Photo credit: Joey Kyber
Readings: Psalm 119:1-10, Luke 15:1-10, Secrets of Heaven #3142:1 (see below)
We are back this week in the gospel of Luke. Chapter 15 is comprised of three stories: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, which we heard today, along with the parable of the prodigal son, which we heard back in Lent. All three of the stories are about something seemingly insignificant becoming lost: one wayward sheep, one tiny coin, the youngest son in the family, and how much they matter to the one who has lost them. As we understandably place God in the metaphorical position of the shepherd, the woman, and the welcoming father, we come to understand how far God would go to find those who are lost, and how much joy God feels to welcome home the bereft. This is a balm to all of us, because who hasn’t felt lost at some point? Who hasn’t wandered off the path they thought they were on, who hasn’t made a regrettable decision? What a relief to picture a God of infinite welcoming love, who considers no one irredeemably lost, or not worth seeking for, who would put so much effort into finding us.
I consider this interpretation to be the foundational interpretation of these parables and such a valuable one. And, as this interpretation sinks in, as we really assimilate it and come to believe and rest in the expansive, forgiving, protective love of God, I believe that we also can move on to a more personally challenging reading. Typically, in reading this text, God is placed in the role of the shepherd and the woman and we ourselves in the role of the lost. What happens when we place ourselves in the role of shepherd or woman and other people in the role of the lost? How does that change how we read this story?
This reading is a little more complicated. There is a downside to seeing ourselves as the implied hero of the story. We might be tempted to self-aggrandize and point a finger of accusation toward the lost, or at the very least, adopt an attitude of superior condescension. Poor things! If only they had made better decisions! Perhaps they deserve what they have got. How lucky they are to have such people as us to forgive them!
To avoid this, we must do two things. First, we must ground ourselves in the first interpretation and bring it forward into the second. There is no judgment, no superiority to be found in these parables; there is only sadness at the loss and then celebration in being found. I was reminded by one of my commentaries this week that each of us bears the imprint of God, we are God’s image-bearer, and when any of us are lost, a piece of God is lost as well.(1) This imprint of God remains as part of us, even within our lostness, and so always carries with it an inherent dignity and worthiness. A strong allegiance to this truth, as well as the universal experience of being lost, prevents us from othering people, keeps before us the primacy of empathy.
Second, we must interrogate our motivations for assuming the latter interpretation. What is the usefulness of metaphorically placing ourselves in the role of the shepherd or woman? Why are we looking around for the lost? Hopefully, it is because we believe that our job is to partner with God for the sake of the betterment of the world, as we spoke of last week. That our job as people of faith is to humbly emulate the type of love that we see described in these parables. So then the question becomes: How do we do that? How do we emulate the love of God?
Because this is where it gets complicated. Obviously, we are not God. We can do our best to be loving and kind and open and forgiving to the people we encounter in our lives; this is very important. But we also need to acknowledge that we are on the field in a different way, that what we do affects the rules of the game to begin with, not just the final outcome. God has granted us the freedom to shape our world, to create societies and institutions and cultural understandings that actually affect the likelihood of people experiencing some kind of lostness. For example, let’s think about the lostness of addiction. Who made the substances that addict us? Humanity did. We discovered them, purified them, trafficked them for profit, both legally and illegally. God is only ever on the side of good; we human beings sometimes shift around a bit. Which makes it extremely important for us to ask: How did the sheep or the coin become lost? Perhaps it was not our fault at all. Perhaps. Or perhaps we had something to do with it.
Because a coin doesn’t become lost on its own. In the parable, we are not told it is stolen. For a coin to become lost there would usually be some kind of negligence or distraction on the part of the owner. Maybe it fell off the counter as we breezed by. Maybe it fell in between the couch cushions when we weren’t paying attention. But why weren’t we paying attention? This is an important question. Is there something about our culture or the structure of our institutions that makes it so we don’t notice people becoming lost? Was the coin too small or worthless to be cared about? Did we think at all about how “between the couch cushions” is the barest of inconveniences to our backsides, but is a deep dark chasm to tiny coin?
There is nuance to be explored with the shepherd parable as well. A sheep, unlike a coin, certainly does have two legs and so could wander away on its own. It would be easy to blame the sheep, to say they are simple or distracted. But what about the terrain around Jerusalem? It is hilly and dangerous with some parts quite inaccessable. It is possible that a very small miscalculation could lead a sheep to suddenly be unreachable and far away. Sometimes the nature of our environment is a large factor in whether or not we are lost, can magnify small decisions that might not otherwise be a problem in other environments.
And so we recognize that each of the three parables can teach us different things about why someone might be lost. In parable of the prodigal son, the son makes some really questionable decisions about what to do with his inheritance. His behavior leads to some undesirable consequences, and sometimes part of our journey of lostness is to ask forgiveness of those we have hurt. But in the other two parables, can we really place blame on the sheep and the coin? The environment of the sheep was challenging to say the least and the coin is an inanimate object, with no agency of its own. As we place ourselves it the role of shepherd and woman with the coin, as we attempt to emulate the love of God in the world, sometimes we find that it is we ourselves who need undergo some reflection and repentance. It is our responsibility to ask: How did the sheep and the coin become lost? How can we find them again, and prevent them from getting lost again in the future?
There are two articles that I read this week that helped illuminate this principle for me. The first is an article from a mother of a black child in a majority white school, and the second is an article in the New York Times about the challenges that first generation college students meet in their transition to university. In the first, the author pointed out that black students are often discriminated against as early as kindergarten, that black students are perceived as “less innocent” and “more mature” than white students of the same age.(2) And these perceptions lead to the behavior of black students being watched more closely and being punished more often than for white students.(3) And so the mother in this article talked about having to explain to her seven year old son that he will need always need to behave twice as well as his other classmates because of the systemic racism of our society. What a difficult burden to put upon a child so young!
The second article spoke of the experience of a first-generation university student, attending school away from home, having grown up in poverty.(4) Their scholarship took care of room and board during the school term, but they could not afford to go home on breaks and had to stay in the dorm. They described the hunger they experienced during these times, with the school cafeteria closed, very little money, and no access to grocery stores. They described trying to balance classes with trying to work as many hours as possible during the school year, to provide not only for their own needs, but for their family back home. They described how the insecurity and vulnerability of their family’s situation weighed upon them emotionally, even at a distance. The attention and awareness of the university stopped at the diversity of admissions and didn’t extend to how much more such students would have to juggle overall.
And so we must ask, how is it that people became lost, overlooked, unseen, misunderstood? How is it that a normal black child might become the object of unnecessarily remedial behavior interventions? How is it that a student from a poor background might become hungry during school breaks, and over-scheduled during the year? Not from overt or explicit discrimination but from unexamined bias. From the color of a child’s skin causing teachers to make unconscious assumptions about their motivations and behaviors, or an administration not thinking to take into account how poverty impacts a student’s ability to do well in the university environment. Are these things maliciously done? No, of course not, but they are done none the less, without consciousness.
So, what do we learn about this from the parable? What does the woman who lost the coins do? She lights a candle and she sweeps the house until they are found. In the Swedenborgian worldview the woman represents an affection for truth, which means a desire and love for seeing the truth of a situation; the lighting of the candle is the self-examination that results from that desire to see the truth, and the sweeping of the house is the practice of going over one’s whole mind in reflection.(5) The woman doesn’t just say “oh, well” and wait for the coin to show up again. She is active and motivated to find out where it has gone, thinks about what she must to do find it, makes space to learn new information. And this is not a token effort. The shepherd illuminates the determined and steadfast commitment that is required in the seeking, for the shepherd does not give up when it becomes hard or uncomfortable, but does whatever it takes to bring the sheep back to the fold.
Likewise, we all bear responsibility to do the work of figuring out why and how our human neighbors are being disadvantaged by the society that we have built together but that sometimes doesn’t serve all equally. First, to prevent us from becoming overwhelmed, we remember that the lost coin is still in the house. We know that everyone remains within the realm of God’s love, no matter how lost. And sometimes that is very reassuring. How many times have we reassured ourselves about our missing car keys: the car is in the driveway, so the keys must be somewhere in the house. We breathe; the keys are accessible, they will be found eventually. But that does not absolve us from actually doing the work of finding them. We must stop and really think about where they were last, and what we were doing, and why they might not be where we thought. And if we keep on losing them, we have to be willing think about what we are doing wrong. Do I not have the right system in place? Is the lack of a key hook that is the problem, or maybe there is a hole in my pocket?
So, there are things that we can do. The mother from the first article asks parents of white children to speak up about unconscious bias in schools (for often white voices are heard more readily than minority voices, as unfair as that might be) and also to advocate for diverse resources and a culture that values and celebrate difference. The student in the second article went to the university administration and made his case. They listened, and made changes to their policies to support students in his position; he went on to become a professor. And still of course, there is always more to be done.
“In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Sometimes, even or especially when we don’t realize it, that sinner is us. Thanks be to God, for the chances we receive every day to repent, to sweep out our house, and to be cause of angels rejoicing.
(1) Amanda Brobst-Renaud, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4165
(2) Center on Poverty and Inequality, https://www.todaysparent.com/kids/school-age/black-girls-face-discrimination-as-young-as-five-years-old-says-new-study/
(3) Kearie Daniel, https://www.todaysparent.com/family/parenting/heres-my-challenge-to-white-parents-this-schoolyear/fbclid=IwAR1HJmGXdZZPq1NunaLtobwOe7TU-TPPOuAKS1GJUpwncc_hNZfvLMgd6CU
(5) Apocalypse Explained 675:10
Psalm 119: 1-10
1 Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD. 2 Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart— 3 they do no wrong but follow his ways. 4 You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. 5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! 6 Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands. 7 I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. 8 I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me. 9 How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. 10 I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 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.
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Secrets of Heaven #3142:1
3142. 'And I have swept the house' means all things had been prepared and filled with goods. This is clear from the meaning of 'sweeping' as preparing and being filled…and from the meaning of 'a house' as good…And a person themself, from the good which governs them, is called a house. The reason why 'sweeping' means preparing and being filled is that nothing else is asked of anyone except to 'sweep their house', that is, to reject evil desires and resulting false persuasions. If they do this they are filled with all forms of good, for good from the Lord is constantly flowing in. It flows into 'the house', that is, into the person who has been cleansed of such things as hinder influx, that is, which turn away, or pervert, or stifle inflowing good.