After a lengthy description of judgment and the coming "Day of the Lord," the prophet Joel proclaims God's invitation to repent and turn back to him in faith and hope. "Tear your hearts, not just your clothes, and return to the LORD your God. For he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and he relents from sending disaster" (Joel 2.13 CSB). In response, the people fast, pray, repent...and God responds with blessing. As early as the 5th century, this passage was referenced in the observance of Lent, as an incentive to prayer and fasting. While some traditions (Catholic and Orthodoxy) still regularly practice fasting, this discipline is foreign to many of us. We would do well to heed the counsel of Leo the Great, who encouraged his flock with these words. "This exhortation, dearly beloved, is what we must embrace in our times also. We must of necessity preach the remedy of this healing" (Leo the Great, Sermon 88).
Jesus tells two parables in this passage, both relating to the rejoicing that occurs in heaven when a sinner comes to faith. We will read a third, related parable tomorrow, that of the prodigal son. The congregation in which I grew up had a beautiful, 19th century stained glass window depicting Jesus with a lamb over his shoulders. We often sat near that window, and the image is still burned in my brain. The great 2nd century theologian, Tertullian, sums up this parable in a single word: Patience. "The shepherd’s patience seeks and finds the straying ewe: for Impatience would easily despise one ewe; but Patience undertakes the labor of the quest, and the patient burden-bearer carries home on his shoulders the forsaken sinner. That prodigal son also the father’s patience receives, and clothes, and feeds, and makes excuses for, in the presence of the angry brother’s impatience. He, therefore, who 'had perished' is saved, because he entered on the way of repentance. Repentance perishes not, because it finds Patience" (Tertullian, Of Patience).