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Saturday, September 15, 2007

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C): "Until one finds it"

This picture shows some Roman coinage
as reformed by Augustus c. 23 B.C.E
(1 gold aureus=25 silver denarii;
1 denarius=4 bronze sesterti).
Credit: Barbara McManus, 2001



The Text: Lk 15:1-32 or 15:1-10
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them he addressed this parable.
“What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them
would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert
and go after the lost one until he finds it?
And when he does find it,
he sets it on his shoulders with great joy
and, upon his arrival home,
he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them,
‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’
I tell you, in just the same way
there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous people
who have no need of repentance.

“Or what woman having ten coins and losing one
would not light a lamp and sweep the house,
searching carefully until she finds it?
And when she does find it,
she calls together her friends and neighbors
and says to them,
‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’
In just the same way, I tell you,
there will be rejoicing among the angels of God
over one sinner who repents.”

Then he said,
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him,
and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns,
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”

or

Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them he addressed this parable.
“What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them
would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert
and go after the lost one until he finds it?
And when he does find it,
he sets it on his shoulders with great joy
and, upon his arrival home,
he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them,
‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’
I tell you, in just the same way
there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous people
who have no need of repentance.

“Or what woman having ten coins and losing one
would not light a lamp and sweep the house,
searching carefully until she finds it?
And when she does find it,
she calls together her friends and neighbors
and says to them,
‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’
In just the same way, I tell you,
there will be rejoicing among the angels of God
over one sinner who repents.”

Commentary
We are entering the second month of the disappearance of Eliseo Cadivin. The SVD seminarian never returned to the seminary after he went out to claim a small amount sent to him as a birthday gift. It is also for two months now since Eliseo’s two brothers and a sister took a leave from work to look for their lost brother. Their relentless search, day and night, rain or shine is remarkable. When we confer every night to exchange information, the sister always ends a fruitless day with words of determination: “We will not rest until we find him”.

I think, the above can be a modern and realistic parallel of the two parables [three if longer reading is preferred] in this Sunday’s Gospel reading.

The Three Parables of "Lost and Found"

The three parables – parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7), parable of the lost coin (Luke 15: 8-10), and parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) are found in one chapter, one after the other. It is not difficult to see that the three stories have the same genre and theme – a parable that narrates of being lost and found. If we, however, read slowly and attentively these parables, we notice significant differences between the first two parables and the parable of the prodigal son. The first two parables though parallel provide a picture of the juxtaposition of the a male (shepherd) and female (woman) protagonists. Sheep and a coin are lost and the owners go out of their way to find the lost properties. Once found, there is a public announcement of rejoicing. The parables end with a statement of Jesus associating the joy with the heavenly joy caused by “one sinner who repents” (15:7,10).

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

In the parable of the prodigal son, there is no mention of being lost. The son takes the initiative to leave his father’s house. If lost here means metaphorical (to lose the sense of being a son, apollymi in Greek”, see 15:32), still this parable is unique since the the one “lost” is a human being rather than just merely a piece of property (sheep or coin). Unlike the sheep and the coin, the son is not found but comes to his senses and goes home.

There is also a third major character of the story—the elder son. There is no announcement of a public rejoicing in the parable of the prodigal son. In fact, the elder son is surprised of the ongoing celebration. The parable does not end with statement of Jesus on a heavenly joy over a repentant sinner. Hence, it makes sense to follow the shorter option suggested by the liturgists and leaving out the third parable to a different liturgical occasion.

Tax/Toll Collectors

The narration of the parable of the lost sheep and parable of the lost coin is occasioned by “tax collectors and sinners” drawing near to listen to Jesus and causing the Pharisees and scribes to “keep grumbling aloud” (Gk., diegongyzon, vv. 1-2).

In the world of the New Testament, the expression "tax collectors and sinners" (see also Mt 9:10) is common, almost like a slogan. Why are tax collectors sinners? Not all of them are corrupt. The Greek word "telōnēs" usually translated "tax collectors" properly means "toll collectors".

As we know, one of Jesus’ disciples is a tax/toll collector (see Mt 9:9-13). Matthew (called Levi in the Gospels of Mark and John) works in Capernaum, Jesus' second hometown along the edge of the Lake of Galilee. Located along the major road of international trade between Damascus and Egypt, this town is strategic. Goods and merchandise sold in other towns would have to pass through Capernaum. Tolls have to be paid for goods entering and leaving Capernaum. Matthew is one of those toll collectors who work in the Capernaum custom house (someone like a customs collector today).

Why toll collectors are called "sinners"? The rich and the educated, a minority in Jesus' day, routinely criticize toll collectors because such job was not honorable as collections were paid to the colonial power, Rome. Though against their will because they were Jews, they have to do the job to survive. Any extra amount will also be welcomed coming from tips from the merchants passing through Capernaum. Rarely that toll collectors would have a very rare opportunity to cheat because of the efficiency of the auditing system of the Roman Empire.

Toll collectors are not sinners because they cheat on their job. They are simply stereotyped as sinners because they work in such a job looked down by many. In short, they represent the outcast and the poor. That Jesus would welcome them and even eat with them leave either an admirable impression or a shock on the crowd (Luke 15:2).

The Parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin

Readers, indeed, are shocked by the extravagance of the two parables.

In the first parable, the shepherd loses a sheep and leaves the ninety-nine “in the wilderness” the most dangerous of all places in Israel (see Deut 32:10). He seeks the sheep “until he finds it” (v. 3). Finding it, he “places the sheep on his shoulders” and summons friends and neighbors with a celebration. In a similar parable from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, the shepherd looks for that sheep because it is the “biggest one” and when the shepherd finds it he says, “I love you more than the ninety-nine.” We do not find these details in Luke. The shepherd goes out of his way and puts the rest of the sheep in danger to find one ordinary sheep.

In the second parable, the woman loses a coin. The search of the woman is described in four actions: “light a lamp”, “sweep the house”, and seek diligently”, “until he finds it” (v. 8). In short, she does everything to find just one coin though she has still nine coins left. When she finds it, she calls his friends and neighbors for a celebration, surely spending much more than the value of the lost coin.

For the listeners of Jesus, the message is clear –they should not be shocked that he welcomes tax/toll collectors and sinners, nor repentance is a condition. Repentance can also come after an experience of love and mercy.

Zaccheaus, the chief tax/toll collector

We can think here of Luke’s story of another tax collector few chapters later—Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). He is, in fact, “the chief tax collector and is rich” (v. 2), but “small” (Gk. mikros v. 3)--both in height and in his reputation. He has to climb a tree so he could see Jesus and at the same time so people look up to him. What a surprise that it is the master who would “look up” to him. (Gk. anablepos) and invite himself to stay at his house (v. 5).

Again, people grumble aloud (Gk. diagoggyzō): "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner" (v. 7). But Zacchaeus, obviously touched by the Jesus’ gesture of going out of his way to stay at his house, declares: "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (v. 8). Zecchaeus is familiar with the Torah on the laws of restitution: “When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep” (Exodus 22:1).

The end of the story of Zacchaeus bears similarity with the conclusion of parables of sheep and the coin. In the two parables, Jesus makes a statement of the heavenly joy in one repentant sinner. In the story of Zacchaeus, he declares that “salvation” (in Hebrew yeshua, also the name of Jesus in Hebrew) enters Zacchaeus’ household and that he too is Abraham’s child. "For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost" (vv. 9-10).

To recapitulate the points:

1) Jesus goes out for the outcasts, the sinners, and the poor, here represented by tax/toll collectors. This is typical of Luke’s portrait of Jesus’ mission.

2) Like the shepherd and the woman who lost his sheep and her coin respectively, Jesus seeks “until he finds it”.

3) Such experience of concern and mercy brings a sinner to repentance (like Zaccheaus).

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