Jesus brought the Pharisees’ and scribes’ attention to was that the shepherd in this story was not focused on the failure of the sheep to stay in the sheepfold. There was no condemnation of the sheep for having wandered off. The concern of the shepherd was for the wellbeing of the sheep, of its need to be brought back home, back into the fold, not to be punished or excluded for how it failed to obey the expectations of the shepherd. He was simply rejoicing that the sheep was once again home, back with the other sheep, where it belonged.
The Lord has been showing me more and more how we as humans love to create divisions between “us” and “them”, especially religious ones. We differentiate between those who are in and those who are out. If someone doesn’t measure up to our expectations of holiness or of the Christian life, we exclude them from our relationships. Instead of this, we need to realize our own lostness and need for a shepherd, and treat them as the brothers and sisters they are. The human race as a whole was included in Christ’s self-offering, and that means that at any moment, we may be and are the lost sheep he is joyfully bringing home on his shoulders.
I love the next story Jesus told, about the woman who lost a coin. She searched all over her house, sweeping the dirt floor and crooks and crannies, trying to find the small piece of metal. Obviously, the woman would not have been so diligent in her search unless that coin was very important to her. Was it a part of her dowry? Was it her only hope for a morsal of food that week? She even used some of her precious lamp oil to try in her dark house to see where the coin had gone.
Today, when we drop a penny, we may not be as diligent in our retrieval of this small coin. But the coin in this story had a place where it belonged—in the care of the woman. This coin was not meant to be lost and all alone in some forgotten space in the house. It was meant to be a part of the collection of ten coins that she was keeping for a specific purpose. Her joy at the finding of the coin reflects the same joy that the shepherd had upon finding his sheep. She was so delighted about finding her lost coin that she shared the good news with everyone around her.
What a different response compared with the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes! Isn’t this what our response ought to be when Jesus goes to work to bring a “lost coin” home? Shouldn’t we be equally delighted to share the good news with others of what Jesus has done for us in his finished work as our Lord and Savior? Instead of the critical and negative response Jesus experienced from the Jewish leaders of that day, he should have received joyful gratitude and celebration for bringing the “lost coin” tax collectors and sinners into relationship with himself, and thereby bringing them home to our Father.
Over the years, as I have had many different experiences with God helping me find what I’ve lost, he’s become for me the Finder of All Lost Things. Indeed, Jesus still is the One who seeks out the lost and brings us all home to his Father. And Jesus includes us in his mission of finding all lost sheep and all lost coins—of finding all who are longing for a spiritual home. He invites us to be a part of the process of helping others see their home is in him. We can get out our lamps and begin looking for the “lost coin” alongside the Finder of All Lost Things by joyfully including family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances in our life with Christ. Together we can celebrate our common return home on the shoulders of our Shepherd, rejoicing with Jesus as he brings us all home to the Father.
Thank you, Good Shepherd, for the extent to which you have gone to bring each of us home to be with you forever. Thank you for searching for us in the wilderness of our humanity, seeking each one of us out and including us in the Triune life and love. O great Finder of All Lost Things, grant us the grace to remember our own lostness and foundness in Jesus as we include each and every person in our own celebration of all you have done to bring us safely home. Amen.
“Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He told them this parable, saying, ‘What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!” I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!” In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’ ” Luke 15:1–10 NASB
See also 1 Timothy 1:12–17; Psalm 51:1–10; Psalm 14.
[If you are interested in participating in a discussion group in the Nashville, Tennessee area or in a Zoom group, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. ]
by Linda Rex
April 25, 2021, 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER—There is a movement in this country of making churches and non-profits responsible for the needs of those who are in trouble or difficulty, rather than it being the responsibility of individuals, the community or taxpayers. Indeed, as followers of Christ, we are called at times to help those who are in need. However, simply assuming that people of faith will take care of such needs overlooks one of the things that is an important part of being truly human. And that is that we as human beings were designed as adults to be responsible for certain things ourselves, though we are all dependent upon God and his grace and goodness for anything we do have.
It also ignores the reality that humans are given the freedom to choose. This reality works on two levels: 1) People may choose to not be responsible for themselves or have never learned that they need to be, so need, homelessness and poverty may simply be a consequence of bad choices or it may even be a preference. In such cases, being responsible for what is theirs may not be the best way to help. 2) Giving and helping are not so much a requirement as they are a fruit of God’s grace at work in us—so giving and helping must come from God’s heart in us rather than merely being a response to an external expectation. Even Jesus, when laying down his life, did it voluntarily and freely, out of love, not just because it was his Father’s will.
This brings to mind the passage in 1 John 3:16-18: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” It is obvious from this passage, that we cannot just talk about doing good deeds, but we must also actually help, not closing our hearts to people who are who are unable to help themselves. We want to be sensitive at all times to the move of the Spirit in us when he wants to help someone.
As I was writing this, I was reminded of a passage from Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant, the anointed One:
“All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.” (Isa. 53:6 NASB)
I’m sure that none of us want to think of ourselves as being stray sheep, but in reality, this is a good description of all of us as human beings, individually and collectively. How often we wander from the fold of God’s love and seek our own path! We get ourselves lost, wounded, broken and in need of rescue. And God knew we would do this—so Jesus came.
Let’s look at Jesus for a moment. Jesus said he is the good shepherd. We notice that the good shepherd is not taking care of everyone else’s flock—but assumes responsibility for what is his. Jesus also said that he had other sheep that he was bringing to be a part of his flock, and what he was doing was meant to include them as well (John 10:11-18).
When the shepherd goes in front of his sheep and leads them to water and good pasture, that seems to be simple enough. Even though there are times when it can be difficult to find safe pasture or clean, still water, a good shepherd seems to know where to take the sheep so they can stay healthy and strong. But if the sheep are stubborn and willful, they will not follow the lead of the shepherd or obey his voice, and will end up in dangerous places, or eating or drinking what isn’t good for them. Nothing is more upsetting to a shepherd than to have to lose a sheep because it would not stay with the flock or follow the lead of the shepherd.
Oh, that we would simply remember the shepherd’s psalm is our hope!
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23 NASB)
Did king David when he wrote this have any clue that one day the Messiah would stand up and say, “I am the good shepherd”? When Jesus was saying that he was the good shepherd, he was definitively saying who he was—God in human flesh, a shepherd who knew what it was like to be a sheep, who would one day be offered as a sacrificial lamb on our behalf.
The good shepherd, Jesus said, lays down his life for his sheep. Laying down his life for his sheep means the shepherd puts himself at risk for the benefit of the sheep he is responsible to care for. When the flock is in danger of harm because of wolves or lions, he goes over and beyond just the necessity of watching over them and actually lays down his life, risking himself for the safety and protection of his flock.
Jesus was talking to the leaders of his people who were more concerned about their popularity, their money and influence than they were about the sheep they were responsible for. He explained the difference between a hired hand and a good shepherd. One runs away at the first sign of danger, while the good shepherd stays and lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus saw keenly his calling to shepherd his people Israel through which he would bring together all the nations of the world. He knew that doing this would cost him his life, which he voluntarily gave in obedience to his heavenly Father. Do you see that Jesus was calling these leaders to their responsibility as those who were to be properly shepherding their people?
Looking at Jesus helps us to see the wide spectrum of this topic more clearly. Not only do we understand that we each are responsible for what is ours, we are also responsible to help those who are unable to help themselves. And leaders are to be responsible for those in their care, being willing to sacrifice on their behalf, putting themselves at risk to protect and provide for them, rather than simply using them for their benefit, pleasure and profit. And, finally, in a world in which none of us do these things perfectly and there is much difficulty and suffering, we have the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, to guide, protect and provide for us, for he laid down his life for us and rose again so we could have new life in him.
Father, thank you for always looking out for us and providing for us. Thank you for giving us your Son Jesus as our shepherd, to save and care for us, to lay down his life for us. We receive your gift of new life by your Spirit in his name. Amen.
“This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. The one who keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in him. We know by this that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” 1 John 3:16-24 NASB