There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
What does it mean to be lost? What does it mean to be found?
When Adam and I were making the Jesus Unmasked video, I had planned to take the conversation in a different direction. But after hearing the Gospel read aloud, all that came to mind was how much these verses tormented me as a child and teenager. I tried to articulate that struggle in the video, so if you want to hear my raw, unprocessed thoughts, give it a listen! It’s also well-worth listening to for Adam’s illumination of the divine feminine, among other insights!
My conversation with Adam helped me come to a wonderful new perspective on these verses, which I explore in the show notes below. As always, the sacred reading practice of Lectio Divina guides me to consider the context of the verses in question, ponder the deeper spiritual or literary meaning behind the words, find an application to my own life, and discern a call to action.
If the notes or video spark your own ideas or questions, please feel free to leave comments and join our live conversations! Adam Ericksen and I host the Jesus Unmasked Bible study every Tuesday morning at 10:00 CT on the Raven Foundation Facebook Page.
My Childhood As A Lost Lamb
As a child of an atheist, struggling to believe, wrestling with doubt and anxiety and questioning both my father’s salvation and my own, these verses were like a cruel tease to me. I wanted to believe in the loving God who held all the sheep together in the fold and would do anything to recover a lost lamb. But I didn’t see Jesus chasing after my father… or (when I dared to admit it to myself) me. I interpreted “lost” as being without faith, and I struggled with my own wavering faith and my desire for the security and belonging that I knew others found within the church. I loved my church as a second home, but the logic-defying miracles of scripture made me doubt, and the cultural depictions of a wrathful God who demanded a perfect sacrifice for our sins made me afraid. I wanted desperately to believe that Jesus would somehow shatter my doubt, embrace and hold me, and carry me back home. But how could I believe that, when my father, who was the son of a minister, hadn’t been carried back home yet? What would happen to us if we died in doubt? If these verses of scripture were true, then why didn’t I see Jesus out there on the horizon, coming to my rescue?
Now these verses do comfort me in my doubt and anxiety, but only after coming out of my own myopia, out of the tunnel vision of my anxiety. This is a story of God’s extravagant love, and the really good news is that there are signs of this extravagant love all around us, an extravagant love that God calls us to share and experience. But to see it, I have to look past the fears that clouded my vision, locate this story in the context of the all-loving God who suffers, rather than authorizes, violence, and ask…
What’s Going On?
At this point in the scripture, Jesus has been preaching and manifesting God’s upside-down Kingdom, God’s Kindom of Love. He has healed on the Sabbath in accordance with God’s mercy and the tradition of the prophets but in defiance of the interpretation of Torah held by the religious authorities of his time. He has told the Pharisees to invite the poor, lame, and blind to parties rather than their rich family, friends, and acquaintances. His association with marginalized and excluded peoples is making the elite keepers of order suspicious and wary of him. And now, the Pharisees and scribes grumble as he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
It’s so important to remember that Jesus is not making a lofty declaration to “sinners,” as I had once thought in my confused and anxious young mind. He is not saying, “You who have wandered astray, fear not! I am coming!” He is speaking to those who resent his fellowship among the marginalized. And he is saying to them, “Who among you wouldn’t leave ninety-nine sheep behind to find the one who was lost?” He is challenging them, speaking as if it is normal and expected of them to leave the ninety-nine behind to follow the one who is lost, the one society has cast aside as abhorrent. I can picture the Pharisees responding with “Wait… was I supposed to do that?” Jesus takes conventional wisdom and flips it entirely on its head, in keeping with the upside-down Kingdom of God. And he goes further! He speaks of a joyful party held in honor of finding the lost sheep. He then tells another parable of a woman with ten silver coins, who, upon losing one coin, sweeps her home from top to bottom, and, upon finding the coin, throws an extravagant party with her friends and neighbors. And he says, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
What Does It Mean?
I had always thought of the “lost sheep” as those who had wandered away from God, those without faith. But Jesus is welcoming “sinners” and eating with them. God is right there in the midst of the marginalized, outcast, and expelled! They are not “lost.” Those who have been marginalized and cast aside have found themselves at home with God incarnate, and rather than carry them back to the fold of the “righteous,” God is partying with them right where they are.
Who are the “righteous” who “have no need for repentance?” Jesus is implicating the Pharisees to whom he is speaking. The Pharisees define their righteousness as goodness over and against others. This righteousness is sacrificial, for it requires those deemed “unrighteous” as a measuring stick. It requires a view of the law as demanding strict obedience rather than ordering the world according to God’s grace. When the Pharisees deem themselves righteous over and against others, they look upon others with eyes of judgment and condemnation, unable to see their own need for repentance.
Jesus rejects this sacrificial understanding of righteousness, redefining righteousness as mercy. Righteousness is loving outcasts and embracing “sinners.” Righteousness never orients itself “over and against” but always “with and for.”
And what is repentance? Nothing less than a reorientation – a transformation – of heart, mind, soul, whole being. What is it from which humanity must repent? It’s the very over-and-againstness that drives so much of our lives. It is the enmity that bonds people over and against an outcast. It’s the spirit of division that marginalizes and scapegoats others, and sometimes leads us to internalize hatred others may wield against us. It is knowing ourselves by contrasting ourselves against those whom we are not. It can be self-righteous or self-deprecating, filling us with either pride that puffs up or shame that whittles us down. It’s the lie that denies that we are all part of each other, that we are who we are not because of who we are not, but because of everyone to whom we are connected.
It is this lie in which we all become lost sometimes. This lie that makes us forget that we belong to each other. This lie that makes us forget that we all belong to God, which means we all belong to Love. When this lie tells us that we need not concern ourselves with others, when this lie makes us resentful of the compassion that those “less deserving” may receive, then we are most in need of repentance and most blind to that need.
Repentance is not wallowing in guilt, but finding ourselves in the truth of God’s love that surrounds us and calls us into the responsibility of caring for one another. It opens our eyes to the mistakes we made under the deception of false righteousness, but it also opens our eyes to the forgiveness and mercy that restore and strengthen us for the work we must do. And above all, repentance is joy, for in recognizing the bond of Love that weaves us all together, we delight in one another and in ourselves.
God is the shepherd who finds the lost sheep, the Love that presses on our hearts until we recognize our connection with one another, until we see that we are not alone but rather surrounded in Love. And, as Adam points out, God is the woman who leaves no corner unturned until she finds her lost coin. Jesus not only claims that God will go in search of the marginalized; Jesus locates God among the marginalized. God is a poor old woman who cleans her home from top to bottom to find a lost coin? According to Jesus, yes! How might this be heard by powerful men who measure their power over and against women and the poor? How do I hear it as a woman who once felt isolated and small because of doubt and anxiety?
What Connections Can I Make?
In a way, I was lost in my childhood anxiety over these verses. I was lost in the sense that I couldn’t see the love of God holding me tight. I was lost in my fear that God – if God existed – would punish me for doubting. But I wasn’t lost in my doubts. The questions and exploration, the journey and the discovery, even the sense of loss when we can no longer hold on to old explanations or understandings… all of these happen within God, within Love. We cannot stray from Love.
We are lost when we hold a view that doubt can separate us from Love, that different beliefs compete for Love’s acceptance, that others or ourselves can be estranged from Love. Those who live in Love, whatever system of beliefs they may claim or reject, are not lost. We are lost when we justify the exclusion of others. Love finds us when we open ourselves to our connection and responsibility to each other. It’s not about having the right religion or dogma. It’s about being open to Love.
There is more joy in Heaven when we open ourselves to Love than when we shut ourselves off from others in pseudo-righteousness. This is not about God loving some more than others. It is about finding Heaven within our hearts when we recognize our interconnection.
What Am I Called To Do?
In my life, this is good news indeed! It reminds me that I need not worry for my own salvation or anyone else’s; rather I experience salvation in the Love of all my friends and family of all faiths and no faith at all, for salvation from our own exclusion and violence is found in unbounded Love. And it calls me to participate in salvation by loving others and doing my part to create a world without marginalization and exclusion. It is good news that wraps me in relief and in joy, but it is not always easy. The temptation to measure myself over and against others, to be envious, to find identity in opposition… these are natural human tendencies that call me to continuous repentance. Like the sensation of falling in a dream, I need to keep awakening to the security and responsibility of Love’s arms catching me and resetting me on my feet, refocusing me on the mission to love.
How does this scripture speak to you? What are you called to do?
Jesus Unmasked is an invitation to join a search for the presence of the living Christ in scripture. The path of Jesus leads to joy and peace, but too often we see Jesus through the masks of our own limited perspectives. Masks of exclusive theology and violent cultural lenses obscure the truth: Jesus is Unconditional Love. We see Jesus unmasked when we allow him to unmask us, lifting the blinders of bias from our eyes. In the unmasked face of Jesus, there is hope, acceptance, and forgiveness that frees us from fear, that we may live into our fullest selves as reflections of God’s love. We welcome you to join us live on the Raven Foundation Facebook page.