Saturday, 23 May 2020

Three sons and a prodigal dad

Three sons and a prodigal dad (Luke 15)
A pastor used to counsel a young man who was struggling with alcohol-addiction.  What the young man did not realise is that the pastor saw out the window and watched him hide his beer before they talked.  Then after the man had told the pastor how much he wanted to be free from drinking, he would collect his beer again.  Now the pastor did not doubt the sincerity of that young man.  But he could see that that his addiction had control of him.  This got the pastor thinking: ‘Where does really power to change come from?’

We can offer lots of help to those who are battling various sins.  We can warn people of the consequences, encourage them to have accountability partners and avoid places of temptation.  But nothing brings change with the same power as experiencing the love of God.
So we are going to look at a parable that magnifies the life-transforming, sin-defeating and joy-giving love of God.  I call it the parable of the three sons and the prodigal dad. 
Son 1: The rebel
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.’
The younger son wasn’t satisfied with his father’s love.  So he makes a callous request.  Father, give me my share of the estate.  The estate would normally have been divided up after the father’s death, but this son is saying, ‘I can’t wait for you to die.  Your being alive is getting in the way of my fun.  So sod the conventions and give me my inheritance now.’
he son then turns his inheritance to cash.  In a culture where you spent years bargaining over fields, he sold in a rush.  You can be sure that he didn’t get anywhere near the best price.  There is always something very foolish in our rebellions against God.  The psalmist reminds us that many are the woes of the wicked.  Sin always brings some measure of sorrow and emptiness.
The younger son is also incredibly selfish.  That land had been in his family for generations.  But he goes off, sells it and squanders it.  He has no intention of providing for his father in his old age or passing on an inheritance to future descendants.  Every sin has self as a root—self-centredness, selfish, self-righteousness, being self-absorbed, self-importance, and so on. 
Then he sets off for a distant country with no intention of ever coming home.  When famine comes, and the son is dying from hunger in a famine, he is getting exactly what he deserved.  Death is what our rebellion deserves.  But God loved us when we were dead in transgressions and sin, sending his Son to die for us while we were still hostile towards him, and now continues to love us even though we are so often filled with self-interest. 
The prodigal father
The word prodigal can mean ‘wasteful’, and so fits the younger son.  However, ‘prodigal’ also means ‘lavish’, and this father is lavish in his love.  Tim Keller calls his book on this parable, ‘The Prodigal God’.
The younger son comes to his senses and travels home with a plan.  ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’  He doesn’t seem to understand his father’s love—his father wants him as a son, not a hired man.  Maybe, in pride, he thinks that he can start to pay back some of his debts.
The father, who has been spending his time looking at the horizon, is filled with compassion when he sees his son.  Apparently, the Greek word translated ‘compassion’ is a word filled with deep emotion, and is only ever used in the gospels of Jesus or people in his parables who act like him.  So the father sprints, literally falls into the son’s neck, and kisses that boy again and again and again.  The son had come home preparing to kiss his father’s feet; instead, the father is kissing the son’s pig-stinking head (MacArthur).
Now look carefully at what the son says.  ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  What about being made a hired man?  It’s unnecessary.  That’s not what the father wants.  The father wants him as a son.  The son realises it would be an insult to attempt to pay back his debt.  It is the kindness of God leads to genuine repentance (Romans 2:4).
The father looks on the dirty ragged lad with delight.  Gets the finest robe (I can’t help thinking of how our spiritual nakedness has been covered in the robe of Christ’s righteousness).  Then he gives the son a ring—I love this, the signet ring was used for commercial transactions (imagine that the father gives a role of responsibility to such an untrustworthy boy!).  God entrusts us with the greater privilege of being ambassadors of Christ.  Whereas slaves went barefoot, sons wore sandals on their feet—Christians are sandaled people!
Son 2:  The Resentful
I am actually more struck by the love of the father for the elder brother than the younger.  This elder brother is a cold, hard-hearted, mean-spirited, arrogant, self-righteous, bitter young man.  Remember that this son represents the Pharisees and teachers of the law.  Like the older son, they resented how Jesus welcomed home notorious sinners.  Yet Jesus uses this story to show God lovingly pleading with them to come and join the celebration of grace.
The older son hears the music, and I think he knows exactly what is going on.  There has not been a party in that house since his brother left home.  He is filled with anger.  Then he goes out of his way to embarrass his dad.
The son does not address the father with a customary term of respect.  No title, no affection, no respect. Then the accusations begin.  ‘All these years I have been slaving for you.’  Don’t be too impressed by his words.  He is the heir to the estate.  His father is rich enough to have servants and hired men.  The elder son’s work didn’t involve breaking his back.  He would have sat in the shade and organised the labour.  I imagine his work was actually very satisfying. 
Does he not realise that his father didn’t want him as a slave but as a son?   Does he not realise that his father wants him to enjoy his love?  Does he not understand that his father is not looking for him to justify his existence or pay his way?  The older son does not value the father’s love!
The older son blames his dad for the younger son’s rebellion.  He refers to this son of yours.  He is not my brother but your son.  ‘It’s your fault that he is such a failure.  It is your fault he left home.  You were always too soft-hearted.’  He then actually seems to suggest that the father owes him an apology, for not being generous to him, even though everything his father had was actually at his disposal. 
This son, like all self-righteous people, deserves to be left outside the party—so many people refuse to see their need of grace and so they are heading for hell.  But how does the father respond to the calculated insults of the older son?   He addresses the elder son with the tender address, ‘My son’(using a different word, than the word translated son, meaning, ‘my child’).  He loves this cold-hearted young man.  Through this story, Jesus is inviting proud, self-justifying people to repent of their hostile hearts and experience the joy of grace.
Apparently there was a custom, which still exists in many cultures of the world, where the eldest son would serve as head-waiter at such a party.  It was designed to complement the guests by saying, ‘you are so important to me, that my eldest is your servant.’  The elder brother was not willing to humble himself for his brother, and, like the Pharisees felt no joy at the thought of rebels being granted forgiveness.  However, all through this chapter of Luke there is the picture of heavenly celebration over rebels coming to repentance. 
Son 3: The rescuing brother
There is a third son in this passage.  There is the son who is telling this parable.  Jesus is both like the father and is also a complete contrast to the elder brother.  Jesus is the elder brother we are longing for.
The elder brother did not want to humble himself as and serve as head-waiter in the party on honour of the younger son.  Jesus has humbled himself in order to bring us home.  ‘He who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:6-8).
One commentator suggests that the elder brother would have been expected to plead with the younger son not to go, and then when he left to lead a search party to the distant land.  Jesus, our older brother, left heaven, to a distant land, coming to seek and save that which was lost.  Like the shepherd, earlier in this chapter, who came looking for lost sheep like us! 
The younger son’s return must have cost the older brother.  The younger son has sold his share of the land.  He will now live on what would belong to his older brother.  The party was being funded with money that would have eventually come to the older brother.  Was the father planning to give the younger son another inheritance?  That would cost the older brother.  This may be a part of his resentment.  Yet we will not have any chance of fully grasping God’s love until we realise the price that Jesus, our older brother, was prepared to prepare for our homecoming.  ‘This is love,’ says the apostle John, ‘not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.’
Conclusion—what you love the most will control you

A young man was training to be a pastor.  At weekends he spoke at a little small country church.  One Sunday, an elder at the church asked if he would like to join this family for a picnic.  They went to restored Victorian village, at a spot where the Mississippi river was a mile wide.  Everything was beautiful in the autumn sunshine.  Then the elder’s daughter asked him to join her for a walk.  He really liked her, so he did not say, ‘actually I am sitting here enjoying the view!’  His greater love for the girl moved him away from his love for that view.  (When I heard him tell that story, he pointed out that he has been walking with that girl now for over forty years.)
We sin because we love the pleasures that sin offers.  The younger son went to the distant land because he desired the pleasures it offered more than he desired to be at home with his father.  The elder son would not go into the party because he loved self-righteousness and he hated grace.  James says, ‘each person is tempted when he is allured and tempted by his own desires.’
So how do we overcome those desires?  We overcome our love for sin by displacing it with a greater love.  Jesus was not nagging the disciples when he said, ‘if you love me, you will obey my commands.’  He was simply pointing out that what we love the most controls us.  We obey God when our love for God displaces our love for sin.  But this love for God is God given.  ‘We love because he first loved us.
So, your primary spiritual problem is not that you don’t love God enough—although, like me, you don’t love God enough.  Your primary spiritual problem is that you don’t realise how much God loves you.  That is what makes reading a passage like this one so life-transforming—God uses the beauty of the gospel applied through the person of the Holy Spirit to cause us to love him more.  See the loving father coming to kiss you again and again.  See him graciously pleading with cold-hearted self-righteous people to come and enjoy the celebration of grace.  See how that father reflects the incomparable compassion of Jesus.  See your loving older brother who came from heaven to bring you home.  See him lay down his life that you might be a dearly beloved child of God.  Let that love melt your heart and change your life.

No comments: