Signpost for Sunday 6 March, 2016, 4th in Lent: Josh 5:9-12; Ps 32; 2 Cor 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3,11b-32.
I think the lectionary messes us about a bit this week. The reading starts with a setting of the scene (Luke 5:1-3) and then catapults us over Jesus telling two stories so that we land slap bang in the third one. Admittedly it’s one of the most popular stories in the gospels, but that can be part of the problem with hearing it the way people in church will this Sunday.
A lot of us will overlook those first three verses of Luke 5 and get a bit tangled up in thinking about how ungrateful the younger son is, how magnanimous the father (the Father) is and, inevitably, having a quite a bit of sympathy for the older brother who had never even been given a small goat to roast on the barbie with his mates.
So let’s wind back a bit. Why is Jesus telling this story (and the other two) in the first place? Because he’s heard the Pharisees incite the crowd by whispering that Jesus eats and socializes with sinners (Luke 5: 1-3). The stories he then tells are his response to that (about the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son). They are all linked and they are a brilliant piece if writing.
There is tip that I give my writing students. Some people call it the rule of three. The fact is that things that come in threes are more effective than things that come in twos or fours. Two isn’t quite enough to convince and four is too much to take in for the reader (or listener). It’s why Shakespeare wrote, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…’ rather than ‘Friends and Romans, lend me your ears…’ It’s why The Good, The Bad and The ugly is such a great title for a film. Then, of course there’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Simply put, if you want your message to be remembered, put it into a group of three. And that’s exactly what Jesus is doing here. He really wants the Pharisees to get the message. When something that is very precious is lost and then found, when almost all hope of finding it has been given up, you feel great. Hence the first two stories that all about how it feels to find something you’ve lost. (Yay, I found my keys this morning, again.)
Then comes the third story. Jesus wants the Pharisees (and the crowd) to realise that because someone loses their way, doesn’t mean they can’t find it again; don’t write them off, or as the Pharisees so openly did, shun them. Maybe he’s also making the point that he hangs around with sinners because he doesn’t want to lose them.