There is a story that comes out of West Virginia about an evangelist who was working the
backroads in Raleigh County, in the southern part of the state, when he ran into an old
Mountaineer. Their conversation went something like this (please excuse the ethnic and
"Are you a Christian?" . . . "Nope, Mr. Christian lives up the holler. My name's Jukes."
"What I mean, brother, are you lost?" . . . "Well, I reckon not. I been here nigh on 30 years
and know every cowpath in these here hills."
"Are you following the light of the Lord?" . . . "Sure, I don't go much for this daylight
savings business anyhow. And besides it's gettin' hard to find kerosene for them lamps of
"I'm not making myself clear. Are you living the good life? Are you ready for the judgment
day?" . . "When is it coming?"
"Can't tell. It might come today and it might come tomorrow." . . . "Well, when you find out,
Mr. Preacher, do me a favor. Don't tell the missus or she'll want to go both days."
According to Jesus, "the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost" [Luke 19:10].
There is a problem with the language of scripture. Its meaning may not be vivid for us. It
may not be clear. What does it mean to be lost?
There is another story, this one out of New England, about a certain traveller somewhere in northern Vermont. After driving in uncertainty for a while, he became convinced that he was on the wrong road, and so, at the first village, came to a halt.
Calling one of the villagers to the car window, he said, "Friend, I need help. I'm lost." The
villager looked at him for a moment. "Do you know where you are?" he asked. "Yes," said
the traveller, "I saw the name of the village as I entered." The man nodded his head. "Do you
know where you want to go?" "Yes," the traveller replied, and named his destination. The
villager looked away for a moment, ruminating. "You ain't lost, " he said at last, "you just
Whether it's a question of not knowing where you are, or not knowing where you want to go,
or not knowing how to get there, being "lost" is a terribly unsettling feeling. You may feel
disoriented, without direction, abandoned, uncertain of what is going on and powerless to
exercise meaningful control. To feel lost is to feel you are in a place where you do not belong.
It is also a terrible feeling to have lost something. When I was first preparing to write this
sermon, I discovered that I had lost my notes, where I had recorded all the ideas that gave rise
to this sermon. That is to say, I had misplaced those notes--they were not where they
belonged--and it took me a trip home over lunch and a some mental backtracking before I
returned to my office to find them.
Jesus surely knew about lost and found. He told the parables of the lost sheep and the lost
coin, apparently to illustrate the method of his ministry. The shepherd who has a hundred
sheep, yet loses one, does not hesitate to go out into the wilderness to find it. The woman who
has ten silver coins, but loses one, sweeps the house clean until it is found. We could all tell
stories of things we have lost, and the lengths to which we have gone to find them. Once as a
child I lost a prized steel marble in the grass of a nearby park. I must have spent hours
combing that grass in my search to find it. The loss of something precious moves us to great
effort, and when we have found it there is great rejoicing.
The point to the parables is that Jesus is about God's business of seeking out and finding the
lost. That is why he welcomes sinners and eats with them. They are precious in the sight of
God. They are worth going out of one's way. There is much rejoicing in heaven when they
But, again, what does it mean to be lost? What does it mean, so far as the human condition is
concerned? In Isaiah 53, the prophet declares, "all we like sheep have gone astray" [vs. 6].
Perhaps all of us are in some way lost. As best I can tell, however, Jesus was not given to
calling people sinners. If he used the term, it was probably in rejoinder to those religious
people who saw their world divided between themselves and those who lived outside the
religious law. His society, like ours, made distinctions between "good" people and "bad"
people. And the religious leaders of his day wondered why he hung around with the bad. But
we should not assume that this is how Jesus himself saw his world.
The "lost" of Jesus' day were not necessarily worse sinners than the so-called righteous. They
were more likely people who did not quite belong. They had no accepted place. They were
like lepers, or the woman with the flow of blood, thought to be unclean, not necessarily sinful,
but hardly the best of company, the sort of people that polite society does not want to be
around. They were like Zacchaeus, the tax collector, despised for his occupation, known to
almost all but accepted by hardly any. They were like the demon-possessed, the mentally ill,
whom people want out of sight as long as they are out of mind. They were people on the
margins, with little vested interest in the way things are. They were like exiles or aliens in
their own land, in the midst of their own people.
It may very well be that Jesus uses the image of the lost sheep to remind his detractors that all
Israel likewise once was lost. The people of Israel have known in their own history what it is
like to be scattered, separated from the flock. They have known what it is like to be the
dispossessed. They have known what it is to be a marginalized minority, to inhabit a land
where they do not belong. The prophet Ezekiel had used the image of the shepherd and the
sheep to speak of the dissolution of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians. That dissolution
had been accompanied by military defeat. It had included the destruction of Jerusalem and
Solomon's glorious temple. It had meant exile in Babylon for many of Judah's brightest and
best, dispersion for others, demoralization for those who remained.
The exile events were surely the most traumatic in the history of the people of Israel, and
second only to the exodus from Egypt in defining Israel's self-understanding. Like the other
great prophets, Ezekiel sees these events as an expression of divine judgment. The kings and
rulers of the people bear the brunt of Ezekiel's blame. They had enriched themselves at the
people's expense, like shepherds feeding themselves instead of the sheep. They had not
strengthened the weak, they had not healed the sick, they had not bound up the injured, they
had not brought back the strayed, they had not sought the lost, but with force and harshness
they had ruled. So their rule was taken from them, and the people were scattered. But God
promises to rescue the people from such rulers. "I myself will search for my sheep," says God
[Ezekiel 34:11]. God will become their shepherd, and will feed them, and will make them a
The experience of "lostness" in Israel's history was the experience of defeat, dissolution, and
dispersion, and--for many--exile in Babylon. The people were dispossessed of their homeland,
they were made to dwell among those who counted them aliens, they were without the means
to govern themselves. They were thwarted from being the people whom God had created them
In order to understand the biblical language of lost and found, we need to understand this
history. We need to understand that there may have been a multitude of associations with this
idea of being lost. The lost are those who are separated, cut off from community, excluded
from meaningful participation in the lives of others. The lost include those who have violated
the laws and forsaken the obligations of life together. They live outside the bounds of what
had long been understood as God's covenant with the people. But the lost also include those
who have been neglected or ignored, rejected or abused, through no special fault of their own.
The lost include the hungry and thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned, the homeless and the
stranger, those whom Jesus calls "the least of these" who nonetheless belong to the family
[Matt. 25:40]. The new covenant spoken of in the New Testament, the new covenant in
Christ, is one in which the boundaries have been re-drawn to include all who recognize God's
gracious spirit in him.
In some very particular ways Jesus is to be identified with "the least of these." As a teacher,
he is uncredentialed. As a Galilean, he is a provincial, a small town boy from the sticks. As a
peripatetic, he has no institutional identity, no tenured position on any recognized faculty, no
seniority with the company or the union. This son of Adam has nowhere to lay his head [Matt.
8:20]. Like many of those to whom he ministers, Jesus knows something of what it is like not
to belong, to be an outsider, to be without much standing. He is even without the conventional
comforts of home. On one occasion when his mother and brothers and sisters try to gain an
audience with him, he gestures to those around him, saying, "these are my mother and my
brothers [and my sisters]" [Mark 3:34]. It is not that he is without family, rather, he redefines
the meaning of family. Those who follow after him are his family. That being so, then he
belongs to them, and they to each other, and they too have a new home.
Who, then, are the lost? They are not so much sinners as they are those whom society has
denied a place at the table. They are those who have nowhere to call their own, those who feel
excluded, separated from community, alienated and estranged from those among who they
dwell. They are those who do not yet feel a part of the human family, or God's family, or the
family of those who are blessed. They may be visibly rich, like Zacchaeus, but they are more
likely to be visibly or invisibly poor. They may have wandered astray, or they may have been
scattered by vicissitude and misfortune, but they are yet to be found. They may dwell in dingy
nursing homes, broken-down boarding houses, and ugly ghettos, or in urban anonymity, or in
the splendid isolation of suburbia. But wherever they dwell, it hardly seems like home.
Society, their neighbors, their relatives, have precious little regard for them. It is as if they do
There was surely a spiritual dimension to Jesus' ministry, but sometimes we ignore the very
basic social realities that he sought to overcome. Those social realities had to do with the way
in which his world denied equal citizenship, full membership, to all. In Jesus' teaching, the
least of those among us are equally precious in the sight of God.
The human condition is also a spiritual condition. Experiences of homelessness, and exile, and
alienation also afflict the human spirit. Just as one may never feel more alone than in a crowd
of people, one may never feel more "lost" than when one possesses all the visible signs of
place yet one's own human spirit is restless, divided, without clear identity. The person who
does not know who he or she really is is lost to him- or herself. Also, the person whose
identity is not recognized by others, who is somehow "different" and therefore not appreciated
or affirmed is likely to feel homeless, unwelcome, a stranger to others and even to self. From
this standpoint, Jesus means being found, coming to oneself, the gift of integrity in identity.
The person whose relationships with others are marked by tension, who has not acted honestly
and responsibly, who has done injury or failed to help, is bound to feel estranged, alienated, in
need of reconciliation. From this standpoint, Jesus means restoration of integrity in
relationships and renewal of possibilities for life together.
What we see in Jesus is the gift of acceptance, the gift of identity, the gift of belonging. Jesus
accepts people where they are, and thereby gives them a place in the community of the people
of God. Jesus attests that God not only cares about those whom the established order would
just as soon write off and exclude, God has for them an abiding affection, a most tender
regard. It is not God's will that any one should perish [cf. Matthew 18:14]. All this comes to
us as gift of God. We cannot secure our own place before God, for it is not a human
achievement. Jesus puts it something like this: "(T)hose who want to save their life will lose
it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it" [Matt. 16:25].
So God continually acts to reclaim the human wreckage of our world, to rescue the perishing, to gather the scattered, to bind up the injured, to restore the stray, to companion the lonely and rejected, to bring us back to ourselves and one another. In God's domain, the least and the lost find themselves and are found. Time and again we are brought up short by the words and deeds of Jesus. All our morality and ethics must be challenged, our whole religious life must be seriously questioned, if there is not engendered in us a compassion and solicitude for the lost whom he came to seek out and to save. AMEN.
Copyright 2001 by Byron C. Bangert