I Love You More than the Ninety-Nine: The Lost and Found Parables

Biblical Commentary by Fr. Randy Flores, SVD on Lk 15:1-32

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

What is a parable?

“At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt to its precise application to tease the mind into active thought.”

This definition, which I require my students to memorize, comes from the Welsh New Testament specialist, C. H. Dodd (d. 1973).

A parable is not just then a short story for entertainment but summons the hearer to make a personal decision.

The three parables in Luke: 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)—these three are found in one chapter, one after the other.

It is not difficult to see that the three parables have a common thread: the theme of lost and found.

There are, however, differences. The first two parables, though parallel, provide a picture of the juxtaposition protagonists: the former is a male shepherd and the latter is a woman. 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).

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 is a metaphor (“to lose the sense of being a son” for the APOLLYMI in Greek, see 15:32), still, this parable is unique since 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 this parable. 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.

It makes sense, therefore, to follow the shorter option as suggested by the Ordo, leaving the third parable to a different liturgical occasion.

The narrative of 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).

The expression “tax collectors and sinners” is a catchphrase. Nine times the New Testament it (Matthew 9:10-11; 11:19; Mark 2:15-16; Luke 5:30; 7:34; 15:1).

Why are “tax collectors” labelled right away as “sinners”?

The Greek word for “tax-collector” is TELONES. Bible specialists tells us that TELONES with whom Jesus associated were not big-time collectors of principal taxes, but minor functionaries appointed to collect fees for the goods and merchandise passing through a major route. The word “toll collector” is then a more appropriate term than “tax collectors.”

An example of a TELONES or toll-collector would be Matthew who worked in Capernaum ((Matthew 9:9-13). This town in the region of Galilee is located along one of the two major highways of the Ancient Near East. The Way of the Sea or Via Maris is an international route along the Mediterranean coast linking the northwest trade centers (Damascus, Babylon, Persia) and the southeast (Egypt).

Often a toll collector would be tempted to charge more than what is prescribed; to take advantage of that position to extort bribe (KOTONG as we say in Tagalog). John the Baptist warned them hot to “collect any more than you are required to” (Luke 3:13).

While busy working as toll collector, sitting at the customs post, Matthew (also named Levi in other Gospels), was summoned Jesus to follow him. The former “got up and followed him” (Matthew 9:9).

In his personal decision to follow Jesus, Matthew also abandoned his days of pangongotong (extortions).

That Jesus would welcome toll collectors and even eat with them leave either an admirable impression or a shock on the crowd (Luke 15:2).In the Parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin, readers 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.

The shepherd goes out of his way and puts the rest of the sheep in danger to find one ordinary sheep.

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.

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. Finding it, she calls his friends and neighbors for a celebration. She spends twice or thrice or oven more, than the value of the lost coin.

For the listeners of Jesus, the message is clear: hey should not be shocked that he welcomes “toll collectors and sinners.” Repentance from sins is not even a condition. Repentance can come after an experience of love and mercy.

We can think here of Luke’s story of another TELONES, few chapters later—Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).

The guy is big time: “the chief tax collector and is rich” (v. 2). But he is also MIKROS (“small,” v. 3): both in height and in his reputation.

He must climb a tree so he could see Jesus; also, that people look up to him. What a surprise that it is the Master who would “look up” to him! And invite himself to stay at his house (v. 5).

Again, people grumble aloud: “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).

Zacchaeus 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 issues 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).

Some points to thing about:

1. Jesus reaches outward toward the peripheries: outcasts, sinners like the tax/toll collectors, the poor, etc. 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.” For his followers, there is no giving up of being practitioners of forgiveness, specialists in reconciliation, experts in mercy” and dialogue (Pope Francis).

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

4. “Churches today are challenged to expend their energy and resources not only to the “well” and the strong but also (and especially on those who need healing and a sense of divine acceptance” (from the commentary of Frs. John Donahue and Daniel Harrington in Sacra Pagina).

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