Which one of you, says Jesus, 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?
What woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them does not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?
Which one of you, asks Jesus, would not behave like this?
I guess the honest, true answer would be that most of us would draw the line long before the shepherd or the woman in his stories. We’d soon decide that it was a bit daft to get quite so worked up about one scraggy sheep that didn’t know what was good for it, or to waste good lamp oil looking for a coin which you’d no guarantee you were going to find anyway. This woman probably spent more looking for the coin and celebrating its finding than it was worth in the first place, and as for that shepherd, what a crazy risk to leave ninety-nine perfectly good sheep in the wilderness to search for the one that was lost. What if he had come back and found a wolf had got the rest? 99 sheep are plenty. 9 coins are surely enough to be going on with.
Jesus knew perfectly well that in telling these stories he’d be tapping into the some very ambivalent feelings in his hearers. Of course we’d go to the ends of the earth to search for someone precious to us, a child we’d been separated from, a lover who had disappeared, and we’d keep searching until we’d found them. We’d never be able to let go completely even when we knew there was nowhere left to look. Of course we would rip apart a house to look for something of surpassing worth to us. But that is the problem. Our willingness to stretch ourselves, to take a risk, to keep going is determined by the value to us of what we are seeking. For all the precious things and people we’d endlessly search for, there are many others, in practice, whom we treat as “easy come, easy go”, two a penny, dispensable, forgettable. It is a real struggle to do otherwise, and Jesus knew that.
These Pharisees and scribes were not uniquely careless or heartless – they were just human, as we all are, and they saw things from their own, human, perspective, as we all do.
They operated from an assumption of scarcity for a start. There was only so much of God’s love and favour to go around, they figured, so it was important that it was directed to those who could make the most of it, those who were already on the way to being as God wanted them to be – themselves in other words. It seemed perfectly reasonable, perfectly obvious, and perhaps it would be if God’s love were limited.
But Jesus’ parables tell us that it isn’t like that. God doesn’t start from a position of scarcity. He’s not in danger of running out of anything. He doesn’t need to ration his love, and he doesn’t need us to ration it for him either, doling it out in miserly portions to those who believe and live as we think they should.
In reality, as human beings, we have our limits – there comes a point when we can do no more for someone in our own strength. But that doesn’t mean that God has given up on them, so no one can ever be declared a hopeless case. Our strength might be exhausted, but God’s never is.
That’s good news for those we might be tempted to write off as a waste of effort. But it is also good news for us, because all of us come to a point sooner or later when we realise that we are more lost than we thought we were, when we feel dispensable and forgotten, brought low by some failure or weakness we thought we were immune to, or just worn down by the burdens of life. There comes a time – if it hasn’t happened yet then it surely will one day – when we all find ourselves longing to feel the grasp of a loving shepherd as he pulls us out of whatever thicket of guilt , grief or worthlessness we’ve got stuck in. And more than that, when he comes to us in that moment, he comes not with the grudging attitude of one who feels he must, but with the boundless and joyful energy that comes from knowing how great the party will be when he finally gets us home.