Today we hear the parables of the lost…lost sheep, lost coins and lost people. In the first parable, a shepherd leaves 99 other sheep to look for one that has wandered away. I don’t get it…didn’t God have a problem the first time the shepherd left the flock alone. It was Moses. Moses leaves the flock, goes to visit God and comes back to find the people worshipping a Golden calf.
In the second parable, a woman searches her house from top to bottom to find a single lost coin. It’s not like it was the widow’s mite…remember the woman whom Jesus praised for giving away her last coin. The woman in this parable has 9…but tears the house apart searching for the one she lost. Imagine her as your neighbor. She calls you in a very excited voice. “You know that coin I lost, halleleujuia, I have found it. Praise God.”
Of course, the parable is designed to take the listener over the top. They know darned well they would have never left 99 sheep alone in the dark to go search for one lost lamb. They know they’d have never invited the neighbors to celebrate finding one lost coin.
But Jesus is explaining why he’s hanging around with the despised tax collectors. You need to know these were people who wrought enormous damage on the community collecting Rome’s tribute to fund Rome’s oppression…and Jesus is hanging out with these tribute collectors who do Rome’s dirty work and with sinners of other dissolute living low-lifes.
Jesus wants them to know just how weird God is…how God celebrates people and situations humans would not.
And then he takes it another step. He has spoken about lost sheep and coins and now he will tell them about lost people. He has spoken of things that confuse us but we all understand “lost people.”
The Parable of the Lost or what we call The Prodigal Son is about the culture of the world and how enticingly unhealthy that culture is and how easy it is to find yourself lost with no sense of who you are or thought you were or who you had hoped to become.
Let’s listen to the Parable of the Lost Son from Luke 15:11-32
Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.
Isn’t this about the culture, of their times and ours…how much influence the culture can have on us when it tells us repeatedly that what we have isn’t enough...not enough money, not enough fun, not enough fulfillment, not enough period.
Want to get rich quick the easy way? Scam gullible people with a promise that they won the Nigerian lottery and they can claim their 5 million dollar if they will simply send you 5,000 dollars. Eager to get rich quick the easy way…send the 5,000 dollars.
Need money for a vacation but don’t want to take the time or effort to earn it? Craig’s list is advertising “positive pregnancy test” for sale suggesting you can use them to get your boyfriend to give you money for an abortion you don’t actually need so that you can book that trip.
The boy in our parable doesn’t want to await his father’s death to receive his inheritance. He wants what he wants and he wants it now even if that means cutting all ties to his family. And his father loves him enough to allow the boy to make those choices.
We call it free will. The father in the story allows his son to exercise it just as our father in heaven allows us our own free will.
The question of free will wasn’t big to the early Greek philosophers. The nature of free-will assumed significance with the advent of Christianity. Our doctrine begins with a belief that when God created humans, God commanded them to obey and has promised to reward or punish us for observance or violation of this law. That makes the reality of moral liberty or free will an issue of transcendent importance.
Unless humans are really free, we cannot be held responsible for what we do, any more than for the date of our birth or the color of our skin. God could have created obedient humans but chose to give us the ability to rebel. To suggest that somehow evil and wrongdoing are a part of either God’s plan or Satan’s control is to deny the existence of free-will, not to mention personal responsibility.
Ultimately, we explain the existence of evil and sin in a world controlled by God as free-will. Like each of us, the prodigal son has the power to do that which the father does not want him to do. God didn’t want hundreds of people in Syria to die of poison gas. But Assad did and God created Assad with the ability to do as he pleases rather than as God wants.
Think of what that means. It means the creator of the Universe has shared God’s power with God’s creation. God had given us the choice of whether to follow God or rebel.
The son in this parable chooses rebellion…he took his inheritance, gathered all he had, and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in what Jesus calls “dissolute living.”
We are not told exactly what the young man did. Dissolute living comes in so many different forms. Maybe he drank it all up, perhaps he spent it on women of ill-repute as his brother later claimed, maybe he invested in subprime home loans knowing they’d be foreclosed on or a ponzi-scheme or bought stock in Lehman Brothers or Enron; for all we know he may have contributed it all to the PTL Club, or maybe he used his father’s money to buy weapons and make war. All we know is that he used it all in dissolute living in whatever of the many forms that can take.
When he spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country. His money was gone and even if he had saved some, there was no food to buy. So, as hungry people have done through the centuries, he emigrated…hoping to find a better life in another country.
He did find work…feeding the pigs on someone’s farm. The local folks wouldn’t take jobs like that but he was hungry enough to do the hard, disgusting, humiliating jobs that they wouldn’t.
But, he envied the pigs. He’d have gladly eaten pods that the pigs were eating; and occasionally he did because no one gave him anything.
One morning he realized that he hadn’t had it so bad back home. He decided to reconcile with his father, to go home and apologize for his terrible decision. He had a speech planned. People who are going to apologize usually do.
“I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
But his father saw him before the boy could speak…and ran to meet the boy and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Let’s 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.
There it is again…that “lost and found” theme. There is a power in the universe that rejoices in the finding of lost souls. Why? Consider just how much of what we fear and despise is the work of lost souls. Think of the depth of the damage to our communities and neighborhoods wrought by lost souls who commit crime, abuse alcohol or drugs, children, spouses, take that which is not theirs, treat others as they would never want to be treated themselves.
Consider how much of the damage to our nation and the world is wrought by lost souls who seek to divide people by the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, gender, social status…the lost souls who see war and conflict as the only solution for any problem…war on terror, war on drugs and on crime …incarceration or marginalization, lost souls willing to trade God’s earth for the wealth that accompanies its destruction.
Souls are lost in many ways…illness, poverty, bigotry, irreconcilable differences between families and friends. The parables teach that it a problem for God when we find it is more acceptable, more understandable for us to go searching for some lost souls than for others.
It’s relatively easy for us to search for or forgive some lost souls than it is for others.
If we are asked to visit those whose souls have been lost to, say, Alzheimer’s disease, that’s acceptable, even honorable. But what about the lost souls whose names appear each week in the blotter briefs or on the list of registered sex offenders.
Their names are not published in the newspaper so that local Christians know where to go looking for lost souls. They are published so that we know which souls our community hopes remain lost.
Perhaps Jesus tells these parables for a reason. You think? Maybe Jesus is asking us to consider a lost souls ministry that searches for and welcomes home the lost souls about whom most others don’t care. Wouldn’t it be just like Jesus to suggest such a challenging idea?
Lost souls? Lost souls matter to God. You bet God rejoices when one is found. God celebrates not only the found but also the finder. The parables and the OT reading this morning from Exodus remind us that we have a role, a partnership with God to form the search parties and go looking. Remember when God discovered the people had abandoned God to worship the golden calf?
The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” It was Moses who came to the defense of those lost souls, willing to challenge the all-mighty. “Turn from your fierce wrath,” Moses said to God, “change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.
What God came to know through the exhortations of Moses not to destroy the idol makers and Jesus came to teach through the father who runs to meet and forgive and to celebrate the return of his dissolute living son…is that judgment is a far less useful tool if you’re genuinely looking to find lost souls than is a welcoming forgiveness…and God gave us the free-will to decide whether we will really believe that....and live it out AMEN