BIBLE READING: Luke 15:1-32
Maybe it’s time to rethink these parables of Jesus, because most of the time we get the parables of Jesus wrong. We pick them up, and we think that Jesus is telling us what we ought to do. You know, they're sort of lessons in loveliness. If we can master the lesson in the parable, we can turn out to be perfect people or something. But the point is that parables are not first of all about us. The parables of Jesus are first of all about how God works in this world - the mysterious, strange, bizarre, odd way that God deals with us, because the parables are very strange things. Jesus is a genius story-teller, and what you have to watch most of all with Jesus in his parables are the small twists, the little turns and the details you don't notice. I can have read a parable for thirty-five years, preached on it forty-five times, and then the next time I read it, all of a sudden I see something I never saw before; and it has been buried there all along.
So let’s start with the parable of the lost sheep. The first thing that Luke says when this parable begins, is that the tax collectors and the sinners were drawing near to Jesus to hear him. The scribes and the Pharisees grumbled about this. They complained about this and they said, "This man welcomes sinners, and he eats with them, and therefore he's a bad person."
Now, obviously Jesus, by many people's minds, was thought to be a perfect candidate to be the promised Messiah who would fulfil God's will for Israel and do all sorts of wonderful things in the world. People like the scribes and the Pharisees didn't think that Jesus was much of a Messiah candidate if he could associate with tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were mostly crooks in those days, and sinners meant what it means now. Everyone's favourite sin is something sexual, and the sinners most likely were prostitutes. Jesus spent a lot of time welcoming those people, eating with them, talking with them, visiting them, and otherwise consorting with them, and the pharisees didn't like this. So Jesus tells the parables of about being lost.
"I want you to imagine that you have one hundred sheep," he says to the Pharisees and the scribes around him. "I want you to imagine that you have one hundred sheep and that you lose one of them. Now, wouldn't you, therefore, go out after the lost one until you find it?" Well, what's the real answer to that question? The real answer to that question is "of course not." Nobody in his right mind who's in the sheep business has one hundred sheep, loses one, leaves the ninety-nine to the wild dogs and the dingoes, and goes chasing off after one. You cut your losses, forget about the lost sheep, and go on with the ninety-nine.
So Jesus' question is perverse. It's odd. It's ironic. Who among you would do this? Who among you wouldn't go out and do this? Nobody would! They wouldn't go out and do this sort of thing. And then he says, "And when you found that sheep, what would you do with it?" You would put the sheep on your shoulder, and then notice what Jesus says. He doesn't say, "Then he goes back to the ninety-nine and gives this little sheep back to his mother sheep," or something like that. What Jesus says is that he puts the lost sheep on his shoulders and goes to his house. He goes home.
In this parable, Jesus never goes back to the ninety-nine sheep. The ninety-nine sheep are a set-up. Jesus has divided the flock into one sheep and ninety-nine sheep, and he's not trying to make two different groups. You know, ninety-nine who don't get lost, and one who does. I think the real meaning of the one and the ninety-nine is that the one lost sheep is the whole human race as it really is. And the ninety-nine "found" sheep who never get lost are the whole human race as we like to think we are. And the ninety-nine; therefore, don’t have a part to play except to set up the story. The one lost sheep stands for all of us, and this says that the only thing the shepherd - God, the God character - is interested in going after the lost, and, if necessary, the shepherd will abandon his sheep herding business to find the lost, and God, therefore, will go out of the God business, the business of being the kind of God we turn God into - the God who's a bookkeeper, the God who's the divine infinite "watch-dog" who's keeping records on everybody, and if you don't do it right, he's not going to bother with you anymore. That's the business that God goes out of when he goes after the lost because he only wants to come and find sinners. He doesn't want anything else.
And then Jesus says, "I say to you that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance." The proof of this is, of course, did you ever meet any of those ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance? No, you didn't. There isn't one in the whole world. So this proves the set-up that Jesus is only interested in finding the lost; that God, in Christ, is only interested in finding the lost.
Now, Jesus follows this parable up with the parable of the lost coin. The God character in this parable is not a shepherd. It's a woman. It's a very strange woman. As the shepherd is sort of crazy to go chase one sheep and leave ninety-nine to the wolves, so this woman is even crazier. It says this woman has ten coins, that she treasured – maybe she kept them in a nice wooden case with red velvet lining and little recessed partitions for each of the ten coins. And every morning she gets up, and she looks in there and pats them and polishes them and puts them back down again. She gets up one morning, and one of her precious coins is missing so what does this woman do? She is as crazy as the shepherd, if not crazier, because she stops her entire life. She stops anything she had to do that day. She stops whatever housework she was going to do, and she lights a light, and goes into all the dark corners. She sweeps, and sweeps, and sweeps, and looks under everything for the whole day until she finds this coin. And what does she do when she finds it? Interestingly enough, like the shepherd Jesus never says she puts it back in the box. It says she gets on the phone to her friends and her neighbours and says, "Come on over, I'm going to have a party. I found my lost coin."
And now I'm sure that these friends and neighbours say, "Gertrude, you found a coin, right? And we're supposed to come to a party?"
She says, "Yes. I have fruit punch, and I have party pies, and you're going to come over, and we're going to celebrate my finding my lost coin."
“Certainly!” they'd say, "Yes, Gertrude, we'll come." But they are not that enthusiastic. But the point is, she is. And this woman proves something. In the lost sheep, you can develop some pity for the poor, little lost sheep. You can feel bad, you know, that it’s injured or hurt or fearful. But you can't work up any pity for a lost coin. A lost coin never knows it's lost. One place is as good as another. The point is that what these two parables put together say, is that what governs God's behaviour to us is not our sins. It's not our problems. It's his need to find us. These parables go by the need of the finder to find, not about the need of the lost to be found. That's obvious. We always knew that. We could have gone to our graves knowing that. The great thing is that the universe is driven by the need of the finder to find all of us who are lost. And that, of course, is the beginning.
And the last of the three parables in this chapter is the lost son, which commonly goes by the name of the prodigal son because we misname these parables. Really, this parable should be called the parable of the forgiving father.
A man has two sons, and the youngest son comes to him and says, "Father – Dad - put your will into effect and split up the entire inheritance right now between me and my brother." You know what that is in so many words? That's: "Drop dead, Father." He's suggesting that the father put his will into effect. And the father does it. He gives all the cash that's loose to the younger son. He gives the entire property to the elder brother, and the father sits on the porch for the rest of the parable, at least for a little bit of it, and retires from things.
The younger son takes the money and goes to a far country. He has wine, women, and song; blows all his money, ends up feeding pigs, and sits there and says one day, "Oh, as I think of my father's servants, they eat better than I do. I'm going to go home, and say, 'Father, I've sinned against heaven and against you. I'm not worthy to be your son. Make me a hired servant.'" Now, that is not a sinner who was repentant. Because what he's said is: "Father, I'm a no-good son," and "Father, I've sinned against heaven and before you," which is true. That's fine. That's pretty good for repentance. But "Make me a hired servant" is not repentance. That's a plan for life. That's a plan to con his father into accepting him back instead of coming back as a no-good son. So he comes home. He comes down the road and while he's still a long way off, his father sees him. He runs down the road, falls on his neck and kisses him, and after the father's kiss, the son makes his confession. But he never gets to the part about the hired servant business. The father then goes immediately to the thing that ended the other parables. He goes to the party. He calls for the rings on his fingers, the shoes on his feet, and says: "Kill the fatted calf, and let us eat and be merry. My son was dead, and he's alive, was lost, he's found." And they have a party, and there's music and dancing and everything else. Then Jesus brings in the other lost son. He's the ninety-nine. He's the nine other coins in the box. He thinks he's found. He comes in, and he's whining.
He says, "All these years I have been such a good boy, and done your will and done all these wonderful things, and you never even gave me a goat to have a party with my friends. But when this son of yours who has wasted his inheritance with whores comes home, then you give him the fatted calf." And he won't go in. What this son has done - though he thinks he's a found character and he's a wonderful bookkeeper and has got everything else right - what he has done, is come into the courtyard of the house, with a party inside, and he has brought hell with him. He is the hell of his own bookkeeping, the hell of his own complaining. He has brought hell with him.
What does the father do? The father is the God character. What does the father do? The father goes out into the courtyard once again, like the shepherd, like the woman, to seek the lost. The need of the finder to find. He goes out there, and he talks to his son, and he says, "Look, son, Arthur, everything I have belongs to you. You could have had fatted calf three nights a week if you wanted. You have the money. You have no imagination, Arthur. You know what I would like you to do, Arthur? I would like you to shut up, go inside, kiss your brother, and have a drink." And the wonderful thing about this parable is that Jesus, genius of a storyteller that he is, has ended it so that it doesn't end.
At the end of the parable—suppose you saw it in a film—you have the music and the sounds of the feasting and the laughter inside the house. You have the father and the elder brother standing in the courtyard, and the way the film ends is, it ends with a freeze frame: father, elder brother, joyful music over in the back. And for two thousand years this has been read in the church, every year people have read it in the Bible endlessly, endlessly. For two thousand years, that's where the story has ended. It has never ended. The father always seeks the lost son, and the lost son is not just the prodigal, because the prodigal is already found, he's home free, but the other one is not, because he won't come into the party.
The other thing you could say about this, it's not only for two thousand years that that parable has stood with that freeze frame, it will stand there forever because God will forever stand. We say Jesus, between when he died and when he arose, descended into hell. He descended to the lost. This is the last truth of the parable of the prodigal son, that for all eternity God still seeks those in hell. If I go down into hell, Thou art there with me. We cannot get away from the love that will not let us go because God, who in all these parables represented by the shepherd, and the woman, and the father, never ceases to seek and to find the lost.
Acknowledgement Rev. Robert Farrar Capon