When my son, Burton, was a young boy, we were living in Austin, Texas and I took him to the airport one afternoon to meet my parents. Burton was excited about seeing his grandparents but also about going to the airport and since there were no security restrictions back then, we waited at the gate. The terminal was small and shaped like a pod, and there were several gates and a lot. of people waiting. As soon as he saw his grandparents, Burton ran to meet them - but as my parents and I started to walk toward the hallway to baggage claim, I looked around and did not see Burton anywhere.
If you have experienced what I'm about to describe, you know it is one of the worst feelings ever. In a matter of just a few seconds - seconds when I thought he was right there with us - my son was gone. I don't mean he had gone across the terminal to another gate. I don't mean he had gone to a water fountain. I don't mean he had gone to look at something. He was gone, nowhere to be found.
I heard someone describe an experience he had that was similar to this and one of the things he said was, "It is never pretty when a grown man runs full on. It just worries me," he said. "You think somebody is gonna get hurt."[i]
Well I'm sure it wasn't pretty, but I could not have cared less when I took off running. Several flights had come in and there were a lot of people, and I don't think I knocked anyone down, but I probably came very close. I started zigging and zagging, my elbows flying, bumping into people and putting my hands on shoulders of people I didn't know to get them out of my way. I was frantic, and I did whatever it took because I had been separated from my son.
After what seemed like I had run a marathon, I finally got to the end of the hall and found that at least one of the things that my wife and I had taught our son had stuck with him. He was standing next to a police officer, talking calmly, and as I ran up, out of breath and panting, he gave me one of those, "Where have you been, Dad?" looks.
In the fifteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel there are three parables, and they are all about something that has been lost. These stories have been described in many ways, and even though they have been interpreted and taught and preached about over and over again, one of the things that makes the parables unique is that there always seems to be something more. Eugene Peterson described parables as being "narrative time bombs" - stories Jesus told that pushed and prodded the people who heard them to look more closely at their lives and at God.
In a book he wrote, John Claypool says there are distinctive features that characterize the parables. The first is that the images Jesus uses are always familiar and taken from everyday life; the second is that the parables always have intriguing plots; and the third is that there is always an element of surprise in each of them. [ii]
In his Gospel, Luke sets the stage for the parables Jesus offers when he writes, "Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'" The next verse says, "so Jesus told them this parable (15:1-3). On the surface, that very brief description of who, what, when and where doesn't give us much detail - but on closer look, it actually tells us quite a lot, and what it tells us becomes clearer when Jesus begins to speak.
The first story Jesus tells this group of mumbling and grumbling religious leaders is about one sheep out of a hundred that becomes separated from the flock, but then is found. The second story is about a woman who drops one of the ten coins she has, and when she can't find it, she stops everything else to look until she finds the coin. Now, if that was all that Jesus had to say, that might have been enough to make his point to the Pharisees and the scribes who were accusing him of hanging out with prostitutes and tax collectors: after all, they were pretty smart people. But Jesus wasn't finished.
The third story has become the most familiar of all the parables. Most often it is known as the parable of the prodigal son, but some refer to it in other ways: the parable of the prodigal son and his brother, the parable of the faithful older brother and his sibling, the parable of the lost son, the parable of the prodigal father, or the parable of the absent mother.[iii] But, whatever you call it, it is another story about being lost.
You know how this one goes. A man has two sons, and the youngest decides that he wants his inheritance. His father gives it to him, and off he goes, spending the money, living high on the hog - and eventually living with the hogs after he blows through the money. He is destitute and hungry, and he decides to go home and ask for his father's forgiveness. But, before the son even reaches his family home, before he says a word, his father sees him coming and literally runs down the road to meet and embrace him. It has pointed out that this story may be the only time we see God get in a hurry.
The father meets, embraces, and kisses his lost son. There's no dialogue, but the father gives his son gifts and nonverbal assurances of forgiveness. When the son begins to confess all of the bad decisions and missteps he has made, his father isn't really interested - and instead, starts telling the servants how they will celebrate the son's homecoming. The son's confession, then, has nothing to do with the forgiveness his father offers. As Amy-Jill Levine has pointed out, this parable is not about repenting and forgiving; it is a story about a man with a lost son.[iv]
In Jewish rabbinic literature, there is similar parable that tells of a king who had a son who went away from his father for one hundred days. The son's friends said, "Return to your father," but the son said, "I cannot." Then his father sent word, "Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to you." So, God says, "Return to me, and I will return to you."[v]
It has been said that the most wonderful word in the Bible is the word until. The shepherd looked for the one lost sheep until he found it. The woman searched for the one lost coin until she found it. The father waited for his son until he came home. Have you ever thought about how much of our lives revolve around "until"? As children, we're told we cannot have dessert until we eat dinner. You cannot go to college until you have finished high school. You cannot go through the intersection until the light turns green.
Until, until, until. But, it is the "untils" of the stories Jesus told that make up the essence of the hope that is the Christian faith - hope that will sustain us as we wander away and get lost. Because, as we all know, there are many ways to leave God, to become lost, to put distance between ourselves and God. There are evil powers in the world that rebel against God, and that can destroy the creatures of God. But, as Paul reminds us in the eighth chapter of Romans, there is nothing, nothing that can ever separate us from the love of God. "For I am convinced," Paul writes, "that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (38-39).
As part of my work with Saint Francis Ministries in Salina, Kansas, I was visiting our residential treatment facility for children one afternoon. I was talking with one of our employees who look like he had probably had a long day. When I asked him how he was doing, he confirmed that it had been a long and difficult day and he was drained. He said that he had been working with a boy who was very challenging, acting out, emotional, and difficult to work with. He then shared with me the reason for the boy's behavior. The child had just been told that the parents who had adopted him no longer wanted him and were relinquishing their parental rights. For this boy, "until" had become an impossibly long and painful time.
All of us feel separated or estranged at some point - from someone else, from ourselves, or from God. Each of us experiences periods of desperately wanting and needing to be found; wanting and needing to know that we are loved, accepted, and looked for. It can be very difficult to remember, much less embrace, what Paul says about the depth of God's love for us and how life changing that can be, and we wonder how long God is willing to wait. Is "until" ever over?
Whether it's a boy who runs off in an airport, a lost sheep or coin, a son who leaves home, a child who no one seems to want, you or me, God is willing to wait until - and until is never over. When we forget about God, or live as if God doesn't exist, God never forgets about us. As I was running like a fool that day in the airport, there was nothing that would have kept me from trying to get to my son. There is nothing that would have kept that father whose son had left home from running down the road to greet him when he had decided to return. There is nothing that ever has or ever will be able to separate us from God. "Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to you."
As he told these parables, Jesus used them as a mirror for those he was talking to, the same mirror that the parables hold up for us, as well. Reflected in that mirror are the faces of those who were grumbling at Jesus, reflected in that mirror are the faces of all of us who get lost and separated from God. What Jesus wanted the Pharisees to see - and what he wants us to see - is that these parables aren't about someone else. They're about us. They're about everyone who hears them. That, Jesus says, is the nature of God who made us, who loves us, and who desperately looks for us whenever we become separated from God.
I have often been able to identify with the first part of the prayer written by Thomas Merton that begins with, "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me, and I cannot know for certain where it will end, nor do I really know myself." When we don't know where we are going or where we are, when we can't see the road ahead, we can rely on God to come to us and find us. Merton's prayer ends with: "Therefore, I will trust in you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."
"Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to you." Amen.
[i] "How to Come Back to the Father," Dino Rizzo, Church of the Highlands, August 7, 2013
[ii] Stories Jesus Still Tells: The Parables, John Claypool, 1993, p.11
[iii] "The Provocation of the Prodigal," Amy-Jill Levine
[iv] Amy-Jill Levine, Religion News Service, January 1, 2015
[v] Pesikta Rabbati, 184-85