Trash or treasure?

“Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to him to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them'” (Luke 15:1-2, NKJV).

I have been reminded of the saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” as I have watched the concrete and brick rubble from the demolition of a roof being buried to form the solid base layer of a road bed. One of the expected problems when it was proposed to remove the old roof was, “what will we do with all of the waste material?” When it was decided that much of it could be put to good use in the building of the driveway, that project was added.

Sometimes humans are quick to condemn those who are considered unworthy, and to assume that there is no redeeming quality to be found in them. It is assumed that they are lost beyond hope, that their sinful nature cannot be changed or forgiven. And sometimes there are some who are believed to be no longer worth saving.

Those whom the Pharisees and scribes considered to be trash, Jesus saw as lost souls worth reclaiming and putting to good use. The statements quoted above form the background for some of Jesus’ most beloved parables, the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (Luke 15:3-32).

In each case the “owner” had more than one of a particular kind of possession. In each case when one was lost, the others were secured, then a search was made. When the lost sheep, coin and son were recovered, others were invited to rejoice with the one who had sought them.

These stories are obvious allegories, especially the third and last of them. In the story of the Prodigal Son the father clearly represents God; the older son represents the Pharisees and scribes; and the younger son represents the tax collectors and sinners whom Jesus received. Jesus’ primary lesson in each of the parables is that the obvious and appropriate reaction when something has been found that was lost is to rejoice.

The Jewish leaders had no problem understanding this in reference to sheep and coins. But when the sinful people whom they had rejected came to Jesus, they considered it to be a shame and reproach, not something to be happy about. It was their willingness to cast off their fellow Israelites as beyond hope and without value that incurred Jesus’ criticism.

Unfortunately, too many today, even among religious people, continue to fall into the pattern of the elder brother. That righteous son, who had remained at home and worked with his father while the younger brother was wasting their money on sinful adventures, saw no reason to rejoice at the preferential treatment the young man seemed to be getting. He resented his father’s joy and mercy. But the father simply said, “This is a time for being happy. We thought your brother was dead, but now he is alive.”

Things that are lost may be recovered. That which is seemingly waste may still have value. In these wonderful stories we are reminded that a lost sheep can be returned to the flock, a lost coin can be put back with others, and a lost son may be restored to his family. People can change; sins can be forgiven. And when that happens we should rejoice.

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