THE PRODIGAL SON
Jesus told lots of parables. But what is a parable? It is a fictional story about things that people in Jesus’ day would find very familiar. Jesus took these stories and turned them into object lessons to teach the people about God and the kingdom of God.
Jesus told lots of parables. Some of them are engrained into the psyche of our culture. In fact, some of them are so well known that people who might never darken the door of a church are familiar with them. The most famous one, perhaps, is the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s the one where a man is beat up by robbers and left by the side of the road to die. But a man from Samaria comes along, picks him up and takes him to an inn where he makes sure he is cared for and nursed back to health.
There are even laws that are often called the Good Samaritan Law which offer legal protection to people who give reasonable assistance to others who are in need. That means that you can’t be sued or criminally charged for trying to help.
The next best known parable is the parable of the prodigal son which is found in Luke 15. It’s actually about two sons but it’s the lost one who gets all of the publicity.
The parable begins in Luke 15:11-12 (NIV) where Jesus says:
There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them.
I want to start off by saying that the point of the story is not about the father’s wisdom in giving his son his share of the estate. That may or may not have been a smart thing to do but it’s not for us to judge. It’s simply part of the story. But it’s an important part because of what it says to us about how God gives us gifts. What it says is that God has given each of us our gifts – our share of the estate so to speak – and we are free to do with them however we want. God does not say, “I will give you good gifts only if you agree to use them the way I want you to and for my glory.” God just gives us gifts to use in whatever way we want. The choice is ours. It’s called free will. As the father in this parable gives his son his share of the estate so God gives us gifts with no strings attached.
What we will discover, however, is that the son is not a wise son. He is not a faithful son. In fact, his intent is pretty clear. He’s tired of living with his father. He’s tired of living with his brother. He’s tired of the rules that inevitably go along with families who live together. Let’s find out what happens next in Luke 15:13-16 (NIV):
“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. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
This son is in rebellion to the father. What that means is that he is moving away from everything that his father has taught him about what is good and right and just and holy. He wants to take what the father has given to him and use it in whatever way he sees fit. He’s not satisfied to live under his father’s roof and by his expectations. He wants to be his own boss, do what he wants to do, where he wants to do it and with whomever he chooses.
When I read this parable, I have to think that the father knows his son and he probably has a good idea of what the son has in mind. And yet, even knowing this, he gives his younger son his share of the estate to do with it as he pleases.
THE PARTY ENDS
The son takes all of the wealth that his father has given to him, sets off to a distant land and squanders everything on wild living until there is nothing left. What does wild living look like? Today, it might be summed up in a country song about big trucks, loose women and old whiskey. They didn’t have big trucks back then but they had lots of other things to waste fortunes on. Some things never change. There will always be things out there that tempt you to squander what you have. And there is no end of people who are more than willing to help you do it.
And here’s the reality; when we live lives contrary to the way that God wants us to live them, when we use our gifts – our share of the estate – in ways that do not glorify God and further his purpose, we squander them. We waste them. We use them up on things that have no real meaning. That’s what the lost son does. He squandered all he has.
But then hardship hits. A famine comes to the land and he is out of money. His so called friends all leave when the money runs out and he’s alone and hungry. He finds a job. His job is looking after pigs. To put that into perspective, it shows just how desperate this son is because to the Jewish people who first hear this parable, pigs are unclean animals. Orthodox Jews don’t eat pork. They don’t use pork products. They don’t even touch pigs let alone look after them. There is no other job that this man could take that would be lower than herding pigs. It is the worst job for him in the whole world. And yet, in his desperation, he takes it. Even then he is hungry because no one is willing to give him anything at all to at. He is lonely. He is hungry. He is miserable and thoroughly beaten. There is absolutely nothing left.
And yet it is that moment when the light goes on. Luke 15:17-19 (NIV) says: “
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! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”
The son finally comes to his senses. When everything is gone. When all of his friends have left him. When he has no food. When he has to support himself in some meager way by doing the worst, most disgusting job possible, he comes to his senses.
Isn’t that true of a lot of people? You can’t help people who don’t want to be helped and they often don’t want to be helped until they have come to the very end of their resources. It is often only when we lose everything that we realize how good we once had it and crave that from which we willingly walk away. Sometimes it’s only when people have lost everything that they realize how stupid they were and begin to think about turning their lives around and making better choices.
It’s too bad that it has to be that way sometimes. Pretty well all of us have had the experience of seeing a loved one – a family member or a close friend – spin their lives into a downward spiral of oblivion. You wish you could do something for them but you can’t because you can’t help anyone who doesn’t think they need help.
I also want to say this. It is important to be there for that person when they finally do recognize the error of their ways and want to do something about it. That’s when God really wants us to be there for them. That also means that we need to recognize that they won’t get it right the first time. When people make decisions about turning their lives around, there will be times when it seems too hard, when they fall back on old habits because they are familiar and easier. But God calls us to stick with that person and be with that person in love. Change is hard. Big change is extra hard.
THE SON RETURNS, THE FATHER WELCOMES
The son has decided to go back to his father. Let’s find out what happens. Luke 15:20-21 (NIV) says this:
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.
The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
The son does the hard thing. He decides to go back home to see if his father will give him a job, not to be treated as a son but like an servant or even a slave. It’s important to note that the son goes back willingly and with no preconceived ideas about what he is entitled to as the father’s son. He has already received his share of the estate and is not asking for anything more. All he is asking for is a roof over his head, some food to eat and a decent job that has nothing to do with pigs.
And what happens? The father sees him coming a long way off. What does that mean? It means that his father was looking for him. It doesn’t matter how long the son has been gone. It doesn’t matter that he squandered all he had on wild living. It doesn’t even matter that he’s been hanging around pigs. All the time he has been gone, the father has been searching the horizon for him to come home. And when he does, the father doesn’t chastise or criticize him. He doesn’t lock the door and tell him to go away. He runs out, throws his arms around him and kisses him. He welcomes him home.
No matter how far we have strayed, when we return home, God welcomes us. He doesn’t make us do penance – that’s a man-made tradition. He doesn’t punish us for our stupidity. He doesn’t chastise us and threaten us. God runs out with great joy, wraps us in his arms and kisses us as only God can.
A lot of people don’t get that. They don’t understand how God can be so merciful and forgiving of all of the wrong that they have done. They see themselves as unworthy, sinful and beyond saving. But God sees them as dearly loved children who have been missing for a very long time.
And it makes me wonder, if that was your son or daughter, who ran away from home and squandered all you had given them, how would you react? That’s a tough call because I know that some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. If that child ever returns, this story gives all of us direction about how to respond. No questions. At least not right away. There will be time for questions later. No chastising. No penance. Just an embrace, a kiss and a welcome. That’s where it starts. And that’s true whether that child has been gone a week, a month, a year or even decades. That is how God calls us to welcome those who were lost and have come home.
But the father is not yet done. Let’s read Luke 15:22-24 (NIV):
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. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
And so the celebration begins. Everyone is happy, except perhaps for the fatted calf of course. The father is not only glad that his lost son has returned home. He’s wants to throw a party so that everyone can rejoice with him. He dresses his son for the occasion. He gives him new clothes – the best clothes. He gives him new bling and new shoes. “Let’s have a party. Let’s celebrate!” he says.
In all of this happiness, there is someone who is wondering what’s going on. Luke 15:25-27 (NIV) tells the story of the older brother, the responsible one in the family:
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. “Your brother has come,” he replied, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”
Some people might say that the older son is the only rational person in the whole parable. The father gave half the estate away to the younger brother when he probably should have waited. The younger brother then squandered his half of the estate as everyone knew he would. Then the father sees his wayward son coming hope, greets him like a hero, gives him new clothes and new jewelry and throws a party in his honour.
So perhaps we can understand his response with is found in Luke 15:28-30 (NIV):
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
We might be excused for thinking that the older brother has a point. He has been faithful. He has been mature. He has worked hard and upheld family values. And for that he has received nothing special. But we’d also have to acknowledge that to think like the older brother is more than a little problematic. Why is that? It’s because the older brother in this story is acting according to his sinful nature. He might be thinking rationally but he’s also filled with anger and jealousy. He feels that he’s been betrayed and he’s feeling sorry for himself. Is that the way of God? No, it’s not.
The younger brother is clearly repentant. He is sorry for what he has done and how he has acted and betrayed his father. Yes, he has squandered his gifts and used them for the wrong purposes. The list of stupid things he did goes on and on and on. But he has learned his lesson. And that biggest lesson of all is perhaps the realization that he is not worthy to be called a son of the father because he’s a total failure. All he is worthy to be is an servant or a slave for he has forfeited his right to the family name.
But when this total failure of a son returns to the father he is welcomed with open arms and treated not as an servant or a slave but just like the son that he is. This may not be the way of the sinful nature which is filled with jealousy and envy and anger but it is the way of God. It is the way that God welcomes all those who wander away and then return. It is the way of the cross. It is the way of the empty tomb. It is what Lent is all about.
It is also the way that God calls us to treat each another. Sometimes, as Christians, we don’t quite get that. But the church is called to be the embodiment of the love of God in the world. We are called not to judge the sinners who wander away from the truth but rather to welcome them home. We are called to greet them with open arms, to embrace them, give them clothes to wear and food to eat. And we are called to throw a party to celebrate that a child of our Heavenly Father, who once was lost, has been found.
That also reminds us of something else. It reminds us that no one is beyond the love of God. No matter how far we stray. No matter how much of God’s gifts we squander. No matter how far away from the truth we may wander, God is always willing to welcome us home again. There is no sin too big, no error too outrageous, no crime too heinous that it cannot be washed away by the blood of Jesus.
The parable finishes with the father responding to the complaints of his older son in Luke 15:31-32 (NIV):
“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 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.”
It reminds me of the words to that classic hymn Amazing Grace: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” God’s greatest desire is that each of us turns from our sinful ways and returns to God so that we can be reconciled with him and with one another. God wants all of us to repent of our sinful ways and come back to him.
That is what Lent is all about. It is about recognizing our need of Jesus. It is about understanding that on our own we cannot be right with God. It is about accepting that Jesus died on the cross to pay the price of our sins and that he rose again on the third day to tear down the gates of hell and destroy the power of death. Through faith in him, we receive the gift is salvation freely given to us. It is not something that we can earn or deserve. It is simply a gift of God for us to accept. As the earthly father welcomes his wayward son and threw a party, so too God welcomes us when we return to him and there is great rejoicing in the kingdom of heaven.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
God of Peace, we give you thanks for the way that you have made yourself available to us. Thank you for the amazing covenant relationship that you have made possible for us through Jesus Christ. It is our desire to understand more of your covenant and what has been made available to us through it. May we never take for granted the price you paid for us to be able to stand before your throne as forgiven and forgiving people.
We offer our thanks for our friends and neighbours, those who are there for us in times of celebration and in times of need. We thank you for special relationships that are expressed in godly and righteous ways. May we be as faithful to our friends as you are to us.
During this Lenten season, we continue to examine our lives. Enable us to be honest about who we are and what we have done. We need to give the burden of our guilt to you for you can carry all things. In giving you the burden of our sin, we are enabled to stand tall and walk in the faith of Jesus Christ our Risen Saviour.
Our prayers are lifted for the people of Ukraine as they endure a needless war. We pray for justice. We pray for victory and we pray for peace. Thank you that the nations of he world have rallied around Ukraine and pray that cooler heads may prevail in Russia to put an end to this conflict.
We lift up in prayer those who are sick at home or in hospital. We remember Carol, Mark, Rachel, Ron, Pauline and Judith. Bless them, O God, with your healing spirit that they may feel your Loving Spirit and experience your power.
God, you are faithful in all situations. You fulfill your every promise. We know that we need to be patient in all things, securely trusting in your unfailing love. Even if others reject, betray, or abandon us, we can place our confidence in you knowing that you will never leave or forsake us. You are always faithful to fulfill your promises.
We lift our prayers to you in Jesus’ name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
March 27, 2022 / Lent 4
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
CALL TO WORSHIP
ONE: We come to God as a forgiven people;
ALL: Our sins are washed away.
ONE: We are cleansed of guilt by our God who loves us beyond measure;
ALL: We are freed to walk in righteousness.
ONE: We come to the One who gives us peace;
ALL: We worship the One who gives us life.
Holy God, we seek you presence in our worship as we seek your Spirit in our lives. We come to you professing our faith in Jesus Christ and putting our trust in him. We know that there are time when we disappoint you but you see past our unworthiness. You strengthen us and place our feet upon the path of your making. We set our hearts towards you in all things. Thank you for your great faithfulness, for you fulfill all of your promises. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
God of Mercy and Grace, we are grateful that even in the darkest of times, you are with us. In spite of our sinfulness, you still love us and care for us. When we fall short of your glory, you lift us up and place our feet upon higher ground. When we fail you, you do not fail us. Forgive us when we look in another direction. Forgive us when we turn our eyes away from suffering. Forgive us when we feel helpless to make a difference in the world. Turn us around to walk in your light and trust in your faithful guidance. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
In faithfulness and love, God has made a remedy for our sin. God has paid the price and made the ultimate sacrifice for us. There is no greater love in the world than God’s love for us. We cannot begin to understand the depth of that love. All we can do is accept it and cherish it as a wonderful gift of grace. Know that in Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
You, O God, have promised to meet our needs. In good times, in tough times, you are there to fulfill your promise. We come now, with our offering to lay upon your Table. We have promised to be faithful and this is but one way to fulfill that promise. Use these gifts, O God, to your glory, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
God has promised to be with us. Be sure that as we leave this place, God will walk beside us giving courage and strength for the journey ahead. Go with the assurance of God’s presence and rejoice that we are loved by the One who gives us life.