Today we have in front of us three parables, stories that Jesus tells those around him to illustrate a point, usually about how God’s world operates. Because as we’ll see, God’s world functions differently than ours. These three parables from the 15th chapter of Luke revolve around things that are lost and what happens when they are found. The capstone parable of this trio is, for many people, a familiar one. It’s probably best known as the parable of the prodigal son, though that title is a bit misleading. Because this parable is about the son who leaves, the son who stays and the father who loves them both. But maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit.
This morning’s reading from the gospel of Luke begins with two verse that set the stage for everything that is to come.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
I do love Luke’s penchant for the grandiose. ALL the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to Jesus. In my mind’s eye, I start picturing throngs of tax collectors and ne’er-do-wells streaming toward Jesus for a giant lamb roast or something.
I mean if you stop and think about it, it’s quite the image. The outcasts, the unclean, the pawns of the Roman empire vs. the religious elite. Sinners vs. the righteous. Now the theologically astute among us, particularly those of you well verse in the Lutheran tradition might say, well aren’t we all sinners?
But Greg Carey, who teaches at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, notes.
In Luke’s world, some people so habitually transgress the ways of God that they are sinners in need of repentance. Others do not. We must take our passage on its own terms: Jesus distinguishes between sinners who repent and “the righteous who have no need of repentance” (15:7).
We may struggle with that distinction, but it is critical for engaging this passage on its own terms. Here lies the cutting edge of the passage: Jesus embraces the very people the rest of religious society rejects.
Jesus is eating with, feasting with, the very people good religious folk should have absolutely nothing to do with.
It’s against that backdrop then, that Jesus tells these three stories.
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?
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?
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.
Three stories that make no sense.
Nobody leaves 99 sheep to look for one. What if a wolf came, what if the 99 got lost? And Nobody spends all day looking for a coin, even if that coin was worth a day’s wages, you don’t spend an entire day looking for it and then have a giant party where you spend more on the party than the coin is worth.
And what father would give his son his inheritance after his son essentially said to him, I wish you were dead. Who would do such a thing?
No one. Except I suppose as we’ve seen God.
And so isn’t God a little bit, or maybe even incredibly reckless?
I mean these aren’t really activities befitting the divine, are they? Fervently searching for a lost sheep, sweeping the house in search of a lost coin, looking out the window in the hopes that your son who has embarrassed you might somehow find his way home.
Aren’t these pictures that Jesus offers of who God is and how God works a little beneath God? I mean show some dignity. Pay attention to the practical implications. Don’t you realize people are watching?
Since moving back to Minneapolis from the suburbs a few years ago, I’ve gotten dreadfully behind on my podcasts. And have we have a second child, I suppose that’s an even greater factor. As of this morning, I think I had something like 91 unplayed podcasts, and I only really follow 4-5 shows.
At any rate, a few weeks ago I was listening to a Radiolab podcast from the end of August that was entitled “playing God.” The show was all about triage. In moments of crisis, in natural disasters and war, how do medical professionals, or people who have been thrust into situations where they must care for people decide who gets care and who doesn’t. How do they decide who lives and who dies?
In the podcast there were painful and bitter stories where nurses and doctors had to decide which patients got oxygen during Hurricane Katrina, and which didn’t. Individuals in a refugee camp who were forced to choose who got to see a physician and who did. Normal everyday people deciding who lived and who died because there was only so much medicine, energy, life to go around.
And isn’ that the world that you and I live in, day in and day out. Maybe not to that extreme, but don’t you feel like you are perpetually doing triage. Don’t you feel like you are constantly making choices between this thing and that? Don’t you feel like you are constantly prioritizing, strategizing, organizing because there’s not enough time or money or energy to get it all done? I know I do.
But in God’s economy, there are no limits. God is indeed extravagant, reckless, even bordering on ridiculous with God’s love. God runs to meet those who have rejected him, God searches relentlessly for those who are lost, God even seeks out the smug and self-righteous and invites them to the party.
Brothers and sisters you have been invited to the feast of the found. You belong here at this table where God’s grace is poured out on you recklessly and freely on you and your neighbor. There is no limit to God’s love, so in the words of the Father,
We have to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. Amen.