Scripture: Luke 15:1–32
Do you all know this trope of episodic TV shows? Before the episode starts, often times shows will begin with a montage of scenes from previous episodes, along with the phrase, “last time, on…” or “previously, on…” And, of course, this has two purposes. First, it helps catch people up on previous episodes that they might have missed or forgotten about. “Oh that’s right…she hid the diary all the way back in episode two.” But secondly, it usually gives a pretty big clue about what is going to happen in this episode. Why bother reminding us that she stole the diary if the diary isn’t going to be important in this episode? So if you pay attention, you can often figure out a lot in those 45 seconds about what is coming in the next 45 minutes.
The same is true of the Gospels. The first 45 seconds of Luke 15 mean a lot! It gets easy to skip over the first couple of verses and get to the big stuff. Lost sheep! Lost coin! Lost sons! But if we pay attention to the first 45 seconds, it sets the context for the teaching parables that Jesus shares next. Like any good teacher knows, the context matters.
Here, these first 45 seconds tell us a lot about where Jesus is going in these three parables. Think of it like that “Last time on” montage. Three phrases serve as clues as to where Jesus is headed: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” There is a lot in there. First, it says a lot of people were coming near to Jesus to listen to him. His message is attracting a lot of attention. Second, not all of the attention is good attention. The Pharisees and scribes are grumbling. Remember that these law experts, like Jesus, are in the business of paying attention to how people live…so they want to pay attention both to Jesus’ ethical message, as well as his ethic…how he lives out that message. But there is something in his message or his ethic that they do not like. The final phrase tells us what that is: Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The text doesn’t define who the Pharisees and scribes have in mind as sinners…but it is clear that they know who they have in mind. And the people who they have in mind are standing right there, listening to this grumbling against them.
So, what will Jesus the Teacher say in response to this context? How will he defend his ministry and ethic? How will these first 45 seconds impact the rest of the passage? With this “Previously On…” montage over, it’s time to settle in and watch the show!
And what a show it is! Jesus the Teacher uses an old method of teaching: telling stories. First, he tells the story of a sheep that gets lost, and a shepherd who cares about that sheep enough that he leaves 99 other sheep to go and find him and bring him back to the fold. Next, he tells the story of a coin that gets lost, and a woman who cares about that coin enough that she leaves the other 9 coins to go and find it and bring it back to the coin collection. Finally, he tells a story of a son who gets lost and a father who loves him enough to leave his other brother in the field to go and find him and bring him back to the family.
Three lost things. In fact, some would suggest that “lostness” is the thing that ties this three stories together. You might even have little subject headings on the top of your Bible that use that word “Lost” in big bold letters to describe these stories. But, let me remind you what you likely already know…that those subject headings were not written by Luke, but by the publisher of the version of the Bible you are using. Nor did Jesus seem to begin these stories with a heading, “And now I will tell you three stories about things that are lost!” So, let me make a suggestion that perhaps the point of these stories is not to highlight the lostness of things. If Jesus wanted to talk about lostness, he could have given very different lessons. He could have taught about the moral failings of sinners and told them of their need to repent. He could have told stories about tax collectors who were lost and how their lostness was their fault. The Pharisees and scribes tended to teach those lessons often and Jesus could have joined them. But he does not.
In fact, the lostness of these things in the stories seem to be almost beside the point. The things that get lost seem pretty inert and not even really agents of their own lostness. After all, Jesus doesn’t go into great detail about how the sheep failed to follow the right path or stick with the flock. It would be goofy to blame the coin for its lostness, right? I mean, it got lost because of the rule of physics…it got knocked off a table or something and gravity made it fall and then roll under something. And even in the third story, the lostness of the son does not seem to be the primary focus. We often make it the focus, but should we? I read a fascinating commentary by Jack Price this week, who reports how various seminary students around the world respond to this story. When asked why this boy was hungry and starving, most seminary students in the United States point to the line about his “dissolute living” as the reason for his hunger. But most seminary students in Russia point instead to the line, “there was a famine in the land.” And most seminary students in Tanzania in Africa point to the line “no one gave him anything.” Three very different assumptions about lostness, and agency, and who is to blame. Though many of us in the US feel like this lostness is a punishment for his sins, there are a lot of people around the world that suggest that to blame and judge the son for his lostness is to miss the point. He is no more to blame for his lostness than the sheep or the coin would be.
So then what are these stories about? Paraphrasing the Two-Way from last week, a suggestion: Jesus is less interested in defining lostness than he is celebrating foundness. What is the common thread in these stories? I would suggest that the vast majority of verses in the passage are about party planning! Look again at the careful and tender language that Jesus uses to describe what happens when these things are found:
- “When (the shepherd) has found (the sheep), he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”
- “When (the woman) has found (the coin), she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God…”
- And…”‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”
Rejoice. Celebrate. Joy. Jesus seems less interested in lostness than celebrating foundness.
And again, go back to the “Last time on…” at the beginning of the passage. Don’t forget that these stories were a direct response to the Pharisees and scribes who felt the need to define and bemoan the lostness of the people that Jesus hung out with. But Jesus tells them through these stories that it is the foundness of things that must be celebrated. Were the other 99 sheep jealous of the fact that the shepherd went looking for the one? Of course not! Were the other 9 coins resentful that she didn’t love them enough? Ridiculous! In the same way, Jesus teaches, wouldn’t it be absolutely ridiculous for an older son to be resentful when his father throws a party for his younger son who was found? Who would imagine such a thing?!
At that point, all eyes move to the Pharisees and scribes, as their faces turn redder and redder. Of course, Jesus writes them into the story—into the character of the older brother, who spends more time worrying about the lostness of others than celebrating their foundness. But Jesus’ isn’t angry at the Pharisees, any more than the Father is at the older brother. It isn’t anger he feels, but sympathy. Because he understands that when you walk around pointing out everyone else’s lostness, what you really miss is your own foundness. I would argue that the most gracious line in the whole passage is not “put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet” but “everything I have is yours.” The grace of the Father to the older brother is really the point of the story…the first 45 seconds of the passage set up the climax in the last 45 seconds. But the Pharisees and older brother are so worried about others’ lostness, that they cannot even celebrate their own foundness. They are standing there with all the grace they need, and they are ridiculous enough to think that they can or should be the arbiters of grace for others. At the end of the story, he is the only thing still lost.
This week, we tip over from the first half of Lent to the second half. Have you noticed that we have been offering up a list of spiritual practices for you this Lenten season? It hasn’t been too heavy handed, but we’ve been following the traditional practice of creating a Lenten rule, a plan of spiritual disciplines to help you live out the preparation of Lent. Cristina invited you to engage in the practice of listening. Then we read about the practice of humility, the “better way” of Mary. Last week, we explored the spiritual practice of communal lament. And today, we add the practice of celebration. A spiritual discipline of celebration seems a little incongruous. But I think it is necessary to build that practice of celebration into our lives, lest we become as pitiable as the Pharisees and older brothers of this world. Frederick Buechner might agree. In his book Peculiar Treasures, he talks about the stories of Scripture that center on laughter and celebration and joy:
It’s the crazy parrot squawks that issue out of David as he spins like a top in front of the ark (2 Samuel 6:16-21). It’s what the Psalms are talking about where they say, “When the Lord had rescued Zion, then our mouth was filled with laughter” (126:1-2), or where they get so excited they yell out, “Let the floods clap their hands, let the hills sing for joy together!” because the Lord has come through at last (98:8). It’s what the Lord himself is talking about when he says that on the day he laid the cornerstone of the earth “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7), and it’s what the rafters ring with when the Prodigal comes home and his old crock of a father is so glad to see him he almost has a stroke and “they began to make merry” and kept on making merry till the cows came home (Luke 15:24). It’s what Jesus means when he stands in that crowd of (the lame) and loners and oddballs and factory rejects and says, “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21). Nobody claims there’s a chuckle on every page, but laughter’s what the whole Bible is really about.
May that be our truth today! A Bible filled with laughter. A faith filled with celebration. And lives filled with joy. Amen.