The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Lost Son

Twenty-Fourth Sunday of the Year. Ex 32:7-11, 13-14; Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-32

The three parables in today’s Gospel are all about rescue from sin and the extravagant joy with which God welcomes repentant sinners. However, as with all the parables of Jesus, there are many hidden meanings in these texts, some of which I would like examine briefly this morning.

The first insight arises from the curious fact that Jesus uses three parables instead of one. This may seem redundant until we see who or what represents God in each parable. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the father is clearly God the Father, who welcomes home his lost son. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the man who goes after his lost sheep is God the Son, who came into the world to rescue sinners and who bears the burden of our sinful nature on his own shoulders. In the Parable of the Missing Coin, the woman, as is customary in Scripture, is the Church searching for lost sinners in the debris and dust of sin. Where, then, is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the lamp by which the darkness of the world and of the human heart is illuminated.1 So in these three parables together we see how God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit and the Church all work in complementary ways to rescue sinners and bring them home to glory.

The second insight these parables give is into the nature of sin, the most obvious point being that the sinner is lost. This echoes the account of the Fall in the Garden of Eden and the words of the Lord to Adam, “Where are you?”; it also prefigures the terrible words of judgment, “I do not know you.” But what does it mean for God not to ‘know’ someone? Indeed, given that God is usually held to be omniscient, that is, ‘all-knowing’, how can God lose anything? After all, God presumably knows the location of every atom of the universe. Well clearly, God does not lose something in the sense of not being able to find it in space, but God does ‘lose’ his personal relationship with the one who sins. This is not because of a change in God, but because the one who sins rejects the divine likeness, the likeness which is called sanctifying grace and which was signified in medieval art by the halo. There is a tragic parallel in life when those suffering from a brain disease lose the ability to recognize their relatives and friends who love them. It is the cause of intense suffering that, although their relatives and friends continue to care for them, the personal relationship is damaged because the victim of the disease can no longer respond or recognize anyone. In a sense, the victims of the disease are at least temporarily ‘lost’ to those who love them and, in a similar kind of way, God also ‘loses’ us when we sin because we reject His divine likeness. Of course, unlike a disease, sin is the outcome of a choice. However, as in the case of the disease, it is the healthy one, in this case God, who suffers the wound of loss the most. But what does the sinner gain in return? This also is made clear in these three parables: the sinner is in the dust and dark, like the Lost Coin, or feeding pigs, as is the Prodigal Son. More subtly, the sinner wastes his substance, his Father’s ‘property’. This indicates how evil is parasitical, originating nothing itself but only feeding off and corrupting off the goods and pleasures that God Himself has created to be used properly.

A third insight these parables give is a small glimpse or at least a hint of much larger realities, of larger worlds. Jesus refers to the rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents. Pope Gregory the Great interpreted the nine coins that are not lost as the nine orders of rational beings that did not fall: Angels, Archangels, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Dominations, Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim. This makes human beings merely the ‘tenth coin’, granted great dignity by the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, but in natural terms merely one of many kinds of rational beings and certainly not the highest. This should help to deflate human pride, especially the pride that claims that 'man is the measure of all things'.2 However, it should also act as a antidote to one of the main temptations of sin. Sin is often presented to us as a gateway to new experiences, to a wider world, but in fact the opposite is true. The sinner locks himself up in a small world, the darkness of a pigsty, while the heavenly ‘party’ (to use a colloquial term) is going on elsewhere. The surprising thing, perhaps, is that such extraordinarily powerful beings rejoice so greatly when we repent and come home.

So these parables reveal the work of the Trinity and the Church to rescue sinners, the nature of sin and the wider world of glory to which we are called. With such encouragement, let us hasten to use the means God has given us, especially the sacrament of confession, to repent of sin and return to our Father’s house.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 16th September 2007

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1.  This interpretation of the Father, the Shepherd and the Woman comes from St. Ambrose on the Gospel of Luke (from the Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers). Sometimes the lamp is interpreted as Jesus Christ, but the close association of the lamp and the woman (the Church) also suggests the Holy Spirit.

2.  "Man is the measure of all things" is a saying of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras. The phrase is a traditional slogan of relativism, namely that which is or appears for a single individual is true or real for that individual (i.e. that there is no wider, objective reality). "Man is the measure of all things" has re-appeared in many different guises since the time of Protagoras. For example, the core principle of Juche, the official state ideology of North Korea, is that "man is the master of everything and decides everything." This is clearly a variation of the Protagorian assertion, hostile to much of Western classical philosophy and Christianity.

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