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Jesus: Teacher, Healer, Friend of the Poor
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"You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." (Luke 15:31)
Luke 15:1-32 (Parables of the Lost and Found)
Luke 23:32-43 (The Jesus of Mercy on the Cross)
Parables of the Lost and Found (Luke 15:1-32)
One of the signal themes of Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus is the merciful Savior of all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, and of the sinful as well as the upright. The God that Jesus embodies is the One who does not wait for the sinful and the unbelieving ones to do all the work of coming home to God. Instead God in Jesus—in Jesus’ teaching and in Jesus’ actions—goes out after the lost, the sinful, the unbelieving and brings them home. In Chapter 15, Luke the Evangelist gathers together several of Jesus’ parables that beautifully illustrate just how great a distance God is willing to go to show mercy to those in need of God’s love and care.
The first two “lost and found” parables in Chapter 15 are known as the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. Notice that the first parable focuses on and speaks about the daily life and work of men, whereas the second focuses on the daily life and work of women. In this way, the Jesus of Luke’s Gospel balances his care for men and women, and explicitly tells stories that reach out not just to men, but also to women, who had often been left at the margins of teaching and ministry in the Judaism of Jesus’ time.
These two parables speak about the extravagant, hard-working, and risky mercy of the God Jesus knows and embodies. This shepherding God does the risky and highly questionable thing of leaving the “sure and safe” 99 sheep to go out after the one sheep lost in the wilderness. Notice that for this God, the one lost sheep is so important that the shepherd is willing to risk the safety and care of the 99 in order to find and bring home the lost one.
In any rational shepherd’s mind, this is craziness. What about the 99 who have been obedient and good? Why risk them for the one who has wandered away? What will happen to the 99 while the shepherd goes after the lost one? Somehow this shepherd trusts—has faith—that the 99 will be okay while he turns his attention to the lost one. And the picture we see of the shepherd’s friends—his community, which we might see as the church community that Jesus is trying to form—is that they don’t judge the shepherd for being crazy or risky, but rejoice with him over the finding of the one lost sheep. So it is not only God’s shepherd, Jesus, who is willing to risk and trust, and do the hard work of finding the one lost sheep, but that shepherd’s community (the church), instead of carping and criticizing, rejoices with the shepherd over the going out and bringing home of the lost one. It is as if Jesus’ story seems to say: the crazy, extravagant compassion of the shepherd rubs off on his friends and neighbors, and they too become more focused on the joy of finding the lost sheep than on the fear of risking the 99.
The second parable is about a woman, a wife and householder, and is told in images that the women who were part of Jesus’ community of disciples would have easily identified with. There are two equally moving ways to hear this parable. The first is simply that a woman who has only ten days wages—ten silver coins—to her name is eager to work hard to find the one coin she has lost. It is part of her livelihood, and her life, and the life of her household family literally depends on that coin. If God is like that woman, then God needs and depends on every member of God’s household (the church), regards that one as precious and valuable, and God will go to great lengths to find any one member who is lost. And the community—as in the parable of the lost sheep—thinks this is exactly the right thing to do, and rejoices with the woman once she has found the lost coin. Every member of the community is precious, needed, and worth searching for if lost.
But this parable of the lost coin can be heard in a second way. There is some evidence that the “wedding ring” of women in Jesus’ day was a headdress made of a ten coins hanging from a cord that hung around the wife’s forehead. To lose one of the ten coins, then, would be like losing one’s wedding ring: a heart-breaking disaster, and a sign of broken love and covenant. To go out looking for the one lost coin, then, would be to do the work of repairing a broken loving relationship, and being reconciled within the covenant that joined the woman to her husband. (You may remember in our study of Hebrew Scriptures two years ago that we discovered that one of the most consistent and powerful images in Scripture for the covenantal relationship between God and Israel was that of marriage, with God as husband and with Israel as wife.) This parable of the lost coin then could be heard as harking back to the Jewish tradition of imaging relationship between God and God’s people as a marriage. And so as Jesus tells the story, the wife who lost part of her wedding headdress can be seen as a reflection on the preciousness of life in community with God, and the sweeping of the house to stand in for any act of reconciliation in a broken community, and the rejoicing as a hope and goal for what the once-broken-now-reconciled community can aim to bring about.
The last of the three great “lost and found” parables in Luke 15 is the beloved story of the Prodigal Son. Like any story that is well known, we can feel that we already know all of what the story is about, but it is always dangerous to read any of Jesus’ parables with that sort of smugness. This story is subtle, and it is easy to miss its surprises and delights. Of its many delights, I am going to concentrate on three aspects of the story, one more familiar than the other two.
Many faithful readers have noticed that the father is just as prodigal as the younger son. As the younger son is prodigal with his share of the inheritance, so is the father prodigal with his love and forgiveness. It is as if the dangerous prodigality of the younger son—that leaves him bereft of family, livelihood, and hope—is healed by the prodigal compassion and mercy of the father. Risk is part of all three of the “lost and found” parables, and so the father of the prodigal son risks—with no guarantees that the son will be less wasteful—welcoming the son back, not knowing what the future holds. Some have noticed that the father is also willing to risk his own dignity. No self-respecting father in the ancient world would have run at all; it was undignified. And to run to meet a wasteful and disrespectful son is a further surprise. The father does not stand on his dignity. He leaves it aside in favor of compassion and mercy.
A second and less well known reflection on the parable notes that for a son to ask for his inheritance before his father dies is, in effect, to wish his father dead. For the father to give what his son asks in the face of this is for the father to be extravagantly, foolishly generous. To give his son his inheritance early means that the father would have to sell half his land to provide the cash for his younger son’s inheritance, and thus cut the family income in half. This means hardship for those who remain in the household—the father himself, the older son, a wife/mother, and any servants/slaves the household has. If the father in this parable reveals to us something about God, then this seems to say that God is a huge risk-taker, and is willing to be generous, even if it hurts God’s very self, and the rest of the members of the community. It also suggests that God is anything but a prudent control freak.
A third reflection on the parable is that it is, like many parables, open ended. The story is not done when we reach the last verse of the parable. The older son/brother has been invited by the father—but not commanded or forced—to welcome back his brother into the family. When the parable ends, we do not know what the older brother will decide to do. Will he forgive and welcome his brother back? Will he do so with true love and mercy, or grudgingly? To welcome the brother back will, of course, not be easy. It means that the household will have to feed and share with this wasteful one the half of the household’s wealth that remains. It means that the older brother will have to divide in half his inheritance, so that the younger brother can inherit as an equal son of the father. These are high stakes: emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and financially. What would you do?
A final word. If this parable is meant to illustrate how the community of Jesus’ disciples is supposed to be live, both in this life and in the life to come, then it sets a very high bar for the compassion, mercy, and generosity, not to mention the risk-taking and “imprudent” pouring out of resources (both financial and spiritual), that Jesus expects of the community of the church. I know I have much growth yet ahead of me if I am to live in the community of faith in this sort of way. Just as the story leaves open-ended what the older brother of the prodigal son will decide to do, so it is for us: how we will live in the community of faith with one another is always open-ended, calling us to decide—day in and day out—whether we will be generous with mercy, love, forgiveness, and the wealth of this world, or not.
The Jesus of Mercy on the Cross (Luke 23:32-43)
The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel speaks two words from the Cross that are unique to the Jesus of this Gospel. The first word is: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (23:34) Given our reflections just above about the parable of the Prodigal Son, it is stunning to notice that Jesus is just as extravagant in his forgiveness of those who are killing him as the father of the prodigal was to his younger son. As is the case throughout his life, Jesus does not simply teach about the way to live if one wants to be part of God’s kingdom way: he lives it. Just as the father of the prodigal has no guarantee that the younger son will change his ways, so Jesus has no way of knowing whether the executors he forgives will change their ways. And so in Jesus’ action here on the Cross we have the perfect illustration of one way of understanding what Christian theology has called the Atonement, the At-one-ment. Jesus pours out his love and forgiveness on those who are murdering him, though they have not asked for forgiveness and have not yet shown any sign of repentance. He makes himself one with them through mercy. The hope embedded in his action seems to be this: that his compassion and mercy will so overwhelm them, that they will be changed. That his love will be the first step in a new chain of being in the world: a chain of being where mercy calls forth mercy, forgiveness calls forth forgiveness, compassion calls forth compassion, love calls forth love. No coercion. No guarantee. Just a free and generous act, with hope that it will be the beginning of a change that will resurrect the world from the deathly spiral of hurt and revenge into a new and lasting way of life.
- Bill Rich
Questions for Reflection
1. What appeals to you about the “lost and found” parables? What is off-putting? Do any of these three parables have a transformative impact on your understanding and experience of God? Do you feel called to change anything about your way of living in response to these parables?
2. Does Jesus’ free act of forgiveness from the Cross seem wonderful and appealing to you, or imprudent and disturbing? Have you ever experienced forgiveness freely given by another that changed you in some way? If so, what did that person say/do, and how did it change you? Would it be true to say that new life came from that forgiveness?
"Prodigal Son" – James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
Your arm’s too short to box with God.
But Jesus spake in a parable, and he said:
A certain man had two sons.
Jesus didn’t give this man a name,
But his name is God Almighty.
And Jesus didn’t call these sons by name,
But ev’ry young man,
Is one of these two sons.
And the younger son said to his father,
He said: Father, divide up the property,
And give me my portion now.
And the father with tears in his eyes said: Son,
Don’t leave your father’s house.
But the boy was stubborn in his head,
And haughty in his heart,
And he took his share of his father’s goods,
And went into a far-off country.
There comes a time,
There comes a time
When ev’ry young man looks out from his father’s house,
Longing for that far-off country.
And the young man journeyed on his way,
And he said to himself as he travelled along:
This sure is an easy road,
Nothing like the rough furrows behind my father’s plow.
Smooth and easy is the road
That leads to hell and destruction.
Down grade all the way,
The further you travel, the faster you go.
No need to trudge and sweat and toil,
Just slip and slide and slip and slide
Till you bang up against hell’s iron gate.
And the younger son kept travelling along,
Till at night-time he came to a city.
And the city was bright in the night-time like day,
The streets all crowded with people,
Brass bands and string bands a-playing,
And ev’rywhere the young man turned
There was singing and laughing and dancing.
And he stopped a passer-by and he said:
Tell me what city is this?
And the passer-by laughed and said: Don’t you know?
This is Babylon, Babylon,
That great city of Babylon.
Come on, my friend, and go along with me.
And the young man joined the crowd.
You’re never lonesome in Babylon.
You can always join a crowd in Babylon.
You can never be alone in Babylon,
Alone with your Jesus in Babylon.
You can never find a place, a lonesome place,
A lonesome place to go down on your knees,
And talk with your God, in Babylon.
You’re always in a crowd in Babylon.
And the young man went with his new-found friend,
And bought himself some brand new clothes,
And he spent his days in the drinking dens,
Swallowing the fires of hell.
And he spent his nights in the gambling dens,
Throwing dice with the devil for his soul.
And he met up with the women of Babylon.
Oh, the women of Babylon!
Dressed in yellow and purple and scarlet,
Loaded with rings and earrings and bracelets,
Their lips like a honeycomb dripping with honey,
Perfumed and sweet-smelling like a jasmine flower;
And the jasmine smell of the Babylon women
Got in his nostrils and went to his head,
And he wasted his substance in riotous living,
In the evening, in the black and dark of night,
With the sweet-sinning women of Babylon.
And they stripped him of his money,
And they stripped him of his clothes,
And they left him broke and ragged
In the streets of Babylon.
Then the young man joined another crowd—
The beggars and lepers of Babylon.
And he went to feeding swine,
And he was hungrier than the hogs;
He got down on his belly in the mire and mud
And ate the husks with the hogs.
And not a hog was too low to turn up his nose
At the man in the mire of Babylon.
Then the young man came to himself—
He came to himself and said:
In my father’s house are many mansions,
Ev’ry servant in his house has bread to eat,
Ev’ry servant in his house has a place to sleep;
I will arise and go to my father.
And his father saw him afar off,
And he ran up the road to meet him.
He put clean clothes upon his back,
And a golden chain around his neck,
He made a feast and killed the fatted calf,
And invited the neighbors in.
When you’re mingling with the crowd in Babylon—
Drinking the wine of Babylon—
Running with the women of Babylon—
You forget about God, and you laugh at Death.
Today you’ve got the strength of a bull in your neck
And the strength of a bear in your arms,
But some o’ these days, some o’ these days,
You’ll have a hand-to-hand struggle with bony Death,
And Death is bound to win.
Young man, come away from Babylon,
That hell-border city of Babylon.
Leave the dancing and gambling of Babylon,
The wine and whiskey of Babylon,
The hot-mouthed women of Babylon;
Fall down on your knees,
And say in your heart:
I will arise and go to my Father.
"L’Enfant Prodigue" – Ballet Music by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
"The Return of the Prodigal Son" – Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) - See Above
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