The Prodigal Son - Luke 15:11-32
by Pamela A. Thompson
Sermon Style: An adaptation of the four pages format (trouble in the world, trouble in the text, grace in the text, grace in the world).
Text Function: This text has three primary functions: 1) To call the lost home, 2) To show the grace/forgiveness/mercy of the father, 3) to show the church (Pharisees to whom Jesus was addressing) that lost people matter to God and that they should matter to us. This sermon is focused primarily around the first, to be evangelistic, although it does draw out the latter two as well.
Let's face it - life can be tough and getting along with others it not easy. I don't know about some of you, but I often experience the tension of wanting things my own way and in my own timing. We may think that we know best and may do what it takes to get what we want, even if it means going through others to get it.
Being accountable to or in relationship with someone else is not always easy. When things aren't going good, often the easiest option is packing up and leaving. Take our share and leave to do things our own way - you know the drill. Just avoid working through the issues and take the easy out.
What can be more difficult than saying "I am wrong, I am sorry - please forgive me"? Our pride gets in the way and instead of swallowing it and working things through, we just avoid it and leave.
Let me tell you about Jerry. Jerry grew up in as a pastor's kid and had more love bestowed upon him than some could ever dream of. He always had a roof over his head, food to eat, parents that loved him, a faith community that supported him and siblings to rough house with. Jerry grew up the way most church kids do - at the church whenever the doors were open, lots of friends, summers at camp, family devotions and parents that cared. When Jerry was twenty-two, he decided that things were in need of change. He wanted to live his life the way he wanted and left home after a family argument.
It was two years before his family heard from him again. His parents, his siblings and extended family and the church all over had been praying fervently for Jerry's return. Jerry did return one day at the steps of his parent's house. His dad greeted him at the door and embraced him with tears streaming down his face. Jerry turned back to the car to summon someone else in - his wife. They had been married for a year - the family never even knew he was married.
Sue and Jerry reluctantly came into the house as Jerry's mom was already on the phone telling everyone that her son had returned and had the steaks were already pulled out of the freezer to BBQ that night. Jerry and Sue were tired and slept a lot. They were very hungry and weak and had bruises all over their arms. On Sunday, they went to church with the family, greeted the friends and said all the right things. On the third night though, they slipped back away into the dark, anonymous night with his parent's checkbook and cleaned out the family's savings. They returned to Denver to appease their drug habit and their addiction only grew worse. Soon they were both selling their bodies on the street just to get by. Not only had they violated his family's trust, now they were violating their marriage vows as well… just for a moment of fleeting pleasure. Months later, Sue and Jerry split up and went separate ways, each doing what it took to nurture their addiction. Jerry eventually was living in a cardboard box in the ghetto, eating out of trash cans and drinking aqua Velva. Sue was found dead in an alley from a drug overdose.
Through it all, Jerry's father went to the city, 400 miles away, whenever he could to search for his son. Even though he had been betrayed and taken advantage of, he still looked and longed for his son to come home.
Explore with me another story of a son who has gone far away from his family in Luke 15:11-32.
We enter the story at a point of tension in the family relationship. It is in the tension of inheritance - in asking for what will one day be ours, now. While many of us may "bank on" or look forward to what we will one day inherit from our parents, it is taboo for us to ask for it while our parents are still alive. We know it is coming, we may have factored into our RRSP's and retirement plans with our financial advisors, but demanding it while our parents are alive and well is simply unheard of.
But this is what we see. The father's youngest son requests what will be his early, and for some reason that we are not sure of, his father grants both he and his brother this gift. Both the request and the granting of it are exceptional in Eastern life and thought - because what it is saying is that the son is in a hurry for his father to die. The father, by custom, is expected to refuse and punish his son for even asking. But instead of punishing his son, he grants the request in an unprecedented act of love. The older son, who should have stepped in for the good of the family to mediate and foster reconciliation does not, but instead, acquires his share as well. Both sons fail and try to live together in unity.
The young son sells his share of the land for cash and departs for a more exciting place - a foreign land. Unwise with his money, his inheritance, he loses it all. Reduced to herding pigs for a gentile (remember that for a Jew, pigs are considered unclean, and that it is a sin to touch one), he faces starvation and would even be willing to eat pig food, if he would only be given some. He has hit rock bottom. The man he is working for is trying to get rid of him, knowing that a Jew would not work with pigs because they are unclean, but even that doesn't work. This son, who was heir to a great estate, has nothing.
He has discovered that things are not as good as he had dreamt. His quests for independence and freedom have led him right to the pig trough. He has no one to turn to, no one who cares and nowhere to go. He has betrayed his family in such a deep way, that no doubt at this point they consider him as dead. Could he ever go back? What words could ever make up the deep betrayal and disloyalty he demonstrated? He knew he didn't deserve forgiveness.
At the end of his broken dreams he had nothing. Nothing except a hungry stomach, blatant disregard of the law, broken relationships, the loss of his inheritance and no one to turn to that cared.
With no alternatives in sight for survival, he does the only thing he can think of. He decides to go back to his village, but not to his home. He figures that there will be someone there who will at least take him in to work as a servant and give him a meager wage. He plans on taking this into his own hands, he is so hungry and just wants to survive. His whole village knows about what happened in his family, of his betrayal, desertion and violation of respect to his father. He could be easily shunned and he was intensely apprehensive of his initial reception as he re-entered the community.
As he journeys home, he plays over an over again in his head the rough circumstances of his departure and wonders if his father even alive? How will he be able to look his father in the face again knowing the way he dishonored and betrayed him? He deserves to be at least spit on… or worse.
He approaches the village and sees the familiar hills, neighbors working the fields, children running through the trees and women out baking bread. It was as although nothing had changed; yet everything was different. He was an outsider, through no one's doing but his own. He musters all of his courage and steps forward. At the mercy of the people, he had just stepped forward into a place of vulnerability and unknown. All he wanted is for someone to give him a break, to allow him to be their servant and to at least earn enough for food.
His father, looking into the distance, sees the familiar stature coming over the hill and does what no honorable man of his age would do. He lifts up his cloak up to his knees and runs with everything in him to embrace his son - his lost son, who has come home. Instead of running to him and telling him how much he has hurt the family and dishonored him, he embraces him - long and hard, kisses him on the cheek. Tears stream down their both of their cheeks as they embrace knowing the importance of this moment.
The son takes a step back, looks into his father's eyes and through his tears confesses, "Father, I have sinned against God and you. I know that I am no longer worthy to even be called your son."
It is then that the story takes a twist of unexpected, extravagant grace. Instead of allowing the son to plead, beg or dwell in his shame the father beckon to those around them, "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 - we are going to celebrate! This son of mine was dead and is now alive. He was lost and now he is found!"
What he just did was treat his son like royalty. Even though the son had already stripped the father of half of his possessions, had betrayed and dishonored their family and God, with extravagant grace extends to him, in front of everyone, the father gives him back the place of son-ship. He does what no one else could do for that man - he gives him back his dignity and restores him to right relationship with himself. The old is gone and the new has come. The father did not call out for his servants to wash his son off before he embraced him or put the robe on him, and he no doubt smelled repulsive and looked awful after all he had been through. Instead, just as he was, this extravagant mercy and grace is bestowed upon him and the party of all parties is thrown. There is nothing to hide; the lost has come home and that is reason to celebrate.
Upon his return, the son is overwhelmed by an unexpected visible demonstration of love and humiliation. He is shattered by the offer of grace, confesses unworthiness, and accepts restoration to son-ship in genuine humility.
The meat is roasting, the music is playing, the wine is flowing - the celebration has begun. At the end of the workday, the older brother returns from the field to find an unexpected party at his house. Having no idea what was going on, he asks one of the servants who tell him that his brother had finally come home so his father has thrown a party.
In his mind he tries to make sense of this. "A party? Father is throwing him a party? After all he has done to us. After all of the pain he has caused? And we are just going to welcome him back, just like that? Does he know what he has done to us?" Anger surged through his veins and the temperature in his body rose the more he thought about it, so much that he could not even go into the house to greet his father and brother. Finally, his father, after hearing that he was home, went out to talk to him and pleaded with him. The brother finally released what was within and with great tension and emotion said, "Look Dad! For all of these years I have busted my back to work for you. I have always done what you have said and have never screwed up. I have always been faithful and loyal to you, and look. Look at all of this. Finally, our brother that has screwed us over comes home because he wants to use us again and you throw him a party? You kill the fattened calf for him? I did everything for you, and you never even let me kill a goat for my friends and I to enjoy!"
With tenderness, compassion and conviction, the father looks into his eldest son's eyes and says, "You are right. You have always been with me and everything I have is yours. You know that. But we had to celebrate. We had to celebrate and rejoice because he is your brother! Your brother, who was dead, is alive again. He was lost and now he is found."
The elder brother had to be reminded that lost people matter. He was important to his family and honored his father by not leaving, and by serving him with everything - that pleased his father. It was also important that he accepted his brother, his very blood, his family, back. Back from the sin, back from the brokenness and back from the betrayal. Instead of reminding his brother how bad he had been, his role was to show him love.
Perhaps that is one of the toughest things for those of us who have been in the church for a while. We work so hard to be sure that our lives honor God, that we are living the right way, saying the right things and serving - that when others fail to do so we don't know what to do. When rocky times hit or when there are disagreements in the family, we let them leave and pursue their own dreams and ambitions instead of fostering healing and reconciliation. As long as we are still on the up and up, it is okay. Friends, it was never meant to come to this. As a family, the family of God, we are to support one another, love another, forgive one another and carry each other's burdens - unconditionally!
And if there are members of our family that become lost, we are not to just write them off and leave them for the swine, but we are to search them out, to bring them home and rejoice when they return to the father.
Our primary purpose is to glorify God and to bring as many along with us as possible, not to live out our holy huddle and when someone falls help push them back down when they try get up. Let's together, live as a people who love, forgive, support and encourage each other!
Eventually, several years later Jerry returned to his parent's home. He walked up the cement steps and rang the doorbell. His mom opened the door cautiously, as they were not expecting any company that evening. As she looked into the eyes of her son she had not seen for years, tears welled up inside. The only thing that came to her mind was that her son had come home - that he was alive and that he was now found! The elderly father came upstairs to see what his wife was frantic about, and as soon as he saw his son he dropped his cane and ran as fast as he could to embrace his son. The past was just that, the past. It was time to embrace, to celebrate and to rejoice. Family will always be family and family was always welcome and accepted unconditionally at home.
In talking with Jerry afterwards, he expressed that hardest thing to do was to make the decision to come home. He had only planned on stopping through to see how they were and to get a hot meal, but the extravagant grace expressed to him by his family was enough to make him stay.
What is extravagant grace? What does this mean? I think it means that we don't get what we deserve. By our actions, we all deserve actions, judgment and separation, but because of Christ's great love and because His love compels us we find acceptance, mercy and forgiveness.
It doesn't matter what circumstances led up to the son's leaving. It doesn't matter what happened while he was gone; what he did, who he was with, where he went - all that matters is that he came home. He came home to the father that loved him, forgave him, accepted him and lavished love upon him - just the way he was.
Returning to the father is one of the hardest yet most glorious places one can be. It is the place of light, the place of truth, the place of love. It is the place where we so much want to be, but are so fearful of being. It is the place where we will receive all that we desires, all that we have ever hoped for, and all that we will ever need. It is also the place where we have to let go of all we most want to hold on to. It is the place that confronts us with the fact that truly accepting live, forgiveness and healing is often much harder than giving it. It is the place beyond earning, deserving and rewarding. It is the place of surrender and complete trust.
Do you hear him calling? Do you feel the gentle nudging of the Spirit calling you home? Does your heart long for the acceptance that only a loving father can give?
It is hard. It is hard to return to the place of light, to the place of truth and the place of love. But what is harder than returning is staying where you are - in a place of loneliness, emptiness and a place that is filled with broken dreams.
God is calling you back to him tonight. It doesn't matter what drew you away. It doesn't matter what has happened while you were gone, whom you were with or where you went. God simply beckons us home to receive the embrace, the acceptance, the forgiveness and the lavish love he has for us.