Study: Hope Church Triad Program
Today’s Chocolate: Tony’s Chocolonely Milk Chocolate
Today’s Passage: Luke 15
As I read through Luke 15’s parables of lost things yesterday, they readily brought to mind Relient K’s song “The Last, the Lost, the Least.” I considered mentioning it, but as I reflect further, I’m glad I didn’t. Relient K’s song is more about the dignity of human beings as created in God’s image, particularly those we dismiss as worthless because of their poverty or weakness. Jesus’ parables in Luke 15, on the other hand, underscore God’s love for sinners and his desire to bring them to repentance and restoration. While there’s some thematic overlap, for the most part the extent of the song and the chapter’s commonality is the word “lost,” and even then, they’re using the word in two different senses. It’s unjust societal marginalization vs. genuine spiritual neediness.
And now that I’ve made an introduction out of checking my urge to name-check Relient K, let’s look at those parables again. The first two parables, those of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin, set up a pattern that the final parable of the Prodigal Son breaks. Jesus uses a formula to introduce the first two parables: “What person among you, if he/she has several X and loses one of them, does not leave the (X-1) and search for the lost one until he finds it?” (4, 8). Then the seeker gathers the neighbors to celebrate finding the missing object, and Jesus concludes each parable with a version of the line, “I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (7, 10). In each instance, there are several “saved” objects and one “repenting sinner” object that the owner, representing God, brings back into the fold.
But when Jesus stops illustrating humanity’s situation with sheep and coins and instead depicts it with a story about actual humans, the pattern breaks. There’s no “which person among you,” no repetition of the old intro pattern, just a man with two sons. And as the story develops, the concept of “lostness” lurks incognito beneath the younger son’s departure and return. “Lostness” only surfaces explicitly when the reunited father, celebrating and embracing his wayward son, tells his servants, “This son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found” (24). And you might expect Jesus to drop the coda at this point, “In the same way, I tell you, there is more joy in heaven…” But there’s no coda.
Instead, there’s an epilogue, a scene that escaped my notice for several years of my childhood, possibly even into high school. The older son refuses to celebrate his brother’s return, telling his father, “Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours, and yet you have never given me a young goat…but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him” (29-30). In essence, he criticizes his father: is this how you run your household, by ignoring my loyalty to the family and rewarding your irresponsible son’s descent into depravity? The older son misses the point.
The celebration isn’t a reward. The fattened calf isn’t something to be earned; it’s the father’s gift to express his joy that his son returned with a change of heart. And while the younger brother “was lost and has been found” (32), I can’t help but think that the older brother isn’t like the ninety-nine sheep safe and happy in the fold, or the nine coins secured in the woman’s purse. He’s not okay; he’s bitter, judgmental, and as the story ends, in his own way he’s as disrespectful to the father as the younger brother was in the beginning. If the younger brother was lost and is found, then there’s a very real sense in which the older brother has been lost for years.