(sermon note: 03-07 sermon note)
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”’
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a lady who had lost her handbag in the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping. After a few days, it was eventually found by an honest little boy and returned to her. While looking in her purse, the lady commented, “Hmmm… that’s funny. When I lost my bag there was a $20 bill in it. Now there are twenty $1 bills.” The boy quickly replied, “That’s right, lady. The last time I found a lady’s purse, she didn’t have any change for a reward.”
Clever little boy…makes you wonder if finding lost purses was that boy’s side hustle. I suppose better him than someone else who wouldn’t bother returning the purse at all, let alone with all its contents. Can’t fault him for seeking a reward, be it big or small.
Not that any of the lost items in the three parables of today’s reading had any type of a reward offered for them either. The sheep, the coin, and the boy all went missing and no one offered a reward for their safe return. And yet they were all returned to their “owners,” some through persistent searching and one from sheer happenstance. Of course, we can’t necessarily consider the boy’s father to be his “owner,” more of a manager or steward. God blesses parents with children to manage and steward in this world. He never quite relinquishes ownership of those He creates. He is and will always be the true owner of us all and we’d be fools to believe we are the “owners” of anyone. Come to think of it, “ownership” is a rather ambiguous concept. Do any of us “own” our money or our belongings, i.e. sheep? Aren’t we simply stewards of all that we’ve been blessed with? Money and belongings are entrusted to us to be put to use and managed. Nothing really belongs to us, it all belongs to God who created it all. God is the one, true owner of that is! Nevertheless, the three lost items from the three parables somehow managed to make it back to their stewards, if not owners, without a reward being offered. Yet in all three instances, rewards were given for their safe return. Their returns were cause for great celebration which in turn required some degree of sacrifice, much the same way a reward requires.
And it’s interesting to note the contrast between how the three items were returned. The stewards of the sheep and the coin reclaimed their lost items only after diligent searching. In sharp contrast, the boy’s father wasn’t out searching for him. Indeed, he had given the boy both his inheritance and a blessing and sent him on his way. The father was neither searching nor expecting his son to return. And yet the son returned. Two distinctively different approaches to reclaiming lost items. Which begs the question: which is the better of the approaches-to seek or to wait? Are we to diligently seek out the items we lose or patiently wait for them to find their way back to us? It’s hard not to seek and it’s equally hard to be patient. The older I get, the better I become at being patient but that doesn’t mean I won’t search a little for whatever it is I’ve lost. I mean come on…it could take a long time for something to find its way back to me on its own! And I have a limited amount of time in this world too! I can’t be waiting forever! Not like God can! God has all the time in the world to wait patiently for lost items to find their way back to him. That’s why He’s God and I am me! But both approaches produce the same result: the lost items are found. And that’s ultimately what really matters, the lost items are invariably found either through searching or waiting. Who are we to say which approach is better? God gives us both approaches, each with its own pros and cons, and for that we are blessed. The approach isn’t as important as the end result of being found.
In all things, God gives us options. Our God is a generous God who likes to give a variety of options in any given situation. When we hear the three parables, it’s easy to praise the stewards of the sheep and the coin for their diligent searching and criticize the father for giving the inheritance to his son and letting him squander it in dissolute living. It’s easy to criticize the father for not seeking out his wayward son. But we don’t know the full story either. Maybe the son needed to leave his father’s home to get away from his oppressive older brother. Maybe he needed to find his identity and purpose away from his brother and father. Maybe the father knew the son would return all along and wanted to teach the older son a lesson. We just don’t know the full story so we mustn’t be too quick to either praise or criticize the actions of the father and his sons. God presents a multitude of options and knows the hearts of us all. He knows what is good for each of us and He knows how to grow each of us.
Heaven knows the younger son grew a whole lot in his adventures! He grew in his understanding of the ways of the world and the importance of responsible living. We all learn in one way or another how to be responsible beings of this world. If we don’t, then God takes us out of this world! Perhaps the most important lesson to learn on the path to responsibility is the lesson of humility. That son had a turning point in his adventures when he was eating the same scraps as those of the pigs. His dissolute, irresponsible living landed him there, living among the pigs. What a sorrowful place to end up! But it was there that he learned the importance of humility. He knew he needed to live more humbly if he was going to live at all. Remember, everything is God’s and we are mere stewards of whatever it is He blesses us with. And God rewards the humble. Recall the wisdom of Proverbs that says, “the reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.” (22:4) Though riches and honor are nice, it is the life of that reward that is most significant! God rewards the humble with LIFE! Do we not see this with the son who returns and humbles himself before the father?! He reclaims his lost life! The book of James says, “humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you.” (4:10) God lifts up the humble, the penitent, the meek. God raises them up to rich, honorable living. David writes in his 25th psalm, “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” Oh, what a blessing to be led and taught by our God! Our God is a good and generous and loving God…who better to be led by and taught from than him?!
The three parables teach us that God gives up options in life. They also teach us that the different approaches to being found are ultimately not as important as simply being found. And finally, they teach us that on the path to being found is invariably the lesson of humility. Three parables, three lessons…gotta love the humber, three in this faith of ours! Perhaps more importantly, we gotta give thanks for all the wisdom Jesus gave to us. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.