Yesterday's lectionary Gospel gave us the first two stories from Luke's triptych on lost things. In anticipating this I referred to the final story as being about a bad Dad, and, expectedly, someone questioned this. It was naughty of me because the Dad is not, it turns out, bad, but the Pharisees are suckered into thinking this in order to get them to listen to the story.
First the context. Jesus is accused of keeping dodgy company. In response he asks which of his questioners, on losing 1 of 100 sheep, wouldn't go search and party when they found it. Well none of them. Because sheep finding is not the excuse for a party. Shepherds are never mentioned although the Old Testament imagery would have been inescapable. If we work out who the characters are in the parable we will get the point. God is like a person who has a party when he finds a lost sheep.
Then Jesus asks his hearers to consider a woman having a a party because she has found a coin she lost. If it is a silver coin it is, as the commentators point out, probably about day's wages so she has lost 10% of her cash. Nevertheless calling the neighbours round for a drink to celebrate seems a bit extreme.
That was where our readings left us yesterday. God is like a shepherd; God is like a woman.
And so when we get to the longer parable we know so well, the prodigal son in vv11-32, we imagine the Pharisees saying, 'At last, here is a picture of God we can identify with. God is like a good, disiplinarian, Jewish abba. Hooray.'
But this Dad is bad. When his younger son asks for his share of the family fortune, in effect saying 'Dad, I wish you were dead now' he is given not a beating but the bounty. They are really listening now.
Because that Dad remains willing to welcome back his spendthrift son when he comes to his senses and returns, and is equally willing to give a ticking-off to the older son who has, apparently, done no wrong.
The Pharisees are meant to be shepherds. Instead they police more and more ridiculous rules for the sheep's behaviour. The Pharisees are meant to be happy about repentance. Instead they are out-partied by a woman who finds a lost coin. The Pharisees are meant to seek and save the lost. Instead they mutter when Jesus keeps company with them.
God gives freedom to his creation to ignore him if they want and even to wish him dead and still holds a party if anyone changes their mind.
Today we may, as a church, be a bit Pharisaic from time to time but I hope we desire not the death of a sinner but rather that he or she may turn from their wickedness and live. Then we can party.
And that's only bad news for one. The fatted calf.