“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing … Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents. And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them …” Luke 15.4-12.
Today’s reading is not a random one as my daily readings usually are, but has been triggered by my further reflections on yesterday’s post about Jesus as the “perfect penitent” and my posts on the three days before that which were about the prodigal son.
There is a problem with the story of the prodigal son. It is (as my reading this morning shows) the third of a series of parables that Jesus’ told about lostness. First there is the lost sheep and a shepherd who goes to find it; then there is a lost coin and a woman who goes to find it; and finally there is a lost son and a father who goes to … But no, he doesn’t, does he? In the third parable, the father stays where he is and waits for the prodigal to make his own way home. That’s hardly the gospel, is it? Where is Jesus? He’s the shepherd in the first parable and the woman in the second … but he seems to be missing in the third.
Surely the point about lostness is that you can’t make your own way home. A sheep that’s fallen down a cliff and is stuck on a ledge cannot get itself up again and find its own way back to the fold. A coin that has rolled under the table cannot set itself back on its side and roll out again and fly through the air and then sew itself back onto the head-dress where it belongs. And a human being who has distanced himself or herself from God, rejected him, and is in the far country of selfishness and sin cannot return to God unaided however wretched and in need he or she might be. I don’t know the road home. I don’t even know where it begins or how to get onto it. If I’m lost I need Jesus to find me.
So has the parable of the prodigal son been misreported by Luke? Or did Jesus get carried away with his storytelling and forget about the point he had started out to make? I don’t think so. I think that Jesus knew something very well that we can only understand from this side of his death and resurrection and ascension … that Jesus is in the story because he himself became the prodigal son who carries every other prodigal back to the Father.
Think of it: there is Jesus in eternity sharing in all the riches and glory of the Father, but he leaves his Father’s house and comes to this world — this “far country” we call the Earth. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1.14). He lets go of the wealth he had from his Father. “Emptied himself,” says Paul, “taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2.7). Born, in fact, in a stable, laid in a bed of straw.
He “joins himself to the citizens of this country” (Luke 15.15) … this world. He is brought up in a peasant’s house in Nazareth, becomes an itinerant preacher, and sleeps under the stars because he has no other place to lay his head. Soon he is despised and rejected by the rich and the righteous, the pious and the proper. He mixes with tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners … with the poor, the sick, the outcasts. To everyone he meets, he gives and gives and gives. And at the last, when he has “spent everything”, he spends the only thing he has left … his body and blood.
He becomes obedient even unto death. He hangs on the cross … as far from God as it is possible for any human being to go, and dies a death of utter separation from his Father. He voluntarily enters total, utter lostness. And then he dies in complete forsaken-ness, descending into hell and taking there my sins and your sins, the sins of the world. But on the third day, something wonderful happens. He rises from the dead. He “comes to himself” (Luke 15.17). He says, “I will arise and go to my Father” (Luke 15.18) … words which take on a very literal meaning when, after “arising” from the grave, Jesus tells the disciples: “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20.17).
The Ascension is the return of the Prodigal with a capital P, and the return of every other prodigal is part of that return. As Henri Nouwen has said: “There is no journey to God outside the journey that Jesus made”; and it is true. In ascending to the Father Jesus carries with him all who have ever resolved to arise and go to the Father but have not known how … all who ever will make that resolve. It is Jesus and Jesus alone who, as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, by dying for us “brings many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2.10).
When we see in our minds eye that old man, throwing aside his dignity, hiking his robe up between his legs and running down the lane, we have, primarily, a picture of God as he welcomes Jesus back into heaven. What does the Father say: “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15.24). But it is not Jesus alone around whom the Father throws his arms. His embrace is for the Great Prodigal along with every other prodigal that there ever was or ever will be. “We are,” says Paul, “accepted in the beloved” (Ephesians 1.6 KJV). It is his sonship that we share. It is Jesus on whom the Father puts the best robe, but as we abide in Christ, the robe is upon us too. The ring is on Jesus’ finger. But in Christ we wear it too. The sandals are on Jesus’ feet, but as we walk in Christ we wear the sandals too.
Where is the missing Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son? He is the prodigal son … or to put it another way, the prodigal son is the whole of repentant humanity returning to God in Christ. It is me returning to God in Christ, treading a path that I simply cannot tread without him.
PS. A long post this morning but it will have to do for the next two days as well. Early tomorrow, we travel to London to join my sister in law’s fiftieth birthday celebrations! Back on Monday.