God’s Lost and Found: feeding pigs or home at a party

Scripture: Luke 15: 1-32

God’s Lost and Found area must be very different from the one at the school where Michelle and I go square dancing. The school’s Lost and Found is a long row of hooks in the main corridor. They start off empty each Fall. By now, every hook is overflowing with unclaimed clothing, from gloves and mittens to coats and snow pants. Clothing is now so cheap and disposable that I assume that the parents exert little pressure for the kids to look for missing items. They just go out and buy new.  No consequences.

It made me think of the contrast with the nursery rhyme about the three little kittens who lost their mittens. They couldn’t have their pie until they found the mittens again.

Three little kittens lost their mittens, and they began to cry,
Oh, mother dear, we sadly fear our mittens we have lost
What? Lost your mittens, you naughty kittens!  Then you shall have no pie.

The three little kittens found their mittens, and they began to smile,
Oh, mother dear, see here, see here, our mittens we have found
What? Found your mittens, then you’re good kittens, so you shall have some pie.

Three parables about God’s Lost and Found

Luke recounts three parables that Jesus told about things lost and then found – a sheep, a coin, and a son. They all seem similar – something valuable was lost, and there was much rejoicing when it was found. The first two represent worldly wealth. A shepherd lost one of his 100 sheep; a widow lost one of her ten silver coins. Jesus then compared something owned that was found (sheep or money) with a soul. He said that heaven will rejoice more over one sinner who repents than over all those who were not sinners and did not need repentance.

Jesus’ stories were parables, not real life, so they exaggerate. Would a shepherd really leave 99 sheep unprotected on the hillside, and go off to look for one that was missing? He might return to find the whole flock scattered. Would a widow really blow the value of the coin she had lost then found to throw a party for the neighbours? Don’t nit-pick. The point of these stories is God’s joy when a lost soul returns.

Something even more precious – a lost son

Sunday School interpretations of this story simply liken it to the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. God is the father in the story. The younger son represents sinners, people like us. We go off, figuratively, to the far-off land, and don’t give God a thought. One day, spiritually and emotionally bankrupt, we bottom out. So we turn back to God, our Father. God welcomes us back with open arms. It’s all nice and cuddly.

Perhaps in an extension of the story, all our lapsed Anglicans realize that they have become spiritually bankrupt. They all come back to St. George’s, and we welcome them home with our version of the fatted calf – extra cake and cookies after the service. Dream on.

We are not Jewish. So it is hard to imagine the shameful situation of the younger son. He had to take a job tending pigs. That made him ritually unclean, like the pigs. All his fellow Jews would have shunned him. He had shamed the whole family. So when he went home, he could only hope for some menial job on his father’s estate. But when he arrived, his father was simply glad that he was home safely. He ignored the shame that his son had brought on the family, and threw a party.

The Sunday School interpretation gives no role to the older brother

The older brother is the stereotype of a dutiful first-born. He didn’t get any party. He just busted his buns working on the family homestead. No wonder he felt resentful. It’s bad enough that Dad threw a party for his spoiled brother. He felt worse when Dad soft soaped him by saying that he’s always had the security of home and that he still has his share of the inheritance coming to him.  For all he knows, Dad will change his will and cut his younger brother in again. In that next interpretation of this parable, the older brother gets criticized for being petty and complaining. Yet from his point of view, life seems unfair.

Don’t make God’s Lost and Found all about what has been lost

We usually call our three parables lost sheep, coins and sons.  That makes God’s “Lost and Found” all about what has been lost, like the lost clothing at the local school. I began Lent by saying that we must look for the good news of the Gospel even in this season. We have to turn our theological telescopes round to see the good news. Then our parables become about found sheep, coins, and sons. Jesus says that the shepherd looked for the missing sheep until he found it. The woman searched for her coin until she found it. The father rejoiced because his son returned home. He had probably searched for news about his son and worried that he was dead. In the words of the parable, “He was dead and came to life …” Jesus tells us that those who find God become alive spiritually.

In this third interpretation, Luke wants us to view the parable in terms of finding abundance – God’s abundant grace – rather than loss and scarcity. Abundant grace allows God to throw a spiritual party when the sinner, the wanderer, returns and becomes spiritually alive again. Luke leaves the story hanging, so we don’t know whether the older son understood what his father was saying.  We don’t know whether he decided to join the party after all.

There are mothers as well as fathers in God’s Lost and Found

Only Luke tells the parables of the found coin and the found son. Matthew gives the story of the sheep and the shepherd, but his version focuses on the loss. Matthew imagines that there’s rejoicing in God’s Lost and Found area only if the sheep is found. For Luke, it isn’t if it’s found, but when.

Jesus (or Luke) juxtaposes stories about a male shepherd and a female widow. But the parable of the found son is very male-oriented. The three characters are all men.  They behave in very masculine ways. I can identify easily with all of them. The younger son wanted to make his mark in the world, even though he failed. The older son sulked when his playboy brother got the royal treatment. Dad’s reaction to his son’s return was, “Let’s have a party! Kill the fatted calf!” All very male.

That made me wonder what the mother of the two boys might have thought. She’s not mentioned in the parable.  I also remembered a newspaper story from several years ago, that stuck in my mind. A young Indigenous woman had disappeared on the streets of Vancouver. Her mother said that all she wanted was for her daughter to return home.

A brave admission to make publicly

The daughter had left home to find fame and fortune. She had brought shame on the family by becoming a prostitute, just like the Prodigal Son brought shame on himself and his family by having to tend the pigs. The young woman’s mother simply wanted was to have her daughter back. Unlike the father in the parable, she did not plan to kill a fatted calf or have a great big party. Just let me have my daughter home and safe.  That would be enough.

Which brings me back to the Sunday School interpretation of the parable. The father of the parable portrays a very masculine face of God. But God is Mother to us as well as Father. I see the Mother side of God welcoming both prodigal sons and daughters home with tears of joy streaming down her face – equally welcoming, but with a different way of showing it.