Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sermon: Luke 15: 11-32 The Lost Sons

It’s probably one of the best known of Jesus’ parables. Most people have heard of it, but what is it all about? A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, a human story that tells us something about God.

In the story as Jesus tells it, there are three characters - a father, and his two sons. Each character is important, and points us to the patient grace and mercy of God, through the shocking nature of the story. We’ll take them in the order of the story: 1. The Lost Son; 2. The Forgiving Father; 3. The (Other) Lost Son.

First up, then, the Lost Son. The shock comes straight in verse 12. This man is the younger son, and he asks for his share of the inheritance now. Give me what is mine - which some believe to be another way of saying that he wishes his father were dead. He receives the money and soon sets off with his independence. Far from home, far from his dad, far from his responsibilities. And far from sense.

The money is soon gone, squandered in reckless living. It’s like the lottery winner who fritters away the £2 million in a lot of months, with nothing to show for it, and probably more miserable at the end than at the beginning. But there’s a double misfortune - just as the money has dried up, so has the land, and there’s famine. Everyone is tightening their belts, and can’t help out this waster.

Add more shock as he takes the only job going, feeding pigs. For a good Jewish boy, this is the ultimate disgrace, spending time in the fields with the pigs. The unclean animal is now your best friend. You’re at the lowest of the low. Think of the most disgusting job you could do, and you’re halfway to this guy among the pigs.

As he sits there, definitely not as happy as a pig in muck, he remembers home, and how even the servants at home had plenty to eat, even they are better off than him. Jesus says ‘he came to himself.’ He realised where he was and what he was doing.

So off he goes, on the long road home (not even enough for the bus fare home), rehearsing his speech: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’ This is true confession - expressing who you are and what you’ve done. Acknowledging the sins you’ve committed.

Yet in verse 20, as he walks home, there’s the second surprise in our second point. ‘But while he was a long way off...’ The forgiving father has been looking out for him. Seeing his son in the distance, the father breaks all social custom, and respectable practice, by running, embracing and kissing him. As we turn to God, we find he runs to greet us.

But there’s more! The prodigal doesn’t even get through his speech about not being worthy and applying for a job as a servant. No, straight away the father is giving orders to his servants, asking for a robe, and a ring, and shoes, as well as the fattened calf to be killed. The robe, ring and shoes are the signs of sonship. The father has forgiven, and restored him to his position as son.

What a great God we serve, as we see him portrayed in this story of Jesus. No matter how far away from God we have gone (just like Adam and Eve, all of us turn our own way), it is true that when we call on the name of the Lord, we are saved. We are welcomed home and restored to our position. The apostle John writes ‘See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.’ (1 Jn 3:1) We who ill-deserve it like this prodigal are welcomed by what Tim Keller calls, our Prodigal God - not in the sense of God being lost, but in his ‘recklessly spendthrift’ way of not counting our sin against us or demanding repayment.

You may be someone who has gone astray. Gone your own way in the world, turning your back on God and seeking your independence. And it was fun for a while. But when you come to yourself, you realise how miserable sin truly is, and your poor state. Yet you’re afraid of coming back to God, afraid of his reaction - perhaps you’ve only really heard of the law and holiness of God. You know you don’t deserve anything.

This parable shows the great grace of God towards you - if you will but come. Remember the context of the parable, and those words of the Pharisees: ‘This man receives sinners.’ How true, and how glorious. The welcome is there for you. Come home.

As we come to verse 24, it seems to be the climax: ‘For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found. And they began to celebrate.’ It’s the same point that we saw in the two previous parables of the lost sheep and coin. The rejoicing when one who is lost is now found. The story could so easily finish there, but Jesus is not finished. Back at the start, he said that the man had two sons, and so we come to our third and final point: The (Other) Lost Son.

While the younger son had gone off to seek his fame and fortune, the older son had stayed at home with his father. Even now on this special day, he was out in the fields, working away. It’s only as he comes home that he hears the music and dancing. It’s a wild party, and the noise carries. When he asks one of the servants what is happening, he’s told the news: ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ (27).

The servant probably thinks he’s telling him good news. But here we come to the final shock. The old brother is angry at the news. The rest of the household is rejoicing with the father, but the older brother is angry. As his father comes to plead with him, the reason becomes clear. This older brother hasn’t understood what being a son is all about. Look at verse 29: ‘Look, these many years I have served you...’ That word served is probably better translated ‘slaved’. These years of service have been a slavery for him, rather than enjoying the privileges of sonship. Indeed, he doesn’t even identify with his brother - calling him instead ‘this son of yours’.

On the surface, he has never strayed, and yet he is just as lost as his brother was. Outward obedience is nothing without heart obedience. We can go through the motions without ever enjoying the blessings of sonship.

Remember the context of these parables. The Pharisees and scribes were complaining that Jesus was welcoming sinners, as the tax collectors flocked to him. The sinners are obviously the younger brother, the prodigal. Years of disobedience, but now that they are coming to Jesus, they are being welcomed home. They experience God’s grace and forgiveness. We’ve seen the same point in the three parables Jesus told.

But the older brother is the Pharisee, the righteous person of verse 7 who thinks they don’t need to repent. Rather than rejoicing that people were finding salvation and coming to Jesus, they were grumbling. The warning of the parable is the warning for them. Will they too realise their lostness and need for repentance? Will they realise what being a son of God is all about? Relationship, not religion; sonship not slavery.

One of the commentators says that this parable is the one in which we can most easily identify ourselves. If we’re a Christian, we can probably look back and see our prodigal days, how we had gone astray, but were found by Jesus. We can celebrate the welcome that we received, and rejoice in our salvation.

But we may also find ourselves in the role of the older brother, on occasion too. Refusing to rejoice at the salvation of others, thinking that they’re too bad to be saved, that they don’t deserve it, convinced of our own rightness and moral superiority. Forgetting the privileges of being a child of God and turning our relationship with him into a slavery of rules.

Is this what’s stopping us from reaching out into the community? Preventing us from going into the less desirable neighbourhoods and estates to tell them of God’s love and seeing sinners brought home? Are we too good to reach the lost? Or think them too bad to tell them of the searching saviour?

The story ends without any conclusion being reached. I’ve mentioned before about the cliffhanger ending, the dum dum dum at the end of Eastenders. The father’s closing words repeat the climax of earlier - the necessity of rejoicing when the lost are found. But we aren’t told the older brother’s response. It’s left open for us - if you’re an older brother, what will your response be? Rejoicing at the lost being found, or rejection of God’s grace?

As some think about this parable, they look at how the prodigal is welcomed back straight away and therefore ask - why doesn’t God just forgive sin? But we need to remember that there was another son in the story. One who never went astray like the prodigal; who never forgot the privilege of sonship; who perfectly obeyed his father in everything. That son died for the sins of both sons, to open the way for their acceptance, and died for your sins, so that you too can be welcomed home with open arms. That Son was the one who told the story, the one who receives sinners, whether prodigals or older brothers.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 18th July 2010.

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