The parables of Luke 15, often called, “The Gospel within the Gospel,” epitomize Luke’s message of forgiveness and repentance. These motifs appear more frequently in Luke than in any other Gospel: Zechariah heralds the coming of the Lord who will bring forgiveness of sin (1:77), and both John and Jesus initiate their ministries by announcing forgiveness and repentance. Jesus’ final commission to his disciples is to preach repentance and forgiveness to all nations (24:47), which is a recurring theme in the sermons of Acts and defines the life work of Paul (Acts 26:17-19).
Repentance evokes images of sorrow for offending God, turning away from sinful acts and returning to God, along with a “firm purpose of amendment.” But biblical ideas of repentance are much richer than this. The Hebrew term teshubah evokes a return to God by a person who has already experienced God’s “goodness and compassion” (Ps. 51), and the Greek metanoia suggests a “second look,” “taking stock,” “recollection and renewal.” Such “repentance” leads to forgiveness (literally “sending away”) of sin, with overtones of pardon, release from captivity and cancellation of punishment.
This year the story of the returning prodigal has already been heard as the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, so today provides a fine opportunity to reflect on the two short parables that precede it. These parables respond to criticism by certain Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ frequent practice of eating with and welcoming tax collectors and sinners. Jesus responds to his critics with a question, “What man among you having a hundred sheep...?” This invites them ironically to identify with a shepherd, which was one of the occupations disdained by strict religious observers. Irrationally, this shepherd leaves 99 of his flock “in the desert” (where danger lurks and wild beasts roam) to search out the one lost, which he tenderly carries home on his shoulders. He then summons his friends and neighbors and throws a party, which Jesus says reflects a heavenly party where there will be “more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous who have no need of repentance.”
The second parable of losing and finding again challenges the listening leaders to move beyond their privileged position and to see the world through the eyes of a woman searching for a lost coin—perhaps part of her original dowry that she kept in trust. This juxtaposition of a story about a woman and a story about a man is a very familiar Lukan compositional technique (e.g., the canticles of Mary and Zechariah, the raising of the widow’s son followed by the healing of the centurion’s servant, the parables of the widow and judge and of the Pharisee and tax collector). The woman’s search is more intense; she lights a lamp, sweeps the house and searches “carefully.” After finding the coin she calls together her friends and says, “Rejoice with me, because I found the coin that was lost.” The celebration may have cost as much as the coin that was lost.
The sayings of Jesus on repentance are in tension with the parables themselves. Repentance suggests return or conversion, but neither the wandering sheep nor the lost coin do anything except get lost. The dramatic surprise in each comes from the seeking shepherd and the searching woman, which make us realize that repentance is much more a matter of being found by a searching God than of anything we do. Writing to Timothy, Paul expresses this beautifully: “I have been treated mercifully,” and “the grace of our Lord has been abundant.” A deep strain of Pelagian theology runs through religious consciousness in the United States, where effort and reward are so prized. These parables are decidedly “un-American.” Repentance is not climbing a ladder of sorrow and regret toward God, but the joy of being discovered by a searching God.
All three parables of Luke 15 end with a party or a celebration of finding. Today people, especially the young, often wander from the church for myriad reasons, only to return later. The church needs more rituals of finding, in which the joy of return can be celebrated. I remember a ceremony of reconciliation and acceptance for people who had been marginally Catholic that was celebrated in the cathedral in Oakland, Calif., one Holy Thursday. The returning Catholics processed up the aisle with looks of expectant joy; the bishop went through the rite of reconciliation and after the homily washed their feet. In front of me was an older couple, who wept with joy as they celebrated that their daughter or son was lost but now was found. This Holy Thursday Eucharist was truly a celebration, as the joy in heaven spilled over on the earth.
The setting of these parables must also be highlighted. One of the most shocking things about Jesus was his penchant for associating with religious and social misfits, to the apparent neglect of the dutiful. Jesus practiced communion and companionship (lit. “sharing bread”) that lead to repentance, an experience of being found and accepted by a loving God. As Jose Comblin wrote recently, while Jesus preached and practiced forgiveness of sin, too often the contemporary church is overly concerned with prevention of sin. To find Christ today, skip home furnishing and check in lost and found.