|Pastors reflections June 2018|
I have used the first meditation from the Discipleship course for my reflection this month. Some people were not in Church, I thought some of you would like to reflect on this before next month?
Meditation: The Prodigal Son or the Loving Father
We know about God but do we know God? So I wonder What God think of us? What is God’s reaction to our Self-centeredness?
Luke 15:11-32 is everyone’s story. Please read this now.
The Father’s Two Sons
So let us look at this well-known parable which we have just read in Luke 15:11-32. While this is a fairly simple story as far as the amount of details we have, there is still a lot that can be missed simply because we are of a different cultural background than the original hearers. This is first century writing, with the Hebrew mind set behind it. Hebrew understanding needs to be applied to the parable, to really understand what it is saying. There would be points and details that Jesus listeners would have immediately grasped and the story’s gaps they would have filled in simply because of their background and understanding.
So, I would like to dig into this story a bit, and examine this story in light of some of the cultural surroundings and understandings that may escape us, and to fill in some pieces that we may miss. Many people typical think this is a nice story about forgiveness, and leave it at that. And while this is somewhat a true, there is so much more to consider. This parable is the last part of a series of three parables Jesus told one after another. All three are interconnected. But we will focus on just the third story, but firstly, Let’s read the opening remarks that start the three stories’ off. ‘Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable.’
So, we see the setting that started this parable trilogy. It is because Jesus has been mixing with tax collectors and sinners that the Pharisees were grumbling. And due to their grumbling, he spoke to them the three parables. Now, let us jump to the third one about the father and his two sons. We have just read the story. And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 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. (Luke 15:11-12 ESV)
What we find here is a request from the younger son to his father, requesting his portion of the inheritance basically. However, there are a few things that we may miss here by not understanding the cultural significance of the request. First off, he is not actually asking for his inheritance. Especially in that type of culture, an inheritance is what one receives when the father passes away, and it means that the son was then responsible to handle the father’s duties. The son would become the leader and assumes the care and power over what was left to him. In our day and age, for most of us at least, an inheritance is a chunk of money or goods that we possess. In those days, if your father’s owned a large farm with lots of servants and/or employees, then the responsibility of all of that, was turned over to the son.
The son could turn around, close shop and cash it all in, but that rarely happened. To that culture, the land, the business, and the family were all tied to the place where they were established, and the sons took over to continue enlarging upon what was previously established. The Greek word for inheritance is kleronomia, and it is used elsewhere, like the parable of the vineyard in Matt. 21, where the owner put tenants in the vineyard, and when it came time to reap it, he sent servants, and the tenants killed them. So he sent his son to the tenants: But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ (Matt 21:38 ESV)
They knew that one day the son would be the boss when he inherited the family business. But in our story, that word is not used. In our story, the son is not asking for a piece of the family business. He did not want to assume any responsibility or authority, he simply wanted to cash out and leave on his own. In this case, he had no desire to continue with the family at all. In our verse, he uses the word ousia, meaning the son is asking for the possessions or wealth that is his portion. In doing this, he is asking to cash out of the whole family. He wants to take what is his and leave, leaving his position in the family, and all future connections and benefits of it. He wants to break all ties and relations and go his own way.
On top of that, what he is asking for is something that is not even due to him until his father passes away. Culturally, to ask such a thing as this is the equivalent of wishing his father were dead. Such a statement would not go down well even today, and in a society stressing obedience to one’s father it would be a serious act of rebellion for which the father could have beaten him or worse. In real life, this request would be met with a refusal, anger and punishment.
And of course, we find that to be the very case throughout Scripture whenever Gods people turned their back on Him, it was met with judgment time and time again. However, in this story, the father agrees to let the deal be done, and he divides the possessions and gives him his portion. One thing to also note is that according to the laws in Deuteronomy, the first born would receive a double portion, and so therefore, in this case, the younger son’s portion would only have been a third. So, after the father has divided things, he gives the son his portion, and then we are told that: ‘Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country…’ (Luke 15:13a ESV)
Here we find that only a very little time has passed, and the father has given the son his cut, and the son has packed and is leaving. Now, according to some scholars, the original language that is translated as “gathered all” literally means he “turned everything into cash.” This makes more sense in the story, as it would be difficult for the son to have packed up all of the physical possessions and property that would have been bestowed to him. Plus, the verse goes on to say that he spent everything, implying that what he had was in the form of money. Now, in order for the son to have sold everything, including part of the family land, he most likely would have sold things at a low price in order to liquidate them as quickly as he wanted in order to leave. This would take a big toll on the family overall too, because now, a big chunk of what was family property, and was most likely tied to the family income, was gone. Not only would the family have suffered financially due to this, but the father’s reputation would surely have been in question. Living in community like they did at the time, the news of something like this would have quickly spread. Everyone would have heard what was going on, especially as the father or son was going around liquidating things. So for the father, he was not only losing out financially, but the destructive relationship would have brought about public humiliation in town and to the father’s name in general. Now, the son has taken everything and left for a far country, and we are told: ‘…and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.’ (Luke 15:13b-14 ESV)
The son has left and lost everything. All of that money is all gone, there is a famine, and he has nothing to survive on. You would think at this point, most kids would run back home with their tail tucked between their legs. But something we may miss here is that according to Jewish custom, he was almost unable to go home. There was the ceremony known as the Kezazah — which means literally — “the cutting off.” If a Jewish boy lost his family inheritance among the Gentiles and sought to return home, the community would perform the ceremony by breaking a large pot in front of him and declare — “so-in-so is cut off from his people.” Once performed, he would be an outcast and no one would have anything to do with him. So going home would not be putting himself in a very favourable situation anyway.
One of the Dead Sea Scrolls gives this example of a fatherly warning that relates here: ‘And now, my sons, be watchful of your inheritance that has been bequeathed to you, which your fathers gave you. Do not give your inheritance to the Gentiles…lest you be humiliated in their eyes and foolish, and they trample upon you…and become your masters.’
This is what the son has done; he has squandered his inheritance among the Gentiles. So, he was now literally a man without a home, and had no way to return to his family or any of the rights he previously held as a member of his community. It is all down to His self-centredness Our HUMAN CONDITION IS SELF CENTEREDNESS there maybe times in all our lives when we have let the world take over our lives and cut us off from God. Sometimes it’s is something that has happened to us where we question Why God lets these things happen, sometimes it is a new relationship, an influence on us. But whatever it is it cuts us of from God’s Grace. In our own lives we have behaved like the son. Our self-centeredness cuts us off from being the person God created us to be. We are cut off from relationships, including a relationship with God.
So, back to the Son. He knows going home would mean dealing with the ridicule of the rest of the village, as well as that of his brother who now has the rights of the rest of the father’s possessions. These options are not ones he can bare to deal with, not at this point and time at least. Instead, he chose another route: ‘So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.’ (Luke 11:15 ESV)
The fact that pigs are mentioned here says he was living and now working for a Gentile. His speech and dress would have given him away as being a Hebrew, and in an effort to rid himself of this man, the person assigns him a job he suspects will cause the man to leave. It can be hard for us to fully grasp how this is would be for someone from a culture that loathes pigs. But, the son accepts even this — he is that desperate. So desperate in fact that the next verse tells us: ‘And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything’. (Luke 11:16 ESV)
The pods spoken of here were not something that could even be digested by humans, and thus he was unable to even eat them, but truly and strongly desired to be able to. Things were getting worse for him, and there was no relief in sight. He couldn’t eat what the pigs were eating, and asking others was not working, as no one gave him anything. He was finally at the end of his rope, unable to provide anything for himself. He was broke and starving and death was surely in his future, so he decided there was only one option left. “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise 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 as one of your hired servants.” (Luke 11:17-19 ESV)
One thing we should notice here is that the son was not repentant. Many over the years have understood that when it says “he came to himself” that it implies a repentant attitude, but others point out that there is nothing in the language to really reveal that at all. He does not mention being sorry for anything he had done, he simply realizes that he was truly starving and decided enough is enough. He reasons that even his father’s servants have food, and that is what he desires to because it is a means to an end – he desires to eat, even if it is as a servant. The words he chooses to say to his father may have some significance too. Jesus is talking to an audience that knows the Scriptures; they are quite a scholarly group. God allows us to fail. God allows us to learn from our mistakes. The first step for the son was to acknowledge his failure. The son failed to realise the scope of his father’s mercy. The moment we decide to return to the Father, he receives us back.
When the son says “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you,” The words used here are a paraphrased version of the words of Pharaoh to Moses after the plagues. Pharaoh says: ‘I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you.’ (Exodus 10:16 ESV)
We all know Pharaoh was not repentant. He simply wanted to manipulate Moses and get away from the bad situation, and that seems a similar attitude that the son in our story has. Because he was in dire straits with no other options, he would choose what he believes is the right things to say, hoping that his father would have him back as a servant. Of course, he is not asking to be restored to the family. If he were accepted back as a servant, it would mean he would most likely reside in a nearby village with the other workers, and not in the family home.
He does not ask to be in any way restored to the former relationship as a son, nor does he ask to in any way be a part of any inheritance. He is still not asking for that responsibility or relationship. The son is seeing the root issue to be focused on his losing everything and starving, and not to breaking the relationship or breaking his father’s heart. It seems he is not aware of what he has actually done. The issue of relationship with the Father does not seem to be a focus at all, he simply wants to return and get food. Reconciliation does not seem to be his goal in taking this course of action. I am sure most of us can see modern ways this type of scenario plays out. For instance, say a child has done something to completely hurt the parents in some way, by breaking their trust or disobeying them directly, and they get caught doing so. The child will most likely apologise — but most likely the focus of their concern will be with the issue they got caught in. Rarely are they aware of the damaged relationship with the parents, they are simply sorry they got caught and saying what is needed to satisfy the uncomfortable position they are in. Reconciliation is not usually the thought they have; they simply want to get out of the bad situation of getting caught. Had they not gotten caught, they would probably have done nothing.
If the prodigal son had not ended up like he had, chances are he would not have ever considered returning home. He was only doing so now because he was desperate. are restored to His family as the son was restored to his father. God rejoices in our return as did the father on the son’s return. ‘And he arose and came to his father.’ (Luke 15:20a ESV). As the son approached the town, he surely would have been thinking more and more on what he would say, maybe even practicing how he would lay it on thick to gain some sympathy.
He probably pondered on how he would handle facing the town’s people, who once they had discovered what he did, would perform the Kezazah ceremony against him. This would mean having to take their punishment before he could ever make it over to see his father at all. After who knows how long, he may eventually be summoned to the presence of his father.
By that point, the village would have rejected him, and surely then his father would be very angry, and he would have to plead to be taken back as a servant. After all, not only did he in essence declare a death wish upon his father, but he then left and lost everything among the pagan nations. However, we know that what does happen is not at all what he would have expected in his situation. The text tells us:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20b ESV)
This action of the father’s is very much against what a man in his position would do. He is basically breaking all of the rules just by running. The Greek word used here for “ran” is the technical term used for the foot races in the stadium. So, we are actually told that the father raced to the son with urgency. In their culture, a man of his age would always walk slowly and in a dignified manner. They would never, ever run. To do so would require him to reach down and take the front ends of his rode and hike them up so he could run. Doing that would thereby expose his legs, which was considered a humiliating posture for him.
Performing this action would be to bring great shame upon himself, on top of the shame the son’s prior actions had already brought upon him and the family name. But obviously the father was not concerned at all about this. His compassion leads him to do these acts, and knowing how the villagers would treat the son upon his arrival, he probably ran even faster to catch him first. This is the father, leaving his high home, assuming a humiliating posture in order to seek he who was lost and bring about reconciliation. As parents, we all can learn from this scenario. When our children go astray, how quick are we to run in to say “I told you so,” or to berate them with scornful speech? Often the parents will belittle them and bring them to shame. But here, we find pretty much the opposite of that. We find the father humiliating himself to reconcile with his rebellious son. And the father has done all of this without hearing word one from the son. Is the son repentant? The father doesn’t know. Is he coming home to repay all he took? The father doesn’t know. Whatever the news is, the father has yet to hear it, yet he humiliates himself to run and love his lost son.
We also fail to see this story as representing the Father in heaven, sending the son, who is God incarnate, who assumes the humiliating position as a human in order to passionately go out and seek and save those who were lost, and bring them into reconciliation and son ship once again. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ (Luke 15:21 ESV) Now, in case you don’t notice here, the son’s planned confession is a bit shorter than he initially decided upon. What happened to the last sentence where he was to say “Treat me as one of your hired servants” as he mentioned back in verse 19? Was he caught off guard by the actions of his father and forgot? Had he along the road decided against that portion?
Can you imagine what may have been going through the son’s mind just moments before? He is walking home, knowing he has rejected his family and brought shame to them. Knowing he will most definitely face being outcast by the rest of the village and probably greatly punished. Now, he reaches the village and here he sees his father running toward him. Not knowing what the father would do, he may have thought that his father was running to take swift vengeance against him. After the way he had rejected him, he knew he deserved such a response. So, surely he would have been shocked and taken back when his father instead came and threw his arms around him and started kissing him. Maybe that threw him and caused him to forget his planned speech. Or maybe instead, the son now realised he had no right to ask anything of the father directly. Instead, he would just throw himself on the mercy of the father and accept whatever happens at his hand. Or it is possible the son was cut short in his speech, as the father interrupts him:
But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. ‘And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:22-24 ESV). The twist here is that in this situation, it should be the son who was to come bearing gifts. The son is in the wrong, he has committed great wrongdoings against his father, and it is he who owes a major debt. But he comes empty handed with nothing to offer the father. He basically spat in his father’s face and wished him dead, cutting all ties as a son, and now returns, declaring he is unworthy to be called a son still. Instead, he is given a king’s return and restored fully to son-ship. Now, being lavished with gifts so quickly and so publically, it would surely stop any idea of the villagers performing the Kezazah ceremony, as the son was now openly reconciled to the father. The gifts he was given were extravagant.
Now, while all of this is going on, the older son returns home. His older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing and he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound. ‘But he was angry and refused to go in. (Luke 15:25-28a ESV). In their culture, the eldest brother is the one responsible for assisting in the reconciliation process between the father and younger brothers if the need arose. This older brother should have stepped in way back at the beginning of the story, and tried whole heartedly to stop the younger brother from doing what he was doing in breaking the father’s heart to begin with, but he did not. The older brother was obviously not doing his duty — he was not being respectful to the father or loving to the brother. Now that the brother has returned, he is more upset and refuses to even join the party. In doing so he is showing his hatred of his brother, as well as disrespecting the father himself, and he deserves punishment now himself. Also, the custom in these types of party situations is that the oldest son is usually serving in the place of a kind of head waiter. He is not a waiter in the sense of how the servants serve the guests, but he is in charge and is a visible sign of just how respected the guests are. He would be like a manger, overseeing things and interacting with the guests. So his refusal to do so in this situation is to disrespect his father’s guests also. For the older son, this whole situation is inconceivable. Reconciliation and restoration cannot occur without a penalty being paid by the offending party — that is the way it is to be. Since that is not what has happened, the oldest son is too angry to take part in any of it. The older son’s rebellious attitude is public, and the guests as well as the father are made aware of the attitude he has in this situation, because the father immediately responds, but instead of punishment as the son deserves, the verse tells us: ‘His father came out and entreated him…’ (Luke 15:28b ESV)
Again, the father responds in an out of the ordinary fashion. The son’s public refusal of duty as well as disrespect for brother and father should be met with sternness, but instead, the father pleads with the son to not act this way. The father is begging the older son to change his mind and be reconciled with his brother as the father has already done. But the oldest instead lays forth his case in frustration: but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:29-30 ESV). Though this statement, the oldest son exposes a few things. He does not even properly respect his father in speech. The normal cultural response from the son should have been something the lines of “O father, these many years….” But the son just blurts out in frustration to “look at what I have done.” his extreme jealousy is obvious, as he states how the father has done so much for the rebellious younger son, yet has done nothing for him in all the years of obedience. On top of revealing the jealousy, he is also accusing his father of favouritism here.
The father does not respond in anger, nor is any form of punishment or rebuke mentioned. He overlooks the disrespect, the bitterness, the arrogance, and the accusation of favouritism. Instead, the father reminds the oldest son that what is left of the inheritance all belongs to him. All that he has worked obediently for is still his to possess. The only rebuke is that the oldest son should likewise be celebrating at the return of his lost brother. He should be showing appreciation that the lost son has returned and been restored to fellowship with the family. How does the oldest son respond to this final statement by the father? The story stops and we stand waiting alongside the other party guests wondering just what will be the rebellious son’s response. Will he give up his rebellion and likewise be reconciled with the father and return to the house in humility?
Jesus was addressing a rebellious group of religious leader who stand in opposition to this message. As with most of his parables, this one too is directed at them. Will they be reconciled with the father, or will their hardness of heart not allow it?