I want to tell you, beloved, about the lost chapter of the Bible.
You’ve probably already found it. It’s one of those secrets hiding in plain sight. You might know the feeling—like everyone who meets you sees you, but doesn’t really see you. You feel like you’re giving every possible signal other than tattooing it on your forehead, but still others don’t recognize you for who you are.
I want to tell you about the lost chapter of the Bible, the one with the story of a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep behind and goes out looking for the one that is lost. The one with the story of a woman who sweeps her entire house looking for the one coin that is lost. The one with the lost son who wanders from home and a lost son who stays and stews in his resentment and a lost father struggling to reunite his broken family.
This isn’t a lost story. This is our story.
We know this story, don’t we? Especially that prodigal son. Those of us who have walked away from abusive homes and abusive churches, who have turned our backs on the places that turned their backs on us—we know this story, because in every casting call we get the role of the younger son. The greedy one, the squanderer of wealth, the one who walks away from everything good to live among swine just so he could have his way. We’ve been told that’s us. My queer family knows this story all too well. When we name our sexuality or our gender identity, or when our friends and family claim us as beloved, we hear this story. We’ve been told, so many of us in so many ways, that we’re just like that son, turning our back on everything good because we want to have the world our way.
But I’ve come to wonder if the other two stories in this lost chapter of the Bible can tell us a little more about our own lost selves.
If the analogy holds, if we’re the lost second son, we’re also the lost sheep. We went wandering. We put the whole herd in danger, you know, because we followed our stubborn sheep nose and the shepherd had to leave the ninety-nine and chase us down.
You know what’s funny about sheep? They wander. That’s what they do; it’s in their nature. Most herd animals do it. That’s why, when humans domesticated cattle and goats and yes, sheep, there arose a new role: the shepherd, the rancher, the cowboy. Someone’s got to keep the herd together, because otherwise they’ll go wandering off. It isn’t some rebellion against intrinsic sheep-ness; it’s not malicious or sinful or particularly stubborn, really. Sheep wander. It’s what they do.
And sheep wander for good reasons. They wander because they’re hungry. The shepherd didn’t bring them to a fertile enough field, and they’re fighting with each other for good grass or sweet water. And these are desert sheep, mind you, wandering through the Middle Eastern wilderness—there isn’t always a lot of green to go around. If the shepherd isn’t careful, the sheep end up starving.
Sometimes the sheep are sick, or injured, or old. They’re exhausted from the heat or tired from the walk. They drop to the back of the herd, lie down somewhere to rest. If the shepherd isn’t watching for those on the edges, the group might move on without them. You’ve got to have a good shepherd, someone who’s watching for the sheep that are hurting.
And sometimes sheep run. A hundred sheep are a hundred potential meals for the wolves that wander that same wilderness. Especially a sheep that’s already not paying attention, already trying to find better food or get some rest to regain their strength—that sheep is easy pickings for the predator. So the sheep run, fleeing as fast as their hooves can take them, getting them lost but keeping them alive. If you don’t have a shepherd watching for the wolves, the sheep can end up missing—or a meal.
We’ve all known shepherds like that. Shepherds unable to see that we’re hungry or hurting or hounded by wolves that seek to tear us apart. Leaders and friends who, through passive or active indifference, see our hunger and our hurts and write them off as inconsequential. We’ve known this too well. We have hungers and hurts that people who have not struggled as we have can’t imagine. And so, we go wandering. We try to find something that will feed us, somewhere safe to rest, someone to protect us from a world that wants to devour us.
And if the analogy holds, if we are the second son and the lost sheep, we too are the lost coin. A manmade symbol of worth and value, part of a decorative collection or simply the money needed to buy that day’s bread. We’re that lost coin, precious and yet hidden, rolled under a cabinet or hidden in an unswept bit of dust.
The funny thing about coins is that they can’t get lost by themselves. They can’t roll away on their own. Coins get lost because their owners aren’t careful; whoever was in charge was wasteful with them. Coins get lost because they lose their shine, because dirt and rust cling to them, and without careful attention, they turn a color indistinguishable from dust and mess. Some of us know that story of the golden Buddha—a solid gold statue hidden under layers of mud, meant to protect a monastery’s treasure from marauding armies. Sometimes I think of the lost coin that way, a shiny penny so covered in years of grit that it falls easily to the floor of a car or the sand of a sidewalk, dropped and forgotten.
We’ve known leaders like that, too. There were leaders who saw our value as something to be squandered, something they could be careless with. They saw the beauty of our bodies as something to be used, but our wounds and trauma as something to be whitewashed over. They saw our hope and devotion as a way to build their own platform, but our questions and concerns as something to be shoved aside. They saw the richness of racial diversity as a way to prove their own skill but refused to face the systems that perpetuated division and oppression. And for nearly every member of my queer family, there were friends who watched without interfering when accusations of abomination and sinfulness battered us until our shine was hidden beneath layers of other people’s hatred.
The trouble with this metaphor is that God is the shepherd and the woman, and if God was careless with sheep and coin that would mean God was careless with us. Metaphors, in Scripture and elsewhere, do not encompass the whole of reality. God has never been careless with us, but those who claim to speak for God have. We experience God through our experiences of others. We experience God through the Scripture handed down to us over centuries, translated and retranslated, edited and sweated over. We experience God through how others use those same Scriptures, supporting both slavery and abolition, egalitarianism and complementarianism. We experience God through compassionately curated events, from regular Sunday worship to Wednesday-night Bible studies to weekend retreats, and all the experiences of God that our leaders have had create filters for our own experiences. And too often—because really, even once is too often—those leaders look at us, we precious hungry sheep and dusty dropped coins, the very things that God-as-shepherd and God-as-woman is straining with all her might to keep safe, and they don’t see us in our beautiful bodies as made in the image of God. They don’t see the dappled diversity of our skin as a gift but as a task to be completed, a mix to be separated. They don’t see the gentleness of our love, how it makes us more ready to care for others and do God’s work in the world.
Those leaders look at us and only see a sinful second son.
The prodigal son. That’s the name we gave him. Prodigal: lavish, reckless, extravagant. Spending money he shouldn’t. He takes his inheritance and takes off, squanders it, lives recklessly, then comes home with his tail between his legs.
But just as with the sheep and the coin, if the metaphor holds, then I as the second son have some questions.
What is so broken in this family that the second son leaves? To say to a father “I want my inheritance now” is to say “I wish you were dead.” How has this family fractured so badly? Is that second son, like hungry sheep, not fed well enough, not cared for? Is he, like a coin without its luster, forgotten in the shine of the dutiful older brother? Is the blame for his leaving all with him, or, like the shepherd and the woman, does the father too bear responsibility?
I as the second son, the wasteful, the sinner, have a question: Why does the father give him the money? Is it resignation, an acceptance that his sinful son has turned too far against him to turn back? Is it given with a sneer, a frustrated toss of a coin bag: Fine, go, if you think you can do better on your own!
I wonder, as that second son who has had to turn her back on places that wounded her, if the father had regrets. If he wished he’d done something differently: not given the money, paid more attention, gone after the son and stood in the road and begged him to return. But he doesn’t. He gives the son the money, and he lets him go.
And I have a question, as a woman and a daughter: where is the mother? Where is the societal glue that would have held this first-century family together? If she is alive, why does she not grab father and son both by the ear until they work their quarrel out without such a traumatic break first? Or is she dead and cannot advocate for the lesser of the sons, cannot find a way to make peace where there are three men in pain?
I as the second son, the wasteful, the sinner, have a question: why is the father willing to welcome him home without an apology? The son’s practiced speech, whether sincere or contrived, is interrupted not with condemnation or passivity but a cry for servants to bring a ring and shoes and a robe—the best robe. This is some welcome for a grand sinner. Perhaps just coming home was enough of an apology. Perhaps just coming home was enough.
The father didn’t go looking for him, but he saw him from a long way off. I like that image, the father pacing the edge of his land, wrinkled hand shielding aging eyes, peering off into the distance where he last saw his second son. He didn’t go after him, but he didn’t stop looking for him. Maybe there was transformation for the father, too. Maybe while the son misspent his money, the father was regretting misspending his time. Maybe when his son was hungry for rotting pods, the father was hungry for reconciliation. Maybe, if something was wrong enough in the family to make the son leave, there was something right enough in the leaving to make the father change.
What I think, my fellow second sons, is that we were told the truth. This story is for us. We are the prodigal son. But too we are lost and hungry sheep. We have gone unfed, walked without rest, been chased by wolves, and our friends and leaders did not see our pain. But God, in big and little ways, has donned a shepherd’s cloak and come running after us. God, in big and little ways, has clambered over rocks and climbed down cliffs. God has found us, hungrier and more hurt and terrified, and cradled us close to say: No matter why you left or where you went, you are mine.
We too are lost and dusty coins. We have gone unnoticed, rusted from others’ indifference, misspent and misused, and our friends and leaders did not see our neglect. But God, in big and little ways, has picked up a woman’s broom and swept every corner of creation. God, in big and little ways, has tucked up her skirts and flattened herself on the floor, dug through dust bunnies and checked every dress pocket. God has found us, dustier and rustier and without any luster, and held us up to the light to say: No matter how you rolled away or what corner you were dropped in, you are mine.
We have been unwanted, rejected, sent away with anger or with sadness at our rebellious streak. We have seen both glory and starvation, both beauty and pig pens, and we are coming home footsore and heartbroken. And before the words are out of our mouth, before our perfect speech is performed, God is cloaking our dirty shoulders in the best robe, slipping a ruby ring on our work-worn fingers, cleaning off the pig slobber to slip sandals on our feet, and declaring: I am so sorry you had to go, and I am eternally glad to have you back again.
These stories, beloved, are for us too.
– Emmy Kegler, “Lost,” One Coin Found: How God’s Love Stretches to the Margins
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© 2019 Fortress Press. May be read aloud or reprinted only with full attribution.