Summary: God cares about the least and the lost, and rejoices when they are found.
Last year a former homeless man was buried at the prestigious St. John’s Episcopal Church, across from the White House. St. John’s is called the “church of presidents” since nearly every U.S. leader since James Madison has worshiped there. In an unusual memorial, former members of Congress and prominent professionals attended the burial of William Wallace Brown, Jr. Someone had swindled Brown out of his house 15 years ago, and he had lived on the streets ever since. One Sunday morning he spotted, then president, George H. W. Bush entering the church and asked the former president to pray for him. Bush looked at him for a moment and said, “No. Come inside with us and pray for yourself.” After that, William Brown became a regular attender at the 8:00 a.m. service and always placed a crumpled dollar bill in the silver offering plate. At his funeral, Dolph Hatfield, a member of the church who befriended Brown, said: “the homeless and the most important are one and the same.” Hatfield introduced himself to Brown after another parishioner snubbed him. He became Brown’s best friend, inviting him for a meal or taking him grocery shopping after church. The pastor who conducted the service said that Brown, “really understood that the kingdom of God is for all of us. It doesn’t matter about ethnic background, race, or class — all the things that we allow to divide us, but that in God’s eyes are not really important.”
In the two parables we read together today, we find two individuals looking for something which was lost. One was a lost sheep and the other was a lost coin. The parables are introduced by the first two verses of the chapter which say, “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2). The setting is developed by Luke as he paints the background of a group of critical, muttering, religious folk. But in the foreground of this portrait of words is a group of sinners who are gathering around Jesus and hearing him gladly. The religious folk are there because they want to find fault with Jesus, and the sinners were there because they were genuinely attracted to Jesus. You find yourself saying, “Now wait a minute, shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t the sinners be giving Jesus a hard time and the righteous folks be his friends? Shouldn’t the religious people be his supporters and the sinners be his detractors? But it is the other way around. How can this be?” The pious crowd thought they were the “in crowd.” and that the others should be the outsiders. I suppose if Jesus had catered to the devout people of his day and looked down his nose at the dirty sinners, they would have loved him. But because he showed an interest in the outsiders, they hated him, and as you know, were eventually successful in having him killed. They were always criticizing Jesus for not doing things right and following the time honored traditions. They accused him of doing wrong when he did things like heal on the Sabbath, and never seemed to understand that their hatred of him, and their plots to kill him, were in any way breaking the law or the result of the evil in their hearts.
The sinners, on the other hand, loved Jesus. He made them feel like God was interested in them and that there was hope for them. Far from being put off by his preaching about repentance and faith, they found themselves hopelessly attracted to him. They couldn’t get enough of what he had to say and were always wanting to be around him. They invited him to their parties and enjoyed his company. Far from being starchy and stiff, religious and self-righteous, he was genuine and real.
The first thing that these parables teach us is: God is interested in the least. Of course, in God’s eyes there are no “least.” Every person is valuable. Even if they have tattoos and body piercing, even if they are steeped in sin, even if they smell bad and have no money, even if they have poor grammar and no education, they are valuable to God. It is important to understand that the lost coin was not more or less valuable than the ones which were not lost. The lost sheep was not any more special than the 99 others. But to the other sheep it may have seemed unfair that the shepherd left them in order to search for the one which was lost. After all, they had not wandered away. They had followed the shepherd and listened to him. Didn’t they deserve special treatment since they had not gone astray?