Psalm 34:8 Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
It was Saturday morning and Mom was making pancakes for her two boys- Kevin who was 6 and Ryan who was 4. The boys, both hungry, started arguing over who should get the first pancake. They bickered back and forth until Mom intervened. She saw the situation as an opportunity to teach the boys about the power of sacrificing for others. “You know, boys- if Jesus was sitting here, He would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake, I can wait.’ Do you understand what I’m trying to say?” Kevin, the older brother, said, “I think I do, Mom.” He then turned to his younger brother and said, “Ryan, what Mom is trying to say is…you be Jesus!”
Today, we bring our current journey to an end. The New Testament story of the Prodigal Son is one of the best known, most scrutinized stories in the Bible. But at its heart…what is the story REALLY about? Who IS the Prodigal? And what does it have to tell us about our lives? Through January and February, we’ve been asking all of those questions- and many more- as we have taken The Long Journey Home. Each week, we’ve focused on a few verses from the Prodigal Son story- unpacking it to see what is underneath and, more importantly, what it has to say to us.
Since there hasn’t be a day when we heard the whole story at one time, I’ve offer what I’ve called my Reader’s Digest version every week. Here it is!
“A man has two sons. The youngest decides he is tired of the simple life. He demands his share of Dad’s inheritance. He gets it, goes off to the big city, squanders every penny on proverbial wine, women and song and ends up eating hog slop…literally. He crawls back to Dad, who welcomes him with open arms and throws a big party. The older son is hacked off about it but Dad says, ‘Buck up.'” The end. Hey- I WARNED you it was the Reader’s Digest version!
The first week, he demanded and got his inheritance, set off for a far-away land and squandered everything. The second week, a famine hit, he ended up as a hired man feeding pigs…and longing to eat the hog slop. The third week, he came to his senses, realized that his father’s hired servants have food to eat and a place to sleep a decides to go home and confess his sins to his father. The fourth week, he got home and his dad ran to him, hugged him and kissed him. The younger son confessed that he had sinned against both his earthly and heavenly fathers and wasn’t worthy to be called “son”. Week 5, the father interrupted him and called for a robe, a ring and a pair of sandals for his younger son. He also instructed that the fatted calf be prepared because his son who was lost has been found, who was dead is now alive. Week 6, the illusive older son came home and found out from a servant what was going on- walking into the middle of a party he didn’t even know about. Last week, the older son reacted to the situation by letting his dad know, in no uncertain terms, how hurt and angry he was about the whole thing. And that’s where we pick up today’s Scripture.
Luke 15:31-32 ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 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.’
Dad’s response is tender- “My son”. The Greek literally translates to “my child”. There is great love in what the dad says to the older son, because Dad loves his son…BOTH of his sons. Dad also says that everything he has is already the older son’s. He is showing the older son his value.
And then, to that Dad adds, “We had to celebrate”. Not, “We should”. Not, “We probably ought to”. Not, I had to”. But, “WE had to”. “We HAD to.” There’s a strong sense of necessity, of urgency.
There are two truths in this story. The first is that we have a home with God. When we’re lost, it’s often because we’ve strayed from the place we’re supposed to be. We each have a God-shaped hole in our heart. And we try SO hard to fill that hole with all sorts of things. And we’re never truly satisfied. And that’s because the ONLY thing that fills a God-shaped hole is…God. We were made to be deeply connected to God.
The second truth is that Jesus is looking for us- actively, aggressively, passionately looking for us. The Good Shepherd is actively looking for His lost sheep. The Bible offers us example after example of Jesus looking for the lost in all sorts of unlikely places. He comes to us in the midst of our lostness. “Being found” is simply another way of saying “coming home”.
So who’s lost in this story? The younger son, right? Yes, he is. But I would argue that the OLDER son is lost as well- he just doesn’t know it. He never strayed from the path. He never broke the rules. But he STILL misses out on the gift of the father’s extravagant love. And the older brother doesn’t really understand the idea of forgiveness. Remember, he even bring himself to claim the younger brother- “YOUR son…!” But Dad- the Father- corrects those words and reinstates the relationship when he says, “This brother of yours…”
Notice this- BOTH sons change throughout the unfolding of this story. The ONLY character that remains constant throughout is…the Father. It’s not by accident that the story of The Prodigal Son is often referred to as the greatest short story ever written. It’s GOOD stuff! But as great a story as it is, I think it’s misnamed. At the end of the day, the story shouldn’t have been called The Prodigal Son. Regardless of WHICH son you think is The Prodigal, he isn’t the hero of the story. The story should really be called The Loving Father- it tells us much more about a father’s love than it does about a son’s sin.
In this story, the younger son isn’t found, he isn’t brought back to life because of some great spiritual revelation. He doesn’t suddenly get his act together and change his evil ways. It’s important to remember that, like every good fisherman, God cleans the fish AFTER He catches them. The turning point happens when he comes to his senses- he makes a wise choice. He says, “This is stupid. I don’t have to live like this. I have a home and a father. Maybe he’ll take me back…even if it’s as a servant.”
So what is this story about? If you had to sum it up in one word…what would that word be? Honestly, you could make a compelling case for any number of words. Forgiveness. Sin. Relationship. Family. Greed. Redemption. Those would all be very appropriate, very accurate words.
But the word I’m going to offer up today is- reconciliation. Call it reunion. Call it resolution. Call it restoration. Call it what you like…but I think that reconciliation is at the heart of this story. This family was broken. We have no idea where Mom was, but it seems safe to assume that she is no longer in the picture. But the relationship between Dad and younger son, Dad and older son, older son and younger son- they are all strained…at best.
But when push comes to shove, it is Dad- the Father- who steps up and seeks reconciliation. He could have been mad at the younger son. He could have been mad at the older son. He could have put his Dad Pants on and busted some heads. But he didn’t. Instead, he offered love, compassion, caring, understanding, forgiveness. He set aside his own agenda, his own frustration, humbled himself and brought his family back together. He was the clear and present agent of reconciliation.
Reconciliation is at the heart of who we are called to be as Christians. We’re human- there WILL be strained relationships. But as the hands and feet of Jesus, we are called to be the ones to humble ourselves and offer the olive branch. Religion is often about rules and regulations. Faith is always about relationship. Our faith is built on relationship- with each other and with Jesus Christ. And if we place that high a value on relationship, then reconciliation should be…HAS to be…the core of who we are and what we strive for.
Which are the strained relationships in your life? Who are you estranged from? Whoever it is, God is calling you to reconciliation. The other person might be unable- unwilling- to take the first step. So…you take that step. Reach out. Offer your hand. Seek reconciliation. Try and repair the damage.
Let’s be clear on one thing here- you can’t FORCE someone else to reciprocate. You can’t make them willing to reconcile. In other words, you might do everything RIGHT…and still not be able to rebuild the relationship. That’s a genuine risk of stepping out in faith. BUT- if you do everything YOU can to rebuild the relationship…you will have the peace of mind that comes with knowing you left no stone unturned.
Who do you need to reach out to? Who needs your forgiveness? Who do you need forgiveness FROM? Don’t wait one more day. Life is simply too short. Every day is a gift. And NO day is guaranteed. And when it’s too late to do anything about it, you will wish for one more day. Don’t put yourself in that position. Today IS that day.
One last thought about this story- the story of The Prodigal Son is the third of 3 successive Jesus stories about things that were lost and then found. But they are NOT simply three ways of stating the same thing. In the first story, the sheep is lost because it simply doesn’t know any better. In the second story, the coin is lost through absolutely no fault of its own. In our story, the younger son deliberately went lost, turning his back on his family and his life. But God can overcome our lack of understanding. He can overcome the seduction of the tempting voices. He can even overcome our deliberate rebellion of the heart.
Ephesians 4:32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.