The fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel is one of the most beloved chapters of this remarkable Gospel. In that chapter we hear three parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal or lost child. In each of the parables, something or someone is lost. In each, someone searches for that which is lost. In each, there is an element of rejoicing when that which was lost is found again.
The opening verse of the chapter tells us that these parables were addressed to the scribes and Pharisees who were complaining about Jesus’ association with tax collectors and sinners: “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them he addressed this parable:” (Luke 15:1-3)
I suspect that you are all aware of these parables and perhaps find them a great source of consolation as do I. Today’s Gospel reading consists of the first two parables; namely, the lost sheep and the lost dime. Rather than concentrating our attention on the lost object, we would do well to concentrate our attention on the one who is searching for the lost. There is no question that Jesus is using these parables to describe God’s loving care for those who are lost. So you might say that the shepherd and the woman who sweeps her house are models of God’s behavior.
I also suspect that we have heard these two parables and homilies about them so often that we have lost the sense of horror that must have afflicted the scribes and Pharisees when they heard God compared to a shepherd and to a woman. Shepherds lived on the land, away from the community. Consequently, they were unable to keep the dietary restrictions of the Law and many of the traditions of Jewish culture. They were often men who were deemed undesirable. Making them shepherds removed them from the ordinary life of the village. Comparing God to such a man would have been horrifying to the law and order Pharisees.
Comparing God to a woman who had lost a coin would have been even more difficult for these men to hear. By virtue of their gender, they were kept separate from the men of the community.
Yet Jesus tells us that God’s desire for the lost sheep of Israel is just as intense as that of a shepherd who has lost one of the sheep and a woman who has lost a coin. Only St. Luke uses these comparisons. Here again, we would do well to remember that Luke was a Gentile, someone who is used to being on the outside looking in. He clearly identifies with the shepherd and with the woman.
As we approach the beginning of the Holy Year of Mercy proclaimed by St. Francis, these two parables tell us a great deal about God’s desire to forgive, to extend the gift of mercy. Mercy is the very definition of who God is.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator