I used to be a store manager a long, long time ago in a different life. I used to manage a dime store. For those of you too young to know, a dime store was a variety store that carried a little bit of everything and sold it cheap. It was the kind of store you could buy batteries and underwear and hamster food all in the same place. Yeah, I know you can do that at Target or Wal-mart, but these were little stores.
I didn’t start out as a manager, of course. I worked my way up, from stock boy to department manager, to assistant manager, and finally to manager. Now one thing you know when you have to work with people is that people complain. People love to complain. Retail employees complain about their hours, and they complain about their bosses, but what they complain about most is the customer.
They complain about how the customers are rude. They complain about how the customers ask stupid questions such as, “Where do you keep the screwdrivers” when they are standing right in front of the screwdrivers. They complain about how some customer will walk in the front door three minutes before closing time. Retail employees particularly love to complain about how customers complain. They complain about how the customer messes up the nice display that the clerk just spent an hour setting up.
I can remember the look on a clerk’s face when, after spending an hour folding panties and bras in the lingerie aisle, saw a customer’s toddler come along and rifle through all the merchandise, throwing it around, while the mother stood there and laughed. I heard the clerk say, “This store would be so much better without all the damn customers!” I had to stop myself from reminding her that if it weren’t for the “damn” customers, she wouldn’t have a job. But I guess we’re all kind of lazy. Teaching would be a lot easier if it weren’t for the damn students.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember why we’re here. Sometimes we need to be reminded. I think Jesus must have felt that way. The Pharisees and Scribes, religious leaders of their time, constantly criticized him for the company he kept.
“But all the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were murmuring, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats together with them.” But he said to them this parable, saying:
“Which person among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost until he might find it? And when he has found it, he lays it upon his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes into the home, he calls (his) friends and neighbors together, saying to them, ‘Rejoice together with me, for I have found my lost sheep.’ I say to you that there will be similar joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over ninety-nine just persons who are having no need of repentance.
Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she might lose one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search diligently until she might find it? And when she found (the coin), she called together (her) friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice together with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ So, I say to you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner repenting.” (Luke, Chapter 15)
Although the story of the lost sheep also appears in Matthew, this passage is primarily from Luke. The story of the lost sheep refers back to an earlier passage in Ezekiel, “Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” The religious leaders of the time believed that righteous people ought to avoid people such as tax collectors and “sinners”. And of course, by “sinners”, they were talking about hookers and other sexual offenders.
Ah, being a religious leader would be so much easier if it weren’t for all those sinners, wouldn’t it? But then Jesus makes it clear that God is particularly interested in the people that need spirituality in their lives. What need do the healthy have for a physician, eh? This passage is a stinging indictment of the religious establishment. By using the allusion to Ezekiel, Jesus is pointing out that the “shepherds” are not feeding their flocks.
Jesus, on the other hand, is going out of his way to meet the needs of those who are looking for something. You will note that the passage begins by saying that “all” the sinners were going out to meet Jesus. Not some—all.
Those people were obviously looking for something. But aren’t we all? All of us seem to have this hollow, empty feeling in the center of the chest. We all have this hunger for…something. And we all try to fill it. Some people fill it with work. Some people fill it with exercise. Some people fill it with drugs, or alcohol, or sex. Some people fill it with a hobby of some kind. Some people even try to fill it with other people, people like children, or friends, or spouses. And in the end, none of those things satisfy.
My wife’s mother tried to fill that emptiness with her children. But eventually, her children grew up and made lives of their own, and then she had nothing. What most religious faiths try to teach that what it is we all want, the only thing that will fill the void, is a connection to the creative spirit of the universe, God, the Tao, Atman, or whatever you want to call it.
Jesus taught that the way to connect to that power was to see the divine in everybody. According to the Eden myth, Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because she wanted to be like God. She wanted to feel that connection. The mistake, the great lie, the illusion, was that she was ever NOT connected to that power. It’s like looking for your glasses when they were on top of your head the whole time.
And of course, it doesn’t matter if this story really happened. The bible shouldn’t be viewed as history. It is a collection of stories designed to teach a spiritual truth. This story could well have been included in Luke to point out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. This is not a story about repentance.
The sheep that the shepherd is seeking has no need of repentance. The shepherd is not thinking, “Man, I hope that sheep comes to his senses and comes on home.” He just wants his sheep back and he’s going out to find him. The coin for which the woman searches has no need to confess. Jesus makes it clear that God loves and wants us all.
A lot of people go out and spend a lot of time and money looking for God. You don’t have to go out looking for God; God is looking for you. You just have to let God find you. Just be open to the idea.
When I was very little, a boy 4 years old, my mom would drive into San Pedro on business. She would take me with her. And on a hill, on top of a church, there was a statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I was fascinated by that statue. I used to make my mom drive near the statue so I could see it. For some reason, that statue called to me. I was too little to understand what it stood for. I was too little to worry about heaven or hell or eternal life and any of kind of theology. I only knew that statue seemed to call out to me.
Growing up, I was always interested in the story of Jesus, the story of the Buddha, the story of Moses, and Mohammed. I’ve never lost that interest. It had nothing to do with a fear of death, or heaven, or hell. I only knew that those stories spoke to me for reasons I did not understand. I’m not sure I understand them now. I guess I’m still trying to understand them.
And in my mind, I can’t help but believe that living a spiritual life has nothing to do with some “reward” we’re supposed to get some day when we die. I have to agree with my Jewish brothers and sisters that spirituality isn’t about death, it’s about the way we live. You don’t love God because you hope for some reward. You love God because God is God, because you are a part of God and God is a part of you. After all, you don’t love your parents because they give you stuff. You love them because you love them, because they are your family.
Well, we are all family. And I don’t love people because of what they can do for me, or what they can give me. I love them because we are connected. We are a part of one another. We are connected by that one spirit we all share. And God loves us, not because we are so wonderful, or so special, or righteous in any way, but because we are a part of God. Just as God completes each one of us, we complete God. So God is looking for us.
Luke (or whoever wrote Luke) was pointing out that those religious leaders, rather than helping bring people to God, were trying to keep some people away from God. They were pushing people away. But God isn’t pushing us away. God is drawing us in. This is why wanting to burn the Quran is such an insult to all that Christ taught. To connect to that spirit we have to love and accept one another, not exclude one another. God accepts us however we come to Him/Her.
Speaking as a father, I know I love my sons regardless of what they do or believe. I don’t always approve of what they do or believe, but I never stop loving them. And my love is not conditional. I don’t expect them to change their lives to please me. I accept them for who they are. I would never push them away. I don’t think God would ever push any of us away, ever.
Remember that the Greek word we translate as “repent” means to change your way of seeing things. When Jesus calls on us to repent, he means to change the way we see the world. We need to quit seeing ourselves as isolated in a hostile world. We need to see ourselves as part of whole, part of the “body of Christ”, as Saint Paul puts it, part of the spirit of God.
Moreover, the Greek word for “sin” comes from a military term meaning to miss the target. So sinning doesn’t mean to do bad stuff; it means to miss the point. We are sinners not because we do bad things; we are sinners because we still don’t get it. Hinduism speaks of this as Maya—the grand illusion. We think we are separated from God, but we’re not. It’s as though the little finger thought it was something separate from the body, something different from the thumb, or nose. Jesus teaches us to change that way of thinking, to “repent”.
You cannot have a store without customers. You cannot be a teacher without students. You cannot be a parent without children. And we cannot exist without God, because God is a part of each one of us. I suspect that once we really come to accept that idea and embrace it, that empty feeling inside will finally be filled. Maybe that can never happen as long as we live in this world, distracted by everything around us. Lao Tzu said the five colors make us blind and the five tones make us deaf. We just can’t see the forest for the trees.
Maybe you have to die before you finally come to understand. I don’t know. I do believe that somewhere God is looking for me, calling for me, like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, like a woman searching for a coin. I sure hope S/He finds me. I have faith S/He will.