Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

I know many of you attended college or university. Perhaps even a few of you pledged a fraternity or a sorority. These can be defined as groups of students formally organized for a common purpose, interest or pleasure. Think beer kegs and bed sheets turned into togas at wild house parties.

 

But setting aside this cliché for a moment, let’s ask why students want to belong to a fraternity or a sorority in the first place? What motivates them?

 

Well, they don’t want to be left out, excluded from not only parties but also friendships that may give them lasting memories and networking opportunities that may serve them both personally and professionally for the rest of their lives.

 

The stakes are indeed high. That’s why pledges are willing to undergo humiliation and even torture as the price of admission into these coveted societies.

 

Two Sundays ago we saw the Pharisees and the experts of the law together with Jesus. Perhaps they imagined him as a kind of pledge. By all appearances, he was certainly qualified for membership in their fraternity. He knew Torah at least as well as they did, and taught as one who had authority. They invited him to a dinner where all the big wigs were present, no doubt to test him.

 

Perhaps at one time in your search for a job you too were invited to a networking event where the most important people in your profession were going to be. Your spouse or your parent gave you a pep talk, encouraging you to put your best foot forward, because these people in a very real sense had the power to make or break you. Your job was to make a positive and hopefully lasting impression on them, so that they’d be disposed to give you a chance by making a call for you, or even introducing you to someone in a position to help you.

 

The Pharisees comprised the elites of Jesus’ day. To be seen with them, to associate with them at their dinner parties, at conferences, at awards banquets, could launch a career.

Hypothetically, this path was open to Jesus. It could have rewarded him both personally and professionally, ensuring him a long and distinguished career as a professional Torah scholar and lecturer.

 

But Jesus failed their test. He criticized them for choosing the most important seats. He turned to the host of the dinner party and criticized him too for excluding from his guest list the poor, the blind, the lame and the crippled.

 

“That’s it. “You’re done.” we can imagine the host saying to Jesus, as he shows him the door.

 

Never again, in Luke’s Gospel, will Jesus be a guest of a Pharisee or any other religious authority. The next dinner party with Jesus appears to us in our Gospel lesson today. Only this time he is the one hosting tax collectors and sinners at his table.

 

In doing so, he proves himself to be the host that the leader of the Pharisees failed to be, and they are judging him.

 

This is business as usual for the Pharisees. But seizes the occasion to hold up a mirror to them, in which they may see themselves, by telling them two parables, in the first of which he involves them. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep…”

 

Remember the Pharisees are the self-appointed religious leaders of the community. They interpret and apply and enforce God’s law for the people. Here Jesus confronts them with an image associated with the leadership of God’s people: the image of a shepherd.

 

Think of David the shepherd boy. The shepherd became the template for understanding his role as king of all Israel. “He chose his servant David and took him from the sheepfolds; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel, his inheritance. With upright heart he tended them and guided them with skillful hand (Psalm 78:70-72).

 

By invoking the image of the shepherd, Jesus appeals to their sense of obligation and caregiving associated with leadership in Israel, while at the same indirectly stating his own identity as the Good Shepherd who seeks and saves the lost. 

 

It’s rather ironic that shepherding is not a profession that the Pharisees respected. It’s difficult to know how the rabbis managed to revere the shepherd of the Old Testament and yet at the same time despise the shepherd who herded the neighbor’s sheep, but that seems to have been the case.

 

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

 

The sane reply to this question, is that none of them would do that. They knew enough about shepherding to realize that no shepherd would be so stupid as to do that. You’ve got your 99 sheep, and if you leave them, they’ll all go wandering off. They’ll all be vulnerable to attacks from predators.

 

One hundred sheep represents considerable wealth. To abandon 99 in the wilderness for the sake of just one—that’s just bad business, a sure formula for financial ruin.

 

The next parable may have been less offensive to the Pharisees, but no less absurd to their sensibilities. A woman has 10 coins, loses one, and light a lamp to find the one.

 

“Which one of you…Jesus does not ask the question, but no doubt the reply would be the same: none of us would do that. Why spare all that effort for one insignificant coin?   

 

On paper none of these actions add up. We’ve already mentioned what the shepherd stood to lose. And what about the woman? To throw a party for all her friends and neighbors so that she can share her joy over her find—the party’s going to cost more than the coin was worth! She would have come out ahead if she had just chalked up her loss and held on to the nine coins.

 

These two parables are a warm up for the big parable that follows–the one we know as the parable of the prodigal son. Together they tell us that what Jesus is teaching here is far greater, far more significant, than who is invited at the table, and who is not.

 

He is painting a portrait for them of the love of God. He is teaching them about God’s extravagant, reckless love that goes out in search of that lost one, stopping at nothing until that one is found.

 

“When one loves, one does not calculate,” to borrow a phrase from St. Therese of Lisieux.

 

Is this not what the life of the Apostle Paul himself shows us? He was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man. He refers here to his former life, when he was Saul, who helped wage a campaign to stomp out the Christians. And when Stephen, the first martyr for the faith, was stoned to death, he approved of the execution (Ac 8:1).

 

Paul thought he was serving God. The truth is that he’s an enemy of God. But God went out in search of Saul. He showed mercy to him, and Saul became Paul, presenting himself as an example of those who would come to believe in Christ for eternal life.

 

Who are the lost sheep among us today?

 

When hear the word “sheep” we may think of the black sheep. We probably have all heard the phrase: “he’s the black sheep of the family.” There are a few of those, and we can be grateful that there are in fact only a few. The black sheep in the strict sense are those motivated by anger and hatred, resentment and revenge. They are on an active mission to seek and destroy, others as well as themselves. To be sure, they are lost, and as sheep they are not beyond the reach of the Good Shepherd, who goes in search of them too.

 

But when we speak of lost sheep, we don’t have them in mind. We are thinking rather of the left out, the rejected, the outcast, those that the fraternity turned away. They may have friends, but not the right friends. They may have access to social media, but not to social networks that can serve them personally and professionally. They try to make a go of it, but they have no resources, having neither financial nor social capital. Out of their frustration, they make misguided, sinful choices. And with each of those choices, they dig a deeper and deeper hole for themselves. Finally, they are stuck or trapped, lost and hopeless.

 

Ryan Burkhart, professor of counseling at Colorado Christian University, has pointed out that among all the developed nations in the world, the United States is the only one where the average life expectancy rate has been steadily declining.

 

Researchers attribute this to the rise in deaths of despair. It is a term that researches use to refer to all deaths caused by suicide, drugs and alcohol. Deaths of despair have become epidemic among us, especially in the last 10 or 12 years.  

 

The world of sheep and shepherding is far removed from us. But if we were familiar with what it’s involved in the search for a lost sheep, we’d see how apt the comparison is between lost people and lost sheep.

 

Kenneth E. Bailey, a professor of New Testament, who spent twenty years among the Bedouin sheepherders in the Middle East, sets the scene for the first parable. The shepherd returns to the pen to discover that one is missing. It’s getting late; he does not have very much time to gather friends to retrace the steps he took throughout the day. He ventures out in anyway in spite of the fading light. He’s committed to finding his lost sheep, alive or dead, regardless of how long it takes.

 

When it realizes that it’s lost, the sheep runs erratically, disoriented, and terrified. It languishes in the heat, and exhausts itself in its failed attempts to find the herd. But it continues to bleat.

 

If and when the shepherd comes near, and the sheep hears his call, it will bleat as loudly as it can in spite of how weakened and exhausted it’s become.

 

When he searches, the shepherd has his ear trained to listen for the sheep’s response to his call, because that response can guide him to the terrified animal. The saving moment comes when the animal first hears and responds to the shepherd’s call, because that leads to the success of the search.

 

It is worth noting that the sheep accepts being found. It does not struggle again and run away from its savior. It allows itself to be picked up and carried on the shoulders of the shepherd.

 

It is a vivid picture of who our God is to those who are lost. He goes in search of them. And when he finds them, he embraces them and restores them, just as the shepherd does the lost sheep. And there is great joy. Finding the lost brings God great joy.

 

The name of Pope Francis has come up in these two weeks. Here it’s worth pointing out the cross that the Pope wears. It depicts the Good Shepherd carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders, with the whole flock following behind. The Holy Spirit (depicted as a dove) hovers above at the top of the cross.

 

It is said that the Pope chose to keep this cross from his days as the Archbishop of Argentina as a reminder of the call of the church as it follows Jesus, led by the Holy Spirit. To proclaim the God who in Christ goes in search of the lost, and once found, welcomes them with great joy. In this perspective, we may even see the image of the flock following after Jesus as an image of our willingness to join the celebration.

 

The pectoral cross that Pope Francis wears depicts the Good Shepherd carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders, with the whole flock following behind, and the Holy Spirit (depicted as a dove) hovering above at the top of the cross. It is said that the Pope chose to keep this cross (from his days as the Archbishop of Argentina) as a reminder of the call of the church as it follows Jesus and is led by the Holy Spirit: to seek out and welcome those in great need. We might even see the image of the flock following after Jesus as an image of our willingness to join the celebration.

 

We are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Let it be obvious among us that God’s concern is always for the lost. Let it be seen among us that the shepherd who guides us actively goes out to seek after the lost. Let us be ready to receive them when he brings them back into his fold. And when, by the work of his Spirit, God restores them to us, let us see this as an occasion of great joy and welcome them accordingly. Amen. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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