Air travel has changed a lot in my lifetime. It used to be that someone would invariably ask you if you had your ticket before you left for the airport. Back then, nothing was electronic and you were issued several pieces of paper that granted you entrance to the airplane. If you didn’t have that airline ticket you wouldn’t be going anywhere. So the common expression was, “Don’t forget your ticket!”
We have been talking about a life of discipleship as we follow Jesus Christ. We have someone going along with us on this journey who will help us in the dangerous and frightening times. We have someone who will help us take risks in faith. However, before we explore more of those things, let’s make sure we have our ticket or we aren’t going anywhere. So what is the ticket for a disciple? What is it that without it, we are not really disciples at all? God’s amazing grace. If we don’t really have God’s grace, we aren’t going to be going on this exciting venture of discipleship and following Jesus. Lots of people try this and believe that if they just do the right stuff, obey the rules and do the Christian stuff, then they are disciples. But without the ticket of God’s grace, we aren’t really following Jesus. That is the point of the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. Let’s read this.
I. Our common path of sin in seen in the actions of the Prodigal Son.
The story is very familiar: the younger son asks his father for his share of the estate. The money he asked for was the money he would receive at his father’s death. And so in a real sense, he was wishing his father to be dead. The money was more important than the relationship with his father. And it soon became evident that the son wanted to get away from his father’s values and influence. His wild lifestyle in a distant country shows that he wanted to get away from his father. He gathered up all he had because he never intended to come back. Verse 13 simply says that he then “squandered his wealth in wild living. Jesus does not mention specifically what this “wild living” consisted of. However, in other places in the New Testament, wild living includes things like “drunkenness, debauchery, lust, orgies and carousing.” He had no one to tell him what to do; he could live as he pleased.
The second dose of reality was that a famine hit the area where he was. This meant that food was scarce and expensive and his lavish life turned into a life of misery. It became so bad that he hired himself out to someone else to feed pigs, which was one of the lowliest jobs a Jew could hold because pigs were unclean. But even then, he discovered that he could fall even further. He still didn’t earn enough to feed himself and he was slowly starving to death. He found himself wanting to eat the carob seed pods that he was giving the pigs but no one would give him any of those either.
Now before we say it serves this young man right let’s realize is that this is our history as well. Now some of you may say, “I never was like this young man!” “I never rebelled against my parents, ran away and lived for a time in wild living and sin.” “I have always been a Christian all my life.” What we have to realize is that this picture still describes us as sinners before God. Simply because of our sin, we are like this young son without Jesus. Moreover, we still have the temptation to run away from God and live as we please. Perhaps even more dangerous is when we may think we are really good people but we quietly within good cultural boundaries live to please ourselves rather than to please God. We too may think we are good people, but we are full of deadly sin. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We were not always good; we were sinners in need of repentance.
The realization of the younger son’s situation hits as he thinks back to his father’s estate. Then he realizes that even his father’s servants have a place to sleep and good food to eat. He looks at himself and his surroundings and knows he has been foolish. The motive for his return is not profound, but his confession of sin shows that there is more behind this than practical considerations. He will say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” He recognizes that what he has done was actually a sin against God. But he also realizes that he has sinned against his father for he has caused great heartache. At this point, he simply acknowledges that this has all been his fault. And so he also acknowledges that he is no longer worthy to be called a son. What he deserves is to have his father hire him as one of the help. He is ready to accept the consequences of his sin and work for his father to be with him. But he not only admits this, he also repents of his sin. He gets up and with determination, he goes back to the father. He will do something to correct the mess he is in.
You see, it is not enough for us to admit our mistakes to God. We can pray to God and admit the things we have done wrong. In one sense that is the easy thing to do for we can ask for forgiveness. However, we must admit our sins and then try to do something about them. Lloyd Ogilvie was the chaplain of the US Senate from 1995-2003 and tells about a time when he was having lunch with a prominent businessman. A woman, who recognized the executive, walked over to their table and greeted him with a hefty slap on his back, causing him to spill coffee on his suit. Then with a flamboyant gesture, she tossed her fur stole over her shoulder, brushing Dr. Ogilvie full in the face. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she apologized. Looking right at her, the executive said, “Ma’am, don’t be sorry, be different!”
Being different can be very difficult, but we must be trying to be different. If our sin lies in a bad attitude toward others, than we had better try to change our attitude. If it is in our actions, then we had better try to change what we do. Repentance means that we stop going one way and instead say that we will now follow God.
What happens next describes the overwhelming love and joy of the father. The father evidently has been watching and waiting for this day, for even though the son is long way off, he sees him coming and runs to greet him. This older, dignified Jewish man, the owner of this large estate, drops everything and runs like a child to meet his son, the one who wanted him to die. This scene is captured beautifully in a painting by Rembrandt. He showers him with hugs and kisses which symbolize his forgiveness. The son begins to tell his father his confession, but the father doesn’t even let him finish it.
Now ask yourself: What would you do if you were the father? One family was sitting in church while the minister gave his sermon on the Prodigal Son. When he got to the point where the father sees his son returning and races out to meet him, the minister said “Throwing wide his arms, the father said ...” at which point the father’s younger son leaned over to his dad and whispered, “You’re grounded!” That may be how we would feel when someone has hurt us and comes back to us.
His son said he was not worthy to be called a son, but his father’s actions prove to him that he still is very much his son. He orders that the best robe be put on him and for a ring to be put on his finger, for that is what a royal son would wear. And he commands that shoes be brought for only servants did not wear shoes. And then he gives orders to throw a grand party complete with the fattened calf! This is the calf that was kept aside for just such joyful occasions. Such a calf was rarely used but it was always available when needed and this was such a time.
This is the joy of our Father in heaven when we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior. And the amazing thing is that we too don’t deserve it at all. We should say as well that we are unworthy servants for we have sinned against God. But God not only accepts us, He is overjoyed that we have come and throws a party for us. Now does that make sense? Of course not! We don’t deserve it at all! We are sinners! The Bible teaches this fact with overwhelming clarity. We would just as soon abandon God as have anything to do with him. But God sent Christ to search for us and find us. It is the Holy Spirit who helps us realize our sin and who gives us the desire to come back. God then opens up the doors of the kingdom and welcomes us with open arms. But there is also another lesson to learn here from the older brother.
What was the older brother’s complaint? This younger son is getting something he didn’t deserve. If anyone deserves to have a party, it is the older brother. He has always worked hard and done what was asked of him. He never ran away and wasted his father’s money. What was the older brother’s real problem? He wanted to be rewarded on the basis of his works, rather than from his father’s love. He was saying, “I deserve all this attention because of the good I have done.” He was relying on his own good behavior instead of his father’s love and grace. And at that point the parable is left open ended. We don’t know if the older brother went into to join the party or not. The invitation was certainly there, but whether he responded or not to it is not said.
The question that is helpful for us to consider is who do we identify with. Sometimes we may identify with the older brother. We work hard for the Lord and perhaps we feel that we aren’t appreciated as we should be. And then someone else comes along and gets the credit or the party. What Jesus is teaching in this parable is that no one who believes in God gets what they deserve! God’s grace says, “I know that you are sinners. That’s why Jesus came.” The sad thing is so many believe in God and heaven, but don’t understand grace.
This past Thursday was the thirteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on our nation. In a National Public Radio Story Core recording, Richie Pecorella describes that day when he lost his beloved fiancée in the Twin Towers. In a heart-wrenching recording, he says, “I miss her eyes. Her eyes sparkled to me. One day they were blue; the next day they were green, depending on how the light hit them. Karen, I’ll always be in love with you. I will see you again.” And then he says, “I will do enough good to make it up there.” As sad as that loss was for this man, that final statement hit me hard: he “will do enough good to make it up there.”
That statement reflects what so many people today believe about being reconciled to God. It is the sentiment of the older brother who believes he has done enough to get what he wants from his father. It is the sentiment as well of the younger brother who will work as a servant to be reconciled with his father. In this story of the story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus is saying that nothing we do makes any difference; it is what God our Father has done through Jesus.
Jesus apparently wasn’t afraid of giving the prodigal son a kiss instead of a lecture, a party instead of probation; and he proved that by bringing in the elder brother at the end of the story and having him raise pretty much the same objections you do. He’s angry about the party. He complains that his father is lowering standards and ignoring virtue--that music, dancing, and a fattened calf are, in effect, just so many permissions to break the law. And to that, Jesus has the father say only one thing: “Cut that out! We’re not playing good boys and bad boys any more. Your brother was dead and he’s alive again. The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.”
What Jesus is pointing at in this parable is the beautiful love of God for those who are lost in sin. We have all stumbled back home following the prompting of the Spirit. We have all been graciously welcomed home by a loving and caring Father. As we continue to follow Jesus, let’s never forget what gets us here in the first place.