We’re concluding our series on apathy today. We’ve been addressing apathy and specifically our withdraw from the world. We’re trying to reengage our hearts towards the world.
I wonder how many of us would say this has helped and got you thinking about things differently. Some of you are engaging with people, and I’ve heard great stories. But some of you are still not ready and are hesitant. Some in here are maybe still defiant, but maybe not as much as you were before.
I was thinking about how to encourage you the most. I wasn’t planning on doing Luke 15, but as I was thinking this week, this parable of the prodigal son, or the parable of the lost sons, really stood out. I hope you see a little different slant in this story. It’s an invitation to joy, it’s an invitation to come home, come inside, join the party.
Luke 15, Jesus is responding to this criticism from “insiders” that he receives sinners. He’s spending time with the worst people and even eats with them. If you ate with people, especially in that culture, you were signaling close kinship. So the religious people, the apathetic and heartless ones, they wanted nothing to do with the lost unbelievers. They wanted no engagement with them whatsoever. In fact, there was disdain.
So Jesus tells three stories in response to the criticism.
In the first story, a shepherd leaves the 99 sheep to find one. In the second, a woman loses something valuable and tears up the house to find it. In both stories, they celebrate when the thing is found.
What the shepherd and the woman would do in that story are exactly what anyone would do in that culture. They would hunt for something valuable and celebrate when they found it.
So Jesus is essentially saying in response to criticism, I’m doing what you would do when finding something valuable that was lost. You’d think that was enough to defend himself. But then there’s a third story where something different happens.
So far we’ve got the message that God is very much like us when we lose something valuable. But in the third story we learn that God is also very much not like us. He separates himself in a very big way in this story.
Probably a better title for this parable is the parable of two lost sons. The insider and the outsider.
The younger son has run off and wants nothing to do with the Father. The older son actually wants a connection with the Father.
The younger son is publicly, blatantly offensive. Give me my share of the property. Eventually, he ends up in a pigs sty. In the Middle Eastern Culture, the biggest offense is a familial offense. In an honor-shame culture, the son is the legacy of the family name. He had a heavy responsibility to carry on the name and be security to the family. It was built-in social and moral obligation. There were no alternatives.
So listen to how he offends this cultural mandate at every level:
- He abandons his family
- He takes his inheritance
- He acts irresponsible
- He’s immoral and offensive at every level
- To add insult to injury, eating what pigs eat is the clearest way to express to Jewish culture how unclean this guy had become because pigs were unclean to the Jews.
No one is more sickening to this culture than this kid. Far off the rails, offensive to his family, rude and embarrassing.
Then one day, he realizes how bad he has it and that the servants have it far better. He’s going to accept that low position. The reason that son can only ask to be a servant is because he knows he has forever lost his sonship ability. He’s out. In that culture, it’s not an option.
There’s a little line you can’t miss: He was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. Why? In that culture, you go after what is valuable and when you find it you celebrate. But also in that culture, when a son acted like that, the culture would disdain him as much as the culture and they would give him nothing.
Then you come to this next section here.
The son knows here that sonship is impossible. He starts his speech and the father interrupts him.
Everything about what the Father did in this text is every bit as offensive as what the son did. This is God saying, I’m not like the rest of this culture. He’s still looking for his son every day and sees him from afar. There’s not disdain in his heart, there’s compassion.
Then he runs. The Middle Eastern culture has this slow pace that indicates dignity. To run would be beneath the dignity of an elder. It would show that he was out of control and lost all sense of time and priority. Then he brought up his robe and showed his legs. That would be humiliating. The Father is doing what no Father would do. Then he kisses him in public, which you wouldn’t do in public.
The Father is now coming across as shameful and stupid. He’s almost taking the place of the son in the story. He gives him this long robe and ring that communicates authority and that everything I have is yours again. The fattened calf was slaughtered and everyone would know. The Father is reckless here.
The robe and ring are symbols of honor and this boy is shameful. The Father is reckless.
Tim Keller calls the Father the Prodigal Father, because he went as far off the reservation as his son did in showing love. Now the Father is the talk of the town instead of the boy.
So there’s immediate restoration. The boy thought he would have to work as a servant. At this point, the culture would hate the Father more than the son.
But now there’s a party going on. There are two rebels partying. I don’t know if you’ve ever sensed God as a rebel partying.
Now we bring in the older son. He comes in from the field, which is his comfort zone.
This older son is home, but is as far away from the Father as anyone else. He’s in a distant field working. He has to call a servant to ask what’s happening. He doesn’t know what makes the Father’s heart beat fast. The servant knows exactly what is going on and the supposed son has no idea.
Often in parables, you’ll see an odd man out––the guy who looks in but is actually out. If you don’t understand that, your theology will get screwed up. That’s the older brother. He’s closer in proximity, but he’s farther away in reality.
Now the disconnect becomes greater. When the Father is compassionate toward the younger brother, the older brother is angry. The older brother has been disconnected from the Father, but now he becomes emotionally disconnected in a way that creates a stubbornness to not go into the party.
So the Father has to come out of the party. He came out to meet the younger son and now he’s coming out to meet the older son.
The tense of the verb “entreat” suggests that he kept on begging for the boy to come into the party. It’s an invitation into the joy and the celebration.
As a parent, nothing breaks your heart like seeing siblings not connecting. I remember being up early one morning around 5am. I was sitting in a chair with a small light on. My oldest, Anthony, comes and sits in my lap. Not long after, Eric follows and comes to my lap and tries to get in and Anthony blocks him. No father is happy about that. I’ve got to move his hand and bring him up. Having them together and loving each other and loving me is one of the best things in the world. You can’t break up any pieces of that.
This is the Father saying, please don’t stay out here. You’re going to break my heart and ruin this party.
The Father is already off the rails, so why not go further? No Father would have left the party and begged. He would have sent someone and demanded. And here is what his Father did after that begging:
Already, I would rather hang out with the younger brother than this snot-nosed guy. He’s arrogant. It almost seems as if it makes more sense to go off the rails than for someone to be this arrogant. Who is harder to stomach in this story?
This supposed “righteousness” is what the older brother depends on. If you’re not going to go towards the world, this is where you’re most comfortable. You talk about your years of service and how much you deserve until you get to heaven.
The older brother has no family ties. He says, “This son of yours.” He doesn’t even call his Father “Father.”
We become harder on lost people than God is. It’s not a safe place to be.
Imagine if the prodigal son would have run into this brother on the way home before he saw his Father. He would have never made it in because the older son would have treated him so bad he would have never made it home.
Everyone who runs from God is in a spiritual struggle. But everyone who stays home is also in a spiritual struggle. Where does anger and apathy come from? It comes from claiming your virtues. He goes through the list of things he’s done and what makes him feel good about his relationship with God. It turns you into Jonah, a religious monster. “I’m angry with the world, because they’re not like me.” You’re screaming, “I’m better than you.”
So, our “holiness”––which is what the older brother is claiming––becomes a stumbling block. It declares, “I’m not like you people.” And it becomes exclusion: “You’re not welcome in my house.”
One writer said, “What a naive approach to spirituality and the spiritual life. It makes it seem simple, if you want to be holy, just exclude anyone who isn’t holy.” Is that what the Christian life is? Just exclude people and you’re in?
The guy who appeared to be in is really out. You begin to feel sorry for the Father in a way you didn’t feel sorry for him with the younger son. You think you can make God sicker than all the people we’re excluding?
The Father came out to see him, because he’s just as lost, maybe more. And it appears he’s harder to reach. In the story, the younger son returns, but we don’t know about the older.
The movie The Jesus Revolution is worth going to see. It’s a story about a revival that happened in the early 70s. You have this crusty old church with crusty people in it. And hippies start wanting to know about God. Their lives are messed up. The old folks are having a heart attack. They meet with the pastor and tell him, if you want to keep your job, get them out of here. The best moment in the movie is when more hippies show up the next Sunday. The pastor shares his heart just like the Father in the story. I have my hippy son and my crusty son. The crusty group storms out. One crusty guy is left and he goes and sits with the hippies. That’s more amazing than the fact that the hippies were there. That’s every bit as powerful. It’s the highest moment when the crusties sit with the hippies.
So this is what God says to the crusties:
The Father is saying, it was necessary, not optional. It’s got to happen. We party with the hippies. We party with the lost and the dead. That’s what we do. I’m not like everybody else. I may be like the woman and the shepherd, but I’m not your normal dad. I’m a little reckless when it comes to loving lost people. So get out of your stuffy, crusty spirituality and get out there with them.
The Father loves them both. He’s humiliated himself for both. He’s waited for both, he’s come out to meet both. They both need grace.
Henri Nouwen says in Return of the Prodigal Son, “Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being.”
He’s calling them both to enjoy his grace. Here’s the irony of the story: The indictment was that Jesus receives sinners and eating with them. At the end of the story, who is he inviting to eat with him? Us. We’re the one’s he’s inviting into the party.
The Pharisees who were criticizing didn’t even know they were part of the group that needed to be invited into the party.
What will ruin you more than anything else is to hang out at church so much that you lose touch with those who are outside the kingdom. It will rot your soul. Get out there and watch God be with people.
This week was special for me. I was with one of the guys I’ve been talking about. We were working out together and he actually asked how I was doing. He started to care about me. That was a big step. Then while he was in the middle of a workout, he asked out of the blue, do you think you can take faith too far? You know, Jesus freaks? And I said, yeah I think you can. Then I said to him, you can also go not far enough. Just like this gym. There are those who take it too far, and those who don’t take it far enough.
I want a taste of that grace.
Everyone I’ve met at the gym I could tell you their name, and when I see them I say their name. Last week I was in the sauna and there was a kid in there with no earbuds in. So I started talking to him. Everyone loves to talk about how long they stay in the sauna. He said he’s going for 30 minutes today. When we left, the conversation was good enough that he got up to get out and we exchanged names. It was very possible I would never see him again. But Friday, I walk in there and we made eye contact. First thing, I said his name and asked how long he was staying in there. That led to me asking his story and I found out about the struggles in his life. I told him about our young adult ministry and he took my number. I told him to text me and I would go with him.
We all need to come home. Both sons need a home. The Father wants us both home.
Jesus went outside so we could go inside. It doesn’t matter how far. Jesus went out so we could go in.