Parables: Painting an Image of God

In the Gospel today, Jesus give us a pair of parables, the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. These two are not really a pair of parables, but are the first two of a trifecta, a trilogy of parables, a trinity if you will. In the response to the grumbling that Jesus eats with tax collectors, Jesus offers three parables, each of which informs the other and helps us understand more deeply what it is Jesus wants us to know.

The first is the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the second is the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the third is the Parable of the Lost Son, also known as the Prodigal Son. These three are a group of parables that all have the same form: there is something that is lost, then it is found, and then there is a great celebration. The difference among them is that the Parable of the Lost Son is a much longer parable, it fleshes out a lot of details so we understand more deeply what happens when we meet the messy reality of humanity when people are involved, not coins or sheep. But all three parables are related.

We call these parables the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But one could just as easily, instead of focusing on what is lost, focus on the person who is doing the searching. So we could call them the Parable of the Searching Shepherd, the Parable of the Searching Woman, or the Parable of the Searching Parent. These parables don’t really tell us that much about the thing that is lost, but the focus on all of them is on the one doing the searching. Of course, you can’t blame the coin. It’s an object, and pretty passive in the whole thing. And so is that sheep. The sheep could have at least walked back with the shepherd, but instead the shepherd picks that sheep up and carries him. There is no agency for the sheep in this parable. The prodigal son does something, but if you go deeply into that parable you will notice that the father actually runs out to the son and forgives him before the son does anything. It isn’t about what the son does, but what the father does. Usually with the Parable of the Prodigal Son we focus on the first half, which is the prodigal son, the squandering son, but we forget the second half of the parable which is about the responsible son, the older one. The father notices that he, too, is missing, and goes out and searches for him to get him back into the fold as well.

These parables are really about the people doing the searching, not the thing to be found. The focus is on the shepherd, the woman, and the parent. As a result these parables teach us much more about God than they do about ourselves. So what kind of an image of God are these parables painting for us? The first striking thing in these parables is that they notice the one missing. This is most obvious in the parable of the searching shepherd. He has one hundred sheep, but notices when he is missing one. That shows a great deal of attention to detail and care. You are not going to casually look out and say, I think there are only ninety-nine and not one hundred. That one percent loss is probably not something you are going to notice right away. But the shepherd is paying attention, he is focused, he is accounting for them. Even the woman with the coins, which might be easier to notice, I still suspect that if you are not there counting them, you are not going to notice one missing coin out of ten. If you want to do an experiment later, go try it. Take ten coins, put them on the counter, look at it, take one away, look again, and you are probably not going to notice one is gone. These parables have an attention to the thing that is lost.

The second thing that is striking about these parables is the deep care for the missing ones. In the story of the Prodigal Son or Searching Father, it is filled with many words and imagery of care and affection. It is actually much clearer in the Greek. Many of these Greek words have two options, and the one that is more affectionate is selected. This is a story of a father who cares deeply about both of his sons. In the Parable of the Lost Coin, the woman, who in the middle of the night lights the lamp, which means she wastes money, searches high and low until she finds the missing coin. There is great care and attention that is obvious in this story. And of course, the shepherd, who is at risk of losing the remaining ninety-nine in order to go find the lost sheep, cares deeply for that one.

The third striking detail about each of these parables is the rejoicing and celebration that results. It is extravagant, it is over the top, it is unnecessary. Which one of you, who at 2:00 am finds a coin, will throw a party and wake your neighbors to come and celebrate with you? None of you, right? This is over the top, it is unnecessary, it is an exaggerated celebration.

So what we have here is a portrait of a God who loves us extravagantly, loves us beyond measure. We have an image of a God who knows us intimately, warts and all, and still wants to be with us, a God who cares deeply enough to notice us, a God who cares deeply enough to search for us, a God who cares deeply enough to celebrate us. This is who God is—the God who made us in love, searches for us in love, restores us in love, and rejoices in us in love. This is the image of God that Jesus paints for us. This is who God is and who God has always been. It’s the great story that scripture teaches us about a God who loves us so much; a God who went to Abraham and Sarah and made an audacious promise; a God who loved Joseph so much that when Joseph was thrown into that pit by his brothers, God helped protect him and saved his life; when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, God was with him, taking him from the bottom of the pit all the way to be second in command of the entire country of Egypt; a God who loves not only Joseph, but his brothers who did the really awful thing of selling their brother into slavery. God saved their entire families by pulling them, through Joseph, out of the famine that was going to kill them. This is a God of love who, hundreds of years later when the tide had turned, pulled those very people out of Egypt when they found themselves in slavery, liberating them from the pain that they were in. This is the God who was with them in every step of the journey in the wilderness, these “stiff-necked people”. God loves them so much that He nourishes them every day of that journey. This is a God of love. Everything is done in love.

We have a God who has always leaned heavily towards mercy. There is a great repeating phrase in the Torah that says that God will punish to the third or fourth generation, which is really extreme. If you make a mistake God will punish your children, your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren, and your great-great grandchildren. But that was actually standard fare for the day for what a leader was going to do. But then God goes on to say that I will offer mercy to the thousandth generation, which swamps the third or fourth generations through this great act of love. A thousand generations of mercy for a single act of care and love that we offer in this world, following what God wants for us. God is always offering mercy, God is always leaning heavily towards grace, that amazing grace. As we sang this morning, “amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” Because when we know this love of God we can allow the fear in our hearts to wash away. We do not have a God who punishes us for our mistakes, we do not have a God of wrath. This is a God who searches us out and restores us in love, this God of love that Jesus points to in our parables. This is a God who wants us to thrive in this world; this is a God who wants us to know and feel that love deeply, so deeply that we can shake off the shame that the world wants to paint on us; so deeply that we can put off that sense of inadequacy that the world wants us to carry. We know truly, deeply, down into our bones, into our marrow, into our soul that God loves us. We know down into the deepest elements of our being that we are truly loved, completely, without reservation, without question. You are loved so deeply that God placed God’s very own image inside of you.