Readings: Exodus 32:7-11; I Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
The parables of the good shepherd and the woman who lost a coin have been allegorized for centuries. What’s an allegory? An allegory is a narrative that has a single interpretation, each character or image being equivalent to a particular value or concept or individual. In our day, allegory is out of fashion though it still survives, much debased, in political satire. The trouble with allegory is that it abstracts very specific lessons from our experience and wrings out the life from the connection between the cautionary tale and our lived experience.
In today’s parables, I could understand the good shepherd to be an allegory of Jesus Christ. But do you see what’s just happened? Jesus has been reduced from a human being with an engaging personality to data, a fact. Knowing that might change my thinking but can he then change my life?
A parable is more open-ended and permits me to experience my life anew. It allows me to appropriate the meaning for myself, to judge and evaluate my living–to change. Parables seem to have been Jesus’ preferred way of teaching. He doesn’t draw the inevitable conclusion for us but leaves us the dignity of wrestling with the meaning. To my mind that’s great pedagogy.
In these parables, Jesus is giving us a feel for the joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. As we prayed in this morning’s Collect: Look upon us , O God, Creator and Ruler of all things, that we may feel the working of your mercy…
Think of the shepherd. His job is to keep the sheep safe, pasturing them and keeping the flock together, returning them safely to their owner.
St. Luke addresses a poor community. These people do the manual work and own little more than the clothes on their backs; they probably rent their homes from the people who hire them. They’re subject to criticism, arbitrary accusations and penalties–as the poor always are. Who ever gets used to that? So when the shepherd notices a sheep missing, he goes into a panic. He takes a calculated risk, leaving the rest of the sheep on their own and, in a sweat, takes off to find the missing lamb. Sheep are unimaginative and prefer being part of a flock; if they’re all feeding, they’ll stick together for a while doing what everyone else is doing. If the shepherd is lucky and finds the lost sheep right away, no harm is done. If he has to go too far afield, he risks the rest of them wandering off and he’s then in deep trouble. So you can imagine his relief and joy when he finds the stray and brings it back. Think of your own experience and I’m sure you’ll find parallels, be it a lost child, a lost receipt for your income tax, a dead-end of a problem…Then remember the rush of relief when everything turned out well!
So God and his angels are that invested in us?!! That identified with our fate? Imagine that!! Not only that: this is also what God feels like in my life when I turn back to God.
When you hear the Gospel or read it, when you explore the scriptures for yourself, use your imagination and experience. The Scriptures are our story–from dysfunctional families to tragic misjudgments to incredible reversals of fortune. Whenever I bring my life to what I read and pray, I can hardly believe how close God wants to come to me. I do not become enclosed in my experience or my fantasies, but am broken out of them, my experience both being judged and releasing its hold on me by the force of God’s living Word. But I must invest myself, risk putting myself honestly into the story. And why not? Aren’t I putting myself into God’s creative hands?