Luke 15:1-10 | Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
A shepherd finds one sheep that was lost, a poor woman finds one coin that was lost, and they stop to celebrate something found, something redeemed, something made whole.
One sheep out of a herd of a hundred, one coin out of a collection of ten—these are not great losses. You might expect to loose a sheep or two over a season. As to the coins, while a ten percent loss is noteworthy, it is not unheard of. Ask anyone who has money invested in the stock market.
Yet in these two stories Jesus tells, the losses matter. A shepherd goes out into wilder places looking for one lost sheep. Is it because this sheep matters more to him, or because this sheep needs him more? Jesus makes the odd claim that anyone hearing his story would do the same thing, but would they? An old woman turns her household upside down to find one lost coin, and Jesus claims there is nothing notable in her determination to find it. And both the shepherd and the woman are delighted to find what they have lost, calling friends and neighbors to celebrate such good fortune.
Maybe Jesus included his audience ironically. How many of them would have gone into dangerous places to find one sheep, or would have put so much energy into finding one coin? Some of them would have, but many would not. Most of them would have at least noticed what they had lost. Would we?
These stories speak to the way we value things. In our modern state of distraction, our telephones ringing and chiming, our jobs and families and televisions pulling at us, we lose things. Small things go missing. We lose parts of ourselves, our time, our focus, and in our distraction we fail to notice the loss. If we do notice, we find ourselves carried along by the current of demands so that we fail to stop and look for things, fail to reclaim our time, our interests, the small cutaway bits of well being that go missing, get lost, or are stolen.
Perhaps that is how we modern folk tend to die, not like a hero in the climax of a story, but little by little before we go altogether, not noticing what we lose and let go, until at the end there is nothing of us left but the expectations of others. We become what the world has expected that we will become, a small shriveled thing about to disappear entirely, and along the way we tacitly agreed to the loss.
Small things matter. That is one message of the stories Jesus tells these people. Small things matter to us, should matter to us, and we should not allow the world to shove and bully us into submission. Hold onto the good bits of your lives, he is saying, and don’t allow them to be lost, sloughed off, eroded like a stone turning slowly into sand.
There is another message here. We are all small things, one sheep among many, at best one coin in the collection. Take a walk down the busy streets of New York or Calcutta, and part of you is lost to the elbows of passersby and to the realization of smallness that slips into the mind of any reasonable human not suffering a Napoleon complex.
Mother Teresa was just proclaimed a saint by Pope Francis. If any of us have been saints, surely she was. Going out into streets and searching for the lost things was her occupation. She found lost sheep, picked up small coins, and treated the least of them with compassion, dignity, recognizing their importance. She made the outrageous claim that each person matters to God, that in each small, wrinkled, dying human face, she saw the same Jesus who told these stories.
That is also one of the messages. We small things matter to God, despite much evidence that the world would suggest proves otherwise. Where was God when this happened or when that tragedy befell? Where was God when refugees lost their homes to war and to famine, when governments failed and gave way to pirates and violence, when floods and earthquakes and now even the lowly mosquito come bringing doom?
Saint Teresa would tell us that God is present in each person lost, and that God watches it all, seeing it through our eyes. Rather than ask where God is, we do better to ask where we are, where our feet have carried us and what our hands are doing, how we are looking after the other sheep, even the ones who are strange to us, and where we are putting our coins.