Lost and Found

4th Sunday of Lent
Luke 15

10 March 2013
Elizabeth M. Deibert     
It is ambitious to take on three parables. Given the difficulty of interpreting parables, one would be enough, two would be plenty, and three, well …but you know these three just belong together.   Three parables about losing.  Three parables about diligent seeking. Three parables about the celebration of finding.   They have always been favorites of mine, perhaps because losing and finding is a big part of my life.   My keys, my coffee mug, my cell phone.   I easily lose things.   I put them in strange places.   I can relate to the joy of finding.   But I also love the
way these parables teach us about the relentless searching of God for us, and the eagerness of God to rush out to welcome us home – no matter how lost or wasteful we’ve been.   

But before we read these parables, let’s consider for a moment the role of the parable in the Scriptures. Have you ever wondered why Jesus so frequently employs parables in his teaching? There must be simpler, more direct methods of communicating truth. Parables are not easily interpreted. They yield many levels of meaning. They catch the hearer by their “strangeness or vividness, yet leave sufficient doubt” about application to life (C.H. Dodd).   The parable puts a burden on the listener that is not purely intellectual. Parables are like poetry, lying somewhere between the opaque and the obvious, evoking meanings and feelings.
They are “somewhat elusive, revealing and yet concealing, always drawing the listener” into a familiar but different world (Fred Craddock). Jesus must have known that parables would intrigue his listeners. One scholar says, “The importance of the parable is in what it does as much as what it says” (Amos Wilder).  

So as we read this collection of parables from the fifteenth chapter of Luke, let your imagination take you into the world of the parable and discover not so much what it says but what it does.  Let us pray:   O Holy Spirit, use these parables to speak your truth to us, to change us, to bring us closer to our home in your embrace.

Hear the Word of the Lord in Luke’s gospel, chapter 15:

Luke 15:1-32 (NRSV)
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.
And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying,
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!”

So Jesus 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.

Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?  When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost!’  Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.  The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’
So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country,  and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.  He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were  eating; and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself he said,
`How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare,
but here I am dying of hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”  So he set off and went to his father.  But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion;  he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
Then the son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son...’ But the father said to his slaves,  ‘Quickly!  Bring out a robe — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet;  get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate!  For this son of mine was dead and is alive again!  He was lost and is found!’  And they began to celebrate.  Now the father’s elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.  He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.  He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’  Then the elder son became angry and refused to go in.  His father came out and began to plead with him.
But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes,
you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice,
because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!’”

The “Lost Sheep,” the “Lost Coin,” the “Prodigal (or Lost) Son.” Those are the names commonly used to designate the parables we just read. But I say to you that they are really the parables of the “Loving Shepherd” the “Determined Woman” and the “Forgiving Father.” Three parables of joy. Three parables that reassure. But to whom are they reassuring?  To the lost, of course. Only the lost are in need of being found. That is why all the tax collectors and sinners (all
the losers) were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes (all the ones who are arrogant enough to think they are not lost) were grumbling and saying, “This guy is friendly with the losers. He even eats with them.”

To whom did you most easily relate? Were you with Jesus, with the Pharisees, or with the sinners? With what identity did you hear the parables? Were you a lost sheep or one of the ninety-nine? Were you the prodigal or the child who dutifully stayed at home. Or did you hear the parables from the perspective of the good shepherd, the diligent woman, and the loving father?

The parable may be interpreted from the position of every person in the story. However, it seems to me that the prevailing point of view in the parables is that of the shepherd, the woman, and the father.  Jesus begins by asking, “Which one of you, having one hundred sheep ...?” He introduces the second parable with the question, “What woman having ten silver coins ...?” And the final, culminating parable, a favorite for so many people, begins with the words, “There was a man who had two sons.” It does not say, “There was a boy who squandered his father’s money and then came home to loving arms.” Nor does it say, “There was a guy who had always been obedient to his father and never asked for special privileges.” No, instead, we are asked, just by the way the parables are constructed, to ponder the faithful care of the shepherd, the searching concern of the woman, and the sacrificial love of the father.

First, let’s take the twin stories of the faithful shepherd and the diligent woman. They have similar details and together anticipate the more elaborate story of the loving father. There’s some irony in the first question raised by Jesus, because from the herding business’ point of view, it would be dumb to leave ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness while searching for a single lost one. Either the shepherd is foolish or the shepherd loves the lost sheep enough to risk everything,
including his own livelihood, in order to find it.

The parallel story of the diligent woman is only puzzling in so much as she throws a party to celebrate the recovery of her coin. The silver coin is perhaps equivalent to fifty dollars. There are many who would hunt energetically for that amount of money, but few who would invite all their friends and neighbors to a party.

The repeated phrase at the end of these two parables, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance”  must be an anticipation of the third and final parable. For we all know that neither the sheep nor the coin are capable of repentance. The sheep and the coin did not experience one bit of guilt over
straying from their master. All they did was get lost and stay lost until they were found.  Furthermore, the phrase “ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” is strictly a rhetorical device Jesus uses against the scribes and Pharisees who misinterpret his association with the outcasts. The paradox is that there is no such thing as a righteous person who needs no repentance.
Ultimately, we come to the prodigal son, a beautifully crafted parable which is central to the message proclaimed by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. As mentioned earlier, we begin with the father. His younger son asks for his inheritance.  According to Jewish custom, this would be one third of the property in the case of a younger son. Selling or trading the property before the death of the father was against the law.  The prodigal took, he lied, he sold, he left the country, he wasted all that he had. Having so much as declared his father dead and having squandered all his father’s wealth, he then forsook his own Jewish identity by taking a job working with swine.  To touch, eat, or care for unclean animals was to become like a Gentile. The carob pods which he would have gladly eaten were food eaten only by the very poor. This is no fun-loving boy out sowing his wild oats. His behavior is seriously offensive and desperate in the Jewish mind-set.

Then we are told that he came to himself. His first thought is not, “I’ve been bad. I must get my life straightened out.” What leads him to repentance is not guilt but remembering the goodness of life in his father’s house. There he recalls even the hired workers have more than enough to eat. Hungry for the bounty of his father’s house, he decides to return. He plans his confession and hopes that the father will be willing to take him on as a hired hand.  

But while he is still far off, his eagerly watching father sees him and is filled with
compassion. For the father to run to him is contrary to all custom; in the Near East, a mature man loses all dignity when he runs. But this father is so overcome by love that dignity is not a consideration. He throws his arms around his son and kisses him.   The son, having rehearsed his confession over and over on the long journey begins to say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son...” But the father is so caught up by joy, he doesn’t seem interested in the penitence of the son. The recited confession goes unfinished because the forgiveness did not require it.  All the father needed was to see his hungry, hurting, lost son. That’s all it took to get him  running out, forsaking his dignity, forgetting any concern for discipline or teaching the wayward kid a lesson. There is no trial period, no probation. There is no condition placed upon the son for his father’s love. The father cannot help but love. He simply and wholeheartedly rejoices that his child has come home. He starts the celebration by honoring his son with a robe, a ring, and sandals. They kill the fatted calf, something that was only done for important festival days.  

The elder son comes in from a long day in the field. He is puzzled by the sound of music and dancing. It is easy to understand the anger felt by this loyal elder son. He cannot believe the fatted calf was killed to honor this loser brother of his. He refuses to go in to celebrate.  Just as the father goes out to meet his younger son in his lostness, the father goes out, removes himself from the party to meet his elder son in a different kind of lostness, rooted in resentment. Here we clearly see the offense of grace. The faithful, diligent first-born – like the scribes and Pharisees – wants to think he is worthy of his father’s love and that his brother is not.  He naturally thinks he deserves more from his father because of his loyalty and obedience.   Sometimes we are like the older brother, thinking that we deserve God’s love, while others do not.

It is not fair for his wayward, runaway brother to get a welcome home love feast. “I’ve been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; what have you given me?” And the father says, “I have given you everything I have. Don’t you see, my son, we must celebrate. Your brother was dead and has come to life. He was lost and has been found.” It is only in being lost that we may be found. It is only in dying that we truly live.  

Some preachers would conclude their sermon by harping on the importance of repentance or change of heart. But I say that “if we badger ourselves with the dismal notion that sinners must first forsake their sins before God will forgive them,” if we insist that the lost must somehow find themselves before the finder begins to look for them, then we violate the truth of these parables.   These stories about being lost and found speak to us of God’s determination to find us, to embrace us, to forgive us even before we repent.   And that is why we should be always turning toward home. There is no earning, no merit, no worthiness. There is only the gracious, saving determination of a shepherd, a woman, and a father to find what was lost and to rejoice.   God rejoices in you, every time you come back home and God runs out to greet you.