January 24, 2009
Luke 15:1-2, 11-32
1Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
… 11Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
13"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' 20So he got up and went to his father.
"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.
21"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.[b]'
22"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. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
25"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
28"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
31" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "
a. Luke 15:8 Greek ten drachmas, each worth about a day's wages
b. Luke 15:21 Some early manuscripts son. Make me like one of your hired men.
The Two Sons
We find ourselves today at the third of six messages revolving around what is one of Jesus’ most well-known teachings; “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”, or as was suggested last week, “The Parable of the Lost Sons”.
Now I don't know about you, but having been a kid who grew up in the church, this parable was always a "warm fuzzy" for me. For while it did describe the disobedience of the younger son and his extravagant wasteful nature, that is his "prodigal" nature, this parable was for me a warm and fuzzy reminder of God's eternal love and his "welcome home" offered to all sinners who repent.
But this Sunday I want to challenge you to look at this parable from what may be a drastically different perspective; I invite you to look at it as a sociologist or a social workers would; for this parable is a story of a family that is being torn apart. It is in fact, unfortunately, a story more and more people can relate to; those who have experienced divorce or a sudden death of a family member, those who have experienced dramatic financial shifts, or those who have experienced a number of scenarios in which families are challenged, and ripped apart emotionally and physically. And while the younger son in this parable is traditionally blamed for this turmoil, we will knowledge the truth that the older brother is also guilty of a great sin that threatens the unity of this family. We will touch on that truth this week but consider his story more in depth next week.
As always, whenever we come to God's Word, we must put aside any provincial attitude. Although we know that God's Spirit is alive and active, helping us to hear the truths of Scripture and apply them to our 21st century lives, we also know that one of the ways in which we can participate in the work of the Spirit is to acknowledge the importance of knowing the context into which God's Word was initially received. This is one of the strongest arguments we have for Bible study; and as we will see today, while a simple reading of this parable will convey important truth to us, understanding what Jesus’ audience; the tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and teachers of the law, heard given the context of their first century Middle Eastern culture, will be crucial for us to get to the deeper truths of what this parable is telling us about God and about us.
This specific parable begins with a description of a family, a family that is not fully defined, but a family that included a father and two sons. While we do not know just how wealthy his family was, we know that by having servants and hired men, that this family would have been viewed as being blessed by God. They were "comfortable" if not outright wealthy. They were most likely the kind of family other families wish they were. But then the younger son says something that is about to change all that. He says to his father:
“Give me my share of the estate”
What does this request mean?
If you have studied this parable in the Bible study or heard it preached before I am sure that you know that in biblical times children did not all receive an equal share of their family estate. You probably know that the oldest son in the family always received a double portion; therefore with two sons, the younger son was asking for one third of his father's estate.
From a 21st century perspective some might view this request as foolhardy. Or, some might actually try to justify his request: hypothesizing that a son should have the right to take what belongs to him and seek a better life for himself. Perhaps the father was a scoundrel or abusive, and his younger son had had enough and was looking to build a better life. Obviously such was not the case, as Jesus parable goes on to describe the kind of life this younger son pursued with all his money, and the later descriptions of the father as loving and compassion.
But if we put on our first-century Middle Eastern hats, there is only one way we can interpret what this request; "give me my share of the estate" means:
Relationally it means the son wished his father dead!
The younger son was growing impatient. Perhaps he never liked lifestyle his father provided at home. Perhaps he didn't like the rules and regulations that came with them. Perhaps he had wanderlust, and was sick of living “down on the farm” once he heard of other wonderful places where he could live. But here's the problem, although this younger son had a rich inheritance to look forward to, as long as his father was alive he didn't have control over those riches. Once his father died he would have his money, but he was growing impatient.
When the son said to his father “give me my share of the estate", he was saying that he wished his father were dead, because at this point he loved the father's money more than he loved the father.
What else does this younger son's request mean?
Socially, it means that the son disrespected his father and brought shame to the family name.
I mentioned earlier that this parable traditionally makes me feel warm and fuzzy, but in fact it would have generated just the opposite response among Jesus’ listeners. Timothy Keller, whose materials we are using in small groups and Sunday School to consider this parable in greater depth, suggests that there must have been an audible gasp when Jesus’ listeners first heard this son’s request. For such a request would have not only demonstrated a deep disrespect for his father, but would have brought shame upon family name.
But what might have surprised Jesus’ listeners even more so than the younger son’s insolence, was the reaction of the father. For what was expected in Jesus day would have been for the father to slap this child for his great disrespect. No Middle Eastern father would ever have allowed a son to talk to him in such a manner.
But he doesn't lash out in anger, does he? And this lack of punishment coupled with what the father actually does, would have made Jesus’ listeners extremely uncomfortable and agitated.(Far from the warm and fuzzy feelings I experienced growing up listening to the story.)
Not only did younger son's request have relational and social meaning, but also
Economically, it meant drastic changes to the families’ estate.
It really wasn't until Carole and I moved to Minot, North Dakota that I could fully appreciate some of the economic changes implied in this parable of Jesus.
Carole and I moved to Minot with a hope of setting up an acre for horses. And so our realtor began looking for something that met our goals. The best he could do was a house on 5 acres of land. It was land surrounded by hundreds of acres of farmland, and so we asked our realtor if she could contact the owner of that land and see if we could purchase another 10 acres surrounding our property.
It was then that we learned through our realtor just how important land was to farmers. It was not so much the 10 acres were looking for; that was a pittance in relationship to all that this farmer owned. The issue was that of farmer and his family’s identity was wrapped up in that land, and to give up any of that land especially to someone outside the family was to threaten the very identity of that family.
Over time we discovered was that this house and 5 acres of land originally belonged to one of the farmers sons. Following a devastating house fire this son sold what was left of the foundation of the house and the 5 acres to someone in town. They in turn expanded the foundation and built a larger house. He also set up rows of trees on the north and the west to protect the property from winter winds and blowing snow. The original farmer was very upset that this property no longer belonged in his family, and even complained that this new owner had planted his windbreak trees on the farmers land.
In short, the realtor knew, because she had tried for other clients, that this farmer was not interested in giving up any more of his land to non-family members. But, to Carole’s credit, and true to her persistent nature, she got this farmer’s phone number and called him up from our hotel room. She explained our hopes for the land and thanked him for his consideration and, to our delight and to our realtor's great surprise, this farmer called her to inform her that he was willing to sell us the 10 acres we were hoping to buy.
One of the things we often fail to consider in listening to this parable is how this younger son’s request put a strain on the family estate. How did the father liquidate one third of his possessions in order to fulfill his younger son's request? What would you have to do with your home, car, bank account, stocks and bonds, jewelry and anything else of significant value, in order to hand one third over to a child who wanted their inheritance ahead of time? Such a task threatens the very nature of a family.
The extent of what the father needed to do in order to fulfill this request is given added insight, again through a deeper study of the words Jesus used in telling the story. In verse 12 of Luke 15 we read:
So he divided his property between them.
Again, we're talking about one third going to his younger son and two thirds go to his older son. Can we imagine the economic turmoil that would have been created by this younger son’s requests, and a father who did what he needed to do in order to divide his "property” between them.
What is interesting to note here is that the term that Jesus uses for the fathers" property" is an usual Greek word “bios” which means “life”. When Jesus taught that the father "divided his property/life” between his sons, we are given further insight into what it must have felt for the father to lose his land, his family's good name and status, and the presence of one of his two sons. The younger son had asked the father to tear his very life apart, and he does to the great surprise of Jesus’ listeners.
That is what the younger sons requests, "give me my share of the estate," means. Now….
What was the father’s response to this request?
Again, the father’s response was surprising to Jesus’ first audience. They fully expected this younger son to be put into his place either verbally or physically by the father.
After all, when someone has hurt us we tend to want to hurt them back, don't we? We tend to distance ourselves from them; we make them outcasts, even enemies. Our rage against them helps us to cope with the hurt they inflict against us.
“They’re dead to me!” we say, and if we ever consider reestablishing a relationship with them, it would have to start with them crawling back on their hands and knees. Right? I mean, there's no question in Jesus story as to who was wrong and who was wronged, is there? There's no way the younger son is presented to us as a victim of an unreasonable and abusive father. A Middle Eastern culture expected the father to slap his son for his disrespect, and then for the son to pay whatever price the father asked for a restored relationship.
But that was not the father's response, was it?
Perhaps you've never considered the radical nature of this story told by Jesus Christ. That is who Timothy Keller likes to refer to this pabable as “The Prodigal God”: the “extravagant” God whose grace goes wild! For rather than presenting a wrathful and justified father, Jesus describes someone very different; someone who is more concerned about relationships than about what others owe to him.
What does the father’s response mean for us?
What the father's response means to us is simple; it means that rather than justifiably taking out his wrath against us and distancing us from his holy presence, God freely chooses to suffer for the sake of our relationship. God will not write us off and label us forever as "unrighteous", but through his suffering He will find a way to make us righteous, so that not only will we have opportunity today to live in relationship with him, but will for all eternity live in God's house, the very God we rejected when we lived our lives as if He were dead.
Can't we see that in so many ways we are like this younger son? Can't we acknowledge that at times we have all forgotten that everything we have, and everything we are, belongs to God? And that at some place or at many places during our lifetime we have forgotten that, and we have grabbed what God has given to us, viewing it as our own, and then ran to some distant land and squandered away the blessings of God?
It's not hard to understand why so many people who believe that there is a God in heaven, also believe that God is angry and is ready to pounce on us with punishments we so richly deserved. Look at our world. Look at what we have done with all that God has given to us. No wonder so many people expect that slap across their face which Jesus audience expected when that younger son demanded his share of the estate from his Middle Eastern father.
But the good news we get to shared with the world, the very news that is directly related to the shock and surprise of Jesus’ original audience, is that we do not get we deserve, and we do not get what many expect.
Rather, it was precisely because the father was willing to suffer for his son’s rudeness and sinfulness, and not lash out in a justifiable anger and rage, that gave the younger son the freedom to "come to his senses". When our story proclaims the words;
“When he came to his senses” (and decided to return home)
we are talking about something that happens to us, not something we cause to happen. Perhaps we can think about it in this way; when we come to our senses we suddenly become aware of something we had not really been looking for. It's like the alarm clock going off in the morning; when our senses jolt us awake. Our mind is not trying to wake us up, but suddenly our senses define a new reality, and though we may push the snooze button, eventually that reality sinks in and we begin a new day.
So too when we "come to our senses" and surprisingly realize that we have sinned against God and against others, just as this younger son so correctly discerned, we are empowered by our father’s love and grace to go back home and seek forgiveness. We are empowered by the fact that our God loves us and desires a relationship with us so much that He was willing to suffer so that can return home.
A thorough study of the words used by Jesus describes a truly repentant son, and a father of extraordinary love. For while the father won't even let his son describe what he is willing to do to come back home, but instead clothes his nakedness with his own robe and has the family ring put on his sons finger immediately signifying that he is a full member of the family, Jesus story-telling reveals to us the extent of the younger son’s repentance by describing his willingness to become a day-laborer.
Although this younger son remembered in the midst of his downfall, how his father treated his servants; those who lived in the father's home and serve the fathers needs, repentance had driven this younger son to make a plan to return to his father in order to be a "hired man"; that is, someone who would live in town but would come out and work on the father's estate for a daily wage. It was this younger son's hope that somehow, he could repay his father for all that he took, though it may take his entire lifetime to do so.
How many of us who can relate to this younger son, have “come to our senses” experienced the love of our Heavenly Father, and have yearned to pay Him back for all of our sin. In truth we cannot, can we?
Our sin is too great for any of us to make things right with God. But the good news is, when we come with that attitude of true repentance, God's love clothes our nakedness with the blood of Jesus, and he gives us a family ring, the Holy Spirit, who will work in us and through us and remind us on a regular basis that we are God's children.
This week and next let me ask you if you have ever “come to your senses”? Have you, like the younger son, loved the world and everything in it more than your Heavenly Father? If so, can you see that now… have you come to your senses, and does the extreme love of a God who suffered for you for the sake of your relationship turn your heart to repent?
Or, like the older son, have you loved God and lived in this house your whole life, but have loved his blessings more than you have loved Him? Do you find yourself being offended by God's love for those who are lost, and his willingness to kill your fatted calf to celebrate the salvation of a sinful brother or sister?
Next week we will consider the story of the older brother; the story of another lost son. But today I ask, “have you come to your senses”? Has a new reality been made apparent this hour, by listen to God's word?
If so, then let us quickly run to the Father to discover his “welcome home” and experience his extreme love.
Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (r).
Copyright (c) 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.
Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.