John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
[11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. 17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”]Luke 15:1-32
The Gospel of the Lord
When I returned from England last century, I began teaching the Biblical Languages. The first Biblical Literature I taught was Luke-Acts. Luke and I have “history” so to speak. When Luke edited his Gospel for Theophilus – remember his introduction in ch. 1 (vs. 1-4), he placed three parables in a sequence: a parable about a wandering sheep, a parable about a misplaced coin and a parable about two equally lost sons (15.1-32). And notice all three have a similar pattern: (1) a crisis where something/someone is lost from a larger group, (2) an action where the leading character seeks out and finds the lost, (3) the finder then invites friends for a celebration and (4) Jesus makes a comment. So here’s my dilemma. In this morning’s Gospel lesson, the lectionary editors have us read only two of the parables. Twenty four weeks ago, we read Luke’s third parable, commonly called the prodigal son, on the fourth Sunday in Lent. You’ll find Luke’s edit printed in full in this morning’s bulletin. Because as I began to prepare for this morning, I kept running up against his edit. So I’ll ask for your forgiveness beforehand, since I will return to the entire scene of his final edit.
A first thought about Luke’s introduction in vs. 1-2: Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and Scribes complained, “This man too freely puts his arms around sinners and eats with them.”. Remember in Luke’s Gospel Jesus is presented to the Jewish leaders in a prophetic role. The dominant role of Israel’s prophets is appeal. So in the pattern of the classical prophets, here’s how I imagine the prophet Jesus speaking to the religious authorities. He has his forearms stretched out and the palms of his hands turned up. He wants to embrace them. He is inviting them to consider three kinds of lost-ness and to not let their identification ideology lose sight of people in their real lives. There are lots of ways to be lost. Not only three. And if you’re a frequent visitor to Israel’s prophetic literature then you’ll not be surprised by creativity.
As I’ve said previously, one of my favorite Jewish teachers Amy-Jill Levine observes parables are meant “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” She writes, “if we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough”. Luke’s edited intentions for Theophilus are subtle. So sometimes Wisdom can help. Parables belong to Israel’s Wisdom Literature so we know they’re multi-directional. Right off, these parables involve ideas of lost-ness and attitudes. And because they’re Wisdom Literature, they lead everyone on a collision course with choices, decisions, responsiveness, forgiveness and changes in direction. A lot of attention focuses on: How do we read them? Who do we identify with? What will it take to get us involved? So from these questions we know the parables are not an all out attack on Scribes and Pharisees. But we do know this: the parables involve them just as much as everyone because the question in vs. 4 cleverly begins “Who among you….”?
The first parable focuses on a wandering sheep (vs. 3-7). This one sheep out of the 99 wasn’t a wild sheep but belonged to the flock from the beginning. Sheep wander. Jewish believers wander. Christian believers wander. Wandering is merely one of the things believers are most consistent at. Believers are complicated. Sometimes they never meant to wander away. They drifted away without knowing it. It’s taken the same amount of divine mercy to get them, me and you saved and grace to keep all of us saved. But the point is there’s a learning curve to living a believing life. Some are lambs, some are sheep. Not one among the flock, the community, is at the same point of obedience or faithfulness. Everyone, tax collectors, sinners, disciples, scribes and Pharisees, wander from faithfulness in different ways. Everyone encounters struggles with keeping focused. Knowing this, it takes a lot of grace to live as a wanderer in a flock with other wanderers.
It’s been my great privilege to have a teaching vocation as a lamb, a sheep. For you see I’ve been involved in teaching men/women who want to be ordained shepherds. I have no ordained authority. If I have any authority it’s merely persuasion. I’ve spoken to them about the Bible and ministry as a sheep who knows wandering well. I’ve wanted them to know and understand how a sheep like me experiences the pasture, the wilderness. I’ve wanted them to know I’m not unaware of the experiences, the pains, the feelings of failure in my own life. And thank you Jesus there’s a better model for shepherding than a top down administration with cost benefit analysis of a one percent loss. Jesus has a place on his shoulders for even one wandering believer.
From the very first time I sang the words of this Methodist revival hymn, even until today, they lay heavy on my soul: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God. He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood. O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee. Here’s my heart, O take and seal it. Seal it for Thy courts above”. It’s not about bureaucracy, programs, not about balance sheets. A believer’s life is challenging, hopeful and difficult. Shepherding ministry is knowing intimately what’s happening in the flock, the local community. Like Jesus with his open arms toward Scribes and Pharisees, I’ve wanted the aspiring shepherds to carefully know, to personally consider, to generously serve folk with instruction, compassion and kindness. If you’re going to search for wanderers then you will have to find them where they gather in their lost-ness. There you will find them trying to find something to satisfy, to deaden the pain of an empty heart. And when you find them, lay them on your shoulders rejoicing as Jesus did. What this means is: help them, undertake for them, assume some care for them, share your strength with them. This is what the Scribes/Pharisees, who thought of themselves as part of the 99, were supposed to do. Hopefully it stung some of them. It was always my prayer that it stung my aspiring shepherds.
The next parable focuses on another kind of lost-ness. A woman panics after misplacing a coin in her house (vs. 8-10). The coin was part of her life. It belonged to her. She uses a costly item – an oil lamp in her desperate search. I certainly, and perhaps you, walk around with lots of doubts about myself. And when I lose or misplace something or someone especially at home I feel it. And don’t I feel stoooopid – that’s four o’s in the spelling! Sometimes stupid is all I’ve got! But there are ways to find what has been lost. I can do this one thing. I can admit I made a mistake. Admit it’s my fault. I can be more helpful to the household if I lighten up, uncovering with honesty my mistakes. I can, as it were, pull back the carpet and start sweeping in one corner, pull out the refrigerator from the cabinet, and move carefully across the room. She realized she would be working in darkness. She needed more light. Like her, I need the good, synagogue goin’ Scribe/Pharisee to hold the candle and not tell me what five steps I should have done to manage my wealth. Or to put it into Scribe/Pharisee speak “If you’d only fully obey the Tradition of the Elders such things wouldn’t happen”. Well, they do happen because things happen.
One time in my life, I lost someone. It was soccer season. Jason had practice on Tuesdays after school. I always came to fetch him after practice so we could go get dinner. Well, one thing after another went wrong that day. I was delayed. When I got to the practice field, I discovered it was empty, completely empty. I remember the panic. My arms went numb; my mouth was dry and my head was pounding. May I suggest something of that panic is what we read in this parable. Like the woman, in a frenzy I dropped everything and rushed to different houses. At the third, thank God, there he was! Saying over and over I was so very sorry, I held him ever so tightly in my arms. He hadn’t been kidnapped. He hadn’t been left behind, unnoticed. A lot of things were held at arm’s length. Although, from time to time he wanted a Baskin Robbins ice cream reminding me the whole story hasn’t been told – YET.
And in Luke’s third parable, the so-called Parable of the Prodigal Son, we’re actually given two kinds of deliberate lost-ness and no small amount of attitude (vs. 11-32). Two sons in this parable belong to the family. Each one chooses to deliberately step away. Decisively, dramatically, the youngest son tosses aside his father, his family and the community nurturing him (vs.12-14). Jesus tells us after a while he “came to his senses” in a far away country and in a skilled use of storytelling we hear what Junior is thinking. He will return, admit he has sinned against the Lord and wronged his father (vs. 17-19). Meaningful words of confession and repentance over a broken relationship.
The father enters the scene “moved with compassion” (vs. 20). Long ago he made up his mind. He would forgive his son if he ever showed up on the outskirts of the village. Seeing his son on the horizon, without hesitation he gets up, runs, embraces and affectionately kisses him. Interrupting the son’s confession he commands servants to accessorize the son with robe, ring, sandals – emblems of restoration to sonship and fatherly care. And he commands them to set the table with a festival meal (vs. 21-24). His son was lost and has been found.
What about the other son? Appearing first on the same horizon the older brother stops short of the house and speaks to a slave – not his father (vs. 25-27). He’s angry. Now children, unlike sheep and coins, have long memories and a voice of their own. He’s confident he’s right. He knows the rules, the questions and the answers. This son blurts out his rage, scolding his father with bitter words. His father’s not following the rules. He should have left the “little brat” on the horizon and not welcome him back (vs. 28-30).
In this last parable, the father delights in the younger son’s repentance but probably would prefer he not sink so low before coming to his senses. And the father would have liked to see the older son go into the house, warmly embrace his brother, kiss him, and weep on his neck. For both, it’s never too late to make the right decisions.
This parable’s theological point: forgiveness is always available to the one who turns. Sometimes we’re so full of ourselves, we’d rather destroy ourselves than endure being forgiven, than find the humility to accept we’re loved. Sometimes accepting forgiveness can be hard. Sometimes circumstances will lead us to understand how valuable commitment to family love is. Sometimes we’ll understand forgiveness only when we realize what we’ve done and want to change. On the other hand, we’re taught to forgive. Forgiveness becomes an act of courage because it lifts the lost over very, very high walls of rejection in order to reunite them with family and community. Personally this parable reminds me who lost sons on more than one occasion, how fortunate not to have lost them permanently. That’s worth celebrating.
So here’s a Jesus point for us: In the final parable we are to feel the father’s heart wrenching compassion over two sons at odds with him and each other. And I can see that Luke’s edit uses this parable to show compassion belongs in all three parables. Since compassion belongs to the very nature of what it means to the Lord. A Lord determined to seek and save the lost. To be such a Lord is to feel his insides churn over lost-ness and to act on it. To be such a Lord is to search for, to heal, restore, renew, and in all ways to help. Compassion is important as it allows such a Lord to imagine himself in our shoes. Compassion is what arises when he is confronted with our lost-ness and it motivates him to die on the cross to relieve it. And to rise joyously on the third day and take a seat on a throne in triumphant celebration.
Here’s a Jesus’ hook in the three parables for everyone who’s been listening. When someone is lost, either by wandering, being misplaced or deliberately choosing that someone is missed, longed after, and not only worth the search party but worth ringing bells, swinging from the chandeliers in unrestrained joy before the Father, Son and Spirit as that someone is brought back into the sheepfold (vs. 6-7), the purse (vs. 9-10) or the family (vs. 22-24).
Some folk wander, some are misplaced and some even deliberately reject the Lord. Each of these parables, then, reveals something of the attitude, and the activity the Lord undertakes on behalf of the lost. Each one helps believers to see as the Lord sees and to develop some understanding and sympathy for some of the reasons why someone can be lost. And we should see, in these parables “insider” attitudes toward the wandering, the misplaced and the rebellious and attitudes of those who disparage them. Bottom line – Jesus is inviting everyone within hearing to extend their arms, turn up the palms of their hands adopting an attitude of divine compassion, patience and love.
Luke’s final edit tells us there are lots of ways to be lost. And it also tells us there is Jesus who came to seek and save the lost. Jesus values us enough to search us out, to restore us to who we were created to be and to celebrate whenever we return. This morning, if you’re feeling lost, misplaced or have merely kicked everything to the side of the road then you’re in the right place. There are lots of wandering sheep, misplaced coins and fathers/mothers, sons/daughters here. Ask anyone. There’s probably one sitting next to you. May I suggest to you, they’re more than willing to help you find your way back into the sheepfold, the purse and the family. And more than willing to celebrate with you. We’re Anglicans for heaven’s sake!
May the Lord richly bless you, my Beloved.