My favourite crime drama is criminal minds… I jokingly say it’s because the insights into abnormal psychology help me understand my children more. But really I think it the excellent work and writing that has gone into making the BAU team a family. Which you can see portrayed in this poster.
Why mention criminal minds? Well call it coincidence but this week’s episode “mirror Image” revolved around the very passage and parable we are looking at today. It focused on the background of relatively new character Dr Tara Lewis. It was the story of two estranged siblings. The older who had followed the expected career path, and a younger brother who had dropped out and got caught up in any and every ‘get rich quick scheme going and was always on to his father and family for more money that got squandered . The father wanted the two to be reconciled. Dr Lewis wasn’t that keen. I don’t want to spoil the episode for you, or go into the dark and bizarre physiological thriller element, but it ends with the younger brother being rescued and embraced and welcomed back by his father while the older sibling, Dr Lewis, stands off somewhat distant not knowing what to do…while she had helped rescue him would she forgive him… and we have the voice over quote that the show has made its trademark… “this brother of yours was dead but is alive again, he was lost and is found’- Luke… the conflict is still unresolved and we are left to wonder how the older sibling will act.
Jesus parable of the prodigal son or more aptly the forgiving father is so much more detailed than the previous two. It paints characters that like this show does to me, draws us in and captivate us. It is a wondrous journey to the very father heart and character of God, and it finishes unresolved leaving us to decide what happens next and in that it invites us to find ourselves in the story, to find ourselves in relation to Jesus and God’ big hearted love.
We are on a Journey with Jesus to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel. A journey that takes up the central third of the gospel narrative, and the journey narrative focuses on Jesus teaching about what it means to be his disciples. It’s a journey that will lead Jesus and us to the Cross. It’s a journey we are invited to join not just in the pages of a book, but in our lives as well as we live out Jesus teaching on discipleship following him on the cross road.
The section we are looking at in Luke chapter 15, the parable of the lost sheep and lost coin, that we looked at last week and the lost son we are looking at this week, forms a discrete unit at the centre of Jesus journey to Jerusalem and really at the centre of the gospel itself. As such it lends itself very nicely to this advent season. Jesus we are told is surrounded by tax collectors and sinners, they have gathered to hear him, and he sits down to dine with them. When we read that people hear Jesus they are acting as disciples, Jesus had said that his disciples are the ones who hear his words and put them into action. He sits down to dine with them and as we see in the stories Jesus tells in this section, such behaviour is a celebration of people repenting and turning back to God. The Pharisees and teachers of the law mutter and mumble, how can Jesus be a man of God and hang out with such people? Jesus tell these most memorable parables as a defence of his ministry, to show the people who think they know God the best that they do not know the love and grace of God at all. And in the way the parable of the father and his two sons is left hanging that invites them and us to join the rejoicing that the lost are being found, the dead have been made alive again.
The story revolves around a father who has two sons. It starts by focusing on the younger son. Who comes to his father and demands his inheritance now. The father is a landowner and so the property is divided up between the two brothers. AS the younger brother, his portion would have been smaller than his brothers. Such action would be shocking to Jesus hearers because in doing such a thing the son disowns his family, dishonouring his father. Not only that but by selling it off and turning it into cash he further shames his family, such things were not done in Jesus day, land like in our Maori culture here in New Zealand was very much about identity; it said who you were and where you belonged. Likewise it was unheard of for someone to move away from his family to seek his fortune in a distant land. The implication here for Jesus Jewish listeners was that he was heading off to a gentile land. Of course the resulted squandering of his money on wild living shows he has turned his back on his family his land his people and his faith. While a parable is a story with one central point, here it is almost allegorical about the impact of sin and walking away from our relationship with God.
The Father seems rather passive in this part of the story, his behaviour may have equally shocked Jesus listeners. By Law such a demand to divey it up when you were alive, should have been met with a decline and even a beating and banishment for such disrespect, shameful and rebellious behaviour. But the father lets the son go, he takes the shame and hurt and pain of this disobedience. We are often asked why does God allow people to walk away from him, to sin, surely he could demand and make it that we obeyed him. Yet part of the love and grace of God is his willingness to allow us to exercise freewill. He hope his love will keep us close but out of that love Go is willing to face the pain and sorrow and the shame of being a God who has his creation his people turn away from him.
The younger son soon finds himself poor and broke, he has misspent all that the father had given him and instead of high living and enjoyment he now finds himself destitute. This is often the case that we see freedom from the restrains of duty and family ties, of faith to be desirable, but it can so easily lead downwards to ruin and pain. We are told to make matters worse a famine hits the land. While it would have been demeaning the young son could have depended on the alms and generosity of the people and society about him, but even this was taken away, peoples kindness was curbed by their own dire needs. He ends up for a Jew with the worst of jobs; he is hired to look after pigs: Unclean animals. He is no better than a slave, his pay is not enough to feed himself and he looks longingly at the husks and pods that the pigs are feed.
Then Jesus tells us that the young son came to his senses. Here as his life bottoms out he takes stock, he starts thinking straight. In a profound picture of what repentance is we see the young son realise where his own wilful disobedience has lead him down this disastrous path. He realises he has sinned against his family and against God. But it’s just not being sorry for where he is or for what he has done, his mind starts to turn towards home, he is aware again of his father’s goodness and generosity, that his father treats his servants better than he is being treated and maybe there is hope that in going back and confessing his sin and stupidity that he will experience some of that grace and be hired as a lowly servant. He gets up and he starts the long trek home, nervous, unsure of his reception but hoping because of what he knows of his father’s love. Rehearsing in his mind what he will say, how he will have to confess all he has done wrong.
The focus of the story now changes; the central figure comes into frame. We switch to the Father. There is the idea of a loving father looking out down the road his son had left and grieving for him. Only to see the son he thought lost to him forever, come into view in the distance. Even though he was dishevelled and in rags the Father knows his child. He sees him under the filth and dirt. In the Jewish culture of the day the thing to have done would be for the father to wait with a stern look on his face till the son has come and explained himself, thrown himself on his father’s mercy. But this is not Jewish culture its Jesus culture the father does something shocking, he dispenses with any idea of dignity and status and runs down the street to embrace his son. Even before the son can offer his long practised heartfelt apology and plea, he is embraced and orders are given for the finest robes and the family ring and sandals to be bought the fatted calf to be killed for a great feast. He is not simply assigned to the role of a servant but is welcomed back and received fully into the family again. He was lost but he is found, dead but is alive again.
Here is Jesus insight into the heart of God the Father: A God who is willing to forgive and welcome back those who have gone astray. In this advent season the idea of laying aside dignity and status to embrace the repentant sinner takes on deeper significance as we reflect on our Heavenly father sending his son Jesus into the world. To be good news for the poor, bring sight to the blind, freedom for the captive and prisoner and proclaim the acceptable year of the lord, To seek and save the lost. The whole gospel and Jesus mission so beautifully wrapped up in a story here of family reunion and reconciliation.
While there is great feasting and happiness, because the one who was lost is now found, and the one who was dead is now alive, isn’t that a great picture of the new life we can receive through Christs death and resurrection, Jesus tells us the third character in the story comes home for the field where he has been working. It is the older brother. He asks what is going on and is told his lost brother has retuned and a great celebration is happening. But the Older brother reacts with anger, he remembers the shame of the betrayal, the shame of the younger son forsaking the family, all the past hurts and his own dutiful service and will not come into celebrate.
We again see the love of the Father, willing to put aside the important role of being host to a great party, and humbly going to his son outside. He is meet with vitriol… as he says ‘Your brother has returned” . The older son does not seem to know his father at all. He acts like a servant, yes he has faithfully worked and done everything right and proper, and he throws it back at his father that he has never thrown such a party for him… the older son knows his duty but does not understand the love and forgiveness and grace that his father possesses. I wonder if we cannot find ourselves in the same position when it comes to knowing God. We don’t know God at all, we may fear God or serve him out of duty, and not know that he loves us so deeply, not share the joy of his great mercy and love for all his children who would return to him.
The father again acts out of love and assures the older son that everything he has belongs to the older son and he has always been with him… there is the same offering of love and acceptance… he invites him in to celebrate the lost son is now found the dead son is now alive.’
The story ends there abruptly and unfinished. We are left to ask ourselves how it ends? Will the older son go in, or will he remain the lost son? Will the younger son actually change his ways? When people turn to Christ We can wonder if they have really changed if all they have done in the past can be forgiven and forgotten. The people Jesus told this story to are a mix of those who might relate to the younger son or to the older son. The tax collectors and sinners embraced again by the big hearted love of God, rejoiced over as they turn again towards God in repentance. Or the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, who had thought they were dutifully serving God and hurt and angry about how the younger brother had behaved.
It’s a story that remains unresolved in church history it would have spoken to Luke’s first hearers in a church made up of Jewish believers and gentile believers. The one so over joyed at finding themselves welcomed in by Christ, and the others wrestling with what this now meant, both trying to resolve what it means to be in the fathers household together. It has gone on in every new push and expression of the gospel and church, new forms and styles of worship which emphasise the joy and celebration of knowing God and older more traditional forms and a sense of duty and respect.
The story remains unresolved for us today, because it is our story. We are invited to see ourselves in this story and resolve it in our own lives, in how we respond to the big hearted love of God.