In our Bible study this week I was surprised to hear in one version of the Bible that Jesus left the 99 sheep in the open country. The versions I have always heard and all the Sunday School Bible art shows them in the wilderness. In my imagination, "wilderness" evokes a very different image than "open place." So I began to think about the initial encounter between Jesus and his challengers.
Pharisees, of course, were good religious people, trying to keep the faith in a time when it would be very easy to lose it. The Romans had conquered them and had a very different religion from the Judaism. It would be easier to go along and forget about God or just be private about one's faith. But the Pharisees chose a harder path - very public about their faith with many ritual practices to remind them of who they were. Scribes were the ones who helped keep everyone true to the religious laws. So they are shocked that Jesus would hang out with the tax collectors who worked for the Romans and with sinners - the ones were not observant or who showed no sign of being faithful. They may or may not have been living in sin as we interpret it - but for sure they were not faithful to God.
So back to the story:
As we read this translation - where it says the shepherd left them in an open place. I began to wonder if where they pasture sheep may be different from our thinking about wilderness or even that painting from Sunday School where the shepherd finds the lost one on a craggy cliff.
I wonder if Jesus is saying - yes you are following God but it is from relative safety-- you have homes, family, privilege (even though the Romans are in power). But God loves even those lost in unbelief, the unclean, the one's who never follow the outward signs of faith -- etc.
Then a friend, Robert Morrison, the interim rector of St. Alban's in Albany, OR, sent me his sermon with a link to an action by Pope Francis and his willingness to talk and listen to people who are doubting and who don't believe. Morrison writes:
Francis wrote a personal letter to a renowned journalist and nonbeliever. Back in early July and again in early August, Eugenio Scalfari, wrote essays, “musing about questions he'd like to ask Pope Francis if he ever had the chance.”
Surprisingly, the Pope wrote a letter that was “splashed across the front page of La Repubblica, the country's most widely read daily.
“In the letter, Francis makes three points that have all been said before, including by popes, but rarely with such clarity or in this kind of venue:
• God has never abandoned the covenant with the Jewish people, and the church ‘can never be grateful enough’ to the Jews for preserving their faith despite the horrors of history, especially the Shoah, the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.• God's mercy ‘does not have limits’ and therefore it reaches nonbelievers, too, for whom sin would not be the lack of faith in God, but rather, failure to obey one's conscience.• Truth is not ‘variable or subjective,’ but Francis says he avoids calling it ‘absolute’ -- truth possesses us, he said, not the other way around, and it's always expressed according to someone's ‘history and culture, the situation in which they live, etc.’ …“This is apparently the first time, however, that a pope has personally responded to questions put to him in two newspaper editorials. Eugenio Scalfari, one of the founders of La Repubblica, penned the essays in early July and again in early August, musing about questions he'd like to ask Pope Francis if he ever had the chance.”
Scalfari had referred to a recent papal encyclical “Lumen fidei, which said that ‘to the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find,’ nonbelievers ‘are already, even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith.’ …
“In his response to Scalfari, Francis wrote that he believes dialogue between the church and non-believers is important for two reasons.
“The first, the pope wrote, is the historical breach between the church and the culture inspired by the Enlightenment.
“‘The time has come … for an open dialogue, without preconceptions, which reopens the doors for a serious and fruitful encounter,’ Francis writes.
“Second, Francis says, from the point of view of the believer, dialogue with others is not a ‘secondary accessory’ but rather something ‘intimate and indispensable.’"
Francis knew that Scalfari wasn’t the least bit shy about expressing his criticism of the Roman Church in particular and Christianity and other religious belief systems in general. Yet Francis set out, using one of the riskier methods – opening himself up to criticism and ridicule by responding to the newspaper in which the journalist was in control.
And I am reminded of the Hymn "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing"
More to ponder -- what do you think?