‘When I walked down my garden some time ago I found a dog amusing himself among the flowers. I knew that he was no gardener, and no dog of mine, so I threw a stick at him and bade him begone. After I had done so, he conquered me, and made me ashamed that I had spoken roughly to him, for he picked up my stick, and, wagging his tail pleasantly, he brought the stick to me, and dropped at my feet. Do you think I could strike him or drive him away after that? No, I patted him and called him good names. The dog had conquered the man.’
Spurgeon applies the lesson to prodigals. If an imperfect man is inclined to have pity on a mischievous dog, how much more sympathy does God have for a wayward person who returns to him. ‘And you, poor sinner, dog as you are, can have confidence enough in God to come to him just as you are, it is not in his heart to spurn you. There is an omnipotence in simple faith which will conquer even the divine Being himself. Only do but trust him as he reveals himself in Jesus, and you shall find salvation.’
Shame can keep us from feeling free in God. Men, you may be ashamed of the things that you have viewed on your screens. You have failed so often, that you wonder how God could still have patience with you. Women, I don’t know the particular failings that you struggle with, but there are bound to be things in your life that embarrass you. Parents, you may be ashamed of the many ways in which you have failed your children. Maybe you carry the wounds of a parent who exclaimed, ‘I am so disappointed in you.’
I used to have a recurring dream. It occurred when I first began paid work for a church. In the dream I would be in the town’s supermarket, and I would realise that I was in my underpants. I believe that I was having that dream because I was scared of being exposed. ‘What if the people in the church knew what I was really like? What if they knew of my struggles with lust, the insecurity of my faith and how little of the Bible I really knew?’ Do you battle the inner shame of feeling that you can’t live up to the image you present of yourself? More painful still, maybe you are hiding secrets, because you are embarrassed about some things in your past and present.
A blogger called Tim Challies writes, ‘so many Christians live their lives racked with guilt and shame. They think back to all the things they did, the sins they committed, whether two days ago or two decades, and live under a cloud of shame. This shame hurts, it burns, it incapacitates.’ This morning we are going to see that God loves to cover our shame.
The young man brought shame upon himself, his family and his community
The younger son is doing something shameful in asking for his share of the estate. ‘…in that culture, the normal response to this level of impudence would be, at the very least, a hard slap across the face from the father. This would have typically been done publically to shame the son who had shown such disdain for the father’ (MacArthur).
As well as a public renunciation, there might be a formal dismissal from the family and possibly even a funeral for the son. That would have been the only way to avoid allowing the boy to bring lasting reproach against the family’s good name. However, the father ‘was willing to endure the pain of spurned affections and public humiliation rather than disown his son’ (MacArthur). The Pharisees and teachers of the law who were listening to Jesus would have considered this father’s response to be shamefully weak.
As the younger son heads off to the distant land, he brings disgrace to his family, his village and his religion. Then he lives shamefully among the pagans, and soon he experiences his own disgrace. When famine comes, he goes to a farmer looking for work. I doubt that this farmer was looking to employ anyone at that time. But in that shame-culture you did not turn down a request for help. So the farmer offers the boy a job that no self-respecting Jew could accept—feeding unclean pigs.
Shame kept him from returning home
So why didn’t he just head home? I think that he stayed in the pigsty because he feared the shame that he would experience if he returned home. Middle-eastern expert, Ken Bailey, explains that had he come home after dishonouring his village among the gentiles, he would have been greeted by people who would have broken a clay pot in front of him and declared that he was dead to them. For the rest of his days, young lads, with nothing better to do, would have followed him around, taunting him and throwing dung at him. He was also aware that his bitter older brother would never let him forget what he had done. The shame he expected to be exposed to on returning home would be greater than the shame of feeding those pigs.
But, what actually happens on his return? The father endures shame for the sake of his wayward son. When the father sees the son in the distance, he sprints. That’s significant. In that culture there was a proverb that said you could tell the manner of a man by the way he walked. Men over thirty did not run. Respectable men walked in a slow dignified manner.
I don’t know if you have heard of Garrison Keillor. He is a radio comedian that tells stories about an imaginary place called Lake Wobegon. Lake Wobegon, explains Keillor, was the sort of place where everybody knew everybody else’s business. In fact in Lake Wobegon people did not have to use indicators when driving because everyone knew where you were going.
First-century Palestinian villages were the same. Farmers did not live in isolation amongst their fields. For security they lived in villages and went out to work in their fields. So everybody has seen the shameful son set off to the distant land, and they see the father lift his clock, expose his knees and make a fool of himself as he sprints through the village to embrace his son.
I know that what motivated the father to run to his son was his overwhelming feeling of compassion. I also suspect that he was determined to get to him before the village could have their pot-breaking ceremony. He did not want his son to experience such pain and disgrace. If he gets to the son first, and accepts him, then, because of his status in that society, the rest of the village will have to accept him. He is willing to be shamed to ensure his son is not.
The great nineteenth-century London preacher, Charles Spurgeon, says, ‘had the story been that of a selfish human father only, it might have been written that “as he was coming near, his father ran out, and kicked him.”’ Many fathers would have looked at the emaciated boy, in rags and covered in pigs’ dirt, and contemptuously declared, ‘look at the state of you!’ But not this father! This father orders the best robe to cover the boy’s shame.
But not everyone wants to forget his shame
Apparently the fatted-calf could have fed up to two hundred people. That means that the father is inviting the whole village. He is showing hospitality to the very people who gossiped about his wayward son and looked down their noses when they saw him race out to greet him. The father shows grace to those who shamed him, as we see very clearly in his dealings with the older brother.
But many people don’t want to face your shame
In that culture nothing was considered worse than shaming someone. The older brother goes out of his way to shame his dad. Ken Bailey says that it is hard to overstate the sense of embarrassment that would have been caused by the father having to leave the party and plead with the older son to come in. Fathers did not plead, they simply yielded unquestioned authority. No one in that society would have been shocked if the father had order the older son in and given him a public beating for showing such a lack of respect. As he got up and left, I imagine the guests whispering to each other, ‘this father is making a fool of himself, again.’
The older son refuses to address his dad with any term of respect—the omission of the word ‘father’ is telling. Yet the older son thinks he has nothing to be ashamed of. With great self-righteousness he says, ‘I have never disobeyed your command.’ Like the Pharisees and teachers of the law, he covered up a cold and bitter heart with proud acts of outward obedience. How sad it is that so many of us insult God as we cry out, ‘but I am a good person.’ Such pretence will fill us with the insecurity and slavery of having to put on a face to impress.
Jesus endured shame for us
Thankfully, we have a very different older brother. Jesus is the only person who has never done anything to feel ashamed of. He is also the older brother who takes away our shame. His are the robes of righteousness that cover our spiritual nakedness (Revelation 7:13-14). Like the father, Jesus acted in a way that his society considered shameful so that we could be accepted home. Crucifixion was not talked about it in polite company. If a child talked about the crucifixions that had taken place that day, they might have been told to wash their mouth out. However the writer to the Hebrews tells us to, ‘fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12:2).
John Piper explains that Jesus’ ‘friends gave way in shaming abandonment; his reputation gave way in shaming mockery; his decency gave way in shaming nakedness; his comfort gave way in shaming torture.’
Conclusion: It is sinful to hold on to our shame
I can’t tell you that everyone else will forget your past, but I can tell you about divine forgetfulness. God promises, ‘I will remember you sin no more.’ He has covered our shame. He wants us to be happy and free.
Sometimes we hold onto our shame because we are proud. Rather than let God deal with it, we want to prove our worth. We imagine a day where people could say, ‘you are so different than the emaciated wretch you once were.’ But such pride dishonours God’s grace.
And now we can be transparent. We can admit to today’s failings because the blood of Jesus goes on cleansing us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7). While others might look down on us, we have the acceptance of the only one who really matters. As the former slave-trader and hymn-writer said near the end of his life, ‘although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour.’