Things are not always what they seem, are they? Take this picture for example.
At first glance it looks like the young child being held has an adult's head. He doesn't, it's just his dad has a very big nose!! Or what about this one - is it a dog with two heads?
Nope – things aren't always what they seem. This is two dogs – one positioned between the owner's legs. Sometimes things aren't what they seem.
Well, if you've ever read any of the parables, or short stories, that Jesus told, you'll know that with them, very often, nothing is as it seems. And that's certainly the case with the story we're looking at this morning. The parable of the prodigal son is one of the more well-known stories that Jesus told, and if I were to ask what we thought it was about, I think we would come up with a couple of common responses. You might think back to Sunday School lessons and remember that even those who have done bad things can find a way back to God. Or, if we're a little older and have children who have turned from God, we may be comforted by the hope that our children will one day come to their senses in a way similar to the young man in this story. But if that is as far as we go with this parable, then we miss out on so much. And this morning I want to encourage us to look again at this story and realise that things are not always what they seem. And not least because, actually, this story is not primarily about the Prodigal Son. Look at verse 11:
"And he [Jesus] said, "There was a man who had two sons."
According to Jesus, right from the off, this story is about a Father - a Father who had two sons, not just the prodigal. And Jesus wants us to see how this Father responds to both of these sons, because he wants us to see the spiritual truth that this is how God the Father responds to us. Let me just remind you of where we've got to and what is going on here. Great crowds have been following Jesus… and at the end of chapter 14 he throws out this challenge. Verse 35: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Forget the chapter division for a moment. Very next verse. Who are the ones to respond to this challenge to hear? "the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him". And through 'tax collectors and sinners', Luke is using a phrase to describe those who were obviously immoral or those who had jobs that the leaders thought were incompatible with God's law. The point being that it is these obviously bad people who are the ones that are being attracted to Jesus. What about the ones who are not so obviously bad (the self-righteous religious leaders)? Verse 2: they "grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them.""
And it's in reaction to that grumbling that Jesus tells three stories. Last week we had the lost sheep and the lost coin - much rejoicing, when they were found. This week a father loses a son - and, again, much celebration when he was found… but also some grumbling. I wonder if you can begin to see who Jesus has in mind for each part of his story? So I've got some headings for us and I'm actually suggesting a different title as well. Instead of "The parable of the prodigal son" let's go with 'The parable of the forgiving father and his two sons', one obviously sinful and one obviously self-righteous. We'll deal with each character in each heading and, having already proposed that this parable is primarily about the Father, I'm actually going to deal with him last… because first we need to understand who and what he is responding to. Ok? So my first heading:
1. The Sinful Younger Son: who recognises his need for repentance (v.12-21)
"And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.' And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living." (Luke 15.12-13)
Now this part of the story is relatively straight forward. The youngest son had one thing on his mind: wild, or reckless, living. He wants to please himself; to be free from work, free from responsibility and free from family ties. And so he turns his back on his Father. This, says Jesus, is what a sinner is. A sinner is someone who turns their back on their heavenly Father, someone whose heart latches on to other things – attractive things!
Let's be honest – sin often is attractive. It promises so much. Pleasure, freedom, do what you want, when you want. No-one looking over your shoulder or keeping you accountable. But imagine I were to go to my Dad now, he's still alive, and I were to say to him "Dad, I've no idea what you've got in the bank but when you die, half of it's coming to me anyway – let's just cut to that point. I want it now." What am I saying? I'm effectively saying "Dad, I don't want you. I don't need you. What you've got in the bank is worth more to me than you are – think of all the things I could do with that money. You are as good as dead to me!" That is what a sinner is: someone who turns their back on God and behaves as if he didn't exist; someone who chooses to live life with the common grace benefits given to him whilst at the same time deliberately ignoring the very giver of those gifts. Someone who thinks they know best. But they don't! Because as Jesus explains, sin has consequences. Verses 14-16:
"And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything."
In short, he blows it all and loses everything. Money is finite. It runs out. Likewise the buzz, the pleasure, the satisfaction that sin can appear to give actually never lasts! And admittedly, not everything in this story is his own fault, but his selfishness, immaturity, his ill-disciplined life mean that the younger son has no way of dealing with external tragedy when it strikes. And he finds himself alone, at rock-bottom. There is nowhere lower that this man could sink, he is doing one of the most dishonourable jobs it is possible for a Jew to do – feed pigs. Jesus is painting a temporary picture of an eternal reality: Poverty, loneliness, suffering, longing to be properly nourished…these will be the eternal consequence of sin. But Jesus also uses this character to show how we can be rescued from those eternal consequences. Verses 17-20:
"But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "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."' And he arose and came to his father."
So the reality of his situation sinks in, he puts together a plan to return home and ask for forgiveness. It's a picture of complete reversal. He knows he is unworthy now. He knows he has no claim to anything. He knows he has no rights…and he simply comes in humility, placing himself at the mercy of his father. Well, he never gets to complete his little speech, because Dad sees him coming. The inference is he's actually waiting, hoping for his return. And he hugs him, kisses him, gives him gifts and sends him off to the party to end all parties! Things are not always what they seem. Sinners deserving of punishment, receive grace and mercy if they turn back to God – that's what repentance means….a turning back to God. This is what it takes for a sinner to be truly rescued from sin: no excuses, no claims. Just confession and a humble reliance on God's mercy and provision. That's the sinful younger son who recognised the need for repentance. The case of the elder son is a bit more challenging and it's to our loss that we rarely even take a look at him in this story. So, let's do that now…
2. The Self-Righteous Elder Son: who hates repentance (v.25-30)
For the first half of the story the elder son is in the shadows. We know he's there from the start, but we're so swept up in the amazing grace offered to the younger son, we don't give him a thought. Scene change. We switch from the partying and celebrating in the house, to the fields where the noise of the celebration has carried. Verses 25-27:
"Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.'"
So far, so neutral. Verse 28: "But he was angry and refused to go in." And that anger then expresses itself in bitterness and envy in the way he speaks to his Dad. He says to him in verses 29-30:
"Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!"
It's ugly, isn't it? Those of us who have been Christians some time, and have experienced God's grace in our own lives, can look at this parable and straight away we have sympathy with the young son and we can be disgusted with the older son. But again, Luke likes to say: things are not always what they seem. And the original hearers of Jesus' parable would sooner have sided with the elder sibling than they would have done with the younger sinful son. After all, he's right to tell his Dad it's not fair, isn't he? It wasn't fair! Think about it. Apparently here was the son who always did what was right. He was obedient, stayed at home, did his duty, was hard-working. What parent wouldn't love a son like that?! He didn't demand anything – not his inheritance, not the love of his father. Why would he, when he could earn it? And there's the point. Just zoom out from the parable for a moment and remember the real people that Jesus had in mind as he told this story. The religious leaders worked hard to keep all of God's commandments. And like the elder son, they were proud of their achievement. Like the elder son they compared themselves to those who were obviously worse than them. And sadly, like the elder son they hated the fact that God could act in such unfair mercy and save such obvious sinners. They hated it – they'd much rather trust in their own self-righteousness. That was much fairer – being rewarded for the things they'd achieved. But salvation and relationship with God can never, ever be enjoyed on those terms. That's what our other reading from Ephesians was all about this morning. Ephesians 2.8-9:
"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."
In the Kingdom of God, things are not what they seem. The odds are all stacked unfairly in our favour. And the challenge for us here is not to just identify with the younger son, but to realise that, once we've been saved, there is a very real danger we can turn into the elder son and be self-righteous and judgemental of other people's sin. There's a lot to learn isn't there – looking at these two brothers? But if we think we've finished with the parable there, try taking a longer look at Dad. Because things are not what they seem there either.
3. The Forgiving Father: who rejoices at repentance (v.20, 22-24, 28 & 31-32)
We see his reaction to the sinner from verse 20:
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him."
Then, verses 22-24:
"the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to celebrate."
Is this what we would do, if we were looking in and offering advice from outside? Humanly speaking Dad was a fool, wasn't he? He was a fool to divide his fortune and give some of it away before he died. What about his own retirement plans? He was a fool to linger in the road, looking for, hoping for his son to return. He was a fool to come running, believing the lame little speech that his pathetic son had practiced all the way home.
And as is if all that isn't enough – after all that he has wasted on this boy already (time, money, emotion), he pulls out all the stops and throws a party, giving him the treasure of a ring! Fool!
But things are not what they seem. The love of the Father is so great, so strong, so important, that nothing can come in the way of a reunion with a truly repentant son. With repentance comes reconciliation. With reconciliation comes reunion. And reunions are emotional special things. I don't know if you've ever had an enforced separation from a loved one. I had my fair share of them during my time in the RAF… and I tell you something – that first hug, that first kiss, that reunion after a long period of separation is so special and so emotional. Maybe you can identify with that. Well that's what God longs for. If you don't know him yet; or if you have turned your back on him and are realising the spiritual poverty of your current position, then look up.
There in the middle of the road stands a father (a foolish father in the world's eyes) straining his eyes towards the horizon…searching for those whose hearts are repentant…and his arms are outstretched ready to embrace you and celebrate your return home. So that's the shocking yet beautiful reality of how God responds to the truly repentant obvious sinner. What about his reaction to his self-righteous son? Verse 28 says that he came out and entreated with him, that is he pleaded with him, to see things from his point of view. Verse 31:
"And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'"
You see the Father wants everyone, not just himself, to respond to repentance – not with comparison or with jealousy or with disgust at the sin but with joy and celebration – because that is the right thing to do! And it is the right thing to do because we need that attitude in our family here at Jesmond to complete the mission of God. If we are going to join God in his mission, which after all, is what we're about as Christians isn't it? ...if we're going to join God in his mission, we need to imitate the Father's forgiving attitude and rejoice at repentance. Friends, we can only be a community of repentance if we are community of grace. And this means being open, honest and transparent about our struggles. Let's be honest though - that's not something we always do very well is it? But it simply won't do to pose as the 'seemingly good' older brother, when we know we are dealing with anger, hatred, marriage problems, the snare of pornography, materialism and greed….it simply won't do to pose as the 'seemingly good' older brother. Jesus wants us to join in his mission…accepting obvious sinners, associating with them, not by sharing in immoral activity, but by being available for them and by being approachable…because, you know what? Before God extended his mercy into our lives… we were exactly the same. Things are not always what they seem and God makes it that way for a purpose.
And so Jesus leaves this parable hanging. Back then the religious leaders had to decide how they would respond. Today we need to as well. Will we marvel and rejoice at salvation – both our own and that of others who are obviously sinful? Or will we grumble about those obvious sinners?