When you’re lost, it’s good to be missed; it’s even better to be found. At the heart of spiritual lostness, though, is our collusion in our own absence. People are not inanimate objects like coins, things that can fall unwittingly into corners, nor are they like sheep, animals with limited understanding of the repercussions of their wandering ways. When people stray spiritually, they act with free will, although it can be restricted by previous experiences, ignorance and naïveté. Still, people walk away from God, generally because we are convinced we know better than God does what is best for us.
During the Exodus, God spoke to Moses, saying: “Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved. They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it, sacrificing to it and crying out, ‘This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’”
Should we file this under “How soon they forget” or “What have you done for me lately”? Moses intervenes, imploring God to preserve the people about whom God had said, “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky,” and the Lord “relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.”
It is not that God in the Old Testament is hungry to punish the people of Israel, or wrongdoers in general; God is not pulled back from the fight, screaming, “Let me at them,” conjuring up some other plan to wreak deadly revenge. The issue is what we deserve. The biblical accent can fall on what we have earned through our own stubborn behavior and God’s merciful relenting, as in Exodus, or it can fall on God’s merciful search for those who are lost because of their own stubborn behavior. Wherever the accent falls, the word is always mercy and the necessity is the turn back to God.
Jesus tells a story of two lost sons, the younger one, who has wandered far from home and “squandered his inheritance,” and the older one, who has stayed near his father on his estate. The youngest son winds up wasting his inheritance and living with pigs, eating the husks of pig food. At some point the wandering son realizes it is time to go home and beg for mercy from his father. He has not lost only his money; he has lost himself. The father spies him from a long way off, runs to his son, embraces him and kisses him.
But it was when the younger son recognized that he was lost, that he had made choices that reduced him to physical and spiritual poverty, that he could repent and be found. It was only then that he could come home to be showered not with reproach but with mercy.
The older son is another matter. He has remained near to his father, but it seems he is not close to him. He resents his younger brother coming home to a feast and his father for throwing the feast. He is angry that mercy has been shown, and when his father comes to plead with him to celebrate, he spews out the grievances he has been nursing for many years: “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders.”
The older brother cannot celebrate his sibling’s return because he has no joy in the father’s presence. Life with father has been a burden, an unwelcome task, a plodding life in which he has struggled not to “disobey your orders.” Can the older son see that he is lost? You can only be found when you know you are lost and it is time to come home.
Many of us fall into the category of the older son, but it does not matter where we are as long as we make it home, for either “you are here with me always; everything I have is yours” or “we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” Party at God’s house. Everyone’s invited.
Place yourself in the parable of the two sons. Which son (or daughter) are you and what do you need to grasp or let go in order to celebrate?