Today’s chapter is very short, and all in red, indicating the words of Jesus. All red, that is, except for the usual prelude about who is listening and learning, and who is listening but not learning a thing.
The tax collectors and sinners are listening, presumably to learn. The Pharisees, again, are in a bit of a huff. Jesus hasn’t yet said an offensive word, but they are upset because the sinners are listening, and Jesus is even eating with them! And so Jesus keeps it simple. He uses three parables to show them all how valued they all are, the sinner, the tax collector and the Pharisee. All three tales are familiar to us, and all three, no doubt, strike a cord.
The first parable is about a sheep that has wandered away, alone, and become lost. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to search for that one that is lost until he finds it. He carries it tenderly on his shoulders back home, where he calls his friends together to celebrate with him.
The second lost thing is a misplaced silver coin. The woman who lost it sweeps and cleans every inch of her home until she finds it. She then, of course, picks up her phone and calls her friends, “I found it! Isn’t that wonderful! I’m so happy!”
Ah, but the third parable might be our favourite. The lost thing is a son. Nothing is more precious to parents than their children, and the loss of them, in any way, is hard to bear. But in this story, the loss came about, not by accident or sickness, but by choice. The boy wanted the blessing of the father but not the fellowship of the father.
We know how that played out. The father gave him his portion of the family wealth as an early inheritance, as his son requested. And his boy left home, on a long journey to a distant country, far away from dad and any expectations or restrictions he might have. And the father does not search for him.
Fast forward, past the squandering, the pigs, and the corn husks for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Fast forward to the journey home, when the boy plans what he’ll say to his father, “I have sinned against Heaven and before you. I am not worthy…but maybe just a servant?”
I hear, “I am worth nothing now, but could you please…?”
So the father replies, “I’ll think about it. I’ll take your proposal under advisement, or perhaps just keep an eye on you for a while, and then decide.”
Thank God the parable didn’t end that way! The father has been waiting and watching for him, it seems, for some time, because he saw him afar off, and ran to him! And hugged his neck! “Welcome home, my boy! I’ve missed you!”
I can’t help but think that, to the aged father, his return home with his beloved son felt something like this:
So beautiful a story for the tax collectors and sinners to hear!
The last part of that story sounds, to me, like an invitation to the Pharisees. The stay-at-home faithful son is angry at his father and his brother—the father whom he has served for many years, never transgressing his commands; the brother who broke his heart. To the father, the return of his lost one was enough to wash away any hurt, and brought joy that had to be celebrated with a party; but to this second son, the event felt like a slap in the face. We get the feeling he’s been pretty proud of his own performance for his father, and enjoyed his favoured position. Now he feels pushed aside.
I have to think the father’s tone was gentle as he said to the prodigal’s disgruntled brother, “Son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours. But it was fitting to be merry and glad, for this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found,”
Aren’t there lessons for us all in this chapter? While the first two parables focus on the heart and effort of the searchers, the last one tells of the lost one who must decide to return, of his own free will, and the Father who has to wait. Finally, it speaks of the faithful son, who must yet decide, of his own free will, to rejoice at his brother’s return.
And so it is Christmas.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life,” (John 3:16).