Thursday, 5 November 2015

The greatest story ever told

Charles Dickens called this parable the greatest story ever written, and he wrote some great stories.  It is a simple yet profound tale.  It is truly timeless.  It is all about the beauty of grace.  I want to call this story of parable of the three sons and the prodigal father.

1.         Son 1:  The rebel
Recently a friend gave me a wonderful little book of Bible-based devotions entitled ‘Saving Grace.’  In one entry the author, Jack Miller, writes, ‘Many times we think, whether consciously or unconsciously, that we can go on vacation from God.  What’s really happening is that we think of God as the enemy of our happiness, and we go our own way.  But God is not our enemy.  He’s our friend, and he wants us to be happy and free.’
That was the problem of the younger son.  He thought that the father was getting in the way of his fun, and so he wants to leave home.  He asks for his share of the inheritance and goes to a far land, squanders his wealth, indulges his lusts, and ends up emotionally and physically bankrupt.  He gets what he deserves as he finds himself feeding pigs (a job a Jew would have thought of as being beyond humiliating) and starving. 
It is at this moment that he comes to his senses.  But I am not sure that he has yet come to true repentance, for he seeks to cut a deal with his father.  ‘Make me like one of your hired men.’  These hired men were not servants, but skilled workers.  The son wants to enrol in a training scheme, start earning and pay off his debts—not that he could ever even begin to make up for the financial and emotional damage he had inflicted upon his family. 
Yet when he arrives home, and sees how much the father loves him, he leaves the bit about being a hired man out of his pre-prepared speech.  He realises that his father wants him as a son.  It is such grace that truly melts his heart.  The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome saying, 'the kindness of God is intended to lead us to repentance' (Romans 2:4).  The appropriate response to God’s love is not to make up for our rebellion.  The appropriate response is to delight in the fact that he has dealt with all our guilt on the cross, and to let this glorious truth transform us from within.
2.         Son 2:  The resentful 
The older son is coming in after a day’s work when he hears the music.  He knows what has happened.  There hasn’t been a party like this since his younger brother left home.  But rather than be glad that his father is now bursting with happiness the older son throws his staff to the ground, folds his arms and exposes his cold hateful anger.  Be in no doubt, this son is as lost as his younger brother ever was.
When his father goes out and pleads with him to come home the older son applies a twisted logic.  ‘All these years I have been slaving for you.’  All this years he has been at home but he has not lived as a son.  He thinks of himself as a slave.  But don’t take his assessment seriously.  He is the heir to that estate.  He is not the one doing the back-breaking work in the heat of the day.  He sits in the shade, supervising the hired men and servants.  His job may have involved hard work but it would have been very satisfying.
If you don’t understand the gracious heart of the heavenly Father you may end up serving him as a slave rather than a son.  He offers us a life of purpose.  His commands are for good.  He gives us joy.  But maybe you have turned them into a recipe for proving yourself to God and people.  You are a religious slave, a good church-goer who puts on a face and can’t be real or transparent, and you don’t even see the pride and resentment in your heart.  Let his kindness break your heart again and set you free!
Remember that Jesus is telling this story to deeply religious people—the Pharisees and teachers of the law.  He wants them to see that they are like the elder brother.  They look down on broken people who were delighting in Jesus’ message of forgiveness.  They don’t want to be reminded that God is slow to anger and abounding in love, and does not treat us as our sins deserve.  They want to prove their worth.  So they hated the Jesus of lavish grace and will pursue him to his death.  Yet Jesus pictures God as lovingly pleading with them to come into the party.
Can anyone be so foolish as to choose hell in preference to heaven?  Yes!  Many are too proud to want God’s grace.  One writer points out that Jesus portrays ‘a God who overflows with grace and generosity, opening his arms to all: elder brother, younger brother; saint or sinner.  He makes no distinctions.  If we stay out of heaven it is because we refuse to go in.  It is because we are too proud to accept his grace.'
3.         Son 3:  The redeemer
One commentator suggests that the older brother should have pleaded with the younger not to leave, and then when he had left he should have led the search party to find him.  Yet this elder son didn’t even look to the horizon in the hope that his brother would come home.
The younger brother’s return is inconvenient for him.  After all, the younger brother has spent all his inheritance.  If he is to be provided for, it will be with property that the elder brother would have anticipated was due to come his way.  The elder son is not prepared to pay the cost of his brother’s return.
Then there was the fact that the younger brother’s return would actually have called on the elder son to humble himself.  In that culture there was a custom whereby when a family held a special banquet the eldest son was to act as chief waiter.  This said to the guests, ‘you are so special to me that I have even made my heir your servant.’  There is nothing the elder son wants to do less than serve at a party that is being held in the honour of the brother he hates.
How different he is to Jesus?  Jesus leads the search party—he came to seek and save that which was lost.  Jesus yearns for people to find a home in the loving embrace of the heavenly Father.  He delights to call us his brothers and sisters.  He humbled himself for our sake—leaving heaven to come to earth, taking on the nature of a servant, and dying a humiliating death of a roman cross, bearing the cost of our rebellion so that we could be welcomed home.
4.         The prodigal father
The word prodigal can mean wasteful.  That is why this story is traditionally called the parable of the prodigal son.  But prodigal can also mean lavish or extravagant.  The father is lavish in his love towards his two sinful sons. 
As the younger son returns to the village from his far off wandering he may have expected to be greeted with hostility.  There was a ceremony for young men who had disgraced their people—a pot would have been broken and the declaration was pronounced saying ‘so-and-so is cut off’.  Then young boys, with nothing better to do, would have followed him around mocking him.  Most fathers would have remained aloof from such a disgraced son.
Yet while the son is a long way off the Father is filled with compassion.  In that culture a man of standing would have walked in a slow dignified manner.  There was a proverb from around that time that said, 'a man's manner of walking tells you what he is.'  But the father gathers up his robes, just like a teenager would, exposes his legs (something that would have been considered terribly undignified) and sprinted to his son.  Then he embraces him and kisses him (he literally kissed him again, again and again).   
As the father ran the people would have followed him.  A curious crowd would have gathered around the two men as they embraced each other.  And because this man of standing has accepted his son they too would have had to welcome him back to their village.  The father saves him from the shame and indignity that he deserves.  Indeed, the father has saved his life—for the law said that he could have such a rebellious son put to death.
There is so much here that reminds us of what God has done for us.  The father orders that the son be dressed in his finest robe, and our shame is covered as our spiritual nakedness and shame is covered by the righteousness of Christ.  Then he gives the son a ring—most likely a signet ring.  In other words, the father entrusts this sons, who had blown all his inheritance, with the power to preform commercial transactions.  Similarly, God trusts us with his name—a name we have dishonoured—to be his witnesses.  Whereas slaves went barefoot, sons wore shoes—we have been made sons of the heavenly father.  Jesus teaches that there is a celebration over every person who turns back to the God in repentance.
It wasn’t just the rebel son who was shown kindness.  Middle-eastern expert, Ken Bailey, says that it is hard to overstate the insult that the older son’s refusal to come to the party was to his father.  That boy deserves to be left out in the cold.  Yet the father goes and pleads with him.  God also wants self-righteous, respectful and resentful people to have their hearts warmed by his grace.  Jesus even pleads with hard-hearted Pharisees to come into his party.   
Michael Horton discovered that sermons that focused more on what God has done for us actually transform people more than those which simply tell us what we should be doing as Christians.  He says that we should not only be asking WWJD (‘what would Jesus do?’), we should be reminding ourselves of WJHD (‘what has Jesus done?’).
So look at the greatest story ever told and think about see the God of lavish grace.  He is like no other father.  Turn to him and picture him running to greet you.  See the delight in his eyes.  Feel his embrace.  Delight in the fact that he covers your shame and rescues you from spiritual death.  Feel his embrace and kisses.  Rejoice in his eldest son who came looking for us and took paid the cost for our return.

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