When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” So he got up and went to his father. 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. Luke 15.17-20.
Luke 15 is all about lost-and-foundness. It consists of three parables, all told by Jesus to those who were watching him and complaining that, “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15.2). There is the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son (better known as the parable of the prodigal son) from which this morning’s verses are taken.
This last is, of course, one of the best-loved stories in the world, but there is an oddness to it that we usually miss and that is only apparent when we compare this story to the other two. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd leaves his secure flock of 99 sheep and goes looking for the one that is lost “until he finds it. And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home” (Luke 15.5-6). In the parable of the lost coin, the woman goes looking for the coin. She “sweeps the house and searches carefully until she finds it” (Luke 15.8). In the first two stories the final cry of joy is virtually identical — “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep” (Luke 15.6), “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin” (Luke 15.8), but in the third it is significantly different: “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 15,23-24).
The difference is that in the third story, the Father doesn’t go looking for the lost son even though at the end that son “is found”. Indeed, the first clause of this morning’s reading suggests that all the initiative lay with the lost son in going back home. He “came to senses,” it says. But that is not really what it says. In the original Greek it is, “And when he came to himself”.
What’s the difference? The difference is being enacted every day in the setting in which this story is being told. Here, coming to Jesus, are the “lost sons” of Israel — prostitutes, quisling tax farmers; the marginalised and rejected of Jewish society — but in coming to Jesus each one is “coming to himself”. Each one is coming to the one true, perfect human being, the kind of human being each one of these “sinners” was meant to be. When they look at Jesus, they see themselves as God intended them to be. And when they come to him, he takes them home to the Father.
There is really no difference between the shepherd, the woman and the father in these three parables. In all three the Father does the seeking and in all three he does it in Jesus. Jesus is the good shepherd, Jesus is the woman, and Jesus is the “himself” that the prodigal meets in the pigsty. And in Jesus (whom C S Lewis once called “the perfect penitent”) the Father brings the prodigal home. He “is found” by Jesus for “the Son of Man* came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19.10). It is in Jesus and Jesus alone that the sons of God that were dead are being brought alive again, day after day after day.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, for seeking me and saving me and bringing me home to the Father. Amen.
* We might even translate “Son of Man” as “the Human Being that I and every other human being was meant to be.”