Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Story of the Father & His Two Sons

This month, there are many proud parents who watched their children complete another grade level, culminate from elementary school or middle school, or graduate from high school or college. It was a time to celebrate and give thanks for our children, and the pride we have in their accomplishments. When I see the sons and daughters of my own church…I also see their fathers, and their mothers, and I give thanks to God that these children are loved and cared for…because I know and you know that this is not always the case. Can you imagine, for example, driving your toddlers to the side of a freeway and abandoning them there? It happened to a brother and sister, ages two and three. Can you imagine forcing your own child to watch and then act out pornographic movies with her siblings? My wife, while working at a foster family placement agency, actually met these abused children who shared their stories with her. What redeems these tragic events is that loving foster parents took them into their homes, and began to give them the care they needed. 

A parent’s love can be one of the great forces for good in this world. But the love of every caring and consciencious parent in this world combined still pales when compared to the Heavenly Father’s love for the spiritually lost. In The Story of the Father and His Two Sons (Luke 15: 12-32) Jesus tells us the truth about God’s character…and gives us hope (whether we number ourselves among the rebellious or the resentful, the prodigals or the proud) that we can come home…and begin to love as he has loved us.

Chapter One: The Father & His Prodigal Son (Luke 15. 12-24). "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give to me the share of the property that will belong to me' (12).  What the son says literally (and I'm looking at the Greek text right now) is 'Father, give to me the part of the property that's coming to me!'  That is, "I want what's coming to me!"  The son’s words are ironic: he was definitely going to get what was coming to him. His words are shocking because they would have been considered an extraordinary insult. Kenneth Bailey in his book, Poet & Peasant makes it clear that a father’s assets were not distributed until he was near death.  Therefore this request in Eastern life would have had the effect of saying, “I wish you were dead, but I can’t wait that long! Give me what’s mine now so I can get on with my life.”

In light of what this request meant, it’s even more incredible that the father concurs. “So he divided his property (literally, his bios, his life!) between them.” Remember that “property” i.e., “land” was the most valuable possession in Middle Eastern culture; but when the younger son received his share of the property, he immediately sold it and converted it to cash. Land that was in the family for generations was now gone.
Please understand that listeners would have expected the father in this story to explode and discipline the boy at this point in the story, but the father says, “As you will."  Here then is the first sign of the Father’s amazing love who grants his child the freedom even to reject him. It is an amazing truth that God has given us freedom either to love him, or to flee from him. We are not his slaves, forced to do his will. We are sons...

What happens to the younger son as he leaves home, is a picture of what happens when human beings flee from God and his principles. First,“he squandered his property in dissolute living.” Our goals and priorities become warped (13). Then, “when he had spent everything a severe famine took place throughout that country….” We are overwhelmed by the trials of life (14). Finally, like this young man, we "begin to be in need!”

Desperate, the young man“hired himself out” (The Greek verb, kollao, means that he "glued himself" -- that is, "forced himself upon" one of the citizens; and then worked a job that was truly a Jewish nightmare: swine herding!  Having reached rock bottom, and deciding to go home, he rehearses a speech he’s going to tell his father: “I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands' (18-19).  Notice that he assumes he will never be able to return as a son again, but that he might be able to return as a servant. That is, he might be able to work something out that would be acceptable to his father.

As the son returns to town (20), Jesus paints for us a picture of love so amazing that it would have positively stunned his listeners: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”  The father is scanning the horizon for his son, and sees him a long way off. Though he was the one who had been disrespected and insulted, he takes the initiative by running to meet him. Know that in eastern culture, it is humiliating for an elder to run anywhere (Aristotle once said, “Great men never run in public." ) and yet this father is willing to sprint for love of his son (Bailey). But there is another reason why he ran to meet his son. The father knew that when he entered town, all the people would have gathered to mock him and even beat him in the street. But the father goes out to meet his son… and kisses him (forgiveness) and walks through the crowd with him, under his protection.

Next, the son begins his rehearsed speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son....” That’s as far as the son gets before his father interrupts him with words of forgiveness. It means his son will not be able to earn his acceptance as a hired servant. No, his only option is to come back as a repentant son who has been forgiven and restored. The message for us is clear!  Each gift the father gives has special meaning… He gave his son the best robe as a sign of honor. In the ancient world you didn’t give medals, you gave robes to honor someone. This robe had to be his father’s own robe; and to be clothed in his father’s robe meant that he was being honored as his son. It calls to mind Isaiah 61: 10 (a favorite chapter of Jesus) “For he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.”  He put a ring on his son’s finger – an indication that his authority was now restored. The ring was no doubt the signet ring, a ring used like a signature in legal agreements: it carried with it the authority of his father. He put sandals on his feet - the gift of respect; that he was to be treated as a master not a servant, for servants did not wear shoes in that culture. He had his servants kill the fatted calf, a very large animal as opposed to a goat or sheep. It signified that the entire community was invited to celebrate his return! If the previous gifts expressed reconciliation with the father the final sign expressed reconciliation with the community. Are you awed by the love of this father for his son? Jesus is telling those around him that this is the true heart of the Father for his children.  For most people, this was new information, it was a new portrait, a new understanding of God...and it's still new information for many of us today.

Chapter Two: The Father & His Proud Son (Luke 15: 25-32).  The irony of the Story of the Prodigal Son is that we only remember half of the story. In Luke 15:2 we read, “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” In other words, the Story is for the Prodigals, but it’s also for the Proud who resented the way Jesus welcomed and reached out to them. Listen carefully then to the second half of Jesus’ most famous story…

As the elder son nears the house he hears music and dancing. He quickly learns that it is all for his younger brother! Then we’re told that “he became angry and refused to go in.” This time it is the elder son, not the younger, who publicly insults his father by refusing to join in this community celebration. He is just as lost as his younger brother had been. And yet, once again, the father takes the initiative and goes out to him (28), as he did with the younger. The elder son complains: “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you…”  Did you catch the irony in this statement? The younger son thought he would have to return as a servant – but was welcomed as a son! Now we learn that the older son -- who never left his father – thought of himself like a hired servant all those years, and his father’s blessings a wage that he had earned instead of a gift to be gratefully accepted. His father may have welcomed his brother…but he has no intention of doing so. Listen to his tirade in v. 30-31: “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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

What would his father say?  The Father patiently replies: “Son, you are always with me!” The term the father uses is, teknon which means "my child..." (as if to remind him that he is not a slave, but a son) "...we had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, was lost and has been found.” You and I are, for the most part, the religiously serious. We’re here because we like going to church…we enjoy the community…we want to be involved in serving and using our gifts. But like the older brother…the biggest temptation for us will be to forget why we’re here; to forget that the church’s main purpose is mission…a mission to seek and save the lost. Life in the church is a wonderful thing…but if it becomes more important than reaching out to those who are outside these walls, we’ve forgotten our purpose…which is why chapter three is the most important chapter of all…

Chapter Three: The Father & His Future Sons (& Daughters). We do not know how the older brother will respond. But we do know how his Father wants him to respond. Come in from the outside! Add your voice to the singing! Be a son and not a slave!  Jesus wanted the Pharisees to see the difference between their attitude toward the lost “younger brother”, and his own. Jesus is the true elder brother, the true Son who rejoices when his broken brothers and sisters come to the Father! He throws open the doors of the Kingdom wide to all would enter in repentant humility!  Jesus left his story unfinished because he wanted us to end the story! Will I be a prodigal, a proud pharisee, a slave, or will I live like a son…beloved by my Heavenly Father?

Each time I read this story, I am struck again by the picture that Jesus gives us of God…so patient and kind, so ready to bear the pain and shame of our sin…so eager to welcome us home when we come to our senses. I want to end this message by saying three things to the fathers among us. First, if you did not receive the love of your father, you can receive healing today by accepting the grace and love of your Heavenly Father. Second, if you’ve been distant and detached from your family, you can come come…just like the prodigal or the proud son. We can come home and begin to live and love our children just as our Heavenly Father has loved us. Third, receive God’s blessing…because there are many fathers among us today who need to be encouraged....

Dads who are faithfully providing for their families…we see you. Dads who are intentionally playing with their children…we see you.  Dads who are patiently mentoring their children, teaching Sunday School, fathering through Boy Scouts, coaching their children’s sports teams…we see you. Dads who have had to practice tough love with their children…we see you. Dads who are caring for a spouse with health problems and bearing tremendous responsibility…we see you. Single dads who are stepping up to the plate and providing stability and a constant fatherly presence…we see you. Dads who are trying to be spiritual leaders in their homes…praying with their children…modeling Christ-like character, pointing them to the Scriptures…we see you. Dads who are not with us now, who have gone to be with the Lord, but who have left a legacy of fatherly love that their children will carry with them throughout their lives…we see you. Men, one of my prayers is that our children will look back and be able to say, “Dad, because of you and your example I know in my heart that God is truly a loving and gracious Father.”

Heavenly Father, we are a mixture of the prodigal and the proud today. We have tried to run from you; we have proudly tried to earn your love; we have scoffed at the outsiders not realizing that our pride was placing us on the outside too. Inside each of us is a need for the perfect love and compassion which only You can give. Help us to place our trust in Jesus, your one true Son today, so that we may become adopted children in your Kingdom Family forever. Amen.

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