Thursday, April 12, 2007

Lost and Found

It was a couple of decades ago at least when I heard an interesting interpretation of the three "lost and found" parables in Luke 15. They appear in today's New Testament reading, so I thought I'd tell you about it. Rather than posting the whole chapter here, though, I thought I'd give the beginning and the end of the chapter, and a few key verses in between.
1Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3Then Jesus told them this parable:
... (story of the shepherd who finds his lost sheep)
6...Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' 7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
... (story of the woman who finds her lost coin)
9And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' 10In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
... (story of the father who celebrates when his prodigal son returns)
28"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. ...
31"'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "
from Luke 15
So Luke tells us about these parables immediately after he tells us that the religious leaders were speaking contemptuously about Jesus and his tacky (so they thought) friends. I noticed this time that verse 3 says Jesus told them "this parable", not "these parables." And from looking at the three vignettes, it looks like they're trying to convey the same point. Finally, notice the parallel between the Pharisees' attitudes and the attitude of the older brother in verse 28.

OK, so what are the parables about? Is it all about repentance? Well, no. The coin didn't repent; that's not what coins do. The sheep didn't repent; the shepherd had to find it.

Is it about sinners? Nope. The coin isn't a sinner; that's not what coins do. The sheep isn't a sinner; wandering off is what sheep do.

What's in all three stories here is that something was lost (by nature, accident, or rebellion), it's recovered, and the shepherd/owner/father rejoices. And part of what it means to be someone's friend is that when they're happy, you rejoice with them.

Do I want to be God's friend? Then I should rejoice with him when he's happy. There is rejoicing in heaven, Jesus says, when a sinner repents. There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels when a sinner repents. But in the presence of the Pharisees? There is only sneering. They are like the older brother in the last vignette, refusing to celebrate with the father.

"You Pharisees and teachers of the law are no friends of God," Jesus could just as well have said. Which he actually did -- but in a parable. Living thousands of miles away and thousands of years later, this kind of communication isn't nearly as obvious to us as it was to Jesus's hearers.

What can I take from this parable? One takeaway is what the Pharisees should have gotten from this: If something makes God happy, why doesn't it make me happy? Why don't I rejoice at the things that cause God to rejoice?

Another is to look at the two sons -- the older "goody-goody" who really doesn't know and appreciate his father at all, and the younger "prodigal" who also doesn't know or appreciate his father. These are two ways of making the same error (viz., misunderstanding God) -- and the error should be avoided in any case.

How can I know if I'm missing the point with God? I think one way to tell is to take my temperature when I think about God. Do I get a warm feeling, like I have when I visit my parents, knowing that they enjoy seeing me, that they love to give me good things and for me to share my life with them? Or is it the feeling I get when I see flashing red and blue lights in the rear-view mirror?

And when I'm annoyed with something or someone... I can ask myself how this looks through God's eyes. Most of the time -- not all -- my annoyance isn't well-founded, and asking the question changes my perspective.

May God help me -- help us -- to think correctly about him, to agree with him, to see others according to what we know of how he sees them.

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