by David Baer, March 19, 2017
Text: Luke 15:1-32
With a toddler in the family, you discover that things aren’t always where you leave them. My mother tells me that it was my practice to move from room to room in the house, picking up one object at a time and transporting it to the next room, until, for example, the rolling pin from the kitchen was in the family room, the cushion from the hassock in the family room was in the bathroom, the toilet paper was in the front hall, and my boots were in the kitchen. One of my siblings, on the other hand, discovered that there was a slot on the edge of the dishwasher door just wide enough for a piece of silverware, and that if you, in fact, stuck a table knife in there, it made a most satisfying clanking sound. My parents wondered where all the knives had been disappearing too, and, coincidentally, why the dishwasher door was getting so heavy. When they put two and two together, they groaned when they realized they were going to have to take the door apart. But we got our knives back!
Things get lost. Children add a layer of complexity to the already difficult task of keeping track of our belongings, but we do a pretty good job losing stuff on our own too. I once roamed the long-term parking lot at Newark Airport on a cold, dark, windy night, toting a big suitcase and pressing my car remote over and over again until finally I heard a honk and saw a flash. If it hadn’t been for that remote, I might still be there. I don’t know if there was rejoicing in heaven that night, but there was rejoicing in that parking lot when I started the ignition and turned on the heater.
Things get lost. Why is that so bothersome? Why does it bug us so much to lose something? Sometimes it’s because what’s lost is useful and needed, like the knives in the dishwasher. It’s bothersome not to be in a warm car on a cold night. But sometimes I find myself searching for a piece of writing I’ve seen in a book or a magazine or online, because I want to share it with someone. I don’t need to find it, but it bugs me if I can’t, because something that was a part of me has been separated from me. It’s bothersome to lose things that belong to us, especially the intangible things like knowledge, because they help make us who we are.
And there are some losses that cut closer to the heart, aren’t there?
In the scripture we heard this morning, Jesus tells three stories about losing and finding. These are stories about people being made whole again, but each of them is in its own way surprising or even scandalous. And Jesus tells these stories to warn us that the kind of mercy that we find with him, with God, is sometimes going to be surprising or scandalous.
“Which one of you,” Jesus asks, “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?” I think we need to be clear here that Jesus’ audience would have heard this as a joke. Ask any shepherd worth his staff, and he’d tell you. Putting ninety-nine sheep at risk in order to save one is bonkers. It’s irresponsible. It’s potentially ruinous. You’re staking your entire livelihood on one miserable sheep. Better to cut your losses and be thankful for the ninety-nine you still have. Which one of you does something so foolish, so crazy as to run after the lost sheep? No one. So at this point everybody would have a good, hearty laugh. But then they realize Jesus is serious! Imagine a shepherd who actually does this, Jesus says. Now imagine he succeeds, and brings the lost sheep home on his shoulders. Think of the joy he feels at having made his flock whole again!
It’s the same with the woman with the lost coin. This is someone in her own home. Why not wait until daylight? Instead she lights a lamp, burning precious oil. Every minute that lamp is burning, it eats into whatever the lost coin is worth. Who does this? No one who’s responsible or sensible. No one who knows how to tally up the costs. But imagine, Jesus says, someone so troubled, so intent on restoring the lost coin, that she literally burns the midnight oil and sweeps the whole house. Now imagine she finds it. Won’t she be absolutely thrilled?
In both these stories, something is lost, and the sensible thing to do would be to let it go. Instead, we see someone foolishly and furiously searching, until the flock is complete, until the full sum of money is restored. Whatever Jesus is doing with the sinners and tax collectors, the people pushed aside as deviant or dangerous, is not supposed to make sense. It’s not supposed to add up on a balance sheet. It’s not supposed to minimize risk or prevent loss. It’s supposed to look wildly irresponsible, foolish even. And yet, if we read Jesus into these stories as the one searching for the lost, he is absolutely thrilled to be doing what he’s doing.
Last of all is the parable of the prodigal son. This is a story that invites two readings. And if you read it as someone sensitive to what’s fair, what’s just, what people deserve, then it’s really going to bother you. The younger son asks for his share of the inheritance. He fritters it away in the far country and when a famine comes, things don’t go so well for him. The story says, “He came to himself.” We don’t know if that means he was sorry for what he’d done, or just sorry about how it turned out. What he says to himself is: “I know I could get a way better deal than this working for Dad.” Maybe that means he’s willing to humble himself. Maybe he’s once again looking to cash in on his father’s generosity. And when he comes home, his father not only embraces him and kisses him, but he also gives him gifts. You might remember that because the younger son already took his share of the inheritance. That means that everything the father gives him now is coming at the expense of his older brother. What’s more, no one even tells the brother this is happening. The party starts without him, while he’s still out in the field working, the same as he always does. If you’re looking at this story as a matter of fairness and justice, as the older brother does, then what has happened is absolutely outrageous.
Sometimes we read this story by itself, but today we’ve been primed by these other two stories about losing and finding. The father in the parable uses the words himself: “he was lost and is found!” Those words don’t make sense if you cut this story adrift from what comes before. It’s not as though the father went searching for the son—he came back on his own. But these words tie the parable of the prodigal son to the other stories Jesus tells. And in those stories, as we’ve seen, people who are searching for what was lost throw caution to the wind. They act in irresponsible, wasteful, foolish ways to restore what’s missing. And when they succeed, they rejoice.
One thing I noticed this time when I read the story, and maybe you did too. The father comes out to speak to the older brother, and the older brother lays out his complaint—I worked like a slave, always did what I was told, and you never threw a party like this for me! “But when this son of yours came back…” Did you notice that? Not “my brother,” but “this son of yours.” The older brother’s resentments have separated him from his family—first his brother, and now maybe his father too. And did you notice what the father says when he responds to this complaint: “Son, you are always with me,” he says, “and all that is mine is yours.” That’s literally true—the remainder of the estate is going to the older brother—and it puts his complaint in perspective. His reward for not having wasted his share of the inheritance is… not having wasted his share of the inheritance. But the father goes on: “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life…” Not “my son,” but “this brother of yours.” What’s important to the father is not that everything is fair, that everything is even-Steven, but that relationships are restored.
There are two ways to read this story. One involves focusing on fairness, justice, and what people deserve. The other one involves a son who is lost and then found, a broken family that can be put back together again. The first way is the ordinary way of judging and understanding. The second is the way things are done in the year of Jubilee, the year of God’s favor that Jesus announced right at the start of his ministry. The ordinary rules are set aside. God has pushed a bit “reset” button, so that relationships can begin anew. It’s a fresh start, and property is returned, debts are forgiven, and slaves are set free. To insist on ordinary rules is to miss out on the uniqueness of this moment, to stand outside the party where everyone else is celebrating.
“Son, … everything I have is yours.” Neither son deserves a party. Both inherit what they have through the generosity of their father. I wonder whether we sometimes don’t get so caught up in our own notions of fairness that we miss out on the ways God has already blessed us, and the beauty of what God is trying to do. You yourselves know better than I do where you’re bothered by resentment, where you’re inclined to say to God about someone, “This may be your child, but he’s not my brother, she’s not my sister.” But what is it, really that you’ve lost? Is it fairness, is it your rights, is it what’s coming to you? Or is what you’ve lost an awareness of the grace you’ve already received? Is the hurt you feel really a longing for God’s family to be made whole again?
Thanks be to the God who runs to embrace us when we are far off in body or in spirit, who lavishes us with goodness, and who rejoices to welcome us home. Amen.