2018 The Recovery of the Lost Son

Cornerstone EPC                                                                              Sunday morning
Franklin, NC 28734                                                                          February 4, 2018

“The Recovery of the Lost Son”
Text: Luke 15:11-32

We come this week to the end of our brief series on Jesus’ parables of discovery and recovery.  We have noted the exceeding value of the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ in the parables of the hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44) and of the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46).  We also have noted the joy over the recovery of a lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7) and over a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10)—and we further noted God’s joy over His recovery of penitent sinners.  Now, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we come to one of the most poignant parables of all—and we see God’s joy at His recovery of lost souls at fullest expression.  Let us hear Jesus’ words from Luke’s Spirit-led pen.

(HERE READ THE TEXT)

First, let us look at the younger (Greek neoteros [neoteroV]: newer) son.  This younger son, for reasons not revealed to us explicitly, demands his share of his father’s estate—one-third, according to the Law—and that while the father yet lives.  By this request, the younger son says to his father, in essence, “You are as good as dead to me.”  The father—again, for reasons not explicitly stated—grants this audacious, insolent request.  Not many days afterward—like many a young person in every age—the younger son gathers all he has and leaves home for a far country.  We may hope that the son goes away saying something to the effect of, “God be with you,” but, more likely, he growls something like, “Good riddance.”

Jesus tells us that the younger son, once in the far country, wasted (Greek diaskorpidzo [diaskorpizw]: scattered, wasted) his goods by reckless living.  We can imagine him the life of the party (the elder son later will tell us what sort of party)—and we can imagine him the chief, if not the sole, financier of the festivities.  The wise and discerning among us know that money flees faster than money comes—but, alas, this younger son operated on this principle: “Easy go, easy come,” which, of course, is fallacious.

This younger son spends all he has—eating, drinking, and making merry according to his warped understanding of merriment.  Then comes a severe famine.  As if famine is not sufficiently severe in itself, the Holy Spirit leads Luke to reproduce Jesus’ words with both the word for famine and the word for severe; Jesus would have us know the brutality of the situation.  The younger son goes from money to burn to unspeakably desperate need.  He becomes sufficiently needy that he joins himself to a citizen of that far country, who sends him to feed pigs.  Note the irony: a Jewish young man now defiles himself minute by minute at work by constant contact with swine—an animal ritually unclean to him.  Moreover, this younger son desires greatly—with a desire approaching blind lust—to eat what the pigs eat, yet no one gives him anything.

Jesus does not tell us when, or how, the boy comes to himself—but in due course he indeed comes to himself.  He reasons that his father’s hired men have bread and to spare while he perishes from hunger in that far country.  Then he makes the critical resolution.  He will arise and will return to his father—and, upon arrival, he will utter this speech, “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Make me as one of your hired men.”  Even though this younger son has no guarantee that his father will even receive him as a hired worker, he begins the long, slow trudge toward home—older, sadder, and, apparently, wiser.

Meanwhile, the father waits.  Likely the home atmosphere has been funereal since the younger son went away.  Likely the father saw the end from the beginning; he knew what would befall his inexperienced, undisciplined son.  He knew the inevitably approaching pain for his son, and he knew grief in the boy’s absence.  Yet the father waits—and, after we know not how long, he sees a familiar form in the distance.

He sees a form returning more slowly than it left.  He sees the familiar form stooped and shuffling.  He sees quickly that the boy is thin—perhaps even gaunt or emaciated.  Perhaps, as the distance shrinks between them, he smells the telltale smell of the pigsty wafting from his son in every direction.  In any case, Jesus tells us that the father feels compassion for his younger son.  The sense of the Greek verb rendered felt compassion (splagchnidzomai [splagcnizomai]) means to feel compassion abdominally—yea, viscerally.  The father, moved at this sight of his son, does something most undignified for a man of standing to do in that culture.  He runs to the boy.

The father, upon reaching the boy, fell upon his neck and kissed him—stench, former offensive behavior, and everything else notwithstanding.  We know not exactly how many seconds or minutes elapse, but presently the boy begins his speech, “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  Here the father interjects; notice the son does not get the opportunity to plead to be made a hired man.

Now note the substance of the father’s interjection.  First, he commands that the best robe (literally the first robe) be put upon his son.  Second, he commands that a ring, likely the family signet ring, be put upon his son’s finger.  Third, he commands that shoes be put upon his son’s feet.  Why does the father issue these commands?  By each of these commands, the father shows that the son remains a member of the family.  He will not be a hired man, and he will not be a slave.  He will continue to be a son—his son.  Then they kill the fattened calf—and eating and merry-making follow in short order.  “For,” the father declares, “this, my son, was dead and is alive; he was lost and is now found.”

Meanwhile, the elder son (Greek presbuteros [presbuteroV]) was out in the field.[1]  He heard a most unusual sound of late: the sound of music (Greek sumphonia [sumfwnia]) and dancing.  He asked one of the slaves about this, who told him that his younger brother returned—and that his father rejoiced at having him back safe and sound.  Needless to say, the elder son rejoiced not at this.

Jesus tells us that the elder son was angry and would not enter the celebration.  This well may be understatement.  We can imagine the elder son’s apoplectic reaction to this news.  We can imagine his face deep red—almost purple.  We can imagine faint blue smoke curling from his ears.  Furthermore, we can understand the elder son’s reaction.

The elder son’s workload may have increased, perhaps dramatically, in the younger son’s absence.  The elder son has not forgotten the injury done to the father’s estate and honor by the younger son.  Perhaps the elder son worries now about diminution of his rightful share of the father’s estate—now, as it stands, he stands to inherit all that remains.  Perhaps the elder son’s anger also extends to anyone who would celebrate such a worthless excuse for a human being as his younger brother—even, perhaps, to his honored father.  In any case, the elder son will not enter the celebration.

Hence, the father, true to his nature, comes out of the celebration to entreat his older son to make merry with them.  The elder son, upon this entreaty, vents his spleen.  He cannot understand why, for all his dutiful conduct, he could not obtain even a goat in order to celebrate with his friends.  He further wonders in his father’s ears why he kills the fattened calf for this son of his (note that he pointedly refuses to say my brother)—a son of his who squandered his property with prostitutes.

We can imagine the father’s gentle reply.  The elder son, notes the father, always is with him, and everything that the father has is the elder son’s.  This clarification of inheritance thus dispatched, the father urges upon his elder son the necessity of rejoicing over his younger son (pointedly your brother)—for that younger son’s was dead, and is alive, and was lost, but now is found.  Here Jesus ends the parable.  He leaves us to wonder how the elder son responds.

Note again the gracious, longsuffering, rejoicing character of our God expressed in this parable.  Lest any of us forget—these, among others, are attributes of our God.  They express in part Who He is.  Let us banish, then, any temptation to see Him as unforgiving, as impatient, or as miserable.  Our God is gracious, longsuffering, and joyous—especially over penitent sinners.

Speaking of penitent sinners, how quickly we identify with the penitent sinner in this parable—the younger son.  Many of us know our youthful (or not-so-youthful) wanderings from the fold of God, and many of us know our postures and deeds of outright rebellion against our Heavenly Father.  Just as the penitent in today’s parable found joyous mercy, so also have we found it—and the memory of our being found by this joyous, merciful God thrills our souls.

None of us would identify with the elder son.  Yet I find among the people of God, even among the Presbyterians, that we too often change from younger sons into elder sons—and sometimes, when this happens, it happens surprisingly quickly.  We shall find ourselves uncharitable toward other penitents, if we be not careful.  We shall find ourselves astounded by the lavish mercy of God poured out on other penitents, if we be not careful—even though their case likely requires less mercy than our own.  Let us not—whether man or woman, boy or girl—be found as elder sons, and let us be delivered from the same should the need apply.

Note once again the joy of God in His recovery of penitent sinners.  Let us, then, rejoice over our own recovery, over those dear to us, and over penitents of every stripe and situation.

AMEN.

[1] This Greek word is the root of our English word Presbyterian, which refers to elders meeting in church courts (e.g., Session, Presbytery, General Assembly) in regular gradation.