TWO KINDS OF PRODIGAL (1): REFUSING TO LET GOD BE GOD
February 14, 2016
Intro -- In his book, How to Use Humor for Business Success, Malcolm Kushner reports that there are three ways to get things done: 1) Do it yourself. 2) Ask someone else to do it. 3) Ask your kids not to do it. I’m thinking God must feel that way a lot. It’s almost like we’re programmed to do whatever He says is wrong. In fact, we are! Jer 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick.” That’s how we are born, and we prove it every single day of our lives thereafter. If God hadn’t paid the penalty for our sin by Himself in the person of Christ, we would have no hope.
That’s what this parable is about. But with a twist. A major twist. It is going to show us that we not only go astray by breaking the law; we sin by keeping the law. You say, “Impossible!” But hang with me, and I’ll show you that’s the main point of this parable. There are two kinds of sinners here.
This wonderful parable lacks an ending; it stops right at the climax. We are never told what happens to the elder brother. Still, it is one of the most beloved parables in the Bible -- also one of the most misunderstood. It is commonly called the parable of the prodigal son, but that is misleading. There is not one prodigal son here; there are two. Both are alienated from their father. Both are lost. One is in active rebellion, the other in passive rebellion. One eventually responds to his father’s incredible love and accepts his forgiveness. But the other – well, the other kills his father – and it’s not the one you would think – but I’m getting a little ahead of the story.
This is the 3rd and longest of 3 parables in Lu 15 – each showing us how God loves, seeks and forgives repentant sinners. The first two emphasize God seeking sinners – this one emphasizes the human responsibility. It is a spectacular story aimed at all of Jesus’ audience, but particularly at His enemies – the scribes and Pharisees. They misunderstand so much and here Jesus provides revolutionary teaching to invite them in. In the process, He redefines God, sin and salvation, attacking their deadly misconceptions.
To them GOD was a moral judge demanding that you keep the law. Unable to keep the law as given, they redefined it so they could claim perfection. Their self-righteousness knew no bounds. But Jesus pictures God very differently -- as a loving Father who seeks sinners and forgives them not because they are good, but because they are repentant. Jesus further redefines SIN not primarily as breaking rules but as breaking a relationship. That is the heart of the matter and that is why even someone who is striving to keep the law can still be a sinner in need of forgiveness. Then, Jesus redefines SALVATION. It doesn’t result from keeping the law but from confessing we can’t keep the law. It comes from repentance. It is all by grace thru faith. These are key messages to look for as we study this wonderful story.
Now, this story has 3 main characters. Each plays a major role. And each gives us a unique perspective on ultimate reality. We’ll examine each in detail starting with the younger son. From him we will see the repulsiveness of rebellion, the ravishment of regret, the reversal of repentance and the rapture of rejoicing. Each of these has critical lessons for us.
I. The Repulsiveness of Rebellion
V. 11, “And he [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons.” This story is about 2 sons from the very beginning. The man represents God the Father. The younger son an active rebel who is ultimately repentant. The older brother a passive rebel -- the scribes and Pharisees, whose end is left open. That’s the setup. The obvious sinner in this parable is the younger brother, right? His rebellion is open and overt. And in a culture steeped in the ideas of shame and honor, he brought shame on himself and his father. Now, three things characterize this young man’s outward, active rebellion. And before you turn off and think this is not you – you’re not rebel – take a long, hard look at your heart. You may find more of these characteristics there than you think.
12 “And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them.” Seems like an easy request. In reality it is anything but. This man’s wealth is in his land. He owed nothing to either son until his own death. He could, of course, gift land to his children, but according to law, he remained the legal manager of that property until he died. At that time, the property would be divided among the boys with the older receiving a double portion. Thus, the younger could anticipate receiving 1/3 of his father’s estate upon his death.
But he’s demanding, “I want mine and I want it now” – and not just title to the land. He wants the money from it. That means it will have to be divided and sold at a discounted price to accommodate his wish. It’s a dreadfully shameful request. The father would have been perfectly within his rights to kick the boy out and disinherit him altogether. Instead, he accedes to his sons request to the shame of his son, himself and his whole family.
The boy couldn’t care less. Like thousands before and after he wanted to be his own man – his own boss. He was tired of the constant harping, “Do this. Do that. Take out the trash. Milk the cows. Do the chores.” He saw only the negatives of a wonderful life. Like Kipling’s poem, “The Prodigal Son”. “My father glooms and advises me, My brother sulks and despises me, My mother catechizes me, / Till I want to go out and swear!” This boy wanted independence and he wanted his own way at any cost. No more obeying parental orders. He would be the captain of his own soul regardless the cost. His actions were tantamount to saying to his father, “I wish you were dead!”
He’s like many today who can’t wait to leave home so they don’t have to go to church anymore or adhere to parental controls. But it is also the adult who insists on their own way – opposing the Father. It is the attitude that says, “I don’t care about God’s rules; I know best for my life. So I will take the inheritance of my free will and dictate my own terms in my business, sexual and personal life. What I do is no one’s business but my own; I will make my own happiness.” It is the attitude expressed by song-writer Pierce Pettis: “When I grow up I’ll look out for me. It’s a small lifeboat and baby, it’s a great big sea. And your tears are nothing, don’t put that guilt on me.” Outward rebels willingly pit their will against God’s. God’s existence or not has no impact on their daily life. They are self-centered to the core.
Outward rebels deny accountability. But something deep inside insists that they are wrong – so they cover up. V. 13, “Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country.” Note “gathered all he had”. Why a far country? Bc he didn’t want to answer to anyone. So he went into hiding – as far from any authority in his life as possible. Even in the midst of their high-handed rationalization of sinful ways, outward rebels know deep down, it’s wrong. In Paul’s words in Rom 2:15, “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” This boy knew he was wrong, so he went to a far country to hide.
But Isaiah has something to say to that in 29: 15) Ah, you who hide deep from the LORD your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” 16) You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?” Isaiah is saying, “Fool! You are trying to live as tho God did not matter! Good luck with that. Good luck with that because God does exist and He does matter. He’s just giving you enough rope to hang yourself if that is what you choose to do.” The Bible couldn’t be more clear on that. Much of the Bible’s ongoing message is summarized in Heb 9:27, “It is appointed for man to die once -- and after that comes judgment.”
The “far country” is not necessarily a distant place. It can exist in your own heart. Jesus said, “It’s not who did you kill today, but who did you hate. It’s not who did you take revenge on today, but who do you hold an ongoing grudge against. It’s not what did you steal today, but what did you covet? It’s not who did you commit adultery with today, but who did you lust after.” To an omnipotent God, no country is far enough. Jesus reminds us in Matt 12:36 we will “give account for every careless word they speak.” The only person that boy fooled by going to a far country was – himself – like everyone who tries to hide from accountability.
13) “Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” The word “squander” literally means to “scatter.” “Reckless” comes from σῶζω, to save – only it is the negative of that – thus, unsavingly – wastefully. This boy took his fortune and scattered it unsavingly, in a totally wasteful manner – leaving nothing to show for it. V. 30 implies prostitutes were involved, so he was no doubt the life of the party – while the money lasted. The day came when the money was gone – yet he lived on. He’d been short-sighted, living for now with no thought for the future. What a waste.
Now, we’re pretty quick with our self-righteous reply to this one. We’d say, “Yeah, what a fool! Throwing his money away like that. We would never do that. We are careful with our money, saving for the future. We are not short-sighted.” But don’t you see, Beloved, that even if you horde every nickel you have and die having made no investment in eternity, you have been equally short-sighted – just in a different way. You are the man we met in Luke 12 who saved it all up, but just when he was ready to enjoy it, God says in Lu 12:20, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” In other words, tonight he moves, but the money stays. Just like the squandering fool, the money will be gone while he lives on. In God’s eyes, this man who saved it all up was just as foolish as the one who partied it all away! Why? Because both were in rebellion against the Lord’s command to lay up treasure in heaven. Both were short-sighted – just in different ways. What God gives me is not my own. He’s put it into my hands to use for His glory, not my consumption. And when I treat it as mine alone, I am in rebellion – being my own boss.
The pianist, Arthur Rubenstein, showed up late for lunch with author Clifton Fadiman one day. Exasperated he sat and said, “So sorry to be late. I’ve been at the lawyer’s making a will; it’s frustrating. One figures, one schemes, one arranges, and in the end – what? It is impossible to leave anything for yourself!” Welcome to reality, Arthur. You’ve discovered what many never do. You’re going to leave it all behind – unless you sent it ahead by investing in eternity by spreading it around to God’s glory instead of your own. Anything less is too short-sighted, and part of the repulsiveness of rebellion.
II. The Ravishment of Regret
Payday eventually comes, and with it, devastating regret. It did for this boy. 14 “And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.” Everybody loved him while he was scattering his inheritance. Everyone was his friend. But when the money was gone, so were the friends. “No one gave him anything.” He’s hit rock bottom.
So he hired himself out. The word “hired” literally means to “glue together, to cling.” It’s desperation time. He disdained to work for Dad, but now latches on to the one man who will give him a job – feeding pigs. There’s no lower than this for a Jewish boy – feeding pigs. His residence is now the pigpen! And worse yet, he longs to eat what they eat. Bitter regret eats at his soul.
This young man has learned the hard way that while rebellion is fun at first, the “pleasures of sin” are “fleeting” (Heb 11:25) – here one minute, gone the next. But the consequences keep right on ticking! Sin promises freedom, but brings slavery. It promises success, but brings failure. It promises life, but “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Those are the hard lessons of regret.
Now, you’re thinking – “Well, that’s him, not me.” But listen – any life lived without Christ is a life of rebellion. He is meant to be at the center of every existence, and whether rebellion is active – an overt rejection of His claims; or passive – living as tho He did not matter, it results in a profound emptiness that success will never cure. We miss this. As long as you think there is a chance you will achieve your dreams, that you have a shot at success, you will experience your inner emptiness as “drive” and your anxiety as “hope.” This prevents many from sensing their spiritual thirst their whole life.
But those few who actually achieve their dreams are shocked to discover it’s empty there. Worldly success can’t remove the inner emptiness. It is an age-old story. Tennis great Boris Becker: "I had won Wimbledon twice, once as the youngest player. I was rich. . . . I had all the possessions I needed. . . . It is the old song of movie stars and pop stars who commit suicide. They have everything, and yet they are so unhappy. I had no inner peace." In Thoreau’s words, we live “lives of quiet desperation.” It’s a spiritual thirst only He can quench.
You say, "I'd rather have Becker’s problems and mine." But his point is that he has the same problem as us, and like us, he thought money, sex, success, and fame would solve it. The difference is, he got all those things, and in the end they didn't satisfy his thirst in the slightest. In the words of Os Guinness, “We have too much to live with and too little to live for.” There is a famous Sophia Loren interview in which she said she had had everything – awards, marriage, success – but that "in my life there is an emptiness that is impossible to fulfill." If that’s true in this life, imagine how it translates into an eternity of regret for those who take their rebellion against God to the grave. That is why Jesus describes hell as “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I think the worst part of hell will be the unremitting, eternal ravishment of regret.
Conc – Perhaps you’re saying, “But I’m not that kind of person. I’m not religious by I’m basically good – morally upright. That’s all that should matter.” Really? That’s all that should matter? Suppose a widow has a son she raises and puts thru good schools tho she has little money. She says, “Son, I want you to live a good life. Tell the truth, work hard and care for the poor.” The boy graduates college and goes off into his career and life – and never speaks to his mother or spends time with her. Oh, he may send her a card on her birthday, but he never phones or visits. You question this, but he responds: "No, I don't have anything to do with Mom personally. But I always tell the truth, work hard, and care for the poor. I've lived a good life – that's all that matters, isn't it?" Of course not! Even humanly, a good moral life is not enough for a mother who wants relationship! And even if we are a good person but refuse to let God be God to us, we have committed the greatest rebellion of all – being our own Savior and Lord. No life is complete without Christ and the forgiveness only He can offer. There is no other place to get that relief. Rebellion is fun for awhile; but then comes an eternity of regret. Choose Jesus. Let’s pray.