September 1, 2019
Scripture: Luke 15:11-24 (GNT)
Jesus went on to say, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger one said to him, ‘Father, give me my share of the property now.’ So the man divided his property between his two sons. After a few days the younger son sold his part of the property and left home with the money. He went to a country far away, where he wasted his money in reckless living. He spent everything he had. Then a severe famine spread over that country, and he was left without a thing. So he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him out to his farm to take care of the pigs. He wished he could fill himself with the bean pods the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything to eat. At last he came to his senses and said, ‘All my father’s hired workers have more than they can eat, and here I am about to starve! I will get up and go to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and started back to his father.
“He was still a long way from home when his father saw him; his heart was filled with pity, and he ran, threw his arms around his son, and kissed him.‘Father,’ the son said, ‘I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’ But the father called to his servants. ‘Hurry!’ he said. ‘Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Then go and get the prize calf and kill it, and let us celebrate with a feast! For this son of mine was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’ And so the feasting began.
My take on this story today is not so much about who the main character is, or who this story is really about, although that is a common approach to this well-known scripture. Or, whether the Father is supposed to represent the figure of a loving and forgiving God, although that often tends to come through anyway. In fact, I am choosing to focus only on the first half of our story, the story of the prodigal son and his father and the nature of their relationship. The second half of the story, where the disgruntled older brother gets involved is surely critical and indeed does have a place in our take on the story today, however that is another story for another day.
So, instead of picking apart the story character by character and trying to extract lessons from each, or to find where it is that we as individual believers fit into the individual characters, I would like to look at the parable perhaps as an allegorical tale…as a story that as a whole, has a message and a note of Spirit-filled guidance for us all. Much like it has been said that the Book of Job is actually an allegory of the history of the Hebrew people as a whole, a story of the trajectory of their history as the chosen people of our God.
I think that perhaps there is a lesson for all of us contained within the first half of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and in some sense a call for each of us to turn back towards home at some point in our lives, a call to return to our ‘created purpose’ in order to be reconciled and united with our lot and our destiny as children of our God.
And as I read through the parable with this lens in mind, I found six points of contact that I think may serve to help us better grasp the meaning of the story. But before going into those six points there is one thing in particular that I wish to share, and that is that I think that this story may open a window onto what I see as the difference between ‘confession’ and true ‘repentance’. I understand ‘confession’ as a willful act of asking for forgiveness for a particular miss step, a singular sin or ‘missing of the mark’ when it comes to how we interact with the world around us. An act of asking to be forgiven for that particular trespass. Such an act serves to at least momentarily, restore us to relationship either to one another, or to God, which is surely good and necessary.
True repentance on the other hand, is a change in direction…a stopping, turning around, and going in a new or different direction…much as our young prodigal did when he finally got to the end of his rope. To repent, is to stop, to reevaluate, and to turn back around, to walk towards home and towards reunion with our Lord. No matter how many times we ask for forgiveness through heartfelt confession we will always be given it by our God…but it is repentance that will help set us on a path of one day decreasing the need to confess as often.
So quickly then, the six reference points are: 1) a decision to walk on our own, 2) coming into a sense of owning or possessing our things or our stuff, 3) using or spending those things in pursuit of what we want, 4) beginning to sense that we are unfulfilled or unsatisfied by what that spending is actually able to provide for us, 5) finally deciding to seek out the source of all goodness and love, and finally 6) being enthusiastically welcomed back into relationship by our Lord.
Life on this good earth, within the created order of our Lord presents us with so many opportunities. So many opportunities to be and to do good for our Lord…as well unfortunately, as opportunities to benefit ourselves or our ‘own’, exclusively. Many are the almost daily temptations to find or to personally create a ‘kingdom’, or at least the trappings of one here in the world…a ‘kingdom’ or a lifestyle that is grounded in personal wealth, success, and security. Unfortunately, that never comes without a cost to someone else.
This is how we find the prodigal in the beginning of our story…following the seductive siren call of self-sufficiency and pleasure without true purpose. We find our first touchpoint when the younger son asks in verse 12 for his share of the inheritance that he might go off on his own. That he might walk in a direction and towards a destiny of his own choosing. And his loving and gracious father allowed him to exercise his free will to do exactly that, setting him down in the midst of a good and plentiful Creation to pursue his dreams away from home and all on his own. It is at this point in verse 13, that we move into the second touchpoint…a place all of us inhabit from time to time. That place where we feel that what we have is not only ours alone, but ours to decide what to do with it as well. It is here that so many seek to take this manna of the Lord’s provision and store it up somehow for future needs or desires. The younger son, without as much ‘foresight’ perhaps as we have, takes his inheritance and sells it for cash before setting off on his journey of self-discovery.
Still in verse 13 we find the young man wasting all of what he had been given by his father through a pattern and lifestyle of wasteful and extravagant living. Since he felt that what he had was his alone to do with whatever he wanted, he quickly and completely used it up in the pursuit of things that in the end are not able to provide what anyone is actually looking for out of life. How often do we do the same? How often do we chase after something that proves just too elusive…how often do we put our hopes into something that in the end proves to be fleeting or at best unable to live up to our expectations? How long do we continue searching for that one break, that one investment of energy, time, or fortune in hopes of securing some sort of advantage or reward?
How long do we go on before we too find ourselves fully spent and still unsatisfied by misfortune, poor investment, or simply trusting in things that ultimately are not able to give us what we are seeking? How long before we finally reach that point of grace when we realize that the true source of what we are looking for can only be found in a deeper and more active relationship with our Lord?
This is where we find our young prodigal in verses 15 and 16, hiring himself out to a local pig farmer as he grew ever more desperate in his hunger for the true ‘food’ he had left behind when he first started his journey. At that point, no-thing, and no one was able to satisfy the deep hunger within his soul. He was lost with seemingly nowhere to turn, broke and broken at the end of his own resources and means.
And it is finally in verse 17 that our young prodigal realizes the error of his ways and hears deep within his soul the call to return, the call to repent, to turn and walk in a wholly different direction. It is here that the urge to turn back towards home is birthed within him, the urge to return to the safety and loving grace he hopes he may still find there, even though it is incredibly humbling to have to do so. For so long he had turned his back on home as he sought to live in the ways and manner of his own choosing. But the desperation of his situation and the deep memories of the love of his father and the allure of home itself, gives him the strength of will to turn and walk back there.
And then of course, the ending of our story begins in verse 20 as from a long way off the father sees his son returning and makes great haste to greet him, sweeping him up in an all-forgiving embrace of love as he rejoices at his return…rejoicing that this one who was lost has at last been found. In jubilation the father calls for the feasting and the celebration to begin.
My friends…in so many ways, this is our story. We may all be at different points along the way, or we may have already gotten to the place where we know that the answer lies in returning fully and completely to the family of, and love of our Lord. It is a story that in truth, has no final ending. For the temptations to go it alone and to turn even momentarily away from God are many and frequent, and our tendency to go even for a short walk is always present. However, the unconditional love of our Lord and the dogged pursuit of the soul and spirit of each one of us by the Holy Spirit are also persistent and all-forgiving, hesitating for none and not stopping until we are indeed finally home.
Coming home…turning back at that point when we have nowhere else to turn to is an opportunity that will be given to each one of us…perhaps multiple times. For as Jesus told us so often, the true kingdom of our Lord is already at hand, and we are called to live within that kingdom now, seeking first, the full revelation of it through our will and work, as well as pursuing justice for all to whom it has been long-denied. For in so doing, in acting thus as a servant-member of the family of our God, indeed all that we shall truly need on our journey shall be provided for us out of the storehouse of God’s grace.
We have a most amazing opportunity, as we look back over the progression of our young prodigal’s journey, and as we look to see where it is that we ourselves may currently be found. We have an amazing opportunity to enter into and enjoy the full richness of a relationship with our Lord that knows a joy that wells up from the depths of our soul and a peace that in spite of any and all circumstances passes all understanding. In turning back towards home, we will find ourselves already walking along beside him, in the midst of his good Creation right here and right now…serving as we are led to, by the Spirit of grace.
There is no need to wait in order to be one with our Lord. There is no need to walk alone or to keep count of what we have, fearing it might not last long enough for our future needs. There is no need to wait for anything before we decide to turn back towards our true home at last. For, as was the case with the Prodigal, our Lord is still looking out from afar…still hoping to catch even the first inkling that one of his beloved might desire to turn back towards home…
…for the feast of his love awaits our return…
… ‘come home dear child’… ‘come home’…