A ministry that focuses on helping the incarcerated find a way back to a productive life in our community does well to remember three stories that Jesus told. Jesus spent time with the social outcasts, the misfits, the people who had messed up in life. The good, respectable people grumbled about that. How could Jesus lead those people (and us) to use their time and resources to help the outcasts rebuild their lives?
Jesus could have demanded that the respectable people check their attitude. But few of us like being told what to think, do we? How about telling stories? Jesus often used stories to change minds. A story is an indirect approach that can get past our defenses. It invites us to identify with someone in the story.
So Jesus speaks of a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep who are safe and searches for the one that is lost, until he finds it. Doesn’t it make sense to focus attention on what’s lost? We don’t think much about our car keys on a typical day–until they’re lost. We may take for granted that puppy that greets us at the door–until she’s lost. Isn’t a person who’s lost his way in life worthy of our focused attention? God’s grace seeks the lost.
Then, Jesus tells a second story. A woman has ten valuable silver coins but discovers that one is lost. She lights a lamp and searches the house until she finds it and calls her neighbors to rejoice with her. The story points to another characteristic of God’s grace; it is undeserved. The sheep had wandered off and gotten himself lost. The coin certainly was not going to find itself. All the action comes from the shepherd who searches or the woman who seeks until the lost item is found. If those rescues are worth celebrating, how much more is a rescued person worth celebrating?
Finally, Jesus tells a timeless story. A man had two sons. The younger son demanded his inheritance early, journeyed to a far country, and squandered his money in reckless living. Eventually, he found himself homeless and hungry. At rock bottom, the young son finally got his thinking straight. If he could just live again in his father’s house, his attitude would be changed forever. But upon his return, before he could even get out his apology, the compassionate father welcomed him back with joy. “Let’s celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:20). Many people down through the years have identified with that son who gets a second chance because of the father’s grace.
But the story doesn’t end with a happy ending. Why did Jesus “ruin” the story? He tells us about the unforgiving older brother who feels no compassion and cannot celebrate a rescued life. Surely this part of the story holds a mirror up to the grumblers who criticized Jesus for lifting up those whom society had pushed aside. In a way, this story remains open-ended. As we think about the incarcerated, will we identify with the older brother and argue that the undeserving should not be given a second chance? Perhaps we can identify with the immature young man who only got his thinking straight after experiencing some hard living with his mistakes. Or could we cultivate the compassion of the Father and rejoice over every person “who was dead, and is alive; was lost, and is found”? The mission of TPOM gives us the chance to live out God’s grace in very tangible ways.