The Prodigal Sons

While the text this morning is Luke 15, I started thinking about the similarities between this story and Genesis 33 where Jacob meets Esau after a long estrangement. 

This is the only positive story about Esau and the Edomites in all of the Old Testament. If anything, it is a picture of forgiveness and grace. Instead of meeting Jacob with 400 men armed and ready to get even after what Jacob had done to him, Esau runs to meet him and embraces Jacob. Instead of being the person Jacob had prepared to meet with all the bribes and plans to pacify him, Esau is extravagantly welcoming of an undeserving Jacob who had left home under a cloud twenty years ago.  The last time we saw Esau he was being comforted by the thought of killing Jacob and we would naturally expect him to do just that now. Jacob deserved it. Instead, what we read is totally the opposite. 

For some reason, that irony sounded familiar and when I read the story of the Prodigal Son it made even more sense. I wonder if Jesus had Esau and Jacob in mind when he told the story to the Pharisees? While I cannot know, I do know that it is not uncommon for creative people to adapt and reconfigure older material. For instance, “West Side Story” is a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” As well, “My Fair Lady” is a modern version of the Greek writer Ovid’s story, “Pygmalion”. Some have said that “The Lion King” is based on “Hamlet” and there are some common themes there.

So, let’s lay the two stories side by side in our minds and see if our text this morning was perhaps in the mind of Jesus when he spoke to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law about God’s gladness at welcoming the lost.

The context of the story is important as it is one of the three stories about “lostness” that Jesus uses to respond to the complaints that he “takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” They were, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “men and women of doubtful reputation hanging around Jesus, listening intently.”  The three stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son are directed not to the lost but to those who resent and are scandalized by them.  These stories were not “evangelistic.” They are stories about the extravagant and unrelenting love of the Father.  When Eugene Peterson died, his son said his father had but one sermon, “God loves you. God is on your side. He is coming after you. And, he is relentless!”

These are stories about the unrelenting love of the Father.  In that the word “prodigal” means extravagant and excessive it could almost be used to describe the Father himself in these stories. In one sense this is the story of the spendthrift Father who is extravagant in His love for the Prodigal Son.

This particular story is not something that happens once and then is over. The story of the prodigal son is often one that recurs in our lives. We go through cycles of leaving the Father and returning and I think there are five stages in this cycle. See if you recognize any of them in your own life. See if you are in one of them this morning. The five are:

1: I want what is coming to me no matter what or who it affects.

2: Being in a far country.

3: Lostness.

4: Coming to ourselves.

5: Coming home.

The first stage is “I want what is coming to me.” All of us recognize this one and if we do not then our spouses or closest friend can. The signs of this first stage are often masked as good things like personal development, career advancement and discontent with the status quo.  But the root motivation of this stage is often self-preoccupation, self-fulfillment, and self-centeredness. It is when we separate our personal interests from the larger interests of those around us and say, “I want you to divide the whole and give me what I can have all to myself.” It’s a constant temptation for those of us who live in a world that is inundated with messages of self-fulfillment and self-preoccupation to begin to say, “This spouse or these people or this organization or this work is keeping me from getting what is best for me.” At that point, it is just that – a temptation and one that is common to most of us. But if we listen too long we move to the second stage.

The second stage is never immediate – as we see in the story here. He waited a few days and so do we. Eugene Peterson in a book he wrote on the story of Jonah likens Jonah’s running away in the direction of Spain to pastors who run away to bigger churches or better people or more money or fewer problems. He uses the image of Jonah sitting and reading travel brochures of far off places that look much better than where he is or where God wants him to go.  That’s how it is with us oftentimes. We read those same travel brochures filled with better work, better people, a land of opportunity to be appreciated, respected and cared for, a place where there are no ethical conflicts between our work and our values and we mentally begin to pack our bags. We sit in the office or the car or at home reading those brochures or we find ourselves thinking about far off places more and more and pretty soon we are getting disconnected from those around us. 

We are gradually changing from reading to being removed and unless we check ourselves here we are started on the journey to “the far country.”  You don’t have to leave home to start for the far country. I can tell you that and I suspect there are a few of you here this morning that know it as well. You are not gone in one sense but you are mentally commuting between where you are and where you think you would like to be. You can still unpack at this point, back up and reconnect. 

If you don’t, the next stage is inevitable – and not altogether pleasant!  It is what is called “lostness” but by that, I do not mean the same thing as some other people. Lost is not damned – it’s lost. You cannot be lost unless you have first belonged. I cannot lose something that is not mine. I cannot lose my way unless I first knew my way. I cannot be lost from God unless I am his, to begin with. This is really important to understand and I think it is one of the most distorted and twisted words in the language of the church. Every one of these three stories is about God looking for something that is already his but has become lost in one way or another – one by wandering after something, one by being misplaced, and one by choosing his own way. They all belong but they are lost. This is not about the damned sheep, the damned coin, and the damned boy. They are about what it is to be lost for a time. This is the far country that Jesus speaks about here.  It is not where he started or where he is going to end up but it is where he is for the time being. He is misplaced from where he belongs.

This word “lost” has some interesting meanings in Greek. It means abandoned and wandering (and that surely describes what happens to people in the far country) but it also means “falling into ruin.” This is what happens when we are so determined to get what is coming to us. We cut ourselves off, we become rootless, disconnected and wandering. We do fall into ruin. We deteriorate and what began as a search for self-fulfillment and self-discovery and self-actualization ends in decay and our lives becoming thin and hungry. Have you been in the far country before? It doesn’t look like the brochures, does it? If you are lost in the far country this morning, I want to encourage you to take the step that will get you out of the mire. 

It comes at different points for all of us but at some point, we, like the son in the story, come to ourselves and rise up.

That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? “He came to himself.” We begin with wanting what is coming to us and in getting it we eventually come – after a long journey – to ourselves.  

We come to what was there before we left or even thought of leaving. We come not just to ourselves as individuals but to ourselves as part of other people and other lives. As the philosopher Simone Weil once wrote, “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” We grow roots, she added, through “real, active and natural participation in the life of a community.”

We come not  to what we thought was somehow “coming to us” but already had not knowing it.  This is where remorse becomes repentance and we all “rise up” and head toward home and the final stage of the cycle. But we cannot be on our way back home until we do rise up and make the commitment to return.

And then we head home:

The German poet, JW Goethe wrote: 

“Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.  Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans, that the moment one definitely commits oneself then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.  A whole stream of events issues from the decisions raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.” 

Oswald Chambers put it this way: “When we choose deliberately to obey Him, then He will tax the remotest star and the last grain of sand to assist us with His almighty power.”

In my mind, I see the father rising up with the son at the same moment the son has determined to come home and the father then walks out to the road to wait for him. When the son commits the father moves at the same moment.  In a way, it is how Esau knew that after twenty years Jacob was on his way home and Esau started off to meet him.

Every one of these stories ends with a party and this is no exception.  I suppose that was the hard part for the Pharisees – the undeserved extravagance and excess of the father.  It is not unlike what we saw last week in the undeserving hero of the Samaritan or the parable of the workers who are paid full wages for a partial day’s work. It is not fair

But for the son, it is not just coming home.  It not just coming back.  It is not just coming to himself. It is coming to the father really for the first time even though he has belonged to the father all his life.  It is seeing the father for who he is for the first time.  There is a poem by T.S. Eliot, the “Four Quartets” and I want to read a snippet of it in closing. 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

I do not know where you are this morning.  You may be wanting what is coming to you or you may be spending time reading those brochures about the far country. You may be in the far country and feeling like you have fallen into ruin and are lost.  You may be at the point of coming to yourself and rising up for the journey back home.  Wherever you are, I want you to know there is a waiting and extravagant Father and a place for you – a place where you have always belonged.

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