I love those old 1930's movies in black and white. Often their simplicity and directness tell a story better than today's need for subplots, violence, and sex.
Sometimes the films of yesteryear found successful elements that made their way into many pictures. One favorite ploy was to take some urban sophisticate, generally from New York, and place him in the wilds of New England. More often than not the city slicker got his comeuppance from his rural cousin.
I don't recall the movie this scene is from, but it has a fellow in a tuxedo motoring around in a streamline convertible. He seems to be getting nowhere, so he spots a farmer and stops to ask him for directions.
"I say, friend, does this road lead to New York?"
"I wouldn't know," said the farmer.
"Well, does it lead to Boston?"
"I wouldn't know," said the farmer.
"Well, does it lead to Hartford?"
"I don't know," said the farmer.
"Well, what do you know?"
To which the farmer replies in typical Yankee fashion, "I know I'm not lost!"
Our two short parables today also have to do with being lost. They are directed to those who are lost in life, and know it; but they're also intended for those who are lost, and don't even realize it. Jesus likely used these two parables together, for they make an identical point and reinforce each other.
The first three verses in our text set the stage. They tell us that tax collectors and sinners were among those who came to listen to what Jesus was teaching. If fact, the gospels make it clear that society's undesirables made up a sizeable portion of the people attracted to Jesus. What's more, Jesus even welcomed such people to come and eat with him.
In those days being at table with others was considered something intimate. You didn't sit down with just anybody. Moreover, you didn't even want to associate with anyone whose reputation was tinged.
The Pharisees and scribes prided themselves on following the letter of the Law, of avoiding evil lest it besmirch them, of staying out of trouble with God. So eating with "bad" people is just about the last thing they would want to do. They are critical of Jesus because he does that. They aren't soft spoken in their comments, either.
Try to picture Jesus teaching outdoors. All sorts of folks are around him. There's his disciples; a mixture of peasants, artisans, tradesmen, and even a few who seem to be quite prosperous. There's shepherds, donkey drivers, peddlers, thieves, and prostitutes. Then there's also the "religious police" standing at the periphery of the crowd. You can tell who they are. They're the ones who aren't smiling.
Can you see Jesus looking right at the scribes and Pharisees as he begins to tell this story? "Friends, suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them—what do you do? You leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and go looking for the lost one until you find it. When you locate that sheep, you're so happy that you put it on your shoulders and carry it back home. Then you call your friends and neighbors together and say to them, `I'm so happy that I've found my lost one. Let's celebrate!'
"Or suppose a woman who has ten silver coins loses one of them—what does she do? She lights a lamp, sweeps her house, and looks carefully everywhere until she finds it. When she discovers the coin, she calls her friends and neighbors together, and says to them, `I'm so happy because I found the coin that I lost. Let's celebrate!'"
I wonder if those who heard his words that day understood his intention? It wasn't just the value of the lost sheep that caused the shepherd to set out on his search. It was the fact that it belonged to him and that, without his help, it couldn't find its way back to the flock.
In the second story the ten coins were probably worn on the woman's headdress and were part of her dowry. This was likely her most prized possession, both for its actual and its sentimental value. Without her diligent search, the coin would be lost for good.
Through the actions of the man and woman, the sheep and the coin were found. Without their efforts the lost items would have been permanently separated form where they belong and to whom they belong.
Of course Jesus' purpose has nothing to do with either animals or money. They're only symbolic illustrations of a greater reality. Jesus makes it known through these parables that God wants those who are lost to return and that it is His mission to call them, to search for them, to carry them spiritually back home. That's what He is set apart to do. That's why He does what he does.
Perhaps it's not surprising that some of the first who respond to Jesus are those who have strayed the farthest away, for it's they who most realize the pain in their lives. They know they're lost, drifting, without purpose or meaning. They realize they have nowhere to go but up. Yet, until they meet Jesus, they don't know how. He shows them the way by coming to them personally and affirming them in love. He tells them that they have value and that God awaits them eagerly.
What good news to hear! No wonder that pimps and carousers, thieves and brawlers, give their lives over to Him. It's as if they have literally been born again, for everything is now changed about their lives. They find here what they had been seeking elsewhere in vain.
One of those old movie stars from the 30's was W. C. Fields. In most of his pictures he plays a lovable rascal who's nimble of tongue and quick of wit. In one picture he's flying through the clouds in an early predecessor to the helicopter. Suddenly he notices that his supply of beer is running out, so he lands on the roof of a hotel somewhere in China.
Fields gets out and asks the curious people where he is. "You're in Wu Hu," comes the polite reply. He looks a bit perplexed, then says, "I'm looking for Kansas City."
"You are lost, sir," someone answers.
Taking offense at this, Fields stands up straight, throws out his chest, and bellows, "My good man, Kansas City is lost! I am here."
And this leads to the other thrust of the two parables: it's for those who are caught up in themselves, who feel so smug that they believe the world revolves around them. They don't realize that they, too, might be lost.
The Pharisees were a confidant lot. They kept all the formalities of religion. They were good and they knew it. They were judgmental because they were assured of their own righteousness. What could this itinerant preacher, this Jesus from Nazareth, teach them?
Jesus uses these parables as a response to the criticism that He is eating with sinners and outcasts, but He also wants his accusers to see that they, too, stand in the need of repentance, of finding their way back to God. Jesus invites them to open their eyes and hearts that they may come to discover what the outcasts already see so clearly.
There's not much opportunity to observe sheep in the city. If we could we'd notice that they just wonder along rather oblivious to danger. They move from one tuft of grass to another, hardly looking up to see where they're going. Only when the day is drawing to a close do they find that they may have nibbled their way lost. Even then, they may not realize it.
The truth is any one of us can stray, any one of us can move away from God without hardly noticing it.
Friends, Jesus is the shepherd of humanity. In God's name He calls us into the divine presence. He bids us to look up and discover where we are spiritually, then He extends his hand to us and says gently, "Come, I'll show you the way. Don't be frightened for I have already laid down my life once on your behalf. Come and follow me and I will show you the way. Come and I'll help you find the security that only God's presence in your life can give you."
Jesus' mission was to save those who knew they were lost. His mission was to save those who didn't even realize they were lost. His mission was to everyone, and it remains so today.