Just behind the receptionist’s desk in the first drawer of a small filing cabinet we keep the church’s lost and found. You would be surprised at some of what turns up. I put some of it in box and have brought it on to the platform this morning. In this box you can find a sweater, a belt, and several pairs of glasses. You can also find ear buds, a set of car keys and several Bibles. I could see leaving the sweater, the belt, and the ear buds, I would think you would notice if you were missing your car keys or your personal Bible. But, perhaps the most surprising things we keep, waiting to find their owners are two wedding rings. They are locked up in the safe, sitting there, waiting to be found.
This morning we join our youth in their DiscipleNow experience in Luke 15 and with their theme of “Lost and Found.” In this chapter in Luke we hear Jesus teaching using three parables of things lost and found. In the first parable Jesus speaks of a shepherd who finds one of his sheep missing. He leaves the 99 to find the one, and when he finds it he calls out to his friends rejoicing. The second parable speaks of a woman that with ten silver coins. She discovers one is missing and stops everything she is doing and searches for the lost coin. When she finds it she invites all of her friends to celebrate with her because that which was lost has been found. Jesus adds to each parable that this how heaven rejoices when one who was lost to God repents.
The tone of the third of the parable trio changes considerably. We have heard the parable read across the breadth of our service. It is also one of the best known parables in all of the New Testament. But, even though the story is familiar, I never cease to be moved by its. Let’s take a closer look. This parable is not about a coin you can hold in your hand or an animal you can own. No, what is lost this time is a son’s heart. The story begins with a father and his two sons. The youngest son decides he has had enough and demands his father give him his inheritance now! This is more than a story of a greedy self-centered son. It is the story of a son whose rejection of his father and family was complete. He rejected the home that had been provided for him. He rejected the family that nurtured him. He rejected family traditions and his family’s faith. Finally – he completely rejected his connection with his father. He wants the inheritance that is only appropriately given when father died. By taking so much of the family’s resources, he shows no concern for his father’s future, the family farm, the family’s way of life, or their very survival. This youngest son wanted it all for himself and really did not care about the implications for anyone else. There are a lot of reasons to be angry at this kid.
I think the reason this story strikes so deeply inside of us is that many of us – in fact most of us – know of adult children who make bad choices and watch parents who struggle in pain with the consequences. For too many, the prodigal son is not just a Biblical story. It is their life story.
The story turns for the young man. A famine strikes and those that loved to party with him when he was paying for the party left him as quick as they had come. He managed to squander what had taken his father a lifetime to build up in no time at all. The young man found himself penniless and hungry. He took any job he could find and ate anything that seemed edible. He had once lived a life of plenty, now he found himself glad for the opportunity to eat the slop fed to the pigs. He hit rock bottom. There was nowhere to go but up – and the only way back up was to go back home. This decision was about more than his empty stomach. The youngest son finally realized he blew it. He realized he had lost his way. He realized he had lost himself. He decides he would rather be a servant in his father’s house than to stay where he was.
I have to wonder how many fathers would have given up on their undisciplined, self-centered, ungrateful son. How easy would it be to have written him off? How easy would it have been for the father to think that if his son had rejected him, the home he was raised in, the way of life he offered, and the faith that he embrace, then he deserved whatever he got. But this is one place where this parable is radically different than the other two. The shepherd went looking for the missing sheep. The one searched frantically for the lost coin. The father had to wait. He did not go after his son. He did not send out search parties to find him. It seems that he understood that you could not drag someone back home and you could not demand for someone to change their heart. We simply cannot make people behave the way we want them to. It has to be their choice. No, we find this father doing the hardest thing, standing on the road waiting for his son.
I have to wonder how many times the father would have stood on the road looking, waiting, and hoping only to head back to his house heartbroken once again. How many times would he have seen someone coming on the horizon – hoping and praying it was his son, only to discover that when the person drew closer his heart was broken all over again? Some of you have experienced these kinds of moments of heart break, waiting for your children to make the right decision, waiting for your children to come home.
Then came the moment – this time when he saw that someone in the distance and they drew closer the face was the one he knew. His son tried to take responsibility for his actions and acknowledged he had no right to claim the role of son again. He tried to ask his father to take him back as a servant. It seems that the words feel on deaf ears. The father was so filled with love – so filled with joy – because the son that he feared dead was alive and in his arms again. His answer is to throw a party of parties. It was time to celebrate. Forgiveness flowed like water. Joy rained down. Right here – right here I am ready for Jesus to call “cut,” to add the tag line that “this kind of celebration occurs in heaven every time someone repents and returns to God.” It is right here that I keep waiting for Jesus to tell us God is like the Father, waiting for us to come back home to his love and grace. It is right here that I am waiting for Jesus to close the curtain on this parable and move on. But, so many times Jesus does the unexpected.
Just when the easy answer would be to wrap up the parable, Jesus brings one more person to the front to the stage for us to deal with. Jesus introduces us to the older brother. While the younger brother was out blowing the family fortune, the elder brother was caring for his father, caring for the family farm – and his reward was his father’s eye to the path and the alternating silence and moans of concern. This older brother has watched his father standing in the path, wondering and worrying about his brother. While we celebrate the father’s waiting for the prodigal son, it meant that he was sometimes absent physically and/or emotionally from the brother at home. The father feared that he would never see his young son again; the elder brother probably quietly hoped they wouldn’t.
Now the father asks him to come join the party of his younger brother. He is steamed. He has showed up to work every day. He did his part and fulfilled his responsibility to the family every day – but his father had never done anything to reward him for his faithfulness and his labor. In a single sentence he reminds his father that the younger brother had violated the family name, the family faith, and the family farm. He stresses this son of yours – showing he was disconnected from his younger brother – and his father. He is filled with resentment and anger.
It is easy to relate to the anger and resentment of the older brother. Isn’t it tempting to join the echo of his indignation? After all, he stayed home, went to work every day, did not throw parties for his friends, did not betray the family name or the family faith; he was good and dependable. Jesus knew it was easy for those around him, and for us, to point a finger at the selfish self-center juvenile delinquent younger brother. It is easy to call him lost. But the older brother is another matter. He looks and thinks a lot like many of us. Jesus wants us to understand that while the older brother never left home he was just as lost to the father. We tend the use the word “lost” for those who are without a relationship with God. But, this parable makes it clear that “lostness” is also about having a heart that has grown cold to God’s love. The eldest son stood so close to the father but never claimed the father’s heart of love and grace. His heart of self-righteousness was just as profane as his brother’s heart of selfishness. Both brothers needed the father’s love. Both needed the father’s forgiveness. The father blesses his eldest son and promises his everything, but pleads for him to come home and join the party of joy. He pleads for him to let go of his self-righteous attitude and to embrace a heart of love and forgiveness.
OK, I am ready for Jesus to wrap it up and to tell me that the older brother did the right thing. I am ready for Jesus to tell me about the party in heaven. But instead Jesus simply ends the parable unresolved. We do not know what the older brother chose. We leave him still brooding outside the tent. I think he leaves us there because it is exactly where we find ourselves, standing here with a decision to make. The reality is that there are all kinds of way to get lost along the way. Some of us have wandered way off – and others are just outside the tent door – but our need to for God’s mercy and forgiveness is the same. Sin knows no scale. Our need to draw close to God is the same. God is there waiting for us – ready to welcome us back home. God stands ready to throw a party on our behalf - for one who was lost is now found.