Lost things and lions

September 11, 2007

All of the lectionary texts for this week address lost things. In
Jeremiah, a people and a city; in 1 Timothy, a blasphemer and a Roman
citizen; in Luke, a sheep and a coin.

Perhaps they might lead us
to suppose the Bible is all about lost things. I expect that’s what the
Pharisees and scribes listening to Jesus’ parables might have supposed.
Jesus begins, “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one…”
—inviting them to identify with the hard-working shepherd who labors
over his irresponsible and sometimes unreliable sheep. I confess as a
priest and professor I can lapse into the same mode: why don’t people
show up when they say they will? Why can’t students get their papers to
me on time? Of course, I’m responsible and reliable to the
utmost, never late for anything and meticulous in following up the
minutest particulars. . .just like the woman searching methodically to
complete her count of coins.

If the
Bible is about lost things, then I find here a comfortable fit. It
describes humanity well: at least it confirms something of my
experience. These parables acknowledge my hard work and urge me on to
be even more patient and particular in seeking out the lost; on the one
hand, never giving up and on the other hand, treasuring even the most
recalcitrant clients. Bear in mind that I’m not offended to be compared
to a shepherd or a woman, as undoubtedly the Pharisees would have been.

But
this is not the point of these parables. The problem is with the
assumption that the Bible is all about humanity. No! The Bible is
fundamentally about God. Jesus isn’t just calling the Pharisees to be a
bit more generous. Hear the twist at the end, when Jesus calls them to
repentance—a complete reversal of their way of seeing and being in the
world. The point of these two parables is not for us to identify with
the shepherd and the woman. We are not the shepherd: we are the lost
sheep. We are not the woman: we are the lost coin. God is the shepherd;
God is the searching woman. God is the one who takes the astonishing
risk of leaving the 99 sheep and coming to look for us, a journey of
danger, daring and devotion. God is the one who carefully,
thoughtfully, seeks us out like a woman meticulously and methodically
tracking down a lost coin. This story about God is also an invitation
to become a part of God’s story—if we can stop running away and hiding
from the one who yearns and searches for us.

We are used to
hearing these parables, and it is hard to communicate the shock of this
reversal afresh. Allow me to indulge in a favorite story from a book
that never seems to become dated: Christianity Rediscovered,
by Vincent Donovan. Donovan was a Roman Catholic priest-missionary in
Tanzania in the 1960s. Exasperated with conventional forms of Catholic
education , he persuaded his bishop to let him simply wander among the
Masai tribes, sharing their life and talking about God.

Initially
he wrestled with his own doubts about how the particular story of
Jesus’ cross and resurrection translated into the Masai culture all
around him. But a Masai elder converted Donovan by contrasting the
faith of a Western hunter with the faith of an African lion. The Masai
elder showed Donovan that his notion of faith was a profoundly Western
notion: it was merely intellectual assent. “To ‘believe’ like that was
similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great
distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act.” The
Masai elder said, “‘For a [person] really to believe is like a male
lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up on the
prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his
body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck
with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal
goes down the lion envelops it in his arms. . .pulls it to itself, and
makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way
a [person] believes. This is what faith is.”

The Masai elder
went on. “You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even
leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this.
We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.”