Saturday, June 02, 2007

the prodigal

[this is one of three talks from Luke that i was meant to be doing at a Portsmouth CU lads day away today, which didn't happen for a few reasons. but i thought i'd stick it up here anyway. it's probably not the finished article, although i might just be saying that as a disclaimer!]

The parable of the prodigal son is probably one of the best known in the new testament. It gives us an encouragement to remember when friends or family members of our are struggling in their relationships with God, and real hope for their future. One of the things I love about Luke’s Gospel is how he arranges his material. I think it’s probably always a good question to ask when reading any of the Gospels, or indeed, any of the Bible, ‘why does it say this after its said that’ but particularly in Luke, and particularly here. The parable of the prodigal son comes at the end of a series of three parables told by Jesus the first two of which talk about Heaven’s joy at our salvation. The sheep goes missing, and is found, and, verse 7, there is joy in heaven over those who repent. The woman goes looking for her lost coin, and, verse 10, God expresses joy over sinners who repent. See how valuable repentant sinners are to God and to Heaven. The Shepard has a hundred sheep, and rejoices when he finds the lost one, the woman has ten coins, but rejoices when she finds the final one. God values all of us, all our of salvations. There is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance. I think in this story of the prodigal there are two things to be found that will apply to every Christian at some time in their lives. There is encouragement for those who feel far from Christ, those who feel like after the things they have done there’s no way Jesus would ever call them ‘brother’ no way they can ever call God ‘Father’ again. And a real challenge to people who are mature Christians. People who think that they have a relationship with God that no one else can share, that no one else deserves. Christians who have fallen into the easy but deadly trap of thinking that we are to work for God to keep our relationships with Him. A mistake that all of us make to one degree or another. And we need to keep in mind the people listening to this parable as well. The people who were grumbling against Jesus, who were angry with him for receiving and eating with sinners. What joy there was in Heaven for the sinners who repented and who came to Jesus…but what anger the Pharisees had against Jesus for letting receiving them. If the first two parables were aimed at the sinners who repented, this parable is certainly aimed at the Pharisees who were angry about that.

The encouragement.

So let’s turn to the encouragement, To the first half of this parable. The first son, the younger son is tired of living at home, tired of what he perceives to be the boredom of the same fields, the same cattle, the same servants every day. He wants to live, he wants to bright lights, the women, the glamour, the buzz of the city in his ears. So he goes to his father, who one must conject he had little respect for, and asks for his half of the inheritance early. We can only guess about how the father felt at this request from his youngest son…the request that was basically along the lines of ‘dad, I wish you were dead so I could have your money and live my own life…how about we pretend you are dead so I can have you money?’ Rebellion against our Father is a hurtful, needless selfish thing. But the father in this story divides up his property between his sons. And then, verse 13, the youngest son heads off into the high life with the money. At this point Jesus’ listener’s were probably wondering where Jesus was taking this story and what the point of it was. The was the first time the person lost could be held directly to blame for his lostness…you can’t really blame a sheep or a coin for getting lost…but a young man who plans his escape, that you can certainly pin on him. So the son goes off and pursues his dream and what happens, well look at verse 13 ‘he squandered his property on reckless living. And a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need’. For the first time in his life, this young man has nothing, and no one turn to. For the first time he feels pangs in his stomach that don’t look like being quenched any time soon, and maybe for the first time he wishes, even just momentarily that he was with his father. Jesus here paints for us so clearly, so accurately what it’s like when we turn our backs on Him. We look out and we see drug and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, and we see little but enjoyment on the faces of those who are involved in it. And we dive in. And what is it except a land of empty promises and dissatisfaction. There’s no suggestion here that the son tried to squander his property, but that’s what happened anyway. And suddenly, away from his father there is a barren wasteland, a joyless expanse of existence, with very little actual living to be done. This is what it’s like to turn from the Father. This is our reward. Desolation and famine.

But the son doesn’t give up just yet. He’s a man, he’s got his pride. So, verse fifteen, he hired himself out to one of the citizens in that country, who sent him out into his fields to feed pigs. What an offensive picture for the Pharisees listening. Feeding pigs! Surely there’s no way back for this son now, surely now his life will be one slow decline into death. It can’t get any lower than serving a pig. I love verse seventeen here. ‘but when he came to himself’. It’s like he’s waking up after a coma, like the sun is rising in his mind for the first time… He came to himself. He realised that not only are the pigs eating better than him, but, more relevantly, so are the people who serve in his father’s house. So look at verse 18 with me, the son thinks ‘I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him ‘father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, I am no longer worthy to be called one of your sons, treat me as one of your hired servants’ Now, we’ll come to this slightly odd and inaccurate picture of paternal mastery in a moment, but let’s linger first on what brought him to this decision in the first place.

He came to himself. He came to himself! Coming to the Father, coming back to God, repenting and believing in Jesus is coming to yourself. It’s finding the fullness of your identity, as we’ll see in a moment in this parable, it’s being who you were created to be. It is coming to yourself. It is admitting that Jesus knows you, and what you need better than you do. Don’t ever ever think of Christianity as something that squashes the life and individuality out of you. It makes you who you are.

Now lets look at the reaction of the father when he sees his son returning…and remember verse 2, some people listening to Jesus are grumbling that he receives sinners, and probably upset that Jesus suggests that there is joy in Heaven over sinners repenting. Look at the father in this parable. Look at the joy he has in his son returning. Now we can imagine what was going through the son’s head as he came neared home. As we can see in verse nineteen, he had already decided that he was no longer worthy to be his father’s son, and that he would be happy with the role of a servant, so we can guess his state of mind was not that positive. But what is the father’s reaction? Look at verse 20 with me: his father saw him, and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him. What a picture this is of grace, of mercy and of love. The father in this story is a dignified landowner, he doesn’t run anywhere…until he sees his son coming home. He hugs his son, he kisses his son. I love the detail that Jesus goes into here. He didn’t have to say either of those things did he? He could have just said that his father was pleased to see him. But no. The father runs towards him, kisses him and embraces him. What a wonderful picture of the joy of Heaven when a sinner repents, what a wonderful explanation of what was meant in verses seven and ten. This is the joy of heaven when a sinner repents, when a wayward son returns home. Still the son is fearful of his father, and doesn’t understand the father son relationship as his dad does, and he moves into his pre-prepared speech, look at verse 21, ‘father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son’…but verse 22 sees the father almost cut him off mid flow. Robes and shoes and a ring are bought to replace to no doubt filthy rags that he was living in, and a fattened calf is killed the celebrate the prodigal’s return.

Can you see the joy and love and grace that God has towards us, towards those who would come to themselves and come to Him? If you struggle with feeling loved then just delight and rest in this picture of who God is and how he receives sinners… but it’s here that I marvel at Luke’s organisation skills. Given the examples that have gone before of the lost being found, as the father says in verse 24, you’d expect verse 25 to say something along the lines of ‘for I tell you there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents…’ but it doesn’t say that does it? Jesus keeps talking and it’s this that makes me wonder who the focus of this parable is, and who Jesus is talking to. If he’d left it at verse 24 then we would know that Jesus was still addressing the weeping sinner rather than the grumbling Pharisee…but as we examine the reaction of the older son, and the action of the father toward that, I think we begin to see that the Pharisee is the focus, and the challenge is on the long time Christian, the Christian who doesn’t feel like rejoicing when people are saved.

Look with me at verse 25: now the older son was in the field and as he came near the house he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked him what these things meant. And the servant said to him ‘your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound. But he was angry and refused to go in, and his father came out and entreated him’. You see, this son is not happy that his father has received back his son, as the Pharisees are angry with Jesus for receiving sinners and eating with them. He doesn’t seem at all pleased that his brother…his brother is back more or less from the dead, he’s certainly not pleased that there’s a party going on the celebrate his return. Surely his brother should be made to pay for what he’s done? So he refuses to go in. we’ve all been in family gatherings at one time or another where one person threatens to ruin it for everyone. Look again at the grace of the father, who come out from the party to talk with his son…and I think these last three verses are more or less the key to the whole parable.

Look at the end of verse 28: his father came out and entreated him. He tried to persuade him in, to love him in. presumably he could have just ordered him inside and been totally within his rights to do so. But the response of the elder son here tells us so much about the Pharisees, and about why Jesus told this parable. Verse 29: look, these many years I have served you and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him’. Notice two things about what the older son says here. He says he has ‘served’ his father and never disobeyed him. Just like the younger son he has totally mistaken the father son relationship for a master servant relationship. This father doesn’t want or need another servant! He wants a son. No wonder this son is so upset if he thinks he has to earn his way into his father’s good books.

Then look at how the older son refers to the younger son… look at verse 30, ‘this son of yours’ is how he describes his brother. His brother who had returned home. Can you imagine a less gracious way of describing him? What is this son’s problem?

Then we come back to the father. Now, what would yours or my reactions be in this situation? I think I’d say something like ‘you followed all my commands? Well here’s a command: get inside’. That certainly would make the father come across as more manly, more powerful, more the sort of man that the Pharisees would respect. But what does he do instead? Look at verse 31 and 32 ‘And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'" What a gracious response. The father loves this boy so much… ‘son’ he calls him, or ‘child’. Perhaps at this moment Jesus would have looked into the eyes of one of the Pharisees listening to Him. This is a sentence so overrun with grace, overrun with the feelings that the father has for his son, these feelings that, it has to be said, do seem more or less unreciprocated. The older son is always with the father, everything the father has the son has. Oh that the son would just realise that, and live in the relationship that his father wants him to rather than being so convinced that he must work to earn favour, that he must be better because he is holier in his own view. If only he would see the relationship he could have, and not be blinded by pride. This is where the Pharisees were, and no wonder they hated the fact that Jesus received and ate with sinners, just as the older son hated the fact that his father has received the younger son home with such joy.

And this is the challenge for all of us. How often do we make the mistake of the older son. That we must serve God, that we must do enough to make him happy and keep him off our backs? But God is our Father and Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers… Isaiah 64:4 From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear ,no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him…what a God we have who acts for those who wait for Him. And what does Paul say about working for God’s approval? Acts 17:25 says: nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And this is the relationship with the father that both sons in the story and the Pharisees misunderstood. We don’t work for God, we wait for Him, we delight in Him, we love Him. Remember again the picture of this gracious father that was painted in verses 20-24. This is the God we worship.

So be encouraged and be challenged. Be encouraged that God is our Father. No matter where we return to Him from, He is our Father, and is not interested in our service or work…there’s no service or work that we can do for Him that He couldn’t do without us. And be challenged. Be challenged about how you feel when people get saved and are adopted into God’s family. Be challenged about whether you feel you are owed more by God because you’ve ‘done the time’ more than anyone else. Be challenged as to whether you think of God as your loving heavenly Father, or a demanding master that’s never really happy with you. The parable doesn’t have an ending, we don’t know whether the older son was humbled enough by his father’s grace to listen to him, and be his son and come indoors. In our arrogance and hard heartedness we need to hear this message. We need to be shocked by the behaviour of the Pharisee but at the same time humbled that it’s in us. We need to keep our eyes on the Father in this story, the father who was overjoyed to have the prodigal return home, the father who wanted his son to be his son, and nothing more. We need to be men, and be trusting children of God.

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