Rejoice with Me; for I Have Found My Sheep Which Was Lost”: #BCCSundaySchool2019:

Luke 12–17
John 11

The centerpiece of this week’s lesson comes in three interlinked parables about finding lost things. In the Christian tradition, the three parables have been given the titles “The Lost Sheep,” “The Lost Coin,” and “The Prodigal Son.” We need to keep in mind though, that Jesus did not name these parables–and sticking too closely to the traditional titles can cause us to focus our attention on the wrong things.

In this case, the titles all focus on the state of being lost. But, I would argue, the parables themselves focus on the act of losing. We would serve the intent of the stories better if we re-titled them “The Shepherd Who Lost a Sheep,” “The Woman Who Lost a Coin,” and “The Father Who Lost a Son.”

Once we make these title switches, we can start considering the fundamental questions of responsibility and accountability that Jesus raises. These are all parables about people who lose things, not about things that–passively or actively–get lost. And they tell us that, when we lose something precious, we have a responsibility to the thing we have lost that should motivate us to do whatever we must do to effect a restoration.

Of course, Jesus is not talking about losing things. He is talking about losing people. And specifically, he is responding to the charge leveled against him in the second verse:

And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.

Like many of the parables, these three come in response to the clear, albeit implicit questions that this verse asks: “Why do you eat with sinners?” and “Should we eat with sinners too?” Jesus is talking about people who have been separated from the body of believers as a result of their actions. And he is placing the responsibility for the separation, not on the separated, but on the separators. He is telling the Church that they are responsible for casting people away and that they bear the responsibility of bringing about a restoration.

I am using the word “church” here intentionally, but in a non-standard way. I am not talking about an official organization with buildings, temples, rules, officers, and a tax status. I am talking about the body of people who believe something and have accepted the responsibility to care for each other–what Paul called “the body of Christ” and what Christ himself called “The Kingdom of God.” The representatives of such a spiritual community leveled a charge against Jesus–that he was breaking bread with sinners–and Jesus turned right around and leveled a charge against them–that they were not. Cumulatively, these three parables leave no doubt who bears the responsibility for those who have been separated from the Body of Christ.

What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it. And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. (Luke 15:4-6)


We begin with the parable of the Shepherd Who Lost the Sheep. The narrative makes the responsibility entirely clear. The sheep did not “get lost.” The shepherd lost it. He was responsible for not losing a hundred sheep, and he blew it. He didn’t do this on purpose, of course. Nobody actively tries to lose things (well, extra pounds I suppose, but not sheep). But the narrative does not equivocate on assigning responsibility to the Shepherd, “if he lose one of them.”

This responsibility implies accountability. He must “go after that which is lost until he find it.” And when he finds it, he simply “layeth it on his shoulders.” No lecture. No shaming. No ovine orthodoxy tests. He doesn’t worry that letting the lost sheep back into the fold will give the other sheep the wrong kind of ideas. He puts his arms around that which was lost and rejoices because his flock has been made whole. The absence of a single sheep is unbearable to the shepherd, and he cannot go about his business until he has restored his flock.

Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. (:8-9)

Like the shepherd, the woman lost the piece of silver. It didn’t wander off, and it didn’t commit a grievous sin. Silver coins have even less agency than sheep do. There is no way to place responsibility for its loss on anybody other than the person who lost it. Also like the shepherd, the woman cannot rest or go on with her life until the coin has been restored to her. She feels its loss keenly, and she searches for it obsessively.

But there is a difference. Shepherds generally do not own their own sheep. They are accountable to somebody else. By finding the lost sheep, the shepherd was in all likelihood saving his job, and, perhaps, his freedom. But the woman who loses the coin is accountable only to herself (at least, nobody else is mentioned in the narrative). She feels the loss of the coin as a loss of a part of her substance, and her motivation to restore the coin is entirely internal to herself. She is diminished by the loss and can only be made whole by the restoration.

Again, there is no sense that the coin has to repent before it can have its room in the woman’s purse back. The coin doesn’t have to do anything, or promise to do anything, or stop drinking coffee or start going to Church in order to be considered “found.” The woman rejoices unconditionally because the coin that she lost has been restored.

The parables of the sheep-loser and the coin-loser are meant to be allegorical. Remember, we are ultimately trying to answer a question about eating with sinners. The sheep and the coin are the allegorical stand-ins for those outside of the community. And, if we follow the logic of the parables, we should of course eat with people who are lost because we are the ones who lost them. They are outside of our community because of us, and we should break bread with them because, without them, we are diminished.

All of this interpretation should come with us when we grapple with the longer narrative of the chapter, which has traditionally been called The Prodigal Son,” but which I will choose to call “The Son-Loser.” This story is allegorical too, and the allegorical stand-ins are the same. That is the whole point of making it the third story in the sequence.

We know nothing about the actions of the father, or either of the sons, before the story begins. We only know that the son requests his inheritance and buys as much debauchery as it will buy before he comes back to his father to ask for a job. We don’t know if his repentance is sincere, or if he is just playing the old man again. We don’t know if he learns his lesson and lives happily ever after, or if he takes off again the next day for another round of debauchery.

None of this matters because none of it is the point of the parable.

What matters is that, when his son returns, the father rejoices. He does not blame the son or put conditions on his return because he does not see it as a business negotiation. He accepts the responsibility of reconciliation because he loves his son unconditionally and knows that, without him the entire family is diminished. The father rejoices because that is what you do when something that is a part of you, and has been lost, becomes found again.

It is significant to the entire sequence of Luke 15 that the final thing that the father does is declare a feast and invite his older son to come and partake. The Older Brother asks, in effect, the same question that the scribes asked Jesus. “Why should I have to break bread with a sinner when I have done everything right?”

And the father’s answer is everything:

It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. (:32)

The Kingdom of God needs everybody, and our spiritual communities are diminished when we lose the talents, the perspectives, and the energy of a single individual. The answer is not to convince them to come back on our terms. The answer is to throw our arms around them and rejoice.

Comments

  1. So… wonderful post, Thank you Michael. I met another transgender female who attends a different ward in our church building. Unlike me, she is socially transitioned and out and lovely, but can readily identified as transgender. I am not out or socially transitioned even though my bishop and SP know and have been kind. I have delayed socially transitioning even at the price of significant turmoil because of concern about how my adolescent daughter will be treated by her LDS peer group. My concerns were validated to some degree when I learned from my new friend that she attended her new ward and relief society for three weeks in a row before anyone even acknowledged her in any way. This saddened me. I think we have a lot to learn from these parables. I rejoice that the POX is rescinded, but our LGBTQ+ members are lost and sometimes have the feeling that we are more interested in being replaced rather than found. Michael, May I link a poem about these parables?

  2. Lona. Of course you may.

  3. Michael Austin says:

    Beautiful, Lona. And true. Thank you.

  4. Thanks again, Michael. As usual, wonderfully insightful.

  5. He does not blame the son or put conditions on his return because he does not see it as a business negotiation. He accepts the responsibility of reconciliation because he loves his son unconditionally and knows that, without him the entire family is diminished.
    The Kingdom of God needs everybody, and our spiritual communities are diminished when we lose the talents, the perspectives, and the energy of a single individual. The answer is not to convince them to come back on our terms. The answer is to throw our arms around them and rejoice.”

    Michael, Thank you, thank you for this!
    My heart aches for the wounds I (because I shared that as I’ve gotten older I find I have more, not fewer questions about church teachings) and one of my children have suffered (because he chose to marry a non-Mormon) from church leaders in recent years, who, felt compelled to harshly judge and condemn rather than engage in a thoughtful, respectful, kind,and loving way.

  6. Another Roy says:

    Thank you for this post. For some reason I had never understood these posts as answering the question of why Jesus dined with sinners. Beautiful!

  7. You kind of make it sound like we’re to go after lost people and bring them back like a sheep or a coin, regardless of their agency in the matter.

  8. Jesus was talking about his own role as Savior and Redeemer in these parables (nearly all parables, actually). He is the Shepard; it’s his divinely designated role to rescue the lost sheep through the atonement and resurrection. He is the piece of silver that the woman (symbolic of covenant Israel) loses — though only 1 of 10 pieces, so she isn’t completely out of tune with the gospel — only slightly. She notices the loss, ignites a light (faith in Christ), cleans her house (repentance), and actively searches until she recovers what she previously had. Then rejoicing, shares her experience with family and friends (which Jesus connects with the angels in heaven). The Father to the prodigal is the Redeemer extending mercy even to the rebellious (on condition of repentance). So, three distinct categories of lost people who are all covered by the atonement — the sheep out of ignorance or innocence; covenant people who are sometimes disobedient from some mortal weakness; and potentially even those who are intentionally rebellious. All three types of “sinners” are discussed in the Book of Mormon (King Benjamin in Mosiah 3, for example), and all three are rescued, redeemed, and covered (or recovered) by the Savior. Every discourse and parable in Jesus’ ministry testifies of His own mission (atoning sacrifice). I only share this because I believe we as lds need to make a more concerted effort to find and preach Christ in the scriptures.

  9. Bro. B. says:

    Great points, cwyn. I agree!