Grace Presbyterian Church
March 31, 2019, Lent 4C
Found and Lost
The trouble with these extremely familiar stories from the Bible is that, after we’ve heard or read them a few times, we quit listening. For example, today in churches across this country, there are (I am quite sure) thousands upon thousands of people sitting in pews whose minds all completely checked out when they read or heard the words of verse 11 of this reading: “Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons.’”I also expect that some number of such checked-out listeners are in this very sanctuary here. Oh, yeah, this one. We know this one. So what shall we do for lunch?
In truth, no preacher can truly hope to thwart that checking-out save for the intervention of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of those listening. Nonetheless, we will go forth, supplying a fuller background for this familiar story, and hope that we’re all still around at the end just in case the Spirit shakes something loose in us that perhaps we haven’t heard or understood before.
We need to take note, for example, that this oh-so-familiar story is provoked (and that is the word) by those Pharisees again (probably not the same Pharisees who warned Jesus about Herod in the lesson a few weeks ago), this time joined by members of another group of religious leaders known simply as scribes. They witness a sight that was nothing less than offensive to them: tax collectors, and that vaguely defined class known only as “sinners” in their eyes. Truly this grumbling of theirs needs tone of voice to appreciate it fully, something that words printed on a page can’t quite supply: “This fellow welcomes sinners and…and…and EATS with them!!!”, so rich is their disgust.
This is what provokes the telling of this very familiar parable. Keep this in your head here, no matter what.
In fact it provokes three parables, all with some connection to the theme of things (or people) lost and found. Besides the losing and the finding, each parable is also characterized by what might be called outsized joy, joy at the finding of what was lost that spills out onto friends and neighbors who might not have even had any idea what was going on. The one who lost the sheep: did his neighbors even know, and frankly, did they even care? What’s the difference between ninety-nine and one hundred sheep when you live next door to the smell? And yet this man, leaving behind the “ninety-nine in the wilderness” (which really sounds a little bit irresponsible) and searching all over to find the lost one, then turns and goes to his friends and neighbors (did shepherds even have “friends and neighbors”? Their fellow shepherds, maybe?). His cry is “rejoice with me!” And then, here as in the next parable, we get this “moral of the story” that so great is the rejoicing in heaven over just one sinner who repents. Just one.
The parable of the woman and the lost coin unfolds similarly. It is lost; she searches all over the house; the coin is found; she calls the friends and neighbors to rejoice. Such coins (sometimes identified as “dowry coins”) might have been, for a woman in this time period, the last line of defense against utter poverty and destitution should her husband have decided to dispose of her with the speaking of a word, which was all a man had to do to divorce a woman at this time (the woman, naturally, had no such option). So yes, it was very important to her, but the rejoicing seems outsized still. But we get that same tag line idea again: “I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” What we find suitable for indifference, or maybe even outright disdain, is cause for massive celebration among the heavenly host.
And finally comes the story we all know. There are so many details that could be unpacked. The utter humiliation that the younger son visits upon his father by making this brash and disrespectful request could almost be its own sermon. Remember what kind of land these dwellers dwelled in; it was, from ancient time, the Promised Land, the land that God had delivered to their ancestors Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all that ancient story that told of how they even came to live on that land. This son is throwing away no less than a sacred birthright, and does so in what the King James Version so memorably calls “riotous” living. That might make it sound like too much fun, though; maybe the NRSV’s “dissolute” living captures the futility of it all better.
Also, look at the son’s moment of realization, when he “came to himself.” We might have built it up into this grand tableaux of repentance in our overwhelming familiarity with the story, but let’s be real here: as “repentance” goes this is pretty weak sauce. Where is the contrition in realizing that he’d be better off living as one of his father’s hired hands, which really is about all the son manages to think and say? He’s been reduced to tending pigs (something no self-respecting Jew would have done) and being jealous of their slop, and this is the best “repentance” he can come up with? The best he can do is memorize a line to sell to his gullible old dad?
And yet…there’s this outsized rejoicing again. The father runs to meet his son (completely undignified), orders up a new robe for him and a great feast with the fatted calf (utterly humiliating, given what this son had done to him), and generally makes a fool of himself with rejoicing over this one lost son.
Oh, yeah, that other son shows up, and calls out his father for making a fool of himself, vilifies his brother (notice that there’s something in older brother’s accusations that we are never told the younger brother does?) and also complains about how dad never threw such a party for him. But don’t miss the father’s reply: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (emphasis mine) This has always been there for you, my child; did you ever accept it? (And yes, for the most part, this is the character in the story that most captures us “good church folk,” if we can stand to admit it.)
But don’t miss how the first two parables inform this one. The rejoicing over the one lost son is extravagant, over-the-top, maybe even wasteful. It provokes scorn from his own son and maybe even bafflement from those neighbors who got called to the feast over that one ungrateful son. It is joy that seems to us inexplicable, maybe even if (maybe especially if) we’re the son who had abandoned the father instead of the one who stayed home. And it’s done over bare-minimum repentance from the younger son at that.
This is the rejoicing over us, when we at last come home; this is the rejoicing to which we are called over one who at last comes home. It defies summary, really; God loves us, pursues us, and rejoices over us, and so much more.
If we can’t manage to say it for this, maybe we should never say it: Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #415, Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy; #771, What Is the World Like; #418, Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling; #803, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need