So far in our journey to the cross during Lent, we have been challenged by the parables of Jesus. The first week his parable of the merciful Samaritan challenged our desire to justify ourselves. Last week the parable of the unfruitful fig tree challenged our temptation to delay in repenting, to take our own sweet time about changing our hearts and lives. This week we are going to hear three more parables that will challenge our notions of grace and fairness, of forgiveness and condoning.
This morning the highlight of our time together is our celebration of Communion, but before we get there we are going to hear the parables of the Found Sheep, the Found Coin, and the Father Who Loved Two Sons. At this point you may be saying, “That’s not the right names! I think you meant to say the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son.” Maybe you’re right. It all depends what you focus on in the stories. Because the parables of Jesus are sneaky. They always contain much more meaning than we are ready to consider. Parables may sound simple, but they aren’t. Parables are sneaky.
Parables are very frustrating for two types of people. They are frustrating for people who like to be told what to believe. And they are frustrating for people who like to tell others what to believe. Parables don’t work well for telling people what to believe because they have more than one possible meaning. Parables require interpretation. And people who like to be told what to believe are uncomfortable taking responsibility for their own interpretation. But those folks are in good company because Jesus’ first disciples didn’t like to do their own interpretation. Often after Jesus told a parable they would pull him aside to ask “What did THAT mean? Give us the one right answer. Tell us what to think.” Parables are always contain more meaning than we are ready to consider.
Parables are great for people who like to seek, who like to question, who like to poke at their own belief, who like to turn it upside down and shake it and see what falls out. Parables say a lot of things. But we can’t use them to say just anything we want them to say. There are parameters for responsible interpretation. But parables are like a kaleidoscope. Keep turning them and you’ll see something new as the same pieces fall into different places.
So. Before we hear these parables of the Found Sheep and the Found Coin and the Father Who Loved Two Sons, we need to know when and why Jesus told these stories. Here’s how the gospel of Luke sets the stage. This is Luke chapter 15, verses 1 through 3.
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable:
Let’s pause for a minute. This is at least the third time in Luke that the Pharisees have been annoyed with Jesus because of who he associates with, specifically who he EATS with. Most of the time when Luke describes a person as a “sinner” it’s because a Pharisee has already called that person a sinner. So here is Jesus, welcoming the inappropriate people to sit down and eat with him. And the Pharisees don’t like that. Remember that’s because the Pharisees honestly thought that if everyone would just follow the rules, their people would be freed from Roman occupation. So the fact that Jesus welcomes these “sinners” really bothers the righteous folks. In response, Jesus tells a story. Now obviously everyone at the dinner is listening, but I think we are supposed to assume that these parables are primarily for the benefit of the Pharisees. So let’s hear them.
“Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the wilderness and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life (or repents) than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.
“Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls together her female friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life (repents).”
Explaining a parable is a bit like explaining a joke. Having someone else tell you what it means ruins the fun and cheapens the joke. Besides I’ve already told you that I think it’s tricky for one person to tell another person what a parable means anyway. So I’m not going to tell you what these parables mean. But I am going to point out a few things that might make it a little more interesting as you decide what they mean for you.
First the shepherd LOST his sheep. It didn’t wander away. That shepherd did not leave his 99 sheep safely fenced up. He left them in the wilderness. To go look for one sheep. That he had apparently lost in the first place.
Next, the woman lost a silver coin, but that’s not a dime. It’s like she lost a $50 bill. She lost a full day’s wage. But instead of waiting for daylight to aid her search, she lights a lamp and searches in the dark.
Finally, in both of these stories, there is no chance that the sheep and the coin will stay lost. They will be found. The shepherd and the woman do not give up until they find what they lost.
So put those pieces in your kaleidoscope and let them turn around.
Let’s read the last parable.
Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ (Now we aren’t exactly sure how this would have worked in the ancient world, but this could have basically sounded like “Hey Dad, your money is worth more to me than you are. Give me what I’ll get when you die.”) Then the father divided his estate between his two sons. Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living. (That word “extravagant” is a synonym for the word “prodigal.” Someone who is “prodigal” is not someone who goes away and comes back. A prodigal person is someone who is wasteful and dissolute and reckless and extravagant in a bad way.)
“When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ So he got up and went to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. 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.
“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him.
He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve worked like a slave for 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.’
Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was
dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
You know where most people stop with this parable? With the father running to his son. If the father is supposed to be an image of God the Father, the Creator, the Source, the first person of the trinity, then that’s a pretty great image. God runs to meet us … when we realize how badly we’ve screwed up and come back to God. That’s a good message. But it’s really not all that revolutionary. Because it requires that we’ve realized how awful we are and now we are coming back to beg forgiveness and live not as children but as servants. Which is what we deserve. Right? We deserve to be punished for wasting the blessings poured out on us. That’s fair. That’s what we would expect to happen to somebody else.
But this parable is more revolutionary than that. The father doesn’t just run to meet his son. He cuts him off mid-apology and instead of shaming him, he honors him. Let’s throw a party because my son was dead, and what’s even worse, he was lost, but now he is found. No condemnation. No recrimination. No mention of what he did. No punishment. No change in status. And if this is supposed to be how God treats sinners, then that’s awesome! But this parable is even more revolutionary than that.
Remember there are two sons. And what about the older one? You know what, I sympathize with this guy. I am the oldest of the siblings who grew up in my house. And if you believe in birth order theory, that certain traits show up because of where you fall in the order of siblings, I am the quintessential oldest child. I was responsible. I followed the rules. I did the right things. I was never rebellious. I made the right choices. I worked hard. I went to church and memorized scripture and sang on the worship team and served on the mission projects. And nobody ever wanted to hear my story. They wanted to hear the stories of the people who had almost died from alcohol or drugs. The prodigals. The people who had a rugged life and a radical encounter with Jesus. If we look back to the first parable, then the angels in heaven are rejoicing over one of those guys and don’t give a crap about 99 good people like me. So yeah. I feel for this older brother. I feel for the Pharisees. Because that is not fair.
The thing about real grace, true grace, amazing grace, is that it’s offensive. It is totally and completely unfair. The way the father forgives his younger son makes it seem like he condones the young man’s behavior. No correction, no rebuke. Just a party. That offends me.
And you know what that offended feeling proves? It proves that I don’t know myself at all. I do not see myself accurately. If I am offended by the unfair amount of grace given to the younger son and the people with dramatic conversion stories, then I am completely unaware of the unfair amount of grace that has been given to me as well.
You guys, Jesus is making a point here with the angels celebrating over the 1 who repented and the 99 who didn’t need to. There has never been a person who did not need to repent. There has never been a person who did not receive an unfair amount of grace. The older son didn’t realize how much love and generosity he had already received from his father. Everything on that estate belonged to him already! He wasn’t working like a slave for someone else’s benefit. He was building his own future. He could have had a goat party with his friends any time he wanted. They were his goats! He was totally unaware of all that had already been given to him.
And at the end of the story he needs just as much grace as his younger brother. The Pharisees and legal experts and I have just as much to repent of as the tax collectors and sinners and prodigals. Because religious folks, including me, are guilty of religious hypocrisy, of assuming that someone else is worse than I am, of pride, of exclusion, and of thinking that I don’t have anything to repent from. Everybody needs to repent.
A few weeks ago I told you that Jesus is a both/and Savior for an either/or world. Jesus demonstrates the both/and love of God to people who are trapped in either/or thinking. We think God chooses the 1 sheep or the other 99, the one coin or the other 9, the younger brother or the older brother, the sinners or the Pharisees, the conservatives or the liberals, the people who exclude others or the people who exclude the people who exclude others. And that’s not true.
The end the parable of the Man Who Loved Two Sons proves us wrong. The father didn’t only run to meet his younger son. He left his own party to convince his older son to come inside. He didn’t want to only party with his prodigal; he wanted to party with his hypocrite. Remember where all this started? At a table. Jesus is trying to convince the Pharisees to sit down and eat with him. And yes, with the sinners. Because Jesus wants them all at the table. With him. It’s his table, so he gets to choose who is welcome.
And this is what we celebrate and remember as we come to Jesus’ table again this morning. Jesus wants to eat with all of us, sinners and saints, prodigals and religious hypocrites, people who know they need to repent and people who haven’t yet realized they need to repent. The only thing you have to do to experience the welcome here is to come. Jesus wants to eat with you. This is the joyful feast of the people of God, where sinners and saints and prodigals and hypocrites come from the north and south and east and west and are met by Christ, who is the host at all our tables.