Lost Part 3 – The Return of the Prodigal Son

Luke 15:11-32 Click Link for Scripture

All the Bible is written for us, but not all the Bible is written to us. When I read the Bible, one thing I need to determine before I start making application to my life and to the lives of people around me, is whether I’m reading something that is written to me or something that is written for me.

When we’re reading stories in the Hebrew Bible, the book we call the Old Testament, it’s important to read them through the lens of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels and of the writings in the Christian Bible, the book we call the New Testament. Reading with these questions in mind can help us to be clear on what we should learn from what we’re reading:

    • Is the intent for us to learn principles, patterns, and consequences so we can make wise decisions in life?
    • Is this written to help us understand how cause and effect works over a lifetime?
    • Does what we’re reading include specific instructions for us to act upon in the present moment.

Here’s another important thing to keep in mind when we read the Bible: When I find something that is written to me, I must know if it’s written to me to help me with something in my life or if it’s something I’m to apply to other people as well. I think sometimes we make the mistake of trying to tell other people what they’re supposed to be doing rather than actually applying what the Bible says to our own lives.

When I’m reading the teachings of Jesus, I can be pretty sure this is something that’s written to me, because I’m a disciple, a Jesus-follower. When I’m reading the stories Jesus told, I look for myself in the story and ask the Holy Spirit to show me how the truth contained in the story applies to my life. What Jesus is saying in his teachings and his stories always relates to me in some practical way: it shapes my faith, it informs my attitudes, and it directs my actions.

Jesus’ story of the Lost Son is such a good example of that! Each of the characters: The Lost Son, the Older Brother, and the Father have something to teach me.

Here’s how the “Lost Series” of blog posts came about. I was reading and thinking about the story of the Lost Son in Luke 15 and I realized that this story was not a “standalone” Story. It’s one of three stories, all addressed to a specific group of people and all communicating a different aspect of the same truth. The lost sheep mattered to the shepherd, the lost coin mattered to the woman, and the lost son mattered to his father. The core truth in the stories: Lost people matter to God and to us!

Then I realized that there’s no bad guy in any of the three stories! We’re so dualistic in our thinking that our stories have to have a good guy and a bad guy. We think in terms of Good/Bad, Right/Wrong, In/Out, Accepted/r\Rejected. The good guy wins and the bad guy loses; the good guy is accepted, the bad guy is rejected; the good guy gets rewarded, the bad guy gets punished.

In the story of the Lost Son it seems apparent on the surface that the Younger Son represents sinners and despicable people (see Luke 15:1-2), the Older Son represents the Pharisees and teachers of religious law, and the Father represents God. And at first, it seems the younger son is the bad guy, but when he comes home and is embraced by his father, the older brother seems like the bad guy. It’s all very confusing when we’re looking for good guys and bad guys!

But here’s the thing we must not miss: In the Lost Stories in Luke 15, Jesus was trying to communicate to a group of law-abiding religious people that God loves non-law-abiding sinners. In the eyes of the Pharisees, they were “despicable people”, unlovable and rejected! In God’s eyes, they were lost but loved! There are no good guys and bad guys in these stories! There are unlost people and there are lost people (who are loved just as much as the unlost people!)

As I was processing these thoughts, I talked to my friend Jim Petersen about what I was beginning to see and he told me about a painting by Rembrandt called “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, and about a book by Henri Nouwen that unfolds this story in a powerful way. It would not waste your time or money to read that book. You can find it on Amazon Kindle. “The Return of the Prodigal Son, Anniversary Edition: A Special Two-in-One Volume, including Home Tonight” – by Henri Nouwen.

Next three posts: “The Lost Son”; then “The Older Brother”; then “The Father”.

So friends, I’m inviting you to explore with me, over the next few posts, these powerful truths:

    • Lost People Matter To God.
    • Unlost people also matter to God.

It’s God’s intention to show how much he loves both kinds of people, lost and unlost. And to help us do the same.

As always, I welcome your comments. If you’re reading this on the blog, comment at the end. If you’re reading in an email, simply reply to the email with your comments.


Lost Part 2 – The Lost Coin

8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.” (Luke 15:8-10 NLT)

Remember…Luke 15 tells of a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and teachers of religious law. These folks didn’t like it that Jesus’ “congregation” included despicable people such as tax collectors and other notorious sinners. Jesus loved sinners and wanted them to turn to God, but he also loved Pharisees and religious people and wanted them to understand that lost people matter to God. So instead of engaging in an argument with them over who’s in and who’s out, or who’s accepted by God and who’s rejected, Jesus told them three stories. Last week, Story 1 – The Lost Sheep. Here’s story 2 – The Lost Coin…

A woman has lost a valuable silver coin, one of ten valuable coins she had. These were silver coins. Most of today’s coins and all of today’s currency have no intrinsic value. Modern coins and currency have value assigned by the economic system. Uganda’s currency is at 3693 shillings to 1 US dollar. Jamaica’s currency is at 141 JA dollars to 1 one US dollar. US currency is at 1.36 dollars to one British pound, and at 1.23 dollars to one Euro. These are arbitrary numbers and they constantly slide up and down due primarily to political and economic factors.

But this lost silver coin was valuable! It may have been one of the “Ten Coins” gift traditionally given to Palestinian brides by their father on their wedding day. It could have been a special coin with her favorite Roman Emperor’s image on one side, maybe even minted in her first child’s birth year. It was a valuable coin, one of ten that she had, and it was lost. And she was desperate to find it!

Things get lost. We misplace our car keys. We leave our credit card at the grocery store. We can’t find our phone. We lose the remote control and eventually find it between the cushions of the sofa. Sometimes we lose important documents.

My Mother’s Gift. As I grew up in my parents’ home and later as Jean and I had a home of our own, we all began to realize that my mother, Alice Stephens, had some kind of gift for finding things that got lost. Someone in the family would lose something, we’d tear the place apart trying to find it, or we’d retrace our steps from the time we last remembered seeing it, and finally we’d cry out to Mom about it. My mother would pray about it and then, sometimes right away, or sometimes a little later, she’d say. “have you looked in the desk drawer” or “I just keep thinking about a coat pocket” and we’d rush to look and there it would be!

I remember very well a time in the late ‘80s when Jean and Melissa and I were living in Kingston, Jamaica. We were due to renew our work permit visa with Jamaica Immigration and we couldn’t find a folder of very important documents we needed for the renewal application. The deadline was fast approaching and without the work visa we couldn’t stay in Jamaica. We’d have been deported as soon as the permit expired. (This was before internet and email and text messaging and cell phones and scanning of documents. And all we had was our landline which only had a dial tone about half the time.) We phoned my mother, thousands of miles away in southern Oregon, and told her our dilemma. I asked her to pray while I held on the call at about a dollar a minute. She prayed about the lost documents, and I prayed, “Oh Lord, Let this be one of the quick ones!” In a moment she said, “I just keep thinking of a folder that has fallen down behind a drawer!” While Jean stayed on the line, I rushed to the file cabinet and pulled the drawer completely out, and there it was, fallen down inside the back of the cabinet! Thanks, Mom! Thank you, Lord! We submitted the paperwork and it was processed in a timely manner and we were good for another two years!

Things get lost that are too important or too valuable to just write them off! There are broken relationships with long lost family members, friendships that have gone missing through carelessness or some nearly forgotten disagreement. There are people who used to be a big part of our lives and now we’re quite a ways down very different paths and we miss them but we don’t know how or it just seems like too much effort to try and get back on the same track. There’s a hole in our lives where they used to be!

Just like the woman who lost the coin, we’ve lost something or someone valuable. Just like the woman who lost the coin, if the value is great enough, we’ll light a lamp, tear the house apart, retrace our steps to where we last remember the person or the thing not being lost.

Lostness matters to God: Lost relationships, misplaced friendships, people who have fallen down behind a drawer and are hidden from our view, all matter to God and to us. Let’s not give up on lost people just like the woman didn’t give up on her lost coin.

Jesus says heaven is happy and angels rejoice when the lost are found. When people change their minds and are restored to relationship and fellowship, when we stop making it about “us” versus “them” and realize that God sees “us” and “them” as all part of his family, heaven rejoices! Like the woman who lost the coin, let’s light a lamp, let’s search diligently, and let’s keep searching until find what we’ve lost. Then let’s join heaven in celebrating!

Lost Part 1 – The Lost Sheep

1 Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. 2 This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! (Luke 15:1-2 NLT)

Luke 15 starts with a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and teachers of religious law. This conflict, one of many, was over the fact that Jesus’ “congregation” included despicable people such as tax collectors and other notorious sinners. Jesus loved sinners and wanted them to turn to God. Jesus also loved Pharisees and religious people and wanted them to “get it,” and to understand that lost people matter to God. So instead of engaging in an argument with them over who’s in and who’s out, or who’s accepted by God and who’s rejected, Jesus told them three stories. He provided no explanation, no points of application, just three stories.

Jesus told stories with a purpose. To show how God loves people, Jesus told stories about a shepherd and sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. To show how God cares for the poor, Jesus told stories contrasting the selfish rich with the desperately needy poor. To show how God loves people of different races, Jesus told stories about the Samaritans, mixed-race people the Jews despised. To show that Jesus values women as much as men, he told many stories in which women were the key characters. This is one of Jesus’ “If you have ears to hear, listen up!” moments!

The Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7)

3 So Jesus told them this story: 4 “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away! (Luke 15:3-7 NLT)

Jesus told them a story about a lost sheep. In a couple of the translations I was reading, Jesus said, “If you had a hundred sheep and one got lost, what would you do?” Jesus didn’t want his hearers to just pass this off as a story about an unnamed shepherd in the wilderness with his unnamed sheep, so he put them in the story.

We have a dog named Jake. He’s an English Springer Spaniel who just turned six in November. Jake has become semi-famous in Central Oregon because when we walk in the desert east of town almost every day, Jake finds bones in the desert and I post pictures of Jake and his bones to Instagram. You can find lots of pictures of Jake The Desert Bone Dog on my Instagram account and my Facebook page.

About a month ago, on one of our early morning walks, Jake got lost! I had just said, “Hey Jake, you seem very subdued today.” He wriggled his bottom and headed off the trail into the junipers. When we’d walked a couple hundred yards further, I asked Jean if she’d seen Jake. We looked around for him. I whistled and waited and whistled again. Nothing—Jake was gone! After a few minutes we made a plan to separate and while Jean went back for the car, I walked cross country in the direction of where I’d see him last. After pointless searching, whistling, and waiting, I headed back to the trail. Jean came along in the car and we drove north to another road beyond where we’d last seen him. We drove and drove and looked and looked. We’d stop the car and I’d get out and whistle. And wait. We decided to separate again. So Jean took the car to go back toward where we’d last seen him and I again headed across country, toward where we’d parked earlier, planning to retrace the entire route. Jean called about 10 minutes later and had found him on the road below, far from where we’d lost him. He was really glad to see her and to get back in the car! I started across country to meet her at the point we’d originally started the search, preparing some choice words to deliver to Jake when I saw him. But when I got to the car, I was so glad to see him and he was so glad to see me those choice words didn’t seem to matter!

While Jake was lost, I felt fear! And we prayed very fervently! We asked God to do what he could to direct Jake toward us. We asked God to direct us toward Jake. We didn’t know whether God would have more luck directing Jake or directing us, so we covered both options. We did what we could. We tried to think like a dog. We made a plan that involved whistling and praying and looking. I was thinking about how afraid he would be and I was afraid he’d do something stupid(er). I felt such joy when we found him! Do I love him less for getting lost? No, but when he was lost I realized how much I love him!

I can assure you of one thing, when Jesus says, “If one of your sheep gets lost…” he now has my full attention! I can feel what he’s talking about.

Jesus doesn’t tell us which sheep got lost! Was it that young sheep that was constantly sticking his nose in the weeds, wandering off? Was it that little lamb that was too weak to keep up with the rest and simply got left behind? Was it that old sheep with arthritic joints that had trouble walking? It was one of his sheep and he loves and values every one!

Jesus says, “If this was you, and one of your sheep was lost in the wilderness, you’d go find it!” You’d leave the other ninety-nine sheep in a good spot where they wouldn’t wander off and you’d go find the lost one. And when you found it you’d be so glad to see it safe again that you’d forget all about the things you were going to say to that dumb sheep! You’d pick it up, carry it home, and tell everybody how glad you are to have your sheep back safe and sound. Like I just told you about Jake!

Jesus is the good shepherd. Jesus loves every sheep (that’s you and me, whether we’re presently lost or found) even more than I love Jake. And Jesus searches for lost sheep passionately and rejoices ecstatically when he finds the one that’s lost! In fact, Jesus said all heaven rejoices! Sometimes that lost sheep might be you or me, sometimes it might be someone we don’t even think should be part of the flock. But Jesus loves us all equally and searches diligently when we stray. That’s why there are some people in Jesus’ congregation that we really wonder about. And maybe they wonder about us. But Jesus loves us all! And if you’re currently lost, he’s looking for you!

Introduction to Jim Stephens’ Blog – Notes From My Journey

Hey Everybody! Happy New Year! There’s a lot going on in my head and heart  that I want to share with my friends! So I’m starting 2021 with a determination to begin writing a blog post every week this year. The GraceNotes Daily Devotionals serve a specific purpose and require structure and discipline to stay between the fences and keep the focus on regular daily Bible Reading and writing devotional (Heart attitude and life application) thoughts on those specific scripture readings. I do my best!

But there is so much more I think about, pray about, and process—stuff that doesn’t fit into a structured devotional plan! This is stuff that matters to me as I live my life, think about the past and the future, and think about the ever-changing realities of the world we’re living in. This is stuff that I’m not always ready to share, but when I do reach some clarity, I’d like to pass on my thoughts and my process because I think many of you will be able to relate to it as well. Does that strike a chord with you?

So here’s the plan, friends! I’ve begun collecting a folder of thoughts, questions, musings, and ideas that seem like they’d be shareworthy at some point. I’ll write and post once a week, probably on Tuesday or Thursday. If I can do more, I will, but not more than two blog posts weekly. 

I’m assuming that if the GraceNotes Devotionals speak the language of your heart, you’ll find value in these further musings and thoughts. So I’m going to include GraceNotes subscribers in the weekly email of my blog posts. If at any time you either don’t want the blog articles or it’s just too much content to read, simply click the Unsubscribe Link at the bottom of the email.

I’ll start with a short series of posts from my thoughts on Luke 15 in which Jesus tells three stories: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost Son. The next post you receive will introduce the Lost Series with some thoughts on the story of the Lost Sheep. Watch for the Lost Series in your email inbox soon!

Practical stuff:

  • I’m going to try to keep these posts short because we all have plenty to read.
  • I’d love to know your thoughts on length, frequency, and even subject matter.
  • Please recommend my blog to others who might be interested.

Grace and Peace,  Jim Stephens