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One is Lost/One is Found/One Celebrates



There are three parables which deserve to be explored as a trio. Jesus was no stranger to this rule of three in which the first two somethings anticipate the third something.

So, there are three parables which deserve to be explored as a trio.


In the first, there’s this shepherd. He has one hundred sheep. One goes missing. Now, that a shepherd would notice one sheep missing from one hundred establishes the exaggerated tone of our first tale. Maybe Jesus was teaching in the south when he offered this parable. I don’t know. Suffice it to say that it seems fantastical that a shepherd would notice one sheep missing from one hundred. He must have a reason.

So, one goes missing and the shepherd embarks upon a search for the one. Some have questioned the wisdom of our shepherd, suggesting that the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine for the one may well end up with the one. Nonetheless, upon finding the one, he puts it on his shoulders (modern shepherds suggest this to be easier said than done) he puts it on his shoulders, returns home and calls his neighbors to a grand celebration.


Now, the gospel writers add their own agendas and interpretations to these parables, of course, sometimes as preludes, sometimes as postludes, but that’s the functional end of what I imagine Jesus himself to have taught.


One is lost. One is found. One celebrates.


In the second, a woman loses a coin. For her, it was one coin missing from ten. Now, one coin missing from ten might be easier to spot than one sheep missing from one hundred, but she probably still had to count to be sure. Nine coins? Ten coins? By looking, who knows? And yet it’s certainly less fantastical, really.

Again, she launches something of a dramatic effort. She lights the lamp. She sweeps the floor. She searches the home. And, like our shepherd in the first parable, she finds the coin. And she calls her neighbors to a grand celebration.


We might imagine her to have gone door to door, waving her silver piece and shouting, “I’ve found my coin. We’re gonna party like it’s 19__.”


In the end, one is lost. One is found. One celebrates.


Now, even at this early juncture, I would caution us from twisting these tales into allegories (tidy, Christian allegories, sometimes even antisemitic allegories) in which the Shepherd becomes Jesus, the lost sheep becomes the wayward sinner and the flock becomes the Christian church, as one example. Jesus wouldn’t have suggested anything like this, and 1st Century Jews certainly wouldn’t have interpreted anything like this.


For 1st Century Jews, the shepherd would have been a shepherd. The sheep would have been a sheep. The flock would have been a flock. Now, that’s not to say that Jesus wasn’t making a point. It’s simply to say that the point he was making wasn’t the point the Christian church often puts in his mouth.


And for the third in our stories, a man has two sons. Now, with two sons, the subject of our story no longer has to count. If you have two sons and one goes missing, you know one is missing without pulling out your fingers or clicking away on your abacus. In fact, if you have two sons and one goes missing, it would be absurd for the subject not to notice.


You already know the story. The man has two sons. The younger requests his inheritance. The father grants his wish (giving him not only a third as Jewish custom might have suggested for the younger, but half, effectively giving the younger some of the elder’s share – ouch) the father grants his wish at which point the younger leaves for a life of debauchery among the gentiles.


Now, of itself, the fact that the younger leaves for a life among the gentiles isn’t a big deal. It’s likely that more 1st century Jews lived among gentiles than lived among Jews. So, that point wouldn’t have been significant to the original listeners of this tale. The younger leaves for a life of debauchery among the gentiles, a famine hits, relegating him to laboring on a pig farm, seemingly with no support from anyone.


Now, this is the very definition of prodigal, you see. For while prodigal has assumed the connotation of one who leaves and returns, it actually means one who lives for self. To be deemed a prodigal is not a compliment, you see. In fact, one tidy container for the 1st century concept of sin is one who lives for self in direct opposition to the high Jewish dictate to love neighbor as self. One tidy container for the 1st century concept of sin is selfishness.


The younger was deemed prodigal because the younger lived for himself. He was a problem child.


The younger leaves for debauchery among the gentiles, a famine hits, relegating him to laboring on a pig farm, seemingly with no support from anyone at which point he “came to himself,” and returned home to his father’s warm embrace.


Now, while modern Christians have come to read this “coming to himself” as an awakening to his higher nature (ah, he saw the error of his hedonistic ways), scholars including Amy-Jill Levine and Dr. Richard Loren Held suggest otherwise: that the younger “came to himself” well may have referred to the rising of yet another selfish scheme in which he would return home and beg for a role as servant on his father’s estate, not by using the words “sir,” or, “master,” by the way, but by using the word, “father.”


Another well-rehearsed drama. Once a prodigal, always a prodigal, maybe.


So, in the same way that the domestication of the three servants might have us scorn the third servant too quickly, the domestication of the prodigal son might have us celebrate the younger too quickly. And in our temptation to put another allegory into the mouth of Jesus, the father becomes God, the prodigal becomes the wayward sinner, and the elder becomes an upstanding Christian, maybe. And it’s a beautiful allegory.


After all, I suspect all of us can relate to turning from, say, the highest of us and satiating our sensory selves with the trinkets of earthly life. “Why, I’ve never done that,” I can hear you say. Well, maybe you’ve sold your longings for some income. Maybe you’ve withheld your truth for some peace. Maybe you’ve ignored your intuition for some security. Metaphysically, all of us can relate to prodigal.


Our Hindu friends might suggest that prodigal is a universal stage of life in which we are enamored with stuff and things and that we are to enjoy stuff and things until stuff and things fail to satisfy, which they eventually will.


So, it’s a beautiful allegory: we all turn from God. And when we turn back, we find God was always right there.


Maybe there are those who believe themselves less than brilliant, less than worthy, less than loveable, less than whole by virtue of some crusty idea. And as allegory, prodigal suggests that you simply have to turn. We never really leave home, you see, all it takes is a simple turn to find that the father was waiting all along.


It’s a beautiful allegory because the spiritual path isn’t about getting back home. It’s about remembering that we never left, you see. Good stuff.


But again, I would suggest that Jesus wasn’t offering an allegory. He was offering a parable. For 1st Century Jews, the father would have been a father. The younger would have been a younger. The estate would have been an estate.


And the pattern remains: One is lost. One is found. One celebrates.


Now, some might suggest that these parables would be better titled, The Distracted Shepherd, The Careless Woman and The Absent Mother; that these are tales about people who failed. The sheep, coin and son become secondary players in parables about irresponsibility. The morals become, “Shepherd, wake up! Woman, pay attention!” And, “Mother come home! Your prodigal needs some tough love.”


Others might suggest that these are tales about returning to wholeness – the ninety-nine is returned to one hundred, the nine is returned to ten and a family is reunited. Perhaps the moral becomes, “Do we notice who’s missing from our lives? And do we seek to restore wholeness?” It’s a good moral.


If a shepherd can notice one sheep missing from one hundred and a woman can notice one coin missing from ten, surely a father can notice one son missing from two (which he doesn’t, you understand). In classic Jesus form, he surprises us in the third parable with the father’s loss of the elder son whose standing in the field listening to the party.


I like all of these interpretations.


And yet, it seems undeniable to me to consider that it’s only those who get lost who get found. It’s only those who stray from the worlds they’ve known who get hoisted upon shoulders. It’s only those who defy the expectations of their keepers who get the pretty ring and the lovely robe and the steak dinner.


And maybe that’s the message of the elder. It’s the one who never gets lost, the one who never strays, the one who never defies who gets left, standing in the same old field, wondering why there’s a party going on and why he wasn’t invited.

Without the one who got lost, without the one who strayed, without the one who defied, there would be no story.


It speaks to me of the words of the poet who wrote, “Earthly life is a grand adventure in which a limitless creator explores the limitlessness of its universe through the limitlessness of its creation. Earthly life is a grand adventure in which a limitless creator explores deep loves and profound losses, breathless laughter and relentless tears, betrayal and forgiveness, creation and destruction, beginnings and endings, entrances and exits.


“And so at the end of my life, let them write that I accepted this charge. Let them write that I embraced the whole thing. Let them write that I loved and lost; that I laughed and cried; that I tried and failed. Let them write that I took a chance; that I stood naked; that I looked stupid. But at the end of my life, let them write that at least I showed up. At the end of my life, let them write an epic tale. Otherwise, I know they won’t write anything at all.”

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