I like how these three parables cascade into one another. Even if you didn’t read them, you know them: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son.
(If those titles didn’t spur your memory, then do take a gander at the above reading texts…)
I see them as an orchestra with three pieces, moving from one to another. I see it almost as if Jesus is moving from a hard piece to a very difficult piece to an impossible piece.
The hard piece involves these sheep. “Who would not leave the 99 to go look for the 1?” Jesus asks. The correct answer, of course, is “no one.” No one would risk losing 99 sheep to look for one. And yet the overwhelmingly loving God does.
Now can’t you seek after those in your life with that same sort of love?
Well, maybe…if we’re talking about sheep. Sheep can be penned in, kept in line, controlled. If people were like sheep I could…but it’d be hard.
The very difficult piece involves the coin. It’s very difficult because if you lose a coin it’s all your fault…and the coin can’t “baa” and “meh” back at you as you call it’s name in search of it. No, a coin is difficult to find. You must painstakingly seek it out on your own time and expense. And yet, as the parable goes, the woman invites friends and family to rejoice when she finds it. The exegetical implication (translation: what the text says but doesn’t “say”) is that she spends more money on rejoicing at the return of the coin than even the coin’s value.
And God rejoices over you.
Therefore, can you be so extravagant with your love and your rejoicing at not only being found, but also at finding those in your life who are lost to you?
Well, maybe. Especially if we’re talking about coins. I can lock up a coin. I put the coin in a really safe place to ensure I never lose it again. If we can ensure people act like lost coins then, certainly I can.
The impossible piece is this last one…the text for Sunday.
It involves a father, an older brother, a younger son, and pigs (minor role).
What to do in this scenario? The Father is a fool to let the son leave with half of his belongings, for then letting him return, and for disgracing his older son by allowing all of this to happen. The younger son is a fool for hating his family so much to want to leave them with half as much as they had, for losing all his money forcing him to disgrace his nice Jewish family by working with pigs (sinners and tax collectors?), and for being selfish with his gifts. The older brother is a fool for working so hard when it’s clear his father will let him live the easy life, for throwing a stink when he doesn’t get his way, and for not joining the party when he has the chance.
Fools, all of them, fools.
Who is God here? Who are we? Try as you might you won’t answer this puzzle. Parables aren’t meant to be answered. They’re subversive.
But the question “Can you love as the father loves” is so much more difficult than answering whether we can search like the shepherd or the woman with the empty piggy bank. We’re willing to seek after things if we think we can prevent repetition. Pen up the wayward sheep. Lock up the coin so easily lost.
But who is to say the young son might not leave again? Who is to say that the older brother won’t beat the young son up when he steps into the party? Who is to say that the older brother isn’t justified in his pissed off attitude? Who is to say that the father isn’t right to be called foolish?
Who is to say?
As I work on my sermon for Sunday, I read the Prodigal Son story and think, “Oh crap, they’re all full of it…”
And I’m tired of hearing about how it should be called “The Loving Father” or “The Prodigal God.”
It should be called, “Relationships Are Screwed Up and Here’s a Tale That Proves It…”
Because they are.
We are not coins; I will not just sit there waiting to be found. And though we might at times be sheepish, you can’t pen me up; I will break loose because I’m not a sheep.
And that’s why these three stories are so good when put back-to-back. We can forgive a poor sheep for being wayward as long as we can pen it up. We can forgive a coin for being lost, as long as we can put it in our pocket.
But can we forgive when we can’t control the outcome? Can we forgive when we can’t assure a happy ending?
Sometimes we can. Sometimes we can’t.
Truly, sometimes we just can’t.
Because relationships are sometimes screwed up and crappy and we lose them, and lose our sanity with them, and lose our patience with them, and lose our hope in them, and lose our love for them…
But at the end of the parable, when we’ve lost so much, what have we found?