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North St Chapel 09.07.08 One lost one found Luke 15.1-32

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Luke [37] One lost, one found Luke 15:1-32.

Bristol Road Baptist Church  13.07.08

Luke 15 seems to me to epitomise the message of Luke’s gospel. He uniquely uses these three parables of Jesus to draw us to one of his major themes: the great reversal. What has been lost is now found.

·        One sheep is lost – one out of a hundred. The shepherd goes and finds it and has a celebration to rejoice in the result.

·        A woman loses a silver coin – one of ten. She eventually finds it (obviously having looked in the night, v8) and…”Rejoice with me, I have found my lost coin”. (9)

·        A father finds his lost son – one of two. “Let’s have a feast and celebrate”  (23).

Now the three stories make a lovely picture, and Jesus makes clear the spiritual application: 

I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (7).

Yet this is not just a joyful picture of a sinner coming home. There is a context. Look at verse 1:

Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering round to hear him. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them…

We’ve been too-ing and fro-ing between “insiders” and “outsiders” in recent chapters of Luke –Jesus speaking with religious people (“insiders”), and outsiders who are often called “the crowd”. Here we have both groups, all gathering around. But Jesus actually addresses his parables to the Pharisees and muttering teachers of the law (3-4). Of course the outsiders can listen. They will prick their ears up at the thought of a celebration, a recovery, a homecoming. But the others are the now infamous party poopers. These parables are particularly for them – a rebuke and a warning. They ought to be glad Jesus is mingling with people who need to come into the Kingdom, not muttering that Jesus welcomes sinners. Sadly, their kind still exist today.

Now inevitably because of its length, it is the third parable, (not entirely helpfully called the parable of the lost son in our bibles) that paints the largest picture, so we’ll focus on that…

A son comes asking his father to give him what he is not yet due for, his inheritance. In a society where fathers received far more honour than they generally do in our society it was an amazing request. Note also it is the younger son. It was the firstborn who inherited in that culture. Without saying the words, this boy has made gross assumptions that weren’t his to make and effectively wished his father dead. Now how would that make his father feel? Rejected, hurt, insulted, humiliated, hated.  And yet he agreed. So Jesus is painting a picture of a radical father. Everything in the story and culture expects the father to punish his wicked son. Yet this father is not going to rule with a rod of iron. He's not going to force the attention and love of his son.  So if this parable is that of a prodigal, insofar as that term means uncontrolled, lavish or luxuriant, perhaps it is the father who should be described as the prodigal. He didn't do what would be expected of him on such a dishonouring request but showed a limitless, uncontrolled love.

He acts with utter humility, grace and fairness: 'So he divided his property between them.' (12) The word translated as property is in fact life. He divided his life/living/livelihood up. It wasn't just his material assets, his wealth and business profits. It was his life, hence confirming the thought the son was wishing his father dead.

Note the silent clue to the older brother here. The father divided up his life - he gave to both his sons. If this was so outrageous, why didn't older brother take his brother in charge? Why didn't he complain and stop things? He remains noticeably silent. Don't miss that.

The character and lifestyle of this younger son is built up in the parable as he claims his wealth and heads for another country. At last he is free! He has money, happiness and friends - for a while. But then the money runs out, famine strikes and he, insult of insults, has to get a job! But in hard times of recession he can't get much. He ends up as a cheap labourer on a farm, feeding pigs. This is the ultimate degradation for a Jew. Pigs were not only dirty animals but religiously unclean. He has stooped to the lowest low. It would be like a Christian today getting a job serving drinks in a brothel. He has lost his dignity, his family, and now his religion. So much for his freedom! For a while he lost his senses, but mercifully they are restored. He thinks about going home. This was a brave thought given his previous treatment of his father! He didn't expect to return as a son but merely a cheap labourer as he is at the moment.

Yet when he gets near home, his father runs to meet him. What does this show? Again that it is the father who is the truly scandalous character, the maverick prodigal, but in an overwhelmingly good manner. He's obviously been looking out for him. He sees him at a distance. Nobody would expect him to do that. They would think him a fool for doing so. When he sees him coming he runs. That's pretty amazing! Orientals in long robes didn't run. One ancient author, Ben Sirach says, "A man's manner of walking tells you what he is". Aristotle said "Great men never run in public."[1] But this father runs to his son, flings his arms around him and covers him in kisses. He immediately puts him above the level of servants by turning and telling them to clothe him with the best robe, put a ring on his finger, and sandal his feet, which signified a freeman in the house. The servants walked barefoot. The party is organised, with maximum attendance guaranteed by the killing of a fattened calf - he wants everyone there to celebrate his son's return.

I'm sure you will agree this is a picturesque story. There are a number of things we can learn:

·        Like the younger son, we have all insulted God our Heavenly Father. We have demanded our freedom to live as we choose. This is the essence of sin. And our sin has taken away something of the life of God. He made us to live in relationship with him, but we have destroyed it.

·        Yet God, in his graciousness has not forced us to love him. He has never removed his love from us. Despite being humiliated, his love has gone on. The prodigal father shows us the absolute and unconditional love of God for us.

·        Therefore we all have a need for repentance. True freedom is not to be found in releasing ourselves from God but coming back in humility.

Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.

Naked, come to thee for dress, helpless, look to thee for grace,

Foul, I to thy fountain fly; wash me Saviour or I die.

·        When we do, we can be guaranteed a gracious welcome. God is waiting and watching for our return. He will clothe us with robes of righteousness. As Jesus just said …there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (7).

That would make a neat end to the parable, and has made a neat end to many a sermon. But the parable is not over yet. We have yet to have the real challenge. Remember the context – muttering pessimists!

We have not finished with the mysterious older brother. Recall the father divided the inheritance between them. Where has he been all this time? In his own words   All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders (Luke 15:29). On hearing the to-him-not-so-good news, out in the fields, he is angry and refuses to come home. ...you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!' Oh that green monster of jealousy. But it is more than that. Here is pride and arrogance of the highest order. He thought he could earn his father's favour. What he didn't realise is that by staying outside and refusing to celebrate he was dishonouring his father, not by actions but by attitudes. He was insulting from within. The outright son who left home but came to his senses returned home. The apparently good boy, who never left his father, had a deep attitude problem and is now outside. We don't know whether he ever came in.

The two previous parables ended with “Rejoice with me…” This one ends with the challenge “will you rejoice with me…or not?”

The "sinners", outcasts and outside, the younger brothers of wild living became 'insiders' with Jesus. The Pharisees and teachers of the law, the older brothers who thought they received their Heavenly Father’s favour by good deeds, ended up outside. What a shock! Let’s take the warning from them that we can dishonour God by our attitudes, besides our actions. You can do all the right jobs in church yet serve with a bad attitude. We can mutter about what Jesus is doing or who he’s calling. We can be as far away from the Father by being in the next field as in a foreign country, as far away in church as in the brothel. He longs that all come home. All are part of the family. All are invited to celebrate. All can come to the banquet. Those who remain outside do so because they choose to. Don’t be one of them!


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[1]See K Bailey, Poet and Peasant (Eerdmans, 1976)  p181.

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