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Leaving Home

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Leaving Home

{{{"Luke 15:1-2; 11-19

Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."

Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.

"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: 'Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father."

Luke 15:1-2, 11-19

I wonder if there were a bulletin board in the Galilean Village in Jesus' story. I wonder if the anguished father, distraught but still hoping, might have tacked a notice there: "missing son. Dark hair, dark eyes. Last seen carrying all his possessions down the road toward Diaspora."

It may be the greatest short story ever told, this parable of the lost son. It is the story of somebody, and everybody—the story of us all. And the Storyteller was Jesus.

The fifteenth chapter of Luke records a set of three parables included in no other Gospel. In the next chapter, we will see how the first two parables show how much Jesus wants to find those who have gone away from God. But in the parable of the lost son, the emphasis is on leaving—and being welcomed home.

We must remember that there was a very specific situation which caused Luke to save these three stories. The ministry of Jesus recorded in the Gospels is not at all like the modern church. Jesus was positively fascinating to the irreligious and antireligious sinners. All of the outcasts and runaways from God habitually and continually drew near to Him. This congregation of failures was not occasional—it gathered again and again, wherever Jesus spoke. The most undesirable people constantly gathered to drink in His words.

By welcoming these followers, Jesus put the religious world of that day out of joint. He was the great disturber of the peace. Discussing Him, the religious leaders muttered back and forth to one another, not even using His name as they hissed like snakes, "Thissss man welcomes ssssinners and eats with them." Indeed, Jesus didn't just tolerate these sinners; he had a positive joy and pleasure in their company. In contrast, the religiously devout could not even approach wicked people on the street, no less eat with them.

Jesus responded to the Pharisees' mutterings by telling three stories. The greatest of these three is the dramatic parable about a boy who ran away, and then came back. And it is about the boy's father, who joyously welcomed him home. The story tells us that Jesus is acting like the father. Spiritually, many of us leave home; but He welcomes us back as an act of sheer grace.

Getting Away from the Father

The first part of this parable gives us insight about why we leave home spiritually. Any of us could make the decision that the essence, the real meaning, of human life is to get away from the heavenly Father. In this parable, the younger of two sons demands from his father his share of the estate. That is, he understood that the essence of life is the immediacy of fulfillment: "I want it all now." This boy was probably about seventeen and unmarried, because Jewish men in his day usually married at eighteen to twenty years of age.

In Jesus' world, a father could divide his estate before his death. The younger son would have received about two-ninths of the inheritance. But here was the hitch: If the father were alive, the son could possess his part of the inheritance, but he could not dispose of it or liquidate it until the father died. In this story, though, the boy wanted to have it all and dispose of it. He wanted to treat his father as though he were already dead—nonexistent. He did not care that this would deprive him of all other claim on his father. He wanted it now, and he wanted it all—every last penny of it.

He wanted life in its totality and its immediacy. He was like Eve in the garden; she had every tree except one—but she wanted that one right now. All of us have been that way— whatever stuff there is in life, we want it all, and we want it now. We only go around once in life, and we grab the gusto. To many of us, "the gusto" is getting everything we can from the Father and getting away from Him—now.

Despite his son's treating him as if he were dead, the father in Jesus' parable gave the boy what he wanted. God is like that with all of the stuff of our lives, too. He showers it upon us—health, home, family, money, employment, friends, sunshine, air to breathe—all of it—even though we may stand at the door, ready to leave. As the psalmist said, "The Lord is good to all" (145:9), and as Peter said, "God is no respecter of persons" (Acts 10:34, KJV). Jesus summed it up this way: "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good" (Matt. 5:45).

In Jesus' story, the father gave the boy his share of the inheritance, with no strings attached—except the father's love for him. When his son demanded the stuff of life, the father simply handed it over. Compare that with the strange strings that have been attached to some modern wills. A Californian left sums to his granddaughters—provided they give up bobbed hair, rouge and powder, jewelry, dances, and movies, and that they wear dresses, "long at both ends." An exceedingly wealthy Englishman left his nephews a large sum—with the provision that they rise at five each morning and exercise for three hours. In 1953 a man left the Metropolitan Opera $150,000—with the stipulation they put on an awful opera he had written. The Met declined the offer.

The essence of getting away from the father is an urgency of independence. Luke 15:13 says, "Not long after that. . . ."the boy left. The inheritance was burning a hole in his pocket. There may have been a few days of respectful lingering; but his mind was already in another far country. When we have decided to get away from the Father there is a kind of hellish haste or ruinous rush. There has already been an inward separation; now that becomes an outward separation. When we decide that life is away from the Father, there is of necessity a haste, a running, a frenzy. Perhaps we have to run so fast to forget that, in truth, there is no life away from the Father.

This leads naturally to the desirability of distance: The son "set off for a distant country. . . ." This was not unusual in the world of Jesus, for emigration was the order of the day. Half a million Jews lived in Israel, but four million lived elsewhere throughout the known western world. Palestine often experienced famine, so it could even be prudent at times to emigrate. Apparently, though, there was more in this boy's belly than a fire for emigrating. He wanted all the stuff of life his father could give him; but more than anything else, he wanted to get away from his father.

To get away from the Father's care, restraint, protection, and boundary is the beginning of insanity in our lives today. When he left, the boy in the parable estranged and alienated himself from his past and his real life. Later in the parable, Jesus devotes only six words to his sin, saying the boy "squandered his wealth in wild living." There are no lurid details about how many women he slept with, what kind of parties he attended, how much alcohol he consumed. For Jesus, the essence of sin is not all of that voyeuristic detail. Instead, the essence of sin is when we think that the essence of life is to get away from the Father.

Jesus came to tell us that life is with the Father; death is away from the Father. You may think that the worst thing you can do spiritually is some specific, heinous sin. That is really not the case in the beginning. Spiritual suicide consists in this—in wanting to get away from the Father. Everything else simply follows from that.

The Reality of Life Away from the Father

Life away from the Father does not begin with dullness. It begins with a frenzy of activity. This boy wanted to travel first class—on the Titanic. And he did. What he had collected, he just as quickly scattered. The phrase "wild living" in verse 13 translates an expression which literally means "not to save." The boy was reckless, extravagant, and did not save anything for tomorrow. His life was a whirlwind of excitement, vitality, energy, and movement, with appointments to keep, people to see, deals to do—in an endless, dizzy excitement.

Life away from the Father always begins with busy vitality. You have to do that to mask the fact that it is just that—life away from the Father. I would emphasize again that Jesus did not give details of the boy's sin. Perhaps we would like that—a description of his activities. But Jesus would not lend any reality to what is ultimately unreal. Actual sin is like a black hole in outer space, like the Bermuda Triangle—it is unreal in the extreme. Only life with the Father is real.

While life away from the Father begins as a frenzy of activity, it continues with the loss of all resources. William Tronzo of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania was earning seven thousand dollars a year in 1974. At forty-nine, he could barely buy clothes for his five children; they all shared one room in a rent house. Then he won a million dollars. He quit his job and began spending money. He bought diamonds for his wife, a new Thunderbird, six TV sets, insurance policies, and the house that had belonged to the lieutenant governor; he gave money to all his relatives—and in a few days discovered he was already thirty thousand dollars in debt. This led to extreme psychological problems.

Contemporary life contains many such striking examples of running through it all. Life away from the Father burns up resources. Time, emotional energy, willpower—they all burn out when we run away from the Father. Suddenly there are no resources left within us. There is, in effect, a "severe famine" throughout our lives. We begin to feel need, want, despair, anxiety, and loss of meaning. We learn the awful truth of life away from the Father. Jeremiah 2:13 states it clearly: "They have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out . . . broken cisterns . . ." (KJV). There is no more desolate feeling than to put all your chips on the table and say, "This is life" only to find out that the chips have vanished and the table was never even there.

Life away from the Father ends with degrading despair. Here is the irony. The boy's desire had been immediate, total independence. Instead, when the money runs out, he has to "glue" himself to a citizen of the distant country—attaching himself like a barnacle to a man who does not even want him. In that faroff country he has not gained a single friend. Away from your family, you do not find real pity, friendship, or sympathy. Since this man did not want the boy anyway, he sent him to do the worst imaginable job—to feed the swine. The Jews so hated swine that they called them dabhar acher, the other thing. Feeding them was an unclean occupation. For the Jew this meant the forfeiting of his religion—there could be no Sabbath, no kosher food. It was the worst thing imaginable.

Or was it? He would have been only too glad to have stuffed his belly with the carob pods he was feeding the pigs. These were long, coarse, sweetish bean-shaped pods the people used for fodder. He had the repeated, unfulfilled wish to gorge his empty stomach with the pig swill; but verse 16 says, "no one gave him anything."

Running away from the Father leaves us with the desire to fill the shouting, screaming emptiness of life with anything we can. It can be good things, such as housework, yardwork, churchwork, busywork. It can be bad things. But we want to fill the emptiness when we run away.

When we leave the Father, we experience total estrangement and alienation; we are uprooted, marooned, out of it, disconnected. Similarly, the boy in Jesus' story was estranged from his past, his future, his immediate environment, society, and from himself. Instead, here was a new self far different from the demanding, confident boy who left the father's house. The change in him was as great as that described by Pascal, who said, "There is no man more different from another than he is from himself at various times."

This is where life away from the Father, life that wants it all now, will leave you.

But Jesus told this story to hold out hope for those who have fallen this low. It is His promise that you are not too far away to come back. The hatefulness of our spiritual adversary is that the evil one puts us in this place—and then whispers, "It is too late to come back."

Turning Toward Home

Car developer John DeLorean rose to international fame, and then lost everything in a conviction for cocaine dealing to save his troubled company. He then professed conversion. Said DeLorean, "Foxhole conversions are legitimate. . . . Most of them in the Bible happened that way. When everything you ever wanted is happening, you are not inclined to reassess your priorities or to examine your spiritual values. When it all falls apart, it makes you take more than an ordinary look."

We start to come back to the Father when we understand the insanity of life apart from Him. This whole story turns on the words, "When he came to his senses. . . ." The words suggest awakening from a trance or a spiritual coma. The Hebrew means to stop being insane. To be saved, to be converted means to become rational, right-minded.

To a large extent, comas are a mystery. There is no reliable way to predict their outcome. In 1978 a team of doctors came up with what is known as the Glasgow Coma Scale. Based on eye, verbal, and motor responses, they assign a number on the scale to a confused or unconscious patient. Forty percent of the people who remain in a coma more than twenty-four hours die within two weeks. It is a rarity to be in a coma for weeks and then return to consciousness. But it does happen.

And even more mysterious than a physical coma is a spiritual one. If you assigned him a number on a spiritual coma scale, the lost son would have been close to the highest score. It is an act of sheer grace when a person awakens from such a state.

We start home when we deliberately move from lethargy and despair, when we say, as the boy did, "I will arise and go to my father" (KJV). This is somehow God's doing. But how He does it is a mystery. A spark suddenly flashes; a tiny flame blazes. A pulse suddenly beats and there is the stirring of life. The restoration of spiritual sanity came when the boy remembered that the very poorest people in his father's household had a better quality of life than he had. The hired men had an abundance of bread—while the boy had a scarcity of pig food. While he had been crying out, "Isn't this living?" he had really been living in misery. Remembering the grace of his father enlightened him.

This was the critical moment. When he came to his senses, he made himself move. He recognized the critical nature of the present moment in returning to his father. The past was gone, the future receding. This was the moment to get up.

On March 11, 1984, in the Westman Islands off of Iceland the seventy-four-foot trawler Hellisey overturned in a storm and Gudlaugur Fridthorsson made history. After falling into the 41-degree water, he should have soon died of hypothermia. When the body temperature goes below 93.2 degrees, blood flow to the brain is reduced. His two companions from the boat sank in twenty minutes. But Gudlaugur swam for six hours: breaststroke, backstroke, breaststroke, backstroke. As he was close to the shore a voice said to him, Lie down and rest; you deserve it. But a stern voice of reason argued, If you go to sleep now, my lad, you will never wake up. Somehow Gudlaugur defied all laws of physiology and survived.

Sometimes coming back to God is just as dramatic as waking from a coma, as decisive as listening to the voice that calls to us in moments of crisis. Those times are the spiritual moments in our lives when we must tell ourselves, If I go to sleep now, I will never wake up. You can wake up; you can come back. But you must come back with urgency. Don't stop. Keep coming back.

Homesick for God.

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