We’re going to be in Luke 15 today.
We’re going to be reflecting on
a pretty familiar passage of Scripture today:
the story of a wandering prodigal, a bitter brother,
and an shamelessly forgiving Father.
Let’s read it:
(Luke 15.1-3, 11-32) 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…
…There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
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.
The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 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.
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
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!’
‘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.’
The season of Lent—
the forty days leading up to Crucifixion Friday and Resurrection Sunday—
this is space carved out in the church’s calendar when we, as Christians,
are particularly aware of our need for God to save us.
We’re particularly aware
that something basic is broken in this world,
that something fundamental is fractured within us
and so we follow Jesus to the cross.
Because as Christians we believe that the cross
is the place where Jesus invites us to die with him—
that the cross is the place
where the world’s brokenness,
where our fractures
go to die.
We believe that the place of death
is the place where God saves us.
We’re asking two questions during this season:
What is Jesus saving us from?
and what is Jesus saving us for?
And I think this story teaches us
that Jesus saves us from
missing the Father’s feast.
Later in Luke,
Jesus will say that he came
to seek and to save the lost.
That’s why Jesus came.
To make sure that no one misses out on a party.
That sounds good, huh?
Who doesn’t like a good feast?
In this story,
there’s a lot of really good things about the Father’s house—
safety and food and security and food and stability and (good grief) the Father himself
but did we mention food?
Food is a thread weaving throughout this story:
Two points of the story are noteworthy—
the hinge point of the story
and the climax of the story.
The hinge point of the story (v14-16) is when
the wandering son hits rock bottom
and has no food.
He has squandered everything that he has—
I mean literally everything:
his relationship with his family and his Father—
his honor and his standing in the community,
his inheritance, his future,
and eventually all of the money that he got from selling
his chunk of the family estate to real estate developers.
There is no social security system.
There is no safety net.
That’s why your family and your community were so important—
they WERE your safety net.
But the younger son shoves everything aside—
I mean, the story begins (v12) with him telling his Father:
“I wish you were dead… let’s go ahead and act like you are”—
and he does all of this
because he wants more.
He’s hungry for more.
Forget the Father’s house—with his table and his feasts—
there’s got to be more out there.
He wants life on his terms.
He wants to have no regrets.
And so he squanders everything that he has
on what he thinks is going to satisfy the hunger within him.
And the hinge point of the story
is this son starving to death in pig slop.
He’s wasting away with the pigs—
just a shadow of once he once was—
and he’s (v16) “longing to fill his stomach with pods that the pigs were eating.”
Talk about taboo.
Talk about rock bottom.
As a Jewish parable,
feeding the pigs is bad enough,
but it’s like he’s becoming one of them.
This young man has squandered everything he has—
he’s wasted all he has to get to THIS point.
He’s hungrier than ever.
That’s what happens when we leave the Father’s house—
when we think there’s more out there
and squander our lives to get it.
In the words of C.S. Lewis, we’re caught in the grip of
“…an ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure…”
That’s the nature of addiction,
that’s the nature of disordered love,
that’s the nature of sin in general.
That’s the nature of everything apart from the Father’s table.
We find an ever increasing craving
for ever diminishing pleasure,
until the world itself
is just one big famine.
The hinge point of the story is food—
lack of food—perpetual, ever increasing hunger—
but then food lies at the climax of the story too.
The boy comes to his senses (v17),
and realizes that even the hired servants
in the Father’s house have food to eat.
He’ll go home.
He’ll come crawling back to the family he’s shamed—
to the Father he’s treated as if he were dead.
Coming back as a son
obviously isn’t an option.
But maybe, just maybe,
his Father will take him back as a servant
so that he won’t starve to death.
So the boy raises his skeletal frame
and rehearses a little speech (v18-19)—
and then (v20) rises up and makes a move towards his Father.
But then—I think this is significant—while he’s still a long way off—
the Father sees him and comes running to him.
Jesus uses that word translated “long way off” twice in the parable.
The first time is verse 13
to describe the far away the son goes.
He goes a long way off—
a distant country.
The second time is here in verse 20
to describe how far the Father goes to get his son.
The Father sees his child a long way off,
the Father is moved in his guts—filled with compassion—a long way off,
and the father runs to his son a long way off.
I don’t know how far—
but it’s not the end of the driveway.
It’s a long way off.
As far as his children wander,
that’s how far the Father goes.
With kisses and bear hugs—
that’s how far the Father goes.
In the presence of his Father,
the son can’t even get his rehearsed speech out—
it catches in his throat.
He’s just sinned—against everyone—heaven, earth, God, family.
Against you, Father. (v21) “I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”
There’s no bargaining, no excuses, no deals to be made.
Forget being a servant—this was a stupid idea—
he smells too bad, he’s too broken, he’s too hungry—
he’s squandered too much—
this will never work—
he’s just dead.
And then the Father calls for a feast.
“Get my son dressed properly! This is my son—my son, you understand?—
Put a ring on his hand, get something for his feet, and grab the best robe we’ve got.
“This is my child—my son—
he was dead and is alive again!”
“He was lost and is found!”
“He’s come to senses!
There are things that must be done now!
—we simply must celebrate.
Celebration is the only thing that matters.
Kill the fattened calf.
It’s time for a feast.
And here at the climax of the story—
the wayward son is no longer hungry.
The image of a great and glorious feast
is a frequent picture in Scripture
of where God is taking the world.
Jesus taps into this frequently.
He tells stories of feasts and parties.
A couple of chapter before this in Luke Jesus says:
(Lk 13.29) People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.
When God gets what he wants in the world—
when his kingdom comes—
it’s a feast.
And when he talks like this,
he’s drawing on an ancient prophetic tradition
like this passage in Isaiah 25:
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.
That’s where God is taking the world.
The inner life of the Father, Son, and Spirit
is one of joy and satisfaction and love and endless delight.
The inner life of God is a celebration.
And that’s where God is taking this world.
That’s what God has in store:
a feast, a celebration,
a raucous good time.
And Jesus has come so that we don’t miss it—
Jesus doesn’t want us to miss the feast,
after we die or before we die.
Jesus has come to save us
from missing the Father’s feast.
He doesn’t want us to miss out
on the meaning of existence and the only life that will last—
and that’s the Father’s feast of love.
If this story is any clue,
there are two ways of missing the feast—two ways of going hungry.
In this story, you go miss the feast
by wandering and withholding.
By wandering into the distant country
and by withholding love from others.
We’re familiar with wandering.
The story gets called “the prodigal son”
because the dramatic tension focuses on
a son who goes rogue—he goes prodigal.
And we’re familiar with wandering in our own lives.
We’ve all spent
energy and resources and time
chasing MORE apart from the Father.
The prodigal chases after “wild living”
but that looks different for all of us.
We all have areas in our lives
where we’ve been chasing satisfaction and pleasure
in things that just can’t deliver.
We’ve all experienced
that ever increasing craving
for an ever diminishing pleasure.
We chase satisfaction and pleasure in a thousand far off places—
in our jobs, in certain relationships,
in our talents and abilities,
in getting recognized by others,
in destructive habits—porn, alcohol abuse, overeating, overworking.
I think most of us are familiar with wandering.
It’s what that we regret.
It’s the areas that just aren’t working.
It’s the patterns that feel like they can’t change.
It’s the places in our lives where we’re getting what we want but it doesn’t satisfy.
And sometimes we’re tempted to despair—
to think that nothing can satisfy our hunger.
But, my friends,
there is a feast.
A meaning to existence.
A life that will last.
A place where this world is headed.
And it’s a celebration.
It’s joy and delight and love and satisfaction.
And Jesus saves us from missing it—
from missing the Father’s feast.
Because Jesus sets us free to confess
our wandering and squandering.
Confession actually is freedom—
because confession is where we find forgiveness.
Confession—confessing to God or to other people—
feels like it would be an awful place—
but it’s not.
It’s the the place where actually begin experiencing God’s love.
When we confess that it’s not working.
When we confess our sin.
When we confess our brokenness.
No bargains, no excuses, no deal-making.
I need life.
If the life of Jesus teaches us anything,
it’s that God is interested in giving us life.
There’s nothing to be afraid of in the Father—
the only scary thing would be if we never came to our senses.
If we never admitted
how hungry and lost and dead we are.
If we never experienced the Father’s embrace
and the new life he wants to give us.
If we just got used to pain, to the hunger—
get used to the slop of pigs—
and decide to stay there.
But there’s no danger in confession—
that’s the only safe place.
God is like the Father in this story—
he’s willing to go to ridiculous, embarrassing lengths
to get us back.
He’s willing to go the cross.
The life of Jesus
gives us confidence
that we are loved.
The life of Jesus
sets us free to confess
our wandering and our squandering.
Whatever it is.
And God still loves.
“You’re his child—Don’t you understand—his child?”
Why would you stay in pig slop?
Won’t you come to your senses?
God and his grace
where you are.
You’ve gone far off?
God’s grace has gone further.
Whatever your past,
whatever your struggle,
whatever your sin,
you can come to the feast.
The future does not have to look like the past.
Tomorrow does not have to look like yesterday.
If you want to come to the feast,
you will not miss out.
Jesus has already found you.
Each one of us is invited
to believe that again and again and again.
It’s really good news.
The other way you go hungry in this story
is by refusing to come to the feast.
I think this is a lot more dangerous
because it’s a lot more sensible.
This is the end of the story—
that haunting bit about the older brother.
The guy who has never left the Father’s house
but who winds up missing out on the Father’s feast.
His reaction is the most sensible thing in the world.
The only thing more embarrassing
than his brother’s behavior
is his father’s behavior
in welcoming him back like that.
“For heaven’t sake, don’t run to him.
Patriarchs don’t run—it’s beneath you.
“And why are you welcoming him back?
“Where’s your self-respect? Where’s your dignity?
Where’s your honor? Or at least honor for the family?
“Where is the justice in all of this?
“He’s just letting him back in the family?
And throwing a party for him!?
That’s not a party I can support.
That’s rewarding bad behavior.”
He refers to the prodigal as “this son of yours” (v30).
He won’t even call him his brother.
Jesus is telling this famous story
to the most devout religious experts of Jewish people—
the Pharisees and teachers of the law (v1).
They’re irritated about Jesus hanging out with the wrong people (v2)—
he welcomes sinners.
And I think Jesus is warning them with the end of this story
that we miss out on the Father’s feast
when we refuse the company of prodigals.
When we allow
bitterness and anger and distance
and resentment and pride and “I’m better than”
to become our lived reality
we miss the feast.
When we refuse to love,
refuse to forgive that person,
refuse to embrace those people,
we go hungry.
Very often it’s not pigs that keeps us from the party—it’s pride.
It’s frequently pride not pigs.
“Not them. Anyone but them.
They don’t deserve it.
They don’t deserve love.
They don’t deserve forgiveness.
They don’t deserve grace.”
We all struggle with this but truth be told:
they’re our sister, they’re our brother.
But when we refuse to embrace them
we’re actually missing the feast.
We can taste the Father’s feast
only as far as
we love those the Father loves.
And I’m pretty sure
And that’s where Jesus steps in to set us free—
Jesus sets us free
to love our fellow prodigals
like God loves us.
All of us have wandered—
into pig slop, into pride.
And we’re all welcome at the party—
all welcome at the feast.
In the words of Isaiah,
“all peoples” are welcome.
The only people who won’t be there
are the people who don’t want to be.
Who either refuse to leave their pig slop
or those refuse to embrace prodigals.
love death more than life
or hate grace for others.
May none of us miss the Father’s feast.
May we come to our senses
and recognize that we are prodigals.
May we confess our wandering
and our squandering,
and receive new life.
And may we learn to celebrate
the great and glorious feast of our shameless father
with all the other prodigals of this world.