“He was lost, and is found!”
Today’s scripture comes from the gospel of Luke, chapter 15 which contains three parables that convey God’s special love, mercy, grace and patience from different angles toward wayward and lost people who have left God’s fold or God’s reign. God had laid on my heart to preach from this text two weeks ago, but I was hesitant because today’s text is very difficult to preach from, simply because the story of the prodigal son is so very well- known and well- presented, focusing so many different aspects of the story by well-known preachers over the centuries. Even painter like Rembrandt, a Dutch painter, depicted well the embittered older brother in the corner of the painting which is mainly the father embracing the returned prodigal son, showing how the older brother was also lost because he was angry and jealous at God’s over-generous mercy toward his own brother who had wandered and strayed but can so easily access the heavenly banquet. I am sure you have heard that preaching line, haven’t you?
When God prompted me to preach from this text this week again, I was wondering what can I add or contribute to our people who would know everything about the story in and out, but I had to obey what God asked me to preach. Sometimes, God asks a preacher to preach for just one person in the congregation, -a similar thing the shepherd did, who left his ninety- nine sheep to look for just one lost sheep in the first parable of Luke chapter 15. Not all of you might need to hear this preaching, but there may be some who need to hear today’s message.
Let’s go over the major storyline to see what we can learn.
First of all, the word “prodigal” comes from Latin, and its basic meaning is “wasteful”–particularly with regard to money, but it would be more accurate to say that “wasteful” of one’s resources, –time, energy and health, including life itself.
There was a father who had two sons, and the younger one wanted to have his inheritance. In Jewish society, there were laws regarding how inheritances were typically divided. The oldest brother got a double share (cf. Deut. 21:17), while the other brothers got a single share. In other words, the older brother would get 2/3rds of the estate, and the younger brother would get 1/3rd. So in the story, his younger son was asking for the 1/3rd of the father’s possessions.
More importantly, inheritance was given when the father dies, but the younger son wanted it while his father was still alive, meaning, he wanted his independence from his father. (I don’t want you to tell me what to do, I want to live independently of you…) As the story goes, we know that the father gave what he wanted. God respects our own free will, the choices we make to accept God or to reject God. Unless we give the Lordship of our lives, including our own free will, God does not force his love upon us. I do not know about you, but for me, knowing that how I prone to run away from God’s love, I asked God, the other day seriously, to take away my own free will so that God’s grace will tie me up like a chain and never let me go.
This younger son set off for a distant country, meaning his further away from God’s fold, being totally alienated from God to a place where it has nothing to do with God. For a while, he enjoyed his freedom from God, following his fleshly desires leading him. But soon when the pleasure of being independent of God following his fleshly desires ran out, he felt hunger and thirst in the distant country far away from God. The severe famine in that distant country was not coincidental but a characteristic of that country not having anything to do with God, the source of everything we need in life. Amos 8:11, “Behold, the days come,” said the Lord God, “that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.”
The younger son was hungry and thirsty for real food and drink. But in that distant country of severe famine, there was nothing to eat but only the things that pigs eat. Pigs are unclean animal in the Bible, and the legion of demons went into a herd of pigs in Matthew 8 30-37, which means, the truth of God, hearing the words of God, the real spiritual food that is needed for anyone’s soul was not available but only things that demons, unclean spirits would eat in that distant country, which lead to starvation and death. This is a picture of the state of the lost sinner. It is a picture of what sin really does in a person’s life when s/he rejects God’s will. Sin promises freedom from God but leading one to slavery to sin, eating and inhabiting in Satan’s realm that is of starvation and death. The reality of Satan is deprivation, destruction, and desolation. Satan was a created being but opposing God the almighty God, the source of power. At first, what Satan seems to promise is independence, pleasure, satisfaction, comfort, and happiness, –how happy it will be to be on my own, getting away from God–, but one will be restless once that person leaves the bosom of God. This prodigal son realized that he would soon die of starvation not eating the real food decided to come back to God and he was on his way. It is a realization that, apart from God, there is no hope. This is when a repentant sinner “comes to his senses” and longs to return to the state of fellowship with God which was lost when Adam sinned.
This son was still a long way off, but the father spotted him because Father had been waiting and waiting and perhaps daily searching the distant road, hoping for his appearance. Once the father spotted his son coming, he ran and ran. The father ran!
Middle Eastern man never — never — ran. If he were to run, he would have to hitch up his tunic so he would not trip. If he did this, it would show his bare legs. In that culture, it was humiliating and shameful for a man to show his bare legs. But the father ran because if a Jewish son lost his inheritance among Gentiles, and then returned home, the community would perform a ceremony of breaking a large pot in front of him and yell, “You are now cut off from your people!” The community would excommunicate him and drive him off.
So, the father ran in order to get to his son before he entered the village. The father ran — and shamed himself — in an effort to get to his son before the community gets to him. The father had taken the full shame that should have fallen upon his son. Our heavenly God/Father has taken our shame through his Son, Jesus, who willingly endured the cross on our behalf.
The father was running to his son, greeting him with a kiss and ordering the celebration. He ordered the servants to bring the best robe which was a sign of dignity and honor, proof of the prodigal’s acceptance back into the family, a ring for the son’s hand, –a sign of authority and sonship (ring, back then, used as a seal of that person) and sandals for his feet, a sign of not being a servant. All these things represent what we receive in Christ upon salvation: the robe of the Redeemer’s righteousness (Isaiah 61:10), the privilege of partaking of the Spirit of adoption (Ephesians 1:5), and feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace, prepared to walk in the ways of holiness (Ephesians 6:15). A fattened calf is prepared, and a party is held. Do you know what that means? Notice that blood was shed to have a party which means atonement for sin, (Hebrews 9:22). Fatted calves in those times were saved for special occasions such as the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23: 26-32). Jesus’ blood was shed to purify us from our wrongdoings.
Now, let us turn to the final and tragic character in this story, the oldest son, who worked hard, obeyed his father, and brought no disgrace to his family or townspeople, unlike his younger brother. But he could not be forgiving and accepting. One of the duties of the eldest son as the priest of God, –Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were priests of his household– was to reconcile between the father and his other sons. According to the role prescribed to him, he should have been the host at the feast to celebrate his brother’s return. Yet he remained in the field instead of in the house where he should have been.
What does it tell us? Not just younger son but also the older son was a prodigal son though he did not leave his father’s fold. He refused to enter the banquet that was thrown for the lost but found people at the final celebration. He was not receiving his brother back; he was not forgiving. A dear friend of mine whose mother in law was severely abusive toward her physically, emotionally and verbally. Because of stress having to deal with her, she has even contracted cancer. When her mother in law later accepted Christ as her Lord and Savior, upon hearing it, my friend who could not forgive her mother in law shaking her whole body tightening up her fists and out-cried, “I will not go to heaven if she goes there!”
What can we learn from this parable of the prodigal son?
- Because of God’s grace and mercy, we can be forgiven, restored — accepted. We do not have to fear going home to our Father and to confess our sins, no matter what we have done, or how many times we have done it.
- We have to be forgiving and accepting one another to join in the final celebration. We should be able to eat with anyone under heaven literally and figuratively. If there is anyone we cannot bring ourselves to eat with, then, we cannot participate in the heavenly banquet God has promised to us.
- Self-righteousness without love, mercy, and grace of God does not lead us anywhere. Our religious practice should be manifested in our daily living accepting and forgiving others
- In order for anyone to participate in the final celebration, the heavenly banquet, the blood of Christ was to be shed as the atonement sacrifice as we see the fatted calve was sacrificed for the celebration in the story. In other words, we all need the blood of Jesus to cover us to participate in the celebration. Thanks be to God, our Lord and Savior forever and ever!!!