Have you ever been lost? It is a truly frightening feeling! While running on some trails at a recent clergy retreat in North Carolina, I realized that I had lost my way. For just a moment, I felt a bit panicked: there I was, lost in the woods, and no one knew where I was. In Alaska, we were reminded to always tell someone where you were hiking, and now, here I was, wherever I was. My husband, Patrick, who grew up in the outdoors of New Mexico, tells a story of when his father and he got lost while out hiking. They stood together beneath a tree, and his father told Patrick, “Son, we’re not lost. We just don’t know where we are!”.
The idea of being “lost” held special meaning for the people of ancient Israel. Upon this meaning, the three parables in Luke 15 are built. The prophet Jeremiah exemplifies some of that meaning, as a person who had lost everything, and yet who survived. This survival, as a person and as a people, occupies the thoughts of those “hearing his voice”. The people had been exiled after separated factions in their country caused the entire nation to fall to the Babylonians. Their entire life was in turmoil and upheaval: even as they returned to Israel, they were still in many ways “lost”. To be lost is more than losing one’s way – we can also lose our life; lose our purpose; lose our joy and our identity. Have you ever felt “lost” in that way? In those cases, it is much more difficult to find your way back.
For the prophet Jeremiah, the people were lost because they had been led astray. In Chapter 50, verse 6 of Jeremiah, God says of them, “My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold”. For even though they had returned to their homeland, they still needed to find their way back to meaning and to hopefulness.
The meaning of the parables in Luke 15 becomes clearer when you read all three of them together; one of the structures used in this literary form is the “rule of three”. Lessons are more complete – and sometimes even comical – when they are exemplified three times! This section of the chapter begins with the story of the lost sheep, then the woman’s lost coin, and ends with the prodigal son. All three of the stories are about something, or someone, who was lost and then found.
The Jewish context for these parables also sets the stage for the lessons. Even the word “grumbling” done by the Pharisees and scribes harkens back to the Israelites “grumbling” against Moses in the desert. The idea of “sinners” must also be understood in terms of ancient Judaism: a sinner would have been someone who lived outside of the cultic practices of the day, who acted against the law of the Torah. Through his teachings with these parables, we find Jesus, once again, turning things upside town and inside out; Jesus redefines sin by getting to the heart of the Torah.
For Jesus, sin is not simply a matter of following the rules, but of loving God; not a matter of excluding someone for their mistakes, but of including them in the celebration when they find their way. Celebration is central to all three of the stories: both the shepherd and the woman rejoice with their friends and neighbors when they find what they’ve lost, and they party! The Gospel of Luke focuses often on what is called the “Messianic Banquet”: there are eight times in that Gospel when Jesus is eating at table while talking about the Kingdom of God. This banquet would have been understood by ancient people as the banquet eaten with the Messiah – the liberator of the people.
Our class on parables today (will) explore(ed) the social historical perspective into which Jesus would have spoken these parables. Not only would those listening have understood the term “lost” in terms of the exile, but they might also have understood the Celebration in terms of the year of Jubilee. As the redeemer of the people, Jesus’ reign would announce this festival year, when those who were poor of body and spirit would be filled, and those who owed debts would have their debts forgiven, and those seen as outcasts and “sinners” would once more be welcomed to the Table. In searching for the lost, Jesus looks broadly, even on the margins of society, and finds value in each and every “sheep”, each life, each son and daughter of the living God.
Because the people were suffering, and longed to be found: they were longing to find their meaning, to be heard and seen, to be discovered and to discover God again. And Jesus included everyone in his banquet! Men and women: notice that the parallel stories from today focus specifically on a man (shepherds would have been men), and on a woman, whose earnings, being half of what was earned by a man, were twice as dear to her life! No wonder she and her friends wanted to celebrate! Everyone is called to share in the joy of Jesus’ celebration, to celebrate their life that, once lost, has been found.
Another important aspect of the parables was participation: those listening would have taken part in a dialogue, and been asked to consider what actions they would take based upon what they learned. In a way, the Prodigal Son is a “real lie” response to the other two parables. And so, for us, today, how will we respond? In what ways have we, as individuals and a congregation, perhaps lost the heart of our following God? How can we respond to God’s Word with new eyes, with new Spirits? And for those in our world, in our community, those who long to be found, and themselves to find new meaning, new purpose, how can we welcome them here, to Jesus’ banquet table? Where can we shine our light – not only on “the hill” – to speak hope and welcome to all of God’s people? Because the best part about being lost is how great it feels to be found, and to find Christ in one another. And let all of God’s sheep say together, AMEN!