Question No. 1: Which one of you, overseeing a flock of 100 sheep in the wilderness or 100 children under your care in a major city, would leave the 99 all alone to go looking for that lost one until you located him or her (Luke 15:4)?
Now look, I’ve just started administering this little test and already see a hand up in the back. No, it doesn’t say you have any assistants or helpful bedouins to aid in your search or watch the others. You leave the 99, OK? Unprotected and all alone.
And which one of you, having set out on such an insane enterprise (oops, editorializing) … which one of you would keep looking high and low, night and day, interminably, if needed?
There will be no more murmuring, class. A final detail. Which one of you, after searching all over tarnation and finally locating the little lost one, would actually call the neighborhood together (Luke 15:6) and throw a flipping party? Which one of you?
Final question: Which one of you, having 10 silver coins and losing one, would turn on every single energy-gobbling lamp in your house (not to mention the floodlights) and sweep through your abode all night, relentlessly and pathologically (Luke 15:8), even moving the heavy stuff like the stove and refrigerator, peering under rugs and in every drawer, searching for that lost coin even though you know there’s a small fortune in change that has slipped under the back seat of your car over the years? Which one of you?
OK, for the bonus: Which one of you, having granted your son his inheritance (before your death), would watch your child go into a far country and blow all that loot on who knows what and then turn around and throw an outlandishly appointed feast (Luke 15:22-23) when the wayward son returns, hat in hand? Which one of you?
The correct and honest answers?
None of us would search the way Jesus describes the relentless shepherd in the wilderness; we would establish rescue caveats and guidelines.
None of us would look with the tenacity of that woman; most of us have too much fiduciary backup to worry over something so small.
None of us would welcome back a wayward son, no strings attached; we’d insist on expectations that might lead to change.
These old parables are not about how “good Christians” might behave on our best days. These stories are about God—the God who relentlessly, tenaciously looks for the lost in a search with no time limits. God throws floodlights into the darkness and cares about even small and forgotten concerns because they are large in this upside-down kingdom that values mustard seeds and birds of the air and even the hairs of one’s head.
The church hopefully chooses to join God in the search, but God is always out there ahead of us, leading the way. Such behavior is not our usual first inclination, some keen spiritual resolution in a new year.
When the Gospel really wallops me, describing God like a maniacally relentless shepherd, like a tenaciously indomitable woman and like an unconditionally loving father, I admit that sometimes I don’t like it. I suspect many Christians are more like that elder son (Luke 15:28) than we might care to admit. There should be conditions, expectations, real change in the lost and wayward.
Sometimes I don’t even recognize that I’m operating out of a story that is at odds with the Christian story. What to do?
One faithful resolution is a new year’s immersion in these old parabolic tales Jesus once told. Especially his questions.
Which one of you is like this shepherd? Which one of you is like this woman? Like this dad?
Well, I’ll confess right up front: not me. Not usually. And maybe that’s the beginning of a glimmer of wisdom and change.
Confession, that is.