“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
-Luke 19:9-10 (NIV)
People don't much get lost anymore.
When I first moved to Chicago twenty-something years ago, I quickly learned not to go anywhere I had never been before without directions clearly written out. Sometimes I'd even write out directions for the trip back, since I learned not to trust myself to be able to reverse the directions in my head. I had a thick, detailed Chicagoland atlas in the car so, if worst came to worst, I could pull over and figure out where I was.
And, despite my best efforts, I still got turned around now and then.
I don't remember the last time I was lost. I haven't kept one of those atlases in my car for years now. I rarely write down directions anymore. But I don't get lost, not really. You know why, of course.
Last time I found myself unsure of where I was, I just said, "How do I get home?" My phone took over from there. Didn't even have to say my address. Never even had to look at it, and it gave me turn by turn directions.
One of these days, someone's going to have to come up with a better name than "phone" for these devices.
Smart phone ubiquity notwithstanding, though, people in our world still manage to get lost.
Lost people figured prominently in Jesus' thoughts and priorities. He said he came to seek and save the lost. Lost-ness was a major theme in his preaching and a primary focus of his activity. He pictured his work as a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, and indicated he had no doubts about leaving all the sheep who were safe in the fold to go find the straggler. He said heaven rejoices when someone lost is found, and challenged his followers to share in that joy. He didn't come to celebrate the saved. He came to find the lost.
Jesus thought the lost were worth seeking. He didn't regard the lost as other or alien. He understood that he had been sent to the "lost sheep of Israel," and apparently didn't consider them any less Israel for being lost. His followers have too often held ourselves apart from the lost. We've used that word as a label to classify, as a fence to keep the saved safely segregated from potential corruption. Most of us don't know very many lost people, at least not well enough to feel and care about their lost-ness. Sometimes we enjoy feeling just the slightest bit superior to them. We didn't learn that from Jesus.
Jesus didn't think being lost was primarily a problem to be solved by passing on information. He seemed to think it was solved through presence. So he was with lost people. He taught them, definitely, but by being with them he testified to the authenticity of what he taught. He showed up at their tables, at their sickbeds, and at their funerals. He rubbed up against them. He knew about their sins and didn't turn up his nose or turn away in disgust. His followers, though, have convinced ourselves that a classroom can replace a dining room, that a sermon can replace service, that a lesson plan can replace love, that a harangue can replace a hug. We didn't learn that from Jesus either.
Jesus didn't hold the lost solely to blame for their lost-ness. He shared the outrage of Jeremiah and Ezekiel that the "shepherds" who were responsible for leading people to safe pasture too often made a meal out of them. He recognized that sometimes people get lost because the deck is stacked against them from the top down. They get lost because the powerful use them, benefit from them, and then cast them aside. Too often, though, his followers fail to see the inequalities that let people slip through the cracks in society and get lost. Too often, we benefit from those inequalities. We certainly didn't learn that from Jesus.
Jesus didn't imagine that being lost was only a “spiritual” problem. He saw diseases and infirmities, and recognized them as symptoms of a world that was lost. He heard crushed hopes and dreams, and knew that they are the first things to go when a person is lost. Jesus never tried to treat lost-ness as a problem separate from sickness, death, poverty, hunger, and prejudice. He didn’t require that the blind listen to a sermon before he gave them sight. He didn’t seem to consider preaching more important than healing. Unlike some of his followers, he knew that human beings can’t — and shouldn’t have to — keep their spiritual lives distinct from their physical, mental, and emotional lives. The idea that a person can be brought back home to God without doing something to ease his physical distress, loneliness, or fear is most definitely not one that we got from Jesus.
I ran into a woman as I was walking my dog yesterday that helped drive this home for me. Obviously drunk, or high, she told me that he (her boyfriend) was about to kick her out of their apartment. She wondered if I had any money, and then started thinking out loud about how much she’d need to buy a quart bottle of beer. That, folks, is what lost looks like: relationships disrupted, about to be homeless, and still wondering about how to get a drink. She’s probably been told and treated like she’s worthless, probably thinks she’s nothing without a man or a bottle, probably failed by most of the people she’s ever trusted. But, behind and under all that, God doesn’t see her as an addict, or whatever other names she’s been called (and called herself). She’s his, she belongs at home with him, and she’s lost. And she’ll only be found when someone comes alongside her and is willing to live with the stuff lost people do to survive long enough to show her the way to the One who can bring her home.
Of course, there are lost people in the church pews that I’ll sit in Sunday, too. Their lost-ness might look a little different. Their drug of choice might be gossip, or food, or work, or pornography. Their relationships might be disrupted in other ways, their survival tactics might be less obvious, and they might be dressed better. Still, they feel like they’re worthless, that they’re nothing without their chosen addictions, and they’ve been failed by everyone they’ve ever trusted. They’re lost. And they need someone to help them get to the One who can bring them home.
You know lost people too. They’re lost in sickness, they’re lost in arrogance, they’re lost in work, they’re lost in depression — in any case, they’re lost. And they probably won’t find their way to the God who loves them and calls for them just because you lob a few Bible verses at them. They need you to do what Jesus did: put yourself aside, love them, and do what you can to ease their pain and show them how to believe again that God loves them.
That’s what it takes to seek and save the lost.
And there’s no app for that.