I love it when Jesus tells a parable.
Parables are those little stories that have a message and illustrate a point or a lesson Jesus is teaching. They’re his “it’s like this” stories.
At least, that’s the way they seem to appear in the gospels. Jesus tells a story and moves on. Point made. Except even the simplest parable is way more complex and deep than that. So I like to think that Jesus thought of them as more “it’s like this. Now, discuss.”
See, I think the gospel writers, for their narrative, were mostly interested in what Jesus had to say, with occasional responses that helped the point he was making or furthered the story line. I don’t think, for the most part, that they were too interested in recording any discussion or back and forth between Jesus and the listeners.
So, for example, in Luke 15, Jesus is talking to a crowd that are identified as “tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus knows the temple authorities are listening so he tells a series of parables with a “lost and found” theme. Lost Sheep: shepherd with a hundred sheep loses one so he leaves the ninety-nine to look for the one. Great celebration when he finds it. Lost Coin: woman loses one of ten coins so she lights a lamp and sweeps the house until she finds it. Great celebration when she does. Prodigal Son: son asks for his inheritance early, takes it, leaves and squanders it in a foreign land. When he runs out of money, he realizes he’s better off at home so he returns, ready to beg for help. His father welcomes him with open arms, doesn’t even let him finish his apology speech and calls for a great celebration because the lost is found, the dead is alive again, hallelujah. His other son, though, is a little put out. He stayed and worked for his father while his brother squandered what he was given. But his father says yes, you’ve always been here, but, again, your brother was lost and is found, dead and is alive again.
The end. Jesus moves on with other stories to challenge those temple authorities.
But hang on. Here’s the moment where I think something might be left out. I don’t imagine that everyone, whether tax collectors and sinners or temple authorities just sat there, nodded wisely and said “oh yeah, I get that.” I think some might even have had questions.
Like, say, sure, Jesus, we can see that each of those parables has a “lost and found” theme. But there’s a “prodigal” theme to them all, too. “Prodigal” simply means to be wastefully extravagant, to be reckless with resources, especially money. Wasn’t the shepherd a little reckless abandoning the sheep? Or the woman a little wasteful lighting a lamp to look or the coin? Who know how much oil she burned through looking for it.
And in that last story it’s not just the one son - the one who squandered the inheritance on reckless living - who’s prodigal. What kind of a father would have handed over the money in the first place? And what about the other brother? Some people might consider that he missed his chance and squandered an opportunity to go and experience the world like his brother did. And what about the father when the son returns, ignoring the opportunity to say “I told you so,” punish or ignore his son, simply loving him and throwing him a party? That’s some seriously prodigal forgiveness and love.
Yes, I think Jesus would say. Yes, precisely, that’s what love is supposed to be like: more prodigal than the loss, hurt or brokenness that it forgives.
Wow, his listeners might say.
And Jesus would go on and say I’m not just talking about God’s love for you, I’m talking about your love for each other. You, too, can love like this.
Think about the two things that most challenge our ability to forgive. First, we’re conditioned for retribution. There must be punishment or payback: you hurt me, I want you to hurt; you broke me, I want you broken; you took a life, I’ll take yours. Forgiveness demands that we let go of that.
Second, we think there must be more than change, there must be exchange: my forgiveness is conditional on your repentance or, at the very least, my forgiveness must result in your repentance. But it’s not and it doesn’t. Forgiveness is our love in action. The transformation or change it brings is in one who forgives, just as repentance bring transformation to the one who repents. One doesn’t force itself on the other.
That sounds hard, his listeners might say, and complicated. Let’s look at that story again. Who are we in it?
And Jesus would say, good, let’s keep working at it. Who do you think you are in the story?