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“Prodigal Grace”

Posted on Thu, Mar 17, 2016

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

March 6, 2016

 

4th Sunday in Lent

 

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 – “Prodigal Grace”

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

3 So he told them this parable:

The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother

11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout 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 to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then 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 slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’

 

15.11–32:  The lost son.  12:  See Luke 12.13 n. 15:  Pigs, the culminating indignity for a Jew. 22–24:  His place as son is freely restored. The parable illustrates God’s acceptance of those who rebel and return. 22:  Robe, a festal garment (not to be worn while working); ring, symbol of authority; sandals, slaves would have been unshod. Genesis 41.42; Zechariah 3.4. 24:  1 Timothy 5.6; Ephesians 2.1; Luke 9.60. 

15.25–32:  Jesus’ aim was to portray the difference between God’s loving forgiveness and the self-centered complacency that not only denies love, but also cannot understand it.

 

 

For whom is the Bible written? When the Bible writers were writing their book about the Good News of forgiveness and salvation fulfilled through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose face was on his or her mind? Was it some northern European? A Polynesian or Melanesian? A Jew, Roman, Gentile, or some other group?

 

The Gospel Writer was writing primarily for a mind that was rooted in the world of what we now call, the Middle East. Therefore, we non-Semitic people, oftentimes miss the nuances and inferences the people of Jesus’ day quickly understood, but we miss because we don’t study or think about the way the person of the Middle East in those days, or even today, thinks or sees the world.

 

A Pharisaic commentary on the Law said, “There is joy before God when those who provoke Him perish from the world.” In Luke 15:7, Jesus turns this kind of thinking on its head and says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

 

That is why in chapter 15 there are three ‘lost and found’ parables, all requiring risk on account of the seeker and overwhelming joy by that seeker when the lost sheep, coin, or son has been found.

 

The parable is sometimes called the “Prodigal Son.” Our definition of the word “prodigal” has been influenced by this parable.

 

Prodigal: prod·i·gal adj

1. Spendthrift or extravagant to a degree bordering on recklessness

2. Giving or producing something in large amounts

3. Spending parental money wastefully, but returning home to a warm welcome (literary) n.

Somebody who spends money, especially money from his or her parents, wastefully

 

Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

 

In the story there are actually two sons, one who runs away and the second who stays home. It is the father who represents the Christ figure, the one who demonstrates how God thinks (A God full of extravagant, overflowing with reckless grace).

 

One day, the younger son says, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ What does this mean? It means that the younger son is waiting for his father’s death. He does not say, “Give me my inheritance.” He only says, “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” He avoids using the word “inheritance” because this would mean he would be bound by duty to honor the family, their wealth and to represent the family at weddings and funerals. He is only interested in the money for himself.

 

His request hurts his father very deeply. Plus, it also hurts the family/clan and the village. The father, the clan (extended family) and the village have used their resources to raise this boy, and they had expectations that their efforts would be rewarded when the boy grew into a man and he would take his place in the village as an active and productive member of their village. Instead, he is only thinking about himself, and he says, “Give the money I am promised when you die, NOW! … And I want it in cash, please.”

 

This is painful in our western ears, but to the ears of a person from the Middle East it would be unthinkable. A Palestinian person would say, “This cannot be! Impossible! The father should beat his son for even presuming such a thing! He shows no respect when his son wants his father to die!”

 

Even though this breaks the father’s heart, the father divides his property and gives it to this son. The younger son gets one third of the property according to Deuteronomy 21:17, (“He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.”)

 

More than just hurting his father emotionally, the son has hurt his father and the entire clan financially. The value of the property is in the land, houses, livestock etc. People in the Middle East haggle over property value for days; however, to just sell everything so quickly according to the younger sons demands would require that the father must sell the land at a hefty loss, therefore the family and the clan would took a staggering loss. Even more importantly, the father would have ‘lost face’ to the village, and this would have been greatly noticed by the younger son, who must hold up his father’s, the clan’s, name.

 

The boy cuts himself off from his family and village, his security and real inheritance. His village is his insurance and his pension. He has broken all his relationships, with family and village, and this breaks his father’s heart.

 

And all the while, the older son understands what is going on, grumbles in anger, and must consider his brother dead to the clan.

 

The older son has the obligation to be the “go between” in order to “repair” the relationships between the younger son and the father. It is the older sons responsibility to stop the younger son from being so foolish in his demands, and it is the older sons responsibility to explain to him that he must not leave his father, family and village. But the older son refuses to be the ‘go between’ … their relationship may not be so good either… the father gives permission for the younger son to leave. However, the father does not sever his relationship to the younger son. Had he disowned him, there would have been no possibility of reconciliation… the way the father handled the situation allows the possibility of reconciliation to remain…

 

15:13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.  14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout 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 to his fields to feed the pigs.  16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.

 

We don’t know where he went, but since he severed his relationships with his family, he had to make new ones. Did he spend his money on parties and gifts for new “friends?” Maybe, but when the money was gone, so were his so-called “friends.” Now he was in real trouble. What was he to do?

 

He did not save his money for any emergencies and he was thrown into “survival mode.” First, he tried to get a job by pursuing or “gluing”(the Greek meaning), himself to a local “citizen.” The nuance is that the young man is pursuing a potential employer, who is also a Gentile, in order to feed himself. They are in a distant, non-Jewish land, and the would-be employee knows that the young man is a Jew. He offers him a humiliating job “feeding pigs,” hoping that this will get the young man to turn down the offer and leave him alone. According to Leviticus 11:7, Jews are not even to touch a pig!

 

Nowadays, pigs are kept in pens or sties, but back then, and in many countries today, the pigs wandered along public roads, ditches and pathways. The pigs were traveling garbage disposal units. This would be very public and humiliating work. But he is desperate. His very survival is at stake.

 

17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!  18 I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands.” ’  20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

 

There is only one way for him to survive, and that is to return home. However, in order to return home he must think of a strategy – for three reasons. A) Remembering his father did not punish him; his father will most likely reject him. B) He must face his brother’s scorn and “eat his brother’s bread.” He is indebted to his brother AND his father as well. C) He must also face up to the community. He also cannot just go to the house and say, “I’m hooome!” He must first send a messenger to his father on his behalf, and wait for a reply from a distance.

 

So he works out his plan. He will go back “home” as a slave, or an apprentice and learn a trade. If he learns a trade and can support himself, he may earn respect from his brother and community…. At least he will live.

 

He begins his walk back to his father and he practices his little speech. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

 

15:20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.  21 Then 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 slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

 

While the younger son is away, the father has not forgotten him; rather, the father thinks about him everyday, anxiously waiting his return. “Where is my boy?” “Does he have friends?” Is he alive?” “Will my boy ever come back to me?”

 

Everyday, the father probably looked down the road in hopes of seeing his lost son return home. One day the father looks down the street and sees his boy coming home! He immediately runs, or in fact, races, to meet his son.

 

In western society we can imagine people running even old men… But in a Middle Eastern culture, old men NEVER run. Little boys run. Teenagers run, Old men never run, they walk with dignity. There is another purpose to the father’s running. The boy sinned against the village as well as the father. If the villagers see the son coming, they may run out to the boy, not to welcome him, but to kill him by stoning or beating him for turning his back on his village and clan. The villagers still feel betrayed by what the son has done to them and his clan. So, the father MUST get to the boy, before the villagers do.

 

In running, literally “racing” to his son, and therefore, the father demeans himself for the sake of his younger son. He must expose his undershirt, his underwear, and his bear legs. Think about the robes you see men from the Middle East wearing. They NEVER let their legs, especially their calves, be exposed. Little children were probably running next to him pointing and laughing. The father is prepared to demean himself before his family and village in order to get to the boy first.

 

Finally the two meet. The obedient son has the right to kiss his father’s hands, but the wayward son has only the right to fall to the ground and kiss his father’s feet. But the father doesn’t let him fall to the ground and hugs and kisses him! The father does not even allow the boy to finish his speech! Why? The father hugs and kisses the boy first, meaning the father finds the son, the son does not find the father.

 

The father doesn’t even let the boy finish his practiced speech and takes over the talking, “place the best robe in the house around him, the ring on his finger, and shoes on his feet. Kill the fatted calf and prepare a feast.

The best robe - is the father’s robe, and it is his best robe!

Ring - a symbol of the family and clan and authority.

Shoes – only a slave would be barefoot, the boy was never meant to be a slave. The father accepts him back fully into the family and clan.

 

The father calls for a feast with the fatted calf… the fatted calf belongs to the older brother.

 

The feast is a village event. Everyone is invited, including the ones the young man sinned against; however, since they are invited by the father, the head of the clan, THEY MUST ALL ATTEND AND NOT SAY ANYTHING BAD AGAINST the lost son in front of the father. Because they have been invited to the feast, before the father, they must accept him and welcome him… not an easy thing for the clan or village to swallow.

 

Now here is the biggest problem. Who is supposed to be the “head-waiter” at this banquet? It is the older brother. (The one who was also supposed to be the go between.)

 

It doesn’t seem fair; the truth is that it isn’t fair! The older son feels he should be the one deserving a party. The oldest son refuses to come to the party, and the father (again) goes out to his eldest son. The elder son lets the father know how he feels, he is bitter and feeling betrayed, and in his anger he risks severing his relationship with his father, (his prodigal brother), family, and village; but the father still calls him, “son,” and assures him that his place in the family is always secure and his legal rights are protected.

 

The story ends with a promise from the father, but without a clean ending to the story. The eldest son is still grumbling about his father. His father, in order to show his joy in that his “prodigal son” is safe at home and welcome in his home, has made a fool of himself in front of the village, clan and the elder son… what may be the quickest way for the elder son to get “his fair share of the property,” and deal with his younger brother? Yes, the father is at risk of being killed by his eldest son…

 

The Pharisees grumbled when Jesus showed how gracious God was when he ate with the sinners and even called a tax collector to be one of his disciples, when he healed on the Sabbath, and graciously shared the message of God’s grace and mercy to all people. What would be the best way for them to be rid of Jesus and just end his little “I am the Messiah charade?” They will eventually decide to kill Jesus… because the way Jesus was sharing God’s grace was too much for them and their understanding of the law and their limited understanding of God’s heart was totally inadequate. 

 

For those only seeking justice and morality, Jesus’ message of grace and the Kingdom of God will always be found offensive. Jesus is about more than just equality and profound “fairness,” Luke is proclaiming the joyous freedom of God to be God, and God’s greatest joy is to show mercy on the sinner and seek the lost.

 

Jesus’ ‘Journey to the Cross,’ is the ultimate journey of hope for all humankind, no matter how lost, how desperate, or how hopeless. Through Jesus’ obedience to God’s greatest joy, finding the lost, God surpasses all human religious systems and redefines all standards of righteousness and mercy. Amen.

 

“And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 4:7)

 

Sources: Notes from Crossways International, and Luke, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament by David Tiede

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