Real Men Don’t Show Their Legs (Luke 15)

A Father’s heart never stops searching; a Father’s heart abandons anything but hope.

When Jesus tells the story of the so-called “prodigal son,” He does so because He wants us to understand—beyond the shadow of a doubt—that this is what God the Father is like, this is what it is like to be restored to Him.

“YOU’RE DEAD TO ME”

Jesus’ parable begins familiarly enough:

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ (Luke 15:11-12a)

Make no mistake, this was unheard of. People didn’t typically take their inheritance from a living relative—they only received it once they’d passed. The son’s request came with all the subtlety of a slap in the face, as though he’d told his father: “You’re worth more to be dead than alive.”

Nonetheless, the father complied, and the son’s raucous journey began:

And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. (Luke 15:12b-13)

The point, of course, is that all of us have been there. All of us have rebelled against the authority of our God because we wanted a taste of the high life, a taste of life without constraint, or rules, or anything to hold us back from that taste of the forbidden. A Father’s love, after all, seems such a small price for such incredible freedom…

A FATHER’S HEART

Sadly, what goes up must come down, and for this wayward son, it’s not long before he realizes that to be one’s own master is to equally be one’s own slave:

14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. (Luke 15:14-20a)

The son’s journey had begun by taking his father’s money to go find himself. His journey home begins when “he came to himself.” He came to his senses, that is, and he devises a plan to return—in disgrace, but with a roof over his head.

The son imagines his father as unwilling to treat him as anything but a servant, but we’re told that the father’s heart had never stopped looking, waiting, hoping. We can imagine the father looking out the window, scanning the distance for some clue regarding his son’s return. That’s why, I think, we’re told that the son doesn’t make it all the way home before the reunion with his father:

 But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20b-24)

The father runs to him, embraces him, restores him, honors him. Given our distance from the culture, I suspect it’s easy to overlook the shocking nature of this scene. Grown men didn’t run, you see. To do so would risk showing one’s legs, and in that culture real men don’t show their legs. To run, to embrace the wayward son, to adorn him with “the best robe,” to celebrate his return—these aren’t the acts of a “dignified” man; these are the acts of a father with trembling hands and tear-lined cheeks.

The gospel is fundamentally a family affair. Because of what Christ has done for us, we are welcomed into God’s family.  Paul tells us that all of us are “adopted as sons,” and can call God not our master, but our Father:

3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 4:3-7)

There’s something radically, shockingly undignified about this, because it places blessing on those who deserve none, and stirs up love and forgiveness because of the Father’s goodness—and never our own.

SAVED FROM RIGHTEOUSNESS

Still, such a spectacle chafes against what we have long held as true: that good things come only to good people. In Jesus’ story, there are two brothers; that’s partly His point. And while the father is throwing a party for the returning son, the older brother is seething with resentment:

 25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:25-32)

The story ends abruptly here, as though Jesus is challenging us to consider who we most resemble in the story. For some of us are much like the older brother. We feel we are deserving of the Father’s love through lives of obedience. We squint our eyes at those we regard as less deserving of God’s love—the “hard cases” that we think are too far-gone for God’s mercy, the folks too “undignified” to find a place at the Father’s table.

But the most undignified thing of all is that the gospel is for the broken as well as the put together. The gospel calls us away from our self-indulgence but also our self-righteousness. The gospel promises that all are adopted into God’s family—the left-outs, the cast-aside, but also the church kids, the choir boys, and the morally “pure.”

Because it’s always, always been about the Father’s goodness—never our own. Don’t you see what electrifying good news this is? It means rather than labor in our perceived righteousness, we rest in the Father’s love. The party is about to begin; the bill has already been paid for.

Won’t you join us at the Father’s table?

 

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We are not Charlie, We are Jeffrey (Luke 15)

In the spirit of this summer series of studying the parables of Jesus, let me write one of my own.

Imagine that the day comes that you get to go to heaven – to that wonderful mansion that Jesus spoke of in John 14 that has been prepared for you. And after Saint Peter has shown you your new abode, pointing out where you can find the towels and linens, etc., you decide you should go out and meet the neighbors. You introduce yourself to the fellow next door and you find out that his name is Jeffrey … Jeffrey Dahmer…

And you say, “You know, that name is familiar, why do I remember it?  Were you the Heisman-winning quarterback for the Wisconsin Badgers, or something like that?”

And he says, “No, but you got the Wisconsin part correct; but I was the guy who raped and killed 17 boys … and then I put some of them in the freezer and ate them later on. But that was then, and this is now … so, how about coming to dinner at my place tonight?”

It really could happen. A pastor named Roy Ratcliffe ministered to Dahmer in prison, eventually baptizing him in a prison whirlpool, and he wrote a book called “Dark Journey, Deep Grace: Jeffrey Dahmer’s Story of Faith.”

A prisoner can grow more resentful for the treatment received in prison. Many certainly do that. Or a prisoner can develop new criminal skills and figure out how not to get caught the next time. Some also do that. Or, a prisoner can reflect on the crimes and the lifestyle that lead to such a place and make a new decision: “I’ll never do that again, so help me God.  Jeffrey Dahmer felt great remorse, which he confessed on several occasions. He had ruined his life beyond repair. … Who could he turn to except God? Certainly, no human would hear the cries of his heart and believe the depth of his sorrow. Only God could. … He began to see the case for God and to see Jesus as the only answer for the havoc he had wreaked in his life. He began to have hope for his ultimate fate. Is it possible that God could really love him – Jeffrey Dahmer? Could the salvation that Jesus offers be available to him, too, despite his heinous acts? Did Jesus die for Jeffrey Dahmer too?

You might be thinking, “Hold it! Yes, grace is greater than all our sin and all that, but, eating other people … that’s just over the line! That’s too hard to digest that God’s grace goes that far!”

The older brother in the parable (and the Pharisees in real life listening to Jesus) thought the younger brother was beyond value or worth in saving and being reconciled to the father/Father. But the big idea of the story is to see that no matter how big or small the sin of one who is restored to relationship with God, the Father’s joy is expansive beyond all comparison.

Our title this week of “Two Kinds of Lost” is represented by the two brothers. The younger brother was lost in sin and foolishness, was separated from the father and essentially dead. The older brother was lost in a sea of self-righteousness, and to some extent was also lost in not understanding the privileges and riches he had as a son – he almost saw himself as just a hired hand.

Hopefully, you the reader are not one or the other kinds of lost as seen in the brothers.

I trust you are not away from God and in a spiritually lost condition of no real relationship with the heavenly Father. Have you ever seen your lost condition for what it is and it a moment in time were reconciled to God through Christ?

I also hope you are not “older brother lost.”  You’ve become critical and bitter; you see yourself as at a higher place because you’ve been a part of God’s family for a long time. You’re not quite perfect, but you’re doing pretty well. Your zeal to reach out to lost people is pretty much gone, because you can see that those people are just too far away to ever be reached.

And maybe you are neither of these. Maybe you are beyond being one or the other – I trust and believe many of you are. And if you are, it is because you understand we are all a Jeffrey Dahmer before God. Our slogan should not be “We are Charlie Hebdo,” but rather “We are Jeffrey” … we are all lost. None have a perfect record, and the amount of debt large or small is not the issue, not when you have a payment so great as is offered in Christ. We should all cease from quantifying the debt of anyone else, but rather with great thankfulness recall that our debt has been paid fully, along with that of all others we know who have trusted in Christ.

Equity Radar (Luke 15)

Having recently had my grandchildren stay with us for a number of consecutive days, I am reminded again of the way that little children are competitive and keep score about everything. It probably doesn’t help that they are from a competitive lineage! But everything that is done is being carefully watched by the two oldest ones who have a highly-refined sense of equity radar.

What is equity radar (besides a phrase I coined about 15 seconds ago)?  When you pour each a cup of milk, the grandkids don’t just look at how much they got, they evaluate how much it is compared to the other. And both of them generally felt they were on the short end at the same time. And if you give them a bowl of cherries, they are going to count them to make sure that each had the same number.

But it is not just children who think this way, so do adults – especially American adults who really believe that a certain amount of hard work should equal a commensurate amount of reward. Hard work should be rewarded; laziness or irresponsibility should come at a price. And the Scriptures do condone diligent and responsible work and fault slothfulness.

And so we can readily commiserate with the older son’s offense in the story of the prodigal son …

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “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. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “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! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 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.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “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. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 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 older brother is so angry with his younger sibling, that he had disowned him, calling him “this son of yours.”  And the father picks up on the dig and returns the snarky statement back over the net by referring to him as “this brother of yours.”

If true to the culture of the day, the older brother probably was to get a two-thirds share of the estate; so the younger brother probably walked away from home originally with only one-third of the wealth. So, when keeping score, is that really fair?

Of course, the difference in the two sons is related to the issue of work diligence and faithfulness to the family. The older son does this, and the father acknowledges this to be true. And dad reminds his boy of the continuous ongoing blessings that were his on a daily basis to be used and enjoyed.

But the restored relationship of the genuinely repentant younger son was a joy to celebrate that was larger than any factoring of fairness and equity. This calls to mind another of the parables Jesus told about rewards – that parable of the workers in the vineyard who each work for an agreed upon wage, only to have those who work longer resent those who were equally paid for a shorter time. The application is that the issue of rewards is not as big as the issue of faithfulness. Each person should be faithful to their task, letting the rewards be the prerogative of God. Nobody is going to come up short or lacking in blessing or reward for faithfulness.

But still … it just doesn’t seem quite right! However, think of it this way: If God were to be truly fair with us, none of us would receive reconciliation with him. He would have been just to leave us in our sins and under the curse. But Jesus took that curse and paid the penalty, securing release of the consequences of eternal death. All of this was of grace, and we contributed nothing to it. So, how’s that for fair? If we are pleased to receive this grace, we should be pleased to see it extended to others, even those whose tally of sins may be larger than our own.

Discussion questions:  Do you find yourself prone at any time to keep score and in some fashion saying to yourself, “I’m not perfect, but I’m certainly not as bad as that person?”  What is your heart’s motivation for serving God – rewards, or gratitude for the one who first loved you so much?

Found It! Let’s Party! (Luke 15)

In yesterday’s devotional I confessed to the entire online world that I’ve had a lifelong habit of losing things, even some important things. So, in the spirit of our “Long Story Short” summer series about stories that Jesus told, let me tell one of my own as a set-up to understanding the first two of the three parables in Luke 15.

Now that I have a nice, new, shiny red bicycle that has become my best friend this summer, imagine that I sold my previous set of 10-year-old wheels for $250.  I put it on Craig’s list, met the person who wanted to buy it, insisted upon cash from the stranger, and then put the two hundred-dollar bills and the one fifty in my pants pocket … at least, that’s what I thought I did. But that evening at home, I went to get the money out of the pocket, but it wasn’t there. Where could it be? Did I lose it when I got a frozen yogurt at Sweet Frog? Or was it with the box of chocolates at the Russell Stover’s outlet? Maybe I dropped it when pulling the keys out of my pocket. Possibly it fell out at Dairy Queen or the Downsville General Store?

Taking a flashlight out and looking through the car and under the seats did not reveal it – thinking that maybe it fell out when I got stopped yet again by the Sheriff’s Department for not wearing my seatbelt. There is always a possibility in that scenario that I can’t find my driver’s license, registration or insurance card.

Finally, when throwing my clothes in the hamper at night, I feel something in my shirt pocket; and sure enough, there are the three bills. I’m so, so happy that I found the money that I decide right then and there that I’m going to have a party to celebrate with all my friends and neighbors. I will invite the folks from the neighborhood, all five of my sons and their attachments, the church family, my coaching and sports pals, my political buddies, as well as all my history geek friends from Antietam. So in the morning I call Leiter’s Fine Catering (because I’m a good Williamsporter and that’s who you call) and make the arrangements.

Does this make sense to you? Wouldn’t it have been cheaper if I had just never found the money and never had a party that would cost me multiple times more than the money I lost? This serves as a background to help you read these first two parables …

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

15:1 – Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

The Parable of the Lost Coin

8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Think about it – the sheep guy is irresponsible, and the woman is a financial ditz. Who would risk 99% of his wealth to find the lost 1%, and who would spend more on a party than what was saved by finding the lost coin (a sum of money that was equal to about a day’s wage)?  The celebration is all out of proportion over the size of the recovered items. But the point of the stories is not to focus on the relief about what was found, but rather on the joy of that which was lost being found.

The parables emphasize the magnitude of God’s love and the joy of the product of salvation – a restored relationship and new reconciliation of a sinner and God. This never gets “old” with God, and that is an amazing thought to ponder. The Apostle John did just that when he penned these particularly beautiful words in 1 John 3 …

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

Speaking of pondering, here are some questions for you (and remember that there is a discussion group meeting most Sundays at 11:00 for these and other questions) … Does this passage touch you deeply when you consider the scope of God’s love? How does this extensive love of God for lost sinners affect the way we view those around us in our world who do not have a relationship with Christ?

Lost Things, and the Joy of Finding Them (Luke 15)

Apparently I have had a lifelong habit of losing things. I don’t actually remember specific items that I lost as a child and youth, but I clearly remember several lines my father used on me in those occasions. He would say, “Randy, you’d lose your head if it wasn’t attached to you.”  Or, when I’d ask him about something I misplaced, he would say, “Yes, I know where it is … right where you last had it!”

It is frustrating in life to lose things or misplace them. Among things I have lost is my wedding ring – years ago when still in New Jersey. I think it happened while coaching little league baseball. I once misplaced my passport in England and only managed to find it at the last minute before flying back to the States. I have twice lost my sermon notes just before it was time to preach – once here and once in New Jersey. It is a weekly experience to lose car keys, cell phone, wallet, etc.

But, when something is lost, but then is found, it is a great feeling of joy and relief. For the next four days we will be looking at the three parables in Luke 15 of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (prodigal) son. Each of them sets up a celebration that is huge – actually out of proportion for the item being found … showing of course the great joy of salvation.

But before someone is found, they have to realize they are lost. And that is a great challenge on many occasions. And we see this very dynamic in the setting of these three parables, each given in response to Christ’s awareness of the attitude of the Pharisees.

15:1 – Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

To the Pharisees, all of the hanging out that Jesus did with the sinner classes of people was, in their view, totally over the line.  Eating with people in that culture signified that you identified with them – and why would a righteous person … say, like themselves … do such a thing and think they are godly??  The Pharisees did not see themselves as lost; the sinners were those who were lost.

Jesus, as always, knows what they are thinking and what was really the condition of their hearts, whether he heard their murmurings or not. And rather than confront it directly, he tells them three stories that have an impact bigger than any frontal rebuke would contain. The point that Jesus would make is that, though they may not have had the same obvious debts as those upon whom they regarded as great sinners, because they lacked perfection, they were indeed just as spiritually lost.

A challenge in evangelism is to get people to understand their lost condition accurately. While you won’t really find anyone who claims to truly be perfectly sinless, the vast majority of people do not rightly understand their lost condition before God. They do not see themselves as being in danger of judgment or in a state of separation from God because of a barrier of sin. They rather see God as a sort of kindly old grandfather who can’t help but dote upon his grandkids – overlooking their minimally insignificant failures to be righteous, believing that God will just sorta say, “Well, boys will be boys.” Then he’ll grin and buy them an ice cream cone.

The fact is that our debt of sin inherited from Adam has us separated from God. The Scriptures speak of us as “dead in our trespasses and sins.” Dead people don’t respond, but God in grace gives us life to respond to the preaching of the gospel. And at that moment there is great rejoicing in heaven when a sinner comes to receive that gift of grace.

Questions to ponder/discuss – Do you remember what it was like before you came to know Christ, and how did you believe you were OK with God at that time?  Do you find it difficult when telling others about Christ to see them understand their lost condition?  What are the thoughts of many people as to why they believe themselves to be fine with God? How do we help people understand their lost condition, and how do we do this without sounding judgmental or condescending?

Two Kinds of Lost (Luke 15)

This is a true story; I cannot deny it. When Diana and I only had our three oldest boys – about, I’d guess ages 7, 5 & 4 – they were really into castles and forts and things of that sort. I think Lego building systems had a lot to do with that. Sadly, there aren’t many castles in the USA – nothing like those I’ve visited in various trips to Europe.

In those early years of our growing family, we lived in New Jersey and often made trips to visit our many relatives who lived in Texas, driving right through this area on Interstate 81.

Somehow, we became aware that there was this place you could visit in Berkeley Springs where there was alleged to be a castle on the hill. Now understand, at that time of life before moving here, I’d never ever heard of Berkeley Springs. So, we planned to stop at it on the way to Texas.

We packed a lunch, ate it in the park there, and while the kids were playing, I think Nathan finally caught sight of the castle on the hill, and we went to visit it. The place was a total dive back then and was an absolute waste of time, but that is just the background of the story.

When it was time to depart and continue our trip south to Texas, instead of wanting to retrace our path north to Hancock on I-70, and then east to 81, I thought surely there must be a way to cut southwest and catch 81 much farther south. And I was equally sure my fantastic sense of direction would take me there. So I drove out of Berkeley Springs toward the southeast … and kept driving and driving (this was before the days of GPS – I know some of you cannot imagine that time). Diana kept suggesting I should ask someone for directions (although we were mostly in the hollers of WV and there was no way I was stopping) … and besides, that is simply not a manly thing to do. And even more than that, I was NOT lost – no way, I was just fine.

After about 90 minutes of travel – about which I was sure we’d be running into 81 at any moment, yes, you guessed it, there I was driving back into Berkeley Springs on another road. We had driven in a giant circle.

I hate asking for directions! Not only that, I don’t like to admit when I’m lost. But to find your way to where you need to go, you first have to confess that you are indeed lost.

And that is how it is spiritually speaking as well. We are all born in a lost condition – separated from God and relationship with him. But Christ has made it possible for us to be found and be reconciled – but we must admit our lost condition and come to Christ humbly to find new life in him.

This Sunday, and with our Monday-Thursday writings of next week, we are going to talk about lost things – three parables that talk about the lost being found, and the joy of the Father when that which was lost has been found. We’ll look in Luke 15 at a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son.

We are going to boldly ask the question on Sunday for any and all who are there: Have you admitted you are lost in your sinful condition, and have you been found by Christ and received His gift of new life? And too, we will memorialize that life-giving sacrifice with a time of communion together.