September 11, 2016, The Parable of the Searching Woman – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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People love to hear a dramatic conversion story, the experience of someone whose life was going down the drain, who was addicted to drugs and alcohol, who indulged in all kinds of aberrant sexual behavior, and who finally fell into a life of crime and ended up in jail, where he found Jesus and got saved. We are so inspired to see him stand up at the microphone, clean and happy, with a hair cut and a shave and a nice suit. We know that the angels in heaven are rejoicing, because here is that lost lamb Jesus was talking about, home safe and sound. Here is that lost coin the woman in the parable was searching for so desperately, all shined up spiffy and new. And there is rejoicing in heaven over this one who was lost, but now is found.
That kind of transformation really happens; God rescues people from every kind of danger and trouble, including and especially the trouble we bring upon ourselves. We could all tell a story or two about our own foolishness and meanness and self-indulgence and helplessness, and how God in his mercy rescued us out of it. But when Jesus told his parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, he wasn’t just talking about the shiny, respectable convert on the other side of the search. He was also talking about the search itself, with all the dirt and mess and un-respectability that goes along with it.
The problem that got the whole parable thing going this time was that Jesus had been altogether too friendly with the tax collectors and the “sinners” – and sinners might have meant anything from somebody who didn’t wash his hands before dinner according to religious law, to a woman who made her living as a prostitute, to a man who collected taxes for the Romans and made a tidy profit overcharging his fellow Jews. Sinners basically was a wholesale term for the disreputable masses, unholy and unwashed and unacceptable in polite society. All those sinful, unrespectable-type people were coming to hear Jesus. But Jesus wasn’t preaching hellfire and damnation to them, as any respectable preacher ought to do – to straighten them out and set them on the right path. No, not at all. He was meeting them at the diner for a cup of coffee. And he was going to their sinful, dirty homes for potluck dinners with their sinful, dirty friends. He touched them, and he healed their hurts, and he took their children into his arms. He was welcoming those sinners, as if he were really glad to see them. Because he was.
And meanwhile, the Pharisees and Scribes were watching all these goings-on from a safe distance, careful not to accidentally rub elbows or anything else with some low-life so that they would become unclean by association. Luke tells us that these men, who really worked very hard to live their lives absolutely by the Book; these godly men were watching Jesus closely and grumbling among themselves, “Do you see how this guy welcomes sinners with open arms? He even eats with them! What kind of a holy man acts like that?”
Grumbling, no matter how quiet it was, rarely went unnoticed by Jesus and that was the case this time. It was in response to their grumbling that he told the stories of the lost lamb and the lost coin. We usually think of those stories being told to the people in trouble, to give hope to sinners, reassuring them that no matter how lost they are God will seek them out and bring them back to safety. But actually, Jesus wasn’t telling these stories to the crowds of “sinners” who had come to hear him; it was to the grumbling Pharisees and Scribes that Jesus told these parables about lost lambs and missing coins.
I don’t know about you, but our household is very familiar with losing things. Over the years, we have found we are extremely good at losing everything from the phone number I just wrote down on a scrap of paper yesterday, to essential documents like birth certificates and social security cards. And so we have also become very familiar with the searching process. You begin with the obvious places – the last place somebody remembers seeing it, the drawer, the file cabinet, the closet shelf – all the places the missing thing is supposed to be. But eventually, since whatever it is is rarely where it is supposed to be, the search becomes more general and more extensive, with (hopefully) no nook or cranny left unsearched.
Anyone arriving at our house at this stage of the search would be sure to observe one thing: that we are in total chaos. Nothing is messier than the middle of a real, thorough search, when every last thing has been pulled open and turned inside out and unpacked and disassembled. But it’s only by entering completely into the mess that we are sure to finally arrive at the goal – of finding that very important scrap of paper or piece of jewelry or check or birth certificate or whatever it was we wanted so very much to find. And after the mess and after the finding, then comes the rejoicing.
But when the Pharisees and Scribes looked at all those people swarming around Jesus, all they could see was the mess: all they saw were people whose lives were out of control, people not living by the rules, people whose very presence was an offense to everything they had been brought up to value and strive for. It wasn’t that the Pharisees and Scribes were unusually heartless, I don’t think. We might have felt the same in their position. You probably don’t have to think too hard to remember feeling like that about someone; we all have known people whose lives seem to be a hopeless mess. It wasn’t even that they were wrong in seeing the mess.
The difference was that Jesus knew the mess was just part of the search.
Jesus didn’t open his arms to all of those people, because they happened to be in trouble and he was a nice, liberal guy. Jesus was so glad to see them because he was searching for them. In the middle of the mess of their poverty, and disease, and fear, and human weakness; in the middle of bad choices, and worse luck, he was searching high and low for each and every one of those people because they were precious to him. Like the lamb that was lost in the hills; like the coin that rolled away down a crack in the floor, he would do anything and go anywhere to find them. He was willing to search high and low; he was willing to turn rules and traditions upside down; he was willing to offend sensibilities; he was willing to wade through any amount of mess to find them. Because after the finding, then comes the rejoicing.
We usually call the parables we read today the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. But it might be better to call them the Parable of the Searching Shepherd and the Parable of the Searching Woman, because Jesus was telling the Pharisees and Scribes – and he was telling us – that he is the one who searches for us all in the messiest of our messes. Human life is rarely, if ever, neat rules and tidy, logical procedures. Life is a messy process, from birth to death and everything in between. But if we remember that in the mess of our lives, in the chaos of our own bad choices and our misfortunes and our sorrows and fears, Jesus is always there to welcome us with open arms. Because it is in the very middle of the mess that he searches for us. And it is in the middle of our mess that he finds us. And then, there is the rejoicing.
Jesus told these parables to the Pharisees and Scribes, because they are not just about our personal reassurance – though they are greatly reassuring. No matter how lost we feel ourselves to be, these stories remind us that the Shepherd will not rest until he fnds us again and brings us home. But the first purpose for these stories was to change the way we see our fellow human beings. When we look at any man or woman or child, do we see only the mess of their lives, or do we see the search that makes sense of the mess? Are we able and willing to see the value in that person that makes all the mess and the searching worthwhile? Because the Shepherd that is searching tirelessly for us is also searching tirelessly for our brother or sister, and the mess is just part of the search. And to paraphrase the words of our Lord: “there will be more joy in heaven over one messed-up person who is found than over ninety-nine “good” persons who don’t even know they are lost.”