The Prodigal God: Luke 15:11-32
Do you remember the day you left home? The day you said ‘goodbye’ to your parents? The day you packed your bags and moved out? The first night you slept in another bed? The first day you began to fly solo? How did you feel? Was the parting with your parents amicable? Were they supportive? Did they help you move? Or was the parting painful? They did not want to see you go but you could not get away fast enough? Or perhaps you didn’t want to leave but you needed a push? Or maybe were you kicked out and abandoned. I left home when I had just turned 18. I went to work in East London for the Department for Health and Social Security. I had only visited London maybe half a dozen times before. And with the new job came the need to find a flat to rent, cook for myself, wash and iron my own clothes, get myself up in the mornings and get to work on time. I lodged with a no-nonsense, down to earth, working class family on the Dagenham Estate near the massive Ford car factory. I remember on more than one occasion getting well and truly lost on my way home. All the roads looked the same. More than once I wished to be back with my parents. Can you identify with the younger brother?
But perhaps you have not left home. Your brother or sister may have left but for whatever reason you are still at home. Are you content or is it stressful? The transition from being a young person living at home to being an adult living at home is not always smooth. Our relationship with parents changes. From being told when you have to be home at night to negotiating when they will be home at night…. As you grow older, the dependency switches from you on them to them on you. If that is you, perhaps you can identify more with the older brother.
The parable today is actually the third in a series about ‘lostness’; the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. There is a rising level of intensity and emotion from the lost sheep (1 in a 100) to the lost coin (1 in 10) to the lost son (1 in 2). Keddie notes, “The Lord’s presentation of the profound pathos of human lostness, and the joyous jubilation when the lost are found, comes to a mighty crescendo in the return [and reconciliation] of the lost son.” Perhaps this is why the story is known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” But the title is not particularly helpful. It draws attention to the younger son.
It would be more accurate to call this the “Parable of the Lost Sons”, plural, because both were estranged from their father, both disrespectful, both rebelling. They were both using their father to get what they wanted – their inheritance. One, by being very, very bad and the other by being very, very good. Timothy Keller says, “There are two kinds of lostness… You can escape God as much through mortality and religion as you can escape God through immorality and irreligion.” And yet to focus on the two sons misses the point. What is common to all three parables? Who is the central character in all three?
Keller helpfully names this the parable of the Prodigal God. The word ‘prodigal’ is an old English word meaning ‘recklessly extravagant’ and ‘having spent everything’. Do you see?
This is not primarily a story about a recklessly extravagant man who spent everything. It is about a recklessly extravagant God who gave everything in Jesus. This parable has been described as ‘the pearl and crown of all the parables’ or the gospel within the gospel. It portrays both the desolation felt by the lost sinner and the matchless love of God as he welcomes the repentant sinner.[i] And herein lies the challenge to us today. Do we understand the extravagance of the Father’s love for us and for others, or are we like one or other son? We can just as easily lose sight of our purpose living at home as by running away.
By being compliant or defiant. We can be just as lost thinking there is no hope, no way home as by thinking we can earn God’s love or deserve our place in heaven. We can be just as lost attending a Church as attending a mosque, a synagogue or a Temple to mammon.
As a church we hold to ten distinctive values which shape our 2020 Vision. They drive our mission agenda and determine the way we seek to fulfil our goals as a church. The second distinctive value says “lost people matter to God and therefore ought to matter to the Church”. In this powerful story Jesus answers three essential questions that should shape all we do as a church. Here they are:
1. Do lost people really matter to God?
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable” (Luke 15:3)
religious leaders found it incomprehensible that Jesus would want to spend time
with ‘sinners’. Professing faith, they did not know God or his compassion for
the lost. Jesus makes this explicit at the end of each of these three parables.
Each ends with an act of joyful celebration.
“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.” (Luke15:7)
“In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)
“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 15:32)
In clear and unequivocal terms Jesus associates his mission with seeking and saving and celebrating: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10).
The Apostle John writes of this extravagant love of God,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Not just loved but “so loved”. And the Apostle Peter insists,
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
Bible leaves us in no doubt. Lost people matter to God.
He created them. They belong to him. He loves them.
The Lord Jesus Christ came to seek, to find and save them.
Do lost people really matter to God? Unequivocally. Yes.
2. If lost people really matter to God why do they not seem to matter to the Church?
God’s passion is about
providing a home for the lost.
The passion of some churches today seems to be about providing a home for the found. Why this disconnect?
Why are many Christians it seems not particularly interested in lost people? Is it because they have forgotten what it feels like?
“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!’ (Luke 15:28-30)
The critical attitude of the
older son resonates with some people I meet today. They have never wandered
They stay home, they comply, they are very good. But they complain when you try and adapt the church to meet the needs of those on the outside. They imply that the church belongs to them. Elder brothers obey to get things from God, and if they don’t get their own way, they get very angry…Here are some reasons:
Lost people are hard work
They can ask awkward questions. About what we believe and why. Church used to be so uncomplicated before they started to attend.
Lost people can force unwelcome changes
Like having to change the church layout to fit them all in. Having to hold two Sunday morning services instead of one. The church was fine until they started to come.
Lost people sometimes don’t know how to behave
They take photographs at baptisms. Their children are noisy. They talk through the service. They don’t dress properly. Church services used to be so dignified until those people started to attend.
Lost people are sometimes very inconvenient
Whether it’s their behaviour, their language or culture, they are different. Faced with an increasingly secular society the temptation is to retreat into a ghetto and circle the wagons. And say, ‘this is our church… become like us’ Without the transforming power of God’s word to shape our priorities, some Christians, like the elder brother, equate the mission of the church with their favourite hymns, their services, with particular instruments, with robes and customs and a whole host of other things that have absolutely nothing what so ever to do with God’s mission. God’s passion, as we see in this story, is to bring his children home. Lost people matter to God and therefore they should matter to us. We exist as a church for the benefit of our non-members.
3. If lost people matter to God, how can we ensure they also matter to us?
We need to regularly ask ourselves, how far our activities reflect God’s passion? Is evangelism an optional activity or is making Christ known central to all we do? How many of our activities are designed to draw people into a right relationship with God? Do our services have the seeker in mind?
Are we addressing the questions seekers are asking?
What barriers have we erected which make it harder for seekers to come home? We must be very intentional about this.
A couple of years ago I came across a simple mathematical formula to help understand how to become more contagious and ensure that lost people matter to us as much as they do to the Lord. CP + HP + CC = MI
MI = Maximum Impact
Jesus uses these dramatic stories to describe the maximum impact God wants his Church to have. We are in the business of raising the dead. Turning enemies into family, rebels into servants, pagans into missionaries. That is why our mission statement is ‘To know Jesus and make Jesus known”. To assist irreligious people become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.’ That is why our mission field is the world, not just Virginia Water. Maximum Impact. If that’s the answer, if that is our goal, lets look at the front half of the formula.
CP = Close Proximity (Luke 15:20)
“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.” (Luke 15:20)
Feedback shows that 4 out of every 5 people become Christians through a relative or friend. Why? You are probably here today because you came into close proximity with a Christian friend. God used them to soften your heart. Before I became a pastor I was an evangelist. For 4 years, on a daily basis, I spoke to strangers about Jesus. And in four years I can count on one hand the number of people who professed Christ. Yes, there is a place for door to door evangelism, but how much more fruitful Christian witness is among those we know. Among our relatives, our friends, our neighbours and work colleagues. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And people are more open and receptive at Christmas than at any other time in the year. They are more likely to respond favourably to an invitation to come with you to a Christmas event than any other time in the year. That is why we went for this particular Christmas logo this year. High potency. Close proximity.
HP = High Potency (Luke 15:24-25)
“So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.” (Luke 15:24-25).
The celebration could be heard from the fields. Do our activities appear so enticing to those outside? What words do you associate with church? Would celebration be high on your list? Party? Music? Dancing? The Christian life is intended to be one long celebration. One long shout for joy at the prodigal, extravagant, richness of God’s grace revealed in Jesus.
In verses 17-19, it says the son came to his senses. He realized that he was better off as a servant in his father’s house than someone enslaved to his own desires.
Memories of his father’s love were highly potent. Put simply, thoughts of his father’s house beat the competition. We are in competition today. We are in competition with all the secular alternatives: Sunday shopping, entertainment, recreation, sport. We have a message that beats the competition hands down. That is why we aspire to excellence in all we do. This is the way to achieving high potency.
There is no agency on earth to match a group of fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. MI = CP + HP +
CC = Clear Communication (Luke 15:23-24)
“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.”
Its not enough to be of close proximity and high potency. Unless we tell people what God has done for us through Jesus Christ, people may feel they will never be good enough. Becoming a Christian is not about being good. Its about raising the dead. Without Christ we are dead. When we receive Christ we are born again. Our message must be about Jesus Christ and what he has accomplished for us all. Jesus is saying,
“I have a deep passion for people outside my Father’s family. Lost people matter to me, and I am deeply concerned about how you relate to them. ”
Why? Because the most compelling argument for salvation He can present to the outsider is a close-up view of a transformed life of one of his family. That’s you and me. Nothing packs the punch of a life being transformed. Does Christ’s love compel you? Reflect on the extravagance of God’s love for you.
He turned you from being an enemy into his family, his adopted child. Live with profound thankfulness for God’s love for you. Demonstrate his love for others. When we do it takes very little effort or motivation to reach out to lost people and say, “You really need to come and see how wonderful my God is.” This kind of evangelism is exceedingly effective. When a believer looks an unbeliever in the eye and says, “Taste and see how extravagant our God is, the Lord is good” it is compelling. These words have a way of striking a responsive chord in the lives of people who are lost, confused, or beaten up by the world. This Christmas, contemplate Christ’s love for you and let your love for Him overflow and become contagious. Who will you invite this Christmas? People who are a pain to live with? Or people for whom Christ died? People who are just a prayer away from an eternity? At Christmas we celebrate the birth of our Saviour. Let us pray that we celebrate the new birth of some brothers and sisters as well. Meditate on the love of Christ for you and it will change the way you view other people. Realise that if lost people matter to God so much that he sent his one and only son from heaven to earth to die for them, then perhaps they should matter to us also. Matter enough to pray for them. Matter enough to invite them to meet their Saviour. There is no greater thrill than having a person look you in the eye and say, “I needed someone to listen. I needed someone whose life matched his message, and you were that person for me. Thank you for reaching out to me. Thanks for answering my questions. Thanks for putting up with me. Thanks for loving me when I wasn’t particularly loveable. Jesus saved me but you led me to the cross where I found grace.”
When you realise God has used you to help one of his children find their way home, you will never be the same. You will sense in some small way what your Father in heaven feels every time one sinner repents. The passion to reach out will grow when you experience the joy of seeing lost people become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Lost people matter to God. The Church is the only hope of the world. You are plan ‘A’. God has no plan ‘B’. Lost people matter to God and because they matter to God, they matter to us. Lets covenant in the year ahead to become a Prodigal Church in 2010. A Prodigal Church, that is recklessly, extravagantly, enthusiastically, contagiously and passionately, committed to knowing Jesus and making Jesus known. Lets pray.
Forgive us dear Lord for not always caring for lost people in the same way you do. Thank you for being a prodigal God, extravagant with your love, your grace and mercy. Give us your heart of compassion for those we know, like the younger son who are lost and know it, as well as for those who like the older son are lost and do not know it. As we approach Christmas, please give us a love that overflows for those who do not yet know you as their Lord and Saviour. As we celebrate the birth of you dear Son, at Christmas, may we see many brothers and sisters come to new birth and join your family. We ask this in Jesus name and for your glory. Amen.
[i] Gordon Keddie, He Spoke in Parables (Evangelical Press)