Sheep and Coins: Problematic Biblical Images (Again, probably first of many)

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them,does not leave the ninety-nine inthe wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?…Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them does not light a lam, sweep the house, and search carefully unti she finds it?” (Luke 15:4, 8)

A few years ago, in the context of doing a large study of clergy roles, identities, and relationhips in the Diocese of Derby (Church of England)


, I had cause to spend some time with the diocesan leaders of Youth With A Mission (YWAM). The phrase that kept coming up in the conversation was ‘a heart for the lost’.

“Lost” is an interesting word for the church to be using. I am never sure who the “lost” are. Are they the most destitute and forgotten of society (to whom I think the church does have a legitimate ministry, and needs to get a move on)? Or are they the people the church is unable to convert?

Or–more likely, in terms of the parable above–are the “lost” those who were once in the church, but have discerned that the door through which they once entered could also be the door through which they might exit?

I had an interesting conversation with a diocese recently, about a key staff position in mission and ministry (the most interesting thing was that, in the context of a preliminary job interview, they managed not to talk about the job, and that for a church institution, they made no mention of this thing called God). What I discerned, from reading their strategic plan, looking at their website, and listening carefully in the conversation, they were worried about the loss of people attending church, and what that meant for the future of the diocese in terms of money. They don’t have enough money to continue operating the number of churches they have, but they also realize that closing churches (a major part of their plan, which, because it is published on their website, I have no qualms talking about) will restrict the amount of money coming in.

This treats leavers as lost coins. All that they see is revenue flowing out the door. We rejoice when they are “found” because it makes us monetarily richer.

But is it any better to treat people as lost sheep? In the time and place in which Jesus lived, a sheep wasn’t a family pet (well, except for the poor man in 2 Samuel 12, who brought up his ewe lamb like a daughter, and the sheep would ‘lie in his bosom’–by modern standards, this is probably a bad thing for both the sheep and the daughter. But that is another discssion for another time).

A sheep was an economic commodity. It was carefully tended, not as something for the children to play with, and to have a long and happy life in the family home. It was looked after so that it could be fleeced, milked, and eventually slaughtered and devoured. An incredibly unbalanced relationship, in which the sheep definitely did not get the better side of things.

Perhaps it is better not to talk about persons who do not come to church as lost economic units–and does nobody else find it offensive that the sheep is referred to as an “it”?

Could we maybe talk to them, as…people?

6 thoughts on “Sheep and Coins: Problematic Biblical Images (Again, probably first of many)

  1. ‘Treat people as ends in themselves, not as a means to an end’ – such a Christian sentiment, it might have been uttered by Our Lord himself. And yet it is a moral precept which our Church leaders have a hard time remembering/practising. But I am sure you are right this is a major reason why the Church finds mission and evangelism difficult….

    1. Laura, thanks for stopping by my far-less elegant and sophisticated corner of the internet!

      When we treat people as economic commodities, there are far deeper problems than the money issue, I think. Once people become instruments of any kind, we are in trouble.

      More thoughts on that at another time, tomorrow perhaps…

      1. I find the Church’s attitude to age quite distressing- you would think that having spent a life time preaching to and teaching a member of the Church, they would value the end product with grey hair and arthritic knees. But they are only interested in the young – the younger the better. And when asked why, the answer is again in terms of numbers! They say that the children will bring their parents, and increase the size of their congregations…

  2. I just ran into a nasty post on a Facebook group claiming that concern about ‘hipsters’ and ‘aging, over-educated intellectuals’ was ‘hooey’ (which is a twee way of saing $#!+). The priest in question ministers in a ‘small, declining rural area’ and that ‘real people’ want relationships with Christ *in the church*.

    That kind of narrowness is appalling. All people–hipsters and ageing intellectuals included–are in the image of God, and concern about them is not misguided (if you take at all seriously the baptismal covenant’s command to ‘respect the dignity of every human being’). Out of a priest, it’s inexcusable.

    But, I’ve frequently said that the church that busted its @$$ to bring me in when I was in my 20s is completely disinterested in me now that I’m in my 50s. And they wonder why I’m having difficulty engaging.

    I could live another 40 years–which means another 40 years of contributing in all kinds of ways. If they’re not interested, it’s their loss more than mine.

  3. I am pleased to say that in my church, we are often told that out Sunday attendance is of no use whatsoever if we don’t live as Christians the remainder of the week – i.e., if we don’t treat people properly, don’t do what we can to help others in the community, and so on. And when I have heard homilies about passages having to do with lost sheep, or other lost individuals such as the prodigal son, the focus is on the joy of finding someone who is dear to us. This point is carried forward to tell us that God is always happy to have us with him, and even more so when we return after having strayed. Interestingly enough, these types of messages are among those we hear that help to keep all of our weekend services quite filled. Something for your above named church to think about. And while there are indeed efforts to bring in young people, it is not at the expense of efforts aimed at older folks. Unfortunately, though, I do find attitudes can differ a lot from one locality to the next.

  4. Christine, you are extremely fortunate with your church. The real problem is less what happens at the congregation/parish level than at the diocesan level or in training for ordained leadership (and ‘leadership’ is, as you know, a word that breaks me out in rashes….)

    But delighted to have you here, reading, commnting!

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