If you were to open your bible to this passage, you would see, like all chapters and stories in the bible, this one has a title. Most of you know that this story is often referred to as the story of the prodigal son. Did you know, however, that the bible wasn’t originally constructed with those story titles. When Jesus told parables it’s not like he said “let me tell you the one about the prodigal son” and then proceeded with this story. The titles were added hundreds of years later. That made me wonder, then, what you might call this story. Because the titles can taint our interpretation of scripture. What if this story, instead, was called “the parable of the jealous brother” or “the lament of the responsible older child”? What if this story was called “a father’s embrace” or “a dad throws an undeserved party”? But really, what might be the most challenging is what if this story was called “God’s abundant obnoxious undeserved grace is showered on all people”? How might these titles color the ways in which we read this story?
I have no doubt that all of us could be any one of the three main characters in this story. We have all been the responsible older son or sibling. We have all been the father welcoming a lost child home with open arms. We have all been the son that squandered everything and filled with fear returned home with his hat in his hand. And who knows? Maybe depending on the day, you have been all three. Of course, we could also be the grumbling scribes and pharisees heard towards the very beginning of our reading. Grumbling about the way Jesus does things and how we may not really be on board with his ideas and his ministry.
If we were to read all of chapter 15, we would see that this story isn’t unique in the idea of the lost being found. In verses 4-7 we hear of a shepherd going out to find his one lost sheep. Looking for one sheep out of 100 doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, until you are the lost sheep. Then, we hear about a woman who finds her lost silver coin and is so elated that she calls her friends and neighbors to rejoice. There is amazing healing that can be had in repentance and in the power of being found. I think that there is healing power in being found because what that means is that you have been recognized. You have been seen. You have been deemed to have value and worth. You are worthy of celebrating. And if we’re really honest with ourselves, sometimes we need to be reminded of that.
At my last check up with my bariatric team at Iowa City, I was prepared for the worst. The scale hasn’t been moving as much as I would like. I’ve had a lot of victories that don’t show on the scale. But, I knew that my weight loss since my last appointment wasn’t great. I prepared myself mentally for the shame, lecture, and questioning that would come with my appointment. I had my defenses up. And I should have known better. What I got instead was support, suggestions, a follow up appointment, and most importantly, grace. Sometimes I forget that while I talk about grace a lot, I need to bask in the moments that I receive it. That was one of those moments and I am so grateful. That was a healing moment for me.
This is more than just a nice story or a parable that should give us reason to pause and think. What is happening here is that God, through Jesus Christ is talking about what the crux of Jesus’ ministry is, has been, and will continue to be. Jesus will find the lost, redeemed the forgotten, and celebrate the redeemed. This means all of us, my beloved. After all, Jesus didn’t care that there was a celebration for a lost sheep, a lost coin, or a lost human. All called for a celebration of unbridled joy. And when it’s us on the receiving end of this celebration, this unbridled joy, this abundance of grace, it feels amazing. It feels redemptive. It feels like we’ve been found. Because we have.
But, if we’re going to be honest, it can also feel incredibly unfair. I think it’s important that we speak to that fact. God’s love and grace and mercy are amazingly healing and redemptive but they are also incredibly unfair because God’s love and grace and mercy are given to those that, honestly, don’t deserve them. The other 99 sheep didn’t wander away. The other 9 coins stayed put. The older son stayed behind and worked his back end off. And now there’s a celebration? It feels like a slap in the face. In fact, it feels worse than that. Because it feels like I’m not valued. I’m not important. I’m not worthy and let’s be honest, that’s a pretty crappy place to be. The idea of God’s grace for all sounds amazing in theory. But, when we watch how it plays out in day to day life it can feel unfair.
The brother doesn’t want to go to the big “welcome home celebration.” After all, the other brother gets to wear the good clothes, the expensive jewelry, and eat a calf the older brother probably worked really hard to fatten up. So excuse him if a party of redemption doesn’t sound like a good time. This is all too often our thinking whether we realize it or not. We want a party, for sure. We want to be celebrated. We want to be lavished with extravagant gifts. But, we also want to be in charge of the guest list. Once again, we find ourselves in the sinful position of wanting to control God’s grace: who gets it, how much they get, and whether or not they are worthy.
God’s grace isn’t fair. People we don’t like are going to receive grace and amounts we think are a little too much. There are going to be redemption parties thrown that we want to ignore and protest. But, the redemption of one means the redemption of all. If God is not going to let one sheep stay lost, one coin stay lost, or one human stay lost, you can rest assured that God is not going to allow you to stay lost. As I said earlier, there is healing power in being found because that means you have been recognized. And I don’t know about you, my beloved, but I wouldn’t mind being recognized.
Like all of you, I am so many things to so many people that sometimes I lose my identity. I am grateful for those moments when God reminds me who I am. I am grateful for those moments when God reminds me that I have value and worth. I am grateful for those moments when God reminds me that I am worth finding! And maybe you need that reminder too. So hear me now, my dearests. You have value and worth. You are worth the biggest party, with the best clothes and the best food! Your value is greater than all the diamonds and rubies in the world. You have value because of who you are, which is child of God. You are worth finding. And no matter how lost you may feel sometimes, maybe even today, you will be found. God will find you and come running towards you with great abandon ready to embrace what once was lost.
God’s grace isn’t fair. But this is good news for us. This is good news because we certainly don’t deserve it. But, we get a lavish, redemptive, grace-filled party anyway. No matter what our sins make us think or believe, we will never EVER be lost from God or God’s love. I need you to hear that again because there are so many powerful forces in this world that don’t want you or me or anyone else to receiving healing redemption. There will never EVER be a time that we are lost from God or God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.