This week we are discussing the Parable of the Lost Sheep (and the Lost Coin) found in Matthew 18:10-14 and Luke 15:3-10. Please read chapter 4 “Losing as the Mechanism of Grace” of Rev. Robert F. Capon’s book Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment – Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Fr. Kimel’s teaching on the chapter is here.
Parables of Grace:
As we looked at in the Introduction to his book, Capon divides Jesus’ ministry and his parables into three parts – Parables of the Kingdom, Parables of Grace, and Parables of Judgment. These parables respectively correspond to Jesus’ itinerant teaching ministry in Galilee, his journey to Jerusalem, and Holy Week. This middle section begins with Jesus’ pronouncement that he must go to Jerusalem and be killed (Matt. 16:21, 17:22) and ends with Palm Sunday (Matt. 21). Within this section we will be looking at the Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Unforgiving Servant, the Friend at Midnight, the Narrow Door, the Great Banquet, the Prodigal Son, and the Unjust Judge. We will study these parables through the lens of Jesus’ predictions of his Passion and Resurrection and how God’s Grace is manifested in these two events. If you have time, please read Chapters 1 and 2 of the Parables of Grace to get a sense of Capon’s understanding of the essential nature of these parables.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep is the first parable of Grace. However, before we get to the parable, please read the context (Matthew 17:22-18:9) in which it is told. This begins with Jesus’ second statement that the “Son of Man is to be deceived into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.”
This statement, of course, greatly distressed the disciples. The first time Jesus made this statement (Matt. 16:21-23), Peter rebuked Jesus, to which Jesus replied that the rock of his church was Satan. After this second prediction, the disciples decide not to confront Jesus with the apparent absurdity of his statement but begin to discuss among themselves what place they will have of honor and power in Jesus’ kingdom. And it is here that they get into their argument over who is the greatest.
Within the greater context, these parables of grace are bookended by the question of who is the greatest (Matt. 18:1) and the answer that the first must be last. (Matt 20:16). As Capon writes: As [Jesus] begins the parables of grace, [he] is preoccupied with the notion that the work of the Messiah will be accomplished not by winning but by losing. And the losers who will accompany him into his Kingdom are the last (eschatos), the least (elachistos), the lost (apololos), the little (mikros), and the dead (nekros). p.180. In the paradoxical mysterious teachings of Jesus, the greatest is the least.
The first “loser” (Capon’s terminology) that Jesus looks to is a child. And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matt. 18:2-4
Jesus invites us to think about the status of a child, particularly in ancient society. Children are weak and vulnerable. They require protection from themselves, from adults, and from the surrounding world. They have no means of self-support. They are at the complete mercy of their caregivers. In the ancient world, maybe up to half of all children died before reaching adulthood. A child is ultimately not in the least bit of control of his existence. And so Jesus says that a person’s place in the kingdom of Heaven is directly related to the humility and humbling circumstances experienced by a child. To foreshadow the parables, God’s grace comes most strongly on those who need it the most, and who needs grace more than a helpless child.
The Treatment of Child:
Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. . . . See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven. Matt. 18:5-6, 10.
The word translated “to sin” in Matthew 18:6 is skandalizein which means to snare, offend, sin, or cause to turn away. This raises the question of what exactly is the snare or offense that someone can give a child. For Capon the precise offense or cause of turning away that Jesus has in mind is the despising of the littleness, lostness, lastness, etc., that he has been working up into a veritable catalogue of redeeming unsuccesses. “Don’t go around throwing their littleness or lack of respectability at them,” he says in effect, “because those things are my chosen meter. If you spook them away from such things, you spook them away from me. p.182. In other words, if someone causes a humble person to despise their humility, they are working against the Kingdom.
Finally, in a set-up to the parable and to bring the lesson of the child home, Jesus gives a bizarre teaching on self-mutilation. And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the fire of this age. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the fire of Gehenna. Matt. 18:8-9. Once more, Jesus (Matthew) uses the word skandalizein. This again raises the question of what exactly is the sin, the snare, the stumbling-block that a body part can cause. Often this verse is interpreted morally – if you commit a moral transgression with your body part then cut it off in order to cease the transgression. However, this is not Capon’s interpretation.
“If your hand or your foot causes you to turn away,” he says (that is, if being a winner with success-oriented equipment causes you to forget that I work through losers only), “then cut it off. It’s better for you to enter into life maimed or lame [in other words, to live as a loser in this age] than to end up having your whole unredeeming and unredeemed success thrown in the fire of the age to come.”
In other words, Jesus is once more emphasizing that success in the Kingdom requires a person to be the last, least, lost, little, and dead in this life. Whatever makes us rely upon our own selves for our own salvation must necessarily be cut-off or else it will be destroyed in the cleansing judgment of the fire of this age. 1 Cor. 3:13-15.
The Amorality of the Gospel:
As a final part of an introduction to this section of Jesus’s teaching (Transfiguration to Palm Sunday), Jesus is telling his disciples and us, that the Kingdom of Heaven, the salvation of the World, and the restoration of all things will come about only through the grace of God as manifested in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Nothing we do – morally, spiritually, or doctrinally – will enable us to enter the Kingdom of Heaven in this age or the age to come. Rather, our entry into the Kingdom depends solely upon the work of Christ and our abandonment of anything else that we may rely upon. As Capon writes:
And the sad fact is that the church, both now and at far too many times in its history, has found it easier to act as if it were selling the sugar of moral and spiritual achievement rather than the salt of Jesus’ passion and death. It will preach salvation for the successfully well-behaved, redemption for the triumphantly correct in doctrine, and pie in the sky for all the winners who think they can walk into the final judgment and flash their passing report cards at Jesus. But every last bit of that is now and ever shall be pure baloney because: (a) nobody will ever have that kind of sugar to sweeten the last deal with, and (b) Jesus is going to present us all to the Father in the power of his resurrection and not at all in the power of our own totally inadequate records, either good or bad. p.183. As the song says, it is in Christ alone that our hope is found.
This is the background of the parable. God has a bias towards the marginalized, the weak, and the humble. There are no set of moral rules that we can follow or canons of doctrine that we can assent to that will bring about a new heaven and a new earth. It is only through Jesus’ death and resurrection by which death is defeated and we are liberated from its power. God’s Grace works when we die to ourselves and our merit and get out of the way. In spite of all our fakery, though, Jesus’ program remains firm. He saves losers and only losers. He raises the dead and only the dead. p.183. The Parable of the Lost Sheep will bring home this point.
Dinner is at 6:30. The menu is savory waffles. Discussion about 7:15. Hope to see you here!
A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the (purple streak at sunset) as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it, a vast horde of souls was tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black (people) in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. . . . In woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.Flannery O’Connor, Revelation.