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Lost and Found

An address by Fr John Slater

06 July 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

Not so much a sermon today - more a Bible study of the two parables of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus told three lost and found stories of which the third is the parable of the Prodigal Son - such an outstanding story that it inevitably overshadows the other two.

I want to look first at the story of the lost coin. It used to strike me as very unlikely that a woman could expect her friends and neighbours to come to a party in the middle of the night to celebrate the finding of a single coin. But perhaps this was no ordinary coin. We’ve all seen pictures of women in traditional head-dresses in which silver coins are stitched. I saw this for myself many years ago in Ladakh in northern India. For an unmarried woman these coins represent her dowry; if you like, they show that she is a good catch! More seriously they give her dignity and a standing in the community. Now that is something worth having a party for in the middle of the night. Imagine the woman’s panic when she discovered she had lost one of these important symbols of her status in society. No wonder she lit a candle and swept the house and searched diligently till she found it.

There is also a question in my mind about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep and found that he had lost one of them. We are told that he left the ninety-nine in the wilderness to go after the one he had lost. I’ve seen the Judean wilderness between Jerusalem and Jericho - where the traveller was attacked in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and where there is still a ruined house known as the Inn of the Good Samaritan. It is in this barren landscape that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep - prey to wolves, to falling down precipitous ravines and to thieves.

The lost sheep might have been grazing in the finest pasture, but that is not the point - it was not where it belonged with the flock and with the shepherd. So both parables are about belonging - the woman has her place in the community and the sheep its place with the flock and the shepherd. And we are told there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents and takes his or her place in the community of faith and in a loving relationship with God.

In the end I find the parable of the lost coin the more helpful because it is about the dignity of the human person. It asks who we are in relation to God and to each other. Jesus’ own conclusion about rejoicing in heaven makes clear his interpretation that we distance ourselves from each other, from the community of faith and from God by our own free choices - but also that the way to freely chosen repentance and return is always open to us.

Repentance is a key word in the teaching of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke. The Greek word is metanoia which means a radical turning around so that our lives face a new direction. I’m sure there have been times when we have felt our lives needed such an overhaul, like the woman who swept her house to find what she so desperately feared she had lost - her dignity as a human person, her place in society, her appropriate relationship to God. Each time we come to the Eucharist we can renew our life’s direction and open our hands to receive the divine presence, knowing ourselves to be sons and daughters with our place in the kingdom of heaven.

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