By the age of, oh I dunno, “four” let’s say, there are certain experiences that every human being has had. I’m thinking of things like discovery (or we might call it ‘learning’), and creativity, and desire, and cooperation, and puzzle-solving; and let’s add hiccups just for fun (and probably other health experiences as well). And one other experience, which is the focus of the parables in our reading this morning: and that is the experience of loss.
And although I can’t remember losing something from when I was 4, I can certainly still remember the panicked feeling, on a couple occasions, of desperately searching for a lost toy that I loved as a kid, or the similar feeling about losing my wallet as a teenager. Of course, as an adult, the “what” of the loss we experience can be far greater, and the feelings tied to that loss are, if anything, more acute. So, needless to say, I think it is easy for us to make a connection with this morning’s parables.
Before we look at those parables, though, I think it will be helpful to consider the context in which Jesus tells them. There are two groups named in beginning of our reading that are present in Jesus’ audience, and one of those groups thinks the other should not be welcome. We hear the scribes and Pharisees grumbling because Jesus was welcoming and eating with tax collectors and sinners.
This is why it’s been said that Jesus was “friend of the irredeemably wicked”: tax collectors were reviled, because not only did they work for The Man (collecting money for the Roman empire), but they also charged a little extra with which to line their pockets; and ‘sinners’ may have referred to prostitutes who were also reviled—a prostitute would have no way to ever return to a community… no one would marry her, for one thing. And so it gave the impression that Jesus doesn’t care about Jewish law. It is in response to this grumbling that Jesus tells these three parables.
The first two parables are fairly similar to each other: In the first, a shepherd has lost one out of his hundred sheep, and so leaves the other 99, and searches till he finds the lost one; and then, having found it, he calls friends together to celebrate. In the second parable, a woman has lost a coin, a “drachma”, worth about a day’s wage, and, like a certain little kid looking for his lost Princess Leia Star Wars action figure, she turns the house upside down looking for it, and, again, calls neighbors to celebrate when she finds it. Both of these parables tell of experiences of loss to which we can easily relate—that feeling of desperately trying to find something we’ve lost.
The third parable is much longer, and more complex. In this parable there are three main characters, and I would suggest that each of them has an experience of significant loss. We begin with the younger brother, a brash, presumptuous fellow who demands his inheritance early, but who, I think it’s fair to say, does not set out to lose everything that he has received.
But he lives it up, wild and free, until (too late) he comes to his senses, and realizes that he has truly lost everything—he reaches that low, low point, and he comes to recognize his many mistakes, and all that those mistakes have cost him. Perhaps this is not an experience that we’ve all had, or at least not to this degree, but if not, surely we know someone who has, and how hard an experience that can be.
Now we name this the parable of the “prodigal son”, but in so doing we leave out that this story is about two sons, and that the other son also experiences loss. The older brother is very different from his sibling: he is hard-working, he is responsible, he is faithful. But then one day he comes home from working in the fields, and hears a ruckus, and asks, “what’s up?”, only to learn that his no-good brother is home, and instead of a rebuke, has been given a huge party by their father. It is a crushing blow, and it causes him to question his whole life: all his hard and faithful work, and none of it mattered!
Again, if we haven’t had the experience of, you know, everything being fine, and then the next moment everything seems upside down, well, then we probably know someone who’s experienced that—and it’s not hard to imagine being in their shoes.
And finally there is the father who experiences one loss, and the possibility of another.
First he loses his younger son, who, by asking for his inheritance early, has basically wished his father was dead (which is when one would normally receive an inheritance—not much different then from how it is now). I mean, we focus on the son’s wild living, but those are minor details. The main damage was already done: he had asked out of the family. He was really and truly gone—a parent’s worst nightmare.
But then, the day the father dared not even hope for: his son returns home! And, as though the dead had returned to life, he can’t contain his joy; but in so celebrating, he finds himself at risk of losing his older son. Sometimes it is disharmony and conflict that brings loss—and it is no less painful.
Now certainly it is the experience of loss that is the catalyst for each story, and, as I say, we can be drawn in by how relatable that experience is. But in the end, I think it would actually be more accurate to describe these parables as stories of restoration and rejoicing.
When the father sees and recognizes his returning son, even while he is still a ways off—his son who had asked out of the family to take his share and go—when he sees him he doesn’t sit back (arms crossed) to wait for an explanation or apology, but rather runs and kisses him, and calls for signs of restoration to the family to be set upon him: ring, robe, sandals!
And when the woman discovers her purse is one coin short, she searches every nook and cranny—how much valuable time she spent, we don’t know—until she finally finds her coin. And when the shepherd notices the one sheep missing, he… well he probably acts far more recklessly than any shepherd would, risking the other 99 while he went to search for the 1!
And then each of these stories ends with rejoicing: friends invited, parties thrown!
Finally, there is the older son, full of resentment, unable to bring himself to join in the celebration, but again his father is not idle, but rather reaching out with an unparalleled promise: “all that is mine is yours.”
Restoration and subsequent rejoicing: this is what God is about. Surely we know that in our human experience of lost, there is not always a “found” that accompanies it. But with God, there is “found”!
And it has nothing to do with financial gain, which is how it might look at first glance: in the first parable we can talk about the value of a sheep, though most of Jesus’ listeners would probably disagree with risking the 99; and in the second parable we can talk about the value of a silver coin to a woman of limited means (she only had the ten).
But the third parable sets the first two in light of the value of a lost son or daughter, and so, in the end, we are brought to see that it’s not about cost-benefit analysis or return on investment—but finally in each of these parables it’s about moving toward the one who is lost, like a father to both of his sons—even a little recklessly, giving all of himself.
This is what God is doing through Jesus Christ for the sake of the world. This is God’s self-giving love which is recklessly revealed to us on the cross. And the family mark has been set upon us [cross upon forehead], and we have been invited to the feast! God seeks us out, God welcomes us, and we are found by God’s amazing grace.