Preacher: Jennifer Hosler
Scripture: Luke 15:1-32
Date: May 29, 2022
Our children’s story today asked, “What is God like?” by Matthew Paul Turner and Rachel Held Evans. As the book said, “that’s a very big question.” What is God like? Pop culture (movies, cartoons) sometimes depicts a generic monotheistic deity in a variety of ways: most commonly, an old, bearded guy in the sky; sometimes also depicted as an angry tyrant; other instances depict God as a detached, aloof, and even neglectful deity. Most of these, as you may guess, are not based on the Bible – but that is not because the Bible is lacking in the illustrations or depictions of God.
The Bible paints many pictures of what God is like and, as you may imagine, they are quite different from those pop cultural references. How do we learn what God is like in the Bible? We see God interacting with a wide variety of people (women, men, children, prophets, heroes, kings, immigrants, sex workers, and more); from those interactions with people, we can extrapolate truths about God.
We also have another way to learn about God: in the Bible, historians and poets and songwriters and prophets all give us words to describe God, using many different images and analogies. God is a refuge. God is like an eagle. These images are lovely and meaningful – but they were always incomplete… until Jesus.
Jesus is described in the Bible as the visible image of the invisible God – God made human, God in the flesh. The gospel of John, translated by the Message, says that the Word which was from the beginning became flesh and blood and “moved into the neighborhood.” In that neighborhood, Jesus demonstrated what God is like through his actions, through the things that he did and the people he prioritized (the outcasts, the ones deemed unacceptable by society). Jesus also taught what God was like, sometimes using specific words directly but often using parables, which are stories that teach or illustrate a lesson. We all learn better by stories; Jesus knew this directly.
What is a parable? Parables are teachings with two levels of meaning – the meaning on the surface and another meaning behind it (the story behind the story if you will). In Jesus’ time in the first century, a parable could be a proverb, a riddle, a comparison, a contrast, simple stories, or complex stories (Snodgrass, 1992). Parables were intended to make you think; they were somewhat enigmatic. Jesus’ audiences and students (or disciples) did not always understand them, and he needed to explain them further, more basically. Parables lead the listener or reader to ponder inwardly and outwardly, spiritually, morally, and even practically. About one third of Jesus’ teaching was in parables.
Our scripture reading today, from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, has an example of Jesus doing and living out certain values that teach us what God is like, while he also uses parables to teach more about what, exactly he is doing. What is God like? Look at the actions plus the parables.
What was Jesus doing? Making people mad. Hanging out with the wrong crowds. The gospel says that “All the tax collectors and sinners” were coming to Jesus – the people at the margins, the generally despised people whom no one wants to associate with, for religious and social reasons. The unsavory, questionable folk are coming to listen to Jesus. He’s eating with them, hanging out, teaching them.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and Scribes, start “grumbling.” You know how this goes, “who is this guy? Doesn’t Jesus know and care that everyone is going to look at him sideways, since he’s hanging out with ‘those people’?” This grumbling is happening, and Jesus knows it. Jesus decides to address it, not exactly head on.
Luke, the gospel writer, just says very simply, “So Jesus told them this parable…” It isn’t just one – it is a series of three illustrations. It is Jesus taking the long way to get his message across, using parables to try to get through to the self-righteous and judgmental knuckleheads.
I am going to read through these parables, with some brief reflections and questions after each one. I hope that these parables are fruitful material for you as you consider, “What is God like?” and how God relates to you.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
We read in the beginning of Luke 15: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So, he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
One of the interesting things about my dear child is that he loves the Bible. We have several illustrated children’s Bible and in one, the lost sheep parable is illustrated with a hungry wolf lurking nearby and a shepherd searching desperately for the beloved sheep. A few months ago, he loved to play “hungry wolf” – where I was the shepherd, Nate was the wolf, and Ayuba was the sheep – whom I had to rescue from that wolf. I think the sheep ended up hoofing the wolf, though the shepherd saved the day too.
Telling his parable, Jesus says there is a shepherd with 100 sheep. One is lost. The other ninety-nine sheep are left behind “in the wilderness” in order to look for the missing sheep. The one missing sheep is so important, so valuable, that the shepherd is willing to risk all of the other sheep by leaving them behind to save the one. Perhaps you or I would say, ‘hmm. There are wolves around here. I’ve got 99. I can probably spare one sheep.’ Yet the message here is that that is not what God would do. The shepherd is risking his entire livelihood for the one missing sheep. God would risk it all to find that one missing person, just as Jesus is risking his reputation or his ritual religious purity in order to associate with the people being excluded from religious life. Jesus would eventually even put his life on the line so that everyone could be welcomed back into God’s herd of sheep.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
Jesus continues further, with parable part two: “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
I don’t know about you – but I find it very difficult to lose things. I get a little obsessive and it can sometimes be hard to focus on anything else until the missing item is located. Sometimes I cannot stop looking until I find what is missing; I tear apart the house until I do.
In the parable, I don’t get obsessive vibes from that woman; instead, I get the sense that the woman with the coin is persistent. The coin is valuable. By losing it, she’s lost a tenth of her money. We don’t know what exactly she is saving for or going to purchase – but the coin is essential. She persists. She finds it. She shares her joy with her friends. Jesus is saying, God is persistent. God wants to find everyone – and rejoice over them.
The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother
The parable then enters its third and longest section, one you may be more familiar with, the parable of the Prodigal and his brother. Sometimes referred to as the parable of the prodigal son or the lost son. “Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the wealth that will belong to me.’ So he divided his assets between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant region, and there he squandered his wealth in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that region, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that region, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to his senses he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So, he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field, and as he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command, yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
Wow. This parable has so much. The youngest son basically says, I’d rather you’d be dead, and I’d just like to leave the family. His actions were highly offensive and went against all the customs of their day. The younger son cuts off family ties. He prioritizes the wrong things in life and ends up rather hopeless and alone, with no one to support him, nothing to show after years of efforts. The younger son trudges home, not expecting special status, just a servant’s status. He knows that a servant’s status would actually be very gracious.
Yet instead of meeting his son with shame, aloofness, judgment, and all the many other justifiable responses, the patriarch runs toward his son and embraces him. He puts his cultural dignity and status aside, runs (patriarchs didn’t run) and embraces the son who had wished his father were dead so he could have his money. The father orders a lavish and opulent celebration for the returned son. This doesn’t make the other son happy, and the father tries to tell him how important it is that the son who was lost and dead to them was now found and alive.
What is God like? God is like a shepherd with 99 sheep, who cares for that one sheep so much that she leaves them all behind to find it. God is like a woman with a coin, who tears apart the house to find it. God is like a father with an estranged son, who runs and welcomes him back. God rejoices in all the lost being found.
I think there is something for each of us to chew on, but I want to highlight a few more things to close:
I see God valuing every person, every life, every child, every grown up. God is willing to lay everything aside to ensure that each person makes it home. God values every person struggling. Every person alone and alienated. Every person vulnerable to violence. Every person who is not sure they believe in God or that God would accept them for who they are and what they have done. Maybe you feel God would not be interested in you, for some reason or another. Jesus told these parables because he wanted to send the message that God does not write anybody off. God does not pay heed to how unsavory a person may be, but, instead, God longs to have the party to welcome the lost one home.
What is God like? “Whenever you aren’t sure what God is like, think about what makes you feel safe, what makes you feel brave, and what makes you feel loved. That’s what God is like” (Held Evans and Turner, 2021). AMEN.
Held Evans, R. & Turner, M.P. (2021). What is God like? New York: Convergent.
Snodgrass, K.R. (1992). Parables. In J.B. Green, S. McKnight, & I. Howard Marshall (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (591-601). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.