THE PRODIGAL FATHER (Part 2 – Luke 15:11-32)

Suppose a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or mother, even though they discipline him. In such a case, the father and mother must take the son to the elders as they hold court at the town gate. The parents must say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious and refuses to obey. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town must stone him to death. In this way, you will purge this evil from among you, and all Israel will hear about it and be afraid. [Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (NLT)]

When the boy we know as “the prodigal son” comes to his senses and returns home, Jesus never says he was repentant; He says the boy was hungry! Moreover, while he knows he’s not worthy to be treated as a son, the boy doesn’t ask to be taken on as a slave; he boldly plans on asking to be hired as a paid servant. Those hearing the story probably were sure the boy was about to be properly punished but Jesus defied convention again. When the father sees his returning son, he runs to him with abandon. Again, cultural norms were flouted. Because running required a man to lift his garment and expose his bare legs, it was considered improper and undignified for a grown man to run. Perhaps Jesus’s listeners excused the man’s unseemly behavior because they thought he was in a rush to rebuke his boy. Expecting him to perform a kezazah ceremony (a shunning ritual in which he’d break a pot and yell that his son was cut off from his people forever), the father breaks all of society’s rules and embraces his boy.

The father doesn’t even allow his son to offer himself as a servant; instead, he restores him into his family and calls for the best robe, a ring, and shoes for the boy. We might overlook the significance of these gifts but Jesus’s audience wouldn’t. By calling for shoes, it’s clear the boy is reinstated into the family; masters and their sons wore shoes but servants and slaves didn’t! By covering his son’s swine filth with his best robe, he’s honoring the boy and, since the ring probably had the family crest on it, he’s returning his son to a position of authority. To further establish the boy’s restoration into the family, his father calls for the butchering of the fatted calf. This wasn’t to be a quiet family dinner; a “fatted calf” was saved for a major celebration like a wedding. Treating his son like a dignitary, there was to be a feast for the entire village. Today, this would be like welcoming back a renegade son with open arms, and giving him your Rolex, your power of attorney, a seat on the company’s board of directors, hosting a huge bash at the Country Club, and posting the pictures on social media. The father’s behavior was inexplicable and Jesus’s audience had to have been astonished. Where was the expected condemnation and punishment?

Then we get to the older brother. Again, because we’ve become accustomed to poor manners and insolence in our society, we don’t realize how unacceptable his behavior is. By defiantly refusing to attend the festivities, he snubs his father and family in much the same way his younger brother had. He further disrespects his father by telling a servant to fetch him and making his father come to him. A host leaving a feast was an insult to his guests and a father going to his son rather than requiring his son to come to him was another shocking break with propriety. Then, rather than address his father respectfully, the boy insolently launches into his tirade and further distances himself from the family by referring to his sibling not as “my brother” but as “this son of yours.” Rather than harshly castigate the boy as would be expected, his father lovingly addresses him as teknon (meaning “dearly beloved son”) rather than the more commonly used huios which is used for “son” throughout the rest of the story. Reassuring his belligerent child that he’s not lost his place and that everything he has belongs to the boy, the father lovingly tells him the more important thing is to celebrate his brother’s return.

From the beginning to the end of this parable, Jesus’s listeners would have gasped in unbelief and dismay at the appalling behavior displayed by both father and sons. Like the older brother, they couldn’t understand reconciliation without punishment!

When we put this parable in the context of the times, a far better title than “The Prodigal Son” is the “The Prodigal Father.” While “prodigal” can mean wasteful and reckless, it also means generous, giving on a lavish scale, kindhearted and magnanimous—making it the perfect adjective for the father. By seeing the father’s deep wide love for his children through the eyes of a first century Jew, we truly appreciate the depth of God’s love for us. Indeed, He is our prodigal Father—generous beyond belief in mercy, love and forgiveness. Are we as prodigal with our love and forgiveness as God is with His?

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. [Ephesians 3:18 (NLT)]

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. [Romans 5:8-9 (NLT)]

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THE PRODIGAL SON (Part 1 – Luke 15:11-32)

To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, lest you change your mind and must ask for it. While you are still alive and have breath in you, do not let any one take your place. … At the time when you end the days of your life, in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance. [Sirach 33:19-20,23 (RSVCE)]

If one assign in writing his estate to his son to become his after his death, the father cannot sell it since it is conveyed to his son, and the son cannot sell it because it is under the father’s control. [Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra viii.7)]

great blue heronThrough His parables, Jesus related profound spiritual truths in stories that were easily understood and relevant to his listeners. Although Jesus’s original audience often didn’t like His message, they clearly knew what He was saying. Because of the vast cultural differences between our world and 1st century Palestine, I’m not sure we fully appreciate the impact His parables had on the people who first heard them.

Nowadays, it’s not unusual to come across indulgent fathers and pleasure-seeking, selfish, and rude children but, when Jesus told the parable known as “The Prodigal Son,” honor and respect for one’s parents were of paramount importance as were the dignity and absolute authority of the patriarch of the family. Jesus’s listeners must have gasped in horror and unbelief when they heard Him describe behavior by both father and sons that defied acceptable conduct and cultural norms.

Although some fathers at that time might distribute their estates prior to death, they would continue to receive the income while their sons managed it. What is extraordinary in Jesus’s parable is that, by brashly demanding his inheritance, the younger son really is telling his father, “I wish you were dead so I could get on with my life!” Although the expected response would be to slap the boy and immediately disinherit him, the father does as his boy asks. When we read that the son “gathered together” his things, we think of it as packing up his belongings. The Greek word used, however, was sunago which, in this context means the son turned his inheritance into cash. Although preserving family property was of utmost importance to the Jews, the boy blatantly defies the Talmud by selling his share of the estate (thus depriving his father of its income). Since he leaves home within a few days, the implication is that he didn’t even try to get top dollar for the land.

By then squandering his entire inheritance, the son shows contempt for all that his father accomplished over the years. As if the story weren’t shocking enough, he compounds his sin and further dishonors his father by moving to a distant country (meaning Gentile land) and eating with pigs. Picture a son demanding part of his father’s business, selling it at a loss to a competitor, quickly squandering his money in wild living, and then going off to join the Taliban and you get a vague idea of how astonished Jesus’s audience might have been by this story. While the behavior of the father was baffling, the behavior of his son was absolutely unforgivable!

Both the Torah and Talmud were quite clear about one’s behavior toward parents and you can be sure Jesus’s listeners knew how this story was supposed to end. Jesus, however, had a way of turning people’s expectations upside down. This was the rabbi who spoke of the first being the last, praying for one’s enemies, walking by faith rather than sight, turning the other cheek, being weak to become strong, leading by serving, giving to receive, and losing your life to save it. If His audience was shocked at how the parable began, they were probably scandalized at how it finished.

“Cursed is anyone who dishonors father or mother.” And all the people will reply, “Amen.” [Deuteronomy 27:16 (NLT)]

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FINAL DESTINATION

I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, “Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.” And do you know what I am going to say? “You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.” [Matthew 7:22-23 (MSG)]

While speaking of salvation, our pastor suggested that there are four kinds of people we might find in any church. While sure of their salvation, the people in the first group are not secure in it. It’s not that they’ve lost their salvation; they never had it! Often called nominal or cultural Christians, their faith is in religion rather than Jesus and they mistake sitting in a church pew for having a relationship with God. Thinking they can purchase their ticket on the glory train with money or works, Christianity is an insurance policy for the hereafter rather than anything affecting heart or soul. They don’t understand that looking like a Christ follower, even with impressive God talk and charitable acts, isn’t the same as being one. There is a vast difference between true faith and false professions.

The second group is made up of people who know that, because they don’t believe, they’re not saved. They know about Jesus and believe He existed but they neither believe nor disbelieve that Jesus is the Son of God and sacrificed His life in atonement for their sins. Because they’re unsure about God and Jesus and unwilling to commit to Christ, they’re not secure in their salvation. These fence sitters, however, have an advantage over the first group; at least they won’t be surprised on Judgment Day!

Although secure in their salvation, the third group remains unsure of it. Unable to be sinless and perfectly obedient, they doubt their salvation. There’s a lurking fear that, if they fail or disappoint God, He won’t welcome them through those Pearly Gates. Wondering how their sins truly can be forgiven, they can’t get their heads around God’s amazing grace. At times, I think even the firmest believer has moments of insecurity when we fear God’s power, wrath and rejection. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives strengthens and reassures them. In spite of their fears, Jesus will know them when the time comes.

The fourth group is both sure of their salvation and secure in it; they know that Jesus has put their names on His guest list. This group, however, must be cautious. There’s another group equally sure of their salvation who Jesus won’t know when they come to the Heavenly Gate.

While we can be wrong about going to San Francisco or Paris, we don’t want to be wrong about our eternal destination. Missing the train to Chicago isn’t the same as missing the glory train to Heaven! Which group are you in? Will Jesus know your name?

Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile. [Billy Sunday]

God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him! [Romans 8:16-17 (MSG)]

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DO YOU HAVE HIS SHOES?

Never walk away from someone who deserves help; your hand is God’s hand for that person. Don’t tell your neighbor “Maybe some other time” or “Try me tomorrow” when the money’s right there in your pocket. [Proverbs 3:27-28 (MSG)]

deer - young buckYesterday, I wrote about finding the 1967 church program from the day my in-laws joined their church. The mimeographed bulletin insert for that day included a story about a little boy, barefoot and dressed in rags, who was walking home from church. A neighbor fellow asked where he’d been and, when the boy said he’d been at church, the man asked what he’d learned there. The boy joyfully replied, “Jesus loves me!” The fellow responded disdainfully, “If Jesus loves you so much, why didn’t he tell somebody to give you some decent clothes and a pair of shoes?” The boy confidently answered, “Jesus did tell someone, but I think they forgot!”

This story reminded me of one I heard recently about a well-known pastor. The gentleman was invited to speak at a Christian women’s conference at a large wealthy church. Before the program began, the event’s chairwoman read a letter from a Venezuelan missionary expressing an urgent need for $4,000. She then asked the visiting pastor to open the conference with a prayer that God would provide the resources to meet the mission’s needs. The man surprised everyone by denying her request. Explaining that he believed God had already provided the money, he added that he was going to place all the cash he had in his pocket on a table and invited the women to do the same thing.

Confused, the chairwoman finally said she saw his point; of course, they all need to give sacrificially. “No!” he said, adding that he was trying to teach them that God had already provided for the mission. Putting the $15 from his pocket on the table, he looked at the chairwoman expectantly. Reluctantly, she opened her purse and added her cash to his. One by one, the other women opened their purses and brought their money to the table. When it all was counted, more than $4,000 had been collected. The pastor explained: “Now, here’s the lesson. God always supplies for our needs and he supplied for this missionary, too. The only problem was that we were keeping it for ourselves. Now let’s pray and thank God for His provision.”

When we become members of the Church, we become the mouth, hands, and feet of Jesus and should be doing the things that Jesus would do if He were here physically on the earth. As members of His body, do we honor our commitment to be the conduit of God’s blessings to His children? Could we be holding the answer to someone’s prayers right in our hands? Could we have forgotten to give a little boy his clothes and shoes? Or weren’t we listening when Jesus spoke to us?

“I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?” Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:35-10 (MSG)]

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THE PARDON

The payment for sin is death. But God gives us the free gift of life forever in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:23 (NCV)]

Blessed are they whose sins are forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned. [Romans 4:7 (NCV)]

Storm Peak - SteamboatTo impress their students with the importance of commas, English teachers often tell an unsubstantiated story about Maria Fyodorovna, the wife of Tsar Alexander III of Russia. Alexander, a harsh and repressive ruler, had exiled a suspected anarchist to imprisonment and death by writing these words on his warrant: “Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.” Coming across the document, the Tsarina seized the opportunity to save the life of an unknown prisoner and quickly scratched out the comma. She re-inserted it so that the warrant read: “Pardon, impossible to send to Siberia.” With the comma’s transposition, the prisoner’s death warrant became his pardon.

The story gives us no reason to think the prisoner was innocent; rather than saving an innocent man, the Tsarina merely chose to act mercifully toward a guilty one. Unlike the Russian prisoner, we’re probably not anarchists or thieves but every one of us is a sinner and we all fall short of God’s standard of perfect righteousness. Whether it’s lying, envy, immorality, greed, pride, self-centeredness, anger, rebellion against God or our indifference to Him, like the Tsar’s prisoner, we are condemned because of our guilt. Because the wages of sin are death, we deserve death as much as that man probably deserved being sent to the unrelenting misery of Siberia.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, described his four years of exile in Siberia as being in a “house of the living dead,” a place of “inexpressible, unending suffering.” Rather than serve our sentence in the brutal conditions of a Russian slave labor camp, Jesus served our sentence on Calvary. By dying on the cross, He took the punishment we all deserve. With His one act, He moved the comma on our death warrants and paid the penalty for the entire world for all time. Like the Russian prisoner, we haven’t earned mercy or forgiveness and we certainly don’t deserve a pardon. Nevertheless, rather than a comma written in ink, our pardon was written in the blood of Jesus when He sacrificed Himself on the cross.

Thank you, Jesus!

It is not good for us to trust in our merits, in our virtues or our righteousness; but only in God’s free pardon, as given us through faith in Jesus Christ. [John Wycliffe]

Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard, and all need to be made right with God by his grace, which is a free gift. They need to be made free from sin through Jesus Christ. God sent him to die in our place to take away our sins. We receive forgiveness through faith in the blood of Jesus’ death. [Romans 3:23-25a (NCV)]

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WHOSE ARE YOU?

You go before me and follow me, You place your hand of blessings on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand. [Psalm 139:5-6 (NLT)]

lion - tanzaniaI started Sunday morning with Psalm 139—a beautiful reminder that God was with us at our conception, is with us now, and will be with us at our end. “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous,” read the psalm. Those words reminded me of Joey. Chinese by birth, born without hands, and abandoned by his mother, he was adopted by an American family. In spite of his many visible and hidden challenges, Joey was a cheerful little guy until entering junior high school, encountering bullies, and asking the inevitable questions that come with adolescence. In spite of being part of a loving family, he feels he failed the birth family who discarded him like a piece of trash and, rather than feeling wonderfully made, Joey asks why God made him the way He did.

Scripture reading was followed by the newspaper where I found an interesting advice column. The writer has both birth and adopted daughters but her birth daughter refuses to allow her children to call her sister “aunt” because she’s not really “family.” In response, the psychologist noted that there are some deep seated jealousy issues in the girls’ relationship and pointed out that legally both girls have the same standing. He then added an interesting argument to show the absurdity of the birth daughter’s position. The adopted daughter could actually say she was more of a daughter than her sister because their parents deliberately chose her and had to go through a long involved process to get her. The other sister’s conception took but a few minutes and even may have been an accident! While I don’t think that argument will improve the girls’ relationship, he had an interesting point about adoption; it is a deliberate act of love!

In a strange juxtaposition, Sunday’s sermon was part of a series, “Faith at the Movies,” and The Lion King was the subject. Until Rafiki confronted him, the lion Simba forgot who he was—the son of the king—and that his father lived in him. Like Simba, we are the King’s children; He adopted us when we accepted Jesus. Just as Simba’s father was in him, our Father lives in us.

Our Heavenly Father was there when we were but a gleam in our birth fathers’ eyes. As the psalmist wrote, He made “all the delicate, inner parts” of our bodies as He knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. Joey may appear flawed by human standards but he is perfectly made by God’s standards. When Simba saw his reflection in the water, he saw his father and Rafiki assured him, “He lives in you.” Joey and his family are working with counselors but, to truly heal, Joey will have to see the face of his Father, the King, when he sees his reflection. He will have to see his worth in being the adopted child of God and believe that God’s spirit lives in him.

Rafiki asks Simba, ”Who are you?” and Sunday’s sermon asked us the same question. Like Simba, we often forget that it’s not our circumstances that characterize us. Our sex, appearance, family, heritage, profession, assets, shortcomings, accomplishments, failures, and even our sins do not define us. It’s not what we are but whose we are that gives us value and worth. Because God adopted us into His family, first and foremost, we are children of the King.

Child of God, you cost Christ too much for him to forget you. [Charles Spurgeon]

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” [Romans 8:15 (NLT)]

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3:26 (NLT)]

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