NINETY-NINE AND ONE
Luke 15 : 1 – 10
September 13, 1998 by Tad Mitsui
I misplace and lose things all the time. I can do a lot more in my life, if I don”t have to look for things. I am very happy when I find what I have been looking for. But the Gospel suggests that what is lost and found includes people. The lost persons are those who have problems. Then suddenly the innocent stories of a lost sheep and a lost coin become a little bit more complicated and challenging.
We understand how happy it is to find lost money. We also understand that bit about leaving behind ninety-nine sheep to find one who is lost. When we can not find something, we look for it almost in panic: "The key, the key." And the car is locked. We don”t worry about those things that are not lost at a time like that. Let”s apply this to people: The whole family unites when one member is in trouble. We don”t worry even about young children who are OK, and attend mother”s needs, when she is very sick, worry when father lost the job, or when a little Johnny runs into a serious trouble at school and the parents are called to the Principal”s office.
We normally accept it as given that we have to look after the troubled or the weakest first. We spend more time, energy, and money to take care of one person in need than we do on normal persons. A famous Anthropologist, Margaret Meade once said, "The mark of a healthy society is how it looks after its weak members." It is normal that we spend time to try to find the lost. We don”t worry about those who do not need immediate help. They are OK without our help: thank God. Jesus said, "a healthy person does not need a doctor." It is easy to understand the story of the lost coin. A coin has no mind or legs. It does not walk away to be lost. It has no responsibility for its own demise. Likewise, there are people who are in trouble for no fault of their own. Like disabled persons or the sick. Only a barbaric society that treats them like problems. Nazi society was the most barbaric in that sense, even though it was highly developed in science, strong militarily, and efficient economically.
It is also easy to understand the sheep who wandered away and lost. It was stupid, but it knew no better. Yes, we should be willing to spend time and to travel far to find the lost souls and bring them back. We should be happy when they are back, though they may need a bit of re-education. What is difficult for us, however, is persons whom Jesus called the lost people. Jesus spoke about people who have made wrong decisions and get into trouble. We think that it is their fault. It is difficult, for example, to be sympathetic with people, who got hooked on the drugs or threw away all money in gambling. It becomes even more difficult to accept the kind of people Jesus was talking about in today”s Gospel. You see, Jesus started all this discussion about ”lost and found”, when the Pharisees found tax-collectors and sinners with Jesus and questioned the wisdom of keeping such a company. They saw Jesus treating them like friends and eating with them. For the Jews during the Roman occupation, the tax-collectors were considered to be the most despicable people. You see, the Romans privatized the whole of tax administration. They gave the whole enterprise of assessment and collection of tax to a selected few people as their profit-making business. And the tax collectors made money, lots of it.
The Jews did not want to admit that such scum could be among their own people, and wished that they would just disappear. They were sellouts, traitors, blood suckers, people without any moral values. They became very rich. But nobody spoke to them nor wanted to be seen with them. Only Jesus did not reject them when they came to hear him. He even went into their homes, ate with them, and in fact, one of them became his disciple. His name was Matthew.
Jesus welcomed everyone who wanted to hear his teaching. He did not discriminate against people according to their reputations, names, jobs, nor their social standing. He accepted everyone, even the prostitutes. He believed in the potential of people, instead of blaming them for their past. He only saw their willingness to hear the word of God. This is because he saw the lost people as redeemable, so long as they had a willingness to change. No matter how immoral some of his followers might have been in the past, Jesus could see that some of them were willing to try to be better human beings. Serious intentions to change was good enough for Jesus. God is willing to forgive and welcome them back, when he sees seriousness about changing their lives.
In my father”s church, there was a retired Professor, who was Minister Emeritus. He was the Japan”s best known Old Testament scholar. He was not only a good scholar and a respected professor, he was also a powerful preacher. He preached a few times a year, and always attracted a standing-room-only audience from across the city. My father had a huge downtown church. The amazing thing about this man was that he was once a drug addict for many years in his youth. His hands trembled uncontrollably when he pronounced the blessing, because of that past. One day, as he told us, when he ran out of drug and he went into convulsion. When he regained consciousness, he found himself lying in a pew of a Salvation Army auditorium in a midst of an evangelistic meeting. There he sat and heard the good news about conversion and forgiveness. He decided to change his life right there and then to follow God”s way. He withdrew from heroin cold turkey, and went through several days of serious withdrawal syndrome alone all by himself. According to my medical doctor friend, this was almost impossible for a normal human being. Heroin withdrawal syndrome is so severe and physically painful that an addict usually wants to commit suicide.
This is an exceptional story which happened to one extraordinarily brave man. But my point is: yes, God is merciful and forgives all who repent and decide to return. He welcomes us back with open arms and there will be a great rejoicing. But do not think that it makes Christianity an easy religion. It is tough to admit one”s fault and change. But we can do it. Any ones can. There is always a second chance. It is up to us.