Sylvia, my wife, is assiduous in putting food out for the birds in our back garden. In the winter, when its cold and food is scarce, its like Heathrow outside our back door as our feathered friends fly in from all directions, to take on nourishment from a reliable source. Sitting in the warm, by the window we can be royally entertained for hours.
But in the spring it can be a different story. Adult birds bring their young to where food can be found and the exploration is not without its casualties. One fledgling tit flew by mistake into the glass of our back door and fell to the decking, stunned. Sylvia went out and gently picked it up in the palm of her hand and placed it safely on the bird table. It sat there for while before eventually flying off, seemingly unharmed by the experience.
A few days later, while praying in my shed, a fledgling tit, I hope not the same one, flew into one of the shed windows and fell stunned onto the path. I got up, alarmed at the noise, and saw it there. I was concerned that it could be injured, but I was reluctant to intervene unless absolutely necessary, lest I frighten it. So I held it in prayer and waited. After a time it too flew off.
I reflect that Sylvia and I had responded differently to a distressed young bird: she intervened straightaway, while I waited, but the result appeared to be the same: both birds flew away safely. I am reminded of three stories that Jesus told in Luke chapter 15. One is of a shepherd who actively seeks a sheep that is lost, and a second is of a woman who actively seeks a coin she has lost. The third story is of the Prodigal Son, and here the man who has lost his son doesn’t go searching for him, but rather waits for his son to return. The three stories are told in response to questioning about God’s response to those who are lost, and they offer different answers.The first two say that God will take the initiative in seeking them out, the third that God waits patiently for them to return. All three end happily with celebrations.
Neither Luke nor Jesus offers any explanation for the two different responses. I used to think that in the first two stories God treats us like children who need to be actively sought out when in trouble, while in the third God treats us like adults who have to take personal responsibility for the situations we find ourselves in. Now I’m not so sure. Even the most mature of adults sometimes need to be cared for as children, and the distinction between the two approaches is not as black and white as it might at first appear: you might argue that the Prodigal Son knew well enough when he came to his senses, how his loving father had cared for him as a child, and it was thus not necessary for the the father to further seek him out now.
The other thing that intrigues me is that the first two stories each only take a few verses to tell [ 4 and 3 verses respectively], while the third takes a great number [21 verses] and is full of detail in the way that the first two are not. The first two tell recognisably everyday events – sheep and coins do get lost – while the third tells of something much less common – of a son who takes his inheritance while his father is till alive, squanders it but is nevertheless welcomed home. Moreover, the notion that God seeks out Her people when they are lost is found in the Old Testament in a way that the idea that God waits patiently for those who have abandoned Him, to return to Him of their own accord, is not. This causes me to wonder if the novel notion of God in the third story derives from Jesus’ personal experience which was how he knew it to be true.
Perhaps there are three overarching simple truths here: that the Bible is happy to set varying views of a matter alongside one another without feeling it has to choose between them; that Jesus seems to have been willing to trust his own experience of God above the received wisdom of His tradition: and that however you choose to tell the story, the fact is that God knows when every sparrow falls, and that all in the end will be well.