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Calling the Lost - Luke 15:11-24

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To develop a heart for the lost like Jesus has

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Introduction/Seeing the Need

“That is just unforgiveable.” Have you ever said something like that, or heard someone say it? We all believe in the importance and necessity of forgiveness. We all rely on forgiveness, from other people and from Almighty God. But some wrongs seem impossible to forgive. They are too heinous, too painful. We can hardly imagine forgiving those who committed history’s great crimes against humanity. But more practically, we struggle to forgive those whose deeds have deeply hurt us personally.
Likewise, we may struggle to believe we can be forgiven. Out wrongs go with us every moment. We cannot escape the deep regret we have for the harm we have done to others. Forgiveness is as hard to receive as it is to give. Forgiveness is a scandal. We question those who offer it, question whether we can receive it, doubt whether it can really happen, doubt whether it should happen. The opponents of Jesus questioned both his ability to forgive sin and his association with those most in need of it. How Jesus responded is highly instructive yet today.
Today’s text, one of the most beloved (and misapplied) of Jesus’ parables, is one of a series that he spoke in response to his opponents. Jesus was surrounded by publicans (tax collectors), hated in his time as collaborators with the oppressive Roman Empire. Sinners of various stripes flocked to him. None of this sat well with religious leaders opposed to Jesus. They grumbled about his associating with such people and especially about his eating with them.
When Jesus used parables to address Jewish leaders, the stories were often meant to be “in your face” tweaks aimed at their hypocrisy. In the parable told at his house, Simon the Pharisee was to understand that he was the debtor who “loves little”. “The chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders” were to know that the parable of the tenants was directed at them. The three parables in are similar: they were meant to be rebukes of pious leaders who disdained Jesus because he “welcomes sinners”.
What guardrails can you adopt to avoid misapplying parables to today’s situations?

Desire -

Luke 15:11–12 NRSV
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.
Parables begin with images from common experience. This family depicted is no different in that regard - so far. Jesus’ audience knows that the older son in a family has privileges and responsibilities that others sons do not. One privilege is to receive a double share of the estate. This is computed by adding up the number of sons, adding one, then dividing the estate equally by the result. Each son except the oldest then receives a single share; the oldest son receives two shares as his birthright.
Since the father in the story has only two sons, this means that the younger one is requesting on-third of the father’s estate right now - this son wants to “cash out.” Of course, such distribution is always made at the father’s death. To ask for one’s inheritance before that is to say to one’s father, “I want you to treat me as if you were dead.”
An angry response would be understandable. But the father in the story accedes to the request! Is he being simply naive in doing so? Our sanctified imagination can see this as not only generous but also devastating. We may wonder how the family can thrive as a third of the assets suddenly vanish. This grant is bound to bring consequences on the father that may never be undone. But financial ruin of the father and the rest of the family is not part of the illustration, so we should not get sidetracked by it.
Without giving advice, how would you counsel someone who is about to use this verse as a basis for granting a similar request to restless offspring?

Consequences -

Luke 15:13–16 NRSV
A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
Luke 15:13-
In verse 13, the younger son seems to take as little time as possible to turn his share of the estate into cash. As he does, he puts his plan into action. For the audience of Jesus’ day, this much more than a long-distance move in a modern sense. The son is abandoning not only his family, he now abandons that identity in favor of - something else.
As he lives wildly in a distant country, the man has no concern for moral boundaries or prudence. As a result, he wastes the father’s legacy. The accumulated wealth that could have given the son a start on an independent life later is now dissipated even while his father lives. John Wesley believed that the younger son’s chief problem was an “independency on God.” He didn’t need the father or the father’s providence. This was the beginning of his lostness. The dissolute living and the eating with ritually unclean hogs were further expressions of his separation from God.
What guardrails can a church put in place to help members who are in danger of becoming spiritual prodigals and rejecting Christianity? What will be your part in this? What are some warning signs that a rejection of Christianity is about to happen?
This verse also gives the story its familiar name: the parable of the prodigal son. While the word prodigal is often associated with the son’s decision to rebel against parental oversight and leave home prematurely, the word actually means “recklessly wasteful of one’s property or means.” This definition therefore points to the son’s poor stewardship more than his desire to cut ties with is family, although the two concepts are related here.
Food shortages brought on by drought, pests, or social upheaval are common in the ancient world. The younger brother has grown up in a prosperous household. Now he is estranged from family and far from his homeland by his own foolhardy actions. He is hungry and without anyone to call on for help.
To underscore the prodigal’s plight, Jesus introduces an element that is particularly troubling to Jewish people: the destitute man is hired to feed pigs - unclean animals. This indicates that the citizen of that country who hires the prodigal is Gentile. It is virtually impossible to honor the Law of Moses in such a context. Though the prodigal has forsaken family and country, the pigs remind the readers how far he has fallen (or jumped).
In verse 16 it is important to understand that pigs were a valued livestock because of their ability to eat nearly anything and produce meat. There is no indication in the text that the prodigal eats any of meat. Instead, he must rely on the pods that the pigs were eating - probably seed pods from carob plants. The prodigal has hit “rock bottom.”

Reflection -

Luke 15:17–19 NRSV
But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands.” ’
At the bottom, the prodigal is forced to reevaluate his situation and the solution. His previous abundance had clouded his judgment. His destitute situation makes things crystal clear. Gone is the self-deception that created chaos for him and others.
Reality prompts the man to a new course of action. Having acted with high-handed selfishness, he now recognizes that sin for what it was. So he plans to take responsibility for his actions by openly affirming that he has done wrong. To sin against heaven is to sin against God, to violate God’s law and will. God is Father to his people, a generous, loving, forgiving Father who commands his people to show honor to their parents on earth. The young man’s actions were terribly dishonoring.
Likewise, abandonment of the covenant people to live as a pagan among idolaters is an affront. Jesus’ Jewish audience is undoubtedly recognizing that the prodigal’s spiritual poverty is more serious than his physical one.
The man continues to rehearse his repentance speech as he assesses his responsibility for his situation. A legal reality is in view: because he has already spent his share of the inheritance, his father’s obligation to recognize him as his son no longer exists. This fact is underlined by the son’s callous disrespect for his father. The son has treated the father as if dead. Further, the son cannot return the inheritance because it is gone.

Restoration -

Luke 15:
Luke 15:20–24 NRSV
So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
Having reached the point of repentance, the son returns to face his father. This son’s repentance and return are necessary to be restored to his family, but will not be sufficient. It will be the father’s action that accomplishes the restoration. In the preceding parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, everything else is put on hold until what is missing is recovered through active searching. But that is not the case in the parable at hand. No searching for the errant son is said to be done.
To the father, the younger son was a missing person, and he may have had the same misery parents feels today if their son or daughter was lost. Not all who are lost are missing. When the father sees the son, the father does not wait for him to arrive at the front door. The father did not run after the son when he left, but he runs toward him now! The driving force to do so is the father’s compassion, deep feelings of love and mercy, for his estranged son, and so he runs despite the indignity.
When the two draw near each other, the father does not halt abruptly to wait to hear what the son has to say. Rather, the father’s reaction indicates that the son’s repentant presence is more than acceptable. Without having spoken, the prodigal has already received more than he hoped for, and certainly more than he deserved.
How can the parallels between this account and that of Esau meeting Jacob inform how we deal with those who repent after having wronged us?
In verse 21, the son begins his prepared speech of repentance. But the son seems to be interrupted before he can get to the part where he plans to say “make me like one of your hired servants.” The father interrupts with the instructions we see here. The best robe, likely very costly, is a sing of sonship. Such clothing is very costly in the ancient world. The ring is not just ornamental jewelry, but likely bears a seal for identifying legal documents in the family’s affairs. Servants commonly do not wear shoes, but family members do.
In biblical times, the slaughter of an animal is always a special occasion. Ordinary, everyday family meals often do not feature meat. The reason is that the lack of refrigeration means that all meat of a slaughtered animal must be cooked and eaten immediately. That won’t happen unless a lot of people are present.
A calf is an especially extravagant animal for slaughter, as the owner is foregoing the growth that the animal might attain and the offspring it might bear. The father is holding back nothing to welcome his lost son back to the family. We might have expected the father to make some provision for the son to repay what he had taken. But he offers not a word in that direction. Instead, the father gives generously. His forgiveness for the repentant son is graciously full and complete.
The father’s final statement to the younger son summarizes the story. The son’s original desire effectively treated his father as dead to the son. But in fact it was the son who ended up effectively dead to the father. The father had had no realistic expectation of ever seeing his son again, let alone of enjoying a loving relationship with him. But the son’s restoration is as if he has been raised from the dead.


We must stress what should be obvious: Jesus was not using a heartwarming story to illustrate how a family reconciliation should occur. Rather, Jesus was telling the story of every person who has ever turned away from God and squandered the blessings of his love and grace. This observation explains the father’s startling behavior at the outset: God might not stop a person from turning to a sinful lifestyle.
Even so, he is ready to take back the repentant. He may watch in silence as we depart, but he leaves the door open for our return. Jesus celebrated repentant sinners whom he had restored to fellowship with God. For the publicans and sinners, that meant admitting that what others said about them was true: they had ostracized themselves from God’s people. That meant they needed God’s mercy. They found that mercy in Jesus.
The fact that Jesus spoke this parable to stress the available mercy of the Father has another teaching point: we dare not think of anyone as “too far gone” to be eligible for God’s mercy. God gracefully welcomes the lost. Like the father in this parable, God takes great pleasure when we return. Today, we are reminded that to be with God is to be alive in the fullest sense. The overriding purpose of today’s lesson is “to develop a heart for the lost like Jesus has.” As Peter Gomes once said of this parable, “This is the heart of the gospel message: no one is too far gone, too low, too abased, too bad to be removed from the unconditional love of the Father, not even the baddest of the bad.”


God of the lost and the found, thank you for patiently waiting for me when I am far from you. Thank you for embracing me when I return to you. Please grant me such grace in my relationships with others. Amen.
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