Jesus was on a preaching trip to Jerusalem through lower Galilee. As He preached, the opposition grew. The Pharisees were appalled at the dregs of society who flocked to Jesus.
Wouldn't we complain about a preacher who hung around with “those” kinds of people? We might think he was compromising their faith. How do we reconcile the need to win the lost with the need to keep ourselves pure?
The problem they had with Jesus went deeper than his associations. It was His view of the personality of God. To the Pharisees, God was primarily a God of justice, but to Jesus, God was first a God of love.
God is both, so why be concerned about which comes first? Because the way we live is determined by how we perceive God. If we think first of God as justice and second as love, then there’s an end to His love. At some point He must give up on us and admininster justice. But if He is first love, then at some point He must set aside justice for Love. The way we perceive God leads into our treatment of others, and the way we see ourselves. If we see God as justice first, then all love becomes conditional. Our love only goes so far.
But if God's love precedes justice no matter what we have done, His love remains. This, too, carries over into other relationships. We love our children, even when punishing them. Likewise, we see ourselves differently. We know our Loving Father continues to love us.
When challenged about his associations, Jesus responded with three parables—the lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son. All three told of something precious that was lost and found, and how happy the founder was. The will of the Father is that the lost be found and restored to him. But the parable of the Lost Son, more than any other story, save for the cross itself, reveals the heart of the love of God, and how it relates to His justice.
The story is perhaps the most perfect story ever told. It works in every culture and every time. We have all seen versions of it countless time. But this parable is different when Jesus told it, because it reveals the heart of God.
The story goes like this. Once there were three men, a father and two sinful sons. The father represents God. This must be understood if we are to appreciate the wonder of what follows. His heavenly Father is the father in this story.
Then we have the younger son—a wild child. Some of you may not remember what it is like to be a teenager. We are physically mature and emotionally immature. To be a teenager is to be frustrated, because you want to go out on your own, but you lack the maturity and knowledge to know what to do when you get there.
How frustrated this boy must have been! I picture this young man sitting on the roof, staring out over the horizon, imagining what the big wide world must have been like. One day, he could stand it no longer. He went to his father and said, "Give me my inheritance now."
If I were the father, I’ld shake some sense into him. I'd lecture him about the dangers of the world he wants to know--but he is a teenager, and you can't tell him anything.
But I’m not the father—God is. God understood that sometimes the most loving thing we can do for our children is to let them make their own mistakes. His love has been perfect, faultless. In spite of this, his children have problems. This father is exercising the most difficult discipline of all--cruel freedom. Without the freedom to be a fool, we will never learn to be wise.
Consider what this prodigal son cost his father. He cost him at least a third of everything he owned. He cost him many sleepless nights of worry. His name was being laughed at in the streets. Yet in all this, his father never ceased to love his son.
The son's fortunes follow their inevitable course. The son drinks and gambles; he falls in with prostitutes and con men. Soon, all his money is gone. If you had gone to that boy and told him all this before, he would never have believed you. Now, it is too late. In no time, the boy squandered his entire inheritance, and is left penniless and friendless.
He gets a job as a hired hand to a pig farmer. Imagine what that meant to a Jewish boy! In the eyes of Israel, he might as well have been a drug pusher. No Jew would welcome a fellow Jew who fed pigs. No synagogue would even let him enter to worship. He was cut off from his family, cut off from his people, cut off from his God. The pig farmer who employs him treats him like dirt, and thinks he is dirt. Even the pigs ate better then he. It is amazing how cruel the world can be to those who cast off their principles.
At last, the young man comes to his senses. How fortunate he is that he did! Most don’t. The morgues are full of nameless D.O.A.'s, young prodigals who lived nightmare lives, from which they never woke up. It is estimated that among those with fully developed cases of alcoholism that ninety percent die of the disease. Unless they come to their senses, one hundred percent die, murdered by their best friend, the bottle. Drugs are the same. Unless prodigals come to their senses, they will die.
This young man had an advantage over others in similar circumstances. He had the memory of a loving father. He knew there was another life out there. Parents, pray for your children, and give them memories of love, that can return, even when everything else is lost.
The boy thinks the father will never take him back as a son. He never expected him to. He did think that his father, at least never treated his hired hands like he was treated now, so he reasoned that his father might take him on as a hireling. So, he leaves the pigs and returned home.
How little this boy knew of his father's love! The boy trudges down the long road to his father's house, filthy, malnourished, scarcely recognizable. But His father knows him. His father would have known him, no matter what shape he was in. At this point, the father does not think of his former sins, or the pain he caused. From a long way off, his father comes to meet him, he throws his arms around, and embraces him, as a child returned from the dead. He orders the feasting calf to be killed, the one saved for the most special occasion. He throws a tremendous party, a coming-back-from-the-dead party, because his son is alive to him again.
Remember who the father is. The father is God. We have all been like this son, done sinful and stupid things. God has let it happen in the cruelty of freedom. But God has slain the most precious lamb for us, He has paid the ultimate sacrifice for us, all for His love of us. No matter what we have done, Jesus has welcomed us back from the dead.
But all this is not the point of the story. It is not the younger son who is the lesson to us, but the older one. There were two sons and there are two kinds of sinners. The first son was obviously a sinner. The second was not so obvious.
If we, in this church, were to pick which one of these two sons we were most like, most of us would have to picked the second son, not the first. Most church people never stray far from God. We live moral, decent lives, in the bosom of our Heavenly Father. That is what we want for all our children, too. But Jesus leaves no sin unexposed. It is we, who are religious, that He really calls to repentance.
When the boy returns, the older brother is out in the field. Unlike the father, he is not looking for his brother's return. If the truth were known, he hoped that he would never return. He had seen his father worrying, night after night. He had seen what happened to the family farm, when it had been reduced by a third by the boy's inheritance. The older brother is outwardly calm, deeply moral, and filled with hatred and anger toward his younger brother. So far, he had borne quietly all the indignities of having a brother like this, but now, when he hears of his father's decision to throw a party on his brother's return, the older brother explodes.
"When did you ever do this for me? Haven't I served you all these years? You never celebrated me the way you celebrated him!"
Oh,the insight of Christ! He knew the hearts of men, and knew that in the seemingly most pious of us, there are cauldrons of bitterness and jealousy, brimful, and ready to spill. Because our sins are not so obvious, because they exist only in the privacy of our own minds or homes, and we do not allow them to affect our outer lives, we believe they are less, but they are not. Of the two kinds of sinners, this is the hardest to reclaim.
The father answers his second son, "Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. We had to celebrate today, because your brother has come to life." Notice the words--this son calls him, "your son," the father calls him, "your brother." We have an obligation to the lost. Notice, too, that the father reminds the older brother that at any time, all the Father had was his. If at any time, he wanted a party, he could have it. If at any time, he had wanted his father to embrace him, he would do it. The Father's love is not limited to the so-called lost, but is open to any who needs it. Many religious people today are doing the right things, living in God's house, but alienated from His love and affection. This is not the Father's choice, but theirs. They cannot believe in the love that is so close to them.
Two sons, two sinners--yet the solution for both is the same. Come to the Father. Jesus himself is the sign of God's undying affection. "For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten son, that whoever may believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Jesus himself became the proof of the unbounded affection of the Father, that He was willing to risk all, to give all for our redemption.
Prodigals, one and all--for all of you have wandered and squandered the gift of God's grace--return to the Father. He has satisfied justice with the blood of His Son, and His love poured out for you.