January 17, 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 People Around Jesus
The good news of the gospel is that, in Christ, God came into this world to save sinners, which means that He came to save all of us… to reconcile all things to himself. In short, the Gospel proclaims that Jesus’ death reorients humanity into a right relationship with God. It is a relationship we must accept, but it is not something we can earn by anything we do. When we accept the gospel message by faith and, by that same faith, live in the good news of God's salvation then the Holy Spirit will transform our lives making us more and more like Jesus, who served not only as our Savior but as a model of a human being living by faith in God.
In the New Testament book of Ephesians the Apostle Paul wrote about:
…the mystery of Christ, 5which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets.
Now, I will come back to Paul's definition of that "mystery" in just a moment, but in many ways while it was a "mystery" hidden for generations, it was not a surprise, because God had been preparing his people for generations to see and understand what God would eventually do for us in Jesus.
Remember the "big picture" if you will.
-God created all things including humanity perfect.
-Sin (human disobedience to God) made that which was perfect imperfect.
-Following humanities plunge into sin and destruction (Tower of Babel, Noah & the Ark) God took the initiative and called Abraham to father a nation of righteous people; people walking rightly in the ways of God; rejecting sin and living in obedience to God. They were to model for the world to see, a righteous nation.
-While God's calling and promises remained secure for Abraham and his descendent, their actions continually reminded themselves and us that we cannot, by our own power, live righteously before God. Through their stories we learn time and time again that as sure as God is faithful to us, so too humanity is unfaithful to God. Whether it was wandering in the wilderness or crying out in the Promised Land generation after generation because of their sin, the Old Testament story keeps declaring that "human beings are doomed apart from God’s grace".
-There was a period of history when God was trying to lead his people through His Word spoken by His prophets and the leadership of the Judges, but time and time again disobedience to God's Word brought God's people down. In the midst of this reality God's people cried out for an earthly King (I hope you recall the stories of the prophet Samuel and Saul, the first king of Israel.)
-While this was not God's wishes for his people he gave them what they want, an earthly King, but warning them about the price they would pay in following an earthly King rather than God; prices we still pay today; high taxation and the enlistment of our children for war. But God used this opportunity by calling Saul to model righteousness. In other words, to be what God's people had failed be; an example of humanity living in a right relationship with God through obedience to God. Here was a new opportunity, for one person to lead by example and to demonstrate the blessing of one's life, if one lives obediently to God and God alone.
-But, Saul was disobedient, wasn't he? He failed to model for his people how to live before God. To this day, despite the moral relativity of our times, do we not still expect our leaders to model a standard by which we should live? And yet we somehow seem surprised when they do not. We hold on to the hope that humanity by its own power can live rightly before God, but even those who live most righteously among us are the first to tell you how far they fall short of the glory of God.
-Just a little later in the Old Testament story God raises up a new King; King David. And while his life is anything but perfect, the Bible tells us that he was a person after God's heart. In other words, although he sinned, David's heart was constantly being drawn back to God and to obedience to him. David was willing to confess his sin, and to rely upon God for His salvation. To this day David is remembered by the Jewish people as their greatest of Kings, the best model of how one lives in relationship with God.
But this is where Christians and Jews differ, for the Gospel, the “good news” proclaimed in the New Testament describes another King, Jesus Christ, who came to offers us not only God's salvation, but a perfect model of how human beings are to live in relationship with God. For God knew that sin would always separate even the most obedience person from God. But, here comes Jesus, God's promised Messiah; the very salvation of God in human form. And in human form Jesus modeled perfectly what no one else, not even King David could; a holy & righteous relationship with God.
When we examine the New Testament stories from that angle we discover a person who continually relied on his Heavenly Father for direction and purpose. Jesus was constantly going to the Father in prayer, and relying upon the Holy Spirit’s power. And because of that, Jesus had the power to heal the sick and even raise the dead. When he asked the Father's blessing upon a handful of bread it fed thousands of people with basketfuls remaining. And as people feasted on the physical bread, Jesus offered himself to them; spiritual bread and living water that opened people’s eyes to God. Jesus was a human being who walked by the Spirit, obeying God's leading even when it meant he would be crucified. He put his full trust in his Heavenly Father; believing that though he would die on a cross, he would be raised to new life. And he was!
Not only would Jesus model life lived in obedience to God, and thereby give us hope and direction, but he was the very source of God’s salvation for all humanity. Knowing our slavery to sin, Jesus death on the cross opened for us a righteousness we could never attain on our own. In fact that is the "mystery" of the gospel as described by the Apostle Paul, a “mystery” that affects all human beings; not just those who had received the blessing of knowing God’s laws, because it was not through obedience to God’s laws that God’s salvation would come.
Our salvation only comes to us by God’s grace.
6This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together
with Israel, members together of one body,
and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
7I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace given me through the working of his power. 8Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
As wonderful as the news of our salvation by the grace of God is, it was something with which even the early Christians needed to wrestle. For the earliest Christians were Jews, and their relationship with God for centuries had been based upon a religion which emphasized the keeping of laws. But the early Christian fellowship talked this through, concluding that we are saved by the grace of God and not by any works lest any of us should boast.
So, having remembered again that the Gospel: the "good news" of Jesus Christ is that by God's grace and God's actions alone we are saved, let's explore the people who were around Jesus when he told the parable we read again this morning.
The story we just read has been traditionally referred to as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”, but this was not Jesus’ designation. In fact, Jesus’ opening words declares a more complex story:
"There was a man who had two sons.
Now, while the majority of the story describes a “prodigal” son, that is, a recklessly extravagant and wasteful son… there is also a second son who, unlike the prodigal, was compliant to the rules of the Father.
In truth, what we have here is a description of the two general types of people we see in every generation of humankind.
1. Those who reject rules in their quest of “life”.
2. Those who adhere to rules in their quest for life.
And what is most surprising to many today is that neither group is right! For again, the gospel proclaims that both types of people are alienated from God in differing ways, and the three parables in Luke 15, especially the last one, offers messages to both groups. In truth, “The Parable of the Lost Sons” would be a much more accurate title of this third parable in Luke 15.
So let’s carefully consider the people with whom Jesus spoke to in His day, and then ask ourselves who they are today.
Before Jesus told any of these parables, his audience is clearly defined for us; tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and Teachers of the Law
1. The Tax Collectors and Sinners
Who were the tax collectors and sinners of Jesus’ day? They were a lot of people. In fact, they included people who had to work so hard because of their occupation, or because of the high taxation of the Roman Empire, that they could not adhere to all the requirements of Jewish ceremonial law. The “yoke”, that is the requirements of the worshiping community were very heavy. Their work may have caused them to labor beyond Sunset, and as hard as they may try, they simply could not keep up with the demands of their jobs and the requirements of their religion.
In many cases "sinners" were people whose work itself labeled them as "unclean", and therefore unable to participate in Temple worship.
As far as "tax collectors" go, they were Jewish people who had "sold out" to their Roman occupiers. They were Rome's workers in the field, collecting taxes from their own people, and they were allowed to extort extra money from people and keep it for themselves just as long as Rome got their fair share. Zacchaeus was such a person who had cheated many out of money they did not have to pay. That is why it was so surprising when the rabbi Jesus showed friendship toward this tax collector by inviting himself into Zacchaeus’ house for dinner.
Tax collectors and sinners were for the most part non-participatory in the formal religion of Jesus day. In their search for life they rejected the rules defined by their culture, and were labeled with exclusionary descriptions.
It is worth contemplating for a minute the motivation behind people who reject the rules of their day. For if we work under the assumption that all people are searching for life in its fullest, we can only conclude that either people are rejecting life when they disregard the rules of their culture, or they believe that the rules of their culture fail to offer them life, and so they deliberately choose a different path.
For example, while there are many people who do their best to follow the rules of a capitalistic society, believing that life will be found in the accumulation of material goods, there are others who reject those rules believing that life is to be found in the pursuit of other things. Perhaps the greatest recent example of two colliding views of life can be summed up in the name "Woodstock". Suddenly, new rules for life were being put on display; love, peace, and rock 'n roll. Suddenly new exclusionary labels described “long-haired hippies” and “non-conformists”; people searching for life in differing ways than what was normal.
In some ways they were the sinners of a generation, failing to live according to previously cultural standards.
What is extremely interesting to me, and most noteworthy, is that the tax collectors and sinners of first century Palestine were "all gathering around to hear” Jesus. And the verbiage used in Luke 15 describes an ever-enlarging grouping of sinners and tax-collectors. In other words, the more Jesus spoke the more tax collectors and sinners gathered to hear what he had to say. They heard Jesus say different things than the religious leaders of the day. They heard Jesus say
29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
Now tell me something, if we are walking in the ways of Jesus; if we are proclaiming his words to our world, then where are the tax collectors and sinners of our day? If churches are proclaiming the gospel message, why are we not constantly bursting at the seams? We will come back to that question later.
2. The Pharisees and teachers of the law.
The second group of people described as being around Jesus when he offered these parables were the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. While not representing all the spiritual groups of their day they were representative of the core Jewish religious community. Like us, the Pharisees were people of God's Word. Their goal was to live righteously before God, and to call others to righteous living.
Jesus had a lot to say to the Pharisees this day, not because they were so wrong in their theology, but because they were so close to getting it right. They were close to understanding God, but something was lacking, so Jesus took the time to challenge some of their assumption and paradigms about religion, hoping that they would see what they had yet to take notice of regarding God and his salvation.
While some Pharisees such as Nicodemus and the Apostle Paul would eventually understand and accept Jesus’ teachings; the gospel which proclaimed a grace-based relationship with God, …..most of the Pharisees of Jesus day just became defensive of their law-based religion. As our text describes well for us, they just could not understand why this rabbi named Jesus would associate with "sinners". They complained that he even ate with them. How can a righteous person even associate with sinners?!
You see, very much like the lunch tables in today's schools, where circles of friends can be identified based upon those with whom they eat, such was the case in the Middle East, and still is. To eat with someone is to define yourself as a friend with that person. (This cultural truth should give us a lot to think about whatever we gather at the table of our Lord. When we saying that the song “I am a Friend of God", we are proclaiming the truth not only spoken by our Lord in the Scriptures (John 15:15) but also in his invitation for us to be at his table.)
As you may know, Luke 15 is not the only place in the Scriptures where the Pharisees are displeased with Jesus words & actions.
- Luke 5:27-32 Levi. Another tax-collector with whom Jesus would not only associate, but would call to be a disciple (Matthew)
- Luke 6:1-11 Eating and healing on the Sabbath. How often was Jesus criticized for acts of love displayed on the Sabbath, acts which seemed to contradict the rules of religion?
A couple weeks ago I had the joy of talking with Linda; one of those very interesting friends of our congregation who is not worshipping with us these days for a very good reason.
A dear friend of Linda's is in a care facility walking through the dark valley of Alzheimer's. This is a dear friend of Linda's, as dear as an adoptive mother would be to any of us. As it turns out Sunday morning is the only time Linda can connect with her, and it appears that those connections have a significant and obviously positive influence on her friend.
In talking with Linda it was exciting to share with her what she also saw has ministry to her friend; the affirmation of a very special person, and the opportunity to love someone deeply. But along with his excitement came a concern from Linda. As a young Christian and a person who more so than anyone else I'm aware of, heard the gospel and responded to God's grace in Christ, Linda had to ask me what I thought about her missing our Sunday worship services. For mixed with her excitement for what was a difficult but rewarding ministry, was a little twinge of guilt that somehow she was not being the kind of Christian she ought to be.
It was with joy that I not only affirm her calling to be with her friend Sunday mornings, and marveled at the strength God has given her to walk with her friend, but it was also with joy that I freed her from any guilt she had from not being with us these Sunday mornings.
Now hear me carefully, I am not encouraging sporadic attendance in worship. The Bible clearly instructs us to not get out of the habit of gathering together regularly. But I serve the Lord who not only by word but by example lived above the rules and expectations of religion in order to live in a relationship with God; to hear his voice and to obey his will. I follow a God who is not looking for people to sacrifice themselves to the religion of their day, but a God who calls upon us to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8b)
It is interesting to note that in the early centuries of the Christian church, Christianity was not recognized as a religion. In fact, Romans viewed Christians more as atheists than anything else. They had no temple. They had no priests. They had no idols. They had no animal sacrifices. They did not have the things that would cause their culture to define them as a religion. But what they did have, and what drew so many people to the Christian faith, was that they had the Gospel. They had the good news that in Jesus Christ God had come to earth and had acted on our behalf to reconciled himself to the world.
And so, Christianity would be defined first informal by what God had done for us rather than what we do for God. Can we better understand now why the Pharisees and tax collectors were so upset with Jesus, but why the tax collectors and sinners were so drawn to his teaching?
These were the people who were around Jesus when He told these parables.
So who is it that is listening to Jesus parables today?
Christianity, at least in America, is the primary religion of our land. When people talk about “going to church” they are usually talking about attending some variety of Christian church. The phrase "going to church" carries with it all kinds of images for good or bad, correct or incorrect. For some people, “going to church" describe the rules and regulations they must follow to have a right relationship with God? But for others, “going to church” means celebrating the power of the gospel message and the hope that Jesus life here on earth gave to all of us; that if we live by the spirit in obedience with the father we will discover the life that everyone is searching for?
One church says “live as we tell you to live, and you will find God”.
Another other church says God has found you in Christ,
let us celebrate and live our lives together in response
to God's grace.
- Why is it that the tax collectors and sinners of Jesus day were not practicing the religion of their day yet, were continually and increasingly attracted to Jesus’ teaching?
- Why is it that today, the world is not flocking into all Christian churches? Perhaps those churches simply need a reminder of God's grace.
Tell me, do you think we realize the magnitude of the reality that while other religions in this world say that we can search for and find God if we try hard enough, that only Christianity says that God has come into the world to seek and to save us.
When we grasp the magnitude of this truth then we will understand the gospel proclaimed by our Lord, that our salvation is by God's grace and not by our achievements.
When we come to our senses, as does the younger son in Jesus parable, and hopefully the older son as well, and realize the extent of our Heavenly Father’s love and sacrifice, then we too will celebrate that we are saved by God's grace.
Let us be a church that proclaims God's action and not our own, for the good news is that by God's action we have been saved. Amen.
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.