Will the Prodigals ever come Home?
I want you to listen to the title of this sermon: Will the Prodigals ever come home? You know the simple answer, and the most honest answer, to that question this morning is: I don’t know! I genuinely do not know if your ‘prodigal’ will come home, only God knows that. Turn with me to Luke 15 verses 11-32. Let me, as I always do, set the context for this passage. Look at the beginning of chapter 14. Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee, it is the Sabbath day and Jesus heals a crippled man, much to the annoyance of the religious people – after all you should do no work on the Sabbath. Jesus then begins a discourse with the all those gathered in the home of the Pharisee to teach them about the kingdom of God. The next day Jesus is once again surrounded by controversy. Look at the beginning of chapter 15 – he is surrounded by sinners and tax collectors – all eager to hear what he has to say. The teachers of the Law are unimpressed with this crowd of expectant listeners. Now I want you to keep those two sets of people in mind as we proceed through this passage – the religious teachers of the Law and the ‘sinners.’ Jesus precedes the story of the lost son with two shorter stories of a lost sheep and a lost coin – where the owners of each go on a search to find that which was lost. Now we come to our passage this morning. It is a very familiar story to us, in fact I have preached on it on many occasions in the past but this morning I going to do something a little different. When I read this passage in light of the title of the sermon God kept prompting my heart with some questions that I know He wants me to ask of us all this morning as a church family:
Why did the son go home?
What sort of reaction did he get when he went home?
Have you been playing the part of the older brother?
These questions kept coming up in my spirit time and time again and I believe they were very much the promptings of God’s Spirit. So this morning I want us to look at this passage from the prodigal son’s perspective.
You know the story very well. Here is a farmer, most likely quite a wealthy man, who has two sons. The younger son is impatient for the bright lights of the distant country and so he goes to his father and asks for his inheritance – show me the money – is exactly what he demands of his father. In the ANE culture this is a shocking request, a disrespectful request, in fact it insults his father. For making such a request those listening to Jesus would expect the father in the story to beat the son and to drive him out of the family home. The first surprise for those listening to Jesus is found in verse 12 – in the gracious response of the father to such a scandalous request from this wayward son. The father’s kindness was at great personal cost – no doubt land or animals had to be sold in order to give the son his inheritance. Selling such would have inevitably led to the news of the son’s request getting out into the public domain. How often we encounter people who try to hide such things from the public domain, but there was no way the father could hide this son’s request.
Verse 13 – the younger son departs the family home and heads for the bright lights of a far country. He would have left under a cloud of disgrace but I want you to note the silence in the story here. There is no condemnation from the father. There are no stinging words of rebuke in from the father. There is no anger directed at this son from the father. But there is also silence form the older brother. In the culture of the day when such a situation arose in a family the nearest kin was expected to act as a mediator and reconciler in the situation. In the story the older brother would have been expected to take on this role within the family to maintain the family honour. There is a Christian missionary theologian called Kenneth Bailey and he tells in his book ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ that as he preaches in the middle east he often asks who is to be the reconciler? The villages always answer ‘the brother of course.’ However, the older brother remains silent and those who were listening to Christ would have known that the older brother had failed in his responsibilities.
Now let me stop there for a moment and give you a startling statistic which I came across the other day. 9 out of 10 people who have left a Christian church in the UK have never been asked why they left? I know I was challenged by that and I hope you are also this morning. But I want you to note something also – it was the responsibility of the next of kin to be the mediator and reconciler – not someone outside the family – that is the shocking scandalous silence of the older brother. You know in the ANE culture even if a brother hated his brother for the sake of his father he still would step into this situation – that is the scandalous silence of the older brother at this point in the story. Now let me ask you – how often have you played the older brother in Holy Trinity? The older brother remained silent and the prodigal walked – look he fades off into the distance before the father’s eyes and before the older brother’s eyes (and, dare I say it, before your eyes this morning).
Now I don’t want to pour false guilt on anyone this morning. The reality is no matter how often we have spoken into a situation and no matter how dynamic, exciting etc the church is (and can be) some people will still walk away. Sometimes the far country is just too tempting and enticing for the prodigals but let me add a caveat to that this morning. Why is the far country more attractive than the church? You know I can stand here this morning and I can say to you the prodigals have to return, we know in this story he returned home, but what was it about home that made him want to return? What was it about his father that made this prodigal risk coming back to the one he had so scandalously insulted in the first place? But also I must ask, and you must also ask, what was it that made the prodigal leave in the first place? Why have so many of our people become prodigals? Please don’t think it is just young people who become prodigals – all ages become prodigals. What as a church have we failed to do? Now I know that some people have walked away because they didn’t want to hear the gospel and they didn’t want the challenge of Christ in their lives. Some people have walked away because of their own sinfulness. Some people have walked away because the church just seemed like another planet. Some drifted because the truth is they were bored stiff – because whether we like it or not sometimes we can be totally irrelevant and tedious as Christians and as a church. You know the older brother could have ran after his brother and intervened but he shrugs his shoulder, turns and heads off to the farm for the day – back to the same old same old without a glance over his shoulder at his brother waling into the far country. Think about that for a moment.
Let us move on in the story with those questions in our minds and on our hearts. Verses 14-16 we read that the son partied hard for a time until the money, and his friends, ran out. He finds himself down and out feeding pigs (verse 16). Verse 17 Jesus tells us that one day he came to his senses or came to himself and he heads home. Now at this point in the story those listening to Jesus knew what would come next – Kezazeh. Kezazeh is the ceremony that would traditionally greet someone who had behaved in the manner of this son. The villagers would have gathered with clay jars filled with dried/parched corn and nuts and as the young man approached they would have smashed them on the ground before him. The jars would have shattered and the contents scattered all over the place. No one was permitted to lift up the pieces – the symbolism being that what he had done could not be undone and could not be repaired. He would not be permitted to reach his home because Kezazeh would tell him the relationship was beyond repair, there was no hope of a reconciliation – in fact to all in his family and his village he had died. That is what the sinners, the tax collectors and the religious leaders expected to hear from the lips of Christ at this point in the story but what a surprise.
Look at verse 20 – one of the great ‘Buts’ of the NT – But while he was still far off – read end of verse 20. The scandal of this – running towards someone who deserved Kezazeh. The scandal of running – no respectable man in the day of Christ ran anywhere. To run meant lifting up your garment and exposing your legs which was a sign of shame – in Isaiah 47.1-3 we read of the imagery of bare legs as expressing the shame of the people of God. It was a shameful thing for this father to expose his legs and to run to meet this prodigal. This father tossed his dignity and self-respect to one side and ran to meet his son. As we read on in the passage a wonderful picture of this reunion is painted by Christ – the father keeps on kissing the son – over and over again. These kisses were more than a polite greeting they symbolised forgiveness, peace and reconciliation. The father knew the villagers expected him to be the first in breaking the jar and declaring his son was dead but instead, filled with compassion, he showers the son with kisses and not with shards of pottery and angry words.
The son begins to confess his sin (v21) but the father orders a robe and a ring and shoes to be placed on his son – to cover his shame and nakedness. This father wants his son to come home, not as one covered in shame but as a son – fully restored, fully reconciled to the father and to the family. You know I was reminded of the significance of shoes on a person’s feet in the OT. When Moses stood before the burning bush he was told to remove his shoes because he was standing on holy ground – bare feet were a sign of penitence. The father was saying to this prodigal when you come home you come home as a fully restored son – isn’t that an amazing picture of God’s grace in action? And yet the story is not finished.
In verses 25-32 we turn again to the older brother. He has always been the sensible one in the family. He has been Mr mature, reliable, hard working and dependable. He was the stay at home son who toiled for long hours on the farm. He obeyed all the rules and did his father’s bidding. This son was not a bad son but his heart was full of resentment against his brother. He is full of hypocrisy, stubbornness and unholy gossip. He summons a servant and demands to know what is going on – all the music, the laughter and his anger almost explodes when he hears the fattened calf has been slaughtered and all for a son who deserved Kezezah and not a party. Now I want to linger here for a moment because I believe God would have us as a church linger here for a moment and I am going to warn you now that the next few minutes will make uncomfortable listening for older brothers in this congregation.
This older brother was more concerned with how he viewed things should be than the truth that a brother who was lost had been found, who was dead was now alive again and who was a prodigal in a far country had come home and been reconciled to his father and his family. Listen to the older brother speak here – can you hear the tone of voice used to the servant as he speaks about his brother? He virtually spits the words out, unable to control his anger. He demands an explanation from his father – look at verses 28-31. He indulges in gossip about his brother – stop there for a moment. How did he know what way his brother had lived in that far country? He just assumed the worst, maybe from experience but he still gossiped about his brother. There is no joy that his brother is back in the family again. The older brother is angry at his father’s grace and mercy, compassion and love and he spits out his anger at his father – revealing his true heart. He actually resents the father and he resents living in the father’s house and he resents the father’s grace and mercy. He resents the father bestowing grace and gifts on this wayward son. Let me say to you this morning some of you have indulged in such behaviour within this church. Some of you have been the older brother full of resentment at the gracious gifts God has given to others. You have come here to worship God but your heart is outside the Father’s house and you have been spitting venom in your heart towards your brother/sister who was lost and is now found. You have resented the Father killing the fatted calf for someone else and not for you. Why am I saying such things to you this morning: Because I have played the older brother in my life, even within this congregation. I have listened to many of you being the older brother and on occasions even joined in with you. Some of you are still being the older brother. Let me share with you some of the comments of the older brothers in HT: I don’t like the choir leading worship. I don’t like the music group, it is too loud etc I don’t like the children making a noise during the service. I don’t like the fact Alan doesn’t wear his robes etc. I know because you have said such things to me and I have said such things myself in the past. The older brother stubbornly remained outside the party. He refused the call of his father. Look at verses 31-32 – the Father explains to the older brother that he loves him as much as the younger son but he is not going to apologise for throwing a party for the return of the son who was lost. Can I say to you all this morning, as humbly as I can, God is not going to apologise to you (or massage your ego) because you resent the fact that he threw a party for a returning prodigal.
As I finish I am left with one major question; “What would have happened if the younger brother had met the older brother before his father that day?” When I apply that to HT I am left wondering how many prodigals don’t come back because they meet and older brother and not the Father? I know this has been an uncomfortable sermon to listen to this morning, it wasn’t a comfortable sermon to write or preach but I want to say to us all I know in my spirit this morning that this is God’s Word to us this morning as a church. Will the prodigals ever come home? I don’t know but this I do know if and when they come home I want to be a father who runs to meet them with compassion in my heart. I pray they meet a compassionate father before they meet and older brother. I also pray, and I genuinely mean pray, that this morning we all examine our lives, our words and our actions over the past period and confess before God this morning that we have been an older brother at times – and for some that will mean going and asking forgiveness of others about whom you have spoken ill, resented and refused to celebrate the grace and gifting of God in their lives.
I want to be a compassionate father who runs to meet the prodigal and I ask God’s forgiveness, and yours, when I have been an older brother who wanted to maintain the status quo.