By Pastor Cherie Johnson
Luke 15:1-10 (NIV)
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
We’re in the middle of our Lenten series, It Is Finished: Jesus Road to the Cross. Next week, we start getting close to Jerusalem, and the fateful week, but today, Jesus is talking about the parties in heaven and earth when the lost are found. We have heard about a sheep and a coin. Now, Jesus goes in a different direction. Many know this as the story of “The Prodigal Son.” It’s very familiar to many of us, so it can be difficult to really listen to it to hear what God might be saying to us today through it. The first thing I’m going to do is change the title. The titles we see in the Bible are not part of the Scripture itself. They were made up as summary statements by the translator or editor. The title we associate with a story can also affect how we hear it. So, today, my title for this story is “We Had to Have a Party.” I will also be reading this out of The Message Bible translation. The change in the wording can help us to hear it with fresh ears.
Luke 15:11b-32 (The Message)
11 Then [Jesus] said, “There was once a man who had two sons. 12 The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’
13 It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. 14 After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. 15 He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. 16 He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.
17 “That brought him to his senses. He said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. 18 I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; 19 I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ 20 He got right up and went home to his father. When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him.
21 The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’
22 “But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! 24 My son is here – given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.
25 “All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. 26 Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. 27 He told him, ‘Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast – barbecued beef! – because he has him home safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. 29 The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? 30 Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’
31 “His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours – 32 but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!'”
In Jesus time, there was a particular hierarchy and elders were held in high esteem. They were at the top. They were respected and dignified. What they did was intended to maintain that respect and dignity. One thing they never did, ever, was run. Even to walk briskly meant losing your dignity, and it here Dad shamelessly ran to meet his son. This son that asked for his inheritance early and lost the whole thing. The elder son was right about one thing, he did follow the more traditional path where sons stayed home, helped to work and manage the property, and took care of his parents in their old age. At the proper time, he would receive his inheritance and could do what he liked. The younger son asking for his inheritance was like telling his father, “I wish you were dead.” He brought shame on the whole family. It is well that he left for a different area. What he did would be expected to create a permanent rift in the family. They may well consider him dead. It was unlikely that they would ever see him again. But here he is, and Dad is running to meet him and restoring him to the family before he can even offer his apology.
The party has started and the elder son returns home after working hard all day. He starts grumbling. Once again dad is willing to lose his dignity, but now it is the other son that is being rude. However, Dad still wants him at the party. He wants his boys to be reconciled, but just as he didn’t force his younger son to stay, he doesn’t force the older to join the party. But all are invited to be reconciled, to be restored.
Jesus is telling the story specifically to the Pharisees and the lawyers to answer their grumbling about his dinner companions, but there is a larger audience. They would all be longing to hear a story like this. It’s a story about the rebellious going off to foreign lands and receiving an astonishing welcome back home. It’s the story of rebellious Israel going into Exile and finally coming home again.
Though the people had physically returned from the Excel there was a feeling that with continued foreign rule and oppression that God had not really returned. After all, Rome was only the latest in a long list of foreign rulers. There was a feeling that the spiritual exile has not ended. They returned but were not restored. They return, but God did not. This story is about Israel’s liberation and the welcome and reconciliation with God, one that throws dignity out the window. Of course, there had to be a party.
So, we know a little bit about why Jesus told the story, but why did Luke include it in his Gospel? It is one of the stories that only appears in Luke. In Luke’s community there were veterans from the Jewish traditions and new Gentile believers, and sometimes there was conflict between who the true followers were, and who should be allowed in. There were grumblers. You see that happening in the book of Acts. The Apostle Paul addresses that in his letter to the Romans and Galatians. “Neither Jew nor Gentile.” It wasn’t just to say that those entering from the outside were more welcome, but that those who are already with God, following God, were entitled to all the good gifts of God and were equally welcome to the party.
The original idea behind the practice of Lent meshes directly with all of this. You may remember, when I mentioned that in the early church, Lent was the final part of a three-year preparation or training to join the church. It was also a time when people who had broken with the community and were being invited to return had a time of preparation. The whole community would go through a time of renewal. It had the effect of eliminating the hierarchy and self-righteousness. All are in need of the forgiving and reconciling love of God. We need not worry about anyone else’s worthiness. Know that we are all celebrated when we renew our relationship with God. Of course, there had to be a party!
I went to seminary and Washington DC, and my New Testament professor, Sharon Ringe, talked about discussing these three parables about losing things with her class one time. They talked about the experience of losing keys, books, and even pets, and the joy of finding them. I can tell you about the joy of retrieving a research paper that I thought was irrevocably lost. However, they all seemed to agree that the celebrations in the parables were a little too much. Within a few days, the 9/11 attacks happened. In addition to the World Trade Center in New York City, a plane slammed into the ground in Pennsylvania, and a plane crashed into the Pentagon.
There were news stories and posters and pictures with captions like:
Lost: my husband, Henry, worked in the 4th ring of the Pentagon.
Has anyone seen my sister Lucy?
Our mommy is missing.
When someone was found, there were great celebrations, though they were too rare. The class now understood the parables. At the next class their ideas about the passage change dramatically.
God doesn’t want to lose anyone, no matter how “insignificant,” how “unworthy” you or I may think they are, no matter how unworthy we may think we are. That is how important one of us is to God. God wants us to have life and have it abundantly.
Of course there has to be a party!
Imagine that you have wandered into a party. It’s at a bar, and one of the regulars has just had a windfall. He’s invited all his friends and all the regulars for a good time. Jesus is there in the middle of the room laughing and smiling with the guests. You notice his eyes on you as you stand by the door, deciding what to do. His eyes seemed to say, “Come in. You are welcome to join us in the fun.” How does that make you feel? What does that make you think?
Now, I invite you to turn in your hymnals to number 348, “Softly Tenderly Jesus is Calling.”