Lost and Found
Like all great teachers Jesus was a master story teller. The Injil says, “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.” (Matthew 13:34, NIV) One parable that has been re-told countless times tells the story of a wayward son who eventually returns home:
“A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.
“A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.
“When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’
“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’
“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, and he asked one of the servants what was going on. ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’
“The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved [worked hard] for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’
“His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’” (Luke 15:11-32)
There is something unmistakably heart-warming about the father in this story – a quality that endears him to us. It prompts us to ask, “What was Jesus driving at? What is this story really about? Who is the father? Perhaps God?”
If you have read the prophets you know that they described God as Father. In fact, the Old Testament painted this picture of God against the backdrop of people going astray like sheep. This portrait of God as Father is remarkably similar to the picture in the New Testament. Speaking through the prophet Hosea, God said,
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt. But the more I called to him, the farther he moved from me, ... burning incense to idols. I myself taught Israel how to walk, leading him along by the hand. But he doesn't know ... that it was I who took care of him. I led Israel along with ropes of kindness and love... But since my people refuse to return to me they will return to Egypt...
Oh how can I give you up Israel? How can I let you go? How can I destroy you like Admah or demolish you like Zeboiim? My heart is torn within me, and my compassion overflows. No, I will not unleash my fierce anger. I will not completely destroy Israel for I am God and not a mere mortal. I am the Holy One living among you, and I will not come to destroy. For someday the people will follow me. I, the Lord, will roar like a lion. And when I roar, my people will return from the west. Like a flock of birds they will come from Egypt ... and I will bring them home again,” says the Lord. (Hosea 11:1-11)
However, something must happen first in preparation for this homeward journey. The Israelites will experience terrible suffering as foretold in chapters 12 and 13. God declares they “must bear the consequences of their guilt because they rebelled against their God.” (Hosea 13:16; cf. Jeremiah 30:11) A proper understanding of God as a loving Father, means appreciating the value of discipline, “My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Proverbs 3:11,12 ESV)
Earlier we saw in the Injil (Luke 15) how the wayward son suffered a lot. In effect, he bore the consequence of his guilt but eventually he came to his senses. These events softened his heart and turned him in repentance to his father. We see a similar pattern in Hosea. The Lord predicts that the Israelites will endure much pain “until they admit their guilt and turn to me.” (Hosea 5:15)
Hosea concludes his teaching with a beautiful and fitting description of the restoration of the Jewish people, “Return, O Israel to the Lord your God, for your sins have brought you down. Bring your confessions and return to the Lord. Say to him, ‘Forgive all our sins and graciously receive us, so that we may offer you our praises...’ The Lord says, ‘Then I will heal you of your faithlessness; my love will know no bounds, for my anger will be gone forever. I will be to Israel like a refreshing dew from heaven...’ Let those with discernment listen carefully.” (Hosea 14:1-9)
The story of the prodigal son also ends with a restoration – a joyous return home to the father. But notice, there is an unusual twist. The father has to deal with a stressful situation – an envious, unforgiving brother. He urges the older brother, “We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost but now is found.” I invite you to join me now as we take a closer look at the meaning of this story.
Some thoughtful questions
1. One can't help noticing a striking contrast between the two brothers! Does Christ intend us to see an underlying meaning? Who do you think corresponds to the hard-hearted, unforgiving older brother? (cf. Matthew 21:28-32)
2. Who does the younger brother signify or represent? In what sense was he 'dead'? Can you think of other examples in Scripture where people were 'dead', yet they were not literally dead, i.e. some deeper or figurative meaning is implied?
Restoring a 'dead' son to life
First let us consider what it means to be 'lost.' Scripture says that all people have gone astray like sheep. (Isaiah 53:6) Because sheep are prone to stray they become lost and separated from their shepherd. A good shepherd looks for his lost sheep. Interestingly, the Lord likens himself to a good shepherd who searches for his lost sheep. (see Ezekiel 34:1-24; cf. Luke 15:3-7; John 10:11-16)
Not only does God seek the lost, he restores lives that have been ruined. The prodigal came to the end of himself. His life was wasted and he was “dying of hunger.” (bold added) His father restored him back to life, literally and metaphorically. This is why the father said, “this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life.” (bold added)
Pause a minute and ask, “What does it mean to restore the son's life? Does it perhaps imply saving his life from ruin? Interestingly we don't find the word 'save' in this story yet the idea is clearly there. Was the son not dying of starvation? And so, in a sense, he was 'saved' from death! Not only so, he was reunited with his father after a very painful separation.
Speaking of separation, there is a well known story in the Torah where someone who 'died' suffered a traumatic separation. No doubt you recall how the downfall of Adam and Eve caused a profound break in their relationship with God (including their offspring). Our first parents were commanded not to eat the forbidden fruit. God warned them that they would die if they disobeyed. And sure enough, it happened just as God had said: they were banished from the Garden and their bodies began to suffer decay and death. Leaves on a branch will die after it is cut off from the tree trunk. Similarly, mankind experiences decay and death when they were banished and cut off from God, the source of life.
As the prodigal son was restored to life after a painful separation, so also we can glimpse a coming day of restoration for Adam and Eve. Scripture provides a clue showing that they will be rescued from their 'lost,' 'dead' condition. In fact God foretold a hero would arise and crush the head of the Serpent – man's arch-enemy. Not only so, in due course it becomes clear that this titanic conflict results in a restoration to Paradise. (Genesis 3:15; Luke 23:43; John 12:23-33)
We see another glimpse of this rescue theme in the writings of the prophet Job. You recall how Job lost everything he valued. One disaster after another struck until finally he fell ill. In fact he was so sick it seemed he might die. Under such bleak circumstances, Job made a remarkable declaration of hope, “Oh that my words could be ... inscribed on a monument, ... engraved forever in the rock. I know that my Redeemer lives and he will stand upon the earth at last. And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God!” (Job 19:23-26) Similarly, the Psalmist expressed his confidence in a divine Redeemer, “But as for me, God will redeem my life. He will snatch me from the power of the grave.” (Psalm 49:15)
The prophet Isaiah picks up this rescue theme, using slightly different, but similar words, save/salvation. We read a remarkable prophecy in chapter 25 verses 6-9 which indicates that death will be destroyed. “In Jerusalem, the Lord ... will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever!” Seeing this momentous event, the people will proclaim, “This is our God! We trusted in him and he saved us! This is the Lord, in whom we trusted. Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!”
Can we doubt this day of salvation will dawn – a day when death will no longer cast its dread shadow over the earth? It is a day when God will rescue/raise believers from the grave!
Interestingly, the hope of resurrection was associated with a heroic messiah-figure, a mighty deliverer. Messiah's coming was prophesied in Isaiah 49:5-6, “And now the Lord speaks – the one who formed me in my mother's womb to be his servant, who commissioned me to bring Israel back to him... He says, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me. I will make you a light to the Gentiles, and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Notice the scope of the task that God commissioned this special servant. He will “bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” Seven hundred years passed before the Messiah finally arrived. Then an angel of God announced to a virgin named Mary, that she would give birth to a son. The angel instructed Joseph and Mary to call him, Jesus, meaning, 'God is salvation.' This makes sense because as we learned, his task was to “bring God's salvation.”
Not only did the prophets predict the eventual destruction of death, the Messiah confirmed this. On three occasions Jesus promised those who followed him that they “will never die.” (John 8:51; 5:24; 11:26) At first glance this seems preposterous! How on earth could Jesus promise immortality to his followers?
He explained in John 11:26: “I am the resurrection and the life.” This claim may seem incredible but Jesus countered that it was his prerogative. He received this power from God himself. (John 5:24-29)
And now, here's the final evidence that clinches the case. Did you notice, that Isaiah 25:7 specifies where death will be destroyed, i.e. Jerusalem? (Some Bible translations prefer Mt. Zion to Jerusalem but, at any rate, these terms are synonyms.) Believe it or not, this prophecy of Isaiah is re-affirmed in the Injil! Jesus predicted he would be killed in Jerusalem and three days later rise again. (Matthew 18:31-33) Ponder how 'rising again' implies power to overcome the grave. In other words, “death could not keep him in its grip,” as the apostle Peter said. (Acts 2:24; cf John 10:17; Hebrews 2:14,15)
We began our discussion, noting how death is used idiomatically in the story of the prodigal son, i.e. not literally but figuratively. Then we explored what death means in the story of Adam and Eve. Thereafter, we unfolded the cryptic promise of a heroic rescuer, looking at several prophets; Job, Asaph and Isaiah. Finally, we came to the birth of the long-awaited Messianic hero. Once again, we noticed that death means more than just the end of physical life. In Jesus' teachings death has a deeper, spiritual meaning.
Revelation, the last book of the Bible, speaks of hell as the “second death.” (Revelation 20:14; 21:8) Whoever believes Jesus is God's Son, and trusts that he died and rose again in their place, will be ushered into our Father's home – a place where there is no more death or tears. (Note: this fulfils Isaiah's prophecy, “God will wipe away all tears.”) Jesus “has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light.” (2 Timothy 1:10)
Do you recall Job's memorable declaration? I cannot think of a more beautiful way to confirm his confident hope than to meditate on the reassuring words of Christ, “I hold the keys of death and the grave.” (Revelation 1:18)
Pondering similarities & differences
The story of the prodigal is not recorded in the Qur'an, nevertheless, many Muslims can heartily agree with the underlying theme which underscores the idea of returning to our Maker. In a sense, we all need to return 'home', like the wayward son. This theme resonates almost intuitively with the well known Qur'anic saying, "To God we belong, to him is our return." (Surah 2:156, bold added)
Not only so, being welcomed home by a compassionate heavenly father can be interpreted Islamically. Allah is, after all, the Most Compassionate One. Furthermore, Muslims believe one ought to turn to God in repentance. Without genuine repentance one cannot expect a warm welcome into the home of God.
Other significant parallels can be noted: for example, the Qur'an teaches that Paradise is a "place of salvation" where there is no more death and no tears. (Surah 39:61; 44:56)
Of course, these similarities are noteworthy but, no matter how positively we like to construe them, in the final analysis, there are differences. It is good to engage in friendly dialog but we must also come to terms with our differences, even contradictions! The fact of the matter is: the Qur'an emphatically denies the core truth of the parable – God is Father. (Surah 5:72-73, 5:75; cf. 19:88-92; 9:30)
And this is not the only dilemma. Consider the theme of rescuing/saving which pervades the prophets. As a matter of fact, the Qur'an mentions this theme, but Islamic preachers and scholars have not seen fit to emphasize it. They did not include the names – Savior, Redeemer, Rescuer – in the 99 beautiful names of Allah! Using the accepted criteria for selecting the 99 names, it would have been appropriate for the ulema to include at least one of these names, but they didn't!
In effect, they marginalized God's saving power, in contrast to how the prophets highlighted its importance. Indeed, this attribute distinguishes the true and living God from idols who are powerless to save! (see Isaiah chapter 45 especially verses 21-23; Exodus 18:8-11)
Does the Qur'an use idioms like the Bible?
We saw how the Injil portrays the prodigal son as figuratively 'dead.' If such idioms are acceptable in the Bible we may ask, whether the Qur'an uses similar idioms?
There are several interesting examples where the Qur'an speaks idiomatically of death. Surah 41:39; “For among His signs is this: thou seest the earth lying desolate - and lo! when We send down water upon it, it stirs and swells [with life]! Verily, He who brings it to life can surely give life to the dead [of heart as well]: for, behold, He has the power to will anything.” (Asad) Surah 44:56; “Nor will they there taste Death except the first Death; and He will preserve them from the Penalty of the Blazing Fire.” Yet another example, Surah 2:154; “And say not of those who are slain in the way of God: 'They are dead.' Nay, they are living, though ye perceive it not.” (see also Surah 6:60)
Not only does the Qur'an speak about death in non-literal ways, it also uses figurative speech in relation to familial terms such as father/children, e.g. Abraham is a father-figure to believers (Surah 22:78) Shaitan has offspring (Surah 18:50). One wonders, “If evil-doers can be called children of the Devil, is it not fitting to call right-doers God's children?” A closer examination is available online here.
Not only does the Qur'an contain familial idioms, such expressions are common in daily conversation of Arabs, e.g. 'son of the road' which means traveller, or 'son of the earth' which means farmer.
Have you thought about why the Bible repeatedly speaks of God as Father but the Qur'an doesn't? Notice also how the Bible emphasizes Jesus the Messiah is God's Son (Matthew 16:16; 1 John 2:22-23) but the Qur'an emphatically rejects this. In fact, it declares, “God's curse” on those who believe this. (Surah 9:30) Not only so, the Qur'an describes this cornerstone teaching of the Bible as blasphemy, “verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers.” (Surah 5:72-73, 5:75; cf. 19:88-92)
I trust that as you read the heartwarming restoration of the wayward son, you realize that you've sinned against your heavenly Father. Perhaps you want to come home and know you've been forgiven – restored to life in the fullest sense. If this is what you truly want, write me so that I may further encourage you.
Note: All Biblical quotations are taken from the New Living Translation unless otherwise indicated. All Qur'anic quotations are taken from Yusuf Ali's translation unless otherwise indicated.