Marine sergeant Jason Thomas was dropping his daughter off at his mother’s Long Island home when the planes struck the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001. Although Thomas had left the Marines a year previously, his instinct when he heard of the attack on the Twin Towers was to pull on his old Marine uniform and head straight to the scene of the devastation. As soon as he arrived, he ran into the dust and chaos of the collapsing skyscrapers, helping to rescue two policemen.
For about five years after the event, no-one knew who this anonymous hero was. When sergeant Thomas did reveal his identity, he was asked about that day and about why, when everyone was running away from the devastation, he ran into it. I can’t source the exact quote, but he said something along the lines of “Marines don’t run from trouble, they run towards it.” Because of his training and background, his instinct was different from that of most of the people caught up in those terrible events.
Luke 15 records the story of someone defying conventional wisdom and conventional respectability by running towards trouble. When the prodigal son’s father saw him at a distance, he ran towards him:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms round him and kissed him (Luke 15.20)
No big deal, you might think. But you would be wrong. Not just plain wrong, but seriously wrong.
In ancient Middle Eastern culture it was considered impolite if not shameful for a grown up to run in public. If you wanted to be an upright, respectable person, you certainly would not run in public. What compounded further this breach of social convention was the fact that this man was running towards his estranged son who had wasted his inheritance. If “Here comes trouble” was the reaction of most of the neighbours when they saw the wild child making his way home, then the boy’s dad was ready to run into trouble.
And that was only the beginning of the trouble. Once the boy was back home his estranged elder brother decided to show his true colours. His years of apparently faithful service to his dad proved merely a fragile shell concealing bitterness and resentment. Nothing reveals our true hearts like the sight of someone being blessed whom we feel is undeserving. The father’s efforts to heal the brokenness of one son, revealed the brokenness of the other. The trouble was that the brokenness of the elder brother threatened the healing of his broke and broken sibling. Trouble. We don’t know how or even if the trouble ended. Jesus leaves us with a scene of celebration and sourness and a father’s joy tainted by the his eldest son’s hardheartedness.
Jesus originally told the story to show the love of God the Father. He also used it to highlight the destructive attitudes of Israel’s religious leaders. Sad to say, the church has sometimes, perhaps often, been more like the elder brother than the father. What I am entitled to “get out of church” becomes more important than what we can “give out of church”. Rules replace grace and returning prodigals are crushed by the kind of territorial mentality that drove the elder brother.
Jesus is looking for people who, with the heart of His Father, will run towards trouble. Run towards troubled, broken people. Run into the chaos and confusion of broken lives with the love of God.
Sergeant Thomas commenting on that fateful day in New York said: “Someone needed help. It didn’t matter who. I didn’t even have a plan. But I have all this training as a Marine, and all I could think was, ‘My city is in need.'”
Your city needs you. Your town needs you. Where you live needs you. Perhaps it’s time to run towards trouble.