The parables of the lost sheep and the Prodigal Son are amongst the best-known and most loved of all the parables of Jesus, but that of the lost coin, which is included in this week’s Gospel reading, also attracted attention from the Fathers. As usual my main sources are the commentaries by St Cyril of Alexandria, St Ambrose; the letters of St Basil and the sermons of Peter Chrysologus are also invoked where they add to our understanding.
St Ambrose tells us that in presenting three parables in a row, Luke is giving us a story of a threefold remedy for what ails us. Who are the Father, the Shepherd and the woman, but God the Father, the Son and the church? Christ carries you on his body and took your sins on himself; the church seeks and the Father forgives. The shepherd carries. The mother searches. The father clothes. First comes mercy, then comes intercession, and finally comes reconciliation. Each complements the other. The Saviour rescues, the church intercedes and the Creator reconciles. The mercy of the divine act is the same, but the grace differs according to our merits.
St Basil points out that if we surrender ourselves to him, the Lord will not hold back; he will lift us onto his shoulders and carry us home. We are the lost sheep, he the good shepherd.
Ambrose tells us that the lost coin is faith. The damage to the soul if one loses one’s faith and the grace it brings is desolating. Light your lamp – that is the interior eye of the soul, which feeds on the oil of the Spirit. St Cyril sees in the coin stamped with the likeness of the emperor, ourselves, made in God’s image. We have fallen and been lost, and have been found by Christ and transformed by holiness and righteousness in his own image.. Both he and St Ambrose note that although the shepherd is rich, he values every one of his flock and rejoices accordingly when what has been lost is found.
In the parable of the Prodigal, St Cyril and Peter Chrysologus, see the elder son as representing the Jews and the younger the Gentiles. St Cyril draws the parallel between the attitude of the Pharisees in verse 1 to the older brother; both resent the generosity of love. Ambrose and Augustine see the departure of the son for a far land as him delivering himself over to lustful passions and falling into the kingdom of darkness. The famine he experiences is the lack of God’s word. He has traded the good for the meretricious and ends up eating swine-food,which is the food of the devil.
But God, as Ambrose points out, has not left him, and his confession is the first step to his heart being opened to the love of the father. He follows the example of the Lord’s Prayer: first he confesses; then he repents; then seeks his daily bread; then he is forgiven and restored – as we shall be if we follow him. The act of forgiveness is one of total grace.
St Athanasius sees in the fatted calf the type of Christ, who is sacrificed at the command of the father to provide us with daily food. Adam, who was lost in sin, is found in Christ, and those who receive him, though they were dead, are alive. Those, who like the Jews, cannot accept this, deprive themselves of Grace.