THE GREATEST STORIES JESUS TOLD are recorded in Luke 15. They describe a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. All are sought after and found with resultant rejoicing. These three stories form a backdrop to three stories of mine. Each describes what it is like to be lost, what it is like to find what seems lost, and the rejoicing that results.
My brother and his family love free food. They forage for food both for eating and for income. They live half of the year in the Yukon and the other half in Costa Rica. One day when I was visiting them in the Yukon, they invited me to go mushroom picking with them. In Canada forest fires prepare the soil for morel mushrooms. In this particular year there had been a large fire in nearby British Columbia, and they were expecting a good harvest.
They welcomed another harvesting hand and told me, “You can make a lot of money,” which has rarely motivated me. But always game for a new adventure and to do things my brother does, I agreed.
We headed out to a valley filled with blackened pencil-shaped logs, both fallen and upright. It looked eerie. The ground was covered with dirty gray ash. Legend-sized black flies and mosquitoes buzzed around us, attempting to bite the bit of life they found on our few inches of exposed skin or scalp. I coughed, sneezed, and swatted while trying to find those elusive little tan caps that were emerging through the undergrowth. My eyes weren’t trained, and I was frankly miserable.
Nothing was beautiful except the blue skies above my head, which were not visible when my eyes were searching the ground for tiny mushroom mounds. I couldn’t wait for the day to be done! Who cared about money? This was not how I liked to earn it!
Finally, someone said, “Let’s stop for lunch.” Hallelujah, I thought. We scanned the horizon for our cars. Nothing in sight. Which was north? Not a bit of moss on any of the scorched trees! One person said, “I think we go this way,” but another contradicted and said, “No, it’s this way.”
We wandered, we circled, and we got nowhere. This forest looked like a 1,000-piece puzzle of logs and ash, and we were immersed in the center with no edge pieces! Pooling our strengths, we finally found our way out, a bit shaken that this could happen to us, a team of experienced and educated adults.
My next story happened in Malaysia. My wife and I had taken a group of Union College honors students there for a field class in “Wealth and Poverty.” One of the perks of that trip was a boat ride to a nearby island that served fancy cool drinks under palm-frond umbrellas. In the muggy heat of the South Seas, this was a welcome treat that made us all feel momentarily wealthy!
The island was well-supplied with lush tropical vegetation that exotic birds inhabited. As an avid birdwatcher, I couldn’t resist pulling out my binoculars. I told my wife, “Stay with the students. I’m going to go birdwatching for a bit.”
I followed the bird calls and was soon immersed in the jungle searching for the Tabon scrubfowl. I quickly lost track of time but then “came to myself” and realized I needed to get back. I was sweating and thirsty. I turned around to retrace my steps. There was no path, no footsteps or trail of crumbs, but I saw the ocean shore and thought, Oh, this will be easy. It’s probably just a few yards down the coast, but which way? Is this shore on the north or south side of the small island?
The few yards I traveled didn’t yield any group. I turned around and went back the other way. Still nothing. I was lost. My legs were beginning to shake. I knew I needed water, but I hadn’t thought to bring any with me for my short jaunt. I guessed my brain was feeling the impact of the high 90s humidity and temperature. I couldn’t orient myself. Finally, a native person in a small boat rode by. I flagged him down and got the help I needed to return to the group. Rescue and relief felt so good!
My third story happened when my wife and I took a vacation in Germany. My middle name is Martin, after Martin Luther, and my heritage is German, so this trip was to see the land of my namesake. I also wanted to locate the hometown of my great-grandfather.
My wife and I enjoy church history, so we readily embarked on this window in the COVID pandemic to “get away.” It was a lovely journey with everything falling into place exactly as planned . . . until one afternoon on the tail of our journey when we decided to fit in just one more site. We knew Martin Luther had spent his monk years in an Augustinian cloister in Erfurt. On our return trip to Frankfurt, we decided to veer off the highway 30 minutes and visit this church and monastery. We had plenty of time, so why not?
We parked our car in a convenient spot and walked the straight stone pathway to the Domkirche. We loved the spectacular biblically themed stained-glass windows, ornate life-size statues of wise and foolish virgins, a wood carving of Jesus in the tomb, a life-size coffin containing “Jesus,” and Elizabeth of Thuringia’s (c. 1230 AD) golden reliquary of her face and hands. Then we wandered freely until we were about two-thirds of the way around the crown of the hill and in front of the small medieval church and cloister rooms where Martin Luther had spent his six years of monkhood wrestling with God. Here again we enjoyed the well-marked museum texts documenting Luther’s life that were put in place for the recent 500th anniversary of the Reformation. What a great serendipity to our trip.
Then, just as we were completing our sightseeing, it started to rain. We’d had beautiful weather, but now the sky was bawling! We decided I’d get the car and then return for my wife. Figuring the car to be about 10 minutes away, I grabbed a small paper tourist map from the reception stand, covered my head with it, and started jogging down the road toward where I thought our car was parked. I ran the opposite way from which we had arrived, reasoning this would be a shortcut. I assumed the church was on the top of the hill, so if I merely completed the circle, it should be easy to find our car.
It wasn’t. I ran and ran. I turned this way and then that way on ancient, narrow, shop-filled streets that housed several storied buildings. These provided no gap through which to see the Domkirche. The map I held in my hand melted in the rain. Our cell phones weren’t working. In the downpour I couldn’t read the street signs, let alone the script-sized words on my soaked map. Besides that, my reading glasses were in the car. I was drenched! And I had to admit I was lost.
Then the rain abated. I looked up and saw that this well-prepared tourist town had prominently posted a permanent waterproof sign with a map telling me where I was. On it, I visually identified my location, where the church was, and where my car was parked. I retrieved the car and returned for my wife. The imagined 10-minute jaunt had taken me an hour and a half!
On seeing me, my relieved wife asked incredulously, “What happened?”
I replied, “I got lost.”
She’d been sorting through ideas to try, but she laughingly told me she figured she’d first use the opportunity to pray in the very church Martin Luther had, figuring if God heard Luther there, God would also hear her. We rejoiced at being reunited.
ON THE HORIZON
The Gospels tell three stories of being lost. The first is the story of a lost sheep. The second is a lost coin. The third is a lost son. Each story gives a slightly different perspective on the experience of being lost.
We can assume the sheep didn’t know it was lost, but its owner did. The one that was anxious wasn’t the sheep—it was the shepherd. Sheep wander around just looking for food. They don’t spend their time being afraid or calculating how to avoid danger. They are gentle, humble creatures that focus on feeding and merely require a kindly caretaker to help them safely do what they are designed to do: graze, produce wool, and reproduce.
The coin also did not know it was lost. It was valuable only if it was able to be used by the one who possessed it. Again, the owner felt the loss and experienced an anxious desire to retrieve it. Something valuable was gone. She searched, found it, and rejoiced.
These first two stories are more about the experience of God, who has lost us, than they are about us, who have been lost. On a stretch they can be about our realizing that we have lost something valuable and our joining with a seeking God in the desire to return to Him. Parables, like dreams, can be loosely interpreted to represent different parts of an experience that simultaneously occur.
The son story emphasizes the experience of the lost one. He went searching for a real “life.” Not content with boredom or serving his father, he wanted to experience the fun that money would purchase. His brother accused him of consorting with
prostitutes, but the story simply says he squandered his wealth in wild living. The details are left to the imagination.
There is no story of the searching father to begin with. But the thought of his father started to haunt him. At first it wasn’t a welcome image, as he was running away. He wanted to escape and enjoy life, but as that enjoyment turned to drought, famine, and the husks the pigs ate, his image of his father changed. He knew his father’s servants were fed well, and he began to imagine his father receiving him back as a servant. He didn’t deserve to return to his father as a son, but he came to believe that his father would probably receive him back as a servant. As such, he would surely have shelter and food.
The original language simply says, “he came to himself” (Luke 15:17). He thought about who he was, and he realized that he was still the son of his father. He couldn’t expect to be received back as a son, but he at least believed his father would receive him back as his servant.
As he approached home, the story says that while he was a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him and ran to his son and threw his arms around him and kissed him. Once he was headed home, his father was more than ready to receive him. He told his father he was not worthy to be called a son, but his father cut off his speech so the part about being a servant was never even spoken. The father ordered a feast with a fatted calf, a robe, and a ring. He said, “My son who was lost is found.”
In this instance the story describes the experience of repentance merely alluded to in the previous two stories. The son, dissatisfied with a life with his father, sought a life in wild living. He found it empty. He repented. The biblical concept of repentance is not so much a guilt-driven emotional sorrow for sin as it is a turning toward God. It is like the sky clearing after a storm. Eyes that were blind can suddenly see and orient themselves to a new reality.
The Old Testament word for repentance is shuv, which means to turn around, make a U-turn, or turn toward. The concept is not about turning away from sin but about turning toward God and the new life God offers. It is goal-driven, not guilt-driven. In the New Testament the concept of repentance is only slightly altered. The word in Greek is metanoia, and it refers to a change of mind or thinking. It’s less about behavior and more about the thought processes behind the behavior. The son changed his mind about what his life with his father was like. He changed his mind about what kind of life he wanted. He then changed his direction.
These parables emphasize the searching of the shepherd, the searching of the housewife, and ultimately the initiative-taking love of the father. According to Paul in Romans 2:4, it is the chrastos of God that leads to repentance. The word sounds like Christos, which means the anointed one or the messiah, but it’s entirely different. Chrastos is a quality. It means kindness or goodness. In this case it is a quality of God that draws us to Him.
Lost beings long to be rescued. We hunger for kindness and are attracted to goodness. God is never a demanding authority figure, a confining jailkeeper, or a terrible judge, but a waiting Father who searches the horizon for His beloved child.