Reasons for Rejoicing - Part 3 The Death Wish - Luke 15:11-16
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
For more than a millennium now, Muslim voices have repeated the cry “Christians have perverted the message of Jesus.” And do you know which parable of Jesus they cite in order to prove their point? It is the one that we are looking at this morning, the so called ‘Parable of the Prodigal son.’ Their argument goes something like this: ‘In this parable the Father obviously represents God. The younger son in turn represents humankind. The son leaves home, gets into trouble and finally decided to return home to his father. He (“yistaghfir Allah”) – seeks the forgiveness of God. On arriving back at the homestead the Father welcomes the son and so demonstrating that he is (“rahman wa rahim”)- merciful and compassionate. There is no mention of the cross, no incarnation, no Son of God and no saviour. The son doesn’t need any help to return home, he just makes the decision to do so and follows it through. Allah is all merciful and reconciliation is immediate. So the lesson is obvious. Jesus was a good Muslim who in this parable simply affirms good Muslim theology. What is more, the Christian faith has perverted the simple message of Jesus by all its talk of the need for a cross and atonement and faith.’ Now, what do you say to that? Is the Muslim right? Have we made friendship with God far more difficult that it needs to be, so ending up contradicting the teaching of Jesus? You have to admit that on the face of it the Muslim does seem to have a case.
But there’s the rub, I said, ‘on the face of it.’ I hope to show over the next few weeks as we look at this heart rending story in some detail that the parable contains more than strong hints of the incarnation and suffering of God which find fuller expressions elsewhere in the Bible. At the very least the parable does not contradict these truths but embodies them. We have already seen in the other two parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin that God is portrayed as a searching God, the God who like the shepherd goes out into the wilderness at great personal cost to find and bring back the wayward sheep. He is the God who, like a caring, diligent woman, makes a frantic search of her home until she finds that one lost coin. So God is not some distant despot merely waiting in heaven for us to come to our senses and return home. Remember how in verse 3 Luke uses the singular, ‘Jesus told this parable’ and then gives three parables, so they are all of a piece, we are not to play off one against the others, but see them as together building a composite picture of the human condition and the divine passion- which involves incarnation and suffering. In the first two stories Jesus has really been talking about money- losing something of cash value- that is something we instinctively look for without needing too much persuasion. But what about a lost human being? Indeed, what about a lost son? To what lengths will we go to restore someone like that? You may say, ‘Well, the answer is obvious; you will go to any lengths to bring a son or daughter back into the orbit of the care and protection of the family.’ Really? Even if the son is the most obnoxious, self-centred, callous, hurtful person you have ever known? Is that the sort of person you want in your home influencing the rest of your family and making their life a misery? Then it may not be so easy, maybe then the feeling of ‘good riddance’ might be too overwhelming. We know today don’t we, of families torn apart because of a son or daughter who makes life for the rest of the family intolerable? Perhaps they have got caught up in drug use and drug trafficking, and stealing to feed the habit. They won’t accept any help, they lie and cheat, rob from their parents; even turn violent and so in the end they leave home, some never to return. Well, as we turn to this story we are going to discover that the younger son is something like that. But not only the younger son, but all of us when it comes to our dealings with our Maker. The big question however, upon which everything will turn is, what is God really like, how will he respond to such ill treatment of himself? Will he banish us or will he welcome us?
Well, this morning I simply want us to look at the beginning of the story, the first couple of verses 11-12, ‘Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, `Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.’
Now the opening line in itself shows that the traditional title given to this parable, ‘The Parable of the Prodigal Son’ is way off the mark. There are three characters which are integral to the whole sorry episode- the man and his two sons. It is the interrelationships between all three members of the family which are so important and form part of Jesus defence against the Pharisees’ criticism that he, ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ This is the story which is going to be the final knock out blow to his critics. The older son is just as vital as the younger son in the way the story pans out. So maybe a better title would be, ‘The parable of the compassionate father and the two lost sons.’ For as we shall see in a few weeks time the older brother is just as lost, if not more so, than the younger one with regards to his relationship with his father. You not only have the rebellious prodigal, you also have the religious prig.
So Jesus begins to paint a picture which is guaranteed to set his audience against the younger son- he is to be the dirty Den of Eastenders, a Judas, a traitor -v12 ‘The younger one said to his father, `Father, give me my share of the estate.' So his father divided his property between them.’
Do you know what that request means? Putting it bluntly it means that he is saying to his father, ‘Dad, I wish you were dead.’ He can’t wait for his father to die because the division of the father’s wealth in this culture would only come at the very end of the father’s life. This happened, for example, with Abraham back in Genesis 25, ‘Abraham left everything he had to Isaac (his son). But while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines….Altogether Abraham lived 175 years. Then Abraham breathed his last…’ Not a bad age that is it - 175? But the man in our story still has a good number of years left, for he is fit enough to run down the street and has a sharp enough eyesight to see his returning son when he was at a distance (v20). So he has just managed to get into the SAGA group rather than waiting for a message from the Queen! So talk of his impeding death then, is to say the least, rather premature.
Now there were legal procedures in place which a father could use to parcel out his property to his offspring if he so chose to do so. But they were only expected to be used as death approached, which is not the case here. Then the heir would be given the legal right of possession but not the right of disposition, the father would still have the say so in how the property was to be used. And this comes out towards the end of the story with the older son, for he has been given a share of the property in verse 12 too, ‘He divided his living between them.’ But it was the father who ordered a fatted calf to be killed, showing that he still ran the place. But the younger son wanted more than the legal right of possession, he also wanted to the right of disposition, to do whatever he wanted with his share of the property.
You see, what this young man did was totally unthinkable and unheard of. Kenneth Bailey a Christian minister and teacher who spent most of his life in the Middle East has met with endless village groups over the years and in relating this story has asked the question: “Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?” And the ensuing conversation always goes something like this: “Never!” “Could anyone ever make such a request?” “Impossible!” “If anyone ever did, what would happen?” “His father would become angry and refuse!” “Why?” “This request means he wants his father to die!” The fact that every villager in the Middle East would say this today shows that such a view goes back centuries- right back to Jesus day and beyond. So what does this tell us about the younger son and the father?
Let’s take the son first.
You can’t miss at least two things about this fellow can you? Namely, the son’s rebellion and the son’s pride. This is nothing less than mutiny. He wants to be in charge of his life, not his father. So what that his father has had years of experience and is full of wisdom in running this estate which has been handed down to the family through generations? What does he know? You see, the true owner is the Father. The son shares that ownership, but in a position of trust and stewardship. This was a key understanding in the life of any Israelite who saw that the land was ultimately a gift of God given out of grace, given on trust. And so that land was to be prized and cared for above all things. It was never to be squandered and was not to be given away.
But this fellow is so self-centred and puffed up with pride that he says, ‘Give me my share of the property that falls to me.’ No thought for anyone else but himself. This will not only financially damage the father but the entire clan. You see, the wealth of a village family was not held in stocks or a bank account, rather it was in a cluster of homes, in animals, in land. So to suddenly lose one third of their total wealth was an economic disaster of Northern Rock proportions. Just you try and imagine for a moment your income suddenly being reduced by a third, say, next week. What effect would that have on your lifestyle and holiday plans? There would have to be some serious belt tightening wouldn’t there? The parable states specifically that the younger son settled his affairs in just a few days, captured by the phrase in verse 13, ‘Not long after that, the younger son got together all that he had.’ In other words he liquidated all of his assets; he turns the land and buildings into cash. And since he was in such a hurry it was ‘sale at any price.’ So the accumulated wealth which was the hard work of generations was lost in a matter of days. In the East where days are sometime spent haggling over the smallest item, this fellow decided to ditch all of that and sell everything off at a loss. No wonder the elder brother was livid, because it meant the value of his property fell too.
But there are other things this opening part of the story reveals about the youth, like his ingratitude. He is so ungrateful. This is clearly a father who has always loved his sons and what does he get for it? Nothing but pain, a slap in the face. Also there is no trust. Instead of staying with the family business, working together under the loving guidance of his father, he decides to take his destiny into his own hands, he is going to run his own life, no one is going to tell him what to do.
He also demands privilege without responsibility. It is interesting that he uses a very long and wordy phrase- ‘Give me my share of the estate.’ A more natural, direct request would have been, ‘I want my inheritance’. In the Semitic languages of which Hebrew is one, that would be two words. But, ‘Give me the share of property which falls to me’ which is what it actually says- in Hebrew is six. Why the round about way of saying things instead of the straight Yorkshire way-give it to me now? Interestingly enough, the word he is very careful to avoid is the word ‘inheritance.’ The Greek word appears 14 times in the New Testament, four times in Luke (kleronomia), for example earlier in chapter 12 when a man in the crowd says to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide his inheritance with me.” But here we have a rare word used, (ousia)- meaning ‘wealth’ or ‘property’ or ‘substance’. Why? Well, to accept one’s ‘inheritance’ is to accept everything that goes with it. It means taking on leadership responsibility in the clan. It involves the duty of administering the property properly and if needs be settling quarrels. It means defending the honour of the family name against all oncomers, even dying for the family name if necessary. There is the pledge that the family wealth will be used honourably, representing the family at certain social functions, such as weddings and funerals. He must ‘build his father’s house’- ensuring that future generations will benefit from the accumulated wealth of the past. That is what it means to have one’s ‘inheritance’. But those are precisely the sort of things the son doesn’t want! He is out for number one! Hence, speaking about ‘property’ and then turning it into cash, with a view to taking the money and run.
But in doing this he was destroying two very important things. First of all, he had broken not so much a rule but a relationship. In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 21:17 it states that the younger son’s portion is one third. The law doesn’t specifically say that the son must wait until the father’s death- but that is what custom had come to expect. So strictly speaking he hadn’t broken the law. But do you see what he had broken on that terrible morning? He had broken his father’s heart. What had he done for his son to treat him so shabbily? Why such grief with all the pain and shame? The father obviously loved him; that becomes patently clear as the story progresses; he would not hold back anything if it meant having a restored relationship with the one he so cherished- his young son.
But secondly, the son destroyed his own sense of worth and identity. Let me explain. A man’s security and identity in those days were bound up in his family. The family was his social security, insurance, old-age pension, assurance in marriage- emotional and physical well-being. In short the family meant everything in this culture. Even today if one were to ask a city dweller in the Middle East, “Where are you from?” he would not give you his address, he would say, ‘I am from such and such a village, the son of so and so.’ Now he may never have been to that village in his life-but that is where his roots lie, that is where his identity and significance come from. So to throw all that away is to make yourself into a nomad and a nobody. And that is why those listening to this story would have been turning white with shock as well as rage. This is simply not done. It is stupid, it is ungrateful and it is utterly shameful.
Now as you have been listening in to the story so far, have you not also been aware that you have been listening in to a much bigger story- have you not heard of this sort of thing before? For when you think about it, this is the story of the human race- your story and mine. We see it happening right there at the beginning of the Bible. What more could the man and the woman that God had made have wanted? God, their father, had placed them in the most beautiful park with every thing they could ever need. They were the king and queen of their own little fiefdom. God himself spoke to them in open relationship; he loved them, provided for them, dwelt with them Harmony, order, creativity and care- that was the home life God had made for Adam and Eve. Yes, he made one rule-not to eat of a certain tree, but the rest was theirs, free for the taking. Why, they didn’t even have to ask God’s permission. But it wasn’t enough. The temptation soon came their way- ‘You too can be like God’ by disobeying him, making up your own rules. In other words, the thought was, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if God were dead?’ That is, if he was banished from his world, let him be the outcast and we the rulers. And what do you think the man and the woman broke when they did decide to eat the forbidden fruit? A law? Yes, but more than that- a relationship. This shows itself in several ways. They hid from God, so faith was replaced by fear, trust by suspicion. And so a moral faultline went right throughout creation- the man despised the woman, the woman resented the man and even humankind’s responsible stewardship over the world was brought into question- struggle, alienation, and lostness became the new order of things.
And we have been doing the same ever since haven’t we? As we turn our backs on God, we break his heart as surely as this son broke his Father’s heart. What does our society say, ‘You can do what you like so long as no one else gets hurt’? There is a lie if ever there was one. We are bound together in community; we share a common humanity- others always get hurt by sin and selfishness.
And if there is one crisis which stands out above all the other crises facing people today it is the crisis of identity. The cry, ‘Who am I? What am I here for?’ is the angst ridden cry of old and young alike. We long for purpose. Now, could that longing be some sort of clue that we are made for a purpose- namely, to have a loving, living relationship with the one who created us and owns us. As this son’s identity and worth was bound up with his relationship with his father, his inheritance, where he came from, so is ours- our Father God. And if you are struggling with who you are, then maybe this is where you have to start looking-getting back in touch with God through Jesus.
You know, the Father in the story granted a request no other Middle Eastern father would ever give. The expected answer to the boy’s request was refusal and punishment. But even knowing what the request means- ‘I wish you were dead’, the Father still grants the freedom even to turn from him. But he still remains his father. The relationship is broken because of the son, but it is not severed by the father. And that means that for how ever long it takes for the son to return, the father will suffer. And it is the father’s suffering which provides the foundation for the possibility of the son’s return. Any other father in this culture would have cut the son off more or less dead, but not this one. And Jesus by telling this story is in effect is saying- that is what my Father is like- God. His patience has not run out. His resources are inexhaustible. His love and compassion are still available. If we are to see ourselves in the reckless ingratitude of the son, then we are no less to see God in the reckless grace of the Father.
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