Celebrate! The Lost is Found
Synopsis: Some religious leaders were accusing Jesus of hanging out with some dodgy characters. Relating to such people as objects of our evangelism or social concern is one thing but partying and eating with them indicates an unsavory social acceptance of them. Jesus counters with three parables of rejoicing and celebrating because the lost has been found. Like the prodigal son, perhaps we all need to leave home in order to find ourselves.
Jesus was hanging out with some dodgy characters and having too much fun. At least that’s what religiously uptight folks were accusing him of, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” To reach out to such people as objects of our evangelism or social concern is one thing. But to throw parties and have a good time with them is another matter altogether.
Biblical scholar Fred Craddock comments that what’s at issue is more than such people being in Jesus’ presence. What his accusers find inappropriate, unsavory, repulsive, socially disruptive, and in violation of true religion, is that he receives and welcomes them. Jesus is hosting them, eating and drinking with them, thereby indicating his full acceptance.
Jesus responded to this accusation by telling three parables or stories, all ending with extravagant parties and celebrations. The first story is about the shepherd who left the 99 to fend for themselves as he goes searching for the one sheep lost in the desert wilderness. What a risky, crazy thing to do! But he was successful and calls in all his friends and neighbors to help him celebrate. Likewise, the woman who lost one coin, obsessively swept and searched her house until she finally found it. She also threw a huge party and invited her friends and neighbors to help her celebrate. Really, a big party over one found coin? Are we beginning to detect a theme here?
The story of the prodigal son follows with a similar conclusion but let’s hold off on that for now. We have a problem understanding these stories because they’re so familiar and we think we know them. Nothing new here. But wait a minute. Why do we call them the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son when the focus in all three is on joining the celebration because the lost has been found? Come on, let’s celebrate!
Why do we, instead, focus on what’s lost? Furthermore, where do we place ourselves in the story? Do we identify with the person who’s searching? Do we identify with that which is lost—usually understood to be a sinner? Or do we identify with those celebrating. I assume we don’t consciously identify with the elder brother who’s offended by all the merrymaking. But, be honest! Isn’t that our default setting? We grumble because these people hardly ever show up for worship services. They’re off doing their own thing while we’re supporting the ministry of our church with our time and offerings. I’m working hard at running the farm and now we’re spending good money to throw a party for this vagabond. Fred Craddock explains:
Jesus invites even his critics to join him and all heaven in celebration of finding the lost. This joy, elaborated more fully in the party for the returned son, . . . is the heart of the gospel. Finding and restoring the lost gives pleasure to God as well as to all who are about God’s business. But this joy is also the offense of the gospel. Celebrating the recovery of a lost sheep? Yes. Celebrating the recovery of a lost coin? Yes. But throwing a party for the prodigal? Wouldn’t be better for him, a better witness to the neighbors, and even a better demonstration of the righteousness of God if he were taught a lesson he would never forget?
In this respect, it’s not the parable of the prodigal son but a story about a loving father who had two sons, the younger son who left home and the elder son who remained and inherited most of the family farm. According to Jewish law, the younger son was entitled to one-third of the inheritance and the elder son got two-thirds. The father showered love and generosity on both sons. My sense is that the father understood his sons better than they understood themselves. We can wonder why the younger son felt compelled to claim his inheritance and leave home. Was he a foolhardy, reckless, young man in search of a good time? Or were there things that made home unbearable and he needed to escape if he could ever hope to find himself? I suspect it was more the latter.
Commenting on this parable, Henri Nouwen says, “Leaving home is much closer to my spiritual experience than I might have thought.” Speaking personally, this makes me consider my spiritual journey and how much leaving home has been part of it. I’m the eldest son in my family but I’m the one who left home. I didn’t leave without a trace as the younger son in Jesus’ story, but I did give up the family farm and business because they felt like chains keeping me from further education and exploring new worlds. Now, looking back, I can see that I may have been a bit foolish yet I have few regrets.
More significantly, I left my extended family and the close-knit church that was the cradle in which I grew up. That was the more painful part and created lots of distress for my parents. One does not leave such a community without being wounded and wounding others in turn. I missed out on a lot in subsequent years. At my father’s funeral last year, I met cousins I now hardly knew; they looked so much like my memories of aunts and uncles when I was a small boy.
I find myself pondering the connection between leaving home and finding oneself. Did the elder son who never left home in Jesus’ parable ever find himself? Did he ever reconcile himself to his younger brother and to his father? We don’t know because that question is left hanging in the story. I’m not insinuating that one needs to physically leave one’s childhood home to find oneself. The opposite may be truer in our restless, individualistic society. Our society makes it easier to keep moving on to the next thing rather than doing the hard spiritual and relational work of finding oneself.
The younger son in Jesus’s story, knew what he had to do when he found himself and he began the long journey home. I wonder what kind of reception he expected. We’re given a hint in the words he rehearses on the way. He will say, “Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again. Treat me as one of your hired hands.”
Do churches also need to leave home to find themselves? If so, I wonder about what the celebration looks like when we find ourselves. Let’s admit it, we’re far from perfect and sometimes we’re a mess. Why do we put so much freight on planning and attending worship services? I have no doubt that worship is at the center of congregational life. Yet, may it be overrated?
There are many different ways of being church. This week at our Master Gardener’s class, Adria Bordas, our Fairfax County extension agent completely embarrassed me with her praise for our church. She was telling our big class of master gardeners about our wonderful church garden and how we share plots in it with neighbors and people from other churches.
She had come out earlier in the week with a local TV station as part of a report on gardening and took footage of me planting peas in the garden, which she showed to the whole class. Then she started talking about our two electric car charging stations and the electric solar panels on the church roof. As I begged her to stop, she told the class that she wanted to include one more thing. She proceeded to tell about the tool lending library in our church garden shed as people clapped and cheered. Maybe that’s a kind of celebration in heaven over one sinner that has come home. Too many churches are content to eat the tough pods that are meant for the pigs. Others get all self-righteous and offended by anything that challenges our settled sureties.
I have been a pastor long enough to know that no church is perfect. We all have our issues and we’re all on a journey. When I was a judgmental teenager, my Dad told me, “If you ever find a perfect church Earl, don’t join it because it won’t be perfect anymore.” That has stuck with me but I still expect a lot out of churches. I still expect us to find ourselves and I expect a joyous homecoming at the end of the journey—both for myself and the larger community of faith that I’m part of. That demands celebration. We call together friends and neighbors to throw a party and join in the joy of heaven over one sinner who has been found.
 Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation (Nashville: John Knox Press, 1990), 184.
 Ibid., 186.