The parables of Jesus about a God who seeks us out and rejoices over us is such a welcome relief after weeks of hard teachings. As always there is a little more to it than just nice stories but it is good news for those of us who have ever felt lost or unimportant in the scheme of things. (Luke 15:1-10) And we who are already “in” the fold also need to note that we are being challenged to go seeking those who are lost and not yet aware of their inclusion.
It’s worth thinking about the three parables that we have in Luke 15 as a group even though the portion set by the lectionary is only the first two for this week. The first parable is that of the shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek the one who is missing. The second parable is that of the woman who has lost one of her ten coins and seeks until she finds it. And the third parable is that of the prodigal son and his brother (or one out of two who is lost although they are both lost in different ways).
Firstly the context of the teaching is that Jesus tells these parable to the Pharisees and scribes in response to their criticism of him for welcoming and eating with tax collectors and sinners which suggests that Jesus is correcting and challenging those who see God’s mercy and favor as only being for those who are religiously “in” or already counted among the righteous.
Secondly, Jesus is escalating the stakes as he adds the next and the next parable. The first is scandalous enough in that Jesus asks the rhetorical question “ Which of you …” and then suggests the very economically unwise action of leaving the ninety nine sheep unprotected in the wilderness so the shepherd can go seek the one! In the second parable the God character is a woman and it is the one in ten who is lost. And in the third parable we know how scandalous the grace of the father is in having given the younger son his inheritance early, then in welcoming him back, and then in throwing him a party to rejoice and expecting the righteous responsible brother to join those celebrations!! These apparently simple parables are actually quite strong and confronting in their imagery.
Like the Beatitudes in Matthew and the Magnificat in the beginning of Luke it is the lowly, the lost and the left-out who will ultimately perceive the kingdom and receive the blessing and be rejoiced over. And in this teaching that part of our experience in which we have been foolish, lost or distracted can know that we are still of ultimate value to God and that we are being sought out even when we are trying not to be noticed, even when we feel unworthy and beyond redemption.
In the first two parables the lost sheep or coin need do nothing but be found. In the third parable we know the prodigal son must come to his senses and turn toward home (an image of repentance) although the father is looking, looking, looking out for him and runs to him before he reaches home under his own steam. So before we go much further it is good to just bask a moment in the relief and gratitude, and any alarm or resistance we might feel at being sought out even when we are not sure we want to be found. For those of us feeling lost in some way at the moment take heart the God of all creation is seeking you, desires you, is waiting to rejoice over you. For any who fear or despair for those who they love and think of as lost know that the God of all loves and is seeking your loved one. And for those of us who are now counted among the righteous remember that we too are among the found, the rejoiced over.
And we who are among the righteous need also to hear the challenge that like the Pharisees and scribes we are not to grumble that Jesus welcomes and eats with those we see as sinners. Rather, like Jesus, we are to consider leaving for a time the ninety nine and going out to look for the one who is lost. And then we are to rejoice over any that are found and return. We are to light a lamp, sweep the floor and look until we find the precious coin that is lost. We are to make the effort to seek out those who are lost not demand that they come to us and do things our way before we will even contemplate talking much less eating with them.
I fear that in recent decades (and many times before in centuries past) we have lost the plot, we have tied the gospel of love and mercy with red tape and our human rules about who and under what circumstances God can love those who are different to us culturally, politically, religiously. These three parables remind us that God looks for all who are lost, all who do not yet belong, and rejoices over any who allow themselves to be found.
Yes, according to the prophet Jeremiah, there is a hot wind that blows destruction because of the foolishness of God’s people. This was written about the destruction Israel experienced at the time of exile but after a scorching summer who cannot feel the heat of that wind of judgement and consequence on our neck! And in the reading from Exodus Moses intervenes between the people and God because the Lord has a wrath that burns hot against the people for their perverseness and their forgetting of his past mercies. And in both readings God stops short of destroying the people despite their wrongdoings. How much stronger is the theme of mercy in the teachings of Jesus, the embodiment of God with us. These parables are good news for all that is apparently lost in our world and a reminder that we are not yet, nor maybe ever, beyond being found and rejoiced over.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come and bring us home when we are lost and give us a heart that rejoices in each homecoming of your precious ones.