He Came to Seek the One Who Was Lost
Jesus is attracting some followers who are (disgusted face) – well they are tax collectors and sinners. And the Pharisees and the scribes have noticed. They have noticed that not only has Jesus attracted them, they are murmuring that he is receiving them and eating with them.
It would have been fine for Jesus to feed them, to take pity on them and give these lesser, lower, sinful people something to eat. What is objectionable is that Jesus acts as a host to them, receiving them, and Jesus eats WITH them.
Jesus responds to their murmurs with three “lost and found” parables. The lectionary only includes the third parable, the one we know as the parable of the Prodigal Son. When we only read the Prodigal Son, we tend to focus on which of the sons we are in the story. So this morning, we read the first two because when we consider all three together, we better understand what Jesus was saying.
“Which of you,” asks Jesus, “having 100 sheep, if he lost one, would not leave the 99 in the field and look for the 1?” It is important, if we are going to focus on what Jesus knew the Pharisees would hear and understand his message to be, that we know more about shepherding in the 1st Century.
First, the work of shepherding was considered unclean. The Pharisees would NEVER be in the field tending sheep. Kenneth Bailey is a scholar in Middle Eastern New Testament, and he says that the Pharisees labeled someone a ‘sinner’ if they either were immoral and didn’t keep the law or had a job on a list of unclean trades, and shepherding was on the list. So, when the Pharisees are murmuring that Jesus is receiving and eating with sinners, some of the people he is eating with that they find objectionable may have been shepherds. And Jesus responds to the Pharisees and scribes, suppose you were a shepherd. How insulting – to ask a Pharisee to imagine himself a shepherd! Shepherds didn’t go out alone.
Second, the work of shepherding was done in community. Shepherds abided in the fields, watching their sheep, together. There was safety in numbers. And 100 sheep was a lot of sheep, probably the combined herd of the whole village. “But, what shepherd,” asks Jesus, “noticing that one of the sheep was lost, wouldn’t leave the community and safety of the others and go and seek the one who was lost? And when he finds it, hoist it on his shoulders and carry it home, where the community gathers to rejoice.” The joy is not just the shepherd’s joy; it is the joy of the community. God is like that.
“Or imagine you were a woman, “ says Jesus. “Really!?” the Pharisees must have thought. “First, you want us to imagine being a shepherd and now a woman?” And you realized that one of your coins was missing from your veil or from your necklace. In the first Century, women were given nedunyah when they got married. It was a gift from their father to them, since they would not inherit anything when their father died. If it was land, the harvest belonged to her husband, but the land belonged to her. Part of the nedunyah was either a veil or a necklace with 10 silver coins in it. What if you realized one of your coins from your wedding gift from your father was gone? Would you not light a lamp and not even think about what the oil cost? Would you not sweep the house and get down on your hands and knees and search the corners and shadows until you found it?” And then when you found it, would you not tell your friends and neighbors about how devastated you were and rejoice together that you had found it? God is like that.
“Or, imagine you had two sons,” says Jesus. The younger one was ready for you to die already. He asked for his inheritance, 1/3 of his father’s property. Now, there were ways that fathers could legally give their sons their inheritance before they died, and it was sometimes done if the father was ill or if he was getting remarried, to protect his sons’ inheritance. But, sons didn’t ask their fathers to give them their inheritance when their father was healthy and their inheritance secure. And, even when a son was given his inheritance while his father was still alive, the son could not sell the land, because what the land produced still belonged to his father. This younger son did though. This younger son sold the land and not only told his father he was ready for him to die by asking for his inheritance, he sent the message to everyone who knew them that he couldn’t wait for his father to die by selling off the land and leaving with the proceeds.
We know what happens. He squanders it all, winds up feeding the nastiest of unclean animals, pigs, and wishing he could eat with them. And decides to go groveling to his father and beg to be one of his servants because his servants are well-fed with food to spare.
The father has already been humiliated by this younger son. But instead of brushing the dust from his sandals and going on with his life, the father spends his days watching the horizon. And one day, he sees the figure of his son approaching from the distance and he breaks into a run to go and meet him at the village’s edge. The Pharisees cannot imagine running. Running was undignified for any elderly man, let alone a landowner.
And when he got to his son, he called for the best robe, most certainly this robe was one of the father’s robes, and the signet ring, used to seal and affirm the provenance of a document to show the world who it belongs to, and shoes, only free men wore shoes, so the shoes showed that he was not entering the village as a servant of his father, but as his son. And he had the fatted calf killed, which means the entire village was invited to the celebration, so that the whole community would be reconciled.
The drums were pounding, the music playing, to announce as people came in from the fields to come to a party! And the elder son hears and will not come in. It is the extravagance of the party that is objectionable. Judaism and Christianity both have paths to repent, to reconcile, and to be restored. We can understand letting the penitent return, but the return is to bread and water, to sackcloth and ashes, to kneeling and tears, not to fatted calves and best robes and rings, not with beating drums calling the whole village together to celebrate.
Again, the father abandons his dignity and goes to plead with his son to come in to the party. And the elder son further humiliates his father by quarreling in public, by not addressing his father without a title, and by his attitude. “I deserve a party more than he does. I am dutiful and even though I might have wanted to enjoy my life, I’ve been right here working for you!”
The father does not take the bait. He doesn’t rebuke the elder son. This homecoming is not about the younger son’s worthiness to receive a party. It is about the father’s joy in his return. God is like that.
Each of these parables is about God’s joy in finding what was lost. ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.’ ‘It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’
God is like a shepherd with one sheep lost out of 99. When we all, like sheep, had gone astray, the Good Shepherd left the community of the Holy Trinity and came to seek us and carry us home. God is like a woman with 9 of the 10 coins that her father gave her as a wedding gift. She will use whatever resources she has, her oil, her energy, her time, she will get down on her hands and knees and search, until she has found the coin and returned it to its proper place. We are as precious to God as a father’s gift to his daughter on her wedding day. God is like a father who has 2 sons and loves them both. Both sons are lost, and the father is humiliated by both, and further sets aside his dignity to go out to meet them both, and generously invites both home. One accepted the invitation. Will the other?