Some years ago in São Paulo, Brazil, a minister who worked with street children related how she was introducing them to Bible stories and helping them to reflect on them. One day she told the story of the prodigal son. She stopped at the point where the younger son decided to return home, and she asked if he would be able to go back home. One youngster spoke up. “It depends,” he said. “On what?” she asked. “On whether there is a mother in the house. If so, then she will work on the father and get him to finally accept the son back.”
This boy had rightly intuited the cultural dynamics of Jesus’ day, which perhaps matched those of his own family. A father in a patriarchal culture whose son had so disgraced him, would have rent his garments and declared that son no longer one of his own. We find a very different sort of father in the Gospel, more like a mother who watches and waits and runs to meet the wayward son when he finally appears on the horizon. Such an image ruptures any patriarchal images of God and keeps us from literalizing the metaphor “Father.”
Today’s Gospel presses further in offering a fuller set of images of the divine. God can also be likened to a shepherd (who could be either male or female), who diligently searches for a lost sheep. Jesus’ first hearers would have understood the great lengths to which that shepherd went, searching hither and yon for the lost one, and the great amount of energy it would take to hoist the heavy animal onto his shoulders and lug it back to the sheepfold. It is startling that instead of complaining, he is filled with joy. A footnote to the story: Some people worry about the 99 left in the desert while the shepherd is off searching for the lost one. Jesus’ original audience would have known that a flock that size would have had more than one shepherd, and the 99 are not left untended. All are precious and are in the divine care.
Most often overlooked by homilists and biblical interpreters is the little parable in the middle of the trilogy. This third parable mirrors the very same dynamics as the other two, this time proposing the image of a woman who searches intently for a lost coin. Just as a sheep and a son are so valuable that they must be sought out when lost and celebrated when found, so is a drachma—enough to feed the family for a day. It is not a trivial bit of pocket change, nor is there any carelessness on the part of the woman. The point is that just as the shepherd goes to extraordinary lengths to find the lost sheep, so the woman uses precious lamp oil and searches unceasingly under stubborn cobblestones in the floor until she finds where the errant coin has lodged. Shepherd, woman and father are all equally good images for God, who expends great effort to procure the return of the lost and who hosts an exuberant celebration in their honor.
The trilogy of parables in today’s Gospel invites us to seek and retrieve the lost and overlooked female images of God. This enables a fuller experience of the divine, aids us in seeing women as images of God and keep us from idolatry, against which the first reading warns. Jesus himself invites us to stretch our imaginations, as he takes on the persona of Woman Wisdom in the opening verses of the Gospel, where he is criticized for the company he keeps at table. Like Woman Wisdom (Prv 9:1-6), he has welcomed a scraggly array of all types to dine with him. We can stay outside and grumble, or we can enter into the party and allow ourselves to be surprised by the host.