The Joy of Us
So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Luke 15:1-7 (NRSV)
I have never really liked to sweat. I have heard of athletes who long for the infamous ‘runner’s high’ that one receives from doing a bout of hard work. There is a neurological release of just the right stuff that gives someone a feeling of pure euphoria. I have envied it for some time. Here is the thing, though: I just plain ol’ don’t like the work required to do it.
I can remember when I came home from college in my final year. I had graduated in December, which was earlier than my peers and then-fiancée. I had six months of living at home before I would stand before my sweetheart and pledge myself to her forever.
I was also getting a bit husky. I was the heaviest I had ever been and I had nothing but time on my hands. I decided, with some encouragement from a visual novel, that this would be the time where I would push myself to get healthy.
Every morning, I set an alarm to wake up extra early. I donned warm fitness wear that I had just procured from the K-Mart and I set myself to a daily five-mile jog to start off my day. I drank only water, treating myself to Southern sweet tea only on a ‘cheat day.’ I counted calories. I was determined. I lost thirty-five pounds and was nearing my desired weight for myself. I expected a dramatic turn around in my life. I felt like I should feel how Brad Pitt feels constantly.
But I never got that feeling. I never got the runner’s high.
Then it got hot. Which, for me, is anything above fifty degrees fahrenheit. It had been pretty easy to start exercising in January. I could always layer and shed the excess clothes as I warmed up. By the time mid-March hit, I was in a tank and gym shorts and steaming like a Trekkie at a Star Wars convention.
When push came to shove, I still did not have that runner’s high nor did I have the motivation of the cool weather. Add on to that I had already met my goal - I was doomed. I stopped my workout plan post-haste.
Now, contrary to the usual story, I did not put all of the weight back on right away. I have gone to and fro in years since, but I have never again found that same motivation that led to those five-mile jogs. There was something circumstantial about that.
These days, I am much more likely to go for a walk with my family. Even if I do not want to, I normally wind up walking anyway, because I enjoy the company that I am with regardless of my desire for exercise.
Truth be told, I do not think that exercise has ever been something I am missing. That is one of the ninety-nine sheep. Not the one that is missing from my herd.
Before you get going, I understand that Jesus is not telling everyone in this passage to go and sign up to order a Bowflex. Or I guess Peloton might be a more timely reference. Like I said: I am just not into exercise. Anyway - I understand that is not what this text is directly about in the context. But isn’t it?
Let us first just take this text piece by piece. Jesus is talking to a bunch of farmers and common folk. Either these people are shepherds or they are best friends with one. Jesus is meeting these people where they are and talking to them in a parable with which they can empathize personally.
The dudeski in the story has a herd of one hundred sheep. One gets away for whatever reason. Jesus does something important here: without question, Jesus assumes that any shepherd worth his staff would go after the missing delinquent. The shepherd looks until the sheep is found. We don’t get to know how long that takes. Once the sheep is found, the shepherd brings the sheep back.
Then it gets wacky. The shepherd invites the neighborhood and throws a doggone rager for the missing sheep. Everyone that is close enough to hear - this shepherd shouts from the mountaintops, “I found my lost sheep!” Raucous applause. Curtain close.
With the story finished, Jesus shares the moral of the story: this is how it goes when one sinful person repents and is ‘found.’ Just from the one who is found, there is, in Jesus’ own words, great rejoicing! Joy!
Have you ever found a lost sock? Or managed to find your car in the parking lot after searching high and low? Did you happen to rejoice afterwards? Did you tell everyone in your life the good news? Maybe - but something tells me you probably did a quick victory pose and moved on with your life, right?
We do not get to be privy to the reaction of the audience to which Jesus speaks. I can’t help but wonder what the look on their faces must have been. Were they in absolute accord with Jesus? “Yes, of course, we absolutely celebrate. We throw a party every time. And we absolutely search for every lost sheep. We don’t stop until they are found.”
Maybe that is the truth. I will leave that work to historical analysts. In my imagination, there is another viable possibility here: what if the crowd is positively dumbfounded by this? “Uh, hey Jesus, that’s not really how this works. Yeah, we have never actually done that before. That is not something that we normally do. That doesn’t line up with how we have always done things.”
Perhaps Jesus is not drawing a comparison between how things really are for the shepherds; maybe Jesus is setting a goal to be attained in our IRL expectations. Could it be that Jesus is actually calling out the shepherds on their B.S. and giving them the ol’ one-two gut punch?
In the first generation of Pokémon games (Red, Blue, Yellow), the player character is faced with a decision before they enter Mt. Moon. They have come a bit of the way in their adventure. By this point, they have gained a starter, met a rival, had some low-level trainer battles, caught some bugs and maybe even a Pikachu, and even beaten their first Gym Leader in Pewter City. One thing they have not done is catch a fish-type Pokémon.
The trainer looks through their roster - they have some fighting-type, grass, electric, normal, poison - depending on starter they may even have a water- or fire-type. But nothing close to a fish - unless one counts the starter Squirtle. The player then goes into the Pokémon Center outside of Mt. Moon. They have just faced some tough trainers, maybe even caught the adorable Jigglypuff. But a cave sits before them. Mystery awaits.
Inside the Pokémon Center waits a mysterious man who draws in the player’s attention.
“Hey, kid,” the grungy man whispers, “I’ll let you have a secret Pokémon - a Magikarp - for just 500 Poké-Yen!”
The player’s palms sweat with uncertainty - what decision is the right one? 500 Poké-Yen is a pretty penny, but not so much they can’t afford it.. Not to mention that the opportunity to just buy a Pokémon has not been an option by this point in the game. What have they got to lose, right? They hand over the 500 Poké-Yen to the crook, who snickers as the exchange takes place, “No refunds!”
As the player looks at the Magikarp, they see a dopey weak Pokémon who does not even have any moves that can do damage. This means that the one process that might allow the Pokémon to level up is taken away - the only way to raise the Magikarp’s level is to put it out first, then swap to another Pokémon team member, sharing the experience points with both. An irritating process, to say the least.
Here lies an impasse - the player character must make a choice. Call it a loss and put the Magikarp in the Box to never be used again? Or grin and bear the process - raising the Magikarp level-by-level until something changes in the pointless fish?
Most players likely knew enough going into this encounter and cleverly avoided the temptation here, realizing a Magikarp can be caught easily a bit later in the game. Similarly, any players that took the bait and purchased the Magikarp likely just put the weakling aside - survival of the fittest.
But there is a third possibility that gives my child-like heart a twirl. What about the rare player who goes into the game blind, falls for the trick, and perseveres in training that Magikarp?
Imagine, if you will, their face at the moment when it all changed. This person sits for likely hours (or at least what feels like hours) grinding away at the system, levelling up their Pokémon again and again. Level 10, no change. Level 15, no change. Level 19, still no change.
Suddenly, right when they are ready to call it quits, the Magikarp reaches Level 20 and that goofy-looking goldfish starts to glow with that classic iridescent white glow. Behind the light, the fish warps, mashes and molds in the same evolutionary cycle animation that the player has seen with their strongest team members.
With unbridled glee, the player lets out a scream of delight as the light fades and reveals a gigantic sea serpent with piercing features, gnarly fangs, and a cool blue scaly exterior. The little 22- pound fish from moments ago has transformed into a 21-foot-long, 518-pound atrocity known as Gyarados. All of that hard work is made evident in the reward of one of the stronger Pokémon in the first generation.
Continue to imagine with me what might happen next - does this happen on the playground at school? Do they go and tell every other kid trading baseball cards? Do they even tell their unsuspecting teacher who doesn’t have an ever-loving idea what is going on? Do they go to the principal’s office to call home and tell their mom, dad, siblings, whoever-will-listen the good news? Do they climb to the top of the monkey bars and exclaim that they’ve become the proud owner of Gyarados?
Confession Time: I have always felt bad for the ninety-nine sheep in the story. I have always thought that I am likely one of them. I have been in church my whole life. I have been a Christian pretty much the whole time. Sure, I waver and falter - but most of my life I have been one of the ninety-nine. Why should the one who wanders away get all the rejoicing? Why should they get to enjoy the party? Why does the shepherd tell everyone about them?
If we are being honest, I would wager many of us have felt that way before. Why should someone else get rewarded if we are the ones putting in all of the effort? I get that - and so did Jesus. I am certain that there were some in the crowd who were hearing this message from Jesus that day who knew what Jesus was doing.
Some of these folks had worked all of their lives following the Jewish law to the letter. Then Jesus comes along and starts spouting out all of this nonsense about love, welcoming, and an inclusive God who wants to welcome in the sinner, the tax collector, and the prostitute.
Why should we worry about the one who is lost? Why should we even bother with some weak and measly Magikarp? Why should I care one iota about getting physical exercise without feeling the rewarding serotonin-like euphoria?
Simply put, it is because of the ninety-nine.
The reason that Jesus tells us this story is not because the one is ‘more special’ or ‘less worth it;’ it is because of the great reunion that happens between the one and the ninety-nine. The gift of the return. The climactic moment that the division ends and the two become one in pure joy. With Jesus, there is no either/or scenario. There is no ‘us versus them.’ None of that exists, and because of that we should be in a state of absolute rejoicing!
What does this joy mean for us here in the midst of this time of Advent? This might be the most important word for those of us in the United States of America as we contemplate the act of preparing for Jesus’ return. There is a great deal of rejoicing that happens when the two become one, when the division ends, when acceptance and love are shared between others.
As for this pastor’s view on the current state of society, I see no current reason at all for rejoicing. I have never seen more division. I have never seen more hatred. Whether it is found in the hands of the one or the ninety-nine does not really matter at this point - the real question is this: are we even trying to find the one? Are we out seeking? Or have we given up? Have we been convinced that Gyarados isn’t worth it? That I should just give up on my health?
Friends, I do not want you to think that I am making some bold political declaration. My statement is deeper and more important than anything even tangentially related to politicking. Compared to the level of importance of Jesus’ standard of rejoicing, politics are a mere child’s plaything. I want us to consider where the one sheep might be in our lives; in our families; in our communities; in our country; in our world.
I want us to think of what we are really called to in this life.
When Jesus calls us to love God and love our neighbor, where are we simply falling short? Where have we stopped looking? Jesus may seem to assume that the shepherd searches until the sheep is found, but, if we’re being honest, we know that just isn’t the case. Get out of your comfort zone. Get out of your bubble. Seek out the joy that can only come from a joy of people together. Seek out the joy of us.