THE parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are told in response to Pharisees and scribes who are “grumbling” at Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them.
These parables do not dilute the call to holiness of life. Rather, they challenge the religious leaders’ contemptuous attitude to those who have strayed. In the words of St Gregory the Great, Jesus’s message is that, “while true justice feels compassion, false justice feels scorn.” While he welcomes those whom the Pharisees and disciples reject, Jesus calls those who follow him to an even greater righteousness (Matthew 5.20).
The shepherd might seem to show a lack of care for the “ninety-nine” when he leaves them “in the wilderness” to search for a single wayward sheep. Yet the parable is ultimately good news for them, also. As Kenneth Bailey explains, “If the one is sacrificed in the name of the larger group, then each individual in the group is insecure, knowing that he or she is of little value. If lost, he or she will be left to die. When the shepherd pays a high price to find the one, he thereby offers the profoundest security to the many” (The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 through the eyes of Middle Eastern peasants).
As St Cyril of Alexandria explains, both the hundred sheep and the ten coins symbolise completeness. Jesus is inviting the scribes and Pharisees to see in sinners and tax-collectors not objects of contempt and scorn, but brothers and sisters without whom God’s family will be incomplete. The shepherd and the woman each celebrate with “friends and neighbours” when what has been lost is found. Likewise, the angels rejoice with God at each wayward sinner’s repentance.
Our other lections recall the reconciliation of specific penitents. In Exodus 32, the people suffer a loss of faith when Moses spends an extended time out of their sight, and melt down their wealth to make a golden idol. Their sin has its echo in every human heart — in the occasions when our anxiety overwhelms our trust in God, causing us to forget his previous blessings, and to seek our security in false gods. Now, as then, the gods we make out of our wealth are particularly seductive.
As Thomas White explains, the passage’s talk of a divine change of mind must be understood as a metaphor. The narrative conveys the reality of God’s love for his people, while emphasising that this love does not dilute either his holiness or his hatred of sin. In his dialogue with Moses, we see God’s wrath co-existing with a love that is both tenacious and fierce. Together, they find expression in divine acts of justice which are “to teach the recipient to order his or her life toward God and neighbor justly, in a radically truthful way, and seek to rehabilitate and redeem the human person”.
In his intercession for the people, Moses foreshadows the saving work of Jesus (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Exodus). When we are baptised into Christ, our sin is washed away, our hearts are purified, and our relationship with God is restored.
It is such purification, as well as forgiveness, which is sought by the Psalmist, who asks to be “washed” and “cleansed” from sin. As St Thomas Aquinas explains, “Two things are necessary for removing a stain, namely, a preceding washing and a following cleanliness.” The Psalm “prefigures the power of baptism, by which God would be removing sin”. Tradition has it that Psalm 51 was written by a penitent King David after his adultery with Bathsheba, and his murder of her husband, Uriah. He knows that he needs needs to rediscover “truth deep within me, and wisdom in the depths of my heart”.
In our epistle, Paul describes his previous life as that of a “blasphemer” and a “man of violence”. Jouette Bassler explains that the latter word (found only here and in Romans 1.30) “refers to violent, insolent, or reckless behaviour”. These two dramatic terms “magnify Paul’s sinfulness and, as a consequence, magnify also the scope of Christ’s mercy in dealing with him” (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus). From that experience of mercy, this former Pharisee now proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ. He invites all who hear him to find their security not in the righteousness of their works, but in the loving care of the Good Shepherd.