To be imprisoned with no way out is a desolate experience for guilty and innocent alike. When fourteen or fifteen year old children are incarcerated for life, their dawning realisation of a future without hope of reprieve brings boundless grief and a desperate sense of loss. ABC Four Corners ran a feature recently on prisoners in the United States who, as juveniles, have been convicted of felony murder, an offence that carries a life sentence in some states without the possibility of parole. Prisoners and victims were interviewed, as were grieving family members on both sides. In the end, those refusing forgiveness seemed more irretrievably ‘lost’ than those who continue to serve their life sentences.
All three parables in today’s gospel invite us into the experience of loss: loss of a valued creature; loss of the means of survival; loss of an adult child’s respect and presence. All three parables likewise invite us into an encounter with a God who seeks and ‘saves’ what is lost. The parables are prefaced by an account of the criticism Jesus endured for hosting ‘the lost’, the toll collectors and ‘sinners’. The critics are those who consider themselves ‘righteous’. They have no room in their hearts for compassion or forgiveness on the one hand, and no capacity on the other to accept the goodness of a prophet who acts in ways that cut across their expectations.
‘What man of you…?’ asks Jesus of his critics, who incidentally would not care to be identified with shepherds, whom they despised as unclean. As the story unfolds, the lost sheep is sought and found and ultimately embraced by the community. The celebration that ensues is likened to the heavenly banquet of God’s reign where there is more joy over one who repents than over those who have no need of repentance. Repent/repentance may seem a strange choice of words as all the action is taken by the shepherd: the sheep simply responds to the initiative of the shepherd who goes after it and returns it to the fold.
‘Or what woman….? is Jesus’ second question to his critics. The pattern is repeated. The drachma, representing a day’s wages, is lost, sought and found, and the community rejoices. Now and then, as here, God is imaged as a woman. God is not only the good shepherd or the good male parent as in the third parable. God is also the diligent female householder who seeks and saves what is lost. No single image can contain the compassionate, loving God presented in these parables. The invitation to the believing community is to find ways of opening our hearts and the hearts of the unforgiving in our world to God’s action of seeking and saving the lost—here and now, not simply in the afterlife.