Luke 15:1-3; Then Jesus said, There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said

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1 Luke 15:1-3; Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. 3 So he told them this parable: 11 Then Jesus said, There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me. So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, How many of my father s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands. 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. 22 But the father said to his slaves, Quickly, bring out a robe the best one and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! And they began to celebrate. 25 Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted 1

2 calf, because he has got him back safe and sound. 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him! 31 Then the father said to him, Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. 2

3 The Prodigal God We are people who like stories. By we I don t mean us, i.e., this congregation, in particular. I mean people. All of us. We like stories. It s why we go to the movies. It s why we go to the theater, read novels, and watch TV dramas, even when they tell the same story over and over again: son of a well-to-do family falls in love with a woman of lower social status much to his parents disapproval. There s a car accident, a serious disease, or maybe amnesia. But we all know how the story ends love wins the day and the couple lives happily ever after but still we watch. That s because we like stories. Even our earliest ancestors told each other stories. Long before there were movies, TV dramas, or even books, people sat around a fire and told each other stories. Adventure stories and love stories. Heroes and villains. Tragedies and comedies. Children, of course, love stories. I am reminded of this every Wednesday at the children s service. The children gather in a circle to hear Victoria read a story from the Bible. The Bible she reads from is a children s Bible. It doesn t include much in the way of the law given to Moses, the poetry of the Psalms, or the complicated reasoning of Paul s letters. Instead, it focuses on the stories: the Garden of Eden, Noah s Ark, the Exodus from Egypt, David and Goliath, Israel s kings and prophets, and many stories involving Jesus his birth, his teachings, his miracles, his death, and his resurrection. Nor is it only the children who gather for story time. We gather here every Sunday, in some sense, to hear a story. I don t mean necessarily the Bible passage, because that s not always a story in the traditional sense. Unlike children s Bibles, the Bible we read is the full version. We read from the law, the Psalms, and the letters of the New Testament. But regardless of whatever passage we read on a given Sunday, we come together in this space to hear once again the larger story of the Bible. 3

4 Although the Bible passage varies from week to week, the larger story is always the same. It is the story of God s reconciling love for the world, a love so great that God himself, in the form of his Son Jesus, becomes the central character. It is the story of salvation, and God, in his mercy, has written us into the story. To live as a Christian is to go on an adventure because our lives are no longer our own. Instead, they belong to the author of salvation to God himself and what God has done in Jesus Christ and what God is doing through the Holy Spirit who is at work in each one of us and in the church, both this church and Christ s church around the world. We are all participants in the Bible s grand narrative, the big story that God is writing. Not only does God write this story, God tells the story. Jesus was a story teller. The principal way that Jesus taught his disciples and the crowds that followed him was by telling parables. A parable is a type of story. It s not a news article or history lesson. It doesn t try to give us the facts. The truth of a parable does not lie in whether the events it describes really happened. The truth of a parable lies in the lesson it teaches. Every parable that Jesus teaches has a moral lesson attached to it. Among all the parables that Jesus teaches (twenty-six in all), perhaps none is better known or more beloved than the one we read today. In English Bibles it is known as the parable of the Prodigal Son [SLIDE]. Prodigal is an interesting word. It means wasteful, especially with regard to money. But it s not a word that s used a lot in casual conversation. You ll never hear anyone say, I wish I could save money and not be such prodigal spender. In fact, the only context in which I ve ever heard the word used is in this parable. That this parable is known to us as the parable of the Prodigal Son is curious. It s debatable whether the prodigal son is even the main character of the story. That we have come to know this story as the parable of the Prodigal Son is due to Bible publishers who provide subheads to help organize the chapters of the Bible. Jesus doesn t introduce the parable by giving it a title. In fact, in telling the parable, Jesus 4

5 shows straight away that there are three characters in this story. He begins by saying, There was a man who had two sons (Lk. 15:11). One of the best lessons I learned in seminary I shared with you before the sermon, and that is to try to imagine a biblical text through the eyes of each character in the story, because each character experiences the events of the story in a unique way. As Jesus reminds us, there are three characters in this parable, and we re going to look at the story through the eyes of each one. Regardless of whether he is the main character, it is the younger son, i.e., the prodigal son, who sets the action in motion. He does so by asking his father for his inheritance. On the surface this seems rude to ask in advance for that which will be his only when his father dies but it is in fact much worse than that [SLIDE]. In asking for his inheritance while his father is still living, the younger son is treating his father as if he were already dead. He is wishing him dead. We are not told the father s reaction, which might seem odd, but the Bible often does not provide us with the details of a story. We might expect any number of reactions from the father: stunned disbelief or righteous anger followed by a severe beating would seem to be natural responses to such disrespect. (If this were a Korean drama, no doubt multiple slaps to the head would be involved.) But that is not how the father responds. Instead, the father silently divides his property between his two sons and gives the younger son his share. Then off the younger son goes to a distant country, without so much as acknowledging his father. Shockingly, the father lets him go. How can the father let his son walk away like that? How can he just let him go? Doesn t he care? Doesn t he love his son? Actually, I think that it is precisely because he loves him that the father lets his son go. Sometimes love means letting go and allowing a loved one to do something that we know will prove harmful to them. That is how God is with us. God grants us a certain degree of freedom, freedom even 5

6 to turn from him and go our own way. To draw from another biblical story, God did not want Adam and Eve to distrust and disobey him, but God allowed them to do so. God loves us enough to let us go our own way. What does the younger son do with his inheritance after his father lets him go? He squanders it [SLIDE]. He wastes it on dissolute living, dissolute meaning lacking in morals. In other words, he eats and drinks and gambles and sleeps his way through his inheritance. Having left his father s home he feels a void within himself, a void that he tries to fill with so many different things, none of which satisfy. They are all poor substitutes for the love of his father. Nor is his timing good, for as soon as he has spent all his money, famine sweeps over the land. He has no money left to buy food, what little food there is. He is desperate enough to work in the fields as a day laborer whose job includes looking after pigs [SLIDE]. As a Jew, to work with pigs was shameful because they were considered unclean. Yet this heir of a wealthy man is reduced not only to working with pigs, but to looking upon them with envy because animals that they are at least they have enough to eat. He s fallen as low as he can, so low that he figures that he has nothing to lose by going back to his father s house, confessing his sin, and begging to be treated as a hired hand. He doesn t begin to imagine that he could be restored to his father s good graces; he merely wants to be treated like a hired hand, i.e., like one of his father s workers. And so, in poverty and humility he turns for home. That is the experience of the younger son. Now let s look at the father. His son has in effect wished him dead in order to receive his inheritance. Nevertheless, in love the father has given it to him and let him go. Does he expect to ever see his son again? Does he dare hope that his son will come to his senses and return home? Or does he write him off, regarding him as dead in his own eyes. After all, he still has another son at home, one who hasn t wished him dead, one who responsibly fulfills his duty. 6

7 What happens next is truly remarkable. It is the turning point of the story. The father, of course, has every right to be angry. If he angrily waited at home for his son to come crawling back in tears and disgrace begging for forgiveness, I don t know that any of us would hold it against him. But that is not what he does. While his younger son is still far off in the distance, he sees him. It must seem like a dream. That the father spots his son from a distance tells me that he has been waiting this whole time, scanning the horizon each day in the hope that perhaps today will be the day that his hope is fulfilled. The father sees his son. His heart leaps in his chest and, filled not with righteous anger but with overflowing compassion, he runs to greet his son. He runs! Now, this is interesting [SLIDE]. In the culture of the time, a culture in which men wore robes and sandals, this was scandalous behavior on the part of the father. An older man, especially a man of means as this father was, did not run. It was considered beneath him to do so. Running is what servants did. Perhaps such a cultural belief doesn t strike us as odd. A pastor at this church once told me that he was reprimanded by an older church member. What was his offense? She saw him running in the parking lot. I don t know whether he was late for an appointment or if he was running to get out of the rain, but in her mind, it was unbecoming for a pastor to run. He was not wearing a robe and sandals but a suit and clerical collar. Nevertheless, the principle was the same. The father runs to his son, throws his arms around him, and kisses him. Let s note that the father doesn t wait for his son to apologize. He doesn t demand that he repent. Of course, the son does apologize, saying, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. And that is where we might expect the father to say, See, I told you so! But again, all he does is show grace to his son. He calls for the finest robe to be given to him, for a ring to be placed upon his finger, and sandals upon his feet. He even throws a feast for his son, this son of his who was lost but is now found. 7

8 If the story ended there it would be a wonderful tale of forgiveness and reconciliation. A loving father shows grace to his wayward but repentant son. The son learns his lesson and all is forgiven. But of course the story doesn t end there. We have yet to hear from the older son [SLIDE]. If the younger son sets the story in motion, the older son brings it to its conclusion. Where is he when the blessed reunion is taking place? He s in the fields working, of course. He s being the good son that he s always been. Then suddenly he hears something. People are singing and laughing. The sounds are coming from the house. He wonders what the heck is going on. It sounds like a celebration. Why wasn t he invited? When the older son learns that his no-good brother has returned and that his father is throwing the ingrate a party no less, he becomes sullen ( 삐치다 ) and refuses to join the party. The father has to come out and plead with him! (As the father came out to greet his younger son, he also comes out for his older son.) But the older son doesn t want to hear it. Listen! he shouts, in wounded anger. For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him! (Lk. 15:29-30). Let s examine this tirade. First of all, he can t even bring himself to refer to his younger brother as his brother; instead he refers to him as this son of yours. Second, the younger son is so humble that he is willing to come back to his father as a hired hand a paid worker. Contrast that with the older son who considers himself not a hired hand but a slave to his father. For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, he says. He thinks that he is less than a hired hand. Who here is lost? Who is the prodigal son? Who is the one who has wasted what his father has given him? The younger son may have wasted his father s fortune, but the older son has wasted his father s love. He has taken it for granted all his life as he labored in the field trying to earn it. 8

9 Before we read the scripture I asked you to picture yourself as one of the characters in this parable [SLIDE]. If you imagined yourself as the younger son, perhaps it s because you don t fully trust that God s will is better than your own. Maybe you see in him your own similar desire to depart from God s will and go your own way. Maybe you identify with how he tried to fill the subsequent void in his life with food and drink and shallow friendships and sex. Maybe you have learned that the void is bottomless and can be filled only by returning home to God. If you pictured yourself as the older, responsible son, well, I m not surprised. There are a lot of older sons in the church. In fact, in some ways the older son is the church. We began today s reading with verses 1-3 before skipping to verse 11. The reason for beginning there was to see that Jesus addresses this parable of forgiveness and grace to the Pharisees and scribes the religious leaders the church of the time. They took issue with the fact that tax collectors and sinners were coming to listen to Jesus. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them, they say with disdain. The Pharisees and scribes considered themselves somehow superior to lowly sinners, and so Jesus tells them a parable to teach them the prodigal nature of God s grace. Many of us in the church are like the older son. As the older son labored in his father s fields, more so out of obligation than joy, so we labor in God s fields. We labor by trying to earn God s love with our good behavior by praying every day, by reading the Bible, by attending church, by serving the various ministries of the church. We act as if God is keeping score. Surely God will take note of my good, responsible behavior for I am not like those sinners who don t come to church. This is a fearbased faith. It s a faith that fears being regarded as unworthy of God s love. Therefore, we try to show ourselves worthy by our good behavior. If you imagined yourself as the father, congratulations! You probably have a keen understanding of how God relates to us. God is not keeping score. God is not taking attendance. God is not judicious with his love, measuring it out in proportion to our 9

10 good behavior. No, God s love is wasteful. It s wasteful because it is given to undeserving sinners like us. God is like a loving father of two lost sons. One became lost by running far from home. The other was lost without ever leaving home. Neither realized that he had already received what he most desired his father s love. 10

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