Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Missing Parable?

Chapter 15 of Luke is a chapter of lost and found. The whole chapter consists of three parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the two lost sons, which is more often called the parable of the prodigal son. Unfortunately for preachers, the last of the three was read back on Lent 4C, when it provided a refreshing moment of lightness halfway through the penitential season. Now we're tackling the other two, but I'm beginning to wonder whether that's even possible. Can one hear the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin and make sense of Jesus' message without the extravagant parable of the forgiving father and his two lost boys?

I don't know about you, but I've never had to go look for a lost sheep. I've misplaced a child or two, and I know what it means to drop everything and search for a kid who has run off, but I don't know what it means to look for a lost sheep. I've also learned over the years to be skeptical of Jesus' farming advice. Letting the weeds and the wheat grow together is a terrible idea, and, despite Jesus' warning, building bigger barns to contain one's abundant harvest isn't a bad plan. What about searching for a sheep? Does the shepherd really leave the ninety-nine alone in the wilderness to go looking for the one? Yes, there is an honor code associated with being a shepherd and giving one's all to the job, but I don't think it's smart for a shepherd to leave 99% of his assets unattended while searching for that stray 1%.

Likewise, I've lost coins, and I've even misplaced a hundred-dollar bill, and I've searched and searched for the money I've lost, but I've never called my neighbors together to rejoice with me when I found it. The other day, I misplaced my watch and spent a week wondering where it was. When I finally found it in the side zipper pocket of my golf bag, I took it inside and showed my wife, and we both laughed while I did a celebratory dance, but I didn't dance because the watch was of any real value. It's a Timex I got for $20 on amazon.com. I certainly didn't call my relatives and friends to celebrate my buffoonery with me, but the disproportionate joy I experienced over the watch's recovery is starting to get closer to the heart of the matter.

I think the original hearers of these parables would have scratched their heads and asked themselves, "What sort of shepherd or crazy lady is he talking about?" Unfortunately, modern readers have been distanced from Jesus' context by so many centuries that the counterintuitive nature of these teachings is largely lost. I'm not sure about this, but I suspect that shepherds didn't really leave 99 sheep in the dangerous desert to go searching for the one lost sheep. And I'm pretty sure that a woman who lost one silver coin didn't throw a party with her neighbors to celebrate its discovery. The point is that God does that even though we wouldn't normally think to. And that's a truth that is more easily seen in the third parable in the series--the story of the extravagant father who lavishes his love and forgiveness upon his disrespectful and wasteful son.

Without the prodigal son, the craziness of these parables gets missed. We say to ourselves, "Of course a shepherd would go looking for the lost sheep." Why? Because Jesus said so. But I think Jesus is making a different point. God's search for us is irrational. The calculus behind God's love isn't realistic. That's part of what makes God God. No, I'm not suggesting that we read the rest of Luke 15 to make the point. It's too long. But I think the power of these parables lies in their strangeness, and the preacher has the opportunity to showcase God's remarkable love by letting the parables be just that--strange testaments to God's ridiculous love.

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