February 12, 2023
TODAY’S SCRIPTURE REFERENCE:
“I will always keep the Lord before me. He is always wth me at my right hand. I shall not be moved.’” (Psalm 16.8)
If you know me you will know my affinity for the Parable of the Prodigal found in Luke’s gospel (for us it is 15.11-32). It is set as the crowning story of lost souls. Whenever I hear someone speak, or sing, of God chasing after us, I can’t help but watch in my mind the movement of the father of the “prodigal sons.” Yes, there are two prodigals in the story which Luke presents to his listening audience. If Luke is a physician, as some biblical scholars propose, then he is a homespun doctor to be sure. Homespun doctors are unique in that their bedside manner is one of creating comfort by weaving their patient into a story directed toward their healing. The human spirit loves a good story. We are always moved, and sometimes surprised, when we find ourselves in the story. The Bible is filled with endless stories of those who stand with or stand against God and find God standing in the midst of life with them. We have to imagine that Luke’s usual audience for such storytelling are people who need their spirit healed but have been told that they are not, by tradition and convention, worthy of such healing. From a Judeo-Christian perspective, an adherence to the “Law and the Prophets” of Judaism was assumed because Jesus, as a man, was a Jew. Well, yes, He was also fully God and I don’t think that God would say that He was Jewish. We often forget there is a difference between people and practices. But, in the world of Luke, the co-worker of Paul the Apostle, the landscape of believers far surpassed that of the land of the Jews. The numerous dispersions of Jews out of Israel by conquering nations created Jewish communities throughout the empires of the world. With those dispersions, including the “Lost Tribes” of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), the notion of two “people” was fairly consistent. There were Jews and then there was everyone else. Even within Judaism it would appear a spiritual caste system was in place. Within Judaism itself there were many who practiced the religion of the Jews but were not strictly Jewish due to a mixed marriage. But, that was not an unusual occurrence. That mixed marriage identity was not merely an ethical reality but a spiritual one. Interestingly enough, God knew it was inevitable in the world as within the Ten Commandments He issued the warning of “there are many gods in the world but in your world there is only One God who is over all others.” To Moses, God declared “I AM He who is the God of gods.” It was and is a matter of choice as to who we are as believers who follow the word and the way of that One God. So, there were those who were “purely” Jewish by heritage and by faith and there were the rest in various stages of “how Jewish are you.” Luke found himself in ministry to the “rest.” They were easily seen as the outsiders to the Jewish Jesus who was the Christ of God. We are not speaking about the Gentiles who would have been converts to Judaism or converts to “The Way,” or Christianity. We are seeing the word to those who were of Jewish heritage by blood or by the Law and had wandered away from their faith. In each of the “lost” stories we are seeing the element of belonging to the Jewish community and way of life.
The “lost sheep” was one of the flock of a Jewish shepherd. The flock belonged to a Jewish owner. The “lost coin” was that which belonged to a “daughter of Israel.” It represented perhaps her dowry or her tithe as one-tenth of what she possessed. Finally, we come to the “lost son,” or as the case can be made- the parable of the “lost sons.” However, there is a far different element in the third parable than we find in the first two. The “good” shepherd makes provisions for the ninety-nine still in his care so that he can go and look for the one who is lost. He does not abandon them or leave them to fend for themselves. They are secure in the sheepfold with at least his sheep dog to stand at the gate. More likely, it is a fellow shepherd whom he trusts until his return. The “woman,” whom we may easily assume is not married, has secured the nine of ten coins and then sets to cleaning house to find the tenth coin. She is not satisfied to rest easy until it is found. Both of these parables show overt and direct action to recover what is “lost.” In both cases, the attention is then switched to an application to repentance and saving or recovering those who are lost to their faith in God. Widows, orphans, lepers, the lame, the deaf, the blind, the malformed, the cognitively delayed, the tax collectors and the prostitutes were all considered “lost” people. In almost every case, they were seen as beyond redemption. It was one thing to find a lost sheep and bring it back “dead or alive” to fulfill one’s obligation of proving it was not kept for one’s self. It was one thing to exert due diligence to recover the full amount of ten coins in order to maintain their presumed value and purpose whether it was a dowry, tithe or life savings and thus provide for a blessing in the future. But, to then consider exerting such effort to redeem those who are lost and considered outcasts and unworthy of inclusion in the community of faith seemed to be far more than what the story offered at face value. There was, however, great joy and relief when “that which was lost is now found.” The sense of completion and wholeness is undeniably visible. Such a sense of the spiritual community ought to be known and desired as well; at least according to the story and storyteller. Still, a sheep and a coin have no real volition of existence on their own. They were seen as property to be managed. But, a person was a far different story and involved the underlying reality of freewill and the right to choose for one’s self what shall be believed, acted upon and identified with. And herein lies the difference with the third parable of the “lost son” or “sons.” And it seems that the onus is thus placed on the listener to hear for themselves “the other side of the coin,” so to speak.
What of the choice to return? The sheep may decide that being lost is no advantage if and when it realizes it is lost. It may have been captured in a briar or fallen into a cleft in the rock and cannot escape its situation. It is left to suffer the consequences of not being able to fend for itself. In that moment of aloneness, the cry for someone to help is announced. Perhaps when the shepherd is counting the sheep as they return to the sheepfold at the end of the day only to find that one is missing, he secures them in a setting of peace. It is then he can hear the cry of lostness. It will not fall on deaf ears. He will go out being directed by the cry and rescue the lost lamb. Not hearing any cry, the shepherd will go anyway to secure that which is lost by thinking at a lamb’s level of existence with full knowledge of the dangers of this world from a shepherd’s perspective. His cry will replace the cry of the sheep because it is not merely “one of his own” but actually a part of him that has been lost. And the coin, for sure, has no mind of its own. It cannot be aware of its lostness nor any means of being found either by alert or by declaration. It is only known in the accounting done by the woman. She is master of her ten coins. They are a treasure to her with a measured meaning and purpose. We do not know when the last accounting was done. But with the current counting the fact that a coin is missing becomes a conviction of her own failure to maintain them. She does not assume a thief has broken in and taken one. If a thief had done it then all ten would surely be missing. No, the responsibility for their safekeeping was hers and hers alone. She, in fact, is the one who knows that without it she would be lost. It was a part of her existence and her identity. Whether it was property assigned for safekeeping (as in the lost sheep) or one’s own property (as in the lost coin), the application for repentance and salvation becomes a lesson to be learned. Whether of a family (internally as in the coin) or of the community-at-large (externally as in the sheep), the duty of “the faithful” was clear: seek and find. They (the shepherd and the woman) in essence “chased after the lost.”
But, who did not chase? This is a point that should not be overlooked. It is a point that deserves a worthy reflection. Its point is made in the third parable. The shepherd does not own the sheep. The shepherd tends the flock as if they were his own. They are his responsibility to maintain to be returned to the master including any increase. All losses must be accounted for to the master. We do not know who the woman may be held accountable to. If it is her dowry, then to her future husband. If it is her tithe, then to the temple and ultimately to God. In either case, the coins have a purpose which include her but extend beyond her as if they do indeed belong to another. That “other” does not chase after the coin any more than the master chases after the lost sheep. And neither does the father chase after his own lost son(s). Oh, it is not lost on me that when the father sees the younger son who has squandered his portion of the inheritance coming over the horizon like a lost lamb or a pup with its tail tucked between its legs that he runs down the road to meet him and welcome him with open arms. There he is: sandals flapping against the souls of his feet, dust lifted off the road behind his every step, legs exposed up to his knees as he runs with the hem of his garment in hand, the ends of his belt flying to each side and tears running down his face with joy as only a father who has feared the worst finds it not to be true. But, he is not chasing after his son because the son is no longer running away. The father is running to him who is no longer running from him. The son may have stopped dead in his tracks wondering who would be running toward him. He may fear the worst only to experience the best. And the words of the father are clear “that which was lost is found.” The choices were made and not without much consideration on the part of both the father and the younger son. The decision to leave and then return bears as much weight as the decision to let go and welcome back. But, the truth is that neither one is chasing after the other. Both experienced the loss and the joy of having found that their trust in the truth of the matter never changes. It is the truth of God’s will to love perfectly. There is an accountability that far exceeds what this world might see in the situation. It is emblematic of our everyday life as mighty ones of God and followers of Jesus Christ who is “the way, the truth and the life.” It calls us to respond accordingly to walk by faith and not by sight.
How that impacts my understanding of “God does not chase after us” is set for further reflection tomorrow. Until then, let eyes that can see perceive and ears that can hear listen for understanding. Shalom.
Father, we are so much more aware of what kind of love it takes to love us as we are. You have created a place where we can be found. Your steadfastness to the course of righteousness is power and life-changing. You are ready to welcome us back with open arms. In Christ, you meet us on the road of life and welcome us home. And You expect us to act in His image to those committed to our charge and care. We pray we shall not disappoint with our due diligence to be faithful and true to Your hope for our lives in this world. Amen.