The lost boy
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
There's an old joke about a man who robbed a liquor store and was sent to prison. On his first day there he was sitting in the dining hall at lunch and suddenly a man stood up and shouted "37!" And everybody laughed. After a while another man stood up and shouted "52!" And everybody chuckled and smiled. After a few more minutes somebody else stood and yelled "86!" And again, everyone laughed. The new guy leaned over toward the man across from him and said, "What's going on? Why is everyone laughing at those numbers?"
The man said, "It's like this. There are only a hundred or so jokes in the world, and in here you hear them all. We decided to save time and give them numbers." Wishing to fit in and win friends, the new convict decided to give it a try. "17!" he yelled out. Nobody laughed, nobody looked at him. Finally he sat down, mystified. "What happened?" he asked his new friend. The man shrugged and said, "Oh, some people know how to tell a joke, and some people don't."
There are certain stories in the Bible that are like numbered jokes. As a preacher, one feels all one needs do is stand up and say, feelingly, "The Good Samaritan," or "The Widow's Mite," or today's Gospel lesson "The Prodigal Son," and then nothing else need be said; the story is so familiar that it is difficult to find anything new or interesting to say.
Or perhaps the problem is that we, as listeners, think we know what it means; so we really quit listening while the Gospel lesson is being read, the way we quit listening to someone tell a joke when we've already heard it. And when we stop listening, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to let the Holy Spirit teach us something new.
It is a familiar story, isn't it? At one level, it works as a heart-warming story of a father's love. At another level, it is a parable or allegory about God's love. And at a still different level, it is an accusation against some people then and some people now who are less than loving. And at an even more important level it is a call to us to expand the horizons of our witness to the world about the love of God.
As our story opens, Jesus is being watched and his behavior judged. "Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, -- This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'" (vs.1-3)
Instead of arguing with them, or yelling at them, or ignoring them, Jesus did what he usually did; he smiled and told them a story, which is what you should always do when children get mean and spiteful and need a nap. Actually, he told them three stories, of which the Prodigal Son is the third. The other two are the Story of the Lost Sheep and the Story of the Lost Coin. We probably should call this the Story of the Lost Boy. In each of these stories Jesus sets out to show the judgmental people that God is nothing like they have imagined. God is not harsh and distant, a fierce and holy deity for whom justice is more important than mercy.
The God revealed in the three stories in Luke 15 is like a shepherd who wanders around all night to find one lost sheep, or like a woman who sweeps and cleans and searches her house to find a lost coin, or like an old man who sits on the porch, straining his eyes as he stares down the road to the mailbox, hoping against hope to catch a glimpse of a lost boy.
The message is pretty clear -- Jesus says God is unwilling to lose anyone. Whereas some would blame the sheep for straying from the fold, Jesus says that God is out and about in the world, searching for us in order to bestow blessings on us; whereas some are willing to leave hidden those who get lost in the shuffle of life, unable to shine forth, Jesus says God is like a woman who searches and searches until she finds that coin, that talent, that hidden shy one, and brings it forth and shows it off.
And while some have no use for human beings who waste their potential, who squander their God-given talents on selfish and narcissistic pleasures, Jesus says God is like a loving parent, who welcomes us home, indeed who yearns and aches for us to come home, and who celebrates wildly when we get there. A common thread running through all these stories is a note of happiness, of joy, of celebration.
The Lost Sheep. Rejoice with me! I have found my lost sheep! And Jesus comments, "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who do not need to repent."
The Lost Coin. Rejoice with me! I have found the coin that I lost! And Jesus says, "In the same way there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents."
The Lost Boy. Here we have the most elaborate and festive joy and celebration yet. Robes and rings and shoes and fatted calves and a band and whatever else Abba could think of to celebrate with.
And then there's the elder brother, a factor we often overlook, and which, I think, is the whole point of the story, indeed of all the stories. The elder brother looks on and begins to resent the attention given to the younger brother. He is jealous and angry and for good reason: "I've been good and you never gave me a party. He's been really, really bad, and you give him a feast. It's not fair!"
Remember, Jesus told these stories to those who complained about his habit of hanging out with sinners. In telling these stories, Jesus is reminding them that God loves all God's creatures and God's greatest joy is when someone wakes up, comes to a moment of self-awareness and begins to get their life and love and spirit in order.
It is interesting to note that in the stories of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, we read about the invitation to party, but we don't know if the neighbors came. And in the Story of the Lost Boy, the party takes place, but we don't know if the elder brother came. It is left like that for a reason, because these stories are an invitation to us, and the ending depends on us; how will we respond? Will we go to the party?
These stories invite us to be kind and loving and accepting of other people. They are a reminder to be diligent in seeking out those who are far from God. They are a call to never give up on those in need.
These stories ask us to look at ourselves, to examine our hearts and see what inner resentments, abandoned hopes, unmet needs, petty jealousies and long-harbored hatreds are keeping us standing outside the tent of joy, preventing us from showing to others the love God has shown to us.
And most of all, these stories remind us to never give up when we feel lost in the universe for God is always out there looking for us. God has the broom out, sweeping every nook and cranny in search of us. God is ready to run to meet us and welcome us home.
Amen and Amen!
• Can you think of a time that you stayed away from the party?
• Examine your heart; what is keeping you outside the tent of joy?
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.
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