I suppose this is somewhat atypical, unless you too were a farm kid, but I have such distinct memories from my childhood of lost livestock and going out to find them.
Our small farm was surrounded by large fields, and my dad as a hobby farmer often used what he had on hand for fencing, or patched together parts of things he picked up at auctions. We were always tying together wood pallets with baling twine left from open bales of hay, or twisting wire or plastic zip-ties around hog panels for makeshift fencing. Most of the time these solutions worked, until they didn’t.
And so I have memories of walking fast with determination and strategy through waist-high corn in my muck boots, keeping my eyes on where the tassels were rustling as I followed pigs or sheep down the crop rows to herd them back to the barn, trying to get in front of them and turn them back toward home.
So when I read the gospel text from this week, there’s a familiar urgency in the searching and finding of lost sheep, and the relieved rejoicing. Which one of you, Jesus asks, 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?
He asks this question to the pharisees, who grumble about his eating with tax collectors and sinners, and it’s hard not to try to imagine how they would have experienced this question: Shepherds? Is he asking us about what we would do if we were shepherds? Shepherds, the lowly ones, the bottom of the social ladder, outcasts even. What does a pharisee have in common with a shepherd?
I hear the “which one of you” not as a rhetorical question with a given and obvious answer, a lovely themed consideration of farm activities, but instead as a challenge. It’s as if Jesus says, “No, for real: which one of you?”
I wonder if the point Jesus makes is something about vocation and about identification. The common sense answer to his question is that a pharisee perhaps struggles to get inside the mind of the shepherd. A pharisee keeps the law, knows the right things about the faith, serves a religious and upstanding function. He parses language, draws distinctions, dividing arguments into a thousand portions of nuance.
A pharisee does not concern himself with wayward sheep, or wayward sinners for that matter. These are beside the point. A pharisee names the conditions of sin, defines a fence so to speak, and discerns who is blameless and who has transgressed, but certainly doesn’t chase those outside the law to get them back into compliance. Perhaps a pharisee does not rejoice over repentant sinners; he simply performs the prescribed righteousnesses.
Here Jesus sets himself apart as someone with different concerns than the religious and knowledged elite. He makes his point well: comparing pharisees to shepherds is like comparing apples and oranges.
While they define the contours of sin and law-breaking, Jesus is up to his waist in grain, chasing the wayward lost down crop rows, with strategy and speed, ready to turn them back toward home.
It’s not that the vocation of the pharisee is inconsequential, and one really does have to take care, so easily dividing the theological from the pastoral, the work of righteousness and knowledge from the work of love. These are false distinctions. And some have suggested that Jesus himself is a pharisee, his arguments with the pharisees an ongoing interfamilial dispute.
But however we make sense of all of that, Jesus here reveals something critical about the nature of God, and the nature of us: God is the one who leaves the ninety-nine to be concerned with the one. God is the one who sweeps the house in search of the one coin, not satisfied with the nine. And as the chapter of Luke goes on, we find that God is the father scanning the horizon, fattening the calf, eager for the prodigal to return, and not merely satisfied with the one son who has stayed close to home.
The question for us as the church is how we witness to that God – how we bear that image. How do we become the kind of community who is willing to travel the wilderness in search of the one, and rejoice in the finding? How do we eat with tax collectors and sinners?
For two years, I have been the Community Coordinator on staff with a small Lutheran restart congregation in Houston. As a dinner church, our worship service centers around a full meal every week, beginning with the bread of Eucharist and ending with the wine at the close of the service. About half of our attendees on any given Sunday evening are unhoused, living full-time on Houston’s streets.
If anything, these two years have been about learning to eat with “tax collectors and sinners” so to speak – learning to decenter the orthodox theological arguments I held so dear and of utmost importance in divinity school, instead centering the person of Christ so much that my “rightness”
is a moot point. I know how to nuance an argument into minute fractions, and in the end, this exercise has rarely prepared me to encounter Christ across the table from me.
To eat with those on the margins is hard work. Most of that work is internal. Showing up at the table is the easier part, though still not always easy. There are nights I sit safely among housed friends, removed from those on the streets. Other nights, I hear stories I don’t know how to process. Or I embrace bodies which are embracing me, when my better senses would have had me keep my distance. I cheer on small victories, knowing how fragile these are, hoping against hope. I send friends back to the streets while I drive home to my house. I leave food on my plate, because I will have more when I need it.
Often what I learn is not that I am Christ to them, searching them out in the wilderness. I am not the one serving in the role of the father scanning the horizon, but instead I am the wayward one, the prodigal child God searches for around a table with the friends of God. I am the one in the midst of the ninety-nine. That’s an uncomfortable truth. But this kind of learning has seemed crucial to vocation and identification. I’m learning to offer myself, instead of my answers.
Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. This is the pharisees’ complaint against him. In the end, their failure is not their judgment of his eating practices, but rather their inability to identify with their own poverty of righteousness. They fail to see themselves as sinners around the table.
In the lectionary this week, Paul in his letter to Timothy says, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the foremost.” If anyone can make that shift from identifying as a pharisee to identifying as the sinner around the table, it’s Paul. And yet from that recognition of need for Christ, he builds a ministry testifying to such grace and mercy.
Every week around the table at Kindred, we reach out our cupped hands to one another to receive a torn piece of corn tortilla (because Texas) with the words “Body of Christ, bread of heaven,” and then we turn to serve the next person. And at the end of the meal, we pass the cup saying “Blood of Christ, cup of salvation.”
It’s a beautiful act of mutuality, passing the symbols of Christ to one another in a circle. All receive, all give, no one above and no one below, no one inside and no one outside. Around the table, we are all guests of Christ, who shows up in the face of those seated next to us. We are all the sought out and rejoiced over, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the beloved son welcomed home.