Today, in our Gospel lesson we will hear three parables that are set next to each other in the fifteenth chapter of Luke, all three talking about being lost. Just prior to this chapter, Jesus has just finished preaching about the “cost of discipleship.” Telling people that they must be willing to reject their previous social norms and status. So now, as today’s lesson begins, Jesus - not so surprisingly - is caught hanging out with all the wrong people.
The Holy Gospel, today, is from the 15th chapter, according to Luke.
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.
“Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.”
Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
“When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ So he got up and went to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’” --Luke 15:1-32 (CEB)
From the outset here, it’s important to understand that the term “sinners” does not refer to the moral capacity of Jesus’ acquaintances. Rather, it is a label given to someone who lived some kind of habitual lifestyle. What this lifestyle is, is not clear. But what is clear, is that the Pharisees and legal experts knew what this lifestyle was and who these people were. In our language today, we would likely call the people Jesus was hanging out with as marginal. Meaning coming from the margins of society. The kind that our parents warned you about. You know. The acquaintances who could get you into trouble.
When his critics start to grumble about this, Jesus tells them three parables. What’s interesting about these parables is that they all refer to being lost. And being found.
The first one is about a lost sheep. My dad was a sheep rancher. He did not have a high opinion of the intellectual capacity of these animals. In fact, he just thought they were dumb. It was not unusual for a lamb or a ewe or a ram to get caught up in a barbed wire fence, because, you know, the grass looked just a bit better on the other side. In the parable Jesus shares, one of a hundred has gone missing. The shepherd, who is concerned for the sheep, but maybe even more aware of the value of that missing animal and the financial loss he will suffer, leaves the ninety-nine behind to go search for that one, lost sheep. Not so smart. Just lost. And when the shepherd finds it, he celebrates. Because this animal is of value to him.
The second parable is about a lost coin. I wonder if the woman is a little like me. Stashing a little cash in places and then completely forgetting where she puts it. Whatever is happened, her coin, which also is of great value to her, is missing. So, she, like the shepherd, begins to search for it. Using a light to illuminate the dark places of her home, moving out the furniture so she can search behind it, so that she might find this one lost coin. And she does. And when she does, she, again like the shepherd, has a party to celebrate. Because this coin has value.
Then, we come to the story that we often call the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” It’s better named the “Parable of the Forgiving Father.” We know this story backwards and forwards, don’t we? The younger son, squandering a fortune he shouldn’t have even asked for. Who finds himself in a pigsty. Stinky and smelly. Likely covered in mud and slop. And realizes what a fool he has been. Whether he recognizes his mistake or recognizes his loss, he returns home. Asking for forgiveness. And he receives it in the most extravagant way. Because he, like the sheep, like the coin, is of the deepest value.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling a little lost lately. We could all probably name the same things - the same lost-ness we’re feeling right now. The same things we’ve been feeling for a year now. A year. A year that, in some ways, kind of feels lost, too. And maybe our sense of lostness is accidental, like the coin. Or maybe our sense of lostness is because of a lack of intellectual capacity. Or maybe, just maybe, this feeling of being lost is because we have realized that, as much as we think we can do this life alone, we can’t. We just can’t.
But, for us. For you and I, this isn’t the end of the story. Because, like the shepherd and the woman, we have a God who relentlessly seeks us. And even if we’re like the prodigal son, finally realizing our own foolishness, we have a God who welcomes us back. Fully. With open arms and a huge celebration to boot. The same God who places such value on you and I and the Pharisees and legal experts and the ragtag bunch of sinners in Jesus’ circle - this same God values all of us so much that God sent God’s one and only Son. To restore us back into relationship with this relentlessly searching, warmly welcoming God. So that we - you and I and all people - might be lost no more.
Let the party begin. Amen.
Preached March 7, 2021, online with Grace & Glory and Third Lutheran churches, Goshen/Louisville, KY.
Third Sunday of Lent
Readings: Luke 15:1-32; Psalm 119:176