We’ve spent several weeks looking at Jesus’ kingdom parables, listening to his voice, seeing through his eyes. It’s important to do that regularly. Next week I want us to go back to our theme for the year, A Closer Walk with God, and hopefully these parables have helped us to do that as well.
When Jesus wanted to drive a point home he would tell a story. That’s what parables do. They are not cute little illustrations, but powerful demonstrations of the truth - windows into the kingdom of God. And in those parables Jesus will say “This is what the kingdom of God is like…” And it’s a message we need to hear because if there is one thing we need to know in this life, it’s how to live with one foot in the next.
You can’t really talk about the parables without spending time in our parable this morning, the parable of the prodigal son. This parable is important for our closer walk with God because it is the story of the journey home when we lose our way. And at some point, we all lose our way… we may not make it all the way to the far country, but we lose sight of the father and we forget who we are and why we’re here.
Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “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? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 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. “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? And when she finds it, she calls h
er friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. “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. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
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! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 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. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
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. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 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.’ ” Luke 15:11-23.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been lost, really lost, but it’s a terrible feeling – whether we are talking about losing our direction in the woods or losing our direction in life. And the one thing Jesus came to do was “to seek and save the lost.” (Lk 19:10) And there is no greater joy than the relief we feel when we find our way home. And there is no greater joy for God than when he sees us coming over the horizon.
And so, let’s begin with that question: What gives God joy? It is a decisive question, the answer to which runs like a thread woven though Luke’s gospel.
Only two accusations against Jesus had any substance: 1) He did not keep the Sabbath; 2) He kept bad company.
It is ironic that the worst people of the day were attracted to the holiest one that ever lived – to the Pharisees this was a credibility destroying contradiction. Good men don’t keep bad company – they even had a saying in that day: “There is joy before God when those who provoke him perish from the world.” One of the messages of Luke is what really gives God joy – Jesus responds with three parables in Luke 15 to tell us why he kept the company he did. They are really more of an admission than a defense. They are like the three feathers on an arrow – they all have the same target, drive toward the same point.
In all three, something of value winds up missing. In each case it matters to someone. In fact, in two of them, what is missing matters so much, it warrants an all-out search.
Jesus has a purpose for all three stories: The first is for the men – a sheep is lost and the shepherd goes out searching. The second is for the women – this coin isn’t a quarter that fell out of her change purse, it was a part of her dowry and represented her marriage – it was the equivalent of losing a wedding ring.
Is that how we look at these things today? How would an accountant look at these stories? To the shepherd he would tell him, “it’s an unjustifiable risk leaving the ninety-nine to go after the one, it’s cost of doing business – there will be more lambs this spring to cover the loss. And the woman – he would tell her, “don’t get worked up, it’s just one out of ten – with shrewd investment we’ll make that back and then some.” But that’s not how the shepherd and the woman felt.
Did you notice the emphasis on rejoicing in both of these stories? Three times in the first, twice in the second. Haven’t each of us experienced that same kind of thing? We’ve all at some time lost something that wasn’t worth very much on paper, but was invaluable to us, and we went to an extraordinary amount of effort to find it.
The third story is for everybody – the story of a lost son.
There are three great themes in all three stories:
SEPARATION: In all three stories, something of great value is separated from the one to whom it belongs, and in each of the stories that thing is called “lost.” And in all three stories the owner feels agony over what is lost. That is because it is dangerous and tragic to be lost.
In Palestine, there is no such thing as herds of wild sheep. It is a terrible thing to be a lost sheep, because a lost sheep isn’t far from being a dead sheep. And that is how Jesus uses that word “lost” – it is a terrible word. It’s the same word Jesus’ disciples use out in the boat while the storm is raging and they say, “Master don’t you care if we perish?” It’s the same word in 2 Peter 3:9, “not wanting anyone to perish.” It’s the same word Jesus uses of Judas when he prays, “none has been lost except that one destined for destruction (to perish).” This is a scary word. The Bible tells us “Your iniquities have separated you from your God,” and, “sin leads to death.” This sin is a universal condition – Isaiah says, “we have all, like sheep gone astray, each one of us has turned to his own way.”
Today in the church, we find it easier to talk about the “world” and the “unchurched” and “sinners” than “the lost.” Everybody will admit to being a sinner, but we are uncomfortable with the idea of lostness, as if it were incompatible with the message of grace in the Bible. The irony of such a compromise is that we are weakening the message of grace, because grace is not good news if no one needs rescuing. The idea of lostness puts the church in a different business than anyone else (benevolence, counseling, fellowship – others do that too). There is one thing we do that no one else is going to do – seek and save the lost. This idea of separation is crucial to these stories.
The second theme: CELEBRATION
A point in each story is the description of the celebration that goes inevitably with the finding of that which was lost. When you find something you really cherish the natural first reaction is to ask, “who can I share my joy with?” Did you notice that everybody in all three stories is happy with the ending? (Well, not older brother and not the fattened calf.)
The older brother is intriguing. In the first two stories, everybody is happy that a party is happening. In the third story we find someone not thrilled by a party. In fact, he is bothered by the party and bothered by the father’s joy. It seems to him that the father’s joy is immoral and compromised and discriminatory. He reminds me of H.L. Mankin’s description of a Puritan: “a person with a daunting fear that someone, somewhere is happy.”
I want you to notice what the father said when the older son complained “this party isn’t right” – “we HAD to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
There are not many things God HAS to do – not many things God MUST do – but here in Luke’s Gospel this word “must” is a strong word. Jesus says, “I MUST suffer many things and go to the cross.” It’s used when Jesus says, “I MUST be raised again.” It’s used there with those men on the road to Emmaus when Jesus said, “The words of the prophets must be fulfilled.” There are not many things God MUST do, but one of those things is that God MUST be true to his nature. When God makes a promise, he MUST keep it. And when God sees a lost one found, he MUST celebrate.
And the point of his story is – his people will too. Nobody should like to party and celebrate more than God’s people. Did you know that heaven has angels like you have neighbors? When a lost one is found and saved, God has angels just rushing up to have a party and celebrate just like your friends do when something you’ve lost has been found.
I’m not sure all of us have that same joy God has. When we have a baptism, sometimes it causes us to run a few minutes long. Our concern is not, “let’s celebrate because this person who was lost has been rescued by the Father and is being born into Jesus Christ” – their concern is “this is going to make me wait longer at the restaurant.”
What Jesus is suggesting is that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law don’t value the same things that God does. So the idea of celebration is crucial to these stories. And the point is, if you have a heart like God’s you must celebrate over the saving of lost ones.
The final theme here in Luke 15 is RECONCILIATION:
Can you believe, there are some people who don’t like this story about the prodigal son? Their attitude is that this story teaches that you can just live as you please and it doesn’t matter to God – do what you like and when you get ready, just come on back and everything will be forgiven and forgotten.
They complain that Luke 15 is all about love, but it isn’t about holiness – that there is no cross in this gospel. But if that’s the point you see, we’re not reading the same story. In this story Jesus tells us about a Father who suffers and agonizes and hurts over his lost son. And in the homecoming, we see a God who loves his son so much there isn’t anything that he wouldn’t do to reclaim him, not any price he wouldn’t pay to have him back. We see a willingness to invest himself and a foreshadowing of the incarnation.
The story tells us that while the boy was a long way off, the Father was already looking for him, and when he saw him he went running – hiking up his robe, showing off those old bony knees, and when he gets to his son he hugs him and kisses him. It is so familiar to us we anticipate it – but to Jesus’ first listeners it was unexpected, scandalous. This is a surprise ending – not one person in a thousand would have completed the story with this ending. The father is taking the shame of the son on himself.
Luke 15 is a commentary on Jn 3:16 – that the Father loved the world so much that he sent his own son. I see in the Father’s run the terrible sprint from heaven to Calvary where Jesus died.
What matters to God?
There is another version of the story :
There was a father who had two boys. One’s name was Joshua, Joshua was a good boy, he always did the father’s will. The other boy was Adam, and Adam had a rebellious streak. One day he said, “I’m doing it my way from now on!” And he slammed the door and walked out.
But now the father, even though he still had Joshua, and Joshua perfectly kept the father’s will – there was a brokenness in the heart of the father – a gleam missing from his eye – he loved Adam so much and missed him so terribly. Sometimes in the middle of the night Joshua would wake up and hear his father talking in his sleep, “Adam, where are you, Adam, come home.” And Joshua knew that his father would never be the same without Adam. And so Joshua started hanging around the marketplace, listening to people talk, seeing if he could pick up some piece of information about Adam’s whereabouts on the grapevine.
One day at supper, Joshua looks into the eyes of his father and says, “Dad I’ve got some good news and some bad news: The good news is, I know where Adam is. The bad news is, he’s in the far country and he’s sick and living with pigs, and he’s not ever going to be able to make it back by himself. He’s never going to be home with us again unless I go after him.”
And because the father loved Adam so much, he sent Joshua. Joshua went to the far country and he found Adam. Adam was sick and feverish, laying on a filthy mat in the back of the barn. Joshua cradled Adam’s head in his lap, and Adam woke up and looked up and said, “Joshua, what are you doing here?” “I’ve come to bring you home.” “I can’t make it, I’m too sick, I could never make the journey.” “You can if I carry you. That’s why I’m here. I’ve come to carry you home.”
About that time the door of the barn bursts open and the pig farmer comes in and says, “Put that boy down, he belongs to me now. He’s in my debt.” Joshua stood up and looked the pig farmer in the eye, and said, “I don’t care how much he owes you, how hard I have to work, how filthy I have to get, I will pay off his debt and take him away from here.” And it took a long time. He got just as filthy and smelly as his brother. But he paid off the debt. And then he made a yoke in the shape of a cross and placed it on his back and placed Adam on it and carried his brother the miles back to his father’s home. And the father saw both his boys coming down the road. And he ran and smothered them with hugs and kisses and then he said, “There will never be a party like the party I will throw today.”
The Pharisees did not believe God was like that, or they wouldn’t have asked Jesus “why do you keep that kind of company?”
The conclusion is summarized in four words – PEOPLE MATTER TO GOD.
And what does it mean when a church values the same things God values? We become ambassadors of God, modeling his nature, sharing his invitation of reconciliation.