September 11, 2016 — 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Luke 15:1-10
Ordinary 24C; Proper 19

“The world never looks as big as when someone is lost.”

Jill Duffield's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.
Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

This is the last sentence from an article in The New York Times about Japanese families who continue, five years after the tsunami, to look for loved ones lost in the great wave that overtook the island. They are so desperate to find their lost loved ones that some of them have learned to deep sea dive, repeatedly taking to the ocean to search. Daily, one woman takes food, her missing daughter’s favorite meals, and throws them in the sea. “You will do anything for your child,” she said.

Years have not eased the urgency of the search. The man who dives in hopes of finding his wife says, “I have no choice but to keep looking.”

This morning on the radio I heard that a GoFundMe site has raised $130,000 to fund the search for two American hikers missing in Pakistan. The site was updated with the following: “Our friends and the families of Kyle and Scott are working vigorously with local Pakistani heli, porter, and fellow climbing teams to locate them on the mountain. Weather has not been in our favor. Visibility is next to none. Heli has not been cleared to launch. Our rescue team at basecamp has attempted to climb the descent route but have been turned back due to weather. They will continue to try with each window of opportunity.”

The world never looks as big as when someone is lost.

Remember, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the walls of photos of the missing? All of those heartbreaking posters with photos and messages, phone numbers and descriptions, have been preserved and are kept in loose leaf binders at St. Vincent Hospital. The Daily Kos reported last year, “The binders are in storage, emerging rarely save for one day a year. ‘We have a memorial Mass every Sept. 11 in the chapel, and we bring the books there,’ Sister Kevin said. ‘We let people look through them, and then we take them back’ — out of sight but never out of mind.”

The world never looks as big as when someone is lost.

Jesus’ parables about a lost sheep and a lost coin are the preface to the story of the lost son that comes directly after. The lectionary stops short of that familiar tale of the prodigal and allows us to linger with the themes of lost and found, doomed and saved, scattered and gathered. Jesus, responding to the criticism of Pharisees who are scandalized by his choice of dinner companions, asks them, “Which among you, doesn’t go after the missing sheep? Which among you wouldn’t look for your lost money?”

Jesus’ parables seem a strange response to their charge that he welcomes sinners. What do lost sheep and lost coins have to do with welcoming sinners? But Jesus is a master of subtle subterfuge, putting people off guard just enough to get their attention.

Science has shown that asking a question invites hearers to engage a more developed part of the brain, moving people from reactivity to reflection. So, perhaps Jesus was inviting some creative thinking on the part of his detractors.

“What would you do if one of your flock went missing? Wouldn’t you look for something of material value?”

Maybe we could start with some hypothetical questions, too.

We could ask: When have you lost something? What lengths did you go to find it? Ever misplaced your keys? Wallet? Cell phone? Or, how about your wedding ring? A sentimental object or photo?

Now, how much more would you look for a person? Have you ever had the experience of looking around only to notice your toddler is no longer by your side? How frantic was your looking then? How much more would you search for a loved one who’d not returned home from work or school? Or maybe a son gone missing on a mountain? A daughter washed away by a tsunami? A spouse buried under the rubble of a collapsed building?

I think Jesus is building the intensity with this series of stories. He is inviting us to consider how high a price we are willing to pay to rescue the ones we love the most. He is reminding us that we will do anything for our child, that we have no choice but to keep looking, that the world never looks so big as when someone is lost.

Remember, at this point in Luke’s narrative, Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. These verses need to be read in the context of Luke 9:51, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face toward Jerusalem.” The days are drawing nearer with each passing chapter and Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. He will do anything for his child, he has no choice but to keep looking for the lost, the world is never so big as when a people, a creation, a world is lost. His love knows no bounds. His pursuit of grace is relentless. Jesus’ desire for reunion is insatiable until the homecoming celebration has been kicked off and all are there rejoicing.

Jesus welcomes tax collectors and sinners because he will do anything to gather in the scattered, to find the lost, to save those in need of rescue. He has set his face toward Jerusalem; no price is too high to pay to restore even just one. Grace is the point of these parables; that’s the revelation Jesus wants the Pharisees to see.

If sheep and coins are worthy of seeking out and rejoicing over, then how much more are wayward sons and daughters, tax collectors and sinners?

It is interesting that in Luke Jesus directs these parables to the murmuring Pharisees, but in Matthew the parable of the lost sheep is told to the disciples in the context of instructing them how to live in community with one another. One Gospel has Jesus responding to those out to get him, the other has Jesus teaching those closest to him. The common denominator, however, is sin and Jesus’ relentless desire and unquestionable power to overcome the division, isolation, destruction and pain of the separation it causes. He has set his face toward Jerusalem in order to recover the missing, find the lost, save the doomed.

The world is never so big as when someone is lost. Thankfully, Jesus has the whole world in his hands: sheep, coins, prodigal sons, sinners, tax collectors, Pharisees, scribes, you and me. Therefore, we can rejoice.

This week:

  1. Remember a time when you lost something important to you. How hard did you search for it? Did you rejoice when you found it?
  2. In this Luke text it appears that the searching is done alone, but the celebrating is communal. Why do you think that is?
  3. Who are the tax collectors and sinners we don’t think Jesus should welcome? Have you ever felt among them?
  4. Read 1 Timothy 1:12-17 and consider how it relates to the Luke passage. How do both passages address the barrier of sin and Jesus’ power to breach those barriers?
  5. Read Ezekiel 34:11, 34:16, John 10:11 and Matthew 18:12-14. How are these passages similar and different? How do they inform your reading of the Luke text for this Sunday?
  6. Who and where are the lost in your context? How is Jesus seeking them out? How are you searching for them?

Want to receive Looking into the Lectionary content in your inbox on Mondays? Click here to join our email list!