24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
Getting Lost to be Found
The trio of “lost parables” kicks off with the line, “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain…” (verses 1-2). Did you catch that? The sinners were the ones trying to get closer to Jesus. The Pharisees, the pillars of society, they were the ones backing away. I’m squirming thinking about what I would have done.
We’re all sinners, no question about that. But it’s how we think of ourselves that matters. If we think of ourselves as sinners, we can take one of two paths. We can try to hide from God, knowing we’ve messed up. Think Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Or we can do what the sinners and tax collectors did and try to draw closer to Jesus.
The prodigal son tries both paths. When he takes his father’s money and runs, he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. But when he realizes he’s made a mess of things, he hides from his father in a pig pen trying to get by on his own. Eventually, he owns up to his mistake and is welcomed back into the fold. Doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences for his behavior, but his return brings much rejoicing.
The older son never even, at least not in the story as its written here, realizes he’s a sinner. When his brother returns, he snaps at his father, “never once did I disobey your orders…” (v. 29). Like the Pharisees who draw away from Jesus, the older son thinks he’s perfect. He’s followed the rules perfectly and he feels he should be rewarded accordingly.
I’m a rule-follower, so where do I fall? Again, I’m squirming here.
The younger son realized his mistake, or at least realized that he was hungry and was willing to eat crow, and so he went home. There he experienced great mercy and forgiveness. We’re left to hope that welcome changed his heart. The older son, the one who followed all the rules, leaves us with a cliff-hanger of an ending, but his heart-change looks a bit dubious.
Unlike the sons who make conscious choices, sometimes we get lost without knowing how we’ve gotten there (the sheep in verses 1-7) or due to something completely outside of our control (the coin in verses 8-10). Maybe we follow a teaching but don’t temper it with moderation or wander off on a side road too far from where we should be. Or maybe we were raised a certain way as children and haven’t yet taken personal ownership of our faith.
But the finding of the sheep, the coin, and the prodigal son all warrant much celebration. It doesn’t matter why they were lost. Now they’ve claimed their rightful places. Things weren’t right and they are happy they are now. Sometimes getting lost, and doing a bit of squirming, is the only way to be found.