The Turnaround - Luke 15:17-20

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 3rd February 2008.

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Why do people reject Christianity? Let me mention just two reasons which I think are the most common. There are those who are switched off because of a bad experience- sometimes with family members who are professing believers. Take Samuel Butler for example, the 19th century novelist. He simply hated his father who was both a tyrant and a clergyman. He rebelled not only against his father’s beatings but against his faith. The resulting hatred infected everything he wrote. His biographer, Malcolm Muggeridge remarked: ‘There is hate in every reference Butler makes to his childhood. He came to see that words were like poisoned darts that he could plunge into the breast of his enemies…. And bring his father’s church, his father’s God, his father’s hopes and beliefs and standards of behaviour tumbling down one after another.’ There is no doubt about it, Christians, and especially Christian parents do have an onerous responsibility don’t they to commend the faith by what they do as much as by what they say. So that is one reason why people turn their backs on God- hypocrisy.

But there is another reason. Here is another writer, but of the 20th century, the author of ‘Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, "For myself, no doubt, as for many of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom…… I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently I assumed it had none, and was able without difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.’ Do you see what Huxley is saying? It is not that his reason leads him to disbelieving in God and the existence of moral laws, it is that his desire doesn’t want there to be God and morality and so he conjures up reasons afterwards. Now tell me, into which of the two categories do you think our young man in the story Jesus is telling falls? Looking at the way the father is to treat him later on in the story, you don’t get the impression that he has been brought up by a tyrannical religious hypocrite do you? His father is simply overflowing with compassion and kindness. But when you look at the way the son conducts himself both with his father- wishing him dead so as to claim his share of the family business- and living it up in his new found country- he seems more of a Huxley type. He doesn’t want to believe that his father loves him and has his best interests at heart. And you know, sometimes it is not an intellectual argument that is going to change people’s minds, but an encounter with harsh reality itself-that living outside the orbit of God’s loving rule is not as great as it is often cracked up to be. Well, that was to be the bitter experience of the younger son and, as we shall see, the human race in general on the run from its Maker.

Here is someone clearly on the run who wants to get out of town as quickly as possible, v 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.’ Why the hurry? Was it that he simply wanted to get on with living it up? There is probably more to it than that. You see, first century Jewish custom stipulated that if a Jewish boy lost the family inheritance amongst the Gentiles-non-Jews and then dared to return home, the village community would break a large pot in front of him and cry out , "so and so is cut off from his people." The ceremony was called Kezazah- literally ‘cutting off.’ Then do you know what happened next? Nobody in that community would have anything to do with that person ever again- they were as good as dead. So do you see what risk this fellow was taking? If he loses his money amongst the Gentiles, he burns all his bridges and can never return home. If he dares to do so he is condemning himself to a living death for since no one will speak to him no one will do business with him either. In short he will be finished.

What is more Jesus says that he ‘set off for a distant country.’ That doesn’t simply mean he travelled a long distance measured in miles. It is a colourful term which literally means, ‘he travelled away from his own people.’ That was his tribe, but more than that, his family. By speaking of a distant country Jesus is underscoring the qualitative distance between the boy and his father. He could not have distanced himself from his Dad any more than this. And in so doing he delivered to his father a massive emotional blow. If he had broken his father’s heart by asking for his share of property and so wishing him dead, by clearing off in this way he was grinding that heart into the dirt. Now, you can imagine Jesus hearers are getting angrier and angrier with each new step in the behaviour of the son- he really is beyond the pail. But there is more.

Once he gets to this new country what does he do with the money? He fritters it away that’s what- ‘he squandered his wealth.’ The word literally means ‘scattered.’ It was used to describe the scattering of an enemy in battle, the scattering of a seed being sown. As we would say he is throwing his money around. Now we are not to assume that he was acting immorally. I know the elder brother full of sour grapes speaks about him spending money on prostitutes in v30, but he has no evidence for that. And the NIV’s translation in v 13 ‘squandered his wealth in wild living’ is not really accurate (zon asotos) it just means being a spendthrift, extravagant, not being careful in his use of money, spending it left right and centre as if there were no tomorrow- that is the idea. And he probably had good social reasons for doing this. Let me explain.

A newcomer to a Middle Eastern village has to establish himself, especially if he was a foreigner. How do you ‘get in’ to the new community? Well, one way is by being generous. You hold large banquets and hand out expensive gifts. This is a culture in which generosity is the supreme virtue. That, then is how you gain status and standing in the eyes of others. That was the accepted way, and still is to a great extent. But the person is also expected to be sensible and invest money. Not this man. It is alright to eat the fruit of the tree but it is also wise to water it. V 14 ‘After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.’

Again, there is a careful use of words by Jesus, to ‘spend’ everything- means to waste his money. And then a deep, dark shadow is cast over his very existence- did you spot it? A ‘great famine.’ Let’s be honest we really have no experience of what this means. We can see the moving pictures on TV of what a famine can do, but for those in the middle of a famine it is a time of unimaginable horror. Back in 1889 an Austrian military officer called von Slatin, was trapped in Sudan by the revolt of a group of religious fanatics under the leadership of the Mahdi. And that is when a famine, very much like the one being spoken of here, struck. He recorded his experiences and tells of children being sold into slavery to keep them from starving. He speaks of people being found dead in the morning lying out on the streets of Omdurman. As the numbers increased an edict was issued that everyone was responsible for throwing the dead who were in front of their house into the river. This led to some dragging corpses from their own houses to leave them on the doorstep of a neighbour. Unarmed men going out into the night were attacked and eaten. Shoe leather, rubbish and rotting flesh were consumed. Straying animals were eaten raw and entire villages were wiped out. That is the kind of famine this boy found himself facing. Jesus hearers knew what was coming to the lad and probably thought he was simply getting what he deserved.

So he takes swift, decisive action, v 15 ‘So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.’ The word translated, ‘hired himself out’ is ‘joined’ - it conjures up a glue like quality- he found someone and sticks to him in desperation. Who does he stick to like glue? We are told a ‘citizen’ of the country. This is no ordinary man then, he is a person of standing and wealth in the community, a special class of a privileged few- a citizen, not just an inhabitant.

And it is obvious that the man wants to shrug the younger son off and be rid of him by giving him this job of swine keeper. You see, it is standard Middle Eastern practice not to fire people or refuse people a job point blank, but to make them an offer they must refuse. So for example, a company wishing to dismiss an employee sends him on an assignment to a distant village, knowing all along he won’t accept but would resign instead. That is what is going on here. The citizen doesn’t want anything to do with this beggar. He knows the beggar had a previous reputation for being a generous party thrower. He is a foreigner from a wealthy background. He knows from his dress and speech that he is a Jew. So what is a sure fire way to send him packing? Give him a job feeding pigs. This was loathsome for a Jew, plain revolting, offending every religious fibre of his being. But he does it nonetheless.

But there is a further twist in the downward spiral of personal degradation of the boy-v 16. ‘He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.’ He was so hungry he was overwhelmed with the desire to eat the pigs swill. But that was one step to far- he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

So he tried begging and not very successfully – ‘no one gave him anything.’ Can you imagine it? Bony arm outstretched to any passer by, reeking with human sweat and the stench of the sty, the pitiful pleading of a man who is terrified of dying- the agonised dying by starvation.

But have you wondered what kept him here for so long? Why he didn’t decide to go back home as soon as the money ran out and the famine really began to bite? The answer quite simply was fear. There was the fear of his brother’s scorn, which as we shall see in a couple of week’s time was a justified fear. Not only will he be blamed for what has happened, he will be forced to live off his brother’s inheritance. How do you think his brother will make him feel about that? He is not going to let him forget who is boss. He is going to remind him every single day of his life what an absolute loser he has been. And he couldn’t handle that. Could you?

But secondly, do you remember what I said about the villagers and the Kezazah ceremony? If he goes back now, everyone is going to make his life miserable, wishing he had never been born. It still happens, local gangs of children and youths would follow such a person wherever they went making sport of them, calling them names, taunting them, throwing stones and animal dung at them. That was what was waiting for him if he went back home. No wonder the pig sty looked a more attractive option.

I began by asking: why do people reject Christianity? Let me ask another question: why do some people keep away from Christianity? Let me tell you something. A Christian worker, ministering amongst the down- and- outs in Chicago relates the following incident that happened to him: ‘A prostitute came to me in wretched straights, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two year old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter-two years old -to men. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story.. I had no idea what to say to this woman. At last I asked if she ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. ‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.’ Isn’t that a tragedy, that such a though should be entertained-but what is even a greater tragedy is that in some cases there are grounds for thinking it. That was happening in Jesus day. That is why the moral and social outcasts were coming to him and not the Pharisees (the church) for they knew what a short shrift they would get from them. But it shouldn’t be so amongst God’s people for it is not just a pious platitude but a profound truth when we say, ‘But for the grace of God there go I.’

But then we come to the key phrase of v17 "When he came to his senses..’ Do you think that the father was right in what he did-letting his son go off in this way? As we saw last week, he could have refused him and punished him, but he didn’t. When you think about it, wasn’t the father being very wise? You see there are two ways of learning- from authority and from experience. You know, some people learn best from bitter experience, especially if they have already rejected the authority. If the son had remained at home, he may have kept the rules, but the relationship wouldn’t have been much. But this way he learns the hard way. And this is part of the answer to the question, why does God allow people to suffer? For some it is a giving over to their desires, as if God is saying, ‘OK , you think that you can run your life without me and my laws, go ahead and see what happens.’ And so we do. One of the most extreme forms of this ‘go ahead and see’ approach is when God gives us over to famine and war. The writer C. S. Lewis saw this in the middle of the Second World War, when he wrote: ‘War does something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it was good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centred on this world, were always doomed to final frustration. In ordinary times only wise men realise it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have long been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had our foolish unchristian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building heaven upon earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.’

Do we not belong to a prodigal society, squandering its heritage? As a nation we have been singularly blessed by God in the past, as this boy had been by his father. For a thousand years Christianity has been the official faith of this land. We have been delivered from paganism in the distant past, from Islam in the Middle Ages, from a corrupt Roman Catholicism in the 16th century and from Fascist and Marxist dictatorships in the 20th century. Christianity gave us our schools, our hospitals, our prison reforms and factory acts. Blessing upon blessing has come our way. But what have we done with them? Thanked the Giver? Hardly. We have taken them for granted, and spurned his love and so our society steadily unravels as did this boy’s life.

And so he hatches a face saving plan-vv 17-20 "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! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' 20So he got up and went to his father.’

Now, does this ‘coming to his senses’ mean that he had repented? Not necessarily. There is no remorse expressed but only a desire to eat. He reasons others are eating while I am starving I have got to do something! But he knew the problem he faced- the shame and the Kezazah ceremony. The only way he could see things remotely working out was if somehow he could pay back the money. He had no marketable skills, hence the plan to get trained –v 19 ‘treat me like one of your hired men.’ These were not slaves (douloi). The word used is a ‘skilled craftsman’ (misthios). So if he can get accepted onto a training scheme and get a job then there is some hope of paying off his debt and ingratiating himself back into society’s good books. It is a remote chance but a chance nonetheless.

Now why am I not convinced that his rehearsed speech is sincere? Well, look at how he begins his speech, ‘Father, I have sinned before heaven and against you’ or ‘in your sight.’ Remember Jesus is mainly talking to Pharisees who knew their Bibles. This is a paraphrase taken from the mouth of Pharaoh when he addressed Moses after the nine plagues- Exodus 10:16, ‘I have sinned against the Lord your God and against you.’ And everyone knows Pharaoh didn’t mean that, that is why he sent his chariots to get the Israelites later. It was eyewash, just trying to manipulate Moses into calling off God’s judgement. And maybe the careful choice of words Jesus uses in telling the story is meant to convey the same sense of attempted manipulation. It is a feigned humility, crocodile tears. And that he wants to pay off his father shows that he still hasn’t got it. The issue is not about lost money, but a lost relationship. And so he sets off home.

Let me tell you that many people begin their journey back home to God on that same mistaken basis. They think that by attending church, trying to turn over a new leaf, even placing some coins on the collection plate that somehow they can pay God back and get into his good books again. And the result is that their religion becomes a dreary set of chores with no inner joy. It is all duty not delight. But at least there is some movement back in the right direction. And perhaps that is you this morning. You somehow wish to compensate God for something you have done wrong in your life. You feel guilty. If so then let me make it clear that you are going to be profoundly disappointed. God will not accept a thing from you. How can he? If you or I were to live for a thousand years we could never make up for all the wrong we have done. No, God himself will bear the cost, as this father in the story bears the cost of the son’s rebellion-he suffers. But what you do experience when you come to the one true God in Jesus is total, free acceptance, and a great welcome- a tear filled, ‘where have you been and why did it take you so long to come back to me.’ That is what God will say, as this father says. The question is: Have you come back to him? And if you have are you wearing yourself out trying to make things up to him. Then please stop it and simply, but gratefully, accept his love for you.

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