In today's parables,
have gone their own away, much to the consternation of those who value their presence. They are the "wanderers," those who explore life on their own terms, leaving the sheepfold, rolling out of money bag or pocket, and abandoning home and family. In today's church,
have also gone their own way, not so much out of willfulness but because they have been shocked, scandalized and even abused. Their "wandering" is not accidental but conscious: some never belonged to the church in the first place because their parents wandered away before them; others have given up on faith -- even on God-- because of institutionalized sexism, racism, homophobia, or because of the revelations about heinous clerical and religious misconduct. Whether these revelations have to do with the ever-growing list of pedophiles, or with the list of bishops who covered up crimes and intimidated victims, or with the still emerging chronicles of abuse in homes for single mothers and orphanages, the outcome has been the same: a mass exodus from our churches, especially by Gen X, Millennials and now iGen.
The Christian response?
To search for the alienated, the forsaken and the "unchurched" so as to give them solid reasons for "coming home." It's not enough to extend a
"Come Home for Christmas!"
message; rather, we need to be a reformed church, a penitent church, an all-inclusive church that truly mirrors the welcoming embrace of Jesus.
So he told them this parable:
“Who among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon arriving home, calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’
I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance."
When the scribes and pharisees are shocked by Jesus' unsavory table fellowship, he is quick to point out their hypocrisy. In quick succession, he presents three striking parables --
The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and the Lost Son.
In each case, "something" goes astray and in each case, that "something" is precious whether it is a sheep, a coin or a son. There are additional similarities. Though one sheep wanders off, there are ninety-nine other sheep who have dutifully followed the shepherd; though one coin rolls away, nine other coins remain in their owner's pocket; and while one son leaves home to squander his inheritance on loose living, there is another son who is the model of righteousness. Furthermore, the shepherd, the woman and the father are unwilling to count their losses and turn their attention to the good things still in their possession -- the ninety-nine sheep, the nine coins and the upright son. In fact, the shepherd and the woman search ceaselessly for that which is missing, while the father, consumed with grief. waits day after day for the younger son to return. When that which is lost is found, there is great rejoicing, a gathering of friends and neighbors to celebrate. The twist to the
Parable of the Lost Son
is that the older brother feels "hard done by"; his response to his brother's return is to become jealous and to sulk and complain.
How did the scribes and Pharisees interpret these three stories? Did they identify with the ninety-nine docile sheep, the nine pocketed coins and the upright son who toiled obediently in his father's fields? Could they dare to imagine that the shepherd, the woman and the father might somehow represent God? Or that the willful sheep, the errant coin or the immoral son might be precious in God's sight? Or -- taking this one step further-- that God might actually be more interested in bringing home the lost than in paying attention to those already in the fold (or pocket, or home)? Could they make the connection between the tax collectors and sinners in Jesus' company and lost sheep, lost coins and lost sons? Could they, even if briefly, recognize their own need for conversion or for a return home? Was their concept of God "big" enough to explain the great rejoicing that is key to interpreting each parable?
More importantly, how do these parables affect us? What do they mirror about our life choices, our self concept or our understanding of Divine Love? Ninety-nine sheep wait restlessly for the shepherd's return; nine coins jangle in their owner's pocket, waiting to be counted; one older brother refuses to dance, begrudging the killing of the fattened calf -- what about us? If we consider ourselves "saved," then why are we still home instead of joining in God's search for the lost and forsaken? And if we profess to love God, then what are we doing to comfort the Divine Heart which longs unceasingly for prodigal sons and daughters to come home?