Proper 19C 2004, 12 September 2004, "Lost and Found", Luke 15:1-10
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Proper 19C 2004 Luke 15:1-10
The two parables in our gospel for today are the first two of a set of three that teach us something about the essential nature
of God. We normally recognize that third parable by the title of “The parable of the Prodigal Son.” But it isn’t
really about the prodigal son – it is really about, on the one hand, the loving and forgiving father who rejoices at
the return of the young man and on the other hand, it is profoundly about the nature of the God who loves us despite ourselves
and despite what we do.
Our understanding of what Jesus meant turns on the meaning – in the original text – of two common English words,
“lost” and “found”.
At first glance we all understand what lost and found mean. How much effort have we spent contacting the lost and found departments
at airports, bus and train stations, department stores – even here in this parish – Monday morning often brings
calls to check lost and found for spectacles, books, scarves, raincoats, even briefcases. Almost all of us have that kind
of simple direct experience with lost and found.
At another level are the milk carton kids, children who are lost in one way or another, whether wandering off, or deliberately
running away, or worse case, kidnapped by human monsters of one kind or another. This goes far beyond the simple misplacement
of an every day object that is left behind by accident or forgetfulness. And this starts to get closer to the meaning Jesus
had when he told those lovely and many layered parables to his listeners. The many layers give us insight into how deep the
swirling whirlpool waters of the gospels can be.
Let’s start with lost. The Koine Greek root word is apollumi (apollumi). At its first and most shallow level, forms
of lost mean to lose, to be lost, to be deprived of, to stray. The second layer has overtones of death: to be killed, to
be put to death, to die. But the even deeper layers have more somber overtones of complete destruction: to be destroyed
utterly, to be made void as if having never existed, to bring to naught.
The deepest layers of lost have the sense of perishing and perdition, of being so utterly lost as to be damned to everlasting
death of eternal torment and darkness. This is the sense in which is used in the most famous verse in the Bible: John 3:16
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish –
shall not be condemned to an everlasting death of eternal torment and darkness – but may have eternal life.
In the parable of the lost sheep – better known as the parable of the Good Shepherd, the image is raised of a sheep
fallen into an abyss, a deep chasm, in the wilderness and cannot escape back up the sides of the step escarpment without help.
One image is that of the lost sheep whose fleece is caught in a shrub on the cliff and is hanging there in torment: pain and
fear – until the shepherd can reach it, put it on his shoulders, and climb with it out of the abyss, rejoicing on the
way. The closest thing I can think of in my own experience is the image of a small animal caught in a cruel steel trap, imprisoned
in tormented pain until it dies or the trapper kills it.
The same image of being brought with rejoicing out of the abyss of life fills the story of the return of the prodigal son
and the forgiving father.
The parable of the lost coin develops similar themes, but the sense of the lost coin is more like that of having never existed.
While there is rejoicing over the coin having been found and brought back into cognitive existence for the woman, it doesn’t
strike the deepest levels as the parables about living creatures lost and the found – the sheep and the prodigal son.
Jesus certainly understood humanity and he shaped his parables in ways that those not so deep as others could understand something
of what he had to say. We all have lost money and understand some of the frustration and even fear involved when a thing
of value is stolen or the stock market dives southward. Or when we misplace a purse or wallet and have to go through the
lengthy business of canceling credit cards and obtaining new ones.
Now let’s look at found: euriskw (heurisko). The second aorist tense of this word comes into English as the interjection
Eureka! I have found it or any exclamation of triumphant achievement equivalent to “I’ve got it!” For
those who may be wondering, the aorist tense in Greek is usually translated as and most like the simple past tense in English.
It means an action completed in the past and not continuing into the present. Second aorist simply means the second of two
ways of expressing this tense. Don’t you love it?
Heurisko means to find, to meet with, to light upon in its simplest level in Matthew’s gospel, as if almost by accident
without any intent of searching by the person who happens upon something.
In Luke’s gospel and his Acts of the Apostles it is a little deeper and the action is more complex, more active: to
find out, detect, or discover. And deeper, to acquire, obtain, to win, to gain, to understand, comprehend, to recognize.
In the two parables for today, the action is begun and completed by the seeker: The Good shepherd sets out to find the sheep
– the sheep is not active in this quest. And even more so in the parable of the lost coin – or the found coin
– the lost coin is even more passive than the sheep. The sheep can bleat and move however slightly to catch the eye
of the seeker and aid it is detection. The coin is a thing, completely inert, without life or soul or mind, and can only
lie there until the seeker detects it and regains it. Hence the rejoicing and celebration; the day has been won, the lost
has been found.
No doubt you are wondering why I am taking the time and effort to go through this discussion of words. In part it is to make
the point that even the three best English translations of the New Testament that we have – the Revised Standard version,
the New Revised Standard Version, and the New International Version – do not always help us reach the deepest levels
of understanding of Scripture of which we are capable.
Of course it is not really possible to understand completely what Jesus was saying – we are not native koine Greek speakers
– and in any case even if we were and had been there listening when Jesus told these parables, we might not have gotten
it. Certainly the Pharisees and the scribes didn’t get it. Or of they did, they didn’t like it.
But the tax collectors and other sinners got it. It was the only message of hope for them that they had heard. Instead of
beating them to death by hurling threats of divine wrath and judgement at them, Jesus put a very simple message inside the
complexity of the parables. God loves you, he said. That is the point of the stories. You might have been lost in the judgement
of the world and the elites who run it. But you are not lost in God’s sight. You are more than found – in fact,
you were never lost by God. You might have been like the sheep who wandered off and was lost – but the great shepherd
of the sheep found you. God knew you were not really lost.
One who really knew the meaning of lost and found was John Newton, born in London in 1725. Newton was a one-time atheist
and slave trader who led a dissolute and godless life until he cried out to the Lord during a terrible storm at sea. On safely
reaching land he studied for nine years before his ordination in the Church of England. He wrote almost three hundred hymns,
including two of my favorites: Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, City of our God, and Amazing Grace.
Here’s part of the first verse: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was
lost, but now am found….”
We are all lost and found in the same way and grace is amazing as well as abounding. We are awash in it because God loves
us. Always has, always will.