"there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents." Lk.15:10
There’s More than One Way to Be Lost.
This morning we’re looking at the final story in this little trio of stories that Jesus told. In them he highlighted two matters of great importance: that of lostness and that of the joy that there is in heaven when what has been lost is found.
We’ve already looked at the first two stories in this little series: the first was about a man with a hundred sheep. He counted them up one day and found that one of them was missing so he went out on a mission to find it and when he did find it he came home rejoicing. The second story was about a woman who lost one of her collection of ten coins. It was so important to her that she turned her home upside down in order to find it. She, too, celebrated when she found her lost coin.
The final story is about a man who has two sons. The story begins with a description of the younger of the two boys. He lived a thoroughly dissolute and wayward life and we can easily see him as someone who has gone off the rails, as a man who has got himself lost. This boy is commonly known as "the prodigal son". The Cambrige English Dictionary gives the following definition of a prodigal son:
"a man or boy who has left his family in order to do something that the disapprove of and has now returned lt home feeling sorry for what he has done"
However as the story develops it becomes clear that the younger son, the prodigal son, is not the only son with problems, his elder brother has real problems too. Oh yes, he was outwardly so very different, he had never left home and he had never done any of the extravagant things his younger sibling had done, but he too was lost. Jesus, by means of this wonderful story, wants us to know that there are quite different ways of being
It is easy enough to look at the younger son and recognise his lostness. After all the description of his life is so stark and so dramatic and you might be tempted to look at your own life and say that your life hasn’t been as bad as his. And you may well be right: you may not have lived a life of hedonistic pleasure-seeking excess. But this parable tells us that there are more ways of being lost than this way chosen by the prodigal. Indeed if you do find yourself thinking that you are better than this waster then it might not be long before you start thinking that you’re somehow OK and that God owes you. And if you do who are you most like in this story? The elder son of the Father thought just like that and as we shall see he was lost in his own way too!
But the parable also tells us that there is a wonderful Father who is eager to receive the lost. The welcome he extends is generous, full and free. He rejoices and celebrates over the return of a previously lost son, over a son who was, to all intents and purposes, dead to him. Transformation is brought about as the lost is found and the dead lives.
I wonder if that is how you think about the Christian faith.
Many misunderstand the Christian faith and imagine that it is all about doing your duty and trying to be squeaky clean and somehow gaining sufficient brownie points that will stand us in good stead with God. But such a view, a view which was apparently held by the elder son, couldn’t be further from the truth!
The Christian faith is good news! It is not a call to smug self-righteous living but it does involve a call, and that call is a call to return home to a wonderful Father who will readily and enthusiastically welcome all who come to him through the Saviour he has sent: the Lord Jesus Christ who died in the place of sinners to secure the salvation we all need.
This parable is a further illustration that Jesus employed to help his hearers understand who God really is and how extraordinarily good he is to lost sinners. And that being the case let’s turn and look more closely at the parable. The parable is straightforward and easy enough to understand and so all I really want to do this morning is to draw out some of its implications for you and to help you to see that this is God’s word for you today.
The Father is the major character in Jesus’ story and he it is who is introduced to us first. He has two sons. And his sons let him down – both of them!
What a picture this is! God has made us and provided for us all and we have all let him down big-time. Some of us may have let him down openly and in a highly visible manner while others of us may have kept out failures well hidden behind a facade of outward appearances but just as Paul would later make clear in writing to the Christians in Rome:
Rom.3:23 "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,"
And this was no new truth for in the 8 th century BC the prophet Isaiah had already written:
Is.53:6 "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way;"
How exactly did the man’s younger son do this?
Well, he wanted to leave home – nothing inherently wrong with that – but he didn’t want to go pennyless and make his own way in the world. No, he wanted what was coming to him but he wasn’t prepared to wait. Effectively he said to his Father "Dad, I wish you were dead!"
With an amazing response his Father divides up the estate – he has his portion of the property.
And just a few days later he sells up and he’s away. No concern for the father he leaves behind, no thought about how the estate will fare now that a large part of it has been sold off He’s only thinking about himself and he couldn’t care less about the others.
Do you ever give a thought to the dishonour you’ve brought to your Creator in turning your back on him? Have you ever considered the ingratitude you’ve shown as you’ve acted as though there was no generous God in heaven who had already given you so many good things richly to enjoy?
But no this boy was off, he was determined to enjoy himself and he discovered that sin does indeed provide pleasure for a season, but oh how fleeting those pleasures can prove to be!
He went into a far country and there he spent what he had in reckless living. And friends there were too – at least until the money ran out and then somehow they ran out too. Having left a comfortable and secure situation he now found himself a long way from home and penniless as a famine occurred which made his own situation yet more unsafe.
He had to hire himself out as a day labourer – he knew the precarity of a zero hours contract hoping each day to be taken on again. And what a job it was! He was to care for pigs!! What kind of task was that for a Jew. Jesus wanted his hearers to know that this younger son really had hit rock bottom!
In fact he fell so low he longed to eat the food that was dished up to those pigs – but no-one gave him anything to eat.
He could of course have put the blame on "these others" who gave him nothing. We so often love to find someone, anyone, to blame rather than to face up to our own responsibilities. In difficult circumstances men and women blame their background, their parents, their bad luck, their education, the system – we’ll even prefer to blame God rather than face up to our own shortcomings, our sin.
Happily this man didn’t do that. If he had he might never have returned home and never enjoyed the welcome he did in fact receive. Are you still trying to find excuses for not returning home to God?
This man set to thinking. What a life he had secured for himself! What had happened to all his dreams? It certainly wasn’t to end up like this that he had left home. And he got to thinking wistfully about home – but how could he go back there after the way he treated his father?
And he turned it over and over in his mind; he finally came to himself, he now had a plan. No, he didn’t expect to be treated as a son again but all the servants in his father’s service did miles better than he was doing. He’d ask to be taken on as one of them. Yes, that’s what he would do. His reckless life had not brought him satisfaction but only despair. He would take himself back to his Father’s house. He had, as Jesus put it "come to his senses" at last. And he planned carefully what he would say when finally he met his father again.
Have you I wonder?
Here is the little speech that he carefully prepared and doubtless rehearsed over and over again as he made his way home:
vv.18-19 "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants."
Perhaps, perhaps he could convince his father if he spoke like this. Men and women doubting that God will accept them may sometimes react in the same way coming up with all kinds of schemes whereby they think they might render God more likely to accept them.
All that is unnecessary as the prodigal was soon to discover. Our God is no hard task master trying his best to be nasty and hateful towards us – nothing could be further from the truth. In reality we have great difficulty in realising just how good and kind he truly is.
Before he knocked at the door he had been spotted and it was his father who had spotted him. I wonder how many times the father had gone up onto the flat roof to scan the horizon hoping to see a form he recognised trudging up the road. We don’t know – but we do know that the father saw his returning son and was instantly moved with compassion towards him! It was the sight of his son and not his son’s cleverly prepared speech that moved the father – how ready he was to welcome his son home. How ready God is to extend a warm welcome to any sinner coming home.
And the father was off to meet his son. No waiting around on ceremony; no making this returning sinner grovel; the father is off and running to meet his wayward son.
Even today in the ME and many African countries you won’t see an important man running. The higher the status the slower the dignified pace. But not here! This father runs! What an amazing sight that must have been – the kids would have chased after him to witness this spectacle!
And he reached his son, who still probably smelled of pigsty, and flung his arms about him kissing him enthusiastically!
The boy was probably a bit overcome but he has been practising his speech and why wait any longer? So he begins:
v.21 "Father I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son."
Will his Dad make it difficult for him? Not a bit of it! In fact he won’t even let his son finish what he had been planning to say but instead addresses a series of orders to his servants:
New clothes – the best we’ve got
A ring for his finger
Sandals for his feet
Oh yes, and don’t forget to kill that fatted calf – we’re having a party! A welcome home party!!
Why all this fuss?
v.24 "For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.
And this is meant to be a picture of how God welcomes the returning, repenting sinner! What holds you back when this is the type of welcome that awaits you too?
Soon the celebrations are going full swing – everything is going so well... or is it?
The Elder Son
What rejoicing and how glad the father must have been but a cloud was about to cast its shadow over the whole proceedings.
The father’s elder son had been out in the fields working and now he was returning home but something was different – he could hear the sound of music and dancing, what was going on? He called to a servant for an explanation.
Quickly and simply the servant told him:
v.27 "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound."
His reaction to these words was the polar opposite to that of his father just a short while before. The father had been thrilled but the elder son was outraged! He was angry and refused to go in and join in the celebrations.
Although he had spent his entire life with his father he had not become like him in what mattered most, the heart. He might never have actually left home but his reaction now reveals that he was separated by a great gulf from his father. If the younger son had been lost in a far country the elder son was most definitely lost in his own self-righteousness at home.
The younger son had broken his father’s heart when he asked for his freedom and left the family home and now the elder brother was breaking it all over again as he reveals that behind the image of a dutiful and loyal son he harboured great resentment towards his father. The damn bursts and with no thoughts for his father’s feelings, out flow his complaints:
"All these years I’ve slaved for you and what have I got out of it?"
The elder son thought he deserved more, that he merited more – but he had no love for his father nor for his brother – what a self-righteous stay-at-home Pharisee he was!
And all the while the father is pleading with him too! The father would welcome him warmly too – but did the elder brother want to be welcomed in this gracious manner?
And at that point Jesus brought his story to an end – we’ll never know whether the elder brother "came to his senses" and realising how foolishly he had reacted changed his mind and accepted the father’s invitation to celebrate.
In a sense it doesn’t matter whether we know or not – after all it was just a story but a parable is a story with a spiritual meaning. And it does matter very much how you will respond to the invitation to come home to God!
You may have been lost in a far country and for a long time too, or you might be respectably lost as you attend a place of worship yet without sharing in any way in the heart of the God who is worshipped there. But the essential thing for all of us is to come to our senses and to come home. We may have messed up big-time but a welcome is assured if only we will come. We don’t have to earn our way back – Jesus has done all that is necessary in dying upon Calvary’s cross to settle our debts all of them. All we must do is to change our mind about Jesus, to stop rejecting him by trying to do things our way and we must trust him. And he promised to those who came to him in this way that he would welcome them, welcome each and every one!
Jn.6:37 "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out."
No, he won’t cast you out rather he’ll throw a party so that is there will be "joy before the angels of God" as another sinner repents; as another lost person is found and as another person who is spiritually dead is brought to life.
How wonderful to be a Christian!
And it is all God’s doing through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Come to Jesus Christ and live!
To God be the glory.