Have you heard of tribalism? We talked about it a bit at our Food and Faith evening a couple weeks ago now, and I got really interested in this phenomenon where any sentient creature would latch on to other sentient creatures to create something like a gang to identify with, to belong to, and ultimately protect themselves in. Tribes can be our families, our social groups, or even our churches, and in those tribes we feel safe, we feel wanted, and we feel connection and community.
I read about this experiment to learn more about tribalism called the Robber’s Cave experiment, perhaps you’ve heard of it. It was held in the 50s when the rules and ethics were more grey than anything else, allowing scientists to do some pretty weird and far out things. They gathered two separate groups of 12 year old boys intentionally of average upbringing from average families living in average neighbourhoods, so they were all pretty much the same, but they took the two groups to different parts of Robber’s Cave where there is a summer camp. There, they subjected them to some weird social experiments to see if their “tribes” would gel and see other tribes as a threat, even if the other tribe consists of basically the same kind of kid. And sure enough, when the two tribes got together, they spontaneously became very competitive rivals, verbally belittled the opposing tribe, and even got violent to the point that the scientists had to break up fights and take away their knives that were rewards for completed tasks.
I know, it sounds pretty messed up, but that messed up experiment taught us something about human nature, and that is tribalism is a real thing. It didn’t take much for those boys, who again were all very similar to each other, to hate each other so much to the point of violence. The only thing different about them, really, was that they belonged to a different made up tribe at random.
And I know what you’re thinking, what does tribalism have to do with a bunch of sheep and coins and their lost but found counterparts?
The thing is, I believe that Jesus is using these two examples to counter the natural tribalism that we feel and have tendencies for. The gospel lesson starts with the Pharisees grumbling about how Jesus welcomes the tax collectors and sinners. They were complaining about how this self-proclaiming religious man could act so contrary to their religion. They were indignant at the fact that this man could disrespect their tribe so much by welcoming in them, those others, the unwanted. And they didn’t want that.
They didn’t want those who didn’t belong to belong. They didn’t want those who they felt to be different to be treated the same. They didn’t want those unwelcomed to their tribe to be welcomed.
But Jesus did and they didn’t like it. So Jesus explains to them why by using two examples of a shepherd and his sheep and a woman and her coins. Two examples, mind you, that on all levels wouldn’t be relatable to these wealthy, educated, prestigious men.
Jesus asks which one of them, if a shepherd, wouldn’t leave the 99 in search of one? And which one of them, if a woman, wouldn’t scour the house looking for the lost one out of ten coins? And really? The answer off the bat would be none of them. None of them would risk the higher percentage of what was still there to chase the miniscule. They’d just cut their losses and move on. Not to mention that none of them would be caught dead as a shepherd or a woman for that matter.
None of them would ignore the fact that they still have it pretty good, even if a little has gone missing. In their mind, it is just the missing’s fault for going missing. That lamb shouldn’t have wandered off and that coin shouldn’t have grown legs and wandered off. Being lost is on those who are lost. Leave them be and enjoy what you still have.
None of them would risk their tribe by abandoning it to find the one that rejected the tribe. It’s too risky. It’s too much gamble. It might cost them the tribe, their livelihood, their identity. So better play it safe and be safe.
But Jesus says actually, God wouldn’t play it safe like that. God would go find that lost 1ish% regardless of how small the odds and welcome them back into the fold. God would look out into the horizon, search high and low, sweep away whatever is in the way, and reach out to grasp onto that which was lost. God would expand the borders of the tribe, until nothing can even be considered lost anymore, just only in a different place. And when that is done, God will have a party.
See the message that Jesus is trying to get across is that in God, there is no tribe against tribe because we’re all in the same tribe. In God there is no us against them because we are all just us. In God, no one is lost because God moves heaven and earth to reach out to us, to extend a loving hand, and to welcome us into the kingdom that has no end.
God is calling us to break down these walls that separate us, these walls that divide us, these walls that keep us in and them out… or is that us out and them in? God calls us to end that division and learn unity, learn forgiveness, learn love. Just as Moses could have easily thrown those disobedient Israelites under the bus, he saw them all as one tribe, one nation, one family under God, full of difference and diversity, yet full of uniqueness and unity; full of disagreements and disjointedness, yet full of connectedness and community; full of anger and grudges, yet full of love and forgiveness. And Moses pleaded with God to have mercy on them.
See this is what God calls us to. We aren’t to be the same, but we are to be united. We aren’t to always agree, but we are to work together. We aren’t always to like each other, but we are to love each other with the kindness and forgiveness of God, full of grace and mercy, justice and peace, community and right relationship.
In this season after Pentecost, may we see our one tribe to which we all are invited, welcomed, and belong, and cherish the diversity in it, that we may work together in peace for the sake of the gospel. Thanks be to God. Amen.