Chapter 15 of Luke can be considered the ‘gospel within the Gospel’. Uninterruptedly, Lk narrates three parables of Jesus, all three dealing with the theme of God’s limitless mercy.
1. The Parable of the Lost Sheep (vv.3-7) - the shepherd, who ‘lost’ a sheep and ‘found’ it.
2. The Parable of the Lost Coin (vv.8-10) - the woman, who ‘lost’ a coin and ‘found’ it.
3. The Parable of the Lost Son (vv.11-32) - the Father, who ‘lost’ a son and ‘found’ him back.
All three parables have ‘lost’ and ‘found’ elements that include festivity and rejoicing. They are narrated in the context of table fellowship, when a group of Pharisees and scribes were criticizing Jesus for eating with the sinners and the outcasts. They took great offense at Jesus because he freely associated with the sinners and dealt with them generously. On the other hand, the Pharisees followed strict regulations of purity in order to keep away from the sinners, lest they would incur defilement. But for Jesus no one was excluded from God’s mercy and compassion. Hence, he characteristically answered their charges with the three parables that were drawn from everyday life.
The Hebrew Bible is filled with the imagery of God being the ‘Shepherd’ of Israel. Perhaps, every religious Jew knew well the Psalm 23 that read, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Moreover, Ezekiel’s fitting critique of Israel’s shepherds, who were self-centred and looked for their own well-being rather than their flock was contrasted with the way the Lord would shepherd Israel (Ez 34,1-16) in the prophetic literature: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak; and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice” (vv.15-16). Employing the metaphor of ‘shepherd’ from the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish pastoral life, Jesus illustrates the approach of the Father towards sinners and affirms divine mercy and compassion.
The shepherds normally count their sheep at the close of the day to ascertain all have returned home and accounted for. Since sheep by their very nature are very ‘social’, it is common that an isolated sheep from the herd can easily be lost or deserted. No shepherd, who is in charge of one hundred sheep, which either belongs to him or to his owner ever likes to lose his sheep, rather he takes great care not to lose one, for he knows that he is answerable to his owner, if any sheep disappears. In the parable, the love of the shepherd towards his lost sheep consists in the choice that he has to make, which appears to be irrational and illogical—leaving the ninety nine sheep in the desert to look for a missing one without any certainty that he would find the lost one, while risking the rest ninety nine. Looking for the lost one in the craggy hillsides of Palestine was and even today is not an easy task. Yet, the shepherd acts and consequently, his persistence pays off. He finds the lost sheep, lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. In the story, getting ‘lost’ is an act of the sheep, perhaps not a ‘conscious’ act; but searching and finding the ‘lost’ becomes evidently the ‘deliberate’ and ‘conscious’ act of the shepherd. So, such an act of ‘seeking’ and ‘finding’ certainly gives joy to the shepherd; it spills over to his friends and neighbors in great ‘rejoicing’. The shepherd’s grief and anxiety is thus turned into joy, when he finds the lost one and restores it to the fold.
This parable demonstrates that joyful God cannot rejoice at the loss of his own; rather his mercy culminates in search for the sinner or the lost one. He desires that all be saved and restored to fellowship with him. This does not mean that a person needs to be lost in order to be found or to be sought by God. However, when he or she does, God risks everything in order to find the lost one. Initiative comes from the Divine Shepherd. In other words, the grace for conversion and repentance comes from God and they are not the result or consequence of our human efforts.
The second parable narrates the diligent search of a woman for a lost drachma (silver coin) and the subsequent rejoicing when it is found. In biblical times, the ordinary houses in Palestine were cramped, with small door and windows, without sufficient light. Most likely, the floors were made up of cobblestones that could have made the fallen coin lost easily and the consequent search would become even more difficult. Upon losing a drachma, which is worth one denarii (one day’s worth of work), she lights a lamp and spends her energy sweeping and searching until it is found. Though the coin is of minimal value, much energy and the wholehearted effort for a meticulous search are put in by the woman to recover it. Once found, there begins the celebration with the friends and the neighbors. It is also possible that the original audience of this parable—the scribes and the Pharisees would have despised this parable, that presents God as searching and rejoicing like a woman—an image of God that could have been ‘scandalous’ in the patriarchal world of Jesus’ times.
This parable underscores that God knows the value of every human being. In the story, the coin is certainly an inanimate object and it wasn’t its fault that it got lost. Nevertheless, the woman searches carefully, with great dedication even that single coin, because it has value for her. Similarly, God’s mercy is aware of the worth of every human being that He has created. Even though he or she may be an individual and remain apparently without the ‘divine presence’, God cannot but take the trouble worth it, to look for the lost and having found it, rejoice. What confers real value to the coin is that it still belongs to its owner, and it is not lost in any dark corner. In the light of this chapter, one can easily discern that the coin is as precious to the woman who diligently searched for it as the sheep is to the shepherd and a son to the father. So every human being is to God.
This parable is known by several titles: the parable of the prodigal son, the parable of the merciful father, the parable of the two alienated sons, etc. There are three characters in the story with three different perspectives. What did each one ‘lose’ and ‘find’ in this story?
It all begins with the outrageous request of the younger son, asking the father to grant him his share of the property. To ask for the share of the estate, while one’s father was alive was highly shameful, as if the younger son wanted to say to his father, “I wish you were dead”. The text does not even suggest that the elder brother, on his part did anything to intervene or to help reconcile. Father ‘lost’ the son; while the son ‘found’ his share, but ‘lost’ the father.
Having “squandered his property” in a pagan nation (perhaps, gentile territory), as no Jewish household would risk raising pigs, the younger son ‘came to his senses’. He remembered who he is and realized his worth. However, continuing to be interested only in himself and his immediate needs (food, shelter etc.) out of his destitution, he prepared and rehearsed his words of repentance: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired servants” (vv.18-19). As he returned home, father who had never given up hope on his son, reacted to his son’s homecoming in a very strange way, but overflowing with love and tenderness: “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (v.20). The father ran to welcome his son—a rare act, as no dignified elderly person perhaps runs in any culture. Overwhelmed at his son’s return, the father didn’t even allow him to finish his prepared speech, rather he restored his status of sonship and the lost dignity. On the level of human logic, the lost son had forfeited his right to expect any kindness from his father and he could have been easily turned away, but the boundless love of the Father did not keep account of his son’s wrongdoing. So, he lavished his son with generous and kind gestures: kissing his son shows that the father welcomes him back totally; putting shoes on his feet shows that he forgives him unconditionally (shoes were the sign of a free person; while bare feet the sign of a slave); and putting a ring on his son’s finger shows that he restores him to full family status with authority.
When the father ‘finds’ the son and the son ‘finds’ the father, the other son gets ‘lost’. The elder son was indignant with his father that he was celebrating the ‘finding’ of his brother that he refused to enter the house. The irony of the story is that although the elder son returned to the house everyday after his work, he was never at ‘home’ at all. Not only the younger son got lost in a pagan territory, but the one who worked and stayed at home too was lost. He, who thought himself as a slave to his father was no different from his brother, who wanted to be a hired servant at his return. Therefore, the mercy of the father lies in restoring the sonship of his sons. Both need reconciliation, healing and forgiveness as well as the embrace of the father. One felt the embrace of the father, while the other one, the parable does not tell us whether he entered the house and brought joy to his father. The story of the elder son thus remains unfinished, Notwithstanding, the climax of the parable focuses on father’s boundless mercy and love and not on human response: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (v.31).
This parable invites and challenges us to see our human relationships in a completely new and radical perspective—to see as God sees. If God sees with the eyes of mercy, we too are invited to see the world with the eyes of mercy. The perspective of the father reinforces this perspective.
a) The generous story of the merciful father teaches us that God is never tired of forgiving. He waits for us to return home.
b) The embarrassing story of the younger son offers hope to us who feel that God will never forgive us at all, because of our waywardness.
c) The resentful story of the elder son brings home the message that God never sees us as his servants rather his loving children. He has no favorites. “All that is mine is yours.”
Naveen Rebello, SVD