Revisiting The Prodigal Son

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Series: The Church and the World

Sunday am 26th October 2014 – Justus Swart

(Matt. 13); Ps. 78:1-4; Luke 15:1-2, 11-32; John 5:39-40; (Matt. 25:34-46); (Matt. 9:20-22)

“Do and dare what is right, not swayed by the whim of the moment. Bravely take hold of the real, not dallying now with what might be. Not in the flight of ideas but only in action is freedom. Make up your mind and come out into the tempest of living. God’s command is enough and your faith in Him, to sustain you. Then at last freedom will come, your spirit amid great rejoicing” (Dietrich Bonheoffer).

The purpose of preaching is definitely not to fill your head with ideas but its purpose is to shape us and form us into a people who represent a loving God. Put away your pointing fingers and let your life be a vessel of grace that stands for truth.

The disciples were a bunch of handpicked fishermen, no one really special. Jesus chooses people of no special inclination and yet with the power and grace of God we can do all things through Him who strengthens us. These average guys were around Jesus when He taught the crowds and performed His miracles. Every now and then they had to ask Him to simplify what He said so that they could understand Him. About 500 years earlier the Psalmist wrote something about Jesus and His parables (Ps. 78:1-4). The Psalmist assures us that the parables contain hidden things and truths. We have to consider what it meant to the people who first heard it in order for us to understand what it means for us today. There is actually a story hidden within this story of the prodigal son, and we have to carefully de-code the message (Luke 15:11-32). We need to try to understand that there are 2000 years between us and the time when the story was told, which means things have obviously changed. There is always a context in which the story is being told. This is the context in which the parable of the prodigal is being told: 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” (Luke 15:1). There was a situation and dialogue between the Pharisees and Jesus was clearly addressing the Pharisees or the do-gooders, the holier-than-thou type crowd. The Pharisees had an issue with the kind of people Jesus was spending His time with. In His response Jesus tells a few parables (the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son). Jesus had impeccable speech. He never said something by accident or anything He did not mean. He said everything as it was meant to be said. He told a story of two sons. He was drawing parallels between the Pharisees and the older brother in the story. He was making fun of the Pharisees. He was actually using this story to expose the Pharisees for not representing God accurately. They were more interested in upholding a ruthless sense of morality rather than serving the world the way Jesus did. We have this kind of thinking today. Jesus said, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I’m here inviting outsiders, not insiders—an invitation to a changed life, changed inside and out” (Luke 5:31-32-Message). Jesus distinguished between brokenness and sinfulness. The Pharisees were thought of as the holy ones, but they did not know that it was God’s very desire to restore the broken hearted.

Nearness can produce distance. This seems to the case with the older brother. Even though he was with the father and lived in the house, he became angry. We can become so numb to the things we know, and they become so familiar to us, so part of the norm that they do not have any meaning to us anymore. The older brother saw his father as a slave driver, and how easily that happens to us in the church today. We become weighted down with the wrong image of who God is. It can make us resentful and judgemental of those around us if we see our Christian walk as labouring and slaving, then we have misunderstood the gospel we are called to. We can talk about Him yet still miss Him in a moment. Just because we are in the church and read our Bible does not mean we stop searching for God in every encounter we have with people. God says, “Everything I have is yours”, but do I live that way?

Jesus had another encounter with the Pharisees. You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want (John 5:39-40-Message). Jesus wanted to draw people out of the comfort zone and out of familiarity.

Jesus was speaking to the people, telling them what they had not done (Matt. 25:34-46), and the people responded ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ (Matt. 25:44). Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me’ (Matt. 25:45).

The two sons definitely represent two kinds of people. One represents brokenness and then reaches the point of surrender. Then the second brother cannot handle the fact that the other has been accepted after doing all those things. Do not think that because you can quote Scripture you know who Jesus is. The woman who touched His robe was somebody who had reached the end of her rope and said, “God I need you!” (Matt. 9:20-22). That is brokenness. We have to stop ourselves from reacting like the older brother from time to time, from condemning our brother for his actions. What God wants us to do is to run out with open arms, ready to receive those who are broken hearted. In the Gospels, Jesus was constantly moved with compassion.

“The Church does not possess Christ; His presence is not confined to the Church. Rather it is in the Church that we learn to recognise Christ’s presence outside the Church” (Stanley Hauerwas). Right now you are learning to recognise Christ outside. You are expanding and learning what it means to encounter somebody and genuinely touch base with the reality of that person, to see them for who they are and the situation they are in. Who are you to judge? The Pharisees said of Jesus, Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). That is who my God is!

Grasp what is real; what do I have to do in this moment to show what God wants to be to this person? Only in action is freedom. I want to challenge us to embrace the Father-heart in this story. We have to demonstrate that love and acceptance to others, and yet how gently the Father spoke to the older brother. There is this all-encompassing heart towards the younger and the older brother, and we need to find that in ourselves.