Luke 1.17, 15.1-3, 11-32, 24.47
The stories of Luke 15 tells us about the Pharisees and scribes who were getting very annoyed when all of these sinners and tax collectors were coming to see Jesus. They said, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” They judged Jesus as being unclean. This is not the first time Jesus has had to deal with misconceptions about “unclean” people. Jesus works his way through two stories about lost things – a sheep and a coin – to get to the story of the wandering person who becomes unclean because of his choices. In fact the Gospel of Luke is full of these misunderstandings such as the “Good Samaritan” and the “sinful woman who anointed Jesus” at a dinner party. Jesus used three stories collectively to invite the Pharisees & scribes to embrace repentant hearts: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The Father feels compassion for his son just as the Good Samaritan felt compassion on the man left for dead on the side of the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, “but a certain Samaritan who was traveling that way came upon him, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him” (Luke 10:33). This compassion we understand to be unconditional “agape” love of God.
The three parables in the story today provide insight into how Jesus encouraged both the sinners and the righteous to join him. In the first parable a sheep wandered off from the safety and security of the fold so the shepherd was required to seek and to find the lost one knowing the fold would remain safe until his return. The shepherd’s heart was filled with joy when he found the lost one. In the second parable the woman had 10 coins but accidently lost one (the very amount to purchase a sheep). She had nine coins safe and secured in her possession but searched desperately to find the lost coin. The woman’s heart was filled with joy when she located the coin then called her friends and neighbors to celebrate. The third parable is about three hearts: a Father and his two sons. The young son intentionally took his inheritance and left the family discovering how difficult life could become when one has squandered inheritance and given up a place in the family. The Father’s heart was filled with joy when the young man returned home. However, the elder son intentionally refused to acknowledge his Father’s right to love & forgive his young son. The third parable is where will we spend most of our time today.
The Father’s love and forgiveness for his children is a theme across the passages of Luke’s Gospel. Beginning in the first chapter with the calling of John the Baptist the tone for reconciliation is set, “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1.17). And, the story of Luke’s Gospel ends with the promise of forgiveness, “He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’” (Luke 24.46-47). The story of the prodigal son fits directly into the purpose of Luke’s writings: to proclaim forgiveness for even the vilest offender (Luke 23.39-43)!
In the third parable there are several components of the storyline that need our attention. First, there was an untimely request to divide an inheritance. Second, there was a season of squandering the inheritance that created a hunger for home. Third, there was the joyful homecoming. Finally, there is the elder son’s rejection of the Father’s expressions of unconditional love.
First, there was an untimely request to divide an inheritance. The Father had made a formal and legal division of the goods and property, and the young son liquidated the inheritance. The elder son received his usual double portion. So the inheritance was not distorted because of the early division of the inheritance. The younger son wishes his Father dead by asking for his inheritance. The request is unusual to say the least. The Father surrenders his right to be right; he relinquishes his relationship with his younger son. The young son has broken the 5th commandment of honoring his Father and mother, yet, the Father rejoices outrageously at the return of his lost son.
Second, there was a season of squandering the inheritance that created a hunger for home. Twice the word “dead” is used to describe the younger son. A young son traveled far from away where his Father and home became a distant memory. His focus was on himself, self-gratification. He spent his entire inheritance indulging himself until every last penny was used up. The son sought a new place to call home as what we might call an indentured slave in a pigsty. He binds himself in a working contract with the locals. He’s tempted to eat the pig’s food that was most likely the sweet tasting horn shaped pods carob tree. These pods were also known at St. John’s bread; it was believed to be the food of John the Baptist. Rabbis considered these pods the food of direst need – the food for the poor. Eventually, the young man comes into his right mind, and remembers his Father and home. Then he plans his return home to his Father’s household – starved and half-naked – realizing that life apart from his Father was a season of impoverished living that would eventually lead to death. What once flourished in the younger son’s life perished, withered, and died away leaving nothing but a growling and painfully empty stomach.
Third, there was the joyful homecoming. The view from a distance was breathtaking. As the son draws near to the Father, his Father sees him. The Father is delighted at the sight of his son for the first time in a long while. No doubt the Father has gazed across the horizon many times his heart longing for a glimpse of his son’s return. Imagine this aging gentleman hiking up his clothing in an undignified manner to run to his son across broken terrain. This aging gentleman is not just speed walking but actually running at a gallop overcome with emotion. The men in biblical times would gather up their long robes and tie them around their waists so they could move quickly and freely. When men needed freedom to work, run or fight, they would tuck the hem of the tunic into the girdle to gain greater freedom and movement. This action was called “girding up the loins” and the phrase became a metaphor for preparedness.
The encounter was embarrassingly joyful. You can almost feel his heart leaping in his chest with the surprise of overwhelming emotions! I can only imagine his blood pressure spiking with all the thoughts running through his mind – relief that his son is alive, gratitude that he chose to come home. As he reaches his son he falls into his impoverished son with a hug around his smelly neck and a “fervent” kiss upon his dirty face. With all this expression of emotion I can only image there were tears at this welcome home. When the younger son returns home, it is at the mercy of the Father’s choice to bring his son back into the family fold. Not only did the Father welcome his young son, the Father’s expressions of affection were embarrassingly joyful. Welcoming his son home is the most important thing to this Father. At this kairos moment in time nothing else mattered. Not his position in the community. Not his awkward appearance to gallivanting across the terrain. Not even the opinion of his family and friends.
What kind of joy is this! Unconditional love is outrageously generous. Wesley in his Explanatory Notes connects the depth of joy is reflective of the depth of one’s very own repentance. To be sure our story illustrates how God’s joy comes with repentance. Notice in the stories joy is God’s first response. The joy is contagious and spreads to the angels and then to the friends who understand the joyful expression. God is so thoroughly pleased at the repentance of one lost soul who has been “thoroughly changed in heart and life” that God instigates the rejoicing. God is the party thrower! He’s not simply giving an approving nod from a distance! He’s engaged in the community restoration process.
The young son is restored in relationship with his father, his neighbors, and his God. Before the young son gets the whole remorseful tale out of his mouth, his Father cuts him off with a powerful display of restoration of his place in the family – robe, ring, sandals, and a party with the killing of the fatted calf, music with dancing, and restoration into his family and the community. These were the sounds of celebration, not the sounds of riotous living. Can you just hear the contrasting sounds that met the young sons ears! The robe signified being restored into his family lineage. The signet ring gave the young son the right to make decisions on his Father’s behalf to buy and sell in the community. The sandals set the son apart from the slaves and servants who did not wear shoes, but it also gave the son the right to make decisions at the city gate among the elders of the community.
Oh, how the Father has demonstrated the fullness of his acceptance unconditionally by restoring his young son back into the family! And, the fattened calf was the ultimate sign of hospitality and welcome. The only story of a fattened calf in the New Testament is the prodigal son. The first time we see a calf in the Scriptures is when Abraham extends hospitality to three visitors which Abraham believed to be the Lord, “‘Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree’” (Gen. 18.7-8). The calf has been a sin offering from the time of Moses, “He said to Aaron, ‘Take a bull calf for your sin offering and a ram for your burnt offering, both without defect, and present them before the LORD. Then say to the Israelites: “Take a male goat for a sin offering, a calf and a lamb—both a year old and without defect—for a burnt offering”…’” (Lev. 9.2-3). To be sure the imagery of the fattened calf ties directly into the full restoration of the young son! And, the elder son knows this!
Finally, there is the elder son’s rejection of the Father’s expressions of unconditional love. The Father discovers that the elder son is distraught, and leaves the celebration to seek after the needs of his elder son. The Father shows his deep and genuine desire for reconciliation with both of his sons. The elder son has been with his Father but has never grasped the opportunity to experience his Father’s unconditional love. It was as if the elder son had been sitting under a fig tree at harvest and never reaching up to grasp the delicious tasting fruit, yet, feeling indignant! He was pouting! At some level the elder son misunderstood his relationship with his Father. The elder son fails to recognize the unconditional love and generosity of his Father for himself instead he viewed himself as a slave to a master rather than as a son of the Father. To be sure the elder son devalues his Father’s love.
Because the elder son had failed to experience his Father’s deep love, therefore, he couldn’t love himself or his brother.
But the elder son breaks his fellowship with his father, his neighbor and his God. The elder son surely devalues his brother when he speaks to his Father, “This son of yours.” He ignores his Father’s wish for restoration. The Father valued and desired relationship with both sons. It was not the place of the elder son to demand exclusive treatment. The elder son would not recognize the value of his brother nor of his Father’s loving response. His Father corrects him, “This brother of yours was dead and is alive again.” Both sons are valuable to the Father. The Father gentle reminds the elder son of his place in the family, “this brother of yours…” The elder has positioned himself outside the family inheritance by his own choosing in his heart. The elder son’s behavior points the error of his ways of thinking himself better than the worst sinner who has repented especially his young brother. The place of the elder son in the family lineage is not removed, but the place of the younger son is restored in community. The elder son now has to share the affection of the Father with the younger son. Jealousy ensues as the elder calls out to the Father, “this son of yours…”
But repentance puts us all back on an equal footing with one another. Divine grace pities us, meets us on the road home, embraces us with loving kindness, and interrupts our self-loathing with words of affirmation: welcome home. Divine grace sees our inward holiness and provides the outward covering for our shame and regret with a robe of righteousness. The incident of the younger son returning home provides an opportunity for the elder son. The elder son must now come to terms within his own heart about how he sees his Father. The elder son must deal with the poor choices that he has made in not living in a right relationship with his Father all these years. When our decision-making lead us to reject our family and our home as seen in both sons, God’s grace makes a way for the return trip if only we will acknowledge our poor choices.
I once read story about modern day prodigal, a young heroine addict, who came to find his way out of addiction through an unusual source (Give Them Christ, Seamands, 91-92). This young man was hooked on heroine and went to live in Pakistan for several months. While there he indulged in riotous living and became very ill, which lead him to befriend a local Muslim. The young man’s addiction became so treacherous that he found himself near death. His devote Muslim friend came to him one day and explained that his only hope was to pray to Jesus for deliverance from Satan. The young man did pray and soon found himself set free from his dilemma. When asked why he had instructed the young heroine addict to pray to Jesus, the devote Muslim responded with an unusual answer. He said for everyday needs one need only to pray ordinary prayers, but for times when there is no hope and no power to overcome Satan – then one must pray in the name of Jesus. Jesus is the only answer! The prodigal found his way free from addition in the name of Jesus!
When we call on the deep, deep love of Jesus deep change occurs within the heart. When we encounter the Ascended Christ we know that his eyes of love can melt away our deepest addictions. If only we could bare the death to our flesh, that we might look upon the wounded Christ who is our Head. We must bow low before Him giving up our shame, disgustful habits, and self loathing. Deeper change than we can ever imagine waits just ahead on the journey. Jesus forges the distance and guides our way out of the pitiful mess we have become and into the strength that is required to fight the temptation to do for ourselves instead of trusting in God. We know not what lies within our fallen nature save Jesus himself. If not for preventing grace how sad our lives would become and how disastrous the results of our decisions.
Surely John & Charles Wesley understood this dilemma as their own fate. The Wesley’s were understood as some of history’s most effective evangelists. They comprehended condition of darkness within one’s soul. Hear these words of John Wesley, “I look upon all the world as my parish… in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounded duty, to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation. This is the work which I know God has called me to; and sure I am, that his blessing attends it” (Kinghorn, 151-152). Further John Wesley instructed his preachers, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work…save as many souls as you can… bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance…build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord” (Kinghorn, 152). When we look to the past as our guide we find that religious revivals in early American Methodism were filled with the emotionalism of saving grace. Lay workers were charged to preach both inward and outward holiness so much so that even the unchurched peoples of their day understood the purpose of Methodism was to bring people to salvation in Christ Jesus. This invitation to saving grace continues to be the work of every Methodist!
Have you ever found yourself outside the fold of family, friends, or community? Have you ever felt devalued because you didn’t belong or have a place of rest? Have you ever longed to be embraced with affection and told that you are truly loved beyond anything you could hope or dream of? Have you wondered off into the wilderness of life’s troubles and found yourself in a pit of despair? Have you unintentionally rolled away from the safe haven of the church community? Have you squandered your time and talents on your own personal preferences?
Come home. Come home. Come home.