A lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son…The three parables Jesus tells in our gospel for this Sunday all hinge around the sense of someone or something being lost and the joy of their being found again. “He was lost, and has been found” declares the relieved father at the return of his wayward youngest son at the conclusion of these three stories of Jesus.
The value given to what was lost is shown by the degree and intensity of effort put into finding it, and the joy displayed when the lost is rediscovered. The shepherd in the first parable leaves ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and goes after the one lost sheep and when he finds it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices and returns home to celebrate. The woman in the second parable lights a lamp and sweeps the entire house to search for the missing coin, and when she has found it, calls together friends and neighbours for a party to celebrate. The father in the third parable leaves behind dignity and reputation to go out day after day to search for his lost son, and when he sees him afar off, runs to meet him and embrace him, then calls for a banquet to celebrate his return.
The parables are told by Jesus in response to the Pharisees and scribes outrage that Jesus “wastes” time and tarnishes his reputation hanging out with tax collectors and sinners, considered the “lowest of the low” of Jewish society. In each parable there are those who shake their head at the one who puts so much effort into finding and celebrating what was lost. The friends and neighbours of the shepherd, far from celebrating with him the return of his lost sheep, would have thought him stupid for leaving behind the other ninety-nine, as prey to lion and wolf in the wilderness. The friends and neighbours, far from rejoicing with the woman at the finding of her lost coin, would probably have thought she was making a lot of fuss over nothing – after all, she still had nine other coins, didn’t she? The elder brother, far from joining in the celebrations at his younger brother’s return, defiantly stands aloof, and rebukes his father for wasting money and emotion on his reprobate brother.
The final line of each parable speaks instead of the joy that is experienced in the heart of God whenever one of his children realizes the error of their ways and make their way back home to him. Jesus wants the Pharisees and scribes to understand that the heart of God is wide open to anyone who does so, and there is an implied rebuke of these religious authorities that their hearts are too “stony” to do the same. On which side do you stand?