I lost my Bible two weeks ago after our Monday noon staff Bible study. It was missing for eight days. I retraced my route to every place I could remember going that day several times over that week and was just totally baffled that I couldn’t find it. I told other staff members so they could be keeping an eye open for it. Tuesday night we had visitation for the Childress family in the parlor, and we needed a stand to put the register on for people to sign as they came in. So I went to the narthex of the chapel to get one, and voila, there was my Bible sitting on the lectern. Then I remembered that as I was leaving Bible study that day somebody needed to get into the medical closet, so I unlocked the front of the chapel and put my Bible there while I helped them. I felt joy, relief, and gratitude that I had found that which had been lost. You know the feeling, whether it be keys or cell phone or purse or calendar. If you have moved, then you remember the experience of looking at all those boxes and wondering which one your favorite frying pan might be in and sorting through them until you find it. On a more significant level, perhaps you have had the experience of fearing that an important relationship has been irretrievably lost and know the amazement and joy that comes from having it improbably restored. These are important kinds of experiences for understanding what the parables for today are all about.
The narrative lectionary is leading us through a fascinating journey towards Jerusalem and the climactic events of Holy Week, which begin for us in just three weeks. I want us to look at these parables of the lost and found today as the middle section of a three part progression in the story, and I want to do that as much to keep me grounded as for you. We all have our favorite parts of the Bible, and you know this is mine. But we can never read just our favorite parts in isolation, because Jesus is always surprising us with “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey liked to say.
Last week in her sermon, Debbie Foster took us through a difficult text which begins with people telling Jesus about Galileans who had been killed by Pilate and their blood mixed with their sacrifices. We don’t know if they were wanting him to explain how God could allow things like this to happen or if they wanted him to become more revolutionary and get ready to do battle against the Romans who would do such things, but Jesus would be drawn into neither of those things. He uses this and a story about a tower falling and killing innocent people to remind them that these things can happen to anybody anytime so you should repent and be ready. The section ends with Jesus telling a parable about a landowner who gave up on a fig tree in his vineyard that never bore fruit, so he told the gardener to cut it down. The gardener asked him to leave it one more year and let him fertilize it and tend it and see if it would bear fruit. It is a parable about the forbearance of God, who mercifully gives us more chances to get our lives straight instead of chopping us down, but the emphasis is still that there is a limitation on that time so we shouldn’t keep putting it off.
If you have been keeping up with your daily Bible readings this week, then you read a passage where someone on the road to Jerusalem asks Jesus, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” Jesus doesn’t answer that question. He looks at the questioner and says, “Try to enter by the narrow door.” The story is told that the comedian W.C. Fields was in his dressing room one day and a colleague walked in on him while he was reading the Bible. Embarrassed, Fields closed the Bible and said, “I was just looking for loopholes.” Instead of telling the questioner not to worry about it or what the minimum he needed to do to be saved was, Jesus encourages him to give it his best every day. Don’t go through life looking for loopholes, looking for shortcuts, looking for the easy way out. Focus your sight on the narrow door and try to live in such a way as to enter by it. As you watch basketball players compete in the pressure cooker of March Madness, know that each play run that results in an open player getting a layup; each pass perfectly thrown; each free throw made at the end of the game; they are all the result of practicing those things thousands of times until you can do them by instinct. You don’t take a month off and then just show up to play and expect to be sharp. You aim for the narrow door. That’s what Jesus encourages us to do in living our lives. Don’t leave salvation to chance.
This is some of the context which leads up to today’s parables. After stern calls to repentance, to aim for the narrow door, to count the cost of discipleship, we come to Jesus telling stories about a grace so radical it seems beyond comprehension. Context is again important. Luke tells us that an assortment of tax collectors and other sinners are flocking to Jesus and this causes the Pharisees and scribes to grumble about him welcoming and eating with sinners. If anyone was focused on entering by the narrow door it was the scribes and Pharisees who wanted to parse out every implication of every law and hold themselves and all others accountable to all of it. So maybe to those who approach every day as if they are playing with house money Jesus needs to say, “Strive to enter by the narrow door.” And to those who are so focused on the narrow door that they can’t see any grace and joy in life, he needs to say, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who don’t need to repent.” It is to these who have no room in their theology for God’s love and grace and compassion that the stories of the lost and found are directed.
There is a theological statement which means a great deal to me. I don’t know if it was said by someone famous or just by a pastor I have done funerals with in the past. It says, “In God’s economy nothing of value is ever lost.” “In God’s economy nothing of value is ever lost.” That’s the heart of these parables.
God is in the shepherd, the lowest rung of society, when he makes the decision to leave at risk his flock of ninety nine sheep in order to seek out and rescue the one which is lost. When he restores it to the flock he calls together his friends and neighbors to share in his joy. God is in the woman, with no rights or standing in society, who sweeps out the entire house until the lost coin is finally found. When she finds it she calls all her friends and neighbors to come over and rejoice with her. God is in the father, the top rung of society, who abdicates his dignity and his throne to go racing down the road to welcome home his lost son who had treated him so poorly and wasted his assets, who immediately restores him to sonship with robe and ring and sandals without so much as a lecture, and calls the estate to have a celebratory party.
The Pharisees and scribes could surely make no sense of this story. Why does the father do such a ridiculous thing? Why is there no punishment for this reprobate son? How can he be so happy and why is he rewarding his son for bad behavior? And now they are set up for the hook in the story.
Jesus tells about the response of the older brother to all this. He is disgusted, he is angry, and he refuses to go to the celebration. He had probably seen this movie too many times before, his irresponsible brother getting chance after chance and continuing to mess up, and his irresponsible father refusing to read the writing on the wall that his son was a worthless scoundrel and he needed to give up on him.
His father leaves the house to come to him as well and try to restore him to fellowship. He tells his older son that he loses nothing by his brother’s return. He says, “You are always with me and everything that is mine is yours.” But don’t try to talk me out of rejoicing and celebrating, because “your brother who was dead is now alive again, he was lost but now he is found.” The parable ends there and we do not know how the elder brother responds. The story ends there and we do not know how the Pharisees and scribes are going to respond to the presence of the tax collectors and sinners either. Most of us are good churchgoing people who are trying to aim for the narrow door, so if we are honest this is probably pretty offensive to us as well.
When you are used to being tough on crime, it is tough to think about accepting the criminal back in society. The brother in the story is not accused of murder, but he does about everything else. He even tells his father he wishes he was already dead by asking for his inheritance while he is still alive. It’s hard to think about even accepting him back, much less celebrating his return. Jesus makes it as extreme as he can to make his point.
What is different about the third parable from the first two is that the father cannot/does not find and restore his lost son by force of will. The son has the freedom to leave and to do all those things which were unacceptable in his father’s house. He has the freedom to destroy his life, and the father knows it is possible the son will never be back, he will never see him again. But he hopes and he keeps an eye out the window and when he sees a solitary figure coming down the road he can’t restrain his joy. He runs to embrace and welcome home.
Stern calls to repentance and to aim for the narrow door and warnings that we are being given another chance before being cut down for good do not prepare us for encountering a God like this. When we mess up it is hard for us to accept ourselves, and we imagine God will be that much more disappointed and disapproving. To imagine that no matter what we have done, no matter how far astray we have gone, God will not only accept us but will rejoice over us when we return is unbelievable good news. That he will do the same for others by whom we have been hurt or disappointed does not always sound like such good news.
Next week we will come to a parable that makes starkly clear that there will come a time when the opportunity for another chance is gone. All of this has to be held in tension. Calls to repentance, offering of a second chance, encouragement to aim for the narrow door, the joy of God over the lost being found, the ending of chances. God wants his rebellious children to come home and discover the joy of living with and for him. God wants his resentful children to come to the party and learn about joy and compassion and acceptance of the wayward siblings. In that image Debbie talked about last week of God as mother hen: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”
It is important for me to learn at least three things from this parable. First, whenever I rebel against God and want to do what I want to do instead of what God wants me to do, I am lost. That happens often, sometimes at greater extremes than others. Second, when I realize that and return, God rejoices. He doesn’t spank me or put me in time out or give me a lecture. My punishment took place while I was gone, while I was out of fellowship. Third, those same things are true for you as well. Part of my calling is to welcome all who return, no matter how often it needs to happen, and share in God’s rejoicing. I need to remember that your being here does not subtract one thing from me. God is able to provide fully for every single person – there is not a limited fund which is going to run out at some point. As insurers like to say, this plan is fully funded!
“You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
Central Presbyterian Church