The blessed absurdity of 99 = 1
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Wednesday, March 4th: Exodus 34:1-9, 27-28; Psalm 32; Matthew 18:10-14. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
The Coronavirus is affecting the way business leaders plan. Jack Welch is an extremely influential CEO and teacher. When he led General Electric, his business model emphasized shareholder value. He believed that businesses should be run to maximize the return for shareholders. This disrupted the generations-long precedent that businesses had a primary responsibility also to their employees. Welch’s philosophy led businesses to seek the cheapest labour they could find anywhere on the globe. Profit was more important than people.
Toward the end of his career, however, Welch may have begun to change his thinking. Maybe a dependence upon far flung suppliers was not the best model to keep a business agile and able to respond quickly to the market and to the consumer. The Coronavirus pandemic is energizing this transformation. Supply chains may bring businesses closer to home, wherever home may be. Employees, people, not just stock-holding people, will become more important.
This thinking beyond the dollar makes sense. This re-emphasis upon the value of your employees, all of them, makes sense. But Jesus, in today’s parable, goes so much further than just making sense out of valuing your people as much as your profit.
The message of the shepherd searching for the one lost sheep is heartwarming. The practical minded listeners around Jesus, however, would have asked naturally about what happens to the abandoned 99? There is no hint that they were penned in and safe, that they wouldn’t wander off, that a predator wouldn’t attack. Jesus would have known this and expected this reaction. Jesus is encouraging this reaction. He’s getting His audience to think not in normal, human ways, but as God thinks.
The parable of the one lost sheep emphasizes that everyone matters, that when one is lost the whole suffers. For Jesus it’s not a matter of mathematical calculation. Mathematically it can be written out as 99>1, but for Jesus it is the absurdity of 99=1. Jesus is trying to get us to think differently. Not that the 99 don’t matter, which is human logic, but that the one is just as important as the 99, which is Jesus’ revelation.
This is why our Saviour ministers and preaches to the outcasts: the sick, the fallen, the hated, the helpless, the disposable. It’s not that the others don’t matter, but Jesus wants the others to never ignore the one – because the one matters and also because the restoration of the one restores and blesses the whole.
Commandments are useful, but passion is so much more than what is commanded. Lent lets us stand beneath Jesus’ cross. Let us look up at the absurdity of seeing Jesus’ triumph and victory on that cross. And let us hear again the absurd message of leaving the 99 in order to return the one in order to restore the whole, for this is what is holy.
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