by Chris Ritter

I ran across a post by Carey Nieuwhof this past week that I had to stop and read.  He asks, “Why do we hate each other so much?”  He notes that anger, in our culture, is the new epidemic.  It is a parasite just waiting to hook onto its next host. The voices of outrage get magnified on social media. And we are more aggressive when we are not dealing with other face-to-face. Hate generates more clicks than love. Anger gets you heard… even if you don’t have anything good to say.

Another factor is that we receive so much information that we really can’t do anything about.  And that makes us cynical.  Carey notes “your great-great-grandparents really only processed the information they needed to know and could act on. You only knew so many people, and when someone died, you knew them and could help by bringing the family food, attending the funeral and being part of the community that could support them.”  We get all this bad news and we don’t have a constructive outlet for it.

If we are not careful, we start to see other people as the enemy.  We organize the world into THEM and US.  We are good, and they are evil.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. 

There was no one who drew lines of THEM/US quite like the Pharisees. And there was no one who disrupted those categories as much as Jesus. Luke 15 begins with a question: “If Jesus is a Holy Man, why does he spend time with unholy people?” Today we study Jesus’ response.

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Luke 15 (NIV)

We conclude our look at Jesus’ parables in Luke with one of the greatest stories of all time. The Bible will always be relevant because it is about relationships. And the Prodigal Son is filled with such pathos and energy. No wonder it has inspired, song-writers, playwrights, and artists over the centuries and right up to the present day.

The Pharisees are wondering in Luke 15:1 why a holy man would spend time with unholy people. After all, folks were coming to listen to Jesus that would never darken the doorstep of their synagogues. In response to their question, Jesus tells three stories.

The first is of a shepherd with a hundred sheep. One wanders away and becomes lost. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the open field and goes to find the wayward sheep. When he comes back, he calls his shepherd friends together and they have a celebration. Jesus says there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents that ninety-nine who feel like they need no repentance.

Next Jesus tells the story of a woman with ten coins. She loses one, so she turns her house upside down to find it. When she finally locates what was missing she called her friends in to celebrate with her. Jesus says that there is joy among the angels of heaven when one sinner repents.

Do you notice the common themes in these two stories: Lost/Found/Celebration. Lost people matter to God. As a church, we are reminded what a “win” looks like. When someone far away from God is returned to him, we have found the very heartbeat of heaven.

In the third story, the Lost Son, Jesus expands on this theme by writing the Pharisees into the story.

There was a man with two sons. The younger son came to him and said, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” This was a shockingly offensive request. It is the equivalent of, “Why don’t you hurry up and die, old man?” He does not want relationship with his father, he only wants his cut of the wealth. As the younger son, he would not have been entitled to half, but he would have been entitled to a good share. The father, surprisingly, honors the request.

The son takes off for a far country. He obviously wants to get as far away from home as possible. I graduates from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale with my undergraduate degree. Carbondale was full of students from Chicago. Why? It was as far away from home they could get without paying out-of-state tuition. SIUC made the list of the top party schools in the nation. There was no shortage of prodigals.

When you are a young man with a bag of money, friends are easy to come by. There are always people willing to help you spend your money. But Proverbs 23:5 says that money has the habit of making wings for itself and flying away. The money was spent on wild living… and then a famine hit the land. The son experienced something for the very first time: He was in want. He had never known hunger in his father’s house. Now he was desperate… so desperate the he hired himself out to feed hogs. I live in Henry County, the hog capital of Illinois. We see nothing wrong with this. But for a Jewish boy this was rock bottom. The pods that the pigs ate began to look good to him.

Everyone has to find their own turning point. This was it for the young man in Jesus’ story. He reasoned that he father’s servants had a better life than the one he was living. He knew he has burned his bridges back home, but decided to go and beg for a place as a servant. He left for selfish reasons, now he would return for selfish reasons. One the long road home he practiced he speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Please make me like one of your hired servants.” He would go before the man of the manor, his father, and plead for mercy.

While he was still afar off, his father saw him coming. Jesus says the father ran to his son. That was high unusual. Men didn’t run in this culture. It was considered undignified. But the father falls on his son’s dirty neck and kisses him. As the son tries to get out his practiced speech, the father interrupts with orders to those standing around him. “Bring a robe and put it on his back. Bring a ring and put it on his finger. Put shoes on his feet. Kill the fattened calf. For this son of mine was dead and is now alive. He was lost, and now he is found.”

They began to celebrate. Remember the pattern? Lost/Found/Celebration.

But Jesus continues this story a bit further. The older brother comes in from the field, hears the music, smells the meat roasting, and asks everyone what is going on. The answer came: “Your brother has returned and your father has killed the fattened calf for him.” The older brother was offended and refused to go in.

Just as the father came out to greet his younger son, he left the party to speak to his older son and encourage him to come in. The older brother said: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’”

Did you hear that?: “This son of yours.” He does not claim him as his brother.

I once knew a man named Harry who was very honest and told me that this story was his least favorite in the Bible. What we reward in life, he said, gets repeated. He agreed with the older brother. It was not appropriate to celebrate a son who made so many mistakes. But there is more here. The older brother obviously resents that more fuss was not made over his faithfulness. If anyone deserved a party, it was him. The father corrects his older son by saying that the whole estate, not just a young goat, belongs to him. He was a son, but had the mindset of a slave.

John Wesley had a key spiritual experience on May 24, 1738. He was fresh back from a disastrous trip to America where he intended to convert the Indians. But he realized during that journey that he was really without personal, life-sustaining faith. A Moravian friend convinced him in the doctrine of conversion, but he knew he didn’t have it. He decided to quit preaching until he did. His friend advised him, however, to “preach faith until you have faith.” Wesley wrote in his journal that he went very unwillingly to a meeting on Aldergate Street. Someone was reading from Martin Luther’s Preface to the Book of Romans. At some point, Wesley found his heart, “strangely warmed” and an assurance was given to him that he belonged to Christ.

Methodist theologians have debated ever since about the nature of Wesley’s experience. Was it conversion? Assurance? The infilling of the Holy Spirit? Wesley himself described it this way: He went from the faith of a slave to the faith of a son.

It is possible to be a beloved child of God and live as a slave, instead. We forget that Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” It is also possible to live in the Father’s House without the Father’s Heart. That was the older son. That was the Pharisees.

This is a problem particular to religious folks. We feel entitled to God’s favor because of our labors. We forget that we live in God’s grace no less than those who have made a shipwreck of their lives.

If you are a prodigal today, I want you to know that God is not waiting for you to make restitution for your sins. That has already been accomplished on the Cross. God is not waiting for you to clean yourself up or straighten yourself out. He is only waiting for you to come. You will find a royal welcome, a banquet of grace beyond your imagination. That is the kind of God we serve.

Sometimes this parable is called the Two Lost Sons. But I like to think of it as the Parable of God’s Heart.

My desire is that we be a Luke 15 Church. We pray for prodigals, prodding them to come home. I hope that when they come through the doors of our church that we reflect God’s shockingly generous love and grace. There is nothing that makes Heaven happier than a freshly redeemed soul.