The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 8th September 2019
Lectionary readings: Ex. 32:7-11, 13-14; Ps. 50:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19; 1Tim. 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32
Theme: Parables of Mercy
The Gospel reading today is the whole of chapter 15 of Luke, consisting of three parables told by Jesus, the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son(s). They have in common the themes of loss, finding and rejoicing, but there are significant differences, as Amy Jill Levine points out:
In the first, one sheep out of a hundred is lost, in the second, one coin out of ten, while in the third, both sons are lost. Neither the shepherd nor the father take responsibility for the loss that occurs, but the woman in the second parable does admit that she lost the coin. The first two parables have happy endings but in the third the father discovers while the feasting is taking place that his older son is also lost, really lost, in his self-righteousness and hardness of heart. We are not told the outcome of the father’s attempt to find him.
The parable of the lost sheep perhaps has its roots in Ezekiel 34 in which the Lord God says “I will seek out my sheep…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed” (vv. 12, 16). The context in Luke has this parable as a direct response of Jesus to a group of Pharisees and scribes who were critical of him, so it would seem to be his critique of their lack of concern for tax collectors and sinners. The closing verse 7, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents…” has echoes of Ezekiel 18:23, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the LORD God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” (Beale & Carson: Luke 15:4).
The common title for the third parable, “The Prodigal Son” (introduced by Jerome in the 4th century in writing about ‘the prudent and the prodigal sons’), is not adequate as it acknowledges only part of the story. Using it has taken attention away from the older son and so has influenced the message we take from the parable, causing us to miss an important lesson (Levine, 28). Also, a strong tendency in Christian circles to allegorize the parable has unfortunately led some people to see the father as God, the younger son as the forgiven and beloved Christian community, and the older son as unrepentant Israel. This is a clear distortion of Jesus’ message. As a parable in its original context it was meant to raise questions about the nature of the Kingdom of God as compared with the values and expectations of the culture of the day.
The younger son’s request for his share of the inheritance was highly irregular and presumptuous, and amounted to rejection of his family. Surprising also was the readiness of the father to accede to his request. Even more challenging for its first hearers would have been the depth of the father’s compassion and forgiveness on the son’s return, though a strikingly similar theology is expressed in a midrash in Pesikta Rabbati 184-185 in which a king sends word to his wayward son, “Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to you” (Levine, 58). Luke’s parable challenges us all to seek out that which is lost and to strive for reconciliation (Levine, 68-70).
For Reflection and Discussion:  Do I even notice when one of my many friends or acquaintances is lost? Can I take responsibility for the losses I have allowed to occur in my own life?  With which of the characters in the third parable do you most strongly identify? Perhaps you find aspects of all of them in yourself?  Imagine a conclusion to the third parable and discuss your reasons for seeing it this way.
Bibliography: Beale & Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids MI, 2007); Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi (New York NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014).