THE REBEL RETURNS
By Pastor Glenn Pease
The main social event of the year in many Sunday Schools is the summer picnic. William Porkess was in an English Sunday School that was granted permission by an Earl to have a picnic on his large estate. How excited they all were as they were being carried to the estate by horse and carriage. The woods on this estate contained a million trees, and many were hundreds of years old. In the course of time walks had been planned by marking certain trees. All you had to do was follow the marks and you could walk for miles under a continuous canopy of leaves, and come back to where you started. It was pointed out very strongly the danger in not following the marks. Bill and some others boys were not going to bother with such warnings. They determined to do as they pleased, and they wandered off the path. After a time they began to sense that they did not know where they were.
Their smart-alick enthusiasm cooled rapidly, and they began to feel desperation. They went on and on with no sense of direction most of the day. At last they came to a clearing and found a cottage where they got direction back to the camp. It ended happily, but as Bill reflected back on the experience, he saw the foolishness of his rebellion against rules. He lost two meals and all of the fun that had been planned, and on top of that, he never really came to appreciate the woods, for in their wandering they were gripped with fear, and could not enjoy the beauty of it. He learned a lesson he never forgot. If you wander anywhere in your life according to your own will, and rebel against the path established by those who know the way, you are bound to get lost.
We want to look at the story Jesus told about another youth who learned this lesson the hard way. It is often called the parable of the Prodigal Son, but it could just as rightly be called the parable of the Faithful Father. Whatever you call it, it is the pearl of the parables. It is the most widely known short story in the world. It's message is so simple that it needs no comment to make it clear. We want to look at each of the three main characters of the story to see if we can get some insight into our own personalities, and that of God. Both sons made major mistakes, and so the father is the only hero in the story, but we want to look first at-
I. THE PRODIGAL SON. The first thing to see about him is-
A. His Rebellion in verses 12 and 13.
Here is a typical young man in any age. He is not necessarily disrespectful of his father, but he had desires he wanted to gratify, and to do so he had to get away from dad. Dad is all right, but he has lived his life, and now all he wants to do is hand out rules. I'm old enough to make my own rules, and I'm getting out of here. So he gets this things together and goes to a far country. It is no good just going into town, for that is too near father to be free. He wanted real freedom, and so he went far. There he wasted his substance in riotous living.
He soon learned how deceptive liberty is without law. He lived high off the hog for a while, but ended up eating with the hog. What he thought to be freedom became slavery. All he wanted was to be free. He did not want to destroy his life and disgrace his family. No one sets out to wreck his life. No train leaves the station with a plan to derail; no plane takes off with the design to crash; no young man goes off to a far country to fling himself into famine and filth, but that is what happens when he goes with a misconception of freedom. He thinks freedom is having his own way, and doing just as he pleases. He has to learn the hard way that true freedom comes by being obedient to law.
I can walk over to the piano and do just as I please. I am not bound by any rules. There are no limitations to the way in which I can bang on the keys. Yet, with all my so-called freedom I am a slave to discord. I can not make pleasant sound because my complete freedom is based on complete ignorance of the laws of music. My freedom is really a form of slavery to my ignorance. I can only be really free to produce music by learning to obey the laws of music. Liberty without law is folly, and that is what the Prodigal experienced.
On the other hand, the one who has his freedom limited by rules, and cannot just hit anywhere, in any order, is the one who is free to produce harmony. The secret of freedom is in obedience to law, and not in rebellion against law. One of the responsibilities of parenthood is to teach this to their children, so they don't have to learn it the hard way
As I said before, no one wants to wreck their life and hurt others, but in order to have their own way, they are willing to do so. The youth who drinks and then drives like a wild man, does not want to kill himself for others, but he is willing to take that chance so he can do what he pleases, and he thinks that is freedom. Freedom is only real when it means living according to the laws of God. So many young people think the far country is the goal of life. They have a space-age mentality, but a stone-age morality. Their desire for pleasure soars across the sky like a rocket, while the desire to please God, or anyone else for that matter, drags across the ground like a wounded turtle. The result is, they pay any price for pleasure, and if they live they often end up in a asylums and prisons. Sometimes, however, they reach the bottom, like the Prodigal, and they do what he did, which we want to now consider.
B. His Repentance in verses 17-20.
The text says he came to himself. He saw the folly of his way, and was ready to admit he had been foolish. He saw that his foolish desire for freedom was like a fish desiring to be free from the water. His pleasure had to turned to poison. Sin had weakened, withered, and wasted him. As he sat looking at pigs he no doubt thought, these pigs are happier than I am. Pigs are happier than people at times, for they live according to nature, but man has the freedom to rebel and live contrary to the laws God made for His nature.
The fortunate thing for this young man was that he was alone with himself and the pigs. Most people cannot stand to be alone with themselves, so they never come to themselves. Men trying to live without God need something to keep them company. They often cannot even enjoy nature without a transistor radio blaring. Silence is a pain, and so they must have sound constantly to occupy their minds. I read of a judge who sentenced a youth to 48 hours alone in a room. He was to set there and reflect on his life. Hopefully, it brought him to himself, for when a man comes to himself he wants to come to God next, or at least,
this was the experience of the Prodigal.
Afflictions though they seem severe,
In mercy oft are sent.
They stop they prodigal's career,
And cause him to repent.
He not only was resolved to return home, but he actually arose and went. If a sinner truly repents, he does not just turn over a new leaf, he goes to God and starts with a new book altogether. A man out of fellowship with God is homeless, but he does not feel his home sickness until he comes to himself. The Prodigal never thought of home while having a fun time, and spending his money. The biggest blessing he had was his poverty. Those who can continue indefinitely to please the flesh, and live for pleasure, often never get homesick, and never return. That is why Jesus said it is so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom. Many feel sorry for their sin, but they are too stubborn to return to the Father and confess. So they remain in the pig pen the rest of their lives. The proof of true repentance is when the feeling is followed up with action, and the sinner arises and goes home.
II. THE FATHER.
It is agreed that he represents God, even though we cannot press every detail. We note, however, that there is no charge against the father. Some might say, if he was a good father he would not have bad boys, but that theory does not fit reality, for God is certainly a good Father, yet he has bad boys in his family.
It is important to note that the rebellion is not due to the father's short comings. Some leave home and live in sin because they chance of winding up with the pigs is better than staying home. The case here is that of lack of understanding in the son. He rebels, just as men rebel against God, even though he is the source of all they need. Free will is a fact, and combined with a fallen nature, it leads to perpetual folly. The fault is in the son and not the father. A child raised in a home with a good father can grow up and despise all the father stands for. Men can do the same with God. God respects the free will He has given man, and will not compel them to do His will. He convicts and convinces, and when the sinner returns we see Him respond with compassion.
The father is not a stubborn old man who says I will make my son crawl before I accept him back. The father is waiting for his son, and when he sees him afar off, he runs to him, and maybe out of breath, but not out of love, he kisses the son even though he must have looked and smelled terrible. He reveals God's attitude to the fallen sinner who wants to come home. The son had it all planned, and knew just what he was going to say, but the fact of his coming was all the father needed. We don't have to worry about the form we use, or what to say when we return to God. Just come as you are, and He will receive you, and kiss you with His saving grace.
One of the most outstanding illustrations of how God stoops to kiss us with forgiveness is when the Prince of Wales was asked to visit a hospital where 36 men were so wounded and maimed in fighting for England they would never leave the hospital. He went and talked with them, but there were only 29, and he asked about the other 7. They explained how they were so tragically disfigured they were omitted on purpose. He insisted on seeing them so he could thank them for their sacrifice. Again, only 6 of the 7 were there, for the seventh could not see. He was blind, deaf, maimed beyond the likeness of a man, but the Prince insisted he be taken to this man. He turned white at the sight of this one who could not see or hear him, but he did not move away, but slowly stooped and kissed his face.
Compassion for the unlovely, the hopeless, and the lost, is what the Gospel is all about. It is the good news of God's love for anyone who comes to him through Jesus Christ. If the rebel will return, he will be received. This is love in its most sacred significance, for it means complete forgiveness and restoration to sonship. The Prodigal suffered the loss of wealth and health, and not all of his problems were solved, but he was home, and in fellowship with his father, who would help him overcome the results of his folly. The sinner returning to God is forgiven, but all of his problems are not solved. However, he now has a resource to meet those problems that he did not have when he was feeding the pigs.
All heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents, just as the father rejoiced over the rebels return. He called for the best robe. God is no advocate of plainness or drabness. He who made the beauty of the universe does not delight in ragged clothes and drab colors. It is the best robe for His own. Jesus, you recall, wore such a beautiful robe that the soldiers gambled for it. All will have beautiful robes in glory, and the beauty will be dazzling. How can what is right in heaven be wrong on earth? God is a God of joy and beauty. I stress this lest we think there is piety in what is dull. It is not so, but just as Joseph had a coat of many colors, so all God's people will have garments of beauty.
The setting is filled with joy and merry making. There is the ring, the robe, the shoes, and the fatted calf. This is a kind of a hint of what heaven will be like. Verse 25 says there will be music and dancing. No religion is as joyful as Christianity, for it alone celebrates the Prodigal's return. It has spread hymn books around the world, for it is a religion of joy. The church has always been a singing church. When the Mayflower sets sail the Pilgrim's were singing the Psalms of David. Many of the martyrs died with songs of praise on their lips. Nothing can kill the song at the heart of the Gospel. As long as sinners repent and come home to God there will be singing in this world.
Why is the father so joyful over his son's return? This is the question we must ask? For it made the elder brother angry. He was not happy over his brother's return. The elder brother could not see that the lost recovered brings even greater joy than what was never lost. We do not rejoice over all the children who return safely every day, as we do over one who is almost killed, but is spared. The child who is lost and searched for, and then found, gets in the papers, and the story warms many hearts. This does not mean that those who never get lost are not as precious. When a thing is lost you know the sorrow of its absence, and so greater is your joy when that sorrow is removed. The 20 dollar bill you lost and then found causes you more joy than the 20 you never lost. Both are worth the very same, but one you always had, and so it never caused you any sorrow, and, therefore, no occasion to rejoice. The elder brother did not see this, and he was angry.
III. THE ELDER BROTHER.
Many feel that the purpose of the parable was to show the Pharisees that they were like this elder brother, for they felt the same way about sinners who were coming home to Christ. In verse 30 we see his envy. He put the worst interpretation on his brother's actions. He had a cold and calculated view of works and reward. He felt if he did what was right he should get what was coming to him. He was the Pharisee who did not like to see Jesus fellowshiping with the publicans and sinners. They were not good and did not deserve to be treated like friends. His brother was bad, and so did not deserve to be treated with compassion.
None of us are above this level when the flood waters of envy overflow, and cause us to be soaked with self-centeredness. Envy is that which makes us our own destroyer, like the Greek runner who envied the statue put up in honor of a rival. So at night he pulled it over, and it fell on him and crushed him. We need to rearrange our list of cardinal sins according to the standard of Christ. We often consider jealousy, anger, pride, and harsh judgments as false of human nature, only minor defects which we cannot help. But Jesus puts them on the top of the black list. Often it is in the church where there is the greatest deception as to what sin really is. We pick out 6 or 7 things that are outward signs of character, and we eliminate this acts, and then suppose we have conquered sin. Satan delights to have us think so for then we all the easier fall into the less obvious sins. The world sometimes sees what we are blind to and laughs. Some Christians give the impression they are righteous because they never have any fun. This was the elder brother who felt that he was so wonderful because he never did anything negative. This is like a farmer who keeps all the weeds out of the fields, but never plants any seed.
This brother refused to go in to the party. He is like the Pharisee saying, if God does not act like me, I'm not joining in. Either he accepts only those I feel are worthy, or I'm not in on any celebration. He is like a mummy, all wrapped up in himself. The story does not end happy altogether. The elder brother threw a wet blanket on the whole thing with his pride and stubbornness, and he was left out of the banquet.
God loves all sinners and desires that all come to Him. He is a waiting Father ready to accept all who come in humility and brokenness. If you cannot accept those whom God accepts, you will not enjoy heaven anyway, and must remain outside with the elder brother. Thank God He is such a Father who welcomes all prodigals home. Hawthorn's story "Rappocini's Daughter" tells of a chemist who studied poisons. He had a garden full of lovely but poisonous flowers. In a fiendish experiment he exposed his beautiful daughter to them for years. She was so filled with poison that her own breath was deadly to all life. This is what happens when we are like the elder brother. We poison the atmosphere of even the most joyous occasions. May God help us to avoid that role and join the party of those who celebrate the rebel's return.