Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
July 5, 2015; Non-Lectionary sermon
Psalm 119:1-3, 165-176; Luke 15:1-10

“When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying,
‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’”
Luke 15:9

Which one of you, owning five vacation homes — and, having gone out and left a candle burning in one of them, and the house burned down — would not immediately go out, hire a contractor, and have the house rebuilt?

What’s the matter? You can’t relate to that story, from personal experience? You mean, you don’t own five vacation homes, and spend your time shuttling amongst them?

Of course you don’t. But the reason I invented that little parable is because it’s very similar to the two we’re looking at today: the parables of The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin.

I wouldn’t have thought so, before reading a book by New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, called Short Stories by Jesus. It’s going to form the basis for a summer sermon series on Jesus’ parables that Linda and I are beginning today.
The thing I like about Professor Levine’s book is that it’s turned many of the preconceptions I’ve had about Jesus’ parables on their head. The reason she can see Jesus’ parables in a new light is because she’s a rarity among scholars of the New Testament. Amy-Jill Levine is Jewish. She teaches in a Christian seminary, Vanderbilt University Divinity School. She’s an expert on the Greek scriptures of the New Testament.

Why is that an advantage? Because of one simple fact we Christians have tended to soft-pedal, down through the centuries. The fact is this: Jesus was Jewish. Not only that, he was a rabbi, one of the renowned interpreters of the Hebrew scriptures

Later, of course, we Christians would come to see him as so much more: the son of God, crucified and raised from the dead, who atoned for our sins and taught the human race about God’s invincible grace.

But that wasn’t on anybody’s minds as Jesus was walking the footpaths of Galilee and Judea: preaching, teaching and healing. The crowds who flocked around him were not coming to see the Son of God — nor even, until the very end of his ministry, did they suspect he might be the messiah. They thought him to be a prophet of God, who knew the scriptures better than anyone and who had remarkable gifts of healing — like the greatest of the prophets of old.

Remember that time Jesus asked his leading disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Remember how his disciples answered? “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others, one of the other prophets.” That’s the general consensus among Jesus’ Jewish followers about who he is.

Now right after that, of course, Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?”

It’s as though a light bulb goes off over Peter’s head. He blurts out, “You are the messiah.”

Mark, the writer of that Gospel, is quick to add: “And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” [Mark 8:27-30]

In light of that fact, we have to understand that the people who first listened to the parables of Jesus heard them with Jewish ears: as Jesus intended those stories to be heard. When you and I open our Bibles today and read the parables, we’re reading words of Christian writers, a generation or so later, who were interpreting all these events from their side of the resurrection. They didn’t think Jesus was John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets. They knew he was the Son of God.

So, you and I, who have the advantage of two millennia of Christian teaching, look back — and, quite rightly, we view the parables through our own Christian spectacles. If we’re going to understand them as Jesus’ listeners did, we’ve got to find a way to take those spectacles off for a little while and try to see them through Jewish eyes.

Now, one thing the Gospel-writers often do is provide suggestions for how the parables ought to be interpreted. Most often, these interpretations take the form of what we call allegories. In an allegory, each main character in a story symbolizes someone: God, sinful people, righteous people — examples like that. Sometimes the Gospel-writer has Jesus himself provide the interpretation. We actually have that, right here in today’s passage.

We’ve heard two short parables of things that have been lost. (There’s actually a third story, as well — the much longer tale of a lost son: the prodigal son. Linda’s going to preach on that next week.) Today’s stories, though, are about a lost sheep and a lost coin. At the end of the Parable of the Lost Sheep, Luke has Jesus saying, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” At the end of the Parable of the Lost Coin, there’s a similar explanation: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

That’s all well and good, but tacking on that sort of explanation would make Jesus rather unusual among rabbis of his day. When the rabbis told parables, they usually didn’t provide a ready-made interpretation: a set of instructions for how to open the package. They just laid the stories on their students, then sat back and watched them try to make sense of them. Some student would conclude one thing, another student something different. They would then debate with one another — which, as any good teacher knows, is where the real learning takes place.

So, if we set these ready-made explanations off to the side for a moment, and try to understand the stories all by themselves — as stories, not theological treatises — what do we get? We get a shepherd who loses a sheep, goes off searching for it, and is overjoyed when he finds it. And we get a woman who loses a valuable coin, then cleans her house from top to bottom, searching for it. She’s overjoyed when she discovers it hiding in a corner with the dust-bunnies.
So, what do those two very simple stories mean?

There’s one little detail hiding in the midst of them that most Christian interpreters completely overlook: and I have to confess I did, too, until I read Professor Levine’s book. But there it is, hiding in plain sight — and once you know it’s there, you can never read these parables again without noticing it.

The detail is that the main characters in these stories are both very wealthy people. Look at the shepherd: he’s got a flock of a hundred sheep. No shepherd who might have been listening to Jesus’ parable as he told it would have had anywhere near so many animals. Look at the woman: she’s got ten silver coins. How many peasant women sitting there listening, in that subsistence society, would have ever dreamed of holding ten silver coins in her hand? Not a one.

Jesus could perfectly well have told his parables about a shepherd with five sheep, or a householder with two coins — but he doesn’t. It’s important to him that, when his peasant audience hears these parables, it’s like they’re watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

And why is that important? It’s important because his listeners could scarcely have believed that a person who had so much could have gotten so wrought-up over losing so little (comparatively speaking). The shepherd, as they understand it, is a little bit crazy. He leaves 99 sheep on their own to go looking for the missing one? As for the woman with the ten coins — if she’s that wealthy, surely she’s got servant-girls to sweep out the house for her.

But, despite their wealth, these two do pay very close attention to what they’ve lost.

There’s something else about this story that doesn’t come out in most conventional interpretations. Most people, when teaching the Parable of the Lost Sheep, follow Luke’s lead — and that explanation he has Jesus sharing, about joy in heaven for the sinner who repents. That means they blame the sheep for getting lost.

Jesus’ listeners — who, unlike Luke, knew a good deal about shepherding — would probably not have done that. Sheep do wander — but a good shepherd, they know, takes account of that tendency. A good shepherd is vigilant. That’s the shepherd’s job.

As for the woman with the lost coin, it makes absolutely no sense to blame the coin for getting lost: but that’s what you’d be forced to conclude, if you walk back the interpretation Luke suggests. If the parable’s all about the heavenly welcome for repentant sinners, then can a coin repent?

No, what Jesus most likely means is that both the shepherd and the householder are at fault for losing those valuable items. Neither the shepherd nor the householder symbolize God. They’re just two people who have lost things. They’re almost comical figures, those two: wealthy misers who — quite apart from all the loot they have — turn everything topsy-turvy looking for the one thing they’ve foolishly lost.

Jesus asks, “Which one of you men, having a hundred sheep…,” and, “Which one of you women, having ten silver coins…” That’s why I told you that little story at the beginning: “Which one of you, owning five houses, and you carelessly burn one down, will not immediately rebuild?”

I’m quite sure your answer to that question — just like the answer Jesus’ audience would have given — is, “None of us! We don’t have those kind of bucks!”

And that’s his point. If these uber-wealthy people go nuts trying to get their property back, then wouldn’t you who have just five sheep do even more to find the one you’d lost? And wouldn’t you who have just two coins turn your household upside down to find the fifty percent of your life’s savings you’ve lost?

Luke tells us the parable is about repentance and forgiveness, but surely — the way Jesus originally told it — it’s not about that at all. It’s about losing something, then rejoicing at finding it once again!

So — what have you lost, in life?

Is it some money you once had, that went south in a bad investment?

Is it a home knocked off its foundation by Superstorm Sandy?

Is it some dream you once had when you were younger: a goal that somehow got lost amidst the dailyness of life?

Is it good health you once took for granted, and can do so no longer?

Is it a loved one — parent, spouse, sibling, friend, child — who’s fallen before that last and greatest enemy: death?

We try our best, most of us, to put a good face on the circumstances of our lives. We try to think positively. We look in the mirror and reassure ourselves that every cloud has a silver lining. We hope for the best. Yet, to be perfectly realistic, our human lives — like the lives of everyone who’s ever been born — are marked by one loss after another. No one gets a free pass. Not even the guy with a hundred sheep, or the housewife with a small fortune in silver.

The trick in living this life is to learn to embrace the losses: to try to love the good things life gives for as long as we have them, knowing we never completely possess them. I’d like to think this gets a little easier the older we get: the more we all come to realize that everything dear to us is on loan. Even life itself.

Yet, the bright truth these simple parables teach is that the precious treasures we lose in life are never really lost. As the mystical New Jersey poet, Walt Whitman, wrote, in a little poem called “Continuities”:

Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,
No birth, identity, form — no object of the world.
Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing;
Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain.
Ample are time and space — ample the fields of Nature.
The body, sluggish, aged, cold — the embers left from earlier fires,
The light in the eye grown dim, shall duly flame again;
The sun now low in the west rises for mornings and for noons continual;
To frozen clods ever the spring’s invisible law returns,
With grass and flowers and summer fruits and corn.

There was a time in the life of two of Jesus’ disciples — who knows, maybe some of the ones who’d heard him speak of a lost sheep and a lost coin — that they mourned the loss of their Lord and master. They’d met a stranger on the road. They’d talked with him of spiritual things, and even of the daily news — the latest Roman crucifixion, the one that had torn their hearts in two.
They invited him home for dinner. And as he took the bread and broke it, they heard — ever so faintly — the bleating of a sheep, caught in a thicket. And they saw, winking at them from the corner of the room, the light of the setting sun, glinting off a silver coin.


Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.