Proper 19C Sermon (2022)

Proper 19 (September 11-17)
Texts: Luke 15:1-10;
Ex 32:7-14; 1 Tim 1:12-17

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“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

Jesus is asking you and I what we would do. The original Greek text actually has the word anthropos, “human being,” in it, so Jesus is asking the question very generally: “Which human being of you? Which person of you?” I think this is one of those questions which goes much deeper than it might appear on the surface. Jesus is asking a question here that is fundamental to the new way, the true way, of being human which he has come to pioneer for us.

First, we need a frame of reference. I’m a city boy who’s never owned herds of domesticated animals. This is somewhat of a country church. I know that some of you have at least owned horses — perhaps a few other farm animals, too. Has anyone owned sheep? But certainly not a larger herd of, say, a hundred sheep. My frame of reference would be something like having watched some episodes of Yellowstone, the TV drama with Kevin Costner playing a cattle ranch owner in Montana.

With that frame of reference in mind, the first thing I might notice is that this parable is not necessarily as it’s often depicted — namely, as about a shepherd who abandons the herd to look for one lost sheep. That would be crazy! No, Jesus is asking us this question as if we’re the owner of the sheep, not necessarily the shepherd. One thing I know from watching Yellowstone is that there is a significant difference between the ranch owner and the hired hands. Would John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner, go looking for one lost cow while the cowboys tended the herd? He might. I’m sure there’s many ranch owners that are pretty uninvolved in the day-to-day tending of their livestock. They might even instruct the cowboys not to waste their time looking after single strays from a large herd. But John Dutton in Yellowstone is not like that. He’s more hands on. And in the context of today’s cattle ranching, where each cow is worth thousands of dollars, he might tell one of his cowboys to go find a stray. He might even do it himself, while the cowboys continue to tend to the herd. (By the way, I did quickly Google the price of a cow today, and it’s between two and five thousand dollars.)

So this parable isn’t just about being a good shepherd of the sheep. In fact, if there’s just one shepherd of a flock of a hundred sheep, it would be bad shepherding to leave the other 99 in the wilderness to look for one. You might find the one only to come back and find that you’ve lost a whole lot more. No, I think this parable is more about the economics of owning herds of sheep. As such, Jesus is addressing us as anthropos, as human beings, and he’s talking about something deeper than being livestock owners. He’s asking us about our economics with other human beings. He’s asking about caring for animals as a way of asking, ‘Do our economics of caring for other human beings seek to make sure everyone is cared for?’

Now, Jesus’ audience are mostly peasants. Some may even be shepherds, or they may be someone who otherwise helps care for some wealthy person’s land, animals or not. There might be some Pharisees in the crowd of listeners — as such they are persons who do have some leadership role that can influence the economics of caring for the people. Pharisees had some say in caring for their people.

But this question posed to the wider crowd would make it more obvious to his wider audience the failure of their leaders. Most of them were very poor, working hard just to survive, while their leaders were comparatively wealthy and lived in relative luxury. Jesus was, as the great Hebrew prophets before him, implicating the wealthy for an economics that failed to care for those on the margins. We’ll hear the prophet Amos do just that in the next two weeks, in our First Readings from scripture.

Another background to this parable is signaled by the word “wilderness” — namely, leaving the other 99 sheep in the wilderness. Further background to this parable is the fact that in their culture the main way to ‘butcher’ an animal for consumption was on altars of ritual blood sacrifice. When one owned a herd of a hundred sheep in those days, many of them were slaughtered in large numbers in the temple for Passover, or smaller numbers on other occasions. This included cattle, too, even goats and birds. Luke tells us, in the story that comes right after the one we read every Christmas, that when it was time to make a sacrifice in the temple for Jesus’ circumcision day, his parents, Mary and Joseph, could only afford two birds (Luke 2:21-24). Looming behind every flock of a hundred sheep was the ritual blood slaughter of Passover. ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,’ says John the Baptist as he sees his cousin Jesus coming.

And the most prominent ritual sacrifice in Jesus’ culture, even more prominent than Passover, was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. At the center of things on Yom Kippur was the ritual of what we today call the Scapegoat (see Leviticus 16). It’s where the term “scapegoat” comes from. On the Day of Atonement, two flawless goats are chosen. One is sacrificed on the altar with its blood, along with the blood of some other animals, sprinkled over the congregation. Flung really. (You may have thought our rituals of affirming baptism annoying, where we dip evergreen branches into the water of the baptismal font and fling it over everyone. Imagine if that was animal blood instead of water.)

That’s the first goat. The second goat has the sins of the whole congregation metaphorically loaded upon it and is chased out into the wilderness, where it no doubt will meet its untimely death to wild animals. Yes, the wilderness. The place of the Scapegoat. Generally, in the economics of sacrifice the place of the lone scapegoat is in the wilderness in order to save the rest of us. That’s the logic and economics of sacrifice. One to save the many. Apparently, Jesus in this parable is turning that logic upside-down. The owner of the sheep leaves the 99 in the wilderness in order to save the one. It’s an inside-out or outside-in economy. Usually, kings and leaders of human economies sacrifice those on the margins in order to save those in the center — themselves. Isn’t Jesus suggesting an inside-out economics in which human leaders, the so-called owners of the sheep, tend especially to the most vulnerable, to the lost and the least? To those on the margins? That in God’s kingdom the economics are just that? Throwing parties for tending to and saving the most vulnerable?

So what does that say about economics today? As I’ve gone through my own conversion — from a Gospel message more centered on the afterlife to a Gospel message more centered on the coming of God’s kingdom into the world through Jesus Christ — I’ve begun to pay more attention to real world issues. Over the last ten years, I’ve read a dozen or more books on macro-economics. Micro-economics is more detailed stuff about things like how to invest one’s money. Macro-economics is about the big picture of how to help make an economy work better for everyone. I think that’s what Jesus is presenting to us today, the big picture of human economics. In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, he is posing questions concerning the leaders of his day. Do they have an economics in which no one is sacrificed? An economics that even turns things on its head by especially caring for the most vulnerable? For those on the margins? For those in the wilderness, so to speak, our scapegoats?

That’s precisely what Jesus came to launch! God’s kingdom, including God’s economics, in which the ones on the margins who are most often sacrificed as lost, become the ones most cared for, most sought after. Jesus came and let himself be the Lamb of God sacrificed to our failed economics, the Scapegoat pushed out into the wilderness on the cross. And on Easter he came bearing the way of New Creation, a new way of being human in which no one is sacrificed, no one is given up as lost.

Brothers and Sisters, Jesus’ parable of inside-out economics, a non-sacrificial economics, is even more relevant to us today. Jesus’ congregation lived in an imperial dictatorship, an authoritarian government in which they had little to say in their economic lives. The only way for Jesus to stand up to it was to ultimately let himself be killed by it. Today, in a democracy, while we still have one, we are able to choose our leaders and their economics. Which ones stand for an old-style economics which benefit those at the center way out of proportion to everyone else? And which ones stand for an economics moving more toward the economics of God’s kingdom, where we make sure everyone is cared for? An inside-out economics? Are any of them like the owner of a herd of sheep who is especially interested in caring for those on the margins who might be lost? When the Gospel message is about God’s kingdom coming into this world through the Lamb of God sacrificed to our failed economics, aren’t these relevant questions? Especially as we prepare to go to the polls again in a few weeks to choose our leaders?

Please join us over the next several Sundays (Proper 20C, Proper 21C, Proper 26C, Proper 23C) as we talk about stewardship, the economics of God’s kingdom coming into the world, and carefully ask questions about how that’s relevant to the choices we make in our everyday lives. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, September 11, 2022

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