The reading for today was Luke 15:1-32, but in his sermon Jonathan focussed on the story of the lost son (v11-32), and on one particular episode within that story – the moment of the son’s return. The context of the story is the complaint of the religious leaders that Jesus was welcoming ‘sinners’ and eating with them. (v1-2)
A familiar story with an expected twist….
Jonathan began retelling the familiar story of the son who demanded his inheritance and went off to a far country and lived the high life until his money ran out. The land was swept by famine and he was reduced to working feeding pigs. He thinks of home – he’d be better off as one of his father’s servants – and begins the long journey back, preparing his speech of confession and entreaty.
But then he approaches the village of his birth….
and his father sees him coming…..
and slams the door in his face.
This, said Jonathan, is what would normally have happened in circumstances like those Jesus described. In close-knit Jewish villages like the one in Jesus’ story, he continued, everyone would know what the son had said to his father, everyone would know about the circumstances of his departure.
The person who had squandered his inheritance and then tried to return home would be greeted by the village elders at the village boundary. They would carry out a ritual called Kezazah (which literally means ‘the cutting off’) This involved smashing a pot filled with burnt beans at the returning prodigal’s feet, indicating that there was no hope of reconciliation. ‘It was a visual symbol that the community rejected him forever,’ Jonathan said.
Back to the story and the far country. The son is feeding pigs – a great indignity for him, as to Jewish people pigs were ‘unclean.’ And then he begins to feel sorrow for what he had done in grasping his inheritance and treating his father so badly. He’d broken the commandment by disrespecting his father. He felt shame, and self-loathing, and distress – all of which are the consequences of sin. He knows, says Jonathan, that Kezazah awaits him at the edge of the village. And yet he heads homewards.
The father who runs in welcome
But his father had never stopped loving him, and when he sees him coming, he runs to meet him. The word used for ‘run’ is used elsewhere of taking part in a race. The father races to meet his son. One reason for his urgency is that he needs to reach his son before the village elders get to him with the burnt beans in the pot…..
In that culture, no man of over 25 of his status would ever run. You had servants to do your running for you. To run freely, you had to hitch up your robe, and reveal the bare flesh of your legs which was undignified, humiliating, shameful.
The father runs because he knows the Kezazah which awaits his son.
What the father does is take upon himself, in the indignity of his running, the shame and humility which should have fallen on his son. The whole village sees this.
Finding the cross in this parable
It’s a symbol of what happened on the cross, where in Jesus, God took upon himself the shame which should have been ours.
Our Muslim friends say that this story shows there’s no need for the cross – God can forgive without the cross. But to take this view misses the father’s humiliation in the story. It mirrors Jesus’ humiliation on the cross, where he hung with no loin-clothe, totally exposed.
Jesus bore our humiliation on the cross so that for us there need be no humiliation. Jesus takes our shame, our disgrace, our self-loathing.
And the father in the story represents Jesus Christ – for in Jesus, God stepped out of heaven, and went to the cross, and bore that burden for us. Saving us cost God something. (It’s the same in the story of the lost sheep (v1-7) which the shepherd diligently searches for, and in the story of the lost coin (v8-10) where the woman doesn’t give up looking until the coin is found.
The father’s costly demonstration of love on the edge of the village reveals the cross. And Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. (Luke 19:10)
The son has his speech prepared, but before he has a chance to say anything, his father flings his arms round him, and kisses him (v20) As St Paul wrote ‘God demonstrates his love for us: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)
Christ died for us before we had even thought of coming back.
The son in the story had planned to confess, and got his speech ready, and thought by becoming a servant he might just, by diligent effort win back some respect from his father.’
But the father embraces him.
‘I am no longer worthy to be called your son,’ the young man said (v21), but his father interrupts him before he gets to the point of asking to be a servant. Before the son has fully confessed, before he can make any reparation the father welcomes him.
It is all about grace. ‘My grace is enough’, Jesus says to us.
The son in the story doesn’t need to try to save himself, because the father has already saved him. Grace comes first. ‘The prodigal does not come back as a servant, but as a son,’ Jonathan said.
Now all the villagers would have been angry at this returning son – he would have been anathema to them, they would have considered him an outcast.
And so the father quickly sends his servants to fetch the best robe – which would have been his own robe – and puts it on his son, a sign on the father’s acceptance. The villagers will not spit on the son when they seeing him dressed in this robe, because it is evident that the father has accepted him back.
And as Christians, we are robed in the righteousness of Jesus.
The son is smelly and unwashed and dusty, but the father’s robe is wrapped around him to cover his disgrace. It demonstrates that he has been restored to full sonship, and that he is under the father’s protection.
The righteousness of Jesus covers our naked souls, and hides all our sins from divine justice, and it protects us from all shame, and it saves us from the wrath to come. And it beautifies and adorns us, it renders us acceptable in the sight of God and it gives us the right to eternal life.
He then quoted John Calvin’s take on this theme:
This is the wonderful exchange which, out of His measureless benevolence, Jesus Christ has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, He has made us sons of God with Him; that, by His descent to earth, He has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, He has conferred His immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, He has strengthened us by His power; that, receiving our poverty unto Himself, He has transferred His wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon Himself, He has clothed us with His righteousness.
The ring and the shoes
And the ring and shoes which the father in the story ‘seal the deal’ as Jonathan put it. The ring would be a signet ring, a symbol of the father’s authority – again signifying that the young man is his son again. The shoes also emphasise his sonship, for servants did not wear shoes.
The story concludes with a feast. But who was the feast for? Jonathan had always assumed that it was a welcome-home banquet for the younger son. But in the story, only the elder brother, simmering with bitterness, seems to take it this way. ‘Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours [not, you note ‘my brother’] who has squandered your property with prostitutes [there’s been no previous mention of prostitutes] comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (v29-30)
In fact the feast was for the father. It was a celebration of the fact that the Father’s costly effort to restore and redeem his son have been successful.
The young man could do nothing. He’d broken his father’s heart, and he can’t make it right again. He’s considered his father dead (in the manner of his asking for his inheritance) and made himself dead too by taken himself away from the family.
But the father, in a radically unorthodox expression of pure, radical love, makes it right.
We can’t reconcile ourselves to God – only God can reconcile himself to us. (2 Corinthians 5:19) Only the Father can restore the relationship, and he does it in grace and through grace.
The Feast is for the Father
Only God can make it right
Communion is not a celebration that we have saved ourselves, for we can never save ourselves, but it is a remembering of what Jesus did for us.
The religious leaders complained that Jesus ate meals with ‘sinners’. But the story shows is that God doesn’t just eat with us, but runs to meet us, and kills the calf for the banquet of joy, a celebration of the success of all he has gone through to win us back.
Just like we’ve never been away
When asked how he would respond to the Southern slave states after the American Civil War, everyone expected Abraham Lincoln to say that he would wreak vengeance on them for all the pain and suffering they had caused. Instead, he replied ‘I will treat them like they had never been away.’ Todays’s parable demonstrates the fact that, through the costly love and sacrifice of Christ on the cross, that’s exactly how God treats us.
It’s the parable of the loving father; far more about a father’s love that a son’s sin, about grace that will always receive you back, no matter where you’ve been and what you’ve done. And the amazing, awesome, life-changing truth of the gospel is that he’s waiting for you, ready to run to welcome you home.