Our distaste for people who cut in line remains unchanged as we grow up. Whether someone gets to the front of the lunch line or the airport security check before us in an unfair way, our annoyance is raised. People who steal our parking spots during the Christmas season are the recipients of our worst thoughts. We might — just might — yell a string of expletives and death threats at anyone who has wronged us on the road or in a parking lot.
It’s not just about being orderly and following the rules. Instead, we rue the flouting of justice and fairness. I have been waiting patiently in line; what gives you the right to deem yourself better than me?
Yet if we’re honest, we will quickly realize that such outrageous reactions to outrageous behavior are no better than the line cutter or parking space thief. Moreover, our sense of injustice is quite attuned to moments of personal grievance even as we neglect how our actions may harm others. If anything, these moments of rage reveal much more about us than those we think have aggrieved us.
Such feelings are as ancient as human desire. In Luke 15, Jesus addresses three famous parables about being lost and found to the Pharisees and scribes who disapprove of the company Jesus keeps. Simply stated, Jesus hung out with the wrong people, with riffraff and traitors, with people none of us would ever invite to our dinner parties. And yet Jesus broke bread with them much to the dismay of his critics.
In response to their criticism, Jesus tells three famous parables. First, he imagines a shepherd who leaves his flock in order to find one errant sheep. Second, he describes a woman who loses a coin.
Both these stories share some basic patterns. First, we are introduced to a main character. Second, that main character loses something of value. Third, the main character searches frantically — even ridiculously — in search of what was lost. Fourth, what was lost is found. Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, the finding precipitates an excessive celebration. What do we learn from these stories? Jesus concludes each by noting that the heavens rejoice far more with the repentance of one we would call despicable, a sinner, an outcast than when 99 righteous, classy, upstanding, well-regarded individuals do the same.
This is not fair, we might say. Why would God value one over 99?
The third parable answers precisely this haunting question.
At first, it seems like the famous story of the Prodigal Son will follow all the same patterns as before. A father loses a son. A father searches for the son over the horizon unceasingly. When the son returns, the father celebrates extravagantly. But then the pattern breaks because the return of the son is not celebrated by all. Outside the raucous party, the older brother grumbles, steamed over the foolishness of a father who would embrace an ungrateful, wayward son.
We can relate the older brother, can’t we? Can you imagine the audacity of his younger brother? When he demands his inheritance, it is as if he were wishing for his father’s premature death.
But notice the father’s reaction. If the pattern of the first two stories holds, the father is the main character of the parable, not the prodigal. This is not the story of a lost son but a father who never ceases loving his ungrateful child. It is he who searches and yearns for his son’s return. It is he who embraces his lost son, cutting off his apology mid-sentiment. It doesn’t matter why the son has come but only that he has. After all, in the context of these three parables, the son is like the coin and the sheep. Coins and sheep don’t have the good sense to come back home; maybe the prodigal is more like them than not.
He was dead, and now he is alive. He was lost and is now found. This is why Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors, with the despised, the grungy, and the uncouth. This is precisely where God’s heart is, with the lost and the dead.
Does this mean that God is uninterested in the 99 who do the “right” thing? No, God cares for all of us deeply. God might say to us, “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this sister, this brother of yours was dead and has come to life!”
But that’s the key. As long as the one is lost, the 99 are incomplete. As long as one of our sisters or brothers is broken by the world, cast aside as irrelevant, called a sinner by the rest of us, then we are at a loss, and God’s heart is broken. God will never stop reaching for the one because God’s love is too wide, God’s grace too rich to cease looking for the lost, for those whom we deem unredeemable.
Jesus tells these parables in response to the righteous’s rejection of Jesus’ reaching out to the downtrodden. People of faith naturally don’t want to be lumped together with hypocrites whom Jesus rebukes; we would much rather see ourselves as the recipients of God’s ridiculous grace.
However, we should recognize that more often than not we belong along the supposed righteous rather than the sinners of the world.
When we complain about people who have appeared to cut in line or taken the supposedly easy road, we echo the dismay of those Pharisees and scribes.
When we lambast the undocumented for “cheating” the system and the poor for relying on government without hearing their stories and empathizing with their plights, we join the naysaying of so many purportedly righteous people.
When we see yawning equality between us and credit the wealthy for their success but judge the poor for their fecklessness, we fall into these destructive but ancient patterns.
When we see people convicted of crimes studying theology do we see a waste of time and resources? After all, many of these men will never live outside of a jail cell ever again. Or might we see the promise of new life embodied in these prisoners?
In the end, our response may say much more about us than those we condemn offhand as criminals and sinners.
The story of the prodigal is about God’s ever expanding grace, a grace that will offend our sensibilities and our collective sense of fairness. God’s grace cares little for our reputation in this world. And God’s grace ought to change us if we are its recipients.
Perhaps then these stories will inspire us to see the world as God sees it: God looks for the one who is lost, not the 99 who have life seemingly all figured out. Shouldn’t we do the same?
Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. He was ordained by Peachtree Baptist Church (CBF) in 2006. After completing a bachelor of arts degree in religion at Oklahoma Baptist University and a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, he earned a doctoral degree in New Testament from Emory University. Barreto's ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.
Image: Waiting in line, Robert Adrian Hillman / Shutterstock.com