4 – The Value of Things Lost
‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’
‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’
‘We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead
and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’
The story of the father & his wayward sons is, in actual fact, one of a set of paintings. There are three scenes that Jesus paints that tell the same story. Something is valued. That thing is lost. There is a longing for its return, it is found, and then there is a celebration.
These three windows on life are like the great stained glass windows of many European cathedrals. There is often the central and larger scene bordered on each side by two other scenes, and together they usually illustrate one set of ideas. But in the case of Luke’s account the central story is not the middle one, but the final one. There is a reason for that.
These three stories have been called “The Parable of the Lost Sheep”, “The Parable of the Lost Coin” and “The Parable of the Lost Sons.” The stories are all found in Luke chapter 15.
Let us look at how these stories differ in their treatment of the same idea.
The Ascending Order of Value.
F. W. Boreham[i] notes that if an accountant were telling these stories and evaluating them he would note that the first story is about a 1% loss. A shepherd has 100 sheep and he loses one of them. That’s a 1% loss if he never finds it.
The second story is about a 10% loss. A woman has 10 silver coins. If she loses one, it is a 10% loss.
The third story is about a loss of 50%. A man has two sons. If he loses one of them that is half of his sons gone. That is a 50% loss. A much more significant loss than 1% or 10%.
The Value of the Sheep
But of course no accountant told these stories. The shepherd doesn’t say, “Ah well, easy come, easy go. We’ll make it up next lambing season.” There is not simply an accountant’s profit and loss column in his mind. There is a living creature out there in the wilds. It is an animal that might be in pain. He knows his sheep by name and the lost sheep is not 1%. It is “Diamond”. And the shepherd drops everything and goes out looking. No loss is acceptable. He will search, whatever it takes, until he finds either the sheep or its carcass. This is not guarding the pennies. This is love in pursuit.
The Value of the Silver
Neither does the woman face her loss as the mathematician might. A coin from this collection is not mere money for her. She never meant to spend or give away any of them. They are part of her. They served the same function as the wedding band does in our day. She would wear the coins strung together to form a necklace or as a frontlet for her forehead. They are the signals to the community and to herself that she is married. Each day she fingers those coins remembering the early days of love. Perhaps each of the 10 has become like a rosary to her, each one triggering different memories. It must have been a terrible moment when she discovered the gap in the strand. She has lost something to her of greater value than a silver dollar or 10% of the grocery money. She has lost something of immense value. And she begins that search. And the search was no easier for her than for the shepherd. The floors in those Palestinian homes were not wall-to-wall linoleum. They were dirt floors with reeds and rushes scattered over the dirt. That coin could be imbedded in the dirt, stuck between the reeds, hidden in one of the dark corners of those almost windowless houses. She had no electric lights to switch on, no flashlight to help her, just a fluttering candle. But starting at one side of that house she begins her search, picking up and examining the longer reeds, then sweeping the smaller materials into a pile that she will sift through with her fingers. And in desperate hope she sifts through the dirt, until she finds that which was lost.
The Value of a Son.
Nor does the Father have a calculator or a computer for a heart. He doesn’t sit down on the day his younger son leaves and says, “Wow! A 50% loss! Talk about a recession!” Nor does he console himself with saying “Ah well. One out of two isn’t bad. That’s the luck of the draw. Some you win, some you lose.”
Ah no. To lose a son or a daughter is to have suffered a wound at the very heart. To lose a child is to have suffered an irreplaceable loss. He can live with the loss of half his wealth, but not with the loss of half his sons. To lose a child is like no other loss. Such a loss can lead to a lifetime of grief, which time never heals.
But how do we know that sheep, coin and sons were valued? The three central characters in this tri-fold story do not simply sing, “Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be!’ The shepherd will put his own life in danger and will allow even the 99 to be put in jeopardy, to find the one that is lost. The woman will search frantically until she finds, and the Father will leap the garden fence in his race towards the returning son. How do we know they are valued? Upon their being found, shepherd, housewife and parent will each call the neighbors in for the celebration. They are ecstatic! That is how much the lost are loved! That is how much we too are loved and valued. That is how much all persons are loved by the Father of all humanity. Thanks be to God!
There has been a long debate between the two great halves of Christendom. Western Christianity, following the lead of Tertullian and Augustine, concluded that when humanity fell, it became so depraved that it retained nothing of value. All persons became in consequence of the Fall, “arrogant worms.” The image of God in humanity was obliterated and instead we all bear the image of Adam, rather than that of God Himself.
Eastern Christianity, however, following the lead of Irenaeus, knew that even in our fallenness we are still “fearfully and wonderfully made.” But because of that Fall we became “flawed divinities.” We have become, however, more deprived than depraved, more weak than wicked. We are affected as much by a sickness of the soul as we are by a sinfulness of the will. We still bear the image of God, but it has become “damaged, stapled, spindled and mutilated.” We are humanity damaged, but not defaced.
Some in the Western Church held we had only an extrinsic value. That is, the only value we have is that which God places upon us by his “wanting us,” worthless though we had become (like cancelled postage stamps to stamp collectors). The Eastern Church, however, considered that we had retained intrinsic value. When God created us he had declared this part of his creation “very good!” Though humanity had been deeply damaged, it is still well worth loving, saving and restoring.
The story of the loving father of two wayward sons makes me want to tilt the teeter-totter in the direction of the Eastern evaluation. Both sons, made in the image of the father, are both yearned after by this loving parent. They are not valued simply because he “imputes” value to them, but he values them because they are made in his own image and may yet be restored to their full worth.
The phrase “Sanctity of life” has pervaded recent discussions on matters of global ethics. It is a way to express that living beings have value in and of themselves.
In early Jainism and Buddhism their adherents attempted to practice “Ahisma”, the non-injury to all living things. In Western cultures that was seen as an impossible asceticism. But whether it could be practiced all the way down to our refusal to swat a mosquito, there has always been something of great value in the concept. What could the sanctity of all life mean in the Christian community?
- It certainly means that all persons should be treated with respect, regardless of race, color, class, status, creed, gender or sexual orientation. It also means that freedom, dignity and justice for all persons should be sought for all.
- It also means that we will uphold the dignity of all human life: whether nascent or geriatric, pre-born or post-mortem. Our reverence for all human life will influence how we treat both victims and perpetrators of crime; it will affect the ways we treat our enemies as well as our friends.
- It also means that cruelty to animals is abhorrent for the same reason. They too have inherent value, and even if we agree to hunt and eat them, raise them for food or retain them for sport or as pets, we will not tolerate the unnecessary abuse of them.
- It also means that we will attempt to minimize damaging of the environment of this planet. It too has its own inherent value. So we will work seriously to reduce, reuse and recycle as much as we creatively can. We will work to limit our appetites to a more modest consumption, and put legal limits on those that plunder the planet’s resources without restorative recompense.
[i] F. W. Boreham, The Prodigal, (London: Epworth, 1941), p. 14.