It was sunny, not warm yet, but bright enough and cloudless enough for my one good suit to feel a little uncomfortable. It is the sticky, cloying feeling of humidity and heat as they increase in complementary fashion to one another under a spring sun, which in Georgia, is early summer. I was watching the family arrive, my family – cousins, aunts, uncles – distant kin from all over Northwest Georgia, Northeast Alabama, and Tennessee. They climbed out of vehicles in their Sunday best, walking with proper solemnity, heads bowed, shuffling toward the tent in the middle of what was once upon a time, just another hilly field in the town built on seven large hills and named for the great and ancient city of Italy, Rome.
This was to be my first funeral as a minister. I was just beginning to get my feet wet in ministry serving as a part time, more voluntary than anything, A/V and worship leader in my church. I had only recently begun to test the waters of preaching and teaching and for that matter I was only Methodist in thought and theology since the rest of me was at a Baptist church. I was nervous, rightly so, since this was the funeral of father’s only brother, Joe. I worked and worked on the sermon, trying with my limited understanding of theology to craft something hopeful and meaningful for my father but also for Joe’s five surviving children.
Misery loves company but even the most miserable among us have our limits. The four daughters (Joe’s son was not there) were intent on making sure that everyone knew they were miserable and seemingly on making one another miserable. It wasn’t long before one of them got upset about a slight, imagined or not, and the row began. Within a few minutes, it moved to being an honest to goodness fight and at that point, I tried to step in. After a moment or two, I was reminded that the cousins of my childhood were not so much different in temperament in adulthood and I stepped out. It took the stern but kindly affirmations of my father’s cousin, more like a sister to him and his brother, to calm the girls long enough to have a funeral. They sorted it and later were fine, since they have been sorting their differences in their own raucous way as long as I have known them.
Looking back, I can see the problem: loss. Everyone responds to loss in a different way, each of us with our own unique mechanisms for dealing with the sense of absence and longing that is inherent with losing something or someone. For my cousins, it was a fight. The yelling and screaming (and occasional punching, biting, and hair pulling), was the way they have been dealing with anger, grief, loss, and other negative emotions as long as I have known them. For them, this is the way they have always dealt with the difficult things of life, fighting their way through it, with each other or anyone else. If you have lived, you have experienced loss in some way or another or will experience it in the future. It is as inevitable as death and taxes. We will all know the sharp pang of it and will all have to find our way past its pain and emptiness.
As we continue our look at the symbols of Lent, we find this passage, like all that contain parables, is chock full of symbolic and metaphorical language. Surprisingly enough, our passage today is one that is about loss and restoration. The reason, however, may not seem so obvious on the surface. Jesus is traveling through the countryside, large groups of people following after him, when a group of Pharisees and religious scholars joined the gathering. As they looked around, they found themselves surrounded by what they termed ‘sinners’. Our English translation of this word loses some of the punch that it has in the original language. In Greek, the word means ‘erroneous’ or ‘of bad character’, someone who is wrong in the eyes of those who are right.
The Pharisees, whom we have discussed before, have a low tolerance for unholiness. To them, these sinners, all seeking hope in the message and person of Jesus, are the epitome of unholiness, a collection of flies buzzing around an otherwise respectable family picnic. The author of Luke marks their disdain, recording, “The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In other words, Jesus accepts the unholy not only in public places but also in the privacy of their dirty, unsanctified, unholy, houses and at table, a sacred place of ancient hospitality and holiness. Not only that, but the way the text is worded, the implication is that Jesus invites them to his table where they are welcomed and treated as respected, honored guests. They are the erroneous, those with bad character, and Jesus must be taking on their error and bad character. After all, if you lie down with dogs, you have to wake up with fleas, right? But Jesus, sees something else, something beyond the Pharisee’s attempts at holiness and honor before God. He sees something underneath the veneer of man’s broken, societal rules and sees something precious. He sees something that has been lost.
So, Jesus looks out at the people, Pharisees and disciples included, and uses the tried and true method of explication, the one that separates ‘those who have ears to hear’ and those who don’t, and begins to speak a truth about the ‘sinners’.
When Jesus begins each parable, he speaks of something that has been lost. In each, the thing that is lost becomes something of greater and greater value to the person who lost it: a lost sheep (v.4), a lost coin (v.8), a lost person (v.11). In the first parable, we have a lost sheep. Agriculture was the backbone of the ancient economy and the loss of an animal was a great financial loss to the owner, but a personal loss to the shepherd who cared for and nurtured the animals.
In the second story, the woman has lost a valuable coin. Now this is not like us dropping a nickel on the ground or pulling out a hand full of change and dropping a few pennies. This was the equivalent to a day’s wage, something she most likely saved up over a long period in Jesus’ day. She would have saved several smaller denominations of coin to get to the place where she could trade them in for a drachma, the basic unit of currency. According to one source, “Modern commentators derived from Xenophon that half a drachma per day (360 days per year) would provide “a comfortable subsistence” for “the poor citizens”…”
In the final parable, what is lost is beyond price and I believe, more directly related to the point that the writer of Luke is making in the parable. The youngest son of a well-off man has abandoned his family, asked for his inheritance (a way of saying to the father ‘it is as if you are dead to me’), and has taken to the road. He is youthful, headstrong, and quite frankly, a little stupid, assuming he understands the way of the world, assuming he can see things better than his old man can. He is a type or sign of youthful arrogance and indiscretion, a soul lost to his ambition.
Unlike the other parables, that which is lost has the capacity to realize that it is lost. IN the son’s case, almost too late. He has taken the wealth of his father’s hands and squandered it on ‘extravagant living’ (v.13). When hard times come, and they always do, this once faithful son of a prominent Jewish farmer finds himself, “sent…into [the] fields to feed pigs” and longing “to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything…” (v.15-16)
So, who is looking for these lost things? The first parable speaks of the shepherd. In the Old Testament, there are examples of God seeing Israel in this way, such as Isaiah 40:11 which says, “Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes.” The writer of Luke has Jesus use the first parable to depict our shepherd in such a way. The shepherd loves the lost animal so much, that he is willing to “leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one…” (v.4) In this parable, either the shepherd feels there is nothing of danger in the vicinity to harm the sheep or that the sheep, dumb as they are, can stand where they are for a while until the shepherd returns with their errant kin. According to Fred Craddock, professor of Preaching and New Testament at Emory University, “Either the shepherd is foolish or the shepherd loves the lost sheep and is willing to risk everything, including his own life, until he finds it.” (Craddock 1990, p.185)
The second speaks of a woman, but not just any woman, a shrewd woman who has scrimped and worked and saved and now has collected nearly half a month’s wages in savings. Her intent is evident: she is trying to save these valuable coins for some future purpose, one not disclosed in the story. But knowing the state of a day laborers existence in the ancient Roman world, we can see she is a person unafraid of hard work, willing to toil, willing to give up things of comfort for herself to save for something of greater value to her in the future.
Finally, we come to the father in final story. The man is a strong man. Think of what it must have felt like to know that your child sees you as being dead to them and simply wants their share of an inheritance. How must it have felt to count out the coins that represented years of your work, not your sons work, but your work, counted out to fund the life of what seems to be ungrateful, selfish child.
Yet the man is not only strong, he is patient. The writer of Luke says, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion” (v.20). In other words, the father was waiting, probably daily, looking for some sign of the son that had wandered away, hoping, perhaps against hope, that this errant boy would one day realize his folly and wake up from the foolish delusions of youth to find his way back, find his way home.
In the end, each of these stories wraps up with a celebration. All of them end with the same overarching idea, one expressed at the end of the first two parables, “Come, celebrate with me!” Jesus stops at the end of the first two parables to say, “In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life…” (v.7) While the last isn’t phrased this way, the celebration is illustrated in more practical, life like terms.
“His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.” (v.20-24)
These celebrations make their point: that which was lost and then found must be celebrated. Think about the words used: ‘joy in heaven’ (v.7) or ‘joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels’ (v.10). These are expressions that denote ‘delight’ as an experience and as something to be sought and experienced. Look at the final parable and the father’s reaction. In the other stories, the people finding the sheep and the coin are happy, but the writer makes the final story more practical, more personal to the human situation. It is the joy, the delight, the ecstatic excitement of having a child, a youngest child who has been gone, lost to you, returned and for the most part unharmed.
Of course, not everything ends well and the writer of Luke has Jesus sense the rebuttal of the Pharisees and legal scholars, a rebuttal that comes in the final parable from the mouth of the eldest son. You him, the son who was faithful, the one who, by Jewish law and custom, got twice the inheritance his brother was given. Yet, when the brother is welcomed back, he balks, and in plain spoken terms, speaks his mind,
“‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’” (v.29-30)
In other words, ‘I’ve been a good son, followed the rules, been faithful to God and family, and you treat me like the hired servant my little brother asks to be.’ Where is the retributive theology in this? Where is the justice of getting that which you deserve? Author Brian McLaren puts it this way,
“The parable ends. Jesus never tells us how it comes out. Did the older brother join the party and reconcile with his younger, wayward brother, or did he stay outside, fuming over the seeming injustice of his father’s extravagant love? The story remains unresolved because it is, in fact, an invitation – an invitation to the Pharisees and other opponents of Jesus to join him welcoming sinners and other outsiders into the joyful party of the Kingdom.” (McLaren 2007)
I think there is wisdom in this. And I believe the invitation extends to us now. We have the capacity to be Pharisees or welcoming fathers and mothers. We can push those who we deem unacceptable, not holy enough, not good enough, not like us away from the vaunted halls of our buildings we call churches or we can invite all who are hurting and in need, regardless of where they are from or what they are like, in the greater Church, into the Kingdom of God. I believe the invitation is an open invitation, one extended to us to join Jesus and one we in turn extend to any and all who find themselves lost or out of the presence of God.
Craddock, Fred. Luke: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.
McLaren, Brian. The Voice of Luke. Nashville, TN, 2007.
 H. G. Dakyns’s translation of Ways and Means: A Pamphlet on Revenues alias On Revenues (The Works of Xenophon, Macmillan, 1897). This footnote is quoting George Grote (Plato, and the Other Companions of Sokrates, vol. 3, J. Murray, 1865, p.597).