Imagine that you were there when Jesus was telling today’s story. Imagine that you were in the crowd, listening to him. Imagine how you might have felt as you heard Jesus telling that story.
Today I want to tell you the stories of two very different people who might have been there that day, and what the story meant to them, and how they responded.
The first story is Miriam. Miriam is a sinner. Once, she was on the streets, forced from home by her parents, who were shocked when she got herself pregnant at I4. The shame nearly killed them. She’s really struggled to bring up her son, with no home, no money, no secure relationship. Only men who want to make money from her plight. The self-righteous, if they haven’t passed by on the other side, have condemned her, told her she’s contaminated, unclean, and that she’s lost all hope of ever being accepted back into the fold. As for the hypocrites, she could tell you a tale or two.
Miriam had been sitting in the shadows that day when she heard Jesus tell the story, heard him hint that the shepherds themselves were at fault. If they’d been doing their job properly, the sheep wouldn’t have got lost in the ﬁrst place. Then she heard him talk about a different sort of shepherd, one who went right down into the dark and dangerous places: into the back streets, the red-light districts, the no-go areas, the wilderness. One who went the distance – and at no little risk to himself. It cost him dear, that shepherd. Can God really be like that? And like a woman? Now there’s a thought! Luke is using one of his favourite devices – parallel stories, male and female. God searches, as a woman would, for a lost coin; it’s not especially valuable, but, nevertheless, she hunts high and low, because it matters. Perhaps she matters too, then.
So Miriam creeps slowly forward and sits at Jesus’ feet, accepted. And smiles her ‘yes’ to the party in heaven where the angels will rejoice. What is more, Miriam ﬁnds to her complete astonishment that she will be the guest of honour.
The second story is Ben. Ben was standing up front as Jesus spoke – and then wished he wasn’t. He’d never been so insulted in his life. Which one of you, having 100 sheep…? How very dare he! As if a Pharisee would ever demean himself by such a profession – thieves and Sabbath-breakers, the lot of them! ‘What is it about the lost and vulnerable that has God all of a flutter?’ he asks himself. How can God actually like common people, sinners? And whatever happened to repentance? It’s not just about being lost and then found. There’s the four-step plan of salvation, the detailed initiation preparation, the formula for faithful living, the duties of religion. No pain, no gain.
Ben’s invited to the party in heaven, too. But will he go? He’s a religious man; faithful at worship every week, sincerely honours God, and does his level best to lead a good life. He keeps well clear of the unruly elements of society and the usual temptations that might cross his path.
So Ben thinks to himself that this party might not be up his street, the company not quite what he’s used to. This time, apparently, the guest of honour is an unmarried mother and a prostitute. It could equally well be a thief, or drug addict, or worst of all someone who wears a hoodie and has several ASBOs to his name. Once it was a leper, another time a tax collector, once even a murderer! The host might be above reproach, but his special guests most certainly aren’t! It’s all very well for him to say, ‘come on, rejoice with me’, he has no reputation to worry about!
Ben can’t see that everyone is lost, including him. But there are the lost who want to be found, and the lost who don’t even know they’re lost.
Which are you?