Lost and found

Published on 12 Sep 2019
Two sisters hugging
“God never allows the good to be permanently lost,” writes Peter Gallagher SJ, reflecting on the parable of the Prodigal Son. The well-known story of disobedience and restoration sends a powerful message of hope, a premise of the story of salvation through Jesus. 

We praise God for finding and restoring to us gifts which he gave to us but which we have lost. We are happy in the Lord’s company but sometimes we mislay the gift of his friendship. Through the work of Christ all such losses are put right. We are being restored to the household of God. So thoroughgoing is this restoration that it can seem that God never allows the good to be permanently lost. Part of our eternal life with God will be, we believe, the making good of losses. Heaven, if this is right, will be, among other things, a recapitulation of everything worthwhile. It appears that the Lord restores to us even what we have lost wilfully. Some losses just befall us, but others are our fault. We squander things. We miss the essential. We lose by disobedience. The obedience we are learning is a wholehearted treasuring of the precious gifts with which God has showered us.

The prodigal son

There is an echo of all of this in the words of the delighted father in the parable of the prodigal son. My son: he was lost and is found (Luke 15.24). The father makes this happy announcement to the servants arranging the celebration. He repeats the phrase to his elder son: Your brother: he was lost and is found (Luke 15.32). Recall the phrase from the preface: So that you might love in us what you loved in your Son/ By whose obedience we have been restored to those gifts of yours/ That, by sinning, we had lost in disobedience (Preface VII). The recovery of what we have lost is the achievement of the Son doing what the Father directs. Divine restoration is a work of love from which we are already benefitting.

The parent in the parable went on loving his younger son even when he became nearly unrecognisable in his disobedience. This father did not need to see goodness in his son in order to forgive him. While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity (Luke 15.20).

The best robe…the ring…the sandals…the calf…the feast...the celebration…the music…the dancing (Luke 15.22-25). These gifts and pleasures are emblems of the recovery not of mere respectability but of a recognised place in the daily life of a father who had never stopped loving the prodigal. What is restored is an obedience of the heart and not only outward conformity. Strangely, without the loss, without the disobedience, there could be no restoring of love. Mistakes, even very bad ones, find their place in the unfolding of the blessings of providence.

The prodigal declares sincerely that he would have been content with much less: I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants (Luke 15.18-19 & 21). It was never, however, about ‘deserving’ and the father now gives him more than he had had before. The returned prodigal receives more than he threw away. He now has a greater gift from the father than the old inheritance.

The elder brother

The elder brother is bitter. All these years I have slaved...never disobeyed and you never offered me even a modest celebration with my friends (Luke 15.29). He resents what is being lavished on his brother. He perceives that the prodigal is receiving things he cannot have. He has always been perfectly obedient and so can know nothing of obedience-rediscovered and joyfully restored. The honours paid to the returning prodigal are indeed more generous than the treatment given in a case where there has been no disobedience, no grabbing, no running away and no squandering. The abundant restoration of the younger son is unendurable to the elder. He was angry then and refused to go in (Luke 15.28). Now it is the turn of the elder son to throw away a gift. He rejects his father’s first invitation. Now he too knows a great loss. Now the elder son lapses into a kind of disobedience, with its accompanying unhappiness. This rebellion in the elder son the father observes and understands and approaches mercifully, as he did in the case of the younger son. There is no pigsty mess this time but there is the squalor of jealousy and resentment.

His father came out to plead with him (Luke 15.28). The self-righteous young man turns out, despite his virtues, to be a husk unsuitable for the festive table. Now he in his turn is losing what is most important. Will his gifts be restored to him?

The elder son will not join the celebration because he feels his perfection will be out of place beside the imperfection of his brother. Even an imperfection which has been restored by so generous a father will look tarnished beside the invincible goodness of the son who has never strayed. The Pharisees and the scribes complained about Jesus and the company he kept (Luke 15.2). The super-virtuous are uncomfortable among sinners, even repentant ones. Such ‘saints’ do not seek entry into the celebration. These ‘holy ones’ prefer to remain outside, disapproving. But the celebration is not an honouring of evil-doing but rather a tribute to precisely the goodness which the righteous admire and take themselves to possess. The household is rejoicing at an obedience which has been painfully reconstructed out of a previous disobedience. The family in the parable are celebrating a new fruitful gratitude in one who had previously been lost in a sterile ingratitude.

The loving Father and the redeemer

God is the sort of Father who looks out from a long way off (Luke 15.20) for his returning children and sees in them a goodness which is not their own but that of Jesus Christ. There is no return to obedience without the Lord. Jesus is himself ‘the younger son’ in the sense that he makes his way back to the Father, bringing all the other prodigals. He has no sin of which to repent but he acts as if he too had to undertake the journey back to grace. He shows the rest of us the way. Unexpectedly, however, Jesus is also ‘the elder son’ in that he is perfect. There is a party to celebrate recovered perfection and Jesus cannot, at first, attend because of his divinity and because he has always been perfect. God presses his Son to ‘come in to the party’ by the incarnation.

We are disciples of Jesus. He is our exemplary brother who lives like us in all things but sin. It is the work of Christ to allow the prodigals to be welcomed home. He was sent as the redeemer by whose obedience we have been restored to the gifts of God which we had lost by our disobedience. The loving Father does not mistreat the Son but he allows him to suffer for the rest of us. God says: ‘my brothers and sisters, they were lost and are found. I now see in them what I love in my Son.’ God, our Father is not so much overlooking our disobedience as honouring the Son’s obedience. Jesus takes our place.  His doing so leads him to Calvary and brings us, with him, back to God. God says: ‘My Son and the company he keeps: they were lost and are found.’

Peter Gallagher SJ

Related resources