Friday, May 17, 2013

The Prodigal Son

Years ago, for a few months I was the Friday guest on our local radio; that was religion day! We did a two-parter on what we called The Prodigals. An elder in my church heard about the programs and asked me to give a sermon on The Prodigals; this is the result. Luke 15 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible, for it is the Gospel. Imagine, our Father running to us in such love, in spite of our sins!
Jesus talked about the ordinary things of life: prodigal sons, yeast, fishing, lost sheep, etc. He used everyday illustrations to give us profound and eternally-applicable principles. In one of the most profound chapters of the Bible, Jesus told us about truth and love and hope, and He used ordinary illustrations that the average person could understand, for Jesus loved -- and loves -- us average people.

In Luke 15:1-2, "[T]he Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, `This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'" It was beyond their comprehension that the man who claimed to be the Son of God could so love those who the Pharisees labeled and libeled as weak and immoral and ordinary, heaven forbid. Only they were worthy of God's love. In this passage Jesus tells the world for all time that He is our Friend who seeks us to save us, for we are all lost sinners. He says to each of us, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice, then open the door, and I will come in and eat with you, and you with me." (Revelation 3:20.)

In this chapter there are not three but four losses: the lost sheep, the lost silver, the lost son, and the lost sympathy of the older brother. We've heard about the first three, but we don't often consider the lost sympathy. This is also the glorious chapter of the found. Here is Jesus Christ's immortal lesson about unconditional and self-sacrificing love.

In each parable the reason for the loss was different:

1) The sheep were heedless. "The farmer came down the lane. `Got a stray,' he said. `How do they get lost?' asked the city man. `They just nibble themselves lost,' said the farmer; `they keep their heads down, wander from one green tuft to another, come to a hole in the fence -- and never can find a hole by which to get back again.' The city man answered, `Like people, every generation of foolish men.'" (Anon.).  It's so easy to nibble, with our heads bowed, looking for more. Before we know it, we're tripping over tufts on our own turf.

2) The drachma did not lose itself but, by the law of gravitation, rolled into a dark corner. The way the world is turning today, it's too easy to tumble into shady corners and lose ourselves with borderline buddies and provocative paperbacks and dirty dramas and soap operas, all of which stir our cauldron of sensations and finally make us broken cisterns. God misses us when we are looking for excitement in the dark corners of our life. It hurts him if we are even temporarily lost to him and to his purpose in life for us, for God wants us with him all the time. He suffers when he loses his sheep.

3) The third cause was rebellion against a father's love. There were many losses in this particular parable, for the father and both sons lost something, and the two brothers lost something precious, too. This is a tender parable of the unrighteous prodigal son, the righteous father whose love and devotion are truly remarkable, and the self-righteous older brother who refused to have anything to do with his unrighteous younger brother. This young man's story is as fascinating as that of the so-called prodigal son and just as sad.

In these three parables we have varying proportions of possession and loss: a hundred, ten, two; a seeming trifle, then more serious, then heartbreak. “There is something in human nature which makes anything that is lost precious by reason of its loss. Its absolute value may be little; its relative worth is great. Divine love goes after, not the greatest world, but the lost world.” (Anon.)

One would think that one out of a hundred wouldn't matter so much but to God it does. The Shepherd is painfully aware that one is missing, even though there are 99 left. Then the coin represents a great loss, relatively, to the poor woman who hasn't much money. Most of us can relate to this woman when we are paying bills. And of course the loss of the son is the ultimate; the return is the ultimate, too. If we have lost a child, in whatever way, we can identify with this. Our Lord gave these three parables as one, to show how God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit "receives sinners" and fellowships with us.

1) The Son, like the shepherd, seeks the lost that he might save us: "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10); "Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after it until he finds it?"(Luke 15:4b). Until he finds us! There is no check here of love and effort; instead, he lets us sign a check in whatever amount we want of his love, for his bank is open twenty-four hours a day, but we have to sign the check. What a comfort to know that his deposit of love is always there.

2) The Spirit, like the woman, seeks the lost that he might use us. Lost persons are lost to usefulness and all the good that might come of that usefulness. "But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit . . . will teach you all things" (John 14:26). There is vincible and invincible ignorance. For the Christian there is no excuse for invincible ignorance, for we have the Holy Spirit and the Word. The Spirit is ready to teach us when we are ready to listen.

3) God, like the father in the parable, seeks the lost that he might have fellowship with us: "And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3); "May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Corinthians 13:14). It encourages us to know that we are the only one to God the Father, the Holy Spirit and the Son. God does not see the mass of men but the mess of a man. Jesus finds the lost and leads us into the fold with the Shepherd's crook that became a cross. "He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart ..." (Isaiah 40:11). Our gracious God neither drags us behind Him nor drives us ahead of Him, but He lifts us and carries us: "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32). On heart- and head-aching days, what a grand visual this is!


In this chapter, Luke 15, and particularly v.24, is the Gospel and the song of salvation: "For this son of mine was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found." In The Prodigal Heart, Susan Ertz, the author, points out that the prodigal younger son was prodigal in body but at least part of his heart was always at home; the elder brother was prodigal at heart but his body was at home.

"There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said, `Father, give me my share of the estate.'" (Luke 15:11,12). Not even a please or thank you is recorded here. This boy is saying to his father, "You owe me." Just like us: "God, you owe me a good life." We lay a debt on God; we forget that everything is a gift from God, even waking up in the morning to a new day and a fresh agenda: "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it" (Psalm 118:24). This is the way to start the day, in thanksgiving.

This young man wanted to get away from his father and what his father represented: authority. He wanted the liberty to take license. And the father did not reproach him (this is a major message throughout this chapter) but he gave his son his portion. He would not force his beloved son into compulsory obedience and dependence. God wills not to force his will on us. "My Spirit will not contend with man forever" (Genesis 6:3). God finally leaves us to our own devices. "Let us break His chain and throw off His fetters," we cry. (Psalm 2:3.) Fortunately, the son eventually was to learn a lifelong lesson that true life is lived in gratitude, not gratification.

God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers;
And flings the thing we have asked in our face,
A gauntlet -- with a gift in it.
E.B. Browning.

"Not long after that . . . [he] set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living." (V.13). Winston Churchill (the American Churchill!) wrote a novel titled A Far Country. In this novel, the far country is that alien land of the loss of standards and ideals. We too can be in an alien land of desire for fame, wealth, things, popularity and knowledge rather than wisdom. All of these can be the far country, away from the Father who wants us to be happy with Him. We can't live in the far country for very long without great longings for a noble land.

"And there squandered his wealth." This soul, this son so precious to his father, had everything and lost everything. We throw away minutes, thoughts, hopes, dreams and loves without realizing what treasures they are. They seem so trivial at the time but, when we can no longer retrieve them -- when minutes have become years -- we surely regret the waste.

Sin is the greatest spiritual waste of all. There is a double waste here: that of what we have had and that which we might have been and done. There's much too much waste today. The daily papers are filled with the sweepings and dissipations of spirit and mind and body. God made us for noble ends: "But the noble man makes noble plans, and by noble deeds he stands" (Isaiah 32:8 NIV). What a lovely verse! Some synonyms for noble are ethical, high-minded, respectable, trustworthy, compassionate and conscientious. They sound like a description of Christ and Christ-like people.

"Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, `Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I'm famished!' Jacob replied, `First sell me your birthright.' `Look, I am about to die,' Esau said. `What good is the birthright to me?'" (Genesis 25:29-32). The prodigal son also sold his birth privileges for a mess of pods fit only for pigs. Notice both Esau and this son said, "Quick, let me have ..." Human nature is basically the same until Jesus touches us and gives us a new heart of discernment about what we really need in life. "Quick, Lord, let me have a new and patient heart and mind." We live in an instant age which isn't exactly an insightful age. Let us pray as did Solomon, "Give your servant a discerning heart. . .to distinguish between right and wrong" (1 Kings 3:9). The rest of life seems to take care of itself after a prayer like that. There is another point here for our youth: this young man left with all this money and no purpose for his life. What a setup for a letdown. It's difficult enough for a young person to leave home but this young man left with nothing but his own desires and devices in mind. What a disastrous combination!

"After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need" (V.14); " ... But no one gave him anything" (V.16). The friends who collected around the prodigal son while he was squandering his inheritance left him, and his father wasn't around to give to him anymore. Does this sound familiar? There is a severe famine of friends, hope, love, faith, all the substance that really matters in life, when we sell our inheritance for the pottage of immediate satisfaction. When misfortune came his way, the prodigal son had no spiritual resources to meet his misery. He was homeless and friendless. He who had been priceless was now worthless, or so he must have thought. He bartered God's gold for the world's gild and found it to be most illusive and impractical. "How the gold has lost its luster, the fine gold become dull!" (Lamentations 4:1). Moral degradation turns gold into dross, the precious gem into a dull and now flawed paragon of mediocrity. We lose character and stability and influence when we have lost our spiritual luster. The cynical Lord Byron wrote a poem this young man could have written:

My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the anguish, and the grief,
Are mine alone.

The fire that on my bosom preys
Is lone as some volcanic isle;
No torch it kindles at its blaze --
A funeral pile!

"So he went out and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs" (Luke 15:15). He was too proud to go home; he wasn't hungry enough yet. A citizen of that country took note of the young stranger and took him in. "`That citizen,' says St. Bernard, quoted by Archbishop Trench, `I cannot understand as other than one of the malignant spirits, who in that they sin with an irremediable obstinacy, and have passed into a permanent disposition of malice and wickedness, are no longer guests and strangers, but citizens and abiders in the land of sin.'" It is best to stay strangers of the far country. "Lot . . . pitched his tents near Sodom" (Genesis 13:12). It was a bad move. And to feed swine! This was the lowest form of employment for, to the principled and refined Israelites, a pig was an unclean creature that they wouldn't even name, calling it "the other thing." How ironic that this swine he was reduced to feeding should have more value than he who now cared for them. But that is the way of the world: the glitter turns to bitter. It is then we realize that God's love is lavish; the world's is slavish. The feeding of the swine is indicative of the final course of sin: we are forced to do what we never thought we would have to do. It is degradation at the end of our course of what we thought would bring us happiness which we have mistaken for joy.

“When he came to his senses...” (Luke 15:17). Ah! this hungry and hopeless young man recovered his senses because his senses of touch, taste, hearing, sight and smell had been assaulted. "Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more" (Ephesians 4:19); "[We who insist on our own way] are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless" (Romans 1:31). Our excessive son got tired of it for he still had sensitivity to what is good. As Susan Ertz said, part of his heart was still at home. He finally realized that he had willingly left the home of a loving father to become the slave of a hard taskmaster. Sin will do that. It was finally body hunger, the physical sense of hunger, not soul hunger at this point, which brought the son to his senses. It would have been more noble had he felt the soul hunger first, but God works in mysterious and different ways with us all. We can't judge the how but only be grateful for the why and when of another's conversion. It is far better to enter the father's house with bowed head than not enter at all. We personally live in a comfortable world and it's difficult for us to understand that sometimes we have to notice another's body hunger before we can help their spiritual hunger.

"I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: `Father, I have sinned against heaven and you ... " (Luke 15:18). "So he got up and went to his father." (V.20a). "I will arise" (v.18) ..."And he arose" (v.20). We have here determination followed by demonstration, evidence of his repentance. He arose, he didn't waste time just wishing he could do something about it, but he moved toward this intense goal of cleaning up his life. The son chose to leave his father's house and finally chose to leave that choice -- so we don't have to stay with bad choices. The son chose to leave in rebellion and he chose to return in submission. Life is filled with options and remedies.

"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 around him and kissed him.' (Luke 15:20). How can we not be touched to our core! Herein is the kiss of pardon. The father gave the kiss before his son said a word. It was given while the prodigal was still dirty and in rags; therefore, it was entirely unmerited. This first blessing was followed by many others. Not a word of reproach is spoken. How important this is for those of us who speak words of reproach to God's children because they may not do and speak as we do.

This is the story of our Father who runs to us while we are yet far away and when we are desperate after having tasted of the husks of life and are tired of searching for what is real and true. The son tells his father that he is not worthy but that does not stop the father from loving him and forgiving him and bringing out the best of what he has, to give to his precious son who has come home. Our Father runs to us and gives us His best -- anyway! Can we engrave this bright verse on our sad hearts as a beacon light for those days when we feel that not even the Father loves us? When we feel we don't deserve anyone's love. . . .?

"The son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." (Luke 15:21). Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight (Psalm 51:4). The father didn't seem to notice the young man's confession. He was so happy to have his son back that, for now, he seems to overlook the young man's confession in his rush to welcome the boy.

"But the father said to his servants, `Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. FOR THIS SON OF MINE WAS DEAD AND IS ALIVE AGAIN; HE WAS LOST AND IS FOUND.' So they began to celebrate." This should take away our very breath! Everything is done to assure this precious son that he is welcome and forgiven in full. This beloved son doesn't need to pay off any debts to the father, for the father has loved away the debt. This son will not be put into temporary moral seclusion and told to pay off by word or deed the debt he now owes his father. The father is not going to demand his pound of flesh from this boy whose concern was catering to the flesh. This isn't to say that he condoned what his son did, but he forgives in grave silence.


And this is our portion, too: the Father's love and forgiveness. It is Jesus Himself. God gave us His Son that we might be sons and daughters of God and live in His house for eternity. If we truly believe this, then we don't need to demand any other portion from God or man. We don't need to wander into any far countries of excitement to search for any other treasures, for God has given and will yet give the greatest treasures: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him ... " (1 Corinthians 2:9; Isaiah 64:4).

"Quick!" Jesus says, "bring the robe of righteousness that these my sons and daughters may exchange their filthy rags and be invested with a new natures; Quick! bring shoes for their feet that they may not be servants but my sons and daughters; Quick! bring the Bread of Life that they may be strengthened to feast on my love. This is Jesus’ "quick": to give and to save; "Quick, let my children have all that I have." Here is God's "quick" of total love and forgiveness and generosity, so different from our "Quick, give me." "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33).
(Next: The Prodigal Brother - not as long, I promise!)

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