Gracious God, our way in the wilderness, guide us, by your Word, through these forty days, and minister to us with your Holy Spirit, so that we may reformed, restored, and renewed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
SCRIPTURE LESSONS Ezekiel 34:1-6, NCV
The Lord spoke his word to me, saying: 2 “Human, prophesy against the leaders of Israel, who are like shepherds. Prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Lord God says: How terrible it will be for the shepherds of Israel who feed only themselves! Why don’t the shepherds feed the flock? 3 You eat the milk curds, and you clothe yourselves with the wool. You kill the fat sheep, but you do not feed the flock. 4 You have not made the weak strong. You have not healed the sick or put bandages on those that were hurt. You have not brought back those who strayed away or searched for the lost. But you have ruled the sheep with cruel force. 5 The sheep were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for every wild animal. 6 My flock wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered all over the face of the earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
Luke 15, NCV
The tax collectors and sinners all came to listen to Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to complain: “Look, this man welcomes sinners and even eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this story: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep but loses one of them. Then he will leave the other ninety-nine sheep in the open field and go out and look for the lost sheep until he finds it. 5 And when he finds it, he happily puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. He calls to his friends and neighbors and says, ‘Be happy with me because I found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, I tell you there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes his heart and life, than over ninety-nine good people who don’t need to change.
8 “Suppose a woman has ten silver coins, but loses one. She will light a lamp, sweep the house, and look carefully for the coin until she finds it. 9 And when she finds it, she will call her friends and neighbors and say, ‘Be happy with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’ 10 In the same way, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God when one sinner changes his heart and life.”
The Son Who Left Home
11 Then Jesus said, “A man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Give me my share of the property.’ So the father divided the property between his two sons. 13 Then the younger son gathered up all that was his and traveled far away to another country. There he wasted his money in foolish living. 14 After he had spent everything, a time came when there was no food anywhere in the country, and the son was poor and hungry. 15 So he got a job with one of the citizens there who sent the son into the fields to feed pigs. 16 The son was so hungry that he wanted to eat the pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 17 When he realized what he was doing, he thought, ‘All of my father’s servants have plenty of food. But I am here, almost dying with hunger. 18 I will leave and return to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son, but let me be like one of your servants.”’ 20 So the son left and went to his father.
“While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt sorry for his son. So the father ran to him and hugged and kissed him. 21 The son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[b] 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Hurry! Bring the best clothes and put them on him. Also, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get our fat calf and kill it so we can have a feast and celebrate. 24 My son was dead, but now he is alive again! He was lost, but now he is found!’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “The older son was in the field, and as he came closer to the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. 26 So he called to one of the servants and asked what all this meant. 27 The servant said, ‘Your brother has come back, and your father killed the fat calf, because your brother came home safely.’ 28 The older son was angry and would not go in to the feast. So his father went out and begged him to come in. 29 But the older son said to his father, ‘I have served you like a slave for many years and have always obeyed your commands. But you never gave me even a young goat to have at a feast with my friends. 30 But your other son, who wasted all your money on prostitutes, comes home, and you kill the fat calf for him!’ 31 The father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate and be happy because your brother was dead, but now he is alive. He was lost, but now he is found.’”
SERMON Lost & Found
How often do you lose things? I’m really good at losing things, especially keys. In Elmhurst it got so bad I resorted to wearing a house key on a chain around my neck. For me finding things usually requires not only searching but prayer. I’ve been searching for weeks maybe months for a particular face mask I wore while shoveling. I finally prayed about it. Then the weather got cold enough I put on the right coat, and in the pocket where my gloves belong was also my face mask. Finding things leads to rejoicing on some level. This week I found my missing earphones and a pair of earrings I really like but couldn’t replace. Yea!
This week’s Gospel lesson includes three parables about finding what is lost. Amy-Jill Levine writes that there is a thematic pattern to these parables: loss, search, completion, then joy. Applying that pattern to my example, I noticed the loss of my earrings when I wanted to wear them. I searched for them not only in the likely spots in my room, but also in suitcases, and I even tried to find the same beads, so I could make a new pair. Cleaning up a spilled mess Friday, I discovered them in the basket next to my chair. Now that part of my wardrobe is complete again, and that indeed makes me quite happy.
Jesus taught in parables for a reason. People listen to and remember a good story. Jesus was a master storyteller. But like Aesop’s Fables, Jesus’ stories had multiple layers of meaning. You could take them home and keep chewing on them. The Church has continued to chew on these and all the parables; that’s why we have continued to add layers of meanings or lessons to them. They may not have been the exact meaning intended for the original audience, but some of them still spoke to the Church in a later setting. For example, Levine shares various interpretations of what went wrong for the Prodigal Son. Most English-speaking cultures she notes see the problem as “bad parenting, lack of community values, separating himself from his network, and personal irresponsibility.” (Levine, Short Stories of Jesus, p. 55) Whereas Russian readers tend to focus on the famine as the issue, and a student from Kenya was concerned about the lack of generosity on the part of those around the young man. As with anything else, our interpretation of what we hear in these stories is affected by our personal filters: our history, our culture, our social network, our personal values, our faith traditions and personal beliefs, etc.
As Levine looks at the parables of Luke 15, she applies a variety of scholarly techniques to get at the original meaning stripping away the layers of interpretation that have accumulated over the centuries, so that we might hear each story from Jesus as his first century Jewish audience might have heard it without all the filters of our 21st century Midwest USA mainline Protestant Christianity. Levine corrects misinterpretations that abuse Jewish tradition or culture. She lets us hear the story as a story, not an allegory. She points out where Luke has already added his own interpretation even as he writes, way before the Early Church Fathers got hold of the passage and added theirs. To anyone interested in that scholarship I recommend reading her book or a summary in the participant’s guide or you might want to attend our Adult Class. For our purposes here in worship, I’m going to preach from the conclusions she draws as to what the original parables more likely meant and the challenges offered to us today.
Related to the issue of interpretation for Levine is the main point, focus, and character for these stories. Yes, they are about something that was lost, but neither sheep nor coin are main characters. Indeed, neither is one particular son. Levine suggests instead that we might rename them, “The Shepherd Who Lost His Sheep,” “The Woman Who Lost Her Coin,” and “The Father Who Lost His Sons.” (taken from Levine, p. 29) This renaming would shift the focus and hence change the lesson being told.
Christian tradition has often taught that these parables are about sinners and repentance. We get that from Luke’s own interpretation in verses ending the first two stories. But Luke’s interpretations were not necessarily part of the original story. Levine comes to that conclusion by comparing Luke’s version of the Lost Sheep with Matthew’s telling of the same story. As Levine points out the sheep and the coin did not sin, nor did they repent. They were lost. Sheep going astray would be no surprise to the original audience whether from experience or how sheep are described in Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament. But who was responsible for the sheep? Who was responsible for the coins?
I remember from Junior High Spanish a different perspective. I can still recite a sentence from one dialog in our textbooks that translates as “my notebook lost itself to me” as if the notebook were at fault, and I was just a victim. I find that a fun perspective but not at all realistic. Whether it’s my keys, face mask, or earrings, I’m the one who misplaced them. I forgot where I left them. I failed to put them where they belong. I didn’t take care of my belongings.
The shepherd in our story lost a sheep. It’s hard to keep track of 100 sheep. So a shepherd that wealthy should be diligently counting them on a regular basis. In the same way, a teacher or youth leader might frequently count their students especially on a field trip. When my daughters were in grade school, I was their girl scout leader. We had two dozen Brownies in that troop with four assistant leaders. I remember checking throughout the meetings to be sure every circle was complete and counting the girls often when we went offsite. At another church I had an after school program, I checked the kids as they each arrived, but when the twins showed up without their little sister, a kindergartener, I didn’t hesitate to leave the rest with my helpers and go in search of the little one who was lost.
Listen to Matthew’s version of this story:
10 “Be careful that you don’t look down on one of these little ones. I say to you that their angels in heaven are always looking into the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If someone had one hundred sheep and one of them wandered off, wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hillsides and go in search for the one that wandered off? 13 If he finds it, I assure you that he is happier about having that one sheep than about the ninety-nine who didn’t wander off. 14 In the same way, my Father who is in heaven doesn’t want to lose one of these little ones. Matthew 18:10-14, CEB
Matthew’s interpretive statement indicates nothing about repentant sinners, but rather God’s concern to keep track of all whom God loves. To me it also suggests that we are the ones to take that responsibility. Shepherds should not lose their sheep. We should not look down on any of God’s children. This is a significant aspect of what it means to be a steward of the resources and relationships God has entrusted to us.
Another difference in Matthew’s version is the word lost. The Greek word used here has a connotation of being deceived not just wandering off. Levine writes that “both evangelists had the story, and each recontextualized it to make a point consistent with the rest of the[ir] Gospel. Detached from either context, the parable might have had quite a different message.” (p. 34)
In the story itself, when the shepherd realizes that a sheep is missing, he doesn’t hesitate to leave the rest to their own devices while he hunts for the missing one. When the lost is found, it is the shepherd who rejoices. As far as we know, the sheep isn’t aware that it was lost. Church art often portrays the sheep carried back across the shepherd’s shoulders as the story says. That is part of the shepherd’s care but is not necessarily comfortable for the sheep itself according to some modern-day shepherds. The shepherd invites his friends to celebrate with him. There is no indication that the sheep are offered a special treat to celebrate. In other words, the story is really about the shepherd not the sheep. It’s about the responsibility to care for the sheep and the action to be taken when one is missing. It’s about the relief and joy when the flock is once again complete. No one sheep is more important than another, but it is important to keep the flock whole.
There are lots of ways to consider this parable in current times. Who are the missing ones? What do we do about it? You might reflect on that in terms of the church or your family or any area within society or even of creation. Who or what do we fail to notice? To care for? To seek? To restore? That is a significant set of questions.
For me, this gives the Lost Sheep and the rest of today’s parables a theme similar to other parables about stewardship responsibility. I especially see that in the version Levine shares from the Midrash, Exodus Rabbah; this story from the Jewish commentaries features Moses when he was a shepherd before going back to Egypt to lead God’s people to freedom. In this telling the Holy One tested Moses by how well he cared for his father-in-law Jethro’s flock. When a lamb scampered off, Moses followed it. Finding it drinking from a pool of water, Moses comments that the lamb ran away because it was thirsty, and then because it must also be tired Moses carries it home on his shoulders. The concluding verse says this, “The Holy One then said, ‘Because you showed such compassion in tending the flock of a mortal, as you live, you shall become the Shepherd of Israel; the flock that is mine.’” (shared by Levine, pp. 43-44)
God has also asked us to be responsible for assigned areas of creation and assigned members of God’s flock. The challenge of this parable, according to Amy-Jill Levine, is to take stock, count, notice what’s missing, and then do something about it.
Now we turn to the woman who had ten silver coins and lost one of them. The coins indicate she was a woman of some means. There is no mention of a husband or children, so as far as we know she lives alone. It is the neighbors, her girlfriends she calls in to celebrate when the coin is found after cleaning her home thoroughly in the search. This parable follows Levine’s pattern. A coin is lost, the woman searches, her treasury is complete when it is found, and in her joy, she celebrates with friends.
Levine also points out that unlike the shepherd, this woman claims responsibility for losing the coin. Whereas the shepherd says, “I found my lost sheep” she is clearer, “I found the coin that I lost.” (Luke 15) I think she sets an example for us owning up to her fault. At the same time I want to point out that even diligent people can lose something. None of us are perfect. But part of her diligence is that once she is aware of what she lost, and she goes all out to find it.
Now that we have two parables down, let me tell you about a literary device in folktales called the “Rule of Three.” Levine refers to this here and elsewhere. The first two of something set you up for the third which will be somewhat different or have a twist. Her example is the two free and affluent though ugly and foolish step-sisters who are such contrast to the beautiful and wise though impoverished and enslaved Cinderella. The two set up a backdrop for the contrast.
In Luke 15 the first two stories set us up for a twist in the final longer story. We begin with a father who has two sons, then the first half tells us about the younger son who takes his inheritance and departs to a far country. He has left everything of family and home behind and eventually spends all his inheritance. He has no means of support when famine and hunger hit, so he takes a job feeding pigs. He comes homing begging for mercy from his father even if it means being treated like a servant. Servants at Dad’s house are treated well. That’s pretty much all we know about the younger son. While he is often seen as the main character, but I agree with Levine that isn’t necessarily so.
Meanwhile, Dad has been awaiting the younger son’s return, watching for him, it would seem, every day. When he spots the young man coming up the lane, the father runs out to embrace him and gives orders for fresh attire and a feast. The father is overjoyed that his son who was lost to him has returned. If we follow the same pattern as the previous parables, we have a lost son, a father who doesn’t search but at least watches and waits, there is a return and joy, but the family is not yet complete. The pattern is not an exact match. We are still missing the older son.
Dad finally catches on to this fact. The older son is missing. Did anyone go out to tell him his brother came home and invite him to celebrate? No. He discovers this as he comes home from working in the fields, and in his disappointment, he sulks rather than going inside. Dad finally comes looking for him. The second son was also lost, and Dad does search for him, but we don’t know if there will be completion and joy in this case. We don’t know if there will be reconciliation. The story ends without telling us the older son’s decision.
This story began with another literary convention used often in the Old Testament in stories the audience knew well. A man had two sons. Adam had Cain and Abel. Abraham had Ismael and Isaac. Isaac had Esau and Jacob. Joseph had Manasseh and Ephraim. Four sets of fathers and sons, and we haven’t left the book of Genesis yet.
In each of these families there is a twist that in spite of the expectations for the oldest, especially regarding inheritance, in each case it is the younger son who is favored. Abel’s offering was found more acceptable, and in jealousy Cain murdered him. Ishmael was sent off with his mother, Hagar, to become a different nation, while Isaac was raised by Abraham and Sarah to inherit the promises. Jacob managed to snatch both Esau’s birthright and his blessing, then had to run away before Esau could kill him. In a lesser known story, when Joseph brought his sons for Jacob to bless from his deathbed, Jacob crossed his hands to give the younger one the blessing intended for the older son. I don’t know whether to call that poetic justice or just say that history repeats itself, but I find it amusing. Maybe it was intentional, since Jacob was the trickster who got his brother’s blessing as well.
All of these stories set the original audience up to expect the younger son to come out on top, to be the one to whom we should pay the most attention. He is even the one apparently to whom the father paid the most attention. The twist comes when we realize the story doesn’t end when the younger son comes home and is celebrated. The lesson comes in the second half of the story, the conversation between the father and the older son. Levine writes, “He is not…a conventional older brother. He is rather a figure for whom we might feel some initial empathy.” (p. 67)
When the older son hears what is going on back home, that the other son has returned and has been given a feast, the older son’s emotional reaction is disappointment, resentment and anger as his frustration grows. Levine writes, “His own sense of being ignored—by both the reinstated brother and the happy father—counters any possible joy he might have had.” (p. 67) Elsewhere she notes he has even been ignored by most readers of the tale. While the servant speaks to him of “your brother” and “your father,” this son distances himself by not using possessive pronouns; he doesn’t claim the relationship. In fact he thinks of himself as no more than a hired hand.
The father goes out to urge and comfort this older son. The verb in Greek is parakaleo, which includes both attempts to soothe the son and to move him to come into the celebration. It is the same root as Paraclete, which is what the Gospel of John calls the Holy Spirit who both comforts us and urges us to do God’s will.
But now the older son’s frustration, built up probably for a very long time, overflows. Dad hears that while the older son has done his best all this time working hard for his father, he did not feel appreciated or recognized for his labor and loyalty. Now the prodigal who squandered Dad’s money returns, and he gets a feast?! It’s unfair! That’s how the older son feels.
Again, Dad tries to comfort and reassure him, still urging him to join the feast. Dad agrees that he has always been there, and in case he hasn’t said so before, Dad tells him now that everything Dad owns is shared with him. I mean, the younger boy already took his share and more, so…the rest is the older son’s inheritance. Like Levine, I don’t think the inheritance is the issue though. Perhaps as many of us might, Dad has taken the older child for granted and not shown the affection that he has needed all this time. Dad watched the younger son walk away, but Dad never noticed that the older son had also slipped away into obscurity and loneliness.
Do you recognize relationships that have slipped away from you in a similar fashion? What about relationships in the church? Whom have we ignored or taken for granted? For me then, part of the lesson is to notice who is missing, and part is to seek the steps toward reconciliation. Once the father notices that his older boy is missing, like the shepherd he leaves the others behind to go find him. When they meet outside, the father tries to comfort him and urges him to return. The father also listens to the young man’s list of resentments. This is a key step we might miss. It brings to mind for me a point from a conversation about reaching out to missing church members. It is important to listen to their hurt and take it seriously. How can you comfort them if you don’t know what pain they have taken with them? How can we invite them back if we don’t know what issues need to be addressed back home?
Dad now knows what upset his older son. What will he do about it? Will anything change? Will the young man come in with an open mind and heart, or will he go away for the evening and come back to work in the morning still harboring his pain and resentment? We don’t know. Several relationships need to change in this story, and Jesus didn’t tell us how that went. He leaves it up to us to consider our own relationships and decide whether or not we can reconcile. Looking at this parable through Amy-Jill Levine’s eyes, that is the challenge I take away for myself and for the church. It applies to many areas of our society as well and to creation itself, all the relationships for which we have stewardship responsibility.
I find this paragraph from Levine’s book significant:
“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…. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness.” (p.75)
Notice then, that contrary to many traditional Christian interpretations, the father in this parable is not God. Levine goes into detail explaining why she doesn’t see it that way. In these three parables the shepherd is just an owner of many sheep, the woman is just a woman of some wealth, the father is just a dad who owns a large estate. None of these parables begin with the line found elsewhere, “The kingdom of God is like…” I think then that Jesus is not directly telling us what God is like but suggesting to us how God wants us to behave. We could easily be the shepherd, the woman, or the parent in these stories. How are we managing the resources and relationships with which God has blessed us? When we notice something missing will we search for it? Will we reach out to those with whom our relationship is broken? Will we seek to complete the whole by bringing restoration and reconciliation? For only when the flock, the treasures, or the family were complete could there be celebration. The goal is that wholeness. These parables remind us that wholeness requires attention and effort and compassion on our part, but wholeness restored leads to joy.
For the Sundays in Lent, our messages will focus on Jesus' parables using primarily a resource from Amy Jill Levine Short Stories by Jesus. Toward the end of each service we turn to the cross, extinguish one candle, hear a reading about the disciples and sing a hymn of the cross.