4th Sunday in Lent
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, who came to seek and to save the lost, dear friends in Christ, Do you know what a “plot twist” is? It’s a key device that every film writer, movie writer, show writer, book writer are aware of. It is used to keep someone’s attention. It’s a radical change of direction in the story line way different than how you expected things to turn out. If it happens right at the end of the story it’s called a “surprise ending.”
In our text this morning we have before us a story that the ultimate teacher, Jesus, used to convey a truth to us. And it’s so radical, so different, so bizarre, so revolutionary, so extraordinary that it’s important for each of us to think deeply about the truth Jesus is conveying to us through it.
In the first couple verses we’re given the context of this story. Jesus is speaking to an audience of tax collectors and sinners and an audience of Pharisees who were muttering, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And the story Jesus tells is about two sons- a younger one and an older one – they are meant to be compared and contrasted. It’s really about 2 lost sons: Act 1 of this drama is the lost younger brother, Act 2 is about the lost older brother.
The younger son comes to his father and says, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” Now, the original hearers of this story would have been astounded by this. If a father had two sons the inheritance would work like this: the older son would get a double portion of the inheritance, so 2/3 and the younger son would get 1/3, but when does that happen? It’s supposed to happen AFTER the father died. But the younger son comes and says, “I want it NOW.” In essence the younger son is saying, “ I want your stuff, I want your money, I want your goods, but I don’t want you. My relationship with you has just been a means to an end, I want your stuff, I wish you were dead.” Wow! Unheard of! But even more astounding is the fact that father gave it to him. We would have expected the father to verbally and physically drive his son out of the house and family. What’s interesting is the word translated property is the Greek word bios which literally means “life.” He divided his life between them. You see, back at this time a person’s entire life was bound up with their land, their land was their means of income, their livelihood, their status in society. So, the father would have to sell off a third of his land to give his son his inheritance and to lose a part of your land was to lose a part of yourself and your standing in the community. It’s unheard of for a father to do this. He is experiencing the worst thing a human can experience and that’s rejected love. Normally, when we experience rejected love, what do we do? We react negatively to lessen the pain. What does the girlfriend who gets dumped by her boyfriend do? She’ll gather all her friends together and mutilate the 8th commandment, “That jerk, that good-for-nothing, worthless person.” Why? To lessen the pain. But we don’t see that here.
The son goes off, squanders everything he has, loses everything, has to go and hire himself out to feed pigs, he has nothing and people treat him worse than a pig, they won’t even give him pig food to eat. He realizes how stupid he is and come up with a restitution plan. He’ll go back to his father and ask to be made a hired hand – that means not even a servant who lives on the property, but a hired hand, someone who lived in town, worked, make some money so he could begin to pay his father back for what he’s done to him. He’s going back, the father sees him – tells us that the father had been waiting for him and looking for him – the father does something no middle eastern patriarch would do, he runs, he hikes up his robe, bares his legs to run to his son, he throws his arms around him, kisses him, the son begins to roll out his compensation plan, but the father cuts him off, throws the best robe of the house (the father’s own robe) on him, in other words, I’m not going to wait for you to clean up, to wash the pig manure off, you’re not going to have to earn your way back into this family –I’m bringing you in! And he throws a huge party – even slaughtering the fattened calf.
Now we move into Act 2. The older brother comes in from dutifully working hard out in the field. He hears the music- literally the symphony and the dancing. He inquires about what’s going on finds out that his brother has come home and he stays outside. His father comes out to him and the older brother is particularly upset about the cost. The big deal is this calf. The father gave him the calf! “You gave him a calf, you never gave me a goat.” You see, they hardly ever had meat for a meal, it was delicacy and the greatest delicacy was a fattened calf. “How dare you use our wealth like this, I obeyed, I deserve some say in this, I have some right over your things.” He even insults his father, never addresses him as “father” but he says, “Look, look you” Then he publicly humiliates his father by refusing to enter this grand feast his father put on. But what does the father do? “My son, my child, I still want you in the feast, while every other father would have probably disowned you by now, I still want you in.” And then Jesus ends the story. What?? What’s the ending? Did the son go in? We don’t know. Why not? Because this was written down for you and me to think about too.
It’s a plot twist. Jesus radically changes our thought about who God is. He pictures God as the father in this parable. What’s your conception of “father”? Maybe you think of a father as someone who is loving and kind, maybe you think of a father as cold, hard, and mean, maybe you think of a father as selfish and self-serving who is never around. Here Jesus shows us the real Father. A Father who forgives even rejected love, a Father who doesn’t wait for amends to be made but forgives fully and completely, accepts his lost child unconditionally.
It’s also a plot twist on how we view sin. In act 1 we have a very traditional view of sin. Insulting the father, wasting the father’s gifts, prostitutes, reckless, sinful abandon, drugs, alcohol, the whole bit. But in Act 2, he turns the table. There are two sons, one is very good, one very bad, but both are lost, both are alienated from the father. Each son used the father to get what they really wanted, what they really set their heart on: the wealth, the money, his stuff. One did it by being very bad, one did it by being very good, but they’re both lost! The bad one is lost because of his badness, but the good son is lost because of his goodness, his pride, his righteousness that’s keeping him from the father! Then, in the end, the bad one is found, and the good one is lost!! Talk about a plot twist! But remember we have two kinds of people listening to this parable: sinners – who run off and do what they want and Pharisees who were incredibly moral.
Jesus is dividing the human race into two kinds of people: Younger brothers and older brothers. Which are you? Which am I? Younger brothers seek to find happiness through self-discovery, living wild, living without restraint, enjoying the Father’s stuff without the Father. But the older brothers are those who are very moral and dutiful, they use their goodness to try to control the father. In other words, if I pray, if I read my Bible, if I go to church, then God HAS to bless me, I can control God by my own good behavior. Someone once said*, “Religious people obey God to get things, Gospel people obey God to get God.” Look at the older brother here, he’s always angry! He thinks the father owes him, thinks things should happen the way he wants because he’s so good, but life never goes the way we plan it! One sign that you are an older brother is if you have an undercurrent of anger in your life – you’re upset with God because after all you’ve done for him, he’s not giving you what you want! From time to time I hear this even in our congregation. It goes something like this: “Why are we so concerned with reaching the lost? Why spend all this money and effort on reaching people outside of our church? When is the church going to do something for me? Serve me?” That’s the attitude of the older brother.
It all comes down to the heart, to motivation. Yes a Christian is going to obey God, but why? To get stuff from him? You see, sometimes we think that it’s enough to repent of the wrong things that we did. But a Pharisee would even do that. God wants us to not only repent of what we do that is wrong, but he also wants us to repent for the reasons we do what is right. You see, a Christian also repents for doing the right things for the wrong reasons, a Christian repents for doing the right things in order to get things from God.
And the only way we’re going to come to that point is when we are melted and moved by the love of the Father. Notice the initiating love here, the Father runs and kisses the son before he even repents, the Father goes in search of the older son inviting him in, Jesus welcomes the lost sons back in and pleads with the self-righteous Pharisees whom he knows are going to kill him to come back in! Incredible!
But notice one other thing. In verse 31 the father tells the older son, “Everything I have is yours.” That’s very true, isn’t it? Everything the father owned belonged to the older brother, the younger son being brought in meant an enormous cost to the older brother and the older brother is furious.
But what would the true older brother have done? The true older brother would have looked at his heartbroken father and said, “I’m going to go in search of my younger brother, I’m going to find him no matter where he is and bring him home to the father.” We have a true older brother. He didn’t go to a different city to find us, but he came all the way from heaven to earth, and it cost him, it didn’t cost him money or inheritance, but his life, his dignity, stripped and dying on a cross, shedding his blood to pay our debt.
This is where our attitude about God changes, it’s no longer about wanting the father’s stuff and not the father or being so good to force God to bless me, its about living in response to the love of the Father. Do you have an older brother heart? This parable was written for Pharisees. Are you upset because your life isn’t going the way you want? Do you look down on others? Are you more interested in the church serving you than in seeking the lost? Are you proud of your goodness? Lay your damned goodness down at Jesus’ feet. Have a heart melted by the grace of Jesus. Amen.
*Thanks to Pastor Tim Keller for his book “The Prodigal God” which helped shape my understanding of this parable.