I’ve often fallen into the trap of thinking I'm the one searching for God, it is I who pursue relationship, and the burden rests on me to press in. The problem with this is the focus, and eventually the burden, of relationship comes to rest on a person unable to carry it. The problem is “I” become the focus. I doubt the focus being on me is ever a good thing, least of all when it comes to spiritual issues.
It is good to pursue God. Desiring relationship with God is a passion intended to be at the core of each of us. It is the ever-present desire for completion and home, and it often bears fruit. But it’s God’s pursuit of us that is far more important and impressive. I sometimes forget my God is a God who runs after me.
In Luke 15 we see three parables frequently misnamed by our Bibles and preachers. Often referred to as the parables of “The Lost Sheep”, “The Lost Coin”, and “The Prodigal Son”, these parables are misnamed because the focus of the parables is not on the sheep, the coin, or the son. The focus is on an entirely different set of characters. According to the emphasis, these parables would more aptly be named the parables of “The Seeking Shepherd”, “The Searching Woman”, and “The Running Father”. The attention of these parables is not placed on the lost, but on the one who searches. In each of these stories, God is that person and we are not.
In each of these stories the attention is placed on the searcher rather than the behavior of the sought. We are never told about the emotions or desires of the sheep, or even if it knew it was lost. Knowing a little bit about sheep, it probably didn’t have a clue about a clue. Incidentally, being referred to as “sheep” is not very complementary. If you hear sheep and think cute lamb, the joke is on you. Lambs are cute; sheep are stupid, self destructive, suicidal, annoying, and filthy. Tending sheep, in the best of circumstances, is a constant battle to protect them from their own stupidity. When the Bible refers to us as a sheep, we should be offended and remorseful.
The coin connotation is less offensive, the coin is simply indifferent to its circumstances. As for the positives of being identified as sons in the third story, many of the congratulatory sentiments that may come to mind are quickly removed by spotting the tragic natures of the two boys. In each story we get clear pictures of the shepherd, the woman, and the father; these are the central characters within the parables. Jesus drives home the emotions, desires, and actions of these characters. Let me be clear, God is the point of these stories, it is His desires and actions that matter. I find it interesting the self destructive, indifferent, and ignorant characters portray us; while attentive, pastoral, protective, and always-searching characters portray God.
The first two parables in the trilogy are useful and enlightening, but it is the complex and comprehensive nature of the third that stands out. The clear attention to the searching characters in the first two parables establishes the father as the primary character of the third. We can be distracted by the behavior of the prodigal son, and by his brother, but the power and the focus is on the father.
The father is a burden to the younger son; he is a backup plan and a means of survival. To the father, the son is a prized possession and someone to be sought regardless of his behavior. The son, for his own reasons, was disrespectful towards his father and only cared about getting his stuff. Disrespectful is actually a drastic understatement. To do what he did was akin to telling his father, “I wish you were dead, the only thing I’ve been sticking around here for is your money. But it looks like you still have a bit of life left in you, so why don’t you do us both a favor, cut me a check, and I’ll be off.” At that time and in that culture the father would have been well within his rights to kill his son on the spot. In fact, that is probably what his community expected and wanted him to do. Instead, the father released half of his wealth to his son. The curious thing is, half the family wealth was more than the younger son was entitled to regardless of the circumstances.
As we all know, the son went off and wasted everything. He squandered it; he didn’t even have respect for the wealth that came from his father. He took the things representing a lifetime of his father's hard work, sacrifice, and diligence; he took his family’s reputation and good name, and pissed all over it. Everything he did was a systematic rejection of his heritage, community, family, and father. There wasn’t a bridge he didn’t burn or an insult he didn’t throw. In short, the dude laid down the mother of all sins then set out to top it.
The expected came to pass and his bad decisions resulted in bad things happening to him. He reached the point where he was alone and his life was worth less than that of pigs. Still only caring about himself he hatched a plan to avoid death. With survival as his hope, knowing his father wasn’t a bad employer, he decided to a risk a return.
During his trip to his father he rehearsed his plea for mercy, “Dad, I’m a really bad person. I sinned against you and against God. I know I’m not worthy to be in your family anymore, but I want you to treat me like one of your employees.” In his desperation and brokenness he continued to focus on himself. He returned to his father on his own terms, formulating a contract that made him comfortable. He never repented; he never changed, or even tried to change. The flaw in his core was fully intact when his father saw him. But this story isn’t about the son.
The father is the one who looked for the son. The father is the one who ran to his son. The son who had nothing but ingratitude and shame to offer, refusing even a change of heart, was the one the father desired. It was the father who ignored the son’s attempts to make himself “okay” with the father, who rejected the terms, or contract, of acceptance. It was the father who made the son family again and threw a celebration on his behalf.
The Father didn’t reclaim the son out of obligation or according to conditions, but with a passion and a joy he wanted the whole community to share in. It was the behavior of the running father that mattered; the behavior of the son was never accounted for. In that culture a person in the father’s position would have been humiliated by his son’s request, would have been humiliated by his son’s treatment of the family wealth, would have been humiliated by his son’s return, and would have been humiliated by running in public. Yet he ran. He ran to his son because he wanted to be with his son and because he loved his son. This parable is about the father.
As impressive as the moment is, the story doesn’t end with the father's embrace; we don’t get the happy ending, the pat on the back, the “well isn’t that nice”. The dark twist to this story is there were two lost sons. One ran away the other stayed on, but neither knew the father. If it is the story of the younger son that makes us happy, it is the story of the older son that should disturb us, especially as Christians. As Christians we are no longer in much danger of being the younger son (though it may have been our place once before), it is the plight of the older son that should scare us.
It was good the older son worked for his father, it was good he honored his father and never went away, but that had nothing to do with why his father loved him. He never went away, but he was lost. The older son rejected his father by refusing to share in his joy, by refusing to accept relationship with his father on his father’s terms. In the same way the younger son had no idea who his father was neither did the older son. By choosing to set the terms of relationship he became lost by his own design. He thought he had a right to be respected and treated well by his father because he did his work, because he fulfilled his side of the contract he had written for himself. When the older son saw the way the father treated the younger son he refused to share in his father’s joy; he refused to come in to the father.
As with the younger son, the father looked for and went out to find the older son. He tried to welcome the elder son into his home. He tried to pull his older, stubborn, disrespectful, and self-pitying son into relationship with him, “Everything I have is yours, be happy with me, and join in the celebration.” Again, it was the father who did the seeking and the searching.
The eerie part of this story is we don’t know how it ends; we are left looking at the older son facing a choice, the same choice each of us must face. Will he accept the father on the father’s terms, or will he remain outside? The story doesn’t tell us what the older son decided, it leaves us questioning and incomplete, as if the decision is still being made. Without knowing it, many of us ponder this request in our hearts in much the same way.