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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

The Greatest Short Story Ever Written

Luke 15

In this chapter we encounter what Mark Twain called “the greatest short story ever written” -- and he ought to know. Dr. Barclay complains that it is misnamed as “The Prodigal Son,” as the son is not the hero of the story. I disagree; I think it is well named. In its title character so many of us see so much of ourselves. Everyman is found in these words.

But first, we must encounter two preliminary parables. I have chosen to look at all three together, so as to examine the characters of the lost, the Savior, and the “righteous.”

The Character of the Lost

The first story is a familiar one, too:

The Lost Sheep

(Luke 15:1-7 NIV) Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. {2} But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." {3} Then Jesus told them this parable: {4} "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? {5} And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders {6} and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' {7} I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Resist, for the moment, the desire to analyze the whole story. Let us focus on the lost, the sheep.

·         First, note that the 99 are left in the pasture. Sheep are like that; headed in the right direction, they usually stay in the right direction. The typical church member is like that; they follow well. It’s a lesson for the leaders – lead well, the flock will follow.

·         But there’s always one who wanders off. That’s the correct verb: wanders. It is a gradual process. Spectacular wickedness usually does not happen among sheep. They just gradually disappear. It is the duty of the shepherd to search even for these.

·         When found, the sheep is hoisted onto the shepherd’s shoulders.

·         When you’ve gone astray, and God comes and finds you, for a time he will carry you on his shoulders. Others will be sent to your side – as soon as you are found.

·         You are an object of his joy. God does not grumble about your weight, rather he calls for rejoicing on your return. You are not a burden, but a joy to the Father.

The Coin

(Luke 15:8-10 NIV) "Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? {9} And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' {10} In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

A question for you: did the coin lose itself? Of course not. Some people just start out lost. Their parents never took them to church; their friends included no Christians. They’re lost, and don’t really know it. But God cares even for them. It doesn’t matter whose “fault” it is that you’re lost – God only cares about the finding.

There may be another aspect to this illustration. In Palestine at this time, a woman would be married wearing a headdress of exactly those ten silver coins. Each coin was worth a little more than a day’s wages, but the emotional value was enormous. It would be in our culture like losing your wedding ring. The illustration seems apt, for we, the church, are called the Bride of Christ. As fervently as my wife would search for her wedding ring, and as happy as she would be to find it – that’s how much God values the lost sinner.

The Prodigal Son

Let’s look at the central illustration of this chapter piece by piece, beginning with the Prodigal Son:

(Luke 15:11-19 NIV) 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 men 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 men.'

The character of the prodigal son is given to us in few words and actions – the sign of a great story teller.

·         First, this is a self-willed individual. The phrase is, “Father, give me…” He demands, so that he might do as he pleases. Me first.

·         He rejects everything about his father. It is not sufficient to ask for a little money; he wants all he can get and then he leaves with it. That he wasted it in riotous living is almost inevitable; if he wanted to invest it, he could hardly have done better than dad. It is not just the money; it is the rejection of everything that his father (who represents God) stands for.

·         But he “comes to his senses” - the literal Greek is “came to himself.” There is a truth in that. He recognizes that he is not who he should be; something is wrong with his system; something is wrong with him. Note that he doesn’t “know the answer” this time; he just knows that he’s wrong and things are better at home. The sinner doesn’t need to know the theology to know the Savior.

·         The decision is a rational one. It’s not that someone preaches to him and he understands the Scripture; he’s hungry. His system doesn’t work, and his belly tells him so. So it is with us. There is a hunger in man to be right with God and the world – and nothing but true righteousness can permanently satisfy that hunger.

·         So he decides to do something about it. He prepares “the speech.” There are two things which strike me as very useful:

·         He acknowledges that he has sinned – and not just “against heaven,” against some vague standard of behavior. He has sinned against a person as well, and to that person he will confess.

·         He does so with a sense that such repentance does not “earn” him anything. It is not a credit on dad’s books. In his repentance he retains the necessary sense of being unworthy. So should we.

The Character of God

Take a look back at verse 1. Sinners were attracted to Jesus. Can you imagine such a thing? The central object of worship of all those stuffy, hymn-singing Christians was a man who attracted all the low-life types of his time! How can this be? Surely Jesus understood how disrespectable these people were. There is only one explanation – here from Paul to Timothy:

(1 Tim 1:15 NIV) Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst.

The character of the Shepherd

George Adam Smith draws us the picture of a shepherd: “On some high moor across which at night the hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed, leaning on his staff and looking out over his scattered sheep, everyone of them on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judea sprang to the front in his people’s history; why they gave his name to the king and made him the symbol of providence; why Christ took him as the type of self-sacrifice.”

That last is the point: self sacrifice. The character of the searcher is the character of the one who will not rest until every one of the sheep is safe.

The searcher for the coin

There are three characteristics of God – and thus his church -- seen in the searcher:

·         She lights a lamp – just as the church must be the lamp of God.

·         She sweeps. The church must likewise clear away obstacles to being found. Does the loudness of the music in the service bother you?

·         She searches carefully. It is an effort, a work, a labor, done with care. We are not to be haphazard about our search for the lost.

The Father

We now come to the great example of love:

(Luke 15:20-24 NIV) 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.

May I show you three things about God in his search for sinners?

·         He sees a “long way off.” You are not to be left alone to find the door. Long before you become a Christian, he is looking for you, trying to guide you to the faith. He is working in the lives of many now; sometimes causing sorrow to bring repentance, sometimes just the “chance” of meeting, but always looking “a long way off.” How encouraging for those of us who pray for the lost!

·         This is the only instance of God being portrayed as running in the Bible. God reigns in majesty; he rides on the wings of the storm; but here alone he is pictured as running. For what does God the Father run? For the love of his lost child. Worse, for the child who got himself lost deliberately. How great is his love for us!

·         Indeed, love is the active word. He throws his arms around him, kisses him. It is not sufficient for God to “allow” us into the kingdom. We are welcomed with open arms and loving embrace. Not just forgiveness, reconciliation and love wait for the sinner coming home.

Rejoice

In all three accounts there is a very active verb: rejoice.

·         We are told that the sinner coming home causes more rejoicing than the existence of the righteous. What do we celebrate more than victory? And what is God’s victory – except that sinners return to him?

·         We are told that even one sinner repenting is cause for rejoicing. God knows each of us by name, as a person. We are his children. I treat my children as individuals, loving each of them as the person they are. God does the same with us.

·         And what a celebration! The prodigal is greeted in a grand manner:

·         He is clothed in a robe – the best robe – and quickly. So it is with us. When we receive the Lord, he clothes us in his righteousness, the righteousness of Jesus Christ. We are honored because of our Lord. What grace!

·         He is given a ring, the ancient symbol of authority. We too are given the authority of Christ. What we forgive on earth is forgiven in heaven; we are privileged to bear the Gospel to any and all; we become the messengers of heaven itself.

·         He is given shoes. In those days, the slave went barefoot; the son had shoes. As a hired servant he had no shoes. When we come to God, he gives us the shoes that are the symbol of becoming his child.

·         Finally, the fatted calf is killed – which (in modern translation) is “get the good steaks out of the freezer!” We need to celebrate. Which brings us to the third set of characters: “the righteous.”

The Character of the Righteous

If there is any complaint that the Pharisees – the right wing fundamentalists of their day – had about Jesus other than blasphemy, it was that he partied hearty with all the wrong people. The word used in verse 2 here – translated variously as “mutter,” “murmur” or “grumble,” means to grumble throughout a crowd. It’s a group complaint. So often today when the church confronts the unrespectable – for example, the homeless – there is no outspoken person saying no. It’s just a grumble throughout the congregation.

But with whom do we have the privilege of “not associating?”

(1 Cor 5:9-13 NIV) I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people-- {10} not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. {11} But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. {12} What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? {13} God will judge those outside. "Expel the wicked man from among you."

It is important to make the distinction.

The older brother

So we come to the “righteous” character of this story: the older brother.

(Luke 15:25-32 NIV) "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.'"

The older brother has all the wrong reactions, and we should be looking for them within ourselves too.

·         There is pride, pride in his hard work. If he had been a servant only, such might be appropriate. But I did not ask to be born into my earthly family, and for such I cannot repay my parents. Likewise, the older brother is a son by the grace of history. We cannot put God into our debt by our hard work; we can only show our gratitude and like-mindedness by working hard.

·         There is self-preference. The comparison is between me, the hard working older brother, and the prodigal brat. Surely I am better than he is! True, perhaps, but completely beside the point.

·         There is ignorance, ignorance of his father’s heart. If they were of one heart, he would have missed the kid and longed for his return. Character is not developed in crisis; it is shown there.

God’s reaction to the “righteous”

It may be the most touching thing about the story, at least to me. The Father does not castigate the older brother, nor even argue about the justice of his feelings. He is as tender with the older brother as with the younger, for they are both his children. He reassures him:

·         You are “always with me.” It is not that God prefers the wicked; far from it. It is that he seeks them, and asks those of like mind to do likewise.

·         All that is his, is yours. Did he not promise the Apostles that they would judge the tribes of Israel? If we suffer with him, we will reign with him.

But there is one key point: we had to celebrate. If there is any one thing the Father wants from his children, it is that we share his passion for the lost – and when the lost are found, we will gladly celebrate with him.

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