How many of you feel lost? It is probably not an infrequent feeling in our modern world of so many problems. The gospel appointed for this twenty-fourth Sunday of the year of Luke is long: in fact, it is the whole of chapter 15, although there is also the option of an abbreviated version. In this chapter, Jesus offers us three parables that are sometimes called “the parables of mercy”: they are the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost (prodigal) son. All three turn on the contrast between being lost and being found. In the first two, if we look carefully at the language used, we notice how these two verbs weave around each other: in the lost sheep we have “lost”, “lost”, “finds”, “found”, “found”, “lost”. Grammatically, the “lose” that opens and closes the series is gutted by the three “finds”. In the lost coin, we have “loses”, “finds”, “found”, “found”, “lost”. Once again, the opening and closing “lose” are eviscerated by the three “finds”.
This kind of analysis may seem technical, but I invite you not only to listen to the text proclaimed at the liturgy, but also to ponder it on the printed page. The content of these parables communicates the message, of course, but the way they are told is also important. There are many reasons for feeling lost and these include our sense of unworthiness and sin. Can I ever make the grade? Could I ever hope to be a saint? Yes, indeed! In both parables, our determined Lord concentrates all his restless energy into finding us (this is expressed in the text by “go after” and “seek diligently”). He does so without our having to lift a finger. Both the lost sheep and the lost coin are entirely passive: all the effort and initiative come from the Lord.
The lost or prodigal son is a far more complex parable and there is space here only for a brief comment. The boy wants his independence. Perhaps he feels overshadowed by his big brother. The father, certainly with sadness, allows him to leave and he loses his context, his home, the relationships that sustain him and, in the end, himself. The text has the little phrase “he came to himself”, suggesting that his suffering has enabled him to “find” himself, to know who he really is. Unlike the shepherd and the woman, the father merely waits: he makes no effort to find his son. The gift of tribulation, permitted by the father, enables the son to realise his need and to take the first step. The father welcomes him back lavishly. The phrase “he was lost and is found” is proclaimed twice in the text. Are we ready to take that first step out of our “lostness”?
I always feel a sympathy for the elder brother, because there is something crucial he has not been able to understand: how much his father loves him. The words said to him are among the most tender in the entire New Testament: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” If we really believed that, we would never be lost.
By Fr Edmund Power osb