God, don't just watch from the sidelines. Come on! Run to my side! (Psalm 71:12, Message Bible) Have you ever lost something you valued, only to find it again? Of course you have, and it is a happy moment. I have a stainless steel travel mug I have lost at least 3 or 4 times, but somehow it keeps coming back to me. Recently I thought it was gone for good, but then there it was, wandering back into my life. That old beat up but lovable travel mug has now become a symbol to me, a symbol of “found-ness”.
Jesus tells three parables of “lost and found” in Luke 15. It would be beneficial to read those three stories together, noting their context in the life of Jesus (Luke 15:1-2), and the common shape they share. What we are immersed in is the idea that God is the seeker, although we often refer to ourselves that way. And what we are assured of is how much God intends to end the human story in the ultimate joy of being found. Each of the three stories in Luke 15 ends with a celebration. If the question we are asking in this series is “how will the story end?”, the answer is unmistakable: “they lived happily ever after”. But the chapter ends with a suggested open question: do you yourself need to be found? Do you know where you are, and where you need to go? Do you know who you are?
One could say that the pattern of lost and found is the overarching story of the Bible. Its a metaphor that is not always appreciated, especially that part about being “lost”. But it is Jesus’ choice descriptor and how appropriate it is: when you don’t know where you are, or where you want to go, then you are lost. And if you don’t know who you are, then you are lost indeed.
But how does God find us? How does he make it possible for us as lost sons and daughters to come home? Let me end with a thought about that. The last of three parables in Luke 15 is the famous story of the two lost sons (commonly referred to as the prodigal son story), the most familiar expression of human lost-ness and found-ness. I am going to assume that you know the story in the rest of my comments.
There is this definitive moment in the story of the two lost sons that needs to be focused in on a little tighter. For it contains the big surprise in the story:
… while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. [Luke 15:20]
Kenneth Bailey has written on the parables from the context of mid-eastern culture, making sure that we read these stories with a full appreciation for how they were first heard. In his classic study, Poet and Peasant, he remarks that the moment when the father runs down the road toward his wayward son is the most startling moment in a story filled with startling moments. It was startling that the younger son asked for his portion of the inheritance before his father died (how disrespectful and shameful). It was startling that the father granted the son’s request. It was startling now that as the son came down the road in complete defeat and utter shame that the father does what he does -- he runs toward his son in a way that no respectful mid-eastern father would ever do.
Bailey says, “an oriental nobleman in flowing robes never runs anywhere”. He quotes Aristotle: “great men never run in public”. In other words, the father acts in a way that draws all of the attention to himself and away from the returning son. The son would have been the object of scorn, subject to the abuse of the village and the family. The father knows this, but his heart goes out to his lost son. Bailey says:
Rather than experiencing the ruthless hostility he deserves and anticipates, the son witnesses an unexpected, visible demonstration of love in humiliation. The father’s acts replace speech… the love expressed is too profound for words…
Simply put, the father chooses to abandon his dignity. He runs, picking up his skirts like a mother, publicly humiliating himself to bring the son home. His startling action makes his son’s re-entry back to the village and the family possible.
It is often asked where the cross can be found in the parables of Jesus. Perhaps, through the image of the running father, we gain a small sense of what the cross means. It is nothing less than a public display of willingness to draw shame away from lost sons and daughter who want to come home, to make possible what seems impossible.
The gospel means that God has found us on the road and runs towards us in Jesus, humbling himself despite his awesome being, becoming as weak as a crucified man, as humble as a running father.
The question we are asking in this series is this: how will the story we are part of end? The story of the two sons tells us that everything is heading towards a home-coming, a reconciliation, a return to joy, a realization that the father’s home is the place to be. And because this is so, there is a decision to be made, as the father asks of the older son: will you join in? or will you stay outside? For at the end of everything, when the celebration happens, I wouldn’t want to be the one outside pouting. Would you?
One last thing. Contrary to what I said previously, my old travel mug doesn’t actually wander back into my life on its own accord. Its unable to do that. But it can be found. And that is what has happened.
Questions and ideas to ponder: 1. do you have a lost and found story in your life? 2. if you could return to some place, or job, or relationship, what might it be? what makes return impossible or possible? 3. who do you identify with most in the story of the two sons, the younger or older brother? why? how may each of those characters be a part of you? 4. in all three of the parables of Luke 15, the end is joyous celebration -- in your imagination, how do you see God and joy connected? 5. describe your understanding of the father’s actions throughout the story of the two lost sons -- what surprises you about him? 6. interesting exercise: in a quieter moment, when you are driving or drifting off to sleep, see if you could tell the story of the two sons from memory, in your own words