Lenten blog | March 1, 2023
Guardian angels and a missing verse
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for March 1st: Exodus 34:1-9, 27-28; Psalm 32; and Matthew 18:10-14. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Here is a link to yesterday’s Rose Is Rose comic strip: https://www.gocomics.com/roseisrose/2023/02/28 . You can see Pasquale enjoying the winter snow as he sleds down a hill (Snow is wonderful isn’t it). As he hits an unexpected bump that sets him flying, however, Pasquale yells out for his guardian angel. There is only one biblical reference to such a possibility and it is found in today’s Gospel selection. A child’s guardian angel is such a comforting thought that it has taken on a life of its own. Guardian angel pins are worn often as jewelry (and hopefully not as a magical talisman).
If you would now take another look at this passage in your Bible, I would like to ask you if your Bible, like my New Revised Standard Version Bible, has all of the verses printed in the text. You may have noticed that vs. 11 is not there. The text jumps from 18:10 to 18:12, probably with a footnote mentioning that in several ancient manuscripts there is the additional wording: “For the Son of Man came to save the lost.” This verse is judged a later editorial insertion by a biblical scribe and most likely based it upon Luke 19:10. Since it is not considered a part of the original Gospel, it is relegated to a footnote.
My question is what may have motivated this biblical copyist to break from the received text and to add boldly his own insertion. I wonder if it has anything to do with his reluctance to affirm the sometimes inordinate attraction of guardian angels. Possibly, the copyist adds vs. 11 to emphasize in the wake of the unique guardian angel passage that it is always Jesus, the Son of Man, who saves the lost. Vs. 11 recalibrates the guardian angel passage and places it within the context of Jesus’ providence so that it is not a stand-alone testimony to the power of the angel.
This is then followed by the passionate parable of the one lost sheep. The message Jesus shares is wholly illogical, and Jesus intends for this to be the case. If you ever read Bible commentaries, you will see that the scholars are troubled by the absurdity of this scenario. They try all sorts of ways to make it more logical. Jesus, though, is not working toward logical. I think it is just the opposite. I am no shepherd, but even so, I realize that if you leave 99 sheep “on the mountains” unsupervised, you most likely have 99 lost sheep. So why does Jesus tell a story about the illogical abandonment of 99 sheep to go searching for the one lost sheep?
Let me insert here a little story. My parents used to have a summertime practice of assembling these large, thousand-piece puzzles on their porch. They would work on it occasionally, leaving it covered on the table when not doing so, and then by the end of summer they may laminate and frame it and put it up on a wall somewhere. One summer I stole one piece of that puzzle. As summer drew to its close my parents were none too happy to find all their work was for nothing. The one missing piece ruined the whole puzzle. 999 pieces were in place, but the one missing piece was essential. Without it, the puzzle was ruined.
(They were not pleased when one day I came by and triumphantly put in that one missing piece, but that’s another story.)
Jesus’ parable of the one lost sheep is gloriously illogical. It makes no practical sense. And it is intended to be this way. Jesus is trying to convince us of the illogical truth that in the eyes of God there is a sacred need for wholeness. All the sheep must be protected, and not even 99% is a sufficient alternative. When the one lost sheep is reunited with the 99, the rejoicing is not over the one sheep per se. The shepherd “rejoices over [the one lost sheep] more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray” because wholeness is restored. One lost sheep is like one missing puzzle piece. In both cases, with wholeness ruined, everything is ruined.
I think this revelation of Jesus’ perspective is what motivated the copyist to insert vs. 11. Guardian angels can be comforting. They fit wonderfully into a story of a young boy careening down a hill on a sled. It is Jesus, however, whose care is for everyone even to the point of being illogical, even to the point of dying on the cross for saint and sinner alike. This is the Saviour we approach more closely during Lent.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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