Tuesday, January 13, 2015

January 11, 2015 Prodigal Sons and the Love of A Father, Part Two

Last week the text for my message came from the parable of the prodigal son, and I realized that it needed to be broken into two parts, so this morning will finish this message.

First, let’s read the parable once again –

11 And He said, “A man had two sons.
12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them.
13 And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.
14 Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished.
15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
16 And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. 
17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!
18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight;
19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’
20 So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 
22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet;
23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 
24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.
26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be.
27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’
28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him.
29 But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends;
30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’
31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.
32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”

Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story titled The Capital of the World.  At the beginning of the story Hemingway recounts a popular Spanish tale about a father who had and a son named Paco, a very common names in Spain. According to the story, Paco rebels against his father, using hate-filled words as he tells his father he doesn’t need him, that he wants nothing to do with him, and that he wished his father was dead.  He packs up his belongings, walks out the door, and declares he is gone forever.

Paco is always on his father’s mind, wondering if he is well or if he has fallen onto difficult times.  He fears he may want to come home but believes he can’t because of what he said to his father.

The worry became too much for the father, and he travels to Madrid, where Paco declared he would go.  Once in Madrid he walked into the offices of the city’s newspaper and places an ad that read – Paco, meet me at Hotel Montana, noon Tuesday.  All is forgiven.  Signed, Papa.

It was just before noon on that Tuesday morning when Paco’s father approached the Hotel Montana, where the police were trying to manage a large crowd at the hotel entrance.  The father sees a familiar head in the crowd and yells Paco!  When he yells out the name the heads of hundreds of young men, all named Paco, turn towards him.

There are so many people for whom the parable of the prodigal son becomes the metaphor in their lives.  They are people who want their broken relationships to be healed.

Last week we covered the first point in the message, so this week I’ll cover the second and third points.

2. The younger son wanted to find “the good life”, when he already had a good life.
Doesn’t this parable read like a teaser for a reality show?  Last week, we left dad mourning his younger son, who had wandered off to the big city in search of excitement and the good life. This son, along with his older brother, had formed an alliance to get their father’s money. That alliance is starting to crack as the younger son, now broke and destitute, has returned home. Will the younger son get immunity and get to stay? And will the older son hear his father say “you’re still hired” or “you’re fired”? Stay tuned as we continue our next episode of The Unreal Life. 

This sad, broken, dysfunctional family is, unfortunately, reality for too many people.

One of the sad parts of this story is everyone hearing the story can see what was coming for the younger son, except for the younger son. He knows everything, of course (anybody ever been that way?), and is blinded by his belief that he is soon to grasp hold of what he thinks is a good life.

The younger son fell for an illusion of what constitutes a good life. The illusion of what constitutes a good life is just as deceptive today as it was when Jesus told this parable. We are so inundated with images of the so-called “good life” that beckon to us. It is the siren call of a promise that far too often holds a very different reality.

It was a harsh reality for this young man when his money ran out. Gone were all the friends that were there for him when he had money and could afford to be the life of the party, gone was the high living, and he was reduced to being envious of the food he was feeding to some pigs. This was really hitting the bottom for this young man, to come to the point of being envious of a pig’s life.  Coming from a life of some measure of privilege – not to mention that as a Jewish man he shouldn’t be around pigs – Have you ever seen pigs eat? We raised pigs on our farm when I was young and I can remember carrying the buckets of slop to them. It’s not a pretty sight to watch pigs eat. Just how hungry and desperate do you have to be to reach this point – he longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating (verse 16).  You have to be very, very hungry and very, very desperate to desire the food of pigs.

This young man certainly learned some lessons, and one of those lessons was that when all of his new friends left him and he was all alone he had a father who still loved him. Whatever he thought he wanted out of life, he already had what he really needed, although it took him a lot of pain to learn that truth.

3. The older son wanted his father’s love and approval, but he already had his love and approval.
Did anyone ever complain about a sibling getting more?  Who has ever said he got this, why didn’t I get one?  There is a lot of petty jealousy in the older brother.  But in one way, can’t you see his point?  The younger brother goes off, squanders his father’s money, returns home to a great welcome, while the older brother stays home and faithfully works with his father, never giving him any problems.

The older brother feels overlooked and underappreciated, but here’s the truth – he was a prodigal as well, he just stayed home.  And it’s not like he was doing without – he had the other half of his father’s money!

It’s not necessary to wander off in order to be a prodigal. The older brother stayed home, worked hard, did his duty, but there was still a distance between him and his father. This brother seemed to nurture a spirit of bitterness, and he was bitter to the point that he could not share his father’s joy when his brother returned.

What a tragedy, then, as the father gets one son back and then loses the other to anger and bitterness. The older brother wanted justice and punishment to be meted out to his brother and was angry that no one ever made a fuss over him. This brother never learned the lesson of which Jesus speaks in verse 10, when he says I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

And his father’s love was right there the entire time.  Listen to the words of the father in verse 31 – “My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

As I mentioned last week, this parable is the last of three that Jesus tells in Luke chapter 15.  Luke prefaces the parables in this manner – Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Then Jesus told them this parable.”  It is in the context of judgmentalism and rejection that Jesus offers the parable of the prodigal son (and the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin).  It is Jesus’ way of criticizing the Pharisees – and others – for rejecting those whom they did not deem worthy of God’s love.  Jesus taught a radical, inclusive view of God’s love, where no one was beyond his love or care.  This was in stark contrast to what many of the religious leaders of the day taught, which was a very exclusive view of faith.  Simply put, they believed they were favored and loved by God and others were not.  But before we are too hard on these people, let us remember that the older son becomes a metaphor for the church.  Too many times over the centuries, and still today, the church has sought to be the gatekeeper of the kingdom of God, deciding who is in and who is out, who is righteous and who is unrighteous, and who is worthy of God’s love and who is unworthy.  The teachings, actions, and ministry of Jesus were a very direct refutation of what was taught and practiced by the religious leaders – as well as the attitudes of some churches today – and this is a lesson we cannot overlook. 

The older son has about him a rigid, joyless sense of obligation, which is the manner in which some people express their faith. The older brother represents those whom Jesus accused of rejecting other people, who are also children of God, because their beliefs told them that those others were not worthy of God’s love and should not receive it.  Jesus says, at the end of the parable of the lost sheep, that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (Luke 15:7).

I want to close by making a few comments about the tragedy that took place in Paris on Wednesday, which saddens all of us, but this parable speaks to such situations.  I would say, first of all, that when people commit such terrible violence in the name of God it must be condemned, wherever it happens and whoever perpetuates such acts.

It didn’t take long for some of the expected voices to pounce on this event as an example of the failure of religion.  Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, leading the usual cast of characters, were quick to proclaim that there are no great religions and that religion and religious people should be mocked and ridiculed.

I find it very disturbing when people paint an entire group of people based upon the actions of only a few, and I’ll tell you what is so disturbing about such comments and attitudes.  When you marginalize and demonize any group of people it is only one short step to finding justification in treating them in terrible ways.  We have seen this time and again in history, and we have certainly seen it in Europe.  But we’ve seen it in our own country as well.

Jesus knew the dangers of such attitudes, even when we justify them in response to evil and terrible actions.  That’s why it is so hard to comprehend the depth of the radical love that Jesus demonstrated to all people.  Jesus, who taught us that we should love our enemies and to even pray for those who persecute us, was willing to stand up to the hard-heartedness of the religious establishment and challenge them as misrepresenting God and abusing people.  That’s an amazing message, and one the world still needs to hear.

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