Forum Class May 14, 2006
The Four Lost Things
GOD AND THE UNTHINKING (Luke 15)
by Ray C. Stedman
I would like to speak to you this morning as members of a persecuted minority. You know that professing Christians were once the majority in our country. Not too long ago more people were attending church than not. But no longer. Church attendance and interest are diminishing with the passing of this decade. Of course, true Christians never were the majority. They never have been, and never will be -- i.e., until the Lord returns -- and they never need to be. The character of Christian life is not that God wins his battles by majority vote. He wins them by the quality of life that is manifested. But we are very much aware that we are living today in an increasingly pagan world. Increasingly we are sensing and feeling how much more a minority Bible believing and trusting Christians are becoming in this day.
I think there is a tendency in all of us to write off this present world and age as hopeless. All these immoral, rebellious, shallow, superficial moderns who are around us everywhere today -- how disgusted God must be with these people. Well, if that is how we feel, we are very, very wrong! We very much need correction by the message of the parable now before us. It is the first of three which we might call "the parables of the lost things." They are found in Luke 15 -- one of the most familiar passages in the New Testament. We get the setting in which our Lord told them in the opening words of the chapter:
"Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.' "So he told them this parable:" (Luke 15:1-3 RSV)
The occasion, you notice, is the offense taken by the Pharisees at the crowd which was attracted to Jesus. They were, says Luke, tax collectors and sinners. That does not sound so terrible to us, though some of us may feel that the reaction of these Pharisees toward the tax collectors was somewhat justified. We are still suffering from April 15th, and, perhaps, feel that this hard-hearted, rigid lot ought to be treated with some contempt. But we ought to remember that tax collectors today are somewhat different from tax collectors then. They were not official servants of the government, like tax collectors today, but hired private entrepreneurs who made their money by overcharging and extortion. They had gained the reputation, quite deserved, of being venal -- exploiters, amassers of slush funds, and also spies for the Roman government. You can imagine how this kind was rejected by those around them. Today we would call them "loan sharks and finks." The sinners here were a motley group of various outcasts from society -- prostitutes, irreligious people who did not frequent the Jewish temple, thieves, gamblers, etc. Our terms today for this group would be "hippies and radicals."
So, here is a crowd of loan sharks and finks, hippies and radicals, all gathered around Jesus, listening to him. And the Pharisees objected. They did not object, particularly, to the fact that these people were listening to Jesus. What really bothered them was that some of this crowd were inviting Jesus home to dinner, and he was accepting! And so, with hands raised in horror, these Pharisees and scribes were saying, "This man receives these people and eats with them!"
We need to understand the viewpoint of these Pharisees somewhat sympathetically. There was much about Jesus that appealed to them. After all, they could see that he, like they, believed strongly in the existence of a supernatural kingdom, a spiritual kingdom over which God ruled in sovereign power and authority. He believed in the supernatural activity of God in the affairs of men and this warmed their hearts. And he, like they, honored the authority of the Word of God. Jesus never said one disparaging word or gave any hint that would weaken the authority of the Scriptures -- the Old Testament. The Pharisees gloried in the fact that they upheld the authority of the Word. They took it literally. They believed it. So they were attracted to Jesus on this basis also. Because they had these views in common, they expected him to join their club and to hold their attitude toward the outcasts from society.
But when Jesus saw their attitude of rejection toward these who were gathering around him, he told them these three parables. Each of these stories is about something lost. There are the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons. (Not son; sons. Both of them were lost.) And each of them reveals the heart of God, his attitude, and the activity that he undertakes on behalf of the lost. Each of them will help us to see men as God sees them, and to understand the reasons why they are lost. With that as our introduction, let us look at the first of the stories our Lord told:
So he told them this parable: "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (Luke 15:3-7 RSV)
There are a number of clues in this story that will help us to interpret it. It may be somewhat difficult for us, who are city dwellers accustomed to a metropolitan area, to relate to this story from an agricultural-pastoral region. Some of us are rather remote from this, although, as I have reminded you in the past, I come from Monta-a-a-na and I know a good deal about sheep -- lost and otherwise.
The first thing to grasp is the significance of the fact that our Lord chose a sheep and not a pig, cow, or dog. It was a lost sheep. There is something unusual about sheep. Unlike other animals they do not often deliberately run away. A dog who wants to be free, given a chance, will leave, just like that. A pig or cow will do the same. But sheep do not. They only wander away. They do not mean to. They just drift away without realizing it. Thus Jesus has deliberately chosen an animal which represents people who are lost, but who never intended to be lost. They never meant to be, and they don't know how it happened. In complete sincerity of purpose they suddenly find themselves lost, and they do not know how it came about.
You can watch a sheep get himself lost. He is with the flock at first. Then he sees some grass a few paces away that interests him so he goes over to it. Then he sees some more in another few steps and moves to that. Then he finds more a little beyond. He is concerned only about the immediate, and, little by little, he is drawn away without realizing it. Suddenly he looks around for the flock, and finds they are nowhere in sight. He begins to bleat and run around, but he does not know in which direction to go, nor how to hide -- so he panics, he runs in circles. Every shepherd knows that a sheep in that condition is utterly helpless. Any wild animal, any hostile force, can take him easily.
This is the picture our Lord gives us of certain people who are intent only on the present experience. They are living just for the moment. They do not intend to get lost; they do not intend to waste their lives. They do not intend to wander off into something dangerous and destructive. But, little by little, concentrating only on the present, they wander away. Eventually they wake up to realize that they are lost, that life is suddenly empty, that their hearts are burdened and heavy with guilt -- and they do not know how it happened. They are not happy to be lost; they hate it. They long to belong. They may have wanted all along to be part of what God is doing, so they do not know how they got this way. They are exactly typified by this sheep.
There are millions like this today. Some are poor and obscure. Some are intent on simply making a living, on feeding themselves. That is all that concerns them. They live to eat and eat to live. Such a person has been described this way:
Into this world, To eat and to sleep And to know no reason Why he was born, Save to consume the corn, Devour the cattle, flock, and fish, And leave behind an empty dish.
Some are rich and prominent. All over this country, and all over the world today, I see people suffering from what someone has aptly termed "destination sickness," i.e., the sickness of those who have already arrived at their destination, who have all that they set out to get in life. They have all they want; but they discover that they do not want anything they have. They have an empty life. That is destination sickness. Our Lord is talking here about people who did not mean to be empty and hollow and heartsick, but who find that they are, and do not know how it happened.
This is the reason for much of the use of drugs by young people today. Not all who are using drugs are rebels. Not all of them are trying to protest something. They are simply drifting along with the crowd, or are intent upon some immediate experience. Sometimes they are kids who have grown up in homes devoid of love, and whose parents lead hollow lives -- this is a frequent pattern among drug users today. They will try anything because they want something, that is all, and they do not know where it is leading them.
A second key to this parable is the shepherd's response. He left the ninety and nine in the wilderness, Jesus said, and went after the one. That is most significant. It pictures the activity of God, as expressed in the person of the Lord Jesus himself. He left something to come and find us. As Paul states it so wonderfully in the letter to the Philippians, he did not count the fact that he was equal with God a thing to be held on to, but instead emptied himself, took upon himself the form of a servant, and was found in the likeness of men (Philippians 2:6-7). He left, and he came. You can see how beautifully this is fulfilled in our Lord's own ministry.
Take his dealings with Matthew, for example. Remember that Matthew was a tax collector. He belonged to this crowd of extortionists who made their living by overcharging taxpayers, ruthlessly taking the last dime from poor people. He was one of the untouchables of his generation. He had full pockets, but an empty heart. But one day there stood before him a man whom he had seen and heard speaking, this man from Galilee, this stranger from Nazareth. Suddenly the man turned and looked at him, sitting there behind his table, with all his money around him. Those eyes looked into his eyes, and Matthew heard him speaking to him. He could not believe it -- that this man, who was obviously a prophet, should speak to him, an untouchable tax collector! To his astonishment he heard Jesus say, "Follow me," (Matthew 9:9). And Matthew just left all the money, stood up, and followed him. What he did next has always interested me. He came to Jesus and said, "Master, I have made a feast in my house for all my friends. Would you come?" And Jesus went. He went because there were gathered all the tax collectors that Matthew knew, ready to listen to him as he reached out to find these untouchables who were lost in the midst of plenty.
Our Lord intends that this should typify and describe those who are moved with compassion to meet the needs of the lost of this kind today. It is necessary, he says, to leave the ninety and nine, and to go out. You can never get this kind to come to church. They do not even know that there is anything worth coming to church for. And, of course, too often there is not. You must leave the safe place, the secure place, the comfortable place, and go out to find them. They are responsive, they are ready to be found, they do not resist when you find them. But this kind will never come to you.
That is why, from time to time, God lays his hand upon young people of this congregation and sends them out, out beyond the seas to people in other lands who are like the sheep in this story, who have drifted away, stumbled along, and found themselves lost. Some may even be savages in remote tribes, obscure people, forgotten people. The appeal of the Lord is, if you are going to reach this kind, that you be willing to leave something. You cannot merely stay in the comfortable place. Leave the ninety and nine, and go out to the campuses, to the beer halls and the cocktail parties, to the lonely offices and the servicemen's centers -- wherever this kind gather in their loneliness and lostness, trying to find something to satisfy the emptiness, to deaden the pain of an empty heart -- and there you will find them.
When you find them, says the Lord, lay them on your shoulders, as he did. What does that mean? It means help them, undertake for them, assume some care of them, share your strength with them. That is what this shepherd did. When he found the lost one he laid it on his shoulders and carried it, and went home rejoicing.
Some months ago I received a letter from a friend whom I had met last summer at a conference in the state of Washington. He told me of an unusual character whom he had met in the course of his work as a doctor. This person had been a member of the Norwegian Resistance to the Nazi occupation of Norway. He was a tough character. He had lived the rigorous, ruthless life of an underground commando. He was in this country trying to organize a program to challenge young people to get involved in wilderness survival training, to toughen them. But his own life was empty, his own heart hollow. In an attempt to satisfy it he had begun to drink and had become an alcoholic. Yet he was such a colorful character that he drew attention wherever he went. My friend sent me some newspaper clippings about him, described him to me, and said that he was moving to a town across San Francisco Bay from here. He asked me if I could do anything about reaching him.
I remembered a man whom I had known for a number of years who lived over there. He is an earnest, compassionate man, always reaching out to try to help those who are lost. I put all the information in an envelope and sent it to him. For weeks I heard nothing, but just two weeks ago he was here in this congregation. He told me what happened. He said that he had gone out after this man, and they had become friends. He found that, despite all the rough exterior, there was a very hungry heart underneath. And, in the course of events, he led him to the Lord Jesus. The man became a Christian and was delivered from his alcoholism. He was restored to his wife. And we have been invited to supply counselors for the camp that he is establishing up in the Sierra. He wants only Christian young men and women to work with him there. What an example of this kind of ministry -- of reaching out to those who are lost. A third key in this parable is the emphasis on the rejoicing over the recovery of the lost. Our Lord says,
"And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (Luke 15:6-7 RSV)
This reveals the value that God sets on lost men and women. They are not worthless in his sight. They are not written off, nor neglected. They are made in his image. That is the declaration of Scripture. Therefore they are of unspeakable value to God. They bear his own mark, marred, defiled, and ruined as that image may be, and he longs to find them and reach them and restore them. Notice the remarkable way our Lord expresses God's joy, here:
"Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (Luke 15:7 RSV)
For years I accepted the usual interpretation of that last phrase. It is that our Lord was referring to these Pharisees as the ninety and nine -- these righteous persons who thought that they did not need any repentance -- who actually did, but did not know it. But the more I have studied this parable, the less I feel that is correct. Jesus deliberately says that these ninety-nine are people who do not need any repentance. He did not say that they merely thought they didn't; they actually don't! Well, if ninety-nine people do not need repentance, why do they not? It must be because they have already repented. There is only one way to be righteous and that is to have repented, to have turned to the One who alone can give us righteousness. Righteousness is the gift of God. We know that from Scripture. No man can earn it, no man can buy it, no man can achieve it. There is no religious formula you can go through that will make it available to you. It is a gift given only to those who have repented and have cast themselves upon the grace of God.
So here are ninety-nine people who have done that. Now, does God not have joy over them? Of course he does. He rejoices greatly. He takes great delight in those who are his. You only have to read the Scriptures to see how God's concern is for his own, how he loves them, nourishes them, is tender toward them. As a Father he pities them and trains them, disciplines them and works with them, and rejoices over them. Yes, Jesus is not deprecating the joy that God has for these; he is simply saying that if God rejoices over those who are already his that still doesn't compare with how he feels when one of these lost people repents and turns to him. You cannot imagine the joy that breaks out in heaven when that happens! God is so desirous of setting men free from the things that blast and ruin them, disfigure and destroy them that, when he can accomplish it by the great work he has performed, heaven just erupts into cheering, and they shoot off fireworks and have a tremendous celebration! That is how much God is concerned about the lost, and that is what our Lord wants us to see.
If we Christians can live on the face of this planet and can look at a world as lost as this world is -- with its millions around us whose hearts are empty, hollow, and bleeding, and who did not mean to get lost anymore than we had meant to before we were found -- and not feel some of the same compassion as the God who longs to reach them, then there is something wrong with us. But if we enter into God's compassion, then our hearts will begin to burn with a hunger to do something for these poor, lost people whom Jesus described as being like sheep without a shepherd, wandering in the wilderness of life with no guide nor guideline, simply existing, with no destiny except death at last. The wonderful thing is that when you are concerned, and involve yourself in the great enterprise of God to find this kind of people, then you do find them. God will lead you to one, and your own heart can share something of the joy of God over their repentance.
In the course of my experience as a pastor, I have seen it happen many times: Many of you have told me, with your face literally radiating glory, about an experience you have had with your neighbor or friend or co-worker. You have been able to lead them to Christ. You have found them lost and have led them to him. You have rejoiced over itÉ
Prayer: Thank you, our heavenly Father, for this glimpse into your own heart, for the knowledge of your concern for those who are drifting and aimless, who have no goals in life. There may be some among us here this morning who have been brought by those who have found them. We pray that they may now, by faith, lay hold of this blessed Redeemer, this Shepherd, and let him lift them up and hold them to himself, lay them on his shoulder, and bring them home with rejoicing. We ask in his name, Amen.
GOD AND THE NEGLECTED
The parables of our Lord are remarkable stories which he so wonderfully told on many different occasions. They intrigue and challenge us for they always have an element of mystery about them; they constitute a delightful, tantalizing challenge to us to discover the hidden truth that he has incorporated in them. We are studying the series of parables recorded in the fifteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel. These are parables of lost things and they grew out of an incident when the Lord was surrounded by a crowd made up of loan sharks, hippies, and radicals. Of course, the Scriptures do not call them that. There they are referred to as tax collectors and sinners. But these are the modern equivalents. They were listening eagerly to what he had to say. They even invited him home to dinner and he accepted.
But the Pharisees and the scribes objected very strenuously to our Lord's fellowshipping with these people; in their self-righteous egotism, they criticized him severely for it. They murmured against him, saying that he was demeaning himself by eating with tax collectors and sinners. To answer this charge our Lord gave three parables. Each of them is a picture primarily intended to illustrate the joy in the heart of God when someone who was lost is found.
In the process of telling these stories our Lord reveals the four kinds of lostness that prevail among men. Last week we looked together at the parable of the lost sheep. There we learned that men can be lost because of unthinking ignorance. They become preoccupied with life, drifting away without intending to do so. There is no rebellion, no intent to be lost, but they simply wake up to find that life has moved them away from where they ought to be, and so they find themselves lost. Today we have the parable of the lost coin, the second in this series, found in Verses 8-10:
"Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:8-10 RSV)
There are three very revealing movements in this little story: The first is the circumstance of the lost coin. The coin referred to here is a small silver piece worth, in our money, about 16 cents. The lady had ten of these, so the total value of her wealth was $1.60. That is not very much, but it was more than simply some money to this woman because it had great sentimental value. We learn from those who have studied the customs of ancient days that this was part of her dowry.
When a woman married she took money that she had accumulated throughout her life and sewed it into a headdress which she wore on her wedding day. She used ten silver coins -- which is why our Lord picked this number to illustrate the story. Therefore these ten coins were of tremendous significance to her as a woman. They symbolized her dowry. They represented not just the value of the money, but all that she had to contribute to the marriage. This headdress was of such value to the women of that time that, by law, it was impossible for it to be taken from them -- even to pay a debt.
I have often thought that these Eastern customs of marriage were much more sensible than ours. We can see Western degeneracy in the fact that now the father of the bride must pay all the costs of a wedding. It was much better in the East where the women needed to contribute only this little bit. The bridegroom paid everything else. As the father of four daughters I should like very much to reintroduce these customs into our modern scene!
The point of the illustration that the Lord is giving here is that something was lost -- but lost at home. The value of the story of the lost sheep is that, though the sheep did not mean to, it had wandered away and the shepherd had to leave the ninety and nine to go out and find it. Similarly, the value of this illustration is that the coin was lost at home where you would not expect to find lost things. This coin did not wander off. It was in the place of apparent safety. Nevertheless it was lost -- probably through carelessness or neglect, although nothing is said about the cause. It may have been by some accident. The woman is unaware that the coin is lost until suddenly she discovers that it is gone. When she wakes up to realize that the coin is missing she is stirred to a flurry of activity to recover it because it is of extreme value to her. That is the story, and our Lord intended it to hit with impact on those who heard.
It has meaning to us today only as we apply it to our own situation. It forces upon us the question, "Do I have something lost at home?" Perhaps better, "Is someone lost?" -- because our Lord is not talking about things but is illustrating the value of lost persons. Is someone lost in your home -- a child, perhaps, that you have taken for granted is a Christian, but, as he grows up, something makes you realize that he is not? You may wake up to realize that these whom you have taken for granted to be safe and sound in your home are not; they are lost.
There are millions like this today in Christian homes -- many even in this congregation. We have raised them in our Christian homes. We have taught them the Scriptures as best we knew how. We have helped them to memorize Scripture. We have taught them how to know the Lord, and how to walk with him. But, as they grow up, if we are honest, observant, and sensitive as parents, there may come a time when, in the absence of any positive evidence to the contrary, we must face the realization that these children are not really saved, are not Christians, are not born again. They are lost -- and lost at home.
This is a frequent occurrence because we parents tend to put too much trust in externals. I have long ago learned not to trust the fact that a child has made any sort of public profession of becoming a Christian as evidence that he has actually become a real Christian. Many people have held evangelistic meetings for them, and children have raised their hands, and confessed faith in Christ. The parents have naively assumed that these children have really become Christians. But we need to understand that we cannot impose adult standards of commitment upon children, because they are born imitators. You can have a meeting with five hundred children you gather right off the streets. If you have presented something interesting and fascinating, and they have been caught up in the flow of the program, you may make an appeal to them at the end of it, and they will do whatever you ask. But that does not men they have actually been changed. To assume so is the mistake many Christian parents make.
I frequently meet children who have come through this system and have grown up into adults. Their parents have assumed, because they were obedient to attend Sunday school and to go with them to church, that they had become Christians. But actually they never made an inner commitment of the heart, and the children have grown up without a real knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
One of our Sunday school teachers was saying to me just this morning that he had been asking his class some questions about the Bible. As long as they concerned mere information the students were all responsive. But when he began to probe their inner lives and their inner reaction and response to the person of Christ, he found that they had hardly anything to say. They did not know anything. There was no genuine experience of the reality of the Lord Jesus.
I do not know how many times I have heard someone say, "When I was a kid my folks made me go to Sunday school, and I went all my life. I won all the medals and prizes for attendance. But, as soon as I got out on my own, I quit and I've never gone back. It never meant anything to me." That is the situation our Lord is describing here. One is lost, and lost at home.
The second movement of our story takes us immediately into the efforts of this woman to find what was lost. She launched upon a remarkable campaign. When she realized that this valuable coin was lost, she went into action. Her activity in this story reveals the heart concern of God for people who are lost like this. God's heart moves out to them. Also revealed is the process of recovering such lost people. I am sure every parent will be interested in what follows.
This woman did three things which are extremely important: First, she lit a lamp. That is what to do before anything else. She realized that she was working in darkness. She needed more light in this search. I think you see how clear the symbolism is. If we are going to find those lost at home, we are going to need the light of the Scriptures. We need to understand how God works, and how children operate. There is only one source in the world where we can get that information accurately, and in a trustworthy way, and that is from the Scriptures. So we need to light the lamp of Scripture when we realize that our children do not know Jesus Christ.
This woman felt she needed light, as we must feel the need of learning more of reality. I am sure you know how this feels. There is not a parent here who has not felt his ignorance in confronting this kind of situation, and sensed how little he understands children. How much we need to understand what a child thinks, how he thinks, and how to approach him about God.
There is no book greater than the Bible to consult for that. The New Testament and the Old alike are full of passages that deal with the problem of reaching children. Nothing is more important in this connection than the book of Proverbs. Proverbs is the record of the talks of a father with his son, and of how a father begins early in the life of his son to lay the foundation that will lead that boy to the fullness of manhood, in an experience of trust in the living God. There are books and passages in the New Testament also that deal with how to approach a child, and, furthermore, how to recognize true life.
The problem is that there are many parents who do not understand how to recognize the signs of a genuine impartation of life in Jesus Christ. They have taken the word of a child, or the expression of his experience, as the ground of salvation. I have known parents, and mothers particularly, who were so confused about this that even when their children had grown up and obviously had left the path of any possible testimony of Christian faith -- had flung their faith overboard and openly displayed indifference and unconcern for the things of God -- these parents had come to me and said, "I know he's a Christian, because when he was five years old he received the Lord Jesus." But that is fooling yourself. That is no sign at all.
The Scriptures tell us that if the Spirit of God is at work in the heart, there will be evidence of it. As John tells us in his first letter, "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren," (1 John 3:14 RSV). Love awakening for other Christians is one sign. Paul says, "Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity," (2 Timothy 2:19b KJV). A desire to turn from that which is obviously evil is another sign. There are other indications of the fruit of the Spirit throughout the Scriptures. These are what we must learn if we are going to evaluate our children rightly.
Not only that, but we must also learn how to strengthen and nurture the life that is already there, so that it grows as the child grows and moves into adulthood, so that it begins to blossom and flower and to produce Christian character and a Christian life.
Second, this woman swept the house. In those days it was customary to spread straw on the floor. Usually the floors were earthen and, in order to have something soft underfoot, straw was spread. A coin falling down in it would naturally be difficult to find. So the woman took a broom and swept up all the straw and thus made it much more possible to find it.
What does this symbolize to us? You can see clearly that it indicates a need to lay bare the circumstances of the family, to open up and to be transparent and honest within the family circle. There is a need to admit fault -- to admit both the possibility of failure and its actual occurrence on the part of parents toward children, if it is true. There is a need to let your children see that you are not perfect, and are not claiming to be perfect, as parents. You must admit, as freely as you expect them to admit, the mistakes that you make and the errors that you have fallen into. This is what makes possible the finding of lost ones.
I know that is not easy to do. Something about being adults appeals to our pride, and we love to preserve an air of infallibility with regard to our children. When they are little, they think that we hung the moon in place. They think that mother and dad know all the answers, that there is nothing hidden from them, that they know everything. But as they grow up we have to dispossess them of that delusion. To continue it is easy because we enjoy that feeling. We feel great that our children think we are so tremendous. But nothing is more dangerous than to let them grow up continuing to believe that we think that of ourselves. Parents need to unburden themselves and admit their problems.
I must confess to you that there is nothing more difficult in a pastor's household than for the pastor to admit that he is wrong. He has not only his whole family thinking that he knows everything, but half the church does, too. And for him to have to say to his children, "I'm sorry, I made a mistake," is a hard thing to do. But I have had to do it, and I hope you will do it, too, because nothing will contribute more in a household to laying the groundwork of reality in the Christian faith, than to have the parents open up and be honest and transparent in their problems with their youngsters.
The third thing this woman did was to search diligently. She lit a lamp; she swept the house; and she searched diligently. That means she thought about ways of finding this coin. She gave herself to this task. She did not just look around a little in her spare time; she stopped everything and she swept the house out. Foot by foot she went over the floor, searching for this lost coin -- it was that valuable to her.
The symbolism and the application in our own lives again is quite clear. Parent after parent has told me, "If I only realized how important it was to have given some time to my children when they were growing up. But I was caught up in the business of making money. I thought it was so important to get ahead. I thought it was essential to have all the nice things that the neighbors had. I was so intent on making enough money to buy a new car, or another television set, or to get a cabin in the mountains. Now I realize that if I had only given some time to my children how much more valuable that would have been!" And so the analogy here, our Lord teaches, is to someone who immediately stops everything and takes the time to know and to love his children, until they open up, until a response is obtained, until there are communication channels open, and it is thus possible to reach and to find that which was lost.
I do not have to dwell upon this. I know you are hearing it from many sides today. But this lack of proper attention is the reason why so many of our young people are drifting away. So many of them have no confidence in the older generation because they feel that adults do not know them. Parents are caught up in their own affairs while their children run around the streets without any supervision, without their parents knowing or caring where they have been or what they are doing. I see this in my own neighborhood and everywhere I go. But this must not be true among Christians. For, if we have a concern for our children and desire to see them one with God, we must realize the great possibility that they can be lost right at home.
The third movement of the story brings us at last to finding and rejoicing:
"And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:9-10 RSV)
Speaking as a father I can tell you that there is nothing more satisfying than to find your children growing up into solid, trustworthy, Christian maturity. There is nothing that warms the heart more than to see the evidences of faith, the warmth of Christian love, and depth of Christian commitment in the heart of one of your own children. Remember what John writes in his third letter, saying what every father can echo: "No greater joy can I have than this, to hear that my children follow the truth," (3 John 1:4 RSV). That is joy. The poet, Edgar A. Guest, said:
If I don't help my boy to grow up right, I'll call myself a failure no matter how much money I make or how big a reputation I get. I have a number of tasks to do all of which I should like to do well. To be a failure in any one of them would be disappointing. Yet I could bear that without whimpering if I were sure I had not failed my boy. Not so much of me in the bank, and more of me and my best in the lad -- that's what I should like to have to show at the end of my career. For me to succeed as a father, he must succeed. Unless my boy comes to manhood fit for the respect of his fellow men, I shall have been a failure. The glory of our handiwork lies not in ourselves, but in our children.
So our Lord described the joy that was in the heart of this woman when she found this coin which was lost. She called all her neighbors and friends to share with her this overwhelming joy. And you know, despite all the problems that may come in the raising of children, despite the battles, the failures, the tears, the heartaches -- if, as you see them coming to manhood and womanhood, they have struck deep roots down into the depths of Christian truth, and have come to understand and to know the Lord Jesus as a living, vital factor in their life, and have begun, somewhat feebly perhaps, but have begun at least, to rest upon his forgiving grace and to understand his overwhelming love, to understand how to walk with him and to draw strength from him, and to encounter the battles and the difficulties of life with the courage and strength which he alone can impart, then it does not make any difference what all the difficulties, problems. and heartaches were. Your own heart will be filled with this kind of joy as you see them entering life committed, concerned, growing, settled in faith, solid and secure.
And Jesus said that joy is shared in heaven, as well. The angels glory before God, he said. There is a celebration in heaven when one of these who are lost at home opens up his or her heart and finds a living Lord. He likens it to the celebration that was held when the lost sheep was found. It is a superlative expression. They shoot off cannons, they ring bells, they swing from the chandeliers. It is a great time of unrestrained joy before God over a lost one that is returned.
What a revelation of the heart of God this is! How God longs to see those who are lost recovered, whether they have wandered away, or whether they are lost at home where it had seemed that they had been in a place of safety. Yet all of us know of instance after instance of those who have been raised in Christian homes, but who have been lost all the time. God help us to face this with the realism of the whole picture of our Lord's parable, that we might stop and take the steps that are necessary to find these that are lost at home, before it is too late.
Prayer: Our Father, we pray that our own hearts may be filled with the joy that is described in this parable, as we look forward to the time when our children move into adulthood and take on the responsibilities of Christian adults. We pray that you will help us to be realistic and honest about them. We realize that for a child to find Christ is the easiest possible thing, when the approach is right. As you yourself have said, Lord Jesus, except that we become like a little child, no one of us can come into the kingdom of heaven. And if our lives and our approach are right, all of these children can find you, for that is not difficult for a child. We ask you that you will lay this on our hearts, and teach us to be good parents. And for those of us who have children who are now entering adulthood, we pray that we may be tender and responsive, ready to admit our mistakes and our failures, and ready not to blame the children but to help them in every way that we can. In these days of pressures and problems we pray, Lord, for the wisdom to lead them aright. In Christ's name, Amen.
GOD AND THE REBELLIOUS
The parable of the lost son is the most famous of all our Lord's illustrations. Probably no parable our Lord ever uttered is more pertinent to the times in which we live than this, the story of a rebellious boy. Each day we are confronted with new crises arising from what is called "the rebellious generation." Every news medium flashes before us reports of the insistent demands of the young for "Freedom, now!" We hear on every side the cry for the overthrow of old ways, the call for the destruction of the establishment, and a summons to defiance of all authority. Many workers from college campuses reported to me this past week what the radical elements on the campuses are saying. They are openly advocating that students pay no attention to anything they have learned from their parents. They tell them that parents are completely and totally wrong and urge them not even to bother to tell parents they are wrong but just to ignore them. Our present generation, perhaps more than any for many centuries, is under tremendous pressure to flaunt authority, to overthrow the old ways, to rebel against parental authority, and to destroy the landmarks of the past.
There is no better place in the world to discuss this kind of problem than right here. This is where it ought to be faced. In a congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ all kinds of people are present: the young, the old, the weak, the strong, the rich, the poor, all colors, all backgrounds, all experiences of life. We gather here not to air our own points of view but to listen to God's viewpoint. Some of the young present are sympathetic with what is going on today -- and not without good reason. Some of us who are older likewise have sympathy for it, yet we feel also a sense of fear and dread of the possibilities that might result from the revolt that seethes beneath the surface of the cities of our land. There is no one here who cannot but be helped by seeing the rebellious as God sees them. That is what this parable brings before us.
This parable falls into three movements. There is, first, the departure of the son; then his awakening in the far country; and finally, the joy of the father. Now the first movement,
And he said, "There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.' And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything." (Luke 15:11-16 RSV)
In this section of the story, Jesus deliberately sets before us two remarkable things. One is the freedom this young man sought, and the other is the freedom he actually found. There is not one of us who does not know how this young man felt while he was living at home. We all know the sense of oppressive authority and the revolt that seethes within against it. We have all had a sense of being held down, restrained, under leash. In the innocent conceit of youth, it is easy for this young man to think that he has already arrived at the place where he is able to handle his own affairs fully and completely. He was undoubtedly approaching that time and he chafes under the restraint of his father, murmuring and grumbling to himself.
It is clear that this boy's idea of freedom is that of so many young people today -- the opportunity to do what you want to do. You can almost hear what he says to himself, "Oh, if I could just go where I want to go and do what I want to do, to go and come back as I please, and not have to answer to anyone. If I could just let my passions have their fling and satisfy myself whenever I like and not be under any law or any rules. If I could be my own boss, and answer to no one. What a great life that would be!" Further, his thought would be, "Why wait for it? It's going to come sometime soon anyhow. Soon I'll be on my own; soon I'll make my own decisions, so why wait? Why not now?"
So he came to his father and said, "Father, you know that soon I'm going to be of age. You've already told me that when I come of age you'll give me a share of your property. But I want it now. Give me the share that belongs to me, and let me take it now." Doubtless his father tried to reason with him. He said to him, "Son, do you really think you have no freedom now? Don't you see that you have a great deal of freedom? Plenty of it? Can't you see that I've given you a great deal of responsibility, and there is much more to come? And don't you understand that you have the run of the house and all this property, and that you are answerable in this home only to me? You don't need to report to anyone else; there is only one to whom you are under obligation."
But it is all to no avail. The boy is determined to have his way. So at last the father gives him his share of the property, and the boy gathers up all his possessions and takes his way into the far country. At first he is sure that he has done the right thing. He rents a home with a great view, and furnishes it with taste. He begins to make friends everywhere, of both sexes. He spends money with a lavish hand, and tries anything and everything, especially those things which had formerly been forbidden him.
Strangely enough, soon everything seems to be mysteriously changed. His body becomes the vehicle of wild passions that sometimes frighten him with their intensity. His health begins to suffer, and he finds that he often wakes up with a dark brown taste in his mouth. He no longer feels vital and alive as he once did. His money begins to dwindle and with it his friends go. He is no longer able to keep up with the expensive crowd he first chose. They leave him in the lurch as soon as his money is gone, and he must seek other friends. He finds that he cannot stand to be alone but must always find some amusement or diversion.
At last hard times hit the country. His money is gone, and now he has to get a job. But because he had not stayed with his father long enough to complete any skill or training, the only job he can get is manual labor, and even that is hard to find. Finally he ends up with a job feeding pigs. There, in the pigsty with an empty purse and an empty belly, he begins to take stock of his empty life. That brings us to the second movement of the story:
"But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, 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."' And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had comparison, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 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.'" (Luke 15:17-21 RSV)
Perhaps the most hopeful sentence in this story is the phrase with which this section is introduced, "But when he came to himself." (Years ago I heard a very eloquent black preacher speaking on this parable. He was illustrating what happened to the prodigal son in the far country. He said, "As his money disappeared he had to sell his clothes in order to eat. He took off his shoes and sold those. Then he took off his coat and sold that. Then he took off his shirt and sold that. And then he came to himself!")
Our Lord is saying that no one who is in rebellion is ever himself. He is living in a dream world, a world of fantasy, unreality. But now at last the boy begins to see himself exactly as he is. Reality breaks through. When he takes stock of his life he discovers that his is chained to his urges. His passions have so developed within him that he has to satisfy them in any way he can. Yet even when he does so, they are not satisfied.
A high school boy said to me some time ago, "I don't know what's the matter with me. I see a girl, and I say to myself, 'If I could just go with that girl, I'd be the happiest guy on earth!' And then I meet her, and go out with her. We go together for awhile, and then I find myself saying, 'If I could just get rid of this girl I'd be the happiest guy on earth!'"
In our story the boy finds that he is chained to his homesickness. He cannot forget his home, so he must keep himself amused and diverted, his attention engaged. He cannot stand to be alone. Every time he comes into the house he switches on the TV or the radio, anything to keep him occupied. He finds he is chained to his degrading work. He does not like it; he hates it. There is nothing appealing about it, nothing challenging in it, but it is all he has to keep himself alive, and he has got to stay with it. He must do something to live. Further, he finds himself subject to a man who cares nothing about him, who uses him as a mere tool to get his work done, but has no interest in him as a person.
One day the realization hits him with full force. If he cannot avoid certain things, but must do other things, then he is no longer free! Above everything else he wanted to be free. He sought for freedom and longed to find it, was ready to sacrifice anything to gain it. Now he knows that he is the least free of all men. And he suddenly realizes that this has been true for a long time; he knew it inwardly even when he still had money. Others thought he was carefree, able to do what he wanted, but inside he knew that the chains were beginning to draw around him and his freedom was a lie. That was his first realization, that he had no freedom at all.
Second, as he sat among the pigs in the pigsty, he realized that all the things that he once had, he had gotten from his father. His possessions, his money, his clothes, his food, his drink, even his very body, the passions of which he had unleashed. He had gotten them all from him. He had been living on the capital of another, and had made no investment himself.
Then a third thing hit him. He realized that everything he now wanted -- even needed -- was to be found only in the father's house. That is where true freedom lay. As he looked back on those days with his father, he realized that there was freedom. That was when he was the most free. That was when he could be what he wanted to be. That was when he could fulfill the dreams of his heart, and when he still had his health and his chastity. And even now the things he wanted and needed were in the father's house. He yearned for food, for he was hungry, but the only place he knew where he could get it was in the father's house. He yearned for friends and for companionship. He was all alone and no one gave him anything; but there it all was, waiting in the father's house. He yearned for significance, for some way to redeem his ruined life. The only chance he could think of was to go back to his father.
The fourth thing that came to him, as he sat in the pigsty, was that he had lost all claim upon his father. He could not go back after he had been so smart, so sure that he was right, and say to his father, "Father, I've come back to be your son." He realized he had lost his right to sonship. So he thought up a little speech that he would make. Jesus tells us what it is: He said to himself, "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.'" He reasoned, "Even the hired servants in my father's house have something to eat, and they have spare time in which to enjoy themselves. They're better off than I by a long ways. I haven't the gall to go back to be my father's son again, but I'll go back and be his hired servant." So he rose to return to the father.
Now this last realization to which he came is really very important. There are some who have suggested that this boy need not have come back saying what he said; that he could have come back and said to his father, "Father, here I am, and you ought to be glad I went for I grew more mature in the far country. The experience of evil which I've been through has made a man of me. Now I've come back to be your son, and you can be glad that I tried the far country." One writer even goes so far as to suggest that he urge his older brother to go to the far country, that he might sin a bit and thus grow up to be a man! But you find that there is nothing of that here; nothing at all.
I am sure that if this boy had said that, the father would have still welcomed him back. The father loved this boy, and he would have still put on him the robe, the ring, and called for the fatted calf. But the problem would have been the son would have been unable to forgive himself. The torments inside would have remained. His conscience would have gone on accusing him, and, wracked with guilt, he could not have assumed again the position of a son.
I run into many people like that. They have never been able to forgive themselves because they have never taken the position this boy took. They have never realized that they have no claim whatsoever upon God, upon his love or grace.
That is why Jesus tells us this story. He wants us to see how this boy is set completely free. When he comes back to the father, he comes without any justification whatsoever. There is simply the acknowledgment that he has no claim and that all is up to the father. Then we come to the third movement of the story:
"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; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to make merry." (Luke 15:22-24 RSV)
Here is the joy of the father. What a happy note to end on -- for everyone but the fatted calf! The father's joy is unrestrained. He sees the lone figure on the horizon and runs to meet him. He throws his arms about him and kisses him. The boy starts his little speech, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." The father knows what he is going to say next and he stops him, does not let him say it, but cries, "Bring quickly the best robe -- and a ring -- and prepare the fatted calf." He calls for the robe, the mark of sonship. He calls for a ring, the sign of authority. And he calls for a feast, the display of honor. In other words he puts this boy right back into the full relationship of a son within the family circle. He begins to honor him and treat him as a grown son.
Now, how can this father be so joyful? There were many years in my life when I read this parable and could understand fully the feeling of this boy. I too had been a rebellious son, and I knew how he felt; I could identify with him. I knew what the far country was like, and what the joy of coming home was. But now, as I read the parable, I find myself identifying with the father and understanding something of what went on in his heart. Why is this father so joyful, why is he so gloriously happy? It is as he tells us. It is because, in his thinking, the boy had been dead -- but now is alive. He was lost -- but now is found. He had almost given up, he had almost lost hope. These words tell us that behind the joy of the father is the dark background of agony which he endured while this boy was gone.
Dr. Helmut Thielicke's title for his commentary on this parable is not "The Prodigal Son," as we call it, but "The Waiting Father." Many of the commentaries point out that what Jesus is after is not to show us the boy's heart, but the father's. It is a picture of the heart of God. The father's agony began when he first realized that he had to let this boy go. He did not want to. He knew what lay ahead, and he knew it was needless. He knew that he could have spared this boy the heartache, the loneliness, the shame and degradation of the far country; that he could have saved him from these black marks upon his soul. Had the boy been patient, and waited a bit, and allowed his father to work out his purposes, he could have brought him into the full enjoyment of the liberty he sought, but without the heartache, without the shame. Yet the father knew he could not do it without the boy's full cooperation, that, when he had reached this stage of development, the boy must cooperate with him in it. He had to wait, and agree to wait, through the fulfillment of the father's plans. But if he would not wait the father could not force him; he could not make him do it. So there came a time when, with his heart breaking, the father gave the boy the money and let him go.
Then there followed long months and years when reports came filtering back from the far country of what was happening. The older boy heard them also and flings them in the father's face a little later. Every bit of gossip was like a knife wound in the father's heart. His own son, in this kind of state! Each day deepened the ache in his heart, but he never fully gave up looking for him. Though he finally reached the place where he thought the boy would never come back, something within him kept his eyes on the horizon, though every look was a pain, and every pain left a scar.
If we can see the father's agony as Jesus intended us to see it, then we will have the answer to the question many ask about this parable. They say, "Why is there no reference here to the cross? How can Jesus tell the story of a rebellious son, a prodigal boy returning to his father, without a single reference to his own cross and his redemptive love?" The answer is that the agony of this father's heart, running through the background of this story, unexpressed but clearly there, is the picture of the cross. The cross is the expression of God's agony over the rebellion of man. That is what Paul says in Romans 5, "The proof of God's amazing love is this, that when we were yet sinners Christ died for us," (Romans 5:8). Again, to the Corinthians, he says, "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself," (2 Corinthians 5:19 KJV).
There is a mistaken doctrine of the atonement which says that Jesus, upon the cross, was placating the vengeance of an angry God; that he was standing between the poured out wrath of God and man, stopping God from wreaking terrible vengeance upon the rebellion of man. There is some truth in that for it is true that God's justice must be satisfied. But we can never understand the depths of the atonement unless we realize that God's love was expressed in the cross, that God was "in Christ, reconciling the world." Behind the reconciliation is the ache and agony of a Father's heart. "He who spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all; how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:32). Is that not the story of the prodigal son?
The final lesson of this story is that there is a new beginning that awaits us in God. There is a full restoration that is ours whenever we stupidly and foolishly rebel. There is not one person here who has not so rebelled and does so even yet. But restoration is only because the Father has already borne the hurt himself. The agony has already reached him. He has quenched the fire of our rebellion in the blood of his Father's heart.
You and I know that we are rebels. There is not one of us who can point the finger at another. We all rebel. We rebel in hypocrisy and cover it over with self-righteousness. We act as though we are good and decent and respectable, but if we admitted the truth, inside there is defiance and flaunting and desiring our own way. We take matters in our own hands and go off into some far country of the spirit. How many times God has healed us and welcomed us back without a word of condemnation. When we have come, saying, "Father, we are not worthy to be your sons. We don't deserve your love and your mercy," he never lets us finish the sentence. Instead, he calls for the restoration of all that was ours, all that he wanted us to have -- the ring, the robe, and the merry feast.
So we cannot point our finger at anyone who lives in rebellion against God. We can only say of them, "They are our kind of people." We can only help them find their way back from the far country. We know well the loneliness of it. We know the agony of it, the heartache of it. We know the emptiness and the longing for significance and love and grace. But this is the message Jesus wants us to learn, and what we are to convey to the world around us -- that God waits to restore fully those who turn back to him.
Those who come like this boy, saying, "Father, I've blown it. I've messed it up. Lord, I don't know how to straighten it out. but you know, and I can only commit myself to you." To that, the Lord Jesus makes clear, God responds as this father did.
Prayer: Our Father, how grateful we are that through the difficulties of our lives and through the clarity of Scripture you are teaching us that we have only two choices: either to be the slave of one master, or the child of another. We pray that in each moment of decision we may choose to be the child of a father's love. We are not made to stand alone. No one is. We cannot run our own affairs. We are dishonest if we think we can. We are dependent upon you, Lord. We have made us that way, and now we glory in it. We ask you to break the back of rebellion within us, and help us to choose your plan and your program. To learn to wait when you ask us to, and learn to trust, and know that "freedom, now," means slavery; but freedom when you give it means liberty in the fullest sense of the word. We thank you for this lesson, in Jesus' name, Amen.
GOD AND THE RESPECTABLE
It is more than coincidental that on this Father's Day we are discussing a parable from Luke's Gospel which reveals the fatherhood of God and is one of the greatest parables in the Scriptures to picture a father's heart. It occurs as a part of the parable of lost things, which our Lord told as a result of the criticism of the Pharisees and scribes because of his actions to the outcasts of his day. These outcasts were inviting him home to dinner and he was accepting. The scribes and Pharisees were offended and complained against him because of this. To answer their complaint our Lord gave the great parable of the lost things; one parable, falling into three parts. There we learn how God views the lost. The first division is the parable of the lost sheep (some are lost through ignorance); then the parable of the lost coin (some are lost through neglect), and now the parable of the lost sons. This, too, falls into two parts. The first is the parable of the rebellious son (those who are lost through rebellion), and now the parable of the respectable son.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.' But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, 'Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!' And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.' (Luke 15:25-32 RSV)
As in the other parables, our Lord sets in direct contrast two attitudes. They are revealed through the respective actions of the son and the father. Jesus calls our attention to the actions of the son first. He is working in the field when the younger son returns from the far country, and thus does not get home until after the festivities are under way. It is an exquisite touch on our Lord's part to put this boy out working in the field. There is something about hard work that seems to awaken a self-righteous attitude within us. How many have heard (or used) the old phrase. "I've been slaving all day over a hot stove!" There is something about putting forth effort that makes us look down on those who do not.
So the boy comes in from the field and hears the merriment. He makes inquiry and one of the servants tells him that his brother has come home and his father is exceedingly happy about it. We would expect some kind of positive reaction from the elder son after all the years of separation from his brother, but the Lord hastens to make clear that this son's reaction is anything but positive. The news is met by an immediate expression of jealousy and anger, expressed in the most infantile of terms. He begins to sulk and pout like a little boy, and refuses to go into the house. When the father comes out to urge him to come in all the pent-up inward rage comes boiling out. The father's request is met with a flood of bitterness.
Notice the emphasis on self in what the boy says. He was angry and answered his father. "Lo, these many years have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends." Hear also the contempt for his brother and blame toward his father. "This son of yours, who has devoured your living with harlots, when he came you killed for him the fatted calf." The whole expression is one of extreme resentment and bitterness. How familiar this is to us. We have not only heard it, but we have said it. Listening to our Lord's story of the rebellious son who went into the far country we all knew how he felt; we could identify with him. But now we stand in the shoes of this elder brother. There is not one among us who has not reacted this way, who has not felt what this boy felt when he found himself gripped by a paroxysm of jealous rage.
Perhaps it would help to analyze this a bit that we might more clearly recognize the symptoms of this reaction. How easy it is to be blind to ourselves. Others can see us so much more clearly than we can see ourselves. Because of this congenital blindness an objective picture like this helps us recognize, in some moment of truth, what is happening to us. Having studied it in this impersonal way we may be able to recognize it when it happens again.
There are three characteristics that are always present when this attitude is being expressed, and our Lord brings them out beautifully here: The first one (and it always begins here) is a sense of being treated unfairly, a sense of being ignored, of being forgotten or disregarded. "You never gave me a kid, that I might make merry." There is expressed the hurt of being apparently ignored or forgotten. This feeling of unfair treatment is always the initial mark of a self-centered attitude. It is the sign of crushed pride, of wounded ego, revealing the centrality of self. Its most common expression -- as this story brings out is that of anger and a "won't play" attitude. "I'm gonna take my marbles and go home!"
Probably the most extreme expression of this in the Bible is found in the days of King David, who had a Counselor, a very astute and wise man, named Ahithophel. Ahithophel gave King David some advice one day, but his other counselors advised him to the contrary. King David chose to follow the advice of the others and not that of Ahithophel. When Ahithophel heard that the king had disregarded his advice he went home, put his household in order, and hanged himself. That is the picture of those who, like this older brother, are resentful, bitter, and upset within because of a sense of unfair treatment.
The second mark our Lord brings out here is that of an over-inflated view of self. Notice how the older brother describes his own superiorities and advantages. Self-righteousness is always full of self-praise: "Lo, I have served you all these many years." It is in his view entirely a matter of making contribution to his father. There is no recognition whatsoever of what he has learned through these many years, or how much he has profited by the relationship with his father, how much benefit he has derived from it. In his view it is all one way. "I have been slaving for you. I have been giving of myself to you all these years." We recognize this attitude, do we not? How easily it comes to our lips.
"And I never disobeyed you." Certainly that is not true. No one has ever lived up to that kind of a standard. It is remarkable how easily he can conveniently forget the many times the Father has forgiven him his disobedience, and he has been restored and brought back into fellowship. Yet here, there is nothing but the expression of the elder sons' strong points. His view of himself is that of being completely and wholly in the right. That is always a mark of self-righteousness.
The third mark is his blame of and contempt for others -- his blame of his father and his contempt for his brother. "This son of yours ..." You can hear the cutting edge of contempt in that. He does not call him his brother and there is no love expressed for the younger son as a brother, and no gladness at his return. He rather views him as something vile, something despicable, something contemptible, as his language reveals. Also there is no love or respect for his father. Oddly enough, in some strange perverted way, as frequently happens, the father ends up with all the blame. It is all his fault. "You never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but you killed the fatted calf for this son of yours, this contemptible wretch!" How many times have we heard that reaction expressed? It is like a little boy who is running along and falls down. He looks up at his mother and says, "Look what you made me do!"
I here are the three marks of self-righteousness. Whenever it appears it is always thus characterized. How clear and accurate our Lord's analysis is. This is the world's most deadly sin. Our Lord spoke of this more frequently than of any other sin. He dealt with it more severely and more sharply than any other sin. He could be tender, gracious, and accepting toward those who were involved in adultery, or drunkenness or demon possession, but when he faced self-righteous Pharisees in their smug complacency his words burn and sear and scorch. This sin is deadly because it is so easily disguised as something justifiable. This is what is wrong with a self-righteous spirit. It can always be proved by the book to be right. There is always an aspect of it that looks right. That characteristic is here in this story, is it not? There is a sense in which this son can be justified for his attitude. As he sees the picture it looks to him perfectly justifiable that he should feel as he does. But that is always the mark of self-righteousness. It is an apparent right to be nasty to other people. How often we find this among us!
This is peculiarly the sin of Christians. It is expressed in the attitude of those who view the church as a kind of club that belongs to "our kind of people," and who, in one way or another, are resistant to the inroads of others. They want the church to be a group for white, middle class, Anglo-Saxons, or, perhaps, only for Republicans, and heaven help a Democrat who finds his way into it! But this is all wrong. This is self-righteousness. The church of Jesus Christ is to be what Christ wants it to be -- a gathering place for all who have been redeemed; washed, made anew, alive in the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is also the sin of those who have no interest in the lost, either at home or abroad; who think that missions are a waste of time; who have no concern for those who live in darkness and blindness, either around us (in increasing numbers today), or in far distant parts of the earth. They view them all as disreputable, the unwashed, the despicable; hippies, peons, or savages, not worth saving. I saw a bumper tag on a car the other day that really hit me. It read, "Even Dirty Old Men Need Love." And it is true, is it not? Especially dirty old men!
Yet so subtle is this evil, so deeply imbedded in the heart, that it can even show up as the spirit of the elder brother against those who have the spirit of the elder brother! In other words, we can become the snob's snob. We look down on those who look down on people! Some, who have been set free from a harsh, critical, legalistic, judgmental, elder brother spirit then begin to look down upon the harsh, critical, legalistic, judgmental fundamentalists. That too is wrong, is it not?
This last week I heard of a well-known Christian university which advertises itself as "The World's Most Unusual University" which has erected a steel woven fence around its property, and is now equipping its security guards with machine guns. The press is picking this up and flinging it over the country as an example of what Christianity really is. When I read that, I felt very smug that I didn't have that kind of an attitude. "God, I thank you that I am not like these fundamentalists!" Then I had to judge my own heart for its critical, elder-brother spirit toward these who, having said all else about them, are still brothers in Jesus Christ.
How this all contrasts with the actions of the father in the story. He said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found." Here is true fatherhood. It has two characteristics: First, notice that this father came out to meet the angry boy. Just as he went out to meet the returning rebel, so he goes out to seek this sulking son. Jesus is thus saying, God loves the self-righteous, the smug, the self-centered legalist even as he loves the rebellious and defiant.
Earlier in Luke's Gospel, in Chapter 6, there is a word which has always arrested me. It is Luke's account of the sermon on the mount, which Matthew also records. In Verse 35, Jesus says,
"But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High [i.e., you will make it evident to everyone that you are the sons of the Most High, if you display this attitude]; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." (Luke 6:35-36 RSV)
How beautifully that attitude is displayed in this account of the elder brother! The father comes to seek him out despite his sulking, pouting reaction. When he finds him he does not scold, berate, or rebuke harshly, but he entreats him. Nothing reveals the heart of a true father more than this, for there is nothing more difficult for a father to bear than a selfish, truculent child. Shakespeare said, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth is a thankless child."
But this father controls his reaction through love. I am sure he felt, as all of us feel on such occasions, the sharp rising of the flesh against this selfish spirit, this terrible self-centeredness, this frightful lack of love for his brother. He must have renounced the rising of anger, for he does not express it. He comes out and entreats his son. "Look, son, all mine is yours. Don't be angry because I gave a kid to your brother to celebrate with. You could have had one anytime you wanted it, if you had but asked for it. Everything I have is yours. But you never asked."
Here is revealed the tragedy of this son's relationship. A self-righteous attitude frequently occurs in those who are sitting in the midst of great possibility, but never claim it. They get upset when they see others, whom they feel do not deserve anything, coming in and getting what they could have had, but never asked for, never claimed. This is the problem here.
It reveals that this son is actually more lost than the other was. He, too, is in a far country -- a far country of the spirit -- far removed from the father's heart. He does not understand his father. He has never learned to share the same spirit his father has, and the reason is because he never asked, never tried. He took for granted all that was given him and made no effort to move further.
So his father entreats, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. Now don't be angry because I have shown love and grace to your brother." Notice how he corrects him. He does not say, "my son," but he calls him "your brother." "For this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found; and therefore it is fitting to celebrate."
Jesus ends the story with this boy standing outside the house. We do not know what happened. He is nursing his wounded ego and whether he repents, goes in, and joins the festivity or not, we do not know. Jesus leaves the question hanging in the air.
The story was addressed, obviously, to the Pharisees and scribes who were showing just this spirit of the elder brother. But the Lord leaves it there, as though he is saying to them, "Look now, it is up to you. This is the way you are before God. God loves you, but your selfish, self-righteous, self-justifying spirit has put you, too, in a far country. Unless you are ready to see yourself as you are and respond to the love of God, you will remain where you are -- outside, and not in."
How many times this spirit appears in the stories, parables, and comments of our Lord! It is unquestionably from this group there will come those people who, as recorded in Matthew's Gospel, will come to him at the end and say, "Lord, Lord, have we not done mighty works in thy name? Have we not done great things in your name, cast out demons, and done mighty works?" But he will say to them, "Depart from me, for I never knew you," (Matthew 7:22-23). Yes, you were in the midst of everything, but you never entered into anything. You never caught on, you never laid hold of what was available to you. So, by your own judgment, you have left yourself outside. That is where our Lord leaves this story, and that is where we shall have to leave it.
I am sure there were some among them who did see what he was getting at, who judged their harsh, critical, spirits. Surely we need to do the same. Nothing is more damaging to the cause of Christ than the censorious blame we cast at each other before the world. They see harsh judgmentalism in Christians who ought to be speaking in love, grace, and mercy. If we are to display the same Spirit as our Lord, we must begin by judging this hard attitude within us, and become warm, tender, and compassionate toward those who, in rebellion, have wandered away. We are all that kind of people, ourselves.
As we come to the end of this story and hear ringing in our ears the notes of selfishness, resentment, and bitterness of this elder brother we know that here is our kind of people, too. There is not one of us who has not been guilty of this. So we must judge ourselves in the light of God's word.
Prayer: Our Father, we who have been rebels have found you to be gracious, tender, merciful and compassionate when we returned from the far country. Now, Lord, save, us from turning around and being harsh, judgmental, demanding, and full of blame toward those who are like what we once were. How clearly your word judges both attitudes and shows us that only what is in accord with the Father's heart is true fatherhood and true Christianity. Grant, Lord, that we may manifest that which is so desperately needed in this hour. We pray in Jesus' name, Amen.