So Jesus told them three connected stories.
He asked the religious men wrinkling their noses if they were owners of a hundred sheep, wouldn't they naturally leave ninety-nine of them behind in order to find the one that had been lost. And when the one lost sheep was found, wouldn't that be cause for a party?
He followed it immediately by asking which of them wouldn't turn their house upside down to find one lost silver coin until it was found. And then when the coin was found, wouldn't that be cause for a party?
Jesus caps the trilogy with a story of a man with two sons, one of which asks for his inheritance before his dad has even died. The boy squanders it all in a foreign land, realizes he's living at a lower quality of life than his dad's hired servants, and so goes home to grovel. His dad scoops him up in a rib-cracking hug and throws a party for the ages at his boy's return.
Who lost what?
The parables were a challenge to the pharisees' pious self-righteousness and their dedication to the purity rules. Nowadays Pharisee means someone who loves rules more than people. The term was an honor then. It's a slam now. One that mocks a low view of the power of the Divine Punch against any turd dropped in it.
But there is a second layer of challenge.
|"Oops. I guess the sheep, and the blame for losing him, go on my shoulders."|
In the story of the man and the lost sheep, it's the man who loses the sheep. Sheep don't lose themselves. Sheep are either wild or they're part of a herd watched over by a shepherd. The story puts the responsibility on the man who calls the sheep his.
In the story of the lost coin, the woman loses the coin. Coins don't lose themselves. This story also puts the responsibility on the owner of the thing, not the thing.
In the story traditionally called the Prodigal Son, the irresponsibility of the son is in view. He acted on selfish impulse. Then stubbornness. Then, drained of most of his ego, he shuffles home. This story puts the weight on the boy's silly young shoulders. Accepting of course that the father gave in to the immature boy's outlandish request.
This is really sloppy story-telling if the main point is calling sin, "sin", and assigning that sin to the right character.
But the stories hold up just fine when we put the overachieving mental pharisee on leave and hear Jesus teaching us that, in reality, reunion is the point. If we disagree that Reunion is the point, we probably prefer to stand while Jesus and the sinners enjoy their meal.
The Table is for everyone
Doesn't Christian art typically depict Jesus as the one finding the lost sheep? Sheep that he, the Good Shepherd, was responsible for? If this realization bothers us as some kind of blasphemy, it might be because we believe in a God who is dedicated to God's own reputation more than us. A cosmic pharisee of sorts, rather than the eager Pursuer Jesus depicted. But Jesus doesn't seem too worried about blame. He's trying to drill the-celebration-of-two-becoming-one into the heads of people whose entire identity is based on who's in and who's out.
Perhaps Judgment Day has God asking us all, "Who cares about whose fault this or that is? We've managed a reunion! What was apart is together again!" A hard lesson is tacked on to the end of the Prodigal Son. The older brother is pissed that the little brother is "back in" after such a short season of purity at the father's ranch. He likes a good guy table and a bad guy table separated, with faults and rewards properly assigned, just like the pharisees who incited this parable. But the Father loves the sons more than house rules. So the energy was spent on the homecoming. Like the coin. Like the sheep.
The reunion was more important than sin. That may not be the case with detached judges who preside over a courtroom. But it's always the case with Family.
If our Christian faith is understood as a penal loophole that gets us out of wrath, then we're likely to subtly believe we value us more than God values us. That is, we feel tasked with worrying about our selves as God immutably protects the perfection of the Law. The coin must find itself. The sheep must must reintegrate itself. The prodigal must come home and work off the debt. The whole enterprise becomes an adventure in self-righting rather than Reunion- certainly not anything unique among world religions.
But our being found, much to the dismay of the protectors of religion, is the inevitability of every version of Jesus' stories. Because we are loved by Love. Reunited by Oneness. Valued above any rule ever given to us. So we scoot over and keep adding other objects of pursuit to the dinner table, letting pharisees miss out on the reunion as long as they believe they must. Whenever they're ready they can have their sins deemphasized in light of Reunion too.