Reflection: March 10: Lent 4

I’ll begin with a prayer whose words formed in my mind as I was reflecting on the Gospel story for today:

God of the lost and found
you know our thoughts and needs
even before we know them ourselves.
Be with us, this day,
as we recognize
that we are all both lost and found
but always within your sight
and never out of reach of your loving touch.
We give thanks for your great love
which surrounds us always
and for your persistent and faithful presence
which guides and inspires us
strengthening us to live with faith and hope
through all the challenges and
joys of our life together
as a community of faith.
Amen

When my younger daughter, Heather, was a toddler we went as a family to the shopping mall in the town where we lived. There were four of us, Jody and myself, Lisa and Heather. Lisa would have been about four yrs. old, a cautious child who always kept close to us. And then there was 18 month old Heather who, even as a toddler, was adventurous and tended to be a wanderer. On this particular occasion, we had just entered the Woolworth store that was at one end of the shopping mall and were about to go up the escalator when I spotted something I wanted to take a quick look at. Jody and the girls were headed for the escalator and I told Jody, “You’ve got the kids I’ll join you in five minutes”. A quick look told me that what I had seen was not what I was looking for and I took the escalator to join Jody and the girls. I immediately spotted Jody and Lisa who were waiting by some clothes racks near the top of the escalator. I didn’t see Heather so I asked Jody where she was. “Playing under the clothes racks” was his response but when I looked she wasn’t there. We both looked and called but couldn’t find Heather. I started to panic and called the nearest store clerk and described what Heather looked like and what she was wearing. The clerk immediately went to the information desk and put an announcement over the P.A. system. Meanwhile I was frantically looking for my daughter who was very mobile but didn’t know her last name, phone number or address and was friendly enough to go with any kind person who offered a hand to her. I have never known such terror as having lost my precious child and it seemed an eternity before a stranger, a woman, walked over to the information desk hand in hand with Heather. I immediately burst into tears of relief and joy and hung onto Heather for dear life. The woman had found Heather outside the Woolworth store, toddling down the wide corridor toward the door at the far end of the mall. The slightly reproachful look the woman gave me quickly disappeared when she saw my immense relief and great joy at being reunited with my beloved daughter.

Anyone who has ever lost something that is precious to them, even if only for a short time, knows the joy of recovering that which was lost. Lost and found is a theme that is prevalent in the section of Luke’s Gospel where the Parable of the Prodigal Son is located.

Luke’s introduction to this particular section of the Gospel account tells us that there were many people gathered around Jesus to hear his stories. These people included “tax collectors and sinners” who were despised and marginalized in the social structure of the time and “scribes and Pharisees” who were the well educated and  powerful religious elite. Luke notes that tax collectors and sinners push in close to Jesus so as not to miss a word he is saying. We can assume the scribes and Pharisees stand at a respectable distance so as not to come in contact with the unclean masses and yet close enough to hear what Jesus has to say so they can hold it against him if he says or does anything they deem to be contrary to their religious laws.

When Jesus heard members of this small privileged class grumbling because of his association with those they considered worthless outcasts, he told three parables about being lost and found. The first two parables are about a Lost Sheep and a Lost Coin. Both of these parables illustrate a valuing of something that in itself seems to have little intrinsic value. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for the one who is lost. In the Parable of the Lost Coin, a woman lights a lamp using precious oil and turns her house upside down in search of one small coin. In both cases the response to the recovery of what was lost was much rejoicing and the calling together of friends and neighbours and the sharing of an extravagant celebration.

The third, and longest, of these lost and found parables is the familiar story of the Parable of the Prodigal Son that Myra read for us today. This parable, more than the other two, could have great overtones of judgment that would be expected, given the shame the younger son cast on his father and his family. First of all, the son would have offended his father by taking his inheritance before his father died. To add insult to injury, he then left his family and his country to travel to a distant country where he squandered his property in dissolute living. (Luke 15:13) As the son had travelled far away, and only the elite had the means to send letters, the father would have heard nothing of his son and as far as he knew his son could well be dead. Certainly, in the honour/shame culture of the day, the father had every right to disown his son because of the shame inflicted on his family. If any 1st century listener of this story had any doubt of this the mention of the son living and caring for pigs would have sealed his fate. Not only had the son turned away from his family and country but also his religion, because according to Jewish law pigs were unclean and not to be touched. Knowing all of this makes the father’s actions upon the return of his lost son all the more extraordinary.

In the Mediterranean culture of the day, a landowner who was a man of some status would never lift the skirts of his robe and run to greet a visitor. He would wait in a dignified manner and likely have a servant greet the visitor at the door and wash his feet before calling the master of the house to welcome the cleaned-up traveller. As you will recall in this story, while the son was still far off his father saw him and was immediately filled with compassion and ran to his son and embraced and kissed him. Before the son could grovel and offer the speech he had rehearsed during the long journey, his father had forgiven him and proceeded to give him an extravagant and joyful welcome home. Because of his father’s love, the son was returned to his position in the family as testified by the giving of the finest robe, sandals, and ring. This was done freely, without judgment, and with much joy and celebration.

All of this feasting and celebrating did not go down well with the older son who had dutifully stayed with his father and worked diligently as expected in the family system and culture of the day. The older son was very angry that his brother was given a royal welcome when he’d never had so much as a young goat, let alone a fatted calf, offered in feast as a tribute to him. The older son, it seems, has disowned his brother because when he speaks of him to his father he says, “this son of yours” who has squandered your property has come back and you have thrown a party for him. The father’s response turns the relationship back to his older son when he says, “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and now is found”. The father also emphasizes to his older son that “you are always with me and all that is mine is yours”. The older son has lost nothing by his brother’s return: not status or wealth as his share of his father’s inheritance is still intact. It is the relationship with his brother that has been fractured which is what his father seeks to mend.

The commentary, Feasting on the Word, draws a comparison with the father in the story and God’s extravagant and lavish love for each person that is beyond human valuing:

“Behind Jesus’ parable lies profound and overwhelming truth about God and God’s kingdom. …[It is as if God is saying] I am on the lookout for all my loved ones, near or far. …Every time God’s active, stretching, searching, healing love finds someone and calls that person back home, it does not mean there is less for the rest of us. It  means there is more. …More feasting. More music. More dancing.” 

Whenever someone, who for whatever reason has felt lost and alone, comes home to the loving embrace of God’s love the whole world is enriched and made whole in some small but significant way. We all, at one time or another, have felt lost and uncertain about our future, confused perhaps about what decisions or choices to make and so we pray…

God of the lost and found
you know our thoughts and needs
even before we know them ourselves.
Be with us, this day,
as we recognize
that we are all both lost and found
but always within your sight
and never out of reach of your loving touch.
We give thanks for your great love
which surrounds us always
and for your persistent and faithful presence
which guides and inspires us
strengthening us to live with faith and hope
through all the challenges and
joys of our life together
as a community of faith.
Amen

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