What in life is worth so much you’d be willing to risk almost everything else to have it? “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, [would] not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until [you find] it” (Luke 15:4)?
“Nobody,” one writer answered. “No one does this. No one would ever do that. It’s insanity. If you lose one percent of your holdings, you don’t risk losing the ninety-nine percent of your holdings to get it back. By leaving the ninety-nine, you risk them roaming off, being stolen, or being killed and eaten by a wolf. No one leaves the ninety-nine. Except Jesus. Jesus does this. Jesus leaves the ninety-nine to search for the lost and then throws a party when the lost are found. It’s totally and thoroughly insane. And that’s why the gospel is such good news.”
Jesus told this parable because people were grumbling about him. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” people were saying. He was spending time with the wrong kind of people. And he was not paying enough attention to the right kind of people: the scribes and Pharisees for example, people who live upstanding lives, and pay the bills, and uphold tradition, and contribute to society. He wasn’t showing enough deference to the people who made the nation and its religious institutions what they were, and who deserved his best attention to help them live even better lives than they were living already.
Jesus told his parable to a group of very religious people who would never run off from the flock, who attended faithfully to the duties of temple and synagogue, and who thought Jesus, if he were truly a man of God, would be spending his time with the well-behaved flock who never left God’s side. I think they had a hard time appreciating a God who, if Jesus had it right, would leave them in the lurch, in the wilderness, in danger of being stolen or eaten by a wolf. What kind of God was it who would do that? Sure, sinners needed help, but first they needed to turn their lives around and clean themselves up and start carrying their own weight.
Well, Jesus said, our kind of God would do exactly that and in fact was already doing it, the kind of God whose perfect, eternal reign could not be perfect, could not be possible as long as even one person was left out, no matter how unlikely or offensive or hopeless or worthless that person may have seemed. That’s why the new Jerusalem that God is creating, that perfect and complete community, will include as native citizens even Egyptians, Babylonians, and Philistines, historic enemies of God’s chosen people (Ps. 87). And when all of God’s children – every last one of them – are gathered from the farthest ends of the earth (Isa. 43:5-7), there will be more joy in heaven than for all the people of faith who have ever lived (Luke 15:7). Now that would be a party worth risking everything else to get into. That would be a party to die for.
While Jesus told this parable to the religious in-crowd of his day, Luke includes it in his gospel so people of the church in Luke’s day might hear it, too. Pressure on the early church was unimaginably high. Social and political forces threatened its very existence, and there was no certainty it would make it into the next generation. Despite Luke’s glowing reports of explosive growth in some places, the church in other places faced the real possibility that it would not survive. Its existence was at risk, and its focus was directed more and more to its own survival. In the first century the church was already being tested. Would it take up its cross and lay aside its own life for the life of the world, or would it look out primarily for its own survival?
All that background could be nothing but a minor historical curiosity if we don’t consider how easily we could be the kind of church Luke dished up this parable to. One of the most common criticisms of churches like ours is that it’s hard for newcomers to find a home with us because it’s hard to break into existing social circles. And that we’re more concerned with preserving our own congregational flock than with risking everything we have to take love’s healing into the byways and back alleys of a world we hardly know.
We like to hang out with well-behaved people we’ve known for a while, especially if they’re a lot like us and live in our neighborhoods. It’s easier to strike up a conversation on Sunday morning with them than with people like those who live on the East Side, or in the Fruit Belt, or in the Seneca-Babcock neighborhood, or on the other side of the 290.
But if we want the joy of Christ to be in us and our joy to be complete (John 15:11); if we want to know the joy of heaven that breaks out when we’re reunited with the one sheep that’s out there on the other side of decency (Luke 15:7); if we want to avoid being like those for whom the children played the flute but could not get them to dance (Luke 7:32) – if that’s what we really want more than anything else, then we have to take a close, hard look at who’s on our dance card. And if we follow Jesus’ example, we just might find we’re not dancing with strangers after all but with angels. And won’t that be a joyful day!