A “lost soul” is someone who seems adrift morally, spiritually, intellectually and emotionally. Such a person may be lost to drugs, alcohol, ambition, greed, gambling, sexual promiscuity or the “pragmatic” mentality that shows no respect for human life and measures everything only in economic or material terms. Some lost souls may be dear to you—a spouse, a child, a parent or a friend. It is painful and frustrating to watch someone you love be lost. Perhaps you feel lost yourself—through unemployment, sickness, depression, the death of a loved one or some failure. There are many lost souls in our world today.
Today’s Scripture readings remind us that there is hope for lost souls. The readings also remind us that God actively seeks out the lost, wants their repentance and rejoices when the lost are found. The Pharisees and scribes (devout persons of their day) needed to learn this important lesson about the character of God. They (and we) need to learn that God is not a disinterested observer of human affairs. Rather, God is for the lost and is actively involved in their restoration; God’s attitude is best reflected in the teaching and behavior of Jesus.
Luke 15 contains three parables about finding something that has been lost: a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son. The third parable (usually called the story of the prodigal son)—the longest, most beautiful and most memorable of the three—was read on the Fourth Sunday of Lent this year (Am. 3/12/07). For that reason I will focus here on the first two parables.
The primary audience for these parables was the Pharisees and scribes. The Pharisees were very religious persons devoted to safeguarding the tradition and practice of their people, while the scribes were experts in the Scriptures and religious laws—the theologians and lawyers of their day. Their complaint about Jesus was that this “good” teacher spent too much time and energy on “bad” people. Tax collectors were suspected of dishonesty and disloyalty, and “sinners” by their occupations and lifestyles showed disregard for the essentials of Jewish life.
In response to just such complaints Jesus tells three parables about the “lost.” The first two are twins, one featuring a man and the other a woman and having the same structure and message. Suppose a shepherd has 100 sheep, and one of them becomes lost. What will the shepherd do? He will search for the one lost sheep until he finds it. When he finds it, he will rejoice and invite his friends to share his joy. Suppose a woman with ten coins (or ten $100 bills) loses one in her house. She will search for the lost coin (or $100 bill) until she finds it. When she finds it, she will rejoice and invite her neighbors to share her joy.
In terms of structure, the major figure in both parables searches for what was lost, finds it and rejoices. The theological application is the same for both. This dynamic takes place with God whenever a sinner repents. In his concern for seeking out the lost souls of his own time and place, Jesus was reflecting God’s own concern for the lost and God’s own joy over repentant sinners.
The surprising feature in these parables is the active role played by God (and Jesus) in seeking out the lost. Just as the shepherd actively seeks out the lost sheep and the woman actively seeks out the lost coin, so God (and Jesus) actively seeks out the lost. God and Jesus really care for the lost and want their return. We the devout need to hear this message. And if and when we ever are or feel lost, we need to recall Jesus’ parables about the lost and respond positively to God’s offer of mercy.
Today’s reading from Exodus 32 is an example of God’s mercy toward sinners. When the exodus generation commits the sin of idolatry, Moses intercedes and appeals for God’s mercy toward a sinful people. God relents and shows mercy to sinners. In the excerpts from Psalm 51, the lost soul, identified in the heading as David “after his affair with Bathsheba,” prays, “Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness.” In the midst of Paul’s testimony about his own sins in opposing the early Christian movement and his experience of God’s mercy and forgiveness, there is an already traditional confession of faith: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
These readings all point to the mercy of God and God’s willingness to forgive sinners. In seeking out lost souls of his time and our time, Jesus is the agent and reflection of God’s mercy. Jesus shows that God never gives up on the lost, and so we must not give up on God, ourselves and the lost souls among us.