Who Searches for the Lost?

“Who Searches for the Lost?”

Luke 15 word cloud

Luke 15:1-10 – September 15, 2019

Are you familiar with a lost-and-found box? A box full of lost belongings, perhaps at the senior center near your house, or at the school your children or grandchildren attend? Or, at the YMCA near my husband’s and my condominium? All kinds of lost valuables can be found there—valuable to someone—lost things someone is diligently searching for.

Before we get to the lost things talked about in this bible reading, we need to set the scene. The Rabbi Jesus is again eating with those nasty social outcasts, the tax collectors, and other outcast people who are labelled “sinners.” We talked about them two weeks ago, when we had the Gospel reading about Zacchaeus the tax collector. I mentioned how horrified the “decent folks” in Jericho felt about a respectable Jewish Rabbi like Jesus eating with a tax collector like Zacchaeus.

Horrible! Outrageous! Simply scandalous! But, isn’t this just like Jesus? Always doing the unexpected? Always going out of His way to do the next loving thing?

Let’s see how Dr. Luke sets up this scene. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the Jewish law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Here we have real outcasts—yes, racially and ethnically they might be Jewish, but the “decent folks” would not have anything to do with these Jewish tax collectors and other sinners. These outcasts were not even allowed into the synagogues, so they could not join with their communities in worship. Imagine, being forbidden to enter a house of worship because of who you are and how you make a living. How isolating, and how demeaning. But, that is not all. Verse 2 tells us the “righteous, decent folks” were outraged and upset that these outcasts and sinners were even listening to the Rabbi Jesus, much less eating with Him. Imagine, a respectable Rabbi eating dinner with the likes of them??

The very next verses show us Jesus telling a parable. We do not know whether Jesus was telling the parable gently and earnestly, or cynically, trying to make a challenging point. Sometimes we can tell, from context clues, but here we are not sure. These words are recorded by Dr. Luke: “Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”

Here our trusty, loving, compassionate Rabbi tells a story about one hundred sheep. These sheep are not labelled “good” or “bad.” The lost sheep is doing just what sheep do – sheep wander.

This parable reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with my father-in-law, who is now deceased. My father-in-law grew up on a farm in Iowa during the 1930’s, and his parents kept all kinds of animals: chickens, cattle, pigs, and…sheep.

My father-in-law told me a number of things about sheep. Sheep are timid and anxious, and they startle easily. Sheep are by turns stubborn and frightened, willful and easily led. Sheep are not particularly smart. Did I mention my father-in-law said sheep were stubborn, and they often wandered off and went their own way? The lost sheep is doing just what sheep habitually do – sheep wander.

Both the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament describe the nation of Israel and the Jewish people as sheep. I suspect that most everyone listening to the Rabbi Jesus understood these basic features of keeping sheep. (Not so much today, with the urbanization of people hearing the Gospel message, and the distance of people from a rural setting.)

In this parable, Jesus mentions a shepherd with one hundred sheep. One of them gets lost. One out of one hundred is only one percent. In modern terms of data marketing and warehouse management, one percent is usually an acceptable percentage of shrinkage. After all, the shepherd has ninety-nine other sheep in front of him. One little sheep is an acceptable loss.

Except, this is not an acceptable loss to Jesus. The difference is this particular Good Shepherd.

Here is the end of Luke’s parable: “And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”

This parable has been interpreted in various ways, but I would like to highlight the actions of the sheep. Sheep—I mean, people get lost. Sheep—I mean, people wander. People are human. It is human nature to wander away, sometimes, and get lost.

Jesus does not differentiate between sheep that are “sinner” or “outcast,” and “righteous” sheep—and neither should we.

Finally, the aftermath of this story, as told by Jesus: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Dr. Lois Malcolm of Luther Seminary mentions “We should note, however, that the emphasis here is not on a contrast between two different types of people: “tax collectors and sinners” versus “Pharisees and scribes.” ….Tax collectors were corrupt, dishonest, and had colluded with the Roman Empire. By contrast, the Pharisees and scribes were the religious leaders of the day, much like professional clergy [and the church leaders] in our time.” [1]

Yet, Jesus classifies them all as sheep, both the decent, “righteous” folk as well as the tax collectors and sinners. Sheep are not particularly smart. Sometimes, these stubborn sheep willfully stray, and straggle on the path, and go their own way. That is what sheep—and humans—do. That is just built in, in the basic nature of sheep—and humans.

As Dr. Malcolm says, “The shepherd evokes images of a God who not only actively seeks out individuals who are lost — note the emphasis on the “one” out of the ninety-nine – but also rejoices when they are found. This God is not a tyrant who demands subservience to impossible demands, but rather a God who actively seeks restoration: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15, etc.).” [2]

The Rev. Alyce McKenzie relates “One Sunday morning several years ago, on my way into the church our family attended in Pennsylvania, I spotted the Lost and Found box in the entry way and decided to look through it to see if I could find my son’s missing blue mitten.

There was no blue mitten in it, but there was a pair of glasses in there. A set of keys. A watch. There is a lot that can show up in the lost and found box of your life lying in there unclaimed while you go about your ministry.” [3]

We can all thank God that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, does come looking for us when we are lost, wherever we may be, even if it takes a long time. Getting lost is a very sheep-like—and human—thing to do. We can celebrate that our loving, caring Savior actively seeks us out, puts us on His shoulders, and restores us to the joy of our salvation.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1782

Commentary, Luke 15:1-10, Lois Malcolm, at WorkingPreacher.org, Luther Seminary, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/lost-found-alyce-mckenzie-09-09-2013.html

“Lost and Found,” Alyce M McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Patient, Forgiving and Welcoming

“Patient, Forgiving and Welcoming”

Luke 15 prodigal son sketch, Rembrandt

Luke 15:20 – March 31, 2019

What do you think of when I mention the black sheep of the family? The kid who went astray? A really rough customer? A person you would not trust an inch with any amount of money? Someone who you wouldn’t want any children hanging around?

This is the kind of person we are going to meet today in the parable of Jesus we read from Luke 15. Some people call the parable “The Prodigal Son.” Remember the Rabbi Jesus was having dinner with some people the good, righteous synagogue-going people did not approve of? They were sniffing and clucking and making a big stink about Jesus and His dinner companions. So, as a response, Jesus tells three parables in Luke chapter 15, the last of which is the parable of the Prodigal—or the Lost Son.

The parable begins: “Then Jesus said, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’ So the father divided the property between them.”

This younger son was a brat. Or, worse, he was an ungrateful wretch. Do you know what he asked for? In that day, the son essentially told his father he wanted him to drop dead. That was the only way the younger son would have gotten his inheritance, in the normal order of things. What an ungrateful, selfish so-and-so! The father—amazingly—liquidates a third of his assets, giving the younger son his share of the father’s property. Perhaps you haven’t been as crass or unfeeling enough to walk up to one of your relatives and shout, “I wish you would drop dead!” and really mean it. But, that is exactly what Jesus begins this parable with.

Back to the parable: “It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.”

Going to a faraway, distant country. Sounds sort of romantic, doesn’t it? However, it does not take too long for this black sheep to run through all his money, lose all his fair-weather friends and end up on the streets as a homeless person. Plus, a famine struck the country he was living in. Consequences! What should he do now?

Let me step back from our parable for a moment—away from the younger son in the pigsty. I invite us to reflect on the church season we are presently in, Lent. Lent is a season where we are invited to reflect on our personal brokenness, and the need for God’s redemption.

This Lenten season we are also considering the different sentences of the Lord’s Prayer. This week, our sentence is “forgive us our debts (or, sins) as we forgive our debtors (or, those who sin against us).” I have a question: have you ever been so angry with someone that you have said (or thought) “I could never forgive him/her!” What is even worse is if you—or I—turn our backs, fold our arms across our chests and stubbornly insist, “I will never forgive her/him!”

What kind of unforgiving attitude is that? If we expect to be forgiven by God for all of the sins we commit daily, isn’t that unforgiving attitude a bit hypocritical? Rather a lot, really? What would God say about that ungodly attitude? What would you say about that attitude, now?

Back to the parable. “That brought him to his senses. The son said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.”

“The son’s repentance is implied, even if it is not clearly named by the ambiguous expression he came to himself (verse 17). After all, he hits rock bottom, longing to eat what unclean animals eat, once he is done in by a trio of calamities… As signs of contrition, he confesses sin and plans to ask his father to welcome him home as a slave instead of a son.” [1]

Now our parable shifts its point of view. We see the father: “When the son was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, the father ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’

Remember, we are in the middle of Lent, a season when we are thinking of how much each of us sins against God and against others. We journey with Jesus towards the cross in Lent, but we also take the time to think about how much each of us need God’s forgiveness, grace and redeeming love.  What is more, “Lent helps us see when and how and where we think only of ourselves. Lent helps us see our true motivations for our actions and our true motivations for apology or repentance. Lent helps us see when we truly are in the depths of despair. Lent helps us see our deep longing for love.” [2]

Let’s look at the father’s response: “But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.”

Almost any parent knows the feeling that if your kid really screws up, no matter what, the father (or mother) has the same love towards him, regardless of sin and unforgiveness. One might say any parent knows the feeling that even if the child goes off the rails and repeatedly misses the mark, the father is especially joyous to see the son who returns. But—the parable does not end there. Oh, no! We see the further unforgiving attitude of the elder son.

“All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done, he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the servants, he asked what was going on. He told him, ‘Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.’

The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’”

The elder son says “It’s not fair!” Well, guess what? The ways of God’s kingdom are NOT fair. True fairness leaves NO room for grace. Yes, God’s redeeming love for us is not fair. Would we really want it to be absolutely fair, all cold, legal rules with no grace and love at all?

The elder son is just as much as lost as his younger brother, isn’t he? Lost in his resentment, anger and alienation. “His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’”

Whoa! “No one bothered to call [the elder son] in to join the party! Accordingly, he does not enter the house. He does not address his father as “Father” and speaks to him about “this son of yours” instead of “my brother.” His refusal to celebrate stems from his deep resentment. Why is he resentful? He is taken for granted. No extravagance celebrates his reliable service. He accuses his father of showing preferential treatment.” [3] But, I ask again—do we really want God to be absolutely fair, in a cold, legalistic manner? With no grace or love at all?

Yes, “forgive as we wish to be forgiven” is a great lesson. But, I think the parable of the two Lost Sons has much more for us this week. Jesus told this parable to illustrate the boundless love of a parent for their children—the love of God the Father for His wayward sons and daughters. If you have really messed up, and you don’t think God could ever, ever forgive you, isn’t it wonderful to hear that the Prodigal’s father welcomed both His sons back home?

In this parable, Jesus tells us that God is patient, welcoming, and forgiving. God loves each one of us, forever and ever. Talk about good news! Isn’t this the best news in the world?

(Thanks to Eugene Peterson’s wonderful modern translation “The Message” for the use of this scripture reading. The parable of the two Lost Sons is from Luke 15:11-32.)

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=533

Matt Skinner  Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4553

“Perspective Matters,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2016.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=533

Matt Skinner  Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Love, Despite Bad Choices

“Love, Despite Bad Choices”

Luke 15-20 prodigal, father, brother

March 6, 2016 – Luke 15:20

Most of us—maybe even all of us—have some experience with a prodigal child. Either one of ours, or one of our close friends’ or relatives’ children. Are you familiar with the parents, loving their child enough to let him or her go away? Go far away, cross country, or even into a foreign place? This might be familiar. It can be very sad. Heart-breaking, in fact.

We have the familiar parable of the Prodigal as our Gospel reading today. What is the setting for this parable? In verse 1 of chapter 15 we see Jesus sitting down to dinner with a bunch of social outcasts. As far as the scribes and Pharisees were concerned, that is—they were outright offended! How could Rabbi Jesus, a self-respecting, reputable rabbi, be associating with riff-raff, with undesirables, with people like that?

Tax collectors and sinners. The upright Pharisees even had rules about associating with those people. They just didn’t. They were forbidden to have any dealings with them at all. But—Rabbi Jesus welcomed the tax collectors and sinners. Get this—He even ate dinner with them!

The Pharisees and scribes (teachers of the Law of Moses) were judging Jesus for some bad choices they saw Him making, according to them and their strict rules.

You know what Jesus’s response was, before I even tell you. Jesus said, “Let me tell you all a story. A parable.” Except, He didn’t just tell one parable, He told three of them, all about similar things. Luke chapter 15 is called the chapter of lost things. Jesus tells three interconnected stories about the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. Today, we are focusing on the lost son. Our Sunday school gave us a wonderful retelling of the gist of this story!

The parable of the lost son is a parable about bad choices. As the story continues, we see that the younger brother made a series of bad choices. Wanting to leave home. Asking his father for his inheritance. Going to the far country and blowing all the money in fast living. All of these decisions were bad choices.

Let me expand on just one of these bad choices. According to the inheritance rules of the time, the younger son was to receive one third of the total assets of the father, after his death. (The oldest son would get two thirds, just because he was the eldest son.) But—this shouldn’t have happened until after the father died. The younger son was so uncaring, so disrespectful to his father, that he essentially said, “Dad, I wish you were dead already, so I could have all of my inheritance now. In fact, I want you to cash in all your assets and give me one third, right now. I can’t stand around waiting for you to die for me to get my hands on your money!”

The amazing part, the unbelievable part of all this? That’s exactly what the father did.

We all know what happened. The younger son goes to the far country. (A Gentile country.) Is estranged from his father and family. He mismanages and squanders his inheritance with debauchery and fast living. The far country has a famine descend upon it, which makes the younger son lose his money even more quickly. Finally, he becomes completely poverty-stricken. Runs out of funds, and is forced to hire himself out as a pig herder. (A surprising occupation for a good Jewish boy.)

If you ask me, these all sound like pretty bad choices.

I posed the question at the beginning of this sermon: do you know some young person who has been making bad choices? I want you to keep that person in mind.

Then, the good choices start happening. The younger son “came to himself.” This phrase means so much! It could mean that the young man had taken leave of his senses, at one point. Yet, now, he makes a good choice. A sensible choice. He remembers that his father’s servants—even the most lowly servant, on the bottom rung of the ladder—had enough to eat. That lowest servant was not starving, even though he was a servant.

If you or I were in that desperate situation—practically starving in a famine-torn land—I would suspect that thought would sound pretty good to us, too! Moreover, the younger son makes the decision to ‘fess up to his father. He realizes that he has acted in a really bad way towards his father. Plus, he acted in a really bad way … towards God, too. He returns to his father, and in so doing, returns to God, too.

We all know very well that the younger son made some really bad choices. Yes! And, isn’t there just a little bit of self-satisfaction at how bad things got for the younger son? “I told you so!” “I could have predicted that!” and even, “Just what you deserve!”

Yet, how many of us make bad choices from time to time, too? Once in a while, or even a little more often than that? How many of us come to our senses, and realize we have acted badly? We return to our heavenly Father, hat in hand, tail between our legs, and ask for forgiveness. We repent, just as much as the younger son did.

Yes, the younger son finally made a good choice! He gets up, leaves the far country, and returns to his father. His faithful, loving, compassionate father.

The absolutely joyful part of this is the father’s reaction. The father sees his son coming from a long way off. All the time the son was gone, the father kept looking for the far-away son. The father kept hoping that the son would return! And when he finally sees his son in the distance, the father throws away all concern for propriety and loss of dignity. He runs down the road in the middle of town to meet his son! Embracing his son, showering him with kisses! So relieved and overjoyed at having his beloved son with him again!

But, wait! That’s not all! The father restores the son to his place, puts shoes on his feet, a ring on his finger (showing his status in the household), and gives him the best robe (a restoration of position). Reconciled! Restored! On top of that, he throws a big party!

If we celebrate the recovery of a lost sheep or a lost coin, how much more should the father celebrate the recovery of a lost son!

I don’t have time to go into the bad choices of the elder brother. That would take a whole other sermon. Suffice it to say that the disgruntled older brother made a bad choice or two, himself, even though he stayed at home. Remind you of anyone? The Pharisees and scribes, perhaps, keeping all their strict rules to the letter, but not having compassion, love and forgiveness?

So, Jesus hits the Pharisees and scribes where they live, with their own disgruntled remarks and attitudes. And, Jesus gives hope to all those who make bad choices. Including us.

God the heavenly Father—the heavenly Parent—is actively looking for us when we make bad choices. When we come to our senses and return to God for forgiveness, God comes running to meet us, from a long way off.

If that isn’t love, what is?

 

[I am indebted to R. Alan Culpepper’s commentary on Luke, chapter 15, found in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series (United States of America: Abingdon Press, 1996). Thanks for several insights interwoven into this sermon.]

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my sometimes-blog: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers– where I am doing a Lenten journey.  #PursuePEACE – And my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind -Thanks!