Parables of Jesus: Parables of Lost Things
Have you ever been lost? Sure, I think all of us have made wrong turns before when we’re traveling somewhere, and undoubtedly, some of us make more wrong turns than others. My mother, honestly, I’m not sure how she made it anywhere before the advent of GPS. Usually, when we’ve made a wrong turn, even if we don’t know where we are, we know how to get back to something we recognize. Have you ever felt the panic of being truly lost? The closest thing that comes to my mind didn’t involve me moving from where I was at all, and yet feeling totally panicked and lost. My oldest cousin is 9 years older than me, and she used to come and stay with us for a couple of weeks every summer. I adored her. One summer, when I was about 6, and Heather was 15, we went to the mall. I think my parents were somewhere else in the building shopping, and Heather took me to have lunch at my favorite pizza place in the food court. Part way through our meal, Heather needed to use the restroom, and she gave me the option of coming with her or sitting by myself at our lunch table. I was very mature, so I decided to wait on my own. After what seemed to me to be an eternity though, Heather still wasn’t back. She had probably been gone for 5 minutes. But I was convinced she had forgotten about me. I started crying. I was very scared. I knew where I was, but I was also feeling quite lost. I waited as long as I could, but finally I went up to the guys at the pizza counter and told them what happened. They walked me to the mall security desk, and they began paging my cousin. Imagine my parents’ astonishment to be hearing my name over the loudspeaker system! They, along with my cousin, rushed to find me, and quickly, the drama was over. My parents were very unhappy with Heather. I wasn’t old enough to know that I shouldn’t have been left alone, but she was old enough to know. The relief I felt at being found was incredible.
Today, we’re beginning a short sermon series on the Parables of Jesus. I’ll be drawing each week on some of the work of Dr. Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is a Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. She is a Jewish woman, a scholar, and one of her missions as a seminary professor, teaching Christian students, is to help students stop reading the Bible in an inadvertently anti-Jewish way. She seeks to help us avoid what she calls “common moves to make Jesus look good by making Judaism look bad.” (44) I find her work brilliant, and last year I read her book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, in which she examines many of Jesus’ parables from her unique perspective.* Her book has now been made into a small group study curriculum, so you may see it show up here in the coming year. When I read Levine’s interpretation of the parables, her insights on the scripture are so transformative that I find myself wanting to dig through my sermon archives and delete anything I’ve previously written on the same topic.
Today, we’re starting with Parables of Lost Things: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son, which make up Luke chapter 15. Luke give us the briefest of intros, offering an explanation for why Jesus tells these parables. Tax-collectors and sinners of a non-descript variety are coming to hear Jesus, and Jesus doesn’t just welcome them to the crowds - he sits and eats with them. Sharing meals implies relationship. We generally eat with friends, not strangers. The religious leaders grumble - perhaps interpreting Jesus’s actions as approval of the practices of folks like tax-collectors, who many saw as collaborators with the Roman government, or perhaps preferring to maintain their religiosity by clinging to a too-good-to-eat-with-you approach. In response, Jesus tells three parables, tied together in theme.
Which 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? In his telling, the owner who finds the lost sheep tenderly cares for it, returns it to home, and then invites friends and neighbors to rejoice with him over his finding the lost sheep. The next scenario is similar. A woman has ten silver coins. She loses one. What woman in this scenario, Jesus asks, would not light a lamp, search carefully for it until it is found, and then call together neighbor and friends to rejoice with her: she has found the coin she lost!
And finally, Jesus tells the story we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus describes a father with two sons. The younger wants his share of his inheritance now, and the father gives it to him. Shortly after receiving his portion, he heads off to a distant country, and squanders what he’s received. Then a famine hits, and he gets pretty desperate. He goes to work as a hired hand, feeding pigs, and when he realizes he’s looking longingly at the pig’s foods, he decides to go home, remembering how well even the workers eat at his father’s home. He rehearses a speech to tell his father - and we can’t tell if he’s really repentant, or if he just thinks his speech will have the most impact on his father. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, because his father embraces him with joy, relief, and compassion before the son even says a word. His father dismisses the reciting of the speech quickly, calling for a huge celebration at the return of his younger son. But when the older son realize what has happened, he gets very angry and refuses to join the party. When his father comes to him, pleading for him to relent, the older son responds, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” But his father responds, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” We don’t know what happens next - if the older brother joins the party, if the younger brother changes his ways, if reconciliation between these three family members happens or not. And Jesus moves on from here to other parables.
Sometimes, when we think about being lost, we assume that the one who is lost is the one that is responsible for being lost. There’s an impulse to assign some blame, and perhaps also to set the responsibility for getting found squarely on the one who is lost. If you’re lost from God, you better get yourself found, get back on track, find your way back to God, back to faith, back to the church, back to the right track. But often, being lost is more like my trip to the mall with my cousin. I was alone and afraid, and I was the one who got up from the table where I was supposed to wait for her, but my cousin was the one who was supposed to stay with me, and she was the one who had to seek me out. Jesus’s parables about lost things don’t follow the pattern calling the lost to find themselves. Someone else has to intervene to get the one who is lost headed back in the right direction. A sheep can’t be expected to find its way back to the flock without some help. It is the shepherd who was in charge of knowing where the sheep were. Certainly a lost coin can’t find itself. The woman must search and search for it. And maybe the younger son in the parable gets “lost” and “found” on his own steam. But Levine suggests that the titles we give to parables - something added later, not in the original writing - keep us from focusing on different ways of looking at what we’re reading. A better title than The Prodigal Son is ““The Lost Son,” which is how the parable is known in Egyptian Christian sources; this title,” Levine says, “has the added value of opening the question: “Which son is lost?”” (31) The father, with only two sons, not ten coins or one hundred sheep, “was unable to count correctly,” she concludes. (49) “The father did not know until [the] moment [his son confronts him] that the elder was the son who is truly “lost” to him. Once the recognition comes, he does with the shepherd and the woman do: realizing his loss, his lost son, the son whom he loves, he seeks to make his family whole.” (68)
I want us to ask ourselves: Who are we responsible for? Who are we responsible for that we have lost? Levine, talking about the man with one hundred sheep, writes, “If he can notice the missing one and diligently seek to find it, he reminds listeners that perhaps they have lost something, or someone, as well, but have not noticed it. Before the search can begin, we need to notice what, or who, is not there.” (38) “The missing sheep, whether it is one of a hundred or a million, makes the flock incomplete. He engages in an exaggerated search, and when he has found the sheep, he engages in an equally exaggerated sense of rejoicing, first by himself and then with his friends and neighbors …. If he can realize that one of his hundred has gone missing, do we know what or whom we have lost? When was the last time we took stock or counted up who was present rather than simply counted on their presence? Will we take responsibility for the losing, and what effort will we make to find it - or him or her - again?” (45) “We can celebrate when what we have lost is found, but can we also admit our responsibility in the losing?” (47)
So, I ask again: Who have we lost that we bear responsibility for? I think about our congregation, and the sacrament of baptism, the rite that celebrates a person’s place in God’s family and in the community of the congregation. In some churches I’ve served, I’ve had folks occasionally grumble over the baptism of someone who then never showed up to worship again. Some have even suggested putting more limits on who we will baptize. And I have gently reminded folks that when we celebrate a baptism, we make a covenant - not just the person or family of the person being baptized with God - but us too, the congregation. Our baptismal liturgy includes this exchange. I ask” “Will you [the congregation] nurture one another in the Christian life and faith and includes these persons now before you in your care?” And the congregation responds - and you can read this with me - “With God's help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 35). We take responsibility. We commit to surrounding those who are baptized with love and forgiveness and prayer. And it is hard for people who we truly surround with all that love and forgiveness and prayer to get lost.
This month, our Council of Stewards and Council on Ministries watched a video at their meetings from Rev. Dr. Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. He talked about how people become part of congregations. He said, “Ask who is missing [from your congregation]? When you look around your church does the makeup look like the people that you might see at the park or shopping? In other words, when your community looks at you, do they see themselves?” (https://www.facebook.com/lewisleadership/videos/10156249576043618/) We spent some time thinking about who isn’t in our congregation that is in our community. We noticed that our community is more economically diverse than our congregation. There are more low-income families in the community than in our congregation. There are far more young adults in our town by percentage than in our church family. We give thanks for the strong women in our congregation, but note that there are not as many men active in the life of the church as there are in the larger community. Aside from these groups of people, we might make note of individuals as well. Have we noticed who we’ve lost? Who is missing? Who had an active faith life that has not joined a new faith community, but rather is simply not engaging anywhere? And rather than wondering how they got so lost, I wonder how much time we’ve been working to find those who are missing? I’m asking myself these questions. As much as I want to help all of you who are here grow in your faith, I wonder how much time I’m really spending searching for those who aren’t here.
I think Jesus’s parables strike even closer to home too. Where, in our personal relationships, can we be seeking after those we have lost? I suspect that we all have people in our lives who are in over the heads, separated from their support systems, making choices that are hurting themselves and others, cutting off ties with people who love them - God, and us. Lost. Can we find them? Levine writes, “Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past. Instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you will still have done what is necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness. Take advantage of resurrection - it is unlikely to happen twice.” (75) I love her words here. Levine does not promise, as the parables don’t either, that those who are lost are seeking us out to be found, finding themselves, repenting and begging for our forgiveness. Finding someone who is lost, I think, will often take shape in ways we weren’t anticipating. Relationships often aren’t the same as they were. Repentance, reconciliation, and resurrection change us deeply. Still, we are asked to consider our role: Who is missing from your life? What can you do to find them? Jesus, as usual, is our model, and we know what he does. He operates from a place of deep compassion. He searches everywhere. He opens his arms to embrace us. He makes friends with us, no matter our story. He invites us to the party, and insists it won’t be the same without us. Let us go and do likewise. Amen.
* I will be referring to this text throughout this sermon. Published New York: HarperOne, 2014.