Too often we read a parable and are immediately tempted to assign all the parts. For instance, in today’s parables of lost things, we are quick to assign Jesus to the role of seeker and ourselves to the roles of the lost sheep or coin. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, as a matter of fact, reading the parables this way makes us feel good—when we lose our way, Jesus will do everything he can to find us and bring us back into the fold and upon his success, there will be great rejoicing by all the angels in heaven. The challenge with reading parables in such a way that they make us feel good, is that we lose the intent of a parable.
One of Jesus’s primary teaching tools is that of parables. He uses parables in all kinds of situations to challenge people’s beliefs and actions. Rarely, if ever, does Jesus tell a parable to make people feel good. For Jesus, a parable is provocative and challenges the status quo. They always start out easy and nice, but then he throws a twist in there and as soon as you figure it out, you’re probably going to be a little offended. Fortunately for Jesus, most people didn’t figure out the offense until he had already moved on to the next town.
This morning’s parables are no different. Though on the surface, they can easily be manipulated to feel good by making us the center of the story, if we take a step back and understand the context, we might discover something a little more provocative.
Its important to remember whom these stories are being told too and why. Luke 15 starts out with Pharisees and scribes grumbling about the tax collectors and sinners that Jesus not only welcomes; he breaks bread with as well. So Jesus tells them parables about being lost and being found and the rejoicing that happens which might easily be understood to translate to what we believe about sin and redemption. We are lost when we live in our sinful state and then we find redemption and God rejoices. But I think these parables point to something more than the sin and redemption of individuals. In order to dig a little deeper into these
parables, we must first release our need or desire to read them as allegory where we are the sheep or the coin and Jesus is the shepherd or the widow. And second, we must hear them in their fullness. Our lectionary does us a slight disservice by divorcing these two parables from their third, the Prodigal Son. But to read all three parables in a deeper, thematic context might lead us to a different and somewhat more challenging understanding of Jesus’ true message.
In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus asks, “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?” We hear that question and think it is reasonable that everyone would immediately go in search of their lost sheep. But there are a couple of problems with that. First of all, if you’ve got a hundred sheep, the odds of you realizing one is missing are very small. Think about it, in the movie Home Alone, Kevin is one of five kids and his parents completely overlook the fact that he is missing until after they’ve arrived in Paris. That is just one in five. The shepherd in Jesus’ story has a hundred sheep to keep up with. And who would leave the ninety-nine IN THE WILDERNESS to go look for the one? Aside from catching the Road Runner—this is Wile E. Coyote’s dream come true. Jesus’ audience would have heard that question as outrageous—nobody is going to leave ninety-nine sheep to wander around on their own in the wilderness, because if they do, when they get back, if they found the one sheep, they will have exactly one sheep left.
The idea that a shepherd would leave his entire flock in search of one missing sheep, is not only absurd but it is obviously the twist in the story. Of course, when the shepherd gets home and invites everyone to come over and celebrate—you gotta wonder if mutton is on the menu.
The widow’s story is a little less provocative. I’ve been known to search for a quarter for twenty minutes when it rolled under the bed. So, I can completely relate to the widow who searches diligently when she realizes she is missing a coin. And unlike a hundred sheep, missing one out of ten coins is much more noticeable. But really, you’re going to throw a party after finding a lost coin? Sure it makes a good story when you’re shooting the breeze with a neighbor over the back fence but to call everyone together to celebrate—hmmmm I’m not really sure about that.
But it is the parable we are missing, the prodigal son, that convicts me of the belief that more than simply the repentance of sinners is important to Jesus. Sure there is “joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” But Jesus follows up these simple stories of lost and found with a more complicated story regarding a son who asks for his share of the inheritance and forsakes his family only to return broken and desolate and yet be welcomed by his father with a celebration—the placing of a ring on his finger, a robe on his back, and the killing of the fatted calf. But it is not this youngest son who was truly lost—the younger son, though lost ended up being found, but in the finding of the younger son, the eldest son is lost. The eldest son refuses to enter and be a part of the celebration. The father leaves the celebration of his younger son’s return to go out to the eldest son and reassure him of his value and presence in his life—but there is no resolution to the story. Instead it ends with father and eldest son removed from the celebration inside.
If we need to read this parable as allegory, then I might suggest that the eldest brother represents the religious authority. The ones who have dedicated their lives to the keeping of the Torah and care for the Temple because they value God above all else—unfortunately that includes other people. The eldest son has valued the care of his family’s property over all else, including and especially his little brother. And we can relate to that. How many of us have struggled with siblings or the decisions of relatives that have caused division and angst amongst family members? Growing up in Selma, there was a brother and sister who had a falling out over their inheritance after their parents died. The brother would always go to the early service at church and the sister would go to the late service. Neither would go to funerals or weddings because they didn’t want to accidentally run into each other. They each had their established social engagements and the other avoided those. It was not until many years later as the sister lay on her death-bed, that her brother finally came to see her and they reconciled after all those years. The joy in the presence of angels was abundant and the rejoicing of the community was telling. But I have always wondered, how much joy those two families missed out on over their years of ostracization. They had excluded one another from their lives and the detriment was their own.
This seems to be the direction of the eldest brother—would his own perceptions of entitlement and offense outweigh his ability to forgive or his desire to love? Can he live a life of grace for his younger brother or must he judge him for his inability to maintain the standards and expectations the eldest brother values? Who is really the lost son—the one who finds his way home and is received with grace and mercy or the one who has always remained but does not know grace and mercy?
Sheep wander away, coins roll under the bed, sons can become misguided: and when those lost things are found, great is the rejoicing. But there is more to celebrate than simply those individual things being found—when the sheep is found, his discovery makes the fold complete again. When the coin is discovered, no longer is it not simply missing but it is now a part of the whole again. But when the lost son returns home, another son goes missing.
In some ways, I think it is difficult to understand Jesus’ message when these three parables are divorced from one another because we get really focused on the individual nature of sin and redemption. Yes, redemption of sinners is important, but Jesus has a deeper message, a message of reconciliation, a message of restoration of the whole. Once we understand that we are not simply individuals stumbling around in the dark trying to find our way, or at the least, hoping to be found, and instead recognize that we are part of a whole and that when one of us is missing, the whole is no longer complete, maybe then we can begin to understand Jesus’ message.
Jesus tells the sinners and tax collectors, scribes and Pharisees a parable about what it means to be lost and what it means to be found. And though the redemption part is really nice, it is the inclusiveness of the kingdom of God that Jesus eludes too. We, too, get that choice. We can believe we are righteous and see ourselves as better than the other, whoever the other might be, but in so doing we practice a piety of exclusiveness that does not exist in God’s kingdom. The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about the sinners because they had excluded them—they had gotten so focused on the rules of the Torah and the keeping of the Temple practices pure and perfect that they forgot the reason for those rules in the first place—the loving reconciled relationship of God’s people.
The mission of the church is to partner with God and one another to do God’s reconciling work in the world. Here at Ascension we believe in sharing the experience of love and grace by seeking relationship with God and one another—its written right there on the front cover of our bulletin. That is what it means to seek the lost—not that we simply search the wilderness or sweep under the bed, but that when the lost do show up we accept them for who they are, where they are, as is, because that is how God accepts us.
14 Pentecost Proper 19: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; I Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, September 15, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer