“The gospel means that God has found us on the road and, in Jesus, He runs toward us.”
“God, don't just watch from the sidelines. Come on! Run to my side!” (Psalm 71:12, THE MESSAGE).
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 three or four times, but somehow it keeps coming back to me. 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’s best to read the three stories together, noting their context in the life of Jesus (Luke 15:1-2) and the common shape they share. What they immerse us in is the idea that God is the seeker, although we often refer to ourselves that way. What they assure us of is how much God intends the human story to end with the ultimate joy of being found. In fact, each of the three stories in Luke 15 ends with a celebration. And what they leave us with at the end are these questions: Are we lost? Do we need to be found?
The pattern of lost and found is the overarching story of the Bible. It’s a metaphor that is not always appreciated, especially the part about being lost. But it is Jesus’ choice descriptor, and a very appropriate one. When you don’t know where you are or where you want to go, then you are lost. If you don’t know who you are, then you are lost indeed.
So 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 the three parables in Luke 15 is the famous story of the two lost sons. It’s commonly referred to as the prodigal son story, and it is the most familiar expression of human lost-ness and found-ness.
There is this definitive moment in the story that needs to be focused on because it contains the big surprise. In Luke 15:20 we read, “… But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
Kenneth Bailey writes on the parables from the context of Middle Eastern culture, making sure that we read these stories with a full appreciation for how they were first heard. He explains 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, as the son came down the road in complete defeat and utter shame, that the father does what he does¾running toward his son in a way that no respectful Middle Eastern father would ever do.
“An Oriental nobleman with flowing robes never runs anywhere. To do so is humiliating,”1 writes Bailey. 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. There are no words of acceptance and welcome. The love expressed is too profound for words. Only acts will do.” 2
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 here, in the image of the running father, we catch a glimpse of it. The humiliation of the cross is a public display of God’s willingness to draw shame away from lost sons and daughters who want to come home. It makes possible what seems impossible.
The gospel means that God has found us on the road and, in Jesus, He runs toward us. God humbles Himself, becoming as weak as a crucified man, as humble as a running father.
At the very end of the parable, the Father pleads with the other lost son, the older brother, to come and join the celebration. We are left not knowing whether he joined the party or stayed outside.
How will your story end? The story of the two sons tells us that everything is heading toward a joyful homecoming and reconciliation. It reminds us that the Father’s home is the place to be. There is a decision to be made. Will you join in or will you stay outside?
Robert Osborne is pastor of spiritual formation at Westside King’s Church in Calgary, Alta.
- Kenneth Bailey, Poet & Peasant AND Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, Combined edition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 182.
- Ibid., 183.