September 17, 2013

Lost and Found


Text: Luke 15:6b: "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost."

This week and next we’re going to be dealing in a couple of different ways with the idea of smallness. Next week it will be smallness in the absolute sense; but today it’s smallness in a relative sense.

Smallness itself isn’t really a very meaningful idea theologically. Theology doesn’t really have a branch dedicated to weights and measures. So that’s a pretty good clue that the idea of smallness in the two little parables we have from Jesus this morning is meant to point us beyond the stories to something else.

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front. From the stories themselves, most of us grew up thinking of these stories as being the kind of lost-and-found department of the Bible stories. And I’ve sort of played into that with the title I’ve given this sermon. If you’re a really close reader of the Bible you might even hear this reading from Luke this morning and be put in mind of another story from Luke, indeed a story that only appears in Luke — the parable of the Prodigal Son. Remember how that story ends, with the father explaining to his bitter eldest child — this brother of yours was lost, and now he is found?

We heard that story way back in Lent, even though in the text of the Gospels it immediately follows what we heard this morning. So these three ideas together — lost sheep, lost coin, lost child - seem to be all about losing and finding. Well, sort of. There’s something else about these stories worth our reflection. And to see it, we’re going to have to remember a little bit about the first economics class you ever took — which may also have been the last economics class you ever took.

Way back in Economics 101, pretty much right after we learned the relationship between supply and demand, and how each of those ideas could be plotted on a curve, we learned about the idea of marginal value.

Marginal value works like this. If you make one widget, and it costs you ten dollars to make, you probably will want to sell your widget for more than ten dollars. But if you make a thousand widgets, it will probably cost you something like ten dollars to get to the making of that first widget — and probably about ten cents to make widget number 1,000. The greater the size of the output, the lower the marginal cost of any next thing produced.

But it also works the same way on the other side. If you are really hungry, and I have an apple to sell you, then you will probably be willing to part with a pretty large sum to buy the apple. At the little convenience store in my office building, this would cost a dollar and twenty cents.

But if you already have a thousand apples, then the marginal value to you of this apple is going to be a  lot less than a dollar and twenty cents. You might even pay me a dollar and twenty cents to take some of your apples off your hands.

Marginal utility is a powerful idea. Even though economics class can make it seems profoundly boring, it’s actually something we grasp pretty much intuitively. That is to say, our reasoning brains are fine-tuned to the idea of marginal value.

Now go back for a moment to the setup of today’s Gospel. And by the way, way back in Lent when we read the story of the Prodigal Son, the Lectionary has us read the very same set-up as the one we heard today — the first three verses of the fifteenth chapter of the gospel of Luke. They go like this:

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable:

Just in case we miss it in the first verse, Luke hits us over the head with it in the second verse: This is a story about marginal people. This is a story about the people that are on the margins —  tax collectors and sinners, yes, sinners. Could mean a lot of things, but at least it means them  — those people we’re not supposed to have anything to do with.

The answer Jesus gives to this complaining is a story about three different kinds of marginal value. And there’s a kind of order to the stories.

The first is about one in a hundred sheep — one percent of the sheep. The second is about one in ten silver coins — ten percent of the coins. And the third is about one of two sons — fifty percent of the children.

Here are the economics of that. One sheep is worth a lot less than one silver coin. And one silver coin may be worth a lot, but a child is of surpassing value.

When you see it that way, you might think: Well, of course, I get it about the child.

As for the woman and the silver, well, if the ten coins were all the money she had, then maybe it was worth turning the whole house upside down for; but if she had other sources of income, well, maybe she might have put her time to more profitable use.

But quite honestly a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep alone in the wilderness in order to go off searching for one has failed to grasp the basic concept of marginal utility. He should be fired, not honored.

That is how the analysis of marginal utility reads these parables. It may seem sort of ludicrous, until you remember that the basic idea of marginal utility is the cornerstone on which we build everything from health care to tax codes to education to community policing to, well, the vast majority of public policy ideas. If you want your policy adopted, you’re expected to be able to demonstrate that it operates consistent with the value of marginal utility.

We take it as a given that some cases, some instances, some people will fall off the curve. We accept small losses in trade for relatively large gains. The power of the idea of marginal value means that we are deeply conditioned to accept that tradeoff.

Jesus is calling us up short on that. He’s saying that there is no margin so small that it can be ignored - at least not in God’s economy. Not half the family, not ten percent of the savings account, not even one percent of the sheep.

It’s a nice idea, it’s even a sweet idea, until you remember the setup: This guy welcomes sinners and even eats with them. That is the statement of people well-skilled at calculating the margin, the margin of who is worth worrying about and who is not.

Jesus is saying that this very kind of thinking — this basic skill that has been so much part of our progress and our increasing efficiency, so much part of the way we estimate value and make sound, rational decisions — is the problem.

The challenge in the stories — whether it’s about sheep or silver or sons — is the idea that, at least for disciples, nothing is too small. No one is marginal. And that is easier said than done.

It’s not just that we’re good at intuitive calculations of marginal value; it’s that because we are so good at it, we instinctively create and valorize groups of people to fit with our skills of figuring on the margins. We call this the power of reputation.

We don’t just discount people who don’t think like we do, or believe what we believe, or vote like we vote, or have the same preferences and tastes and ideas that we do; we are suspicious of them. We assign moral motivations to their actions, which rarely have anything to do with how they actually think.

And if you challenge our idea and actually spend time talking to them, we are not so sure about you, either. "No daughter of mine is going to marry into a family that goes to the eight o’clock service."

All humans do this. We do this. Jesus is teaching us that this very human tendency is going to be our downfall as disciples — unless we see it in ourselves and consciously act against it. And the truth of his teaching may just be found in our increasing estrangement from each other — in our politics, in our communities, even — maybe saddest of all — in the church

That is a profound loss, because when we set people on the other side of the margin, we have declared that there is nothing we can learn from them; nothing we can share with them; no benefit we can realize from a connection with them. And, of course, we only impoverish ourselves in coming to that judgment.

So whether we are the shepherd, or the woman of the house, or the father of the children, or merely trying to follow God’s call to us as disciples, it is not so much what we look for as why we look. We seek out those who are lost, who are marginal, who are neglected and overlooked and even who are hated, exactly because in the economy of God there are no small margins. Whenever we hear the grumblings of the righteous doubting the worth or the value of some group of others, that is probably  the best clue we’ll get to who it is we should be spending more time with. Amen