Jesus talks a lot about sin and salvation in terms of “lost” and “found.” His most well known parables in Luke 15 are about “lost” and “found.” Jesus came to this earth to, in his own words, “seek and save the lost.”
The story of the prodigal son is, of course, the masterpiece of all Jesus’ parables. This is the Mona Lisa. It’s the Grand Canyon. It’s the Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla of parables. This is the story to which all other stories are compared. This is the one that grabs our heads and penetrates our hearts.
In this story, the younger brother is lost. It’s obvious. He’s run away from home. He’s left his father. He’s in a pig sty, the absolute worst of all unclean conditions. He has no resources, no community, no family, no friends. He’s far away from home. He’s the ultimate outsider. He’s lost.
But the older brother is lost, too. He’s working out in the field. He’s loyal. He’s committed. But he’s angry and bitter. He won’t be in the same room with his sinful brother. He won’t even acknowledge that they’re brothers. He’s unforgiving and judgmental. He refuses to come into the home. He’s a different kind of outsider. But he’s just as lost.
One of the functions of this provocative story is to show us that lostness comes in a variety of forms. To be lost means to not have a relationship with the father — an intimate relationship, a transforming relationship that’s changing your heart and soul. You might be wasting away in a pig pen in a faraway country or you might be working really hard on the father’s property out in the field. Either way, if you’re not in the home, with the father, you’re lost.
And the Father is looking for you.
Part of the appeal of this story is that the way the father acts with his son seems too good to be true. The way he lavishes his love on his rebellious runaway child, the way he pours out his forgiveness and mercy on his son, the extravagant way the father rejoices — it’s too good to be true.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'” ~Luke 15:20-24
Or, maybe, it’s so good it has to be true.
The whole world is not going to be saved because of what you do. The whole world’s not going to be “found” because of your church’s outreach and mission efforts. But the stories in Luke 15 tell us plainly that as long as there is one single lost sheep wandering around in the wilderness, as long as there is one solitary coin buried in the dark corners of a dusty room, as long as there is one lost child, he will not quit until it’s not lost anymore.
Henri Nouwen, commenting on this timeless story, writes:
“God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising him for his goodness. No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found.”
Jesus gives us the parables, probably, to show us how to live. Yeah, maybe. More than that, though, he gives us these stories to show us the Father and who the Father loves. And the Father loves everyone.