Parables are wonderful because no matter where we are spiritually, there is usually a character in the story with whom we can connect, but to be true to the story we need to put it in context.
Imagine for a moment Jesus has been teaching for several months near the Sea of Galilee and large crowds are starting to follow him. They are a very motley group of people. First there are the twelve which consist of at least four fishermen, a tax collector, an insurrectionist, and we don’t really know the background of some of them. Luke tells us “tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him” I suspect the sinners included some prostitutes, some beggars, some everyday folks who didn’t go to church so to speak, and possiblye a few non-Jews. There were also Pharisees and scribes, those persons who regularly attended religious services and who were very conscious of the traditions of their ancestors. The Pharisees and scribes begin to criticize Jesus because he is eating with people they considered “unclean.” They have bad table manners which for the Pharisees and scribes is not just socially unacceptable, but religiously a problem as well because performing certain rituals at the table was a way one honored God. Failure to do so they thought dishonored God.
Jesus tells a series of parables which all inform and illuminate each other. The first three are about something that is lost, then found. The fourth one is about stewardship and honesty, and the last one is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Today’s lesson is the middle parable, the last one about lost items. Let’s very briefly look at the first two before we go into the third one in more depth.
In the first parable a man has a hundred sheep and one goes astray. Sheep were a valuable commodity, they provided both food and clothing. Jesus asks the crowd, if you had one sheep that got lost, even if you had 100 total, wouldn’t you go look for it? Of course. And Jesus speaks of the joy of finding the lost sheep. What if instead of being a shepherd with 100 sheep, you were a woman who had a dowry of ten silver coins. These ten coins are what ensures that you will survive if something happens to your husband. If you lost one of the coins, even though you had 9 others, would you not go look for it? Of course. And Jesus speaks of the joy of finding the lost coin.
In both instances the community is encouraged to participate in the joy of the individual who had lost something and had it restored to them.
What is more valuable than sheep to a shepherd or a dowry to a woman? How about sons to a man?
A certain man had two sons. One son, the older was a rule follower and the younger son was always pushing the boundaries. This is not an unusual situation. I see it in myself and my younger sister. I can see it in my two older children. I suspect most of you can see yourself in one of these two roles. The crowd sitting around Jesus could probably see themselves in one of these two roles. The “tax collectors and sinners” had learned to survive by pushing boundaries. The Pharisees and scribes had spent their life trying to stay inside the box and carefully maintained the walls of the box by rules and rituals.
Jesus tells us that the younger son grew impatient and wanted his inheritance before his father had died. This meant that he reduced not only the family’s immediate worth, but he also reduced the potential income of the family because the father would have had to sell off land, livestock, etc. to give the younger son his share of the inheritance. The son was clearly acting selfishly and disregarding the future welfare of the rest of his family. The son then wasted his inheritance on pleasure: perhaps women, alcohol, gambling, pagan festivals. Luke calls it “dissolute living.” Those hearing this story may have remembered the story of Esau and Jacob and how Esau despised his birthright and sold it for a bowl of lentils. He was afterward cut off from the piece of the family that inherited God’s covenant with Abraham. Tradition would support cutting off this son who had despised his inheritance.
The father meanwhile appears have one eye on the horizon hoping that his son, whom he loved enough to let him have his inheritance early and let him have the freedom to use it as he saw fit will return home. The older son has been dutiful and continued to work the family farm in his brother’s absence, but appears to have written off his brother as a lost cause.
Once the younger son has spent all his money he finds that he has hit bottom. He is tending pigs apparently for a Gentile farmer because Jews considered pigs unclean, and he is even wishing he could eat with the pigs he is so hungry. He remembers that even his father’s servants live a better life than he is living at the moment, and is willing to humble himself to the point of admitting to his father that he made bad decisions and to ask that he be taken back, not as a son, but as a servant. He has been practicing his speech all the way home but before he gives it, his father sees him and rushes out to embrace him and welcome him home. Jesus talks about the joy of the father in proportion to the value of what was lost – remember the sheep and the coin if the finding of those things brought great joy how much more when a son who is lost. The son is of much more value than sheep or coins therefore the joy at having him restored is so much greater.
To the tax collector and sinners this is a call to repentance and the offer to be welcomed back home as children of God, their father. For those today who have squandered the gifts God has given them, who have lapsed into destructive behaviors it is a call to come home. It is a call to once again resume the role of child of God. To the Pharisees and scribes, it is a call to rejoice with God in the restoration of the family. To those of us today within the church it is a reminder that we should rejoice when someone returns to Christ no matter how far away they have strayed.
Jesus is now speaking to the Pharisees and the scribes when he describes the reaction of the older son. The father loves the older son no more and no less than the younger. The father invites the older son to join in the celebration and share in the joy of the restoration of the younger son, but he responds by criticizing his father. He accuses his father of treating him like a slave, when in reality, he has imposed that position upon himself. He accuses his father of being miserly to him, when in reality, he never asked for anything. He failed to avail himself of the father’s love and generosity and then blamed his father for his misery.
For those who have never strayed very far, who have been faithful and obedient most of their lives, or those who did stray but have already found their way back and take seriously the call to be a child of God, we are called not to look upon service to God as a burden. It is not to be something we do because we feel we are obligated or because we are expecting to be rewarded, but it is to be done in love and gratitude for the blessings we receive just by being part of God’s family and knowing that all we have belongs to God but also that all that God has is there for us. Luke says the father told the older son, “you are always with me and all that is mine is yours.”
Where do you find yourself in this story today? Do you need to repent and return home? Do you need to allow God to love you and recognize with gratitude the blessings available to you? As a congregation, how can we make the path more welcoming for those who want to come home and how can we participate in rejoicing at their return?