“I once was lost, but now I am found.”
I love this hymn, and lately, I have been reminded over and over again about lostness. Our daughter Emmaline has a doll named Jo-Jo that she takes everywhere (except into her classroom) and she loves that doll, but man, oh man does she leave it EVERYWHERE. For as passionate as she is about this doll, she loses it about 20 times a day; and guess who has to find it…yep, you guessed correctly, we do. We have been trying to teach Emmaline about responsibility and holding on to important things, like Jo-Jo, but we still have a long way to go.
All of us have lost something of value. Maybe we eventually found it, but maybe we didn’t and it was gone forever. I remember losing my retainer on the first day of 9th grade. I had just gotten my braces off and I was so proud of my shiny, straight teeth. I had a red retainer and I took good care of it, until my first lunch hour on my first day of high school. I went to Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach, FL and I was a nervous freshman. I had survived the first two academic blocks and had found an inconspicuous spot to quickly eat my lunch with a few friends. When the third block bell rang, I was so nervous about finding my Biology class on time that I forgot to grab my shiny new red retainer from the bottom of my disposable lunch bag and promptly threw it away in a nearby trash can. While sitting in the opening class of Biology and learning about cellular makeup, I realized my grave mistake. I knew I couldn’t come home without my expensive new red retainer, and so I did what any good oldest daughter (who is trying to set a good example for her younger sisters would do), and I asked to be excused early from that class so I could dig through the trash can and retrieve my lost item (Gross, I know)If you could have seen the look on the faces of those that watched me dig through the trash that day, it really was embarrassing. Quite a way to start high school, wouldn’t you agree?! But I found it, which is the lesson of the story, right? Or is it?
I have been studying Luke chapter 15 over the last week, and in this chapter, you read three stories about lostness. First is the story of the Lost Sheep, second is the story of the Lost Coin, and third, is the story of the Prodigal Son, or another way of translating it, the Lost Son. I referenced this parable in my sermon on Sunday and then we talked about it again with my Staff Book Study Group on Tuesday morning. But the more I thought about these parables, the more questions I had. I had a companion book to read along with this study which has helped. Some of you have read it, Short Stories by Jesus by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine and it is rich. As a Jewish woman who is also a New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt Divinity School, she brings in the first-century Jewish world context in such a way, that every chapter seems to contain many, “a-ha!” moments for me.
As you re-read this 15th chapter of Luke, and I encourage you to do so, there is the rule of three, just like you will find in the story of the folklore favorite, The Three Little Pigs where of course the first and second are the same, but lead to a difference in the third. In the first two parables, the lost sheep and the lost coin; these first two models set up the third. The shepherd in the first parable leaves all 99 other sheep to find the one that is lost and in the second, the woman searches diligently until finding the lost silver coin. But in the third parable, the Prodigal Son is not searched for. Yes, the Father figure “sees him from far off and runs to embrace him” but the Father did not go in search for the youngest son. Could it have been because he had an estate to manage, or a reputation whose honor was violated by the sudden exit from his youngest son, or is it because he could not travel? We don’t know, but we know that we have heard this parable over and over again as we grew up in the church. And this story matters in how we see the Father, the two sons, how we understand lostness and repentance.
It is safe to say that all of these parables would have been heard through the ears of a 1st-century Jewish audience and that audience would have known that the main characters in each of these stories were in fact wealthy. No regular person would have had 100 sheep, maybe 5 or 6, but not 100. This large number of sheep communicates that this person comes from means. The same is said about the woman with 10 silver coins, one could also argue that she too is wealthy or has a wealthy family. And then the father in the Prodigal Son story has an estate with servants and helpers, which points also to a person of wealthy means. To lose one sheep amongst 100, doesn’t seem like much of a blow. To lose one silver coin out of 10, while the stakes are higher, is not a life or death situation. But losing one son, when you have only two, is the worst thing in the world. And so why wasn’t the Father actively looking, day and night for his lost son? Why didn’t he refuse to sleep or rest until his lost son was found? If the Father in this parable is in fact supposed to represent for us God, our Father, why didn’t he do more?
It might be because, the Father thought that it was the youngest son that was lost, but he was wrong. The youngest son came home and was reconciled to the Father and his household. But, sadly the oldest son, was lost and remained lost because even after attempts were made to bring the older son back into the fold and to reconcile the relationship, the story ends without any sort of resolution. Because sometimes, the things we think are lost for good, are only lost for a time. And in our focus on that lost thing, we forget what we really treasure and maybe, unwittingly, we take for granted all we already have.
I don’t know if you have ever lost something of deep value to you. In this story, the Father lost both sons. The youngest to his reckless living and the oldest to his own jealousy, anger, and feelings of alienation. When the rest of the neighbors and friends were celebrating the youngest son’s return with a party and good food, the Father had to go outside to find his oldest son; the one who was really lost. Levine writes, “The father did not know until this moment that the elder was the son who was truly “lost” to him. Once the recognition comes, he does what the shepherd and the woman do: realizing his loss, his lost son, the son whom he loves, he seeks to make his family whole.” (Short Stories of Jesus; pg. 68).
Jesus is using each of us to help make the family of God whole. Don’t ever assume someone is lost for good, nor should we ever assume that someone is found for good. Finding the lost, whether they are sheep, or coins, or people, takes a lot of work. We have been blessed with so much, especially during this time when so many others go without. When we have so much around us; our health, our financial security, a clean place to live, a healthy marriage; we forget what we treasure and if we aren’t careful, we can make the mistake of forgetting that all people matter; those lost and those found. I invite you to pray with me today a prayer of unveiling so that whatever relationship, or situation or circumstance that may seem lost or gone to you, may, through the power of the Holy Spirit come home again, join the party and we reconciled and whole again.