Prodigals

Luke 15:11-32 – March 18, 2020

Jesus told stories.  Those of us in the church have a spiritual name for them. We call them parables.  But they’re really just stories.  One of Jesus’ best known stories, one of his greatest hits is found in Luke 15:11-24. It’s the story that’s come to be called the parable of the prodigal Son, but I believe there’s more than one prodigal in this story.

Let’s pray.  God we thank you that you are so merciful and forgiving, loving and just, righteous and caring.  We thank you for your awesome power and your omniscient presence and that no secret is hid from you, no country too far and that nothing can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus.  We thank you for this parable which gives us insight into who you are and how much you love.  Amen.

***

The teacher was reading this story of the prodigal Son to his class, clearly emphasizing the resentment the older brother expressed at the return of his brother. When he was finished telling the story, he asked the class, “Now who was really sad that the prodigal son had come home?” After a few minutes of silence, one little boy raised his hand and confidently stated, “The fatted calf.”

Jesus never uses the word “prodigal” in the telling of the story.  However, through the years this adjective has been tacked on to the younger son as an apt description of his actions.  In reality, the word “prodigal” is an adjective that means “to squander or to be recklessly extravagant.”  

Sons don’t have the corner on prodigalness. There are prodigal daughters and prodigal mothers and prodigal fathers too. We all have the potential to become … prodigals. 

When the son came to his father and asked him to give him the portion that was coming to him, he was essentially asking for his share of the estate that would come to him upon the death of his father.  According to the custom of that day, the eldest son would always get a double portion of the estate.  So, dividing the estate between the two brothers would mean that the elder brother would get 2/3rds and the youngest would get 1/3rd.  What the impatient younger brother is saying to his father is, “I can’t wait around long enough for you to die.  I want my third now!” 

This son is the poster child for selfishness and self-centeredness.  He valued his father only for what he could give him.  He wanted to do his own thing, to find himself. 

It didn’t take long for the son to turn his share into traveling money and he took off for a far country.  Jesus’ hearers would have thought of such exotic places Italy, North Africa, Egypt, or Babylonia.  Maybe it was the stories of such places that filled the young son’s head. I think he’d been talking to one too many travel agents.

In this far country, being a stranger and far away from the friends he has known all his life, the only companionship the young son had was what money could buy.  As long as there was money to spend, there were people there to help him spend it.  (Amen?)  Jesus’ description of his full-time occupation in that country was that he “squandered his property on loose living.”

Jesus doesn’t say how long it took to through his inheritance.  But he does say that when it was gone, and the son went to look for a job, it was a time of famine.  Here was a former farmer looking for work in a foreign country that could grow no crops.

At his wits end and driven by hunger, the son accepted the most humiliating and repulsive form of labor for a good Jewish boy.  He took the only job left–that of a swine herd.  When he became so hungry that he began to fancy the pig slop, he knew he was in trouble.  That’s when he “came to himself.” 

This is the pivotal verse of the passage.  The word Jesus used here is a medical term used to describe someone coming to his or her senses after fainting.  The pig slop served as his “smelling salts”, and he finally “came to.

What is most important to notice about the prodigal’s realization is that in that very moment he repents of the sin done to his God and his father.  He is sorry for his sin.  Sure, he doesn’t like the situation he is in, but the situation has served to help him realize his sin.  His situation serves notice to him and wakes him to the gravity of what he has really done.

Sometimes it’s good for bad things to happen, because bad things have a way of getting our attention. Sometimes we have to fall in order to bring us to our senses.  Some times people have to get to the bottom before they will look up.  When things are going great we don’t feel a need for God.  When our pockets are full and our friends are plenty we don’t give God a second thought.  While it was sin that led the son to leave the father, it is the CONSEQUENCE of his sin that drove him back. (As an aside let me say that I think that we have a new problem today in that many prodigals are staying in the pig slop and emailing Dad to send them some of their older brother’s money!)

This was not the case with the prodigal in Jesus’ parable though.  He did “come to” and he headed home.  The first step on the road back to God is not easy. It requires being humble enough to admit that we have blown it. The difficulty arises because we forget the mercy of God and the depth and strength of God’s love.

The younger son’s “coming to” was not merely the recognition of his miserable circumstances, or that his daddy’s servants were better off.  He now becomes the poster boy for self-examination.  He began to see the truth about himself.  Notice as the son rehearses his speech; his first confession is to God. There are no excuses.  He doesn’t try to pass the blame on bad luck, bad investments, or bad choices of friends.  He fully shoulders the blame and is willing to suffer the consequences from God and from his father. He arose and went home. 

It’s not enough to be sorry. He had to turn around and go home.  He had to risk rejection, to risk returning.  He now is the poster boy for repentance.

When he returns he can’t get the words of his repentance speech out before he is lavished with love from his father with hugs and kisses and a robe and a ring and shoes. 

The youngest son wasn’t the only prodigal in the story.  The father in the story was as prodigal, as squandering and recklessly extravagant with his forgiveness as the son was with his inheritance.  He wouldn’t stop giving, even in the face of rejection.  He held no grudge.  He was filled with sheer joy to see once again the son he loved enough to let go.  He let him go because to have him of his own free will was far better than having him against his will.

That’s the real point of Jesus’ parable.  No one is a hopeless case.  No one is so far gone that he or she can’t come back home again.  No situation is so dark that it cannot be used as “pig slop smelling salts” to bring those in the far country to their senses.  There is no such thing as “sweet smelling salts”.  To do their job, smelling salts have to stink!

The far country is not inhabited by only run away sons.   Maybe you didn’t have a loving earthly father or mother.  Maybe you never knew your earthly father or mother.  Whatever your relationship with your earthly parents, don’t make the mistake of letting their treatment of you keep you in the far country away from the God who does loves you so much.  Don’t let the disappointment of earthly parents keep you from knowing the love of your heavenly parent.

In reality, no earthly father is as forgiving as the father of Jesus’ parable.  Only God could be that forgiving.  And that’s precisely the point of the story.  Jesus isn’t telling this story to comfort and encourage his hearers that if they just pray their sons will come home again.  He is saying that we, we who are fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, we are the sons, and God is the father in the story.  God’s forgiveness is complete.  When we repent our sin is forgotten and we are restored to full membership in His family.

Verse 1 and 2 of the chapter tell us that this story was one of three stories that were told to Jesus opposition—the “holier than thou” guys. Jesus tells this story to make the goody two shoes realize that they are just as bad off as being knee deep in pig slop.  They are lost as a goose, and God is the loving father who loves them AND the tax collectors and the outcasts, and wants to forgive all of them and is ready to run to meet any of them when they are ready.  

To make his point, Jesus adds an epilogue encounter between the older brother and the father.  The loving father wasn’t through running to meet sons that day.   The older brother comes in from the fields and hears the party.  He asks what is going on and a servant tells him that his little brother is back and that his father has thrown a party for him.  He is so incensed that he refuses to go in the house.  And so the father leaves the porch for the second time that day.  He comes to his older son and hears these words,

“Look all these years I have worked for you like a slave, and I have never disobeyed your orders.  What have you given me?  Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends! But this son of yours (notice that, he won’t even acknowledge that he is a brother to this man) this son of yours wasted all your property on prostitutes and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him! 

The Father answered, My Son, you are always here with me and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be happy, because your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but how he has been found.

The older son represents those we call “good.” He reacts the way many good folks tend to react. Yet he refuses to forgive.  He is jealous and bitter about his Dad’s mercy.  It is evident that his devotion to his father has been motivated in part, by self-interest.  Because he is self-centered, he cannot forgive and forget the sin of his younger brother.  He even disowns his brother when he says, “This son of Yours.”

Luke does not give us the Pharisees reaction to the parables of Luke 15.  We don’t know if they “got it”, and changed their attitudes toward tax collectors and outcasts and prodigal little brothers. 

But as is the case in much of Jesus teaching, whether or not the original audience got it, one of the reasons it was written down was so that we could.  God is the horizon scanning father.  We are the sons. 

Some of us were lost because we willfully defied God and obstinately asked for our inheritance because we couldn’t wait to have our way and have our fun.  Some of us never left and were still lost, even though we couldn’t dream of thinking that we weren’t.

We once were lost, whether it was in the far country or the back forty, but now we’re found. No far country is too far for God.  No back forty is too close for God.  A return to relationship with God is always possible. 

If you know someone who is still lost, whether they are in the far country or the back forty, pray for them.  Pray that they will come to their senses and return to the Lord.  If you dare, pray that some dramatic circumstance will be their smelling salts to make them come to too!

Maybe the someone you suspect is lost is you.   Pray to the Lord.  Come to your senses.  That’s what senses are for–coming to them.  Turn around and head for home.  The Lord is on the porch, ready to run to meet you more than half way.  The Lord is on the porch ready to coax you out of your pout.  Whether you return from the far country like the younger brother or from the back forty like the older one, God is ready to be prodigally extravagant with grace and mercy.  The robes and rings and shoes are ready…There’s a Party awaiting all …..prodigals.

Almost all of Jesus’ parables have a surprising twist at the end.  For those of you who have read all the way to the end, here is a bonus post to hopefully add a little cheer to your day in this time of hunkering.

        Prodigals in F –by Paul Land and Jim Gill

1  .Feeling footloose, frisky, feather-brained fellow                                                                                      

Forced his fond father to fork over his fortune and fled. 

     Frittering his fortune, feasting fabulously with faithless friends

     Fleeced by folly-filled fellows, feeling fairly famished,

     Finally found flinging food in a filthy farmyard.             

     Fantisizing filling his frame with foraged food from fodder   

     fragments,

Finally, frankly facing facts, the

          Frustrated fugitive found forlornly fumbled fooey (fooooey)

          Father’s flunkies fare far finer          fumbled fooey (fooooey)

          Father’s flunkies fare far finer 

2.  Filled with frustrated failure, fear and foreboding,

     Fled forthwith to Fort Worth to his father for forgiveness

     Fell at his feet saying, “Father I have fruitlessly flopped

     Forfeiting family favors.”   But the

     Farsighted father, forestalled the flinching, frantically                              

     Flagged flunkies to fetch a fatling..

     For a feast is far finer than a fist from fault-finders                              

     For this fugitive is found..

          Finally frankly feeling festive ….the

          Forgiving father finagled a fiesta for family (faaamily) my

          Folly-filled fugitive in Finally free

          Finagled a fiesta for family (faaamily) my

          Folly-filled fugitive had found his future … with a

          Forgiving father.

Let’s pray.

Lord, help us to trust you.  Help us to have your ability to wait out those who have run to the far country.  Help us to be faithful in our prayers for them until they “come to their senses”.  Keep us from harboring the attitude of the religious goody two shoes that prompted these parables.  Give us arms that are wide open to all people. 

Through Christ you have granted your creatures the hope for new life… The old has passed away; behold the new has come.  We no longer fear the wilderness, or aimless wandering. Tempted by forces beyond our control you have sent us a Savior, who has passed through the wastelands and has borne our sins for us. 

You have opened the doors of your heaven and warmly embraced your returning children. Our feet are made light by your Spirit within us.  We can run and not grow weary. We can walk and not faint. 

Assured that you await our return from our ventures, we shall be bold while we journey in faith here on earth.  We shall strive to be your ambassadors of reconciliation. Help us to act for justice and reach out in compassion to neighbors so that we can join in the angel’s joy over those who repent and return.

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