Friday, November 22, 2013

The Parable of the Lost Sheep: Have You Lost Something? Yup, and He's Looking to Find It!

     It's always important to understand the context for Jesus' parables.  Who is He addressing?  What questions/issues is He addressing?  This next parable we will examine is the one of the Lost Sheep from Luke, Chapter 15.   
     Let's set the scene:  "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'"  Stop right there.  Jesus is a fascinating and yet irritating presence to the religious leaders.  They watch in horror as the low-lifes of their community flock to Him and listen to His words that seem to be cool water in a dry land.  
     They can't fathom why a rabbi would associate so freely with people who are so obviously disgusting to them and, must be to God, too.  They are probably thinking, We strive everyday, God, to be good.  We do all of the rituals You require and we even go above and beyond that.  We work for You!  Do You notice, God?  Are You aware, with all due respect, of how much we strive?  And then comes this hayseed from Nazareth, who seems to gather, without effort, those whom You despise.  He seems comfortable with them--their smelly clothes, their dirty faces and their despicable habits.  They seem to love Him.  Love?  You want order, respect and obedience.  Love?  We don't want it; why would You?
     What are the people thinking?  We try every day, dear God, to be good.  We tithe from what little we have and yet, in the faces of the leaders, we see nothing but scorn.  No matter how much we strive, we see the utter disgust in their faces.  We know we are so unworthy to even call upon Your Name.  You seem so distant; but this Jesus seems to bring You so close, we can almost hear Your voice.  He doesn't notice our dirty clothes and ragged faces; we know we are not pleasant to be around--the leaders have made that plain enough.  And yet, when we look into His face, we see kindness, openness, and a sense that You do care for us, warts and all.  Yes, our hands are dirty, but this Jesus is willing to clasp them and look in our eyes.  We feel the scorn burning into our backs from the eyes of the leaders; so we just keep our gaze on His face...are we seeing Your face, dear God, as well? 
     Then Jesus begins:  “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent."
     Everyone listening knew about sheep and how, if not shepherded, the sheep will wander.  How often did an errant sheep wander into town, because some shepherd's afternoon nap went on a bit long?  How often did a panicky shepherd come running into town, asking the townspeople if they had seen his sheep?   So, everyone could understand the wandering of a sheep and the fretful reaction of the shepherd.  Isn't interesting, though, instead of talking about a shepherd out there, Jesus brings His audience into the story:  "Suppose one of you..."  You, Mr. Obstinate Pharisee and you, Mr. Tax Collector, and yes, you, Mrs. Poor Woman.  Everyone is invited to imagine themselves in the place of the shepherd.  
    Now, Jesus poses a question...a shepherd doesn't just fret over the sheep; what is he going to do?  Go out and find it!  He will not rest until he does.  The other ninety-nine are safe in the flock, but the wandering one is subject to all kinds of dangers--wolves, falling into a many times had one of the townsfolk come across a sheep whose shepherd had not been able to find it, and now its body was rotting in the sun?   Everyone could picture the shepherd searching high and low for the sheep, having left the care of the other sheep to the other shepherds.  He is focused on finding the one sheep...why?
     Because each sheep is valuable.  There is safety in numbers, but not value in numbers.  Each sheep is as valuable as the next.  No one sheep is inherently more precious than another.  The shepherd knows each sheep and cares for each sheep's welfare.  The shepherd doesn't say, Hey!  I still have the well-behaved ninety-nine.  They are staying in the flock, obediently grazing where I have told them to.  What's one missing?  Next spring, there will be more lambs to replace it...No big deal.
     Our shepherd finds the sheep and puts it on his shoulder--"joyfully."  He doesn't chide it, yell at it or condemn it for wandering away (Do you notice that, Pharisees?  Do you catch that, everyone?)  Yes, it is always preferable to stay obediently in the flock, following the  shepherd's direction.  But, what if someone wanders away?  What if YOU wander away?  Would YOU want to be yelled at?  Would YOU want to experience scornful looks and judgement about how stupid you are for wandering away?  Wouldn't YOU want a joyful Shepherd scooping you up, placing you on His shoulders and triumphantly marching into town to tell everyone of your rescue?  
     Doesn't the sheep know already of its inadequacies?  The burrs in its wool, the scratches on its legs are reminders enough of how wandering off is not wise.  The "tax collectors and sinners" are all too aware of how wandering off is not pleasant--no one has to remind them of that--their hearts condemn them enough.  
     The flock is content...perhaps too content.  It's those who wander off that need God the most and feel His loving balm the most when they are recaptured by His love.  Heaven rejoices!  Why?  Because the sheep knew it had strayed and is willing to come home with the shepherd and be restored to the flock.  
     Jesus looks at the listeners.  Many of them have heads lowered, knowing that they have wandered from the Shepherd of their souls.  Yet, in their troubled spirits, hope flutters--I can be forgiven and Heaven is rejoicing as I do!  
     Many of them are looking at Him, flummoxed.  I am in the flock, obedient, and yet I am not in love with the Shepherd, only with my own goodness.   Do I need to come home too?
      Jesus' eyes scan the crowd.  Are you willing to come home?  Will you join Heaven and rejoice as others do as well?  
     The Shepherd will never stop looking for His wandering sheep.   

Jesus will press on with the next two parables--the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son, driving home the point of God values each one of us.  His love extends forgiveness to each one of we extend it to each other as well? 

For more posts in my parable series, click here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Parable of Persistent Widow: Keep Knocking on Heaven's Door!

Here's our next parable from Luke 18:1-8:  

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”  And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

     Let's set the scene.  We have a less than sterling judge and a widow who is in desperate need of a judgment against an "adversary."  The two people are neighbors and probably so is the adversary--so it's a case of "You can run but you cannot hide."  How often does the widow see the judge walking to his office?  How often does the widow catch a glimpse of her foe, ducking into a store or staring at her from over the bread counter at the supermarket?  These people interact everyday at some level, and because of this, the widow feels desperation...her foe is a constant reminder of the injustice she has suffered.  Do we know what the injustice actually is?  Does it matter?  She wants justice, plain and simple.
     The judge is probably the only judge in this small town.  Jesus gives him a quick personality sketch--he doesn't care about what God or others think.  Uh-oh.  In a small town, with religion permeating every nook and cranny of the people's existence, this judge would stand out.  He obviously has said words to that effect or has behaved in such a way that people know what he is like.  He may the guy that everyone loves to hate--but what are the people going to do?  He's the only one in town who can dispense justice.
     The widow knows about his reputation but also knows she stuck with him.  Her personality is one of persistence:  she keeps coming to him and requesting that he hear her plea.  She won't give up and is so persistent that the judge fears that if he doesn't act soon, she will attack him!  He could care less about God and man, yet this widow's tenacity keeps him awake at night!  Why is that?  Could it be that deep down inside, he knows he needs to do the right thing and hear her case and make a ruling?  He probably knows her adversary as well, and as long as the judge delays, this adversary is walking the streets, sneering at a system that doesn't stop him.  So, these three characters are in a desperate dance, which could be quelled in a New York minute with a pronouncement from the judge.  
     The judge must act, if not to uphold the law but to protect himself from this widow!  The widow must act and pursue the judge so she can be protected by the law!  The adversary lurks in the town, awaiting judgement, glad of his freedom but having to always look over his shoulder!
     Jesus then points to the words of the judge.  If someone that unjust, that worried about personal safety and that insensitive about the suffering of others, recognizes the need to act, how much more will our pleas be heard by our loving Heavenly Judge?  Was Jesus in essence saying that perhaps (although they would never admit this) the disciples saw God as that judge in the story?  Were they entertaining the belief that God really didn't care, that He is insensitive to our suffering and is way too concerned about how we behave towards Him, without any thought as to how He acts towards us?  Uh-oh.  In other words, are we the widow and God is the judge?  Of course, we know who the "adversary" is, and how relentless he is in condemning us.
     So, Jesus launches this parable under the theme of keep praying and never give up.  Is it our prayers that need fixing?  We pray for those who hurt, who are desperate, who are suffering, who are causing misery in others' that what Jesus is evaluating?  I think not.  I think He is asking us to reevaluate who we think God is.  He compares God's personality to that of the judge's...
1.  God hears our cries.  He doesn't ignore us or avoid us.  He is actively engaged in our lives, not shirking His responsibility to His own.
2.  God will not delay justice.  He knows what we need and what the cries of our heart are.  He is not delaying justice--He is working to bring it about.  His timing is not our own.  We need to trust His timing.
3.  God wants justice in the world.  Sin was not His design, and the consequences of sin have rendered His creation chock full of chaos, pain and evil.  He is all too aware of this, and He is in the process of remedying it.  How?  Who is telling the parable?  It's Jesus:  The very One that the Almighty Judge has sent down, to pay the penalty Himself, on a cross that waits for Him up the road a ways.  Justice will be handed down, upon the shoulders of the One who now stands before the disciples.  The Judge, will in essence, offer Himself to render justice and set us free.  His stripes will heal us and render the adversary living on borrowed time.
4.  God wants us to be persistent and walking in faith each day.  The time is coming when the judgement will be handed down.  Will we have already left the courtroom in despair, or will we be knocking on Heaven's door, confident in the knowledge that He is good and kind and just?  When the Son returns, will we still be at our Father's business, or will our hearts have grown cold?
     God want us to be persistent, which is defined as "continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition."  The days will be filled with trial, to be sure, but will we meet the days with despair or determination? 

For more posts in my parable series, click here.
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