The Math of Mercy

2“The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable…”

Luke 15:1-10

Fifteen years ago this Sunday (9/11) something awful happened, and I do mean aw-full. Most of us were filled with awe. We let ourselves be awed by evil, and it consumed us. Four planes were hijacked–the Twin Towers destroyed. 2,996 were killed, which includes the 19 men who carried out the absurdity and whose loss was no less tragic. Such a meaningless act is evil for sure, but it is our response to evil that I’m talking about here–the immediate and collective sense of unanimity that was created in its wake. Our collective grief made our oneness feel all the more sacred and real.

We became one, like the 99 sheep huddled together in this week’s text (but notice that one sheep is missing–the oneness is incomplete). We were desperate for a good shepherd to protect us (The President’s approval rating soared to 86%).

The unanimity we experienced after 9/11 is understandable and has been repeated throughout history by all political stripes. But, as the last 15 years has demonstrated, it was largely a false and highly combustible unanimity. In our collective fear we lost what God never loses–the capacity for mercy. Our mouths called out for justice but our hearts nursed vengeance.

Violence did what violence does. It escalated! In the aftermath of 9/11 we’ve seen 31,000 military casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that does not include 200,000 civilian casualties and many more tens of thousands who died indirectly because of the war.

This week’s text goes to the heart of the Gospel and is an antidote for the kind of sacrificial logic that so easily possesses us and fuels violence in times of crisis.

In the first parable, the shepherd leaves the 99 for the sake of the one. With all due respect, God is not only a lousy shepherd, but also a lousy mathematician. What kind of shepherd leaves what are presumably 99 good sheep for one bad one? It just doesn’t add up. The good shepherd looks a lot more like a bad shepherd, especially to the 99 who now feel abandoned and vulnerable. I can imagine the 99 grumbling amongst themselves. Perhaps one of the sheep baa-ing the words of the high priest Caiaphas, “It is better to have one sheep die for us than to have the whole herd destroyed” (John 11:50). That’s the sacrificial logic that so easily grips the 99.

Perhaps now we can see that this text is not about a flock of good sheep and one bad one. It’s about a good shepherd who recognizes what’s really going on. He sees a lone sheep who has become a scapegoat. Let’s call it a “black sheep” who, in the mind of the 99, is getting what it deserves.

Jesus inverts the sacrificial logic and stands with the one. He recovers the excluded one in a way that unifies the whole flock. This is cause for a great celebration. Gospel logic sees the whole flock in its entirety. There’s no good sheep or bad sheep–there’s just sheep. They are the same. There are 100 of them and they belong together.

If we follow Gospel logic to it’s Spirit-filled conclusion then the good shepherd does not leave the 99 at all. He invites them to join the effort to include the excluded one. The 99 are invited to joyfully celebrate what they were so blindly ready to sacrifice for their own survival. The lost sheep is now seen, not as a scapegoat but as kin–a vital member of the flock. Of course, this kind of celebration demands a radical conversion by both the 99 and the one. And this is the whole point of the text!

The second parable of the lost coin takes the theme of celebration even further. Others have noticed that the woman who finds the lost coin spends more money on the celebration than the coin was worth by itself. The joy of the Gospel is not simply about recovering what was lost. No, the Gospel actually inflates the value of what’s lost. Why? Because it’s the lost one who can bring life and healing to the whole.

God’s math is mercy. Now that’s cause for celebration!

Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms