The Defects of Jesus, IV: Bad At Math
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
This Lent Jo and Katie and I have been preaching this sermon series called Jesus’ Defects, which was inspired by Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận, who became archbishop of Saigon in 1975, six days before the city fell to the Communists. He then spent 13 years in a Communist reeducation camp, nine of them in solitary confinement. Cardinal Văn Thuận will one day be a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.
The Cardinal always said he loved Jesus’ Defects; not his virtues, but his character flaws, if you will. For instance, Jesus had no long-range plan, and no common sense, and took unnecessary risks. The Cardinal says that he was also bad at math.
One day Jesus tells the story of a shepherd who has 100 sheep. If this shepherd loses one sheep, just one little lamb who wanders off, he abandons the ninety-nine to find it.
For Jesus, 1=99. That’s really bad math. That’s really bad business. This is not one of the seven habits of highly effective people. Stephen Covey would call this a failure to get your priorities straight.
Yet Jesus seems to think that this is what we’d all do when faced with the same choice? “Which one of you,” he asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and one gets lost, will not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness to find the lost. And when he finds it, he lays it across his shoulders and rejoices.” Jesus just assumes that this is the way we’d all behave. He’s so clueless sometimes.
This is a parable for many of us—teachers, for instance, who spend most of their time with few of their students, the ones who can’t get it. You leave the twenty and nine alone with their storybooks while you spend an hour trying to get one slow learner to spell ‘CAT.’ My daughter confirms this; she teaches fourth grade.
This is a parable for pastors. At one of my former churches the youth minister spent 90% of her time with 1% of our kids. She kept going to the principal’s office because one of our kids kept scribbling inscrutable graffiti on the school walls. If you have to keep doing that, you don’t have much time left to write all those recommendation letters for kids with 4.0 GPA’s and 1520's on the SAT who might get into Dartmouth or Cornell—If somebody writes them a compelling recommendation.
This is a parable for parents. Sometimes parents are bad at math too. Sometimes 3=1. Sometimes 1>3. That is to say, one of your children gets more attention than the other three combined. It’s the LOST lamb that eats up all your time and energy—the ADD child, the Asperger’s child, the socially awkward friendless child, the curious child with more questions than Ask.com, the precocious 17-year-old who can convince the bartender she’s 24 and has a fake ID to back it up.
Sometimes you have a dream child who doesn’t need a parent at all and raises himself without parental intervention, and another child who takes two of you working full-time, a guidance counselor, a therapist, two godparents, four grandparents, and a friendly truant officer. Sometimes 1=3, sometimes 1>3. That’s just the way it goes in families.
Kathy and I have gotten hooked on this Netflix show called Atypical. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the matriarch in a family with an atypical son and a neurotypical daughter.
Older brother Sam is autistic, and younger sister Casey is neurotypical. Casey is popular and attractive and kind and wise for her years and a track star.
Sam is the one who gets lost, and Casey is one of the 99 who don’t need the shepherd’s oversight, and the show does a wonderful job of showing how much of the family’s energy Sam absorbs and how the self-sufficient daughter gets lost in the shuffle. It hurts, over and over and over again, Casey gets hurt or forgotten, but she understands. She understands that this is how it is in families. 1=99.
Did you know that the Marine Corps borrowed its motto from Jesus of Nazareth: No one gets left behind. I’ll bet the Chicago Fire Department says the same thing: No one gets left behind.
So you can see why Cardinal Văn Thuận, and many of us, admire Jesus’ defects so much. Because you can be good at math, and bad at life. Hoarding 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and selling them for $40 a bottle is good math; but it’s not a very good life. It’s a shrewd calculation, but it makes you a horrible neighbor and citizen.
Likewise, you can be bad at math, and good at life. Those doctors and nurses who are treating patients with homemade masks and faceguards are bad at math. They think one is greater than one. They think your health is greater than their own safety. One can’t be greater than one. Bad at math, good at life. Thank God for people like that. It’s the only way we’re going to get through this.
So maybe you’re doing okay. You’re secluded at home with the people you love most in all the world. Even your college students are huddled up with you, because there are no more classes on campus, and also your young professionals who can’t go to work anyway, so they fly home from New York or San Francisco to be with you, where they feel secure.
Maybe you have a job that you can accomplish almost as efficiently at home as you can at the office. My commute to work this morning was literally nine seconds.
Maybe it almost feels like a sabbatical after a long hard slog of travel and deals and presentations. You can catch up with your Netflix backlog, or start slashing away at that towering stack of unread novels and classics and New Yorkers that you’ve been neglecting for years. You are part of the 99, safe with your flock.
But that doesn’t describe all of us. Some of us are feeling alone and lost in the wilderness, far from the fold.
Maybe they live alone with no family nearby. Maybe they have elevated risk factors: great age, maybe, or a compromised immune system, or asthma.
Or maybe it’s not their physical but their mental health that is fragile. Maybe even on the best of days the noonday demon stalks their hope and joy. And now with no human companionship, empty streets, empty trains, shuttered taverns and cafes and gyms and clubs, crowded hospitals, bare shelves at the store, a collapsing stock market and a shriveling economy, it’s just the perfect storm. Maybe they worked for a hotel or a restaurant, but no longer. They are alone. Lost in the wilderness.
I’m not trying to minimize those challenges, but I wonder if it would help if in your lostness and aloneness, you remembered that somebody is looking for you.
And that one is The Good Shepherd, and the Good Shepherd has left the rest of us 99 to look after each other, because the Shepherd knows we’re capable of that.
There is someone looking for you, and that Shepherd will not stop until she tracks you down and brings you home.
We will make it. All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, Testimony of Hope, trans. Julia Mary Darrenkamp and Anne Eileen Heffernan (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000), p. 15.