Friday, 31 May 2013

Luke 15 'Father and Son' (part1)

I wonder what your dad was like?  Some of us have wonderful fathers, others have very imperfect ones.  Our relationship with our fathers has a big impact on our understanding of what God is like.  Dr Pablo Martinez explains that, 'rebellion, whether conscious or unconscious, against one's father can be a source of difficulties in our prayer lives.  This is because we can never entirely separate the concept of the Heavenly Father from that of the earthly father.'  Indeed, the root of some people's atheism stems from difficulties with their dads.

Given that none of us has, or is, a perfect parent we all need to reflect on the loving father-heart of God.  This morning we should be encouraged as we see the most loving of fathers power out his compassion on the most obnoxious of children.

1.  The Death Wish (11-12)
'Father, give me my share of the estate.'  In that society, such a request only meant one thing: the younger son was impatient for his father to die.  The division of the father's wealth would normally occur at the end of the old man's life, but this son can't wait.  His father is getting in the way of his desire for self-indulgence.  The son is callous.

He is also foolish.  It literally says that he turned everything into cash.  In that culture they spent days bargaining.  When you sell in a rush you don't get a good deal.  He just wants to get out of town.  The family was your security net in times of trouble.  The father is clearly the most loving of men.  But he wants to cut himself off.

His actions are incredibly selfish.  That land has passed through the family for generations.  He turns it into cash and soon spends it all.  It will no longer provide an income for his father, the rest of the clan or any future generations.

He wants privilege without responsibility.  'Give me my share of the estate.'  It would have been more natural to say, 'I want my inheritance.'  But he avoids using the word inheritance because to accept one's inheritance involved taking on certain responsibilities.  His horizon is filled with no-one but himself.  Tozer speaks about the sins of self: self-centred-ness, self-righteousness, self-regard, being self-absorbed, self-importance, self-justification and so on.

Surely we can see ourselves in this son.  When we indulge our lusts would prefer that God was not alive, for we are uncomfortable for him to see our thoughts, words, actions and attitudes.  Like the son we fill our horizon with thoughts of self, so we are easily offended when people refuse to make much of us and slow to forgive.  We spend all our time thinking of what others think of us, and striving to get our own way and we are slow to do to others what we would like them to do for us. Like the son we are reckless, we fail to see that God's commands of love are for our good.  Thank goodness that the father's love is not based on what the son deserves.  Thank goodness that God loves us because he is love and not simply because we are lovely.

Melvin Tinker points out that, 'If we are to see ourselves in the reckless ingratitude of the son, then we are no less to see God in the reckless grace of the Father'.  This father granted a request that no other middle eastern father would have ever given. The expected answer to such a request would be refusal and punishment.  But even though his son wants him dead he goes on loving the boy.  The father grants him the freedom to turn from him.  The son is breaking the relationship but the father is not.  Any other father in that culture would have then cut his son off as if he were dead.

2.  The wasted years (13-19)
The son set off for a distant country (literally 'he travelled away from his own people').  'If he had broken his father’s heart by asking for his share of property and so wishing him dead, by clearing off in this way he was grinding that heart into the dirt.'  He 'squanders' (literally 'scattered') his wealth.  He threw it around as if there was no tomorrow.  

He is a Jew in a Gentile village.  He is a foreigner to the people and has to establish himself.  In middle eastern culture generosity is the supreme virtue.  So he holds large banquets and gives out expensive gifts.  He does not invest or save, and when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want.  We must not minimise the horror of famine.  The son is in dire straights.  He is getting what he deserves.

So he went and hired (literally 'joined') himself to a wealthy citizen of that country, who sent him in to the fields to feed pigs.  This man does not want the younger son. It was standard practice not to refuse a person or fire someone.  Instead what you did was make them an offer that they must refuse.  The wealthy citizen reckons that the young Jew, who was fond of the fancier things in life, would never agree to feed the pigs.   Jews considered pigs unclean.  But the younger son does.  After all what choice does he have?  This is rock bottom.  'He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything' (16). 

So why not return home?  Because he will face the older brother's scorn.  He will have to live with a brother you looks down on him, and he will be forced to live off the older brother's inheritance.  His brother will never let him forget his disgrace.  Because he would be rejected in the village.  Indeed, local gangs of children and youths would follow such a person wherever they went, making fun of them, calling them names, taunting them, throwing stones and animal dung at them.

But then he has a plan.  He will go back to his father and ask to be made a hired man.  These hired men are not slaves but skilled craftsmen. The son wants to enrol in a training scheme, get a craft, start earning, and start to pay his own way.

Remember that Jesus is speaking to Pharisees and teachers of the law, men who knew their Scriptures.  They would have recognised the sons words.  'I have sinned before heaven and against you.'  These were the words of Pharaoh during the plagues (Exodus 10:16).   Pharaoh was not sincere.  He was simply trying to manipulate Moses into calling off God's judgement.  The younger son's tears are crocodile tears.  He is thinking in terms of self-salvation, paying his debts back.  He is thinking that his sin was about money, rather than the fact that he broke his father's heart.

The young man's heart had not yet been changed. 

3.  The prodigal Father (20-24)
The word prodigal can men wasteful.  That is why this story is traditionally called he parable of the prodigal son.  But prodigal can also mean lavish.  The story tells us of a God who is lavish in his outpouring of mercy.  Tim Keller calls his book on this parable, 'The Prodigal God.'  Here we see our God pictured as a prodigal father who longs to forgive.

What does the son expect to encounter at the village?  In that culture is a young man went off and wasted his inheritance among the Gentiles they would have been greeted by a ceremony where a pot would be broken and the words 'so-and-so is cut off.'  While he was away the people would have gossiped about how this man had abused his father's kindness.  He was returning starving and in rags.  Young boys with nothing better to do would have followed him around, thrown things at him and mocked him.

A father would have been expected to remain aloof.  Such a young man would have had to sit outside the gate of the family home for some time until the father was summoned.  Then the father would come out and heap abuse on the son.  Not this father.  While the son was still a long way off he sees his son and is filled with compassion.  The word translated compassion relates to the intestines and tells of deep and loving emotions.  

He ran (literally 'raced') to him.  In that culture a man of his standing would have always walked in a slow dignified manner.  But this father gathers up his robes, just like a teenager would, exposes his legs (which would have been considered terribly undignified) and sprinted.  When he reaches him he kisses him (literally, he kissed him again, and again, and again).

As the father ran people would have followed after him.  A crowd would have gathered in curiosity as they watch the father embrace the son.  They would have heard the father's loving words of acceptance.  Now, because of this man's standing and actions, they too would have to welcome him home.

Remember that the son had a plan.  He was going to begin to pay his debts.  But he does not go through with his prepared speech.  He simply admits his sin and accepts that he is unworthy of the father.  He does not go on to ask for the apprenticeship.  It seems that now he has finally repented.  Now he realises the reality of having broken the father's heart.  Now he wants a restored relationship rather than restored pride.  Now he simply casts himself upon the love, care and mercy of the father.  Indeed, the son would have been expected to present a gift as a sign of his remorse but the son is empty-handed.  We come to our heavenly father with empty hands open to receive his grace. 

The father doesn't look at his dirty, ragged son and say 'go clean yourself up. You look a mess.'  No, the father orders that the son be dressed in his finest robe.  That would have been the father's best robe.  We might remember that God covers the shame of our spiritual nakedness with the robes of Christ's righteousness.  The ring was most likely the signet ring, which carried authority.  The ring was used to sign commercial transactions.  Think of the trust the father puts in the restored son.  He had already proved reckless with cash.  God puts trust in us - he gives us his name, a name we have already dishonured, and entrusts us to be his witnesses.  Whereas slaves went barefoot, sons wore shoes.  The father has assured his acceptance with the village, because the village elders will accept him out of loyalty to the father.  The grain-fed calf with high quality meat is prepared.  This calf had been kept for a great celebration, like a wedding.  Meat was a rare delicacy in the village.

That calf would have fed up to two-hundred people.  There is a lavishness in God's grace.  The father is inviting the whole village to the celebration.  Those people who had gossipped about his son, they are invited.  Those people who had looked down on him for exposing his knees, they are invited.  Everyone is invited.

That day at the party the son had nothing to boast about.  He had returned home with a cunning plan to at least pay some of his debt, but in the face of his father's love he realised that was foolishness.  We approach God in the filthy rags of our self-righteousness.  That son was never going to be able to pay back his debt, neither can we.  We are entirely dependant on the loving charity of God.  When we cast ourselves on him, when we depend upon his goodness rather than our efforts, we are given the privileged position of a son.

I don't know what you father was like.  I am sure he was imperfect.  Given how the image of our Heavenly Father is somewhat shaped by what our earthly fathers are like we all have one reprogramming to do.  This parable shows us something of the wonderful father heart of God.

I also believe it shows us something if he incarnation (God the Son taking on flesh and coming into our world).  Like that father humbled himself, exposed his knees, and ran to the son.  With similar condescension God the Son left heaven, became a man, allowed himself be mocked and scorned, and died a death reserved for the worst of criminals. 

WHJD (What has Jesus done for me?)  Michael Horton discovered that sermons that focused more on what God has done for us actually transform us more than those that simply tell us what we should do as Christians.

So tell me about this gracious God that I might be overcome with thankfulness.  Let us gaze upon the God of mercy that we might be carried away in praise.  Speak to me this gospel and let me be embraced in its love.  Hold up Christ as fully sufficient for my restoration and inspire me to die to self and live to God.

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