A car with the red letter ‘L’ attached to its boot stopped in an awkward position, wedged between a parked car, a narrow drive and another parked car. Clearly the driver had not honed his or her driving skills – and that’s something you can expect. However, the driver couldn’t reverse – the only way to rectify the situation – because another car behind had blocked it. It’s an educated, but well-founded guess that the blocking driver was making his point, showing his disapproval (to put it mildly) for the lack of skills of the learner. Quite likely his pose was accompanied by rather unfavourable comments made inside his car. He was clearly showing his superiority as a driver, incidentally blocking the street otherwise wide enough to go through. A number of cars were stuck behind the ‘superior’ driver. Eventually, after a while, he decided to move on, and did it in a rather aggressive manner, speeding along the street for a couple of hundred yards, and then trying to turn around, almost causing an accident. Arguably the man behind the wheel had better skills, but was he truly a better driver?
The parables in today’s gospel are Jesus’ response to the attitude presented by the Pharisees and scribes – a group of educated and religious Jews who considered themselves to be the elite of the Jewish society in the ancient Palestine, superior to others. Their belief of their own supremacy was deeply rooted in their education and knowledge of the Jewish law, stemmed from their strict religious practises and their perceived perfection. The last aside, Jesus doesn’t criticise nor reject such a notion. He recognises their knowledge and their desire for religious piety. What draws his criticism is their attitude towards those who are less perfect or downright stray. Jesus disapproves the Pharisees’ derision and contempt for those they considered inferior.
The two very similar parables we heard today, one about a lost sheep and another about a lost coin, present an impractical approach to a loss. A shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep unguarded to look for a stray one, and a woman spending more on a party to celebrate finding a lost coin, are hardly guidelines for dealing with similar losses in everyday life. But Jesus in the parables doesn’t give his advice on farming or financial arrangements. His exaggerated stories show a different logic that applies to dealing with people. It’s the logic of finding, bringing back and supporting growth of those who are less fortunate, less learned or troubled. Jesus is saying that we ought to use our better knowledge, skills, talents, good fortunes and whatever else not to belittle, deride or contempt others, but to help them in a gentle, appreciative manner. Jesus always disapproved misdeeds and sins, but always saw sinners as people in need of help. Jesus always made a distinction between sin and sinner.
There are very few people who commit sins or bad things because they want to do bad things. Most wrongdoings are perceived by their proponents as pursuit of goodness and the right cause. Their understanding of goodness and right can be twisted or completely opposite to ours, but essentially we are all created to seek and follow good things. I realised this very strongly when I worked as a chaplain in a youth detention centre. So if you consider yourself to be better than others, you might be absolutely right. The question is what you do with that? Do you use your perceived superiority to deride the lesser ones, or to help them? Whatever high qualities you have, they are worthless if they feed your pride and vanity. True knowledge is the one that leads you to understanding, compassion and engagement with those in need. As for the ‘superior’ driver I mentioned at the beginning, I’m absolutely certain he made a lot of mistakes when he was learning to drive. The old bull thinks he was never a calf.