How many of you, at an earlier point in life, had a plan for where your life would be right now? Perhaps you had a plan for your life at thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy. How did your plan work out? Are you where you planned to be in life? Robert Burns wrote that the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry, and that is certainly true when it comes to planning for our future.
Much of what happens to us in life comes as a result of the unexpected, the unplanned, and the unintended. Thankfully, life doesn’t always go as planned, but there is a beautiful serendipity to life that turns the unexpected and unplanned into wonderful gifts.
About ten years ago I met a couple of minister friends for lunch here in Shelbvyille. After lunch, we drove by this building, and I commented that I had watched its construction with great interest and would be very interested in seeing the inside. One of the others said well, let’s stop in and take a look around. Walking through the building I couldn’t, at that time, fathom the idea that within a few years I would be the minister here. It was not on my planner or my radar screen, but thankfully, it was on God’s planner.
This morning, the text for the message is perhaps the most well known and beloved of all the parables told by Jesus – the parable of the Prodigal Son. Found in Luke, chapter 15, it is the final of three parables that Jesus tells in this chapter, all of which are about things that are lost.
The parable of the prodigal sons (I use the plural because, as we will see, both of the sons are prodigals) is one that is foundational to the message and ministry of Jesus.
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.’”
Everyone is looking for something in life, but the search for what we want out of life includes many twists, turns, and surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise is when we get what we want out of life, it doesn’t always turn out to be what we wanted. This happens, I believe, because of the nature of what we want in life. Imagine, for instance, someone wants a really great job because they desire to make a lot of money. But perhaps it’s not money they really want, but a sense of security, which we often think money will bring, but money can evaporate very quickly, so there is no real sense of security there. The things we want out of life are often much deeper than the surface desires that we express.
What is often tragic about life is how long it takes us to learn some lessons, and how much heartache we have to endure – and cause – before we learn some of those lessons.
I assume this young man was a young adult, probably about the age of a college student, and he probably had the answer to every one of life’s questions. When I was that age I had no opinions – only facts. I had an answer to every question and then some, none of which were my opinion – at least in my mind – but were hard, absolute facts. It took me a long time to learn that I really didn’t have all the answers, and it took me a lot of heartache to learn many of life’s lessons. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could learn from the experience and mistakes of others? Why is it that most of us have to learn the hard way?
As I was reviewing this message yesterday, I realized that I had a lot of information, so I’m going to split it into two parts, with today being Part One.
1. The father wanted to give to his sons, but what he really wanted was their love.
Please don’t raise your hands, but how many of you parents have struggled and agonized over decisions your children have made? How many of you have been broken-hearted with grief over those decisions? How many of you have been awake at night, wondering where they were, what they were doing, and feeling powerless to fix the problems that came about because of some of their decisions?
Imagine the feelings of this father, as his younger son, in such a self-centered way, demanded his share of his father’s estate. He was in essence saying, I don’t have the time to wait until you are gone; I want my inheritance now! The son seemed to have absolutely no concern for how his demand would affect his father, and the father didn’t even object to the demand! I couldn’t even talk my father out of an advance on my allowance! In fact, I didn’t even get an allowance! (Can I get some pity?)
In verse 12 Jesus says the father divided his property between the two sons – verse 12 tells us he divided everything between them. The word for property is actually living. It wasn’t just money in the bank or stocks that the father gave up; it was the total resources by which the father made his living. The division of property meant that any livestock and land was liquidated or given the both sons. The sons took what was theirs by right of inheritance, and the father goes along with the request, even though it would limit his ability to continue to make a living. To add insult to injury, the younger son then gathers it all together and wanders off to squander the money. All the resources the father had accumulated over the course of many years were about to be squandered by his son in a very short time.
Doesn’t it just make you want to say you know what that father really should have given that young man? “You want to leave? You want to go out on your own? Let me show you the door and help you on your way!”
What this young man didn’t understand is that what we want out of life and how we set about getting what we want has real consequences for the people in our lives. When we’re young we don’t think about consequences. What is one of the most terrifying moments in the life of a parent? When your child gets a driver’s license. In one of what my kids call my virtue speeches, I tried to warn them both of the consequences of their actions when they get behind the wheel of a car. A thoughtless, careless moment could have life and death consequences for them and for others as well. They were now responsible for driving and handling a machine that could take a life in a moment, so it was important for them to understand that whatever actions they took while driving had consequences for others.
The young man did not understand the consequences of putting out his hand and asking it to be filled with his share of an inheritance. It didn’t occur to me when I was young why my parents worked so hard. It didn’t occur to me they had to work so hard because they were raising five children and it took a lot of hard work and a lot of money to provide for five children. My father was a steel worker, but he was also a gunsmith, a sign painter, an engraver, he did work with his tractor – anything that helped to enlarge the family income. There were far too many times when I just put out my hand without any consideration to what was required of my parents to be able to put something in my hand. After becoming a parent myself I had some understanding of how they sacrificed for my siblings and me and I was sorry for the times I was ungrateful for what they had done. It’s unfortunate that it took so long to for that realization to sink into my head and into my heart.
This younger son had no clue about what he had asked of his father. And it’s amazing, don’t you think, that this father lets his son go. Not only does he give him his money, he doesn’t try and convince his son to stay at home. The impetuousness of youth makes us think we can conquer the world on our own, but this young man would soon discover that no one gets through life on his or her own. He soon finds out the world can be a very difficult place. His father allows him to go and learn a painful lesson. How difficult that must have been for the father.
What this father really wanted was the love of his son; instead, he received rejection. Love always faces the risk of rejection, and there is so much pain involved in rejection but love continues to love. If the younger son did not want to stay at home, the father was not going to force him to stay. The father believed in love, not obligation. This father never stopped loving his son. God never stops loving even the most wayward prodigal. Never.
It’s possible to think that the father let go of his son too easily, but in reality the father – in giving his son what the son thought he wanted – was allowing his son to learn an important and much needed lesson. If the son wants to go looking for a life of pleasure he would learn he was really chasing an illusion. The son had to go out and chase after something else in order for him to see his home and family in a very different light.
But lest we be too hard on this young man, let us remember that all of us, to one extent or another, is a prodigal.
I have not seen the movie Unbroken, nor have I read the book. Tanya read the book some months ago and would often tell me about what she was reading. It’s the story of Louis Zamperini, who was a prisoner of war during World War II, and his struggle to put his life together after that horrible experience. Tanya flagged a few parts of the book for me to read, in particular the parts of the book that dealt with his religious conversion. Mr. Zamperini struggled in vain to put his life back together after coming home at the conclusion of the war. He was angry, had terrible nightmares, was an alcoholic, and dealt with other struggles. His wife convinced him to attend a Billy Graham rally in Los Angeles and he agreed to go. Although it only made him angry at first, the message did penetrate his heart and mind and he had a profound conversion, spending the rest of his life working with children and, eventually, forgiving his captors from the POW camp. While little of this is mentioned in the movie, it was his coming to faith and the huge impact it had on his life that defined him from that moment forward. In one the passage, which told of his anger, debilitating alcoholism, and other struggles, was this line – no one could reach Louie, because he had never really come home (page 171).
We are all prodigals, in our own way, and if we fail to understand the extent to which God is loving and merciful to his children, welcoming home the prodigals, we have failed to understand God.