“Get lost!” Alas! These discordant words are often spoken and repeatedly heard as we go through life. But when we think about it, it is really abhorrent to say to another person – “Get lost!” True, we normally use this expression to tell someone forcefully and quite rudely to go away, but from a Biblical perspective, it is one of the most repugnant things anyone could say to a fellow human being. It basically means that we wish someone to be deprived of heaven. Not content with this colourful turn of phrase, however, we often feel the need to express the same sentiment in an even more colourful fashion by employing an even more jazzy salutation – “Go to hell!”
As I reflected on the Gospel text today – the text speaks about being lost – I realised that all of us need a more profound understanding of what “being lost” actually means, i.e. from a Biblical perspective. The precious insights concealed in the Greek version of today’s text need to be extracted in order for us to see the beauty of what Jesus is telling us.
Using three parables (something rather unusual in the modern liturgy) Jesus speaks about being lost and found. The Gospel passage consists of what I like to call the “twin parables” – the story of the Lost Sheep and the story of the Lost Coin – and one of the most well-known and well-loved parables, the story of the Prodigal Son. The short form of the Gospel today has only the “twin parables” as the parable of the prodigal son was already used this year on the fourth Sunday of Lent. (“Thank God” I hear many say, “because that will make the Mass shorter, and Mass must go quickly of course!”)
However, when we interpret the story of the Prodigal Son within the context of the other two parables today, we suddenly discover a deeper dimension to it. Normally, when we read the parable of the Prodigal Son, we put the emphasis on the Prodigal Son’s initiative in returning home. But when understood in the context of the “twin parables”, the emphasis is placed on the anticipatory action of God in seeking and saving the lost – the father “running” to the Prodigal Son while still a distance away. I would like to expand on this thought.
The Bible often uses play on words to emphasise a deeper dimension to something. In our modern translations, however, these shades of meaning are almost always lost. The Gospel today uses the word “to lose” (in Greek “apóllymi”), a word meaning much more than just lost. It is often used to mean “to destroy”, “to kill” or “to perish”. Therefore, in the mind of the Biblical authors, Jesus is said to lose one of the sheep if it becomes wicked and does not accept salvation, i.e. lost.
The Bible often uses this word to describe sheep straying from the flock, comparing the people of Israel to a flock that wanders about without guidance due to the negligence of its religious teachers. Because of this, the people are left to themselves and are in danger of losing their eternal salvation. Therefore, Christ, reclaiming them from wickedness, is likened to a shepherd who “has come to seek out and save what was lost” (Luke 19:10).
It is strange that the shepherd would leave his other sheep in the “wilderness” to go and look for the one that is lost. However, in the Greek text, the “wilderness” (érēmos) is not meant to be understood literally, i.e. an uncultivated, unpopulated place or a desolate area. It is used here in a figurative way to describe a barren, solitary place that also provides needed quiet and freedom from disturbance. In the Bible the wilderness is also where God richly grants His presence and provision for those seeking Him.
I also find great spiritual comfort when I read in today’s text that the Lord will “go after the missing one till he found it. And when he found it ...” Here we have one of the hidden gems of this text. It is not a question of if he finds but when he finds! God never gives up. The Greek word “heōs”, translated in the text as “till” or “until”, is a conjunction meaning “up to such time as”. In other words, God will find what he searches for and will never give up until he does.
It has taken many years for me to allow this profound truth to penetrate the depths of my being. God did not leave us – we left him. The division that exists between God and us is completely one-sided (our side). We abandoned him – he did not abandon us. Jesus is the shepherd who came to reconcile a fearful humanity to a loving God. In Jesus, God was reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor 5:19) – not the other way around. The entire Bible is about what God is doing to rebuild the original relationship he had with us, so that original sin is conquered by original relationship. Indeed, the Bible is the story of God in search of man.
God pursues us by constantly reminding us of his presence. He never slumbers. He understands all things. He lifts us when we are weak – even when we fall short of his glory – and we all do (Rom 3:23).
Using these insights, the message of the Gospel text today becomes much clearer. Without Jesus, we are lost. We cannot hope to survive without him. This was brought home to me very recently when I visited the home of woman who had just lost her husband. When I arrived at the house, she said to me, “It’s not just that I have lost him – I am lost without him!” What a powerful insight!