And so last Thursday when I was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition, I overheard an interview with an economist from George Mason University name Tyler Cowen. Like most folks on the interview circuit, he’s promoting his new book in which he makes some predictions about our economic and social future. The first thing he says is that income inequality is increasing. Really? How could I have missed that??!! I guess being an economist is like being a priest – a major part of our vocation is pointing out the glaringly obvious (the difference, I suppose, is in the royalties). But he also goes on to say that he believes there will be a different kind of meritocracy emerging in America. Now we are a country founded on the mythology of meritocracy – the idea that one can work hard and get ahead because you are rewarded on your merit. Now in theory, that sounds great, right? Work hard, play by the rules, and get rewarded for it. Slack off, screw up and … well … you’ll get “rewarded” alright … but with a very different kind of reward. Now don’t get me wrong – we are a country where meritocracy does exist to some extent, imperfectly but that’s the nature of human experience. And hey, I’m a parent, rewards and consequences are something we need to teach our children so they can hopefully cope in this world.
But meritocracy has its limits … and the kind of meritocracy that Tyler Cowen sees coming I find profoundly disturbing. He believes that there will be a larger class of people who become “wealthy” (not sure what his definition of wealth is, but that’s another sermon). And he believes we will be recognized on our merits at earlier ages as long as we work hard and play by the rules. But (and this is a big BUT) the information age is creating a very ruthless form of meritocracy because of the sheer amount of data being collected on each and every one of us. And we’re not talking about the government collecting data – we are talking about corporations: JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, TransAmerica, Google, Yahoo, and others who are tracking all your commercial transactions – what you buy, where you buy it, your likes and dislikes, your credit score and whether you’ve declared bankruptcy. Add to this the for-profit insurance companies, doctors and hospitals who know your entire medical history and the legal system who knows whether or not you’ve been sued or arrested. There is a lot of data being collected on you and me … and most of it held by for-profit companies. Cowen’s theory is this data will be used to ruthlessly scrutinize us to see if we “play by the rules” and whether or not we get rewarded … with a job, a promotion, a good interest rate on that next loan, a pay raise. Cowen posits that for those who toe the line, the rewards will be great and for those who fall down, either through their own fault or by circumstances beyond their control, there will be no second chances … let alone third and fourth ones. One screw up and you are … finished. How do you feel about that meritocracy now? Makes me glad I got most of my screw ups out of the way before the internet came along!
But in all seriousness, this Orwellian vision of the future crashed headlong into today’s Gospel reading because it’s all about the futility of meritocracy and finding the lost. Luke tells us how the outcasts (sinners) are all flocking to Jesus to listen to him. This generates grumbling among the Pharisees and the scribes – you know, those guys who toe the line and play by the rules … the “A listers” of religious and political meritocracy. I mean really … this Jesus guy not only welcomes sinners but he EATS with them! Ewwww!! Like being a sinner gives you “sinner cooties” and you can catch them if you get too close. So Jesus, hearing the grumbling, tells two parables about why their merit badge system doesn’t count for much.
Now before we talk about the main point of the parables, I want to deal with what they are not about. They are not about repentance. I know, I know, Jesus talks about there being joy in heaven over the sinner who repents at the end of both stories. But the bulk of the wording of the stories focuses on being “lost” not repenting and the idea that a sheep or a coin can repent is just silly. I’m convinced the closing shot about repentance is kind of a snark-o-rama crack from Jesus aimed at the “play by the rules” gang who think they are not lost (they are, you know, they just haven’t figured it out yet).
Both of these stories focus completely on grace and how being lost is the key to receiving it. In fact, there are three stories in a row about “lostness” in Luke 15: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and next week we’ll hear about a lost son. Jesus, being a good rabbi, asks them a question: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Now I’m no expert on sheep, but this sounds like a really stupid idea. Leave 99 sheep in the wilderness?? What, so they can wander off and get lost too? In practicality, this doesn’t sound like a “good shepherd” at all … sounds like a dumb one to me. But that’s because I’m not the “Good Shepherd” – God is. And God isn’t worried about the 99 getting lost. So what if they do? God’s best work is in finding the lost. That’s the point! This is the same God who, even if all the coins get lost, will sweep the floor until she finds every last one. The one lost sheep or coin … or the 100 lost sheep and 10 lost coins (it doesn’t matter) … will be relentlessly pursued by God who is both Good Shepherd and peasant woman until they are found. All the sheep and the coin have to do let themselves be found.
You see, being lost is completely counter to the culture of meritocracy. Meritocracy says you can redeem yourself by your own efforts: your own cleverness, intelligence, and rule keeping. Oh, you may even buy into this myth for a time … until that day comes when your rule keeping efforts don’t seem to matter. You get laid off from that job through no fault of your own. You have a serious illness even though you followed the rules of eating right and getting exercise. You make a bad investment and lose your savings. Your spouse cheats on you or a loved one dies. You see, even if you play by the rules, you are still lost … and still dead. Lost and dead are closely connected in the parables. The lost sheep is as good as dead by itself in the wilderness and the lost coin is a dead asset.
The paradoxical good news of this is that no matter how much we want to resist being lost or dead by our merit based games, the truth is that God’s redemptive power can only work with the lost and dead. It is only when we hit that wall and the curtain is drawn back to expose that merit based living is a fraud with no lasting value that we can accept our being lost and dead as a good thing. In giving up the pretense that “merit badge” systems are important to God (which they aren’t), we surrender to being lost and dead and we come to know that getting found and brought back to life is going to happen not through our own efforts, but through the grace of a power outside ourselves.
And this is why these parables are even beyond good news … they are great news. These parables of lostness are not calls to repentance. They are not telling us that we need to have a moral change of heart before God will find us. No! As Paul said in Romans 5:8 – “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We do not have to get our act together to be found (as if we could … and we can’t!). All God needs from us is to be lost and dead … and we’re actually quite good at that. When we own our lostness and deadness only then can we be found by God and receive the gift of grace. God finds us, not in the garden of merit and self-improvement, but lost in the desert of death; and through the power of the resurrected Christ, God carries us home across her shoulders rejoicing.