The Lost Sheep/Coin
The parable of the Lost Sheep, and the parable of the Lost Coin. At their most straightforward, they are both parables around the theme of being lost, lost individual, lost souls, and who are they lost from? God. And so God goes out of his way to find the lost individuals, and when he does, he rejoices; as the reading concludes ‘there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’ That is the commonly given interpretation, that is the Sunday School version of the two parables if you like, but as is the case with most simple things, if we take the time to look closer, we tend to uncover hidden depths, hidden mysteries. So, let us begin by exploring the context.
We’re told Jesus is gathered with tax collectors and sinners, tax collectors being a group so sinful that they warrant special mention, and then ‘sinners’ being a catch-all term for all the other offenders present. The reason tax collectors (and this would be a reference to ‘Jewish tax collectors’) were seen as so deplorable, was that they were in service to the occupying force, the Roman Empire, and as such were regarded as being traitors against the Jewish people. Tax collectors’ livelihoods was literally dependent upon the oppression being wrought against fellow Jews. They were also in a position which they could easily exploit. They could simply make extra, fraudulent, tax collections for their own gain, which does seem to have been a problem, because it is mentioned earlier in the Gospel of Luke. How widespread that was, we don’t know, but they clearly had a reputation. So, I guess the equivalent today would be something like ‘Jesus gathered with the ‘climate change deniers’ and sinners.’
It’s a pretty strange scene, a strange party, because we’re also told that a bunch of Pharisees were present also. We can imagine them off in one corner muttering to one another, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So, this in effect poses a question to Jesus, which the two parables then seek to answer. If the Pharisees are the righteous ones (at least they regard themselves as such), why would Jesus (who evidently does have an important status, after all, even the Pharisees care about what he’s up to) spend time with, minister to, break bread with, the very worst society has to offer? And so, he tells the first of his parables – ‘who among you would not leave the ninety-nine sheep, to go in search of the one. And when they find the one, rejoice.’ So, lets picture the scene. I see Jesus standing in a room, telling his story. I see men reclining on the floor eating food, breaking bread, drinking wine, and off to one side I see a gaggle of Pharisees, not participating, just simply surveying the scene with expressions of disgust upon their faces. And Jesus speaks, but it’s not clear who he’s speaking to, he addresses the entire room. I’m sure the Pharisees would like to imagine that Jesus is addressing them, implying that they were the ninety-nine found, faithful, and true, while these deplorables lying on the ground before you represent the one, the lost, those in need of being found.
Part of the brilliance of parables is the multiplicity of meanings they contain within them. They speak to us in different ways, on different levels, depending on where we are coming from, and who we are. And for that reason it’s actually quite difficult to simply explain what a parable means, because it is quite possible, and I’ve certainly experienced this myself, to read a parable, to be pretty sure of what it’s all about, and then to later re-read it, when you’re in a different chapter in your life, when you’re asking different questions of the text, and glean insights that are completely different. And so, for that reason, it is not enough that we merely ask what the parable is about for us here now, in this Meeting House in the 21st Century. That would only get us so far. To glean further insight, we need to imagine our way into the text, to put on the vantages of the individuals in the text.
Now, as you all know, I’ve been experimenting with this idea of late – that the imagination does not offer us mere invention, but genuine insights. And I think this can be demonstrated here, in this account of Jesus telling his two parables to those present in that room. In this account, here in The Gospel of Luke, we are not told how many people are in that room. We don’t know how many so-called sinners there are, and we don’t know how many Pharisees there are, all we know is that the plural is used in both cases - so more than one. But as you pictured the scene, Jesus standing there, the sinners reclining, eating their food, and the Pharisees muttering their words of disdain to one another, how many do you imagine there to be? It would be interesting to run this as an experiment, but I would say that I imagine there to be many sinners, and a few Pharisees. If I had to put some numbers on it, I would imagine maybe 30, 40, or 50 “sinners”, and say 3 or 4 Pharisees.
Now, the Pharisees are complaining, and their concerns are very localised. They’re concerned about what Jesus is doing, and what is happening in that room. We could say that their vantage is very narrow. And then Jesus tells his parable, and he refers to the ninety-nine (which we all know is a way of referring to the many), and he infers that they are safe, probably eating well, and comfortable, and then he refers to the one (which we all know is a way of referring to the few), who are lost, alone, and in the wilderness. The ones who feel left out. It seems to me that this is a dig at those few Pharisees in the room. It’s a way of throwing their initially implied question back at them. “Why are you eating with these deplorables?” the Pharisees ask. And then Jesus looks at them, and he smiles, and he says, “instead of being an outsider, there on the edge of the room, attacking, would you rather not be comfortable, be fed, be in fellowship? Instead of you choosing to stand there and define yourself by the anger and the pride that you feel, why not lay that down. I tell you the truth, that when one such as yourself, one who has hitherto hid behind their rightness, and their righteousness, when one like that lays that down to drink wine with me, and break bread with me, that’s when the angels rejoice.” We could see that as interpretation one. An invitation to the Pharisees (or anyone who is Pharisaic) to reevaluate where they are situating themselves, to ask questions of the role they find themselves playing within a community, with a society, to ask if it’s possible for them to step outside of that, or beyond that. And probably none of the Pharisees in that room on that day responded to Jesus’ invitation, but perhaps there was one, who’s heart was softened with time.
Okay, so let’s now come at the parable from another direction. Within Catholic or Calvinistic theology, there is the idea of original sin, or as it’s sometimes termed, ancestral sin. The idea being, as you all know, that since the event known as The Fall, all human beings born are tarnished with the brush of original sin, and thus all are guilty on account of Adam’s sin in Eden. And the liberal Christian, or the Unitarian Christian response has generally been to find that idea as somewhat reprehensible, because that doctrine would obviously suggest that newly born children, whom we tend to think of as intrinsically innocent, are condemned before they’ve done anything wrong. And so, liberals reject that doctrine, wanting to put a strong emphasis on individual agency. Rejecting the doctrine of original sin, however, this not wholly a move made by liberal Christians; the Eastern Orthodox Church rejects the doctrine of original sin, along with the Armenian branch of the reformation movement also rejecting the doctrine. The Eastern Orthodox position would be that since the fall, since Adam took a bite of that forbidden fruit, all of humanity has been intrinsically corrupted, but is not intrinsically guilty, which is a significant difference which I find far more palatable.
Obviously, all religious language is by nature metaphorical, as far as I’m concerned, so to say I find the Eastern Orthodox position more palatable, is not to say that it’s more true, because, as I’ve said many times before, there is not a truth beyond the veil that we’re trying to get at. All truth is located within the depths of the self. But speaking with the aid of that Christian cosmology, us having intrinsic human corruption makes much more sense to me (than the doctrine of original sin, the doctrine of intrinsic guilt). How does the story go? Adam and Eve were in Eden, and there they enjoyed a direct, unmediated relationship with the divine, and then that Edenic set of affairs was broken. And this can be linked with primitive humanity’s unadulterated relationship with nature. Once, mythologically, there was a perfect unity between humanity and God, between humanity and nature, but no more. It's been severed. Now we grow up in a world in which we are by default alienated, alone, and disconnected from our spiritual home and nature. Now, I don’t tend to use the language of sin much; it feels like an archaic way of framing things. Especially, as to talk about sin tends to rely upon the ‘I - thou’ orientation. Me and the ‘thou’ which I’m sinning against. And I don’t tend to think in those terms. But we can proceed hypothetically.
What is Sin? You could think of sin as breaking God’s commandments – thou shall not, whatever, steal, kill, etc., and if you do, that’s sin. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way to think of sin is in relational terms – when you’re not in relationship with God, not only do you break his precepts, you also don’t act in the world as he would ideally have you act, which is what is often termed ‘sins of omission’. Sins of omission have to do with relationship. If you’re not in tune, in harmony, in possession of a knowledge of the divine, then how could you possibly know what acting in the world in accord with God would look like? You wouldn’t be able to discern your divinely appointed destiny, calling or purpose. And so, in this sense, we are all in a state of sin. We are all sinners, the sinners which Jesus refers to in his parable, because we are all alienated from the divine. We have all lost that conscious awareness of our place in the universe. Given this then, it’s quite strange that Jesus frames the parable in the way that he does, making the 99, the vast majority, the ones who are seemingly in right relationship, comfortable, and found, and therefore (we presume) where they should be. Being looked over by the shepherd – the symbol of God.
Perhaps this would suggest our reading of the parable is completely wrong. Instead of suggesting that the 99, the vast majority, are where they should be, perhaps it would be better to say the 99, the vast majority, are where they think they should be. That seems much closer to the mark. The vast majority of us self-legitimise our place within the universe, through the stories we tell ourselves. Even if we have a role, or hold a position that society looks down on, or demonises in some way, we construct a narrative which makes us inhabiting it acceptable. We construct the narratives we hold out of necessity; we’re thrust into the world, we find ourselves playing a particular role, and we construct our narratives to legitimise what we do after the fact. The vast majority see ourselves as agents of good, and as such are a part of the 99. We are in the cosy part of the flock. If we are to go on a spiritual journey then, to get beyond the mere appearance of things, to seek after our true self, to seek after a truer purpose, a realised appreciation of our place within the universe, that necessitates leaving the flock and venturing out into the wilderness. Or to use Christological symbolism, it requires dying to the flock, to the old way, and being reborn, resurrected anew. And why is that? Because merely perceiving yourself as good, or doing what is right, is an illusion, it’s like what the Pharisees do. If you just enforce right action through close observance of the law, or strict adherence to social convention, then you can never really discover who you are. A true appreciation of the self requires integrating the good and the dark aspects of ourselves. And this is where I can draw upon some Jungian psychology.
Within the depths of the self, within the unconscious, there is a well of material, some of which is acceptable to societal norms, and some not. But what society deems appropriate at that level is essentially irrelevant, as us coming to terms with the self, understanding the self, integrating the disparate elements of the self, is all necessary if we are to go through that journey of becoming, or as Jung terms it, ‘individuation’. And does that not sound a lot like what our one sheep went through? Becoming lost, in order that he might be found. We tend to assume he’s found in order that he can be re-integrated back into the 99, but the text does not actually say that. What is emphasised above all else is the extent to which God and the angels rejoice when an individual does go on this kind of journey, out into the wilderness of the world, one who dares to lose himself, to die to the world, to discover a deeper reality, to be re-born. And this rejoicing with God is very much like a rejoicing of the self, the very depths of the self. When the self, which is God, recognises itself, there is a joy beyond joy. And so, we can see that as interpretation two, which is elevating of the lost sheep, and seeing his experience as a positive. This reading is, more or less, confirmed in the text, when it says, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” The ninety-nine are evidently not being held up by Jesus as a desirable bunch to emulate.
And finally, Jesus tells the parable of the lost coin. It adds an interesting dimension to the point being made. Both parables mention rejoicing with friends and neighbours, but the second simplified parable about the coin, in retaining this, emphasises the significance of friends and neighbors all the more. Upon finding the lost coin, the woman gathers with friends and neighbours and rejoices with them, friends being those who have gone through a similar journey of becoming, perhaps, friends who understand because they have shared in that individuation process, that process of estrangement from oneself, and a subsequent re-discovery. And neighbours, being those on the peripheries who haven’t quite got it yet, but are sympathetic to the process. And there, oh, so close, just a little further on, a little ways on into the wilderness, experience that loneliness, and it will make sense.
Spirit of Love, helps us to be mindful of the un-reality of things, the mere appearance of things, the games, the social conventions, the narratives which we hide behind to give all this the illusion of purpose. Show us the door, the wilderness, the way, to step beyond it all, that we might wander as the sheep does, to be found, to become, to awaken.