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All Prodigals- But Not Like You Think (LifeLift #23)

lifelift podcast Jul 14, 2020

One day the Pharisees and scribes found themselves frustrated with Jesus. Again. 

“This man receives sinners and eats with them,” they said (see Luke 15:2 ESV, emphasis added). 

They were infuriated. Disgusted. Appalled. 

Now, pause right here. Let me give you some insight into how things worked in the ancient world— because the fact that Jesus was eating with them is a loaded canon. 

Today, eating isn’t that big of a deal. We’ll eat wherever with whomever, whenever. 

In their culture, though, things were different. Dining together was almost a solemn act. It signified something more. It denoted that you were pledging yourselves to one another to live in community. It was an “I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine” type of declaration. 

Once you know this, it makes sense that…

  • God made a covenant with Abraham regarding the birth of Isaac as they shared a meal (see Genesis 18:1f.)
  • The Passover was based around a meal— and was to be celebrated every year by reenacting the same meal (Exodus 12)
  • Sacrifices in the temple often involved a meal that the worshiper would eat in the presence of God (see Leviticus 3, 7:11-34)
  • Jesus celebrated the Passover with His disciples in the Upper Room, pointing to Himself as the significance of that meal (Luke 22:15)
  • Followers of Jesus in the New Testament celebrated communion… as a full meal (see 1 Corinthians 11:20f.)

These covenant ceremonies in the Bible (notice that they’re all centered  around eating) each have a special significance. They’re unique moments. 

But all eating was important— not just meals that centered around covenant ceremonies. Anytime you ate with anyone you were pledging yourself to them in some significant way. In other words, God used a social convention with which people were already extremely familiar to show His allegiance to them. 

That’s why the Pharisees often asked, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

And it’s why Jesus doesn’t answer with, “I’m hungry and they invited me to dinner.” 

Rather, He says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Then— “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy’” (see Matthew 9:11-13 ESV). 

In other words, “Not only do I not feel like I need to dissociate from these shady characters, these are the very people to whom I’ve come to pledge myself.”

Clearly Jesus wasn’t repulsed by sinners. Quite the opposite. He embraced them.

 

Why did Jesus do this?

On one occasion when Jesus was confronted with this question— a question He was asked multiple times throughout His ministry— He paused and told a story to explain why he did this. The Pharisees postured with their customary grumbling, followed by a public judgment regarding Jesus’ choice of friends. In order to explain His position, He did three things: 

  1. He asked them a question.
  2. He made a hypothetical assumption.
  3. He told one of the most famous stories of all time. 

Let’s look at all three of these.

First, the question (Luke 15:3-7). Jesus asked the crowd, “If you had one hundred sheep and lost one, would you just forget about the one you lost and think, Hmmm… I’ve still got ninety-nine others….? No, you’d search for that sheep and celebrate when you found it, right?”

They all agreed that this is exactly what they would do. No one would  leave a sheep behind.

Second, the hypothetical assumption (Luke 15:8-9). Jesus continued his discourse by making a commonsense assumption about a woman possessing ten silver coins. 

“If she lost one of them,” He said, “she’d flip the house upside down until she found it, right? She wouldn’t just think, ‘I’ve still got nine— that’s good enough.’

Again, they agreed. They’d frantically search if they lost a coin. And they would celebrate when they found the missing money. 

Third, the famous story (Luke 15:11f.). Now, let me spoil the end of it for you— He’s about to cast them as the whiny older brother in this tale about a father and his two sons. I’m telling you now, because I want you to read with that in mind.

You know the tale…

A man had two sons. The older one was, like the Pharisees, a compliant rule keeper; the younger one was a rebel. Both harbored poison in their hearts, though. 

One day, the younger approached his dad and asked for his share of the estate. Here’s the equivalent of what he actually communicated: “Dad, you have a lot of resources here. I’ll get them when you die, I know, because I’ll inherit my share of this. But, I don’t want to wait for you to die in order to get on with living. So, can you go ahead and give me what’s coming to me? And can we just part ways as if you’re dead to me and I’m dead to you?”

What!?

Every Pharisee listening to the story knew that this son should have been stoned— per Moses (see Deuteronomy 21:18-21). It was common for the lead accuser to toss the first stone, too— which might be why Jesus responds the way He does to those who accused the woman caught in adultery (John 8:7). In other words, the father should have theoretically been the lead executioner! 

However, the father does the unthinkable. He actually gifts the son his share of the estate. Of course, without the skill to actually manage those resources, the young man squanders them (Luke 15:13). And his bad luck gets even worse when a famine hits (15:14). 

Ironically, the young son finds himself working in a pig pen— an animal considered to be unclean by all Jews. Despite all of his begging and “will work for food” signs, no one gives him anything. He is forced to eat the left-overs after those pigs have finished.

Now, notice what happens next in the story (Luke 15:17-19 ESV):

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! I will arise and go to my Father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”

This is the moment where a lot of Bible scholars say the son truly repented. But, notice what really happens— because this doesn’t seem like “repentance” at all: 

  • He realizes the servants at his dad’s estate have it better than he does.
  • He’s knows he will die of starvation if he doesn’t take immediate action.
  • He decides to go home where he will request to be one of those servants.

In other words, it’s a very self-serving plan, isn’t it? 

And he doesn’t seem to return because he’s remorseful. No, he’s just hungry…

As he approaches his former home, his father sees him from a distance. Apparently, his dad has been looking for him, eagerly anticipating that he’d probably lose everything he was given and return home! As the boy approaches the property, the father feels compassion rise up inside of him and he runs to his son. He embraces him. He kisses him. 

Now, there are two things that any grown man who owned an estate would never do in that culture. Ever. They were taboo— as frowned upon as Jesus hanging out with the shady cast of characters He kept moving towards. 

First, a grown man wouldn’t run. Not in public. And definitely not for a wayward kid— a person he should have stoned. 

Second, a grown man wouldn’t show that type of emotion and affection. Ever. 

I love what the father does next— it breaks every mindset the boy had when he approached the house. The father…

  1. Dresses his son in the best robe
  2. Places a ring on his hand
  3. Offers him shoes

Why these specific gifts?

First, by placing the robe on his son, the father sets his identity back on him. He claims the son as his own. This means that the townspeople— who would have likely stoned the boy upon his return— can’t. Not anymore. The son is protected from accusers. 

The Bible says that we wear robes of righteousness (see Isaiah 61:10). In the same way that God offered Adam and Eve clothes to cover their shame (Genesis 3:21), so also does He offer us a cloak that covers us,  marking us officially as His own. 

But, our covering is better. God doesn’t robe us with something “separate” from Himself, He actually cloaks us with His presence! Galatians 3:27 tells us that we’re clothed in Christ. 

By the way, Joseph’s coat (remember, Joseph and the technicolor dream coat back in Genesis 37:1-4) meant that he didn’t work in the fields like his brothers. He lived from a place of rest!

In addition, second, by offering his son a ring, the father grants him authority to administrate and enter into contracts in the family name. He gives him dominion and decision-making power. 

Grasp that. Even though this son had squandered everything he’d already been given, the father gave him another chance. Immediately. No trial period or testing phase required. 

Third, finally, the father gave his son sandals. In the culture, slaves and servants often didn’t wear shoes— it was commonly believed that they “run away” if they had shoes on their feet. The father trusts his son to “come and go” from the estate, empowering him to act as he pleases— even though he could theoretically run away (shoes), enter into a stack of contracts in the father’s name (the ring), and be untouchable as he did (robe).

There are no restraints placed on the son’s freedom. Again, in theory, the son could wear his robe and his signet ring, march into town, and squander the remainder of the estate… 

The father believes in him that much. 

Just an observation. I’ve been told over and over that the crux of the Gospel is to believe in God. Notice that in the story Jesus tells, though, the emphasis seems to be that God believes in you.

A few minutes ago I mentioned the son’s “repentance,” and how self-serving it seemed. “I’ll go home and work my father’s fields,” he  surmised, “because I’m hungry. At least I won’t starve.”

I don’t think that’s true repentance. You probably don’t either. 

The more I read and reread the story, the more I sense that the true moment of repentance is when the father offers the son the robe. And the ring. And the shoes. 

Will he wear them? 

Will he accept his identity as a son…? 

Or will he choose to “work” and “earn” his position in the house?

 

A servant or a son?

Of course, we’ve got to have a meal. It wouldn’t truly be a Biblical celebration without one! The father brings out the fattened calf— the one they’ve been plumping and juicing up just for an occasion such as this (see Luke 15:23).

The older brother (our Pharisee) hears the dancing and singing from this meal as he works in the fields. As he approaches the estate, he asks the servants about the commotion.

“Your brother has returned,” they tell him. “Your father killed the prize calf and is throwing a big party!”

As Jesus communicates the story, He says the older brother gets angry about this. He refuses to attend the party (15:28).

Now, let’s step back and pause. Let’s remember why Jesus launched into this tale in the first place. Remember, He has a cadre of religious elitists who’ve been following all of the rules, watching others squander the estate, and wondering why Jesus dared cozy up to them. 

It was compounded by the fact that centuries earlier Moses taught the people that if they followed the rules they would be able to live in the Promised Land forever. If they didn’t, they’d be exported from the land or enslaved by others who ruled over them (see Deuteronomy 28). 

Most of the Pharisees knew enough history to sense that this seemed to be how things worked. Their ancestors had experienced the period of the Judges in which they were beaten ruthlessly, their great-great-great-great grandparents had been sacked by the Assyrians and Babylonians… then had seen the Temple destroyed and rebuilt….

Even then, they lived under Roman occupation, enduring heavy taxation and over-bearing oppression. They knew what it was like to not be free. Moreover, many of them believed that strict obedience to the Old Testament Law would create an environment where God could move and thrust off their oppressors, thereby bringing an age of the Kingdom of God.

The more Jesus embraced “sinners,” the more He seemed thwart this restoration! He encouraged the very people who were keeping God’s blessings way from the nation, they reasoned! This was a point of high  contention between them and Jesus. And, remember, Jesus told them this story to answer why He “entertains” the very one whose disobedience seems to be the cause of their ongoing calamity. 

He told this story to answer that question. 

Notice the parallels: in the same way that the Pharisees refuse to come near to God (Jesus is God in the flesh)— because of the rift-raft people hanging close to God, the older brother refuses to go near his father because of the squanderer that’s near him. This stance effectively keeps the older brother— and the Pharisees— at a distance. 

But not for long. Because the father breaks another social rule— he leaves the banqueting table at his own party. He pursues the older brother.

I imagine he offered the same grace as he sought this son, too. However, the older brother puts distance between him and his father because he can’t reconcile the grace that’s being offered. 

Notice, he says, “This son of yours has returned…”

He doesn’t say, “This brother of mine is back” (15:29). 

He can’t stand the fact that they’re related to one another, can he?

He even points out issues in his father’s behavior— much like the Pharisees tried to poke holes in Jesus’. “You never gave me a party?!” he says. “All the years that I never disobeyed and you never offered me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends!”

 

Why don’t you eat with us?

You can imagine the scribes saying something like this to Jesus. “Why do you dine with tax collectors and sinners?” Then— “Why don’t you commune with us?” 

That’s the follow-up question, isn’t it?

And it’s why Jesus repeatedly tells them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician” (see Luke 5:31).

Or, to say it another way— “You’re well. You don’t need the doctor.” 

And— “I’ve not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

You can almost see Jesus commending them when you read things from this perspective. I mean, in other verses He actually boasts about their righteousness (see Matthew 5:20, 23:23).

Furthermore, I imagine Jesus would say to those same Pharisees, “Hey, I’d love for you to come into this party, too— the one with the tax collectors and sinners and harlots and others… You don’t have to change who you are to come inside… You just need to accept them for who they are like I have. Only then will you be able to call forth the greatness that’s inside of them.”

Perhaps this is why He looked at a group of religious zealots one day and said, “Harlots and tax collectors enter the Kingdom ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). 

It’s not that the Pharisees weren’t welcome, it’s just that they were “older-brothering” it. They wouldn’t “go in” if “less desirable” people were  already at the party. So, like the older brother, they kept working in the field. They continued serving God with the tiniest minutia of the Law, even doing things like tithing the spices in their kitchen cabinet (Matthew 23:23). 

The father in Jesus’ story reminds the older brother that he always had— and has— access to the entire estate (15:31). As such, he could have taken a goat and celebrated anytime he wanted to. He couldn’t grasp that, though, because in the end he really believed some of the things that we wrongly believe:

  • Following all of the rules is what gives us favor with the Father (and not following them should exclude others from that favor), and
  • We enter the Father’s estate by grace— through no effort of our own, but then we have to work and “prove” that we deserve to be there— effectively putting ourselves back in the position of servants instead of sons.

The truth is that both boys were focused on themselves and their part of the estate. They just expressed it in different ways.  

This means that, for the older brother, the moment of repentance would have been to do the exact same thing as the younger brother— stop seeing himself as a servant and embrace the fact that he is— and always has been— a son. In other words, put on the robe, the ring, and the shoes… and to stop fighting to earn what’s been freely offered. 

You see, whether you’re a rebel or a rule-keeper, the response is the same. Jesus embraces both.

 

Who’s the real prodigal?

Most people refer to Jesus’ story as “The Story of the Prodigal Son.” I think it’s mis-titled.

You see, the word prodigal has two meanings. Do a quick Google search and see for yourself!

  • Meaning #1: “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant”
  • Meaning #2: “having or giving something on a lavish scale”

An example of definition #2 that I found on a quick web search said: “the dessert was crunchy with brown sugar and prodigal with whipped cream.” In other words, prodigal is extra, excessive, abundant!

When we reference the story based on the younger son, we focus on the first use of the word prodigal. We focus on sin, rebellion, and short-comings. 

What if we focused on the second definition, though? 

Who, then, is really the prodigal? 

In this story, is it not the father…? 

The father is the one who…

  • … viewed his son as a son— even after the son wished him dead so that he could acquire his inheritance and “move on” with his life.
  • … offered both sons the position and authority to do anything they wished with the estate— even while he still lived.
  • … broke all social norms to pursue the rebel and the rule-keeper!

All that said, here’s the deal… even if you listen to the words of the Bible, you want to make sure you listen to them in the right way, that  those words are breathing life, hope, and dreams into you rather than sucking the wind out of your sails. 

And that requires sitting at the Master’s feet, hearing His voice…

… finding yourself captivated by the wonder of grace, by the beauty of reconciliation, by the hope of all things made new… overwhelmed by the true nature of prodigal love.

People who do so stand secure in their identity as sons and daughters (part 1 of this book), they walk in the presence as a way of life (part 2), and they allow God full access to express Himself through them (part 3). 

The overflow is an undeniable expression of the gifts, all delivered in lavish, excessive, prodigal love… 

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