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The Greatest Prodigal of All

Series: Stories that Stick

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on Nov 22, 2015

Luke 15:20-32

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Please turn with me in your Bibles to the gospel of Luke, in chapter 15. You’ll find it on page 875 if you’re using a pew Bible. Just a quick note. Our senior minister, David Strain, is on vacation with his family this week so please be in prayer for them that they would be refreshed and that the Lord would bring them back safely. Before I pray, we’re going to pick up this parable right in the middle. The younger son, if you grew up around church or know what this parable is about, he’s squandered his inheritance; we’re going to pick it up as he comes back to his father. And before we read God’s Word, let us pray and ask His blessing upon it. Let’s pray.

Father, we desperately need divine illumination this morning. Our hearts are cold, our minds are distracted, and we have many cares which we have not expressed to other people which are silently eating away at us and we ask that all of that would be cleared away, like so much underbrush this morning, that the words that we just heard sung, the fire of Your grace, might freshly enter our souls. Would You do this for the glory of Jesus? For we pray humbly in His name, amen.

Luke chapter 15, beginning at verse 20. This is God’s inspired and therefore inerrant Word:

“And he (that is, the younger son) arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 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.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever. Amen.

Two Kinds of People

Let me ask you maybe a pointed question as we get started here this morning? Did what I just read infuriate you? Make you mad? If you were raised around church, if you’ve heard this a lot in Sunday school and from pulpits, we tend to think that the main reaction to this story by the original hearers would have been just being overcome by the amazing love and grace of God. And that is not without its merit here; that is certainly in view. We’re going to come back to that. But this parable here comes as a culmination of two parables that come before it, the total effect of which was to enrage those who heard it. In other words, these three parables, of which again, this is the third, were meant to rebuke the Pharisees. The key to interpreting what Jesus was getting at in these three parables and in the one before us this morning is right there in 15, verses 1 and 2. Let me read those very quickly. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled.” Two different kinds of people. The unrighteous folks - the sinners and tax collectors. And then the very righteous, very upright, according to their standards - Pharisees. And Jesus is telling a parable that includes both of them. And He culminates here with the parable of the prodigal son, again, to rebuke the Pharisees. And this is why, when you get to the end of this entire textual unit at the end of chapter 16, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, right after that is when the Pharisees really ratchet up their efforts to kill Jesus. In other words, the effect of this parable was not lost on them. Two kinds of people.

And what Jesus is going to do with this parable is show us two kinds of ways to relate to God and show us not simply a middle way between them but the better, the best, the Gospel way of what God is like. Just two headings as we look at these twelve verses before us this morning. First of all, God’s grace for the irreverent. God’s grace for the irreverent. And then in the second place, God’s grace for the reverent. God’s grace for the irreverent and God’s grace for the reverent.

I. God’s Grace for the Irreverent

Verse 20, “He came and arose to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Put yourself in this father’s shoes - if you’re a parent and your son is gone and you don’t know where he is. And there was probably a vantage point; this is a vast landholder. He’s got a vantage point where, maybe day by day, he’s gone up to look and he’s yearned to see through the rippling desert heat that shadowy, limping figure in the distance that would be his son. And day after day he stands and looks and day after day another sun sets with his expectations unfulfilled. And then on this day, he sees what he’s been looking for, for so long. He sees that figure coming through the desert heat! And what does he do? He runs to embrace him. Now before that, Jesus makes it a point to tell us that “he felt compassion.” And the word here is very interesting; it’s a very strong term. It quite literally means, “close to the gut.” In other words, he’s so excited to see his son that his stomach is turning. His stomach is churning inside him because he’s overwhelmed with joy. And then he runs.

A Father who Runs

And all of these details are significant, my friends. It’s interesting to note that when Arabic translators first came to translate the New Testament, they did not translate that term “ran.” They translated it as “hurried,” which is not at all what the Greek word means. And the question is, “Why would they do that?” Because to the Middle Eastern sensibilities, that was the better word because fathers like this, landholders, never ran. Women ran, children ran, slaves ran; a grown man who was a man of position in society never ran! And Jesus uses one of the strongest words. It’s used elsewhere to talk about an athletic footrace. So quite literally translated, “he sprinted to his son.” Ran as fast as he could. And when he sees his son, again Jesus uses very colorful language here, it says, “and he kissed him.” That’s a very, that’s a good translation but actually the way it reads is, “he was kissing and kissing and kissing.” He’s covering his son in affection. He’s going all out as he looks upon the son who he’s missed. Pure joy. That’s the reaction he has.

And you see, when you find something precious - parents, when you see your children, never mind them being gone, never mind not knowing where they are, but when you see them your heart swells up within you for them. You can’t help but kissing them. Watch a young mother with her child, or a young dad; they can’t help but kiss them. And you see, when this happens, all the social norms are gone, all the expectations of polite society are out the window because the dad doesn’t care! All that matters to his dad is his son’s back! He loves him. He wants to show him that affection that he has been yearning to show him for so long.

The Wasted Rehearsal

And the son had rehearsed a plan, hadn’t he? If you read back in the text he says, “I know what I’ll do. I go to my father and I’ll say to him, ‘I’ve sinned against heaven and against you. I’m not worthy to be called your son. Just let me be like a hired servant. Let me come back like that.’” And he begins his speech. And his father cuts him off. And this is astonishing on so many levels because what could this child have expected? According to Deuteronomy 21:21, at worst and well within the confines of God’s law, it would have been absolutely right, absolutely just for the father to gather the elders from the city and stone him to death. That would not have been unjust; that is what the law prescribed. They didn’t have to do it, but it’s what the law prescribed. That’s what he could have expected at the worst. At the best, at the very best, when he was rehearsing his plan he could have expected to be shunned from society, completely disinherited from his family, and absolutely have on friends, no social contact, nothing. He is expecting the bare minimum. He says, “If I can just get back and be like a slave.” And he begins his well-rehearsed speech. Imagine him walking through the desert thinking about it over and over again. “What’s dad going to say? What’s going to happen?”

And he starts, and the dad doesn’t even wait for him to finish. He interrupts him! And he says things that are, just again, jaw dropping. People’s jaws were on the ground listening to this. He says, “No, no, no! Bring the best robe! Bring that for him! Bring the robe that,” the word here denotes a robe that would have only been worn maybe once in a lifetime, maybe for a wedding feast - maybe the older brother’s wedding feast. “Bring that robe! Bring the ring!” What does that ring symbolize? It was the ancient equivalent of dad’s Visa Black Card - no spending limit! All the inheritance right there; every one of his father’s resources. He says, “Bring that ring! Put it on him!” But what meant the most to this son returning was not the ring or the robe; it was the shoes. For you see, in this society, only sons wore shoes. Slaves went barefoot. Servants went barefoot. Only sons wore shoes. And when he slipped that sandal on, it was a declaration to a watching world that, “This one is accepted fully and finally and without fail into this family once again.” Nothing spoke louder than the shoes! That’s what he was really excited about. And he says, “Bring the fattened calf!” What was this? This would probably have fed about three hundred people. Meat was scarce during these days. This would have been saved, again, for a wedding feast. You did this once in your lifetime. You raised this animal for the biggest event, for the wedding likely in this culture, of your firstborn son.

Grace for Younger-Brother Types

What is Jesus doing here? What picture is He painting for us? He is saying there’s a lot of younger brother types in this world and that may describe you here this morning. What’s a younger brother type? It’s everyone who’s tried to find peace and meaning through life by his or her own rules. They populate our cities and our colleges. It’s the folks who say to themselves, “You know, I’m done with this intolerant, Republican-ish, churchy religion thing. I’m going to do my own thing. I’m going to find my own way, and I’m going to live it up. I may have been raised in a small, southern town. I am done with that, I’m going to the city, and I’m going to live it up.” And those kind of people, Jesus says, are the kinds of people that He welcomes. The people who have tried the world and found it wanting. And what He’s saying, so loudly and clearly, what infuriated the religious types, is this:  “No matter what you’ve done, no matter how far you’ve gone, no matter how far you feel like you’re outside the reach of God’s grace” - and for some of you that’s going to land this morning. You have sins that you’ve never told anybody about, that you’ve never expressed to anybody, and they may be eating you up for years, months, or even decades. And what Jesus says to those who are burdened by sins, He looks us in the eye, as it were in this text and says, “Nobody’s outside My reach. Nobody’s beyond the pail of grace. Nobody sins so much that His nail pierced hands cannot reach down to their depths and rescue them.” That’s what He’s saying. That’s why, ironically, it enraged them. That’s grace for the irreverent.

II. Grace for the Reverent

In the second place, Jesus shows us grace for the reverent because the older son does something here too that was unheard of. All of the details here are calculated, again, to shock and awe the hearers. Look with me there at verse 25. “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And they said to him,” verse 27, “’Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him.” Now again, if their jaws were on the ground by this point, Jesus ratchets it up one more time. If the father has blown all expectations culturally by now, it goes further. Another arrogant, unheard of, totally foreign thing to do would have been for a son to refuse to go into a father’s banquet. That was also punishable by high social penalties. He should have gone right in. That was the cultural expectation. And notice what Jesus says in both cases - Who goes out after them? Who does the seeking? And that’s all these parables that precede it as well. What’s He saying to us? God is not like you think He is in how He deals with people. He’s vastly, vastly more gracious than you can possibly imagine. He goes after those who don’t want Him. That’s what He’s doing with the older brother right here, and again Jesus uses a colorful verb here when it says, “pleading.” It’s that tense again where it’s pleading and pleading, entreating his son. “Son, please come in. Please, please don’t do this. Please don’t miss out on this party.” Pleading with his son to come in.

The Older-Brother Types

Who are the older brothers here? They’re the Pharisees. He is looking right at them saying, “This is you.” And it represents anybody in our world today who has tried to find peace through religiosity. You look nice; you keep up the act. “How are you doing?” “Fine!” “How’s your family?” “Great!” “How’s life?” “Awesome!” And inside, turmoil, depression, hidden in the shadows of unconfessed sin, addiction, maybe even confessed sin. Again and again. Keeping up appearances, going through the motions, looking nice on Sunday morning - totally far from God. Nobody was more righteous than the Pharisees. All the laws, 660 plus of them, they said, “We’ll try them. We’ll try to keep them. We’ll do all that the world says religious people should do,” and that’s who Jesus is talking to when He describes the older brother.

But notice again how he blows our expectations away. The older brother refuses to come in and look at what he says. He’s so disrespectful. Normally in this culture, again, you’d say all kinds of flowery language, “O father, lovely one, you’re wonderful.” No, what does he say? “Look, hey you, I’ve served you all these years and this is the thanks I get? That you take what it mine and give it to him, the one who squandered it all on the worst kind of living? What kind of father are you?” That’s what he’s saying to him.

Do You Think He Owes You?

And you see, that’s how we can begin to look at God, isn’t it? And here’s the simple test to find out whether you’re standing with this older brother or not. And you may find yourself slipping into this. In fact, let me put it this way. Our default is to slip into this. Do you serve God because of who He is and all He is for us in Christ, or do you serve Him because of what you think He owes you? That language of, “You owe me something” is all over the older brother’s reply, isn’t it? “I’ve done all this. I’ve put in the right coins. Why isn’t the divine vending machine working? I’ve come to church. I’ve given tithes, given above the tithes. I’ve read the Bible. I’ve prayed. I’ve had my quiet times. Why don’t I feel close to Him? Why do bad things keep happening? Why is my life falling apart? Why doesn’t my spouse talk to me? Why don’t my kids obey? Why am I still single after all these years? You aren’t doing a very good job, God.” We may not articulate that, but it’s right beneath the surface, isn’t it?

And you see, once again here Jesus wants to bring the character of the Father to the forefront. He says to his son, “I’ve always had this. All of it’s yours. All you had to do was ask but you didn’t know me. You didn’t know my character. You didn’t understand what I was like so you never asked.” And that’s how it always happens with very self-righteous, upright, religious types. They think God is stingy, they think God is distant, and they think He’s pretty much, He loves them but doesn’t really like them. Is that how you feel about God? “He loves me. ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ Sing it, believe it, love it, hear what you’re saying but I don’t think He likes me very much. I don’t enjoy His presence. I don’t enjoy the communion that I hear other Christians talking about.” And you see what Jesus wants to do here this morning, what He says to the Pharisees, what He says to us is, “The Father is so different than what you think He is. God is so different than what you think He is.” His heart, as it were, His expression, His yearning is for sinners of the reverent or irreverent type. He goes out after them. He seeks them. They are the ones whom He burns for! They are the ones that He says to them, “Welcome home!” And He says implicitly to the Pharisees, “You’ve missed that.” And it says that to all religious types today.

If you’re not a Christian here this morning, welcome. Thank you for being here. But let me say this. Don’t think Christianity is simply another religious option on the smorgasbord of ideas for you to try on and it’s kind of like Buddhism or Hinduism - it may or may not work out. The Gospel is totally different than anything that’s ever been written, preached, talked about, ever. It’s from God. It’s totally different. That’s Jesus point here. And He wants to show us that way to relate to God. He says, “There’s two ways most people go; I want to show you a better way.”

The Gospel for Ted Bundy?

And the last thing the father says is, “It’s fitting,” fitting to celebrate and be glad. Let me try to bring that home. The last interview Ted Bundy gave; some of y’all remember him - serial killer, by conservative estimates took thirty-five lives, the last of which, this is very difficult to mention, was a young girl. Right before he died he only allowed one interview, to James Dobson of Focus on the Family. And about a year before he’d come to faith. And by all account from Dr. Dobson’s interview with him and prison guards and everybody working with him it was a genuine, not kind of a deathbed confession, but a genuine conversion to Christ. The hardest thing for me reading that was, “Does my view of God have room for Ted Bundy in heaven, that he gets the same thing I do? He gets the same pardon?” And I will tell you, that was a hard, hard time thinking about that. That’s what Jesus has done here to us. That’s how He has wrecked our conventional views of God.

Which Son are You?

What do we do about it? I’ll say a couple of things here in closing. First, a question for you this morning, for me. Which son are we? We might go back and forth between them at different points in our lives. Maybe you’re the younger son type. Maybe you’re home for Thanksgiving, maybe you’re going to be coming home and if you’re watching this, and you think to yourself, “You know what, I’m so done with that kind of stuff that that guy’s talking about. I’ve got the rainbow sticker slapped on my car, I don’t eat meat, I’m progressive, I’m tolerant, I’m done with those churchy people. And I don’t know how I ever was blinded by that Christianity thing.” Don’t you see you’re just as self-righteous as the Pharisees? You’ve self-righteous in trying to be un-self-righteous. And that’s because what you’re trying to do when we’re going after these personal freedom quests, the end of which is always what - what happens when we do that? We find ourselves enslaved. The treasures and pleasures of the world which promise so much end up enslaving us, taking us captive, and we end up a cliché. How many more personal freedom quests do we need to go on before we realize that the only way to find freedom is when we submit ourselves by God’s grace to the easy yoke of Jesus? That’s the only way to find freedom, ironically, is to say, “I need an authority like Jesus who will die for me because nobody else does that.”

Maybe you’re an older brother type. You come here, thank you. You look nice. Everybody, on all outward appearances, things are great. And inside, again, it’s falling apart. And you’ve got no one to talk to and you wonder what’s going to happen. You wonder how it’s all going to work out and you feel distant  from God, you feel like your prayers maybe, maybe get to the ceiling but probably not beyond that. And you say, “I’ve done all this God. Where are You? Where’s the passion? Where’s the electricity? Why does my life feel so empty?” And what Jesus says to those of us who are there is, He says, “The only way to get out of this mindset is to move from trying to relate to God according to your religious rules to reception of God’s grace, from religion to reception, to receiving all that He is for you in Christ. That’s the way out of that.” That’s what He says to all of us who’ve, for so long, depended on how we perform to experience God’s presence with us. He says, “No, the only way is through grace.”

And that’s where this leaves us this morning, isn’t it? My friends, do you know what the greatest joy for a preacher of the Gospel is? It’s to look at each one of you and say, “I come with no message of ‘Do! Do! Do!” to be accepted to God.” We come with one and but one message only - “Done! Done! Done in the cross of Jesus Christ!” One is every other religion and worldview, the first one. The other is the Gospel and it turns our world’s upside-down. That’s the love that Jesus is talking about with the Father this morning. It’s a seeking and finding love. It’s a love for the reverent and the irreverent. It’s a love for all of those who’ve tried everything else and found themselves empty or dull or depressed or apart from God and it shouts at us in the loudest of voices, “This is what God is like! This is the love He has! Come and drink deeply!” That’s where Jesus leaves us.

And I think it’s captured well by a scene, this astonishing love of God, from a book by Alexander McCall Smith. He wrote a series of books on a lady’s detective agency in Africa. This is from “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.” And in this story there is a school teacher in Botswana who has a child kidnapped. And he fears he will never see his son again. And yet the lady detective turns up many days later at this teacher’s house and here’s how the author describes the scene, and I think it captures what Jesus was after this morning. He writes, “The school teacher looked out of the window of his house and saw a small white van draw up outside. He saw the woman get out and look at his door and the child, the child, what about the child in the car? Was she a parent who was bringing her child to him for some reason? He went outside and found her at the low wall of his yard. ‘You are the teacher, sir?’ she asked. ‘I am the teacher, ma’am,’ he replied. ‘Can I do anything for you?’ She turned to the van and signaled to the child within. The door opened and his son came out and the teacher cried out and ran forward and stopped to look at the detective as if for confirmation. She nodded, and he ran forward again, almost stumbling, an unlaced shoe coming off, to seize his son and hold him while he shouted wildly, incoherently, for the village and the world to hear his joy.”

Let us pray.

Father, we thank You for Your Word. We thank You that the one who told this parable to us was the Son who was killed for us that we might have pardon and forgiveness only through His blood. Would You rearrange our views of You today? Would You show us more and more of Yourself and how much You love us? We ask all these things in Jesus’ name, amen.

©2015 First Presbyterian Church.

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