Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son in the Tavern (ca. 1635); oil on canvas, 161 x 131 cm; Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden
According to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s 2008 annual report, “An estimated 800,000 children are reported missing every year, or more than 2,000 per day.” Although most of these are recovered quickly, many are not. If you’ve been a parent for any length of time, you know the anxiety over the thought losing a child. There’s that momentary panic when you look around you in a store and your child is nowhere to be seen. You call for them, normally at first, then louder, then frantically. Now you’re running up and down the aisles calling out your child’s name. Your heart pounds. Your mouth goes dry. The anxiety feels like someone’s choking you. Finally, your little one steps out in front of you and says, “Peek-a-boo!” You grab them up in your arms and say, as you choke back the tears, “Don’t ever do that again! You had me so worried. I thought I lost you!” Your brief terror is only a taste of the daily grief parents go through, who have lost a child, either through death or abduction.
But there are other ways children become lost. Some are lost to drugs or other addictions. Some get involved in cults. Toxic relationships take others away from their families. Parents grieve deeply when they are separated from their children, regardless of what causes it.
In Luke 15:11-32, Jesus tells the familiar story of the Prodigal Son as the last in a series of three parables about lost items: lost coin, lost sheep, lost son. It is a beautiful story of redemption and the heart of God. It shows that no matter how much you’ve blown it with God, no matter how great your sin, God still loves you and wants to receive you back into his family. However, there are some elements of the story that are often overlooked.
The story has not one but two lost sons. The older brother who refuses to celebrate his wayward brother’s return to the family is also lost. He no doubt represents the Pharisees and scribes who criticized Jesus for eating with known sinners (1-2). There are two ways to be lost. You can be lost and know it, like the younger son. Or you can be lost and not know it, like the older one. These two men represent two different kinds of sins—sins of the flesh and sins of the spirit. Those who indulge in sins of the flesh, like the Prodigal, often have an easier time recognizing their lost condition than those whose pet sins are sins of the spirit (pride, envy, anger, malice, etc.).
The older brother resembles many good, church-going people. Clarence Jordan made this connection in his paraphrase Cotton Patch Version of the Bible, which sets the gospel story in the racist U.S. South. Here’s how Jordan translated the first two verses of Luke 15: “Now all the ‘nigger-lovers’ and black people were gathering around him to listen. And the white church people and Sunday school teachers were raising cain, saying, ‘This fellow associates with black people and eats with them.’” Professing Christians can be lost too.
At the end of the parable the younger son is reconciled with his father, but the older one is not. He’s still outside with his arms crossed, his brow knit, refusing to go in and celebrate his brother’s homecoming. Apparently it was the party, the sound of “music and dancing,” that offended him (25). It’s one thing to receive an erring family member; it’s quite another to go all out for him. Even though his father pleads with him, the self-righteous son’s pride won’t let him be moved. We have to ask ourselves, How are we like the older brother? Are we spiritually lost, refusing to be reconciled either to God or to others? If we’re saved, are there still some lost areas in our life that need redemption?
Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth made a connection between Jesus and the Prodigal Son. In the incarnation, the Son of God also went into a far county, down into the muck and mire of humanity. Only his motive was benevolent, not selfish. Jesus came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 1:10). Once we admit we’re lost, the question is, Are we ready to be found?