How do we consider these very familiar parables? We do know that a rabbinic parable has A point and is not to be allegorized like an Aesop’s fable. Still, we know Jesus was making a point (or points) to his audience, and while not in the habit of pulling his punches, his intention was always to reach people, not turn them off. And his audience? Pharisees and lawyers…
So let’s see… He reminds them that they will go in search of a lost lamb and implies, why should God be different? OK? But then the shepherd goes crazy. He picks up the lamb and goes home to throw a party, effectively abandoning the 99 in the wilderness. He did not abandon them in a hedged in field of sweet green grass, but in the scruffy wilderness where they would likely become meat for the nearest lion. Huh?
We get so enthralled with the idea of rejoicing over the one found, we forget the 99. I figure the 99 thought they were doing just fine and did not need a shepherd… Hmmm… I wonder if this parable was really about the 99 who felt they were just fine the way they were, like Pharisees and lawyers maybe?
So then he tells us about a lost coin and again, the woman throws a party on finding it. Now that makes no sense. First, the party probably cost more than the coin was worth. Then second, a coin knows nothing, unlike a sheep which would tremble and bleat in fear at being “lost” (separated from the herd). The coin would not care if it was slipped into a crack between two floorboards or polished and put safely away in a fancy box.
This is the sinners and tax collectors, I think, or anyway it is the lost as opposed to the 99 lawyers and Pharisees of the last parable. The lost may very well be, and often are totally ignorant about being lost. It is all God. It is all the Lord that puts everything on hold to seek until the lost are found, and when sinners and tax collectors are found, the Lord wants to give a party. Give a big WOO-HOO! Hang the expense.
Well, there you go. He covered the Pharisees and lawyers in the first story and the sinners and tax collectors in the second… So why did he tell the third? I think he wanted to show what it was like from our perspective. In the first two parables, the shepherd and the woman clearly stand in the place of God… OK. In the third parable the perspective changes to how we fallible human beings see things.
The younger son, so obviously the sinner and tax collector in the story, comes to his senses. He comes home with a big speech all about how sorry he is, but the Father hardly hears him. Again, it is straight to the party… “For he was dead and he is alive again.” We don’t get much more of the human perspective on that end, whether or not the younger son was happy, grateful, or what. We do get the older son’s perspective, though: the lawyer and Pharisee perspective:
“I’ve done everything. I’ve not rebelled. I’ve been the good son, blah, bah, blah.” Again, to be fair, the Father hardly listens.
“Son, all I have is yours, but for right now, come and join the party because your brother was dead and is alive again.” And the story abruptly stops! It has been hanging in the air, unfinished for 2,000 years. Why? Because every lawyer and Pharisee (and this world is full of them) needs to answer for themselves. NOTE: It is not a rejection of the older son, only he IS missing the party…
So it is Either
“Yes, Dad, you’re right. I was being silly. I am glad my younger brother is home and safe and in one piece. What is past is past. Let’s celebrate.”
Or it will be
“NO! I’m staying out here in this stinking wilderness and sulk and occupy myself trying to figure out where these 99 sheep came from…”