Summary: The prodigal succumbed to temptations all of us face: money, sex and power. He survived because he stopped denying his reality and received the grace of the father.
Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC June 26, 1988
It is frequently said about alcoholics that they have to hit rock bottom before they can be helped. The usual understanding is that because of the nature of the disease, the behavior called alcoholism, the person who suffers as a chronic alcoholic has to find himself at the bottom of his resources before he is open to being helped.
What makes this insight a little tricky is that there are different bottoms for different folks. The way one person hits rock bottom does not look quite like another person's precipitous slide. We learned to say in the 70's, "Different strokes for different folks." Well, we can also say, "Different drops for different folks". .
There is the low-bottom alcoholic, for example, who is typified as the skid-row bum, out of a job, wearing old clothes, walking the streets, smelling of cheap whiskey, bleary-eyed and repulsive. He's the one we call a drunk, and we can see that he is at or very close to rock bottom.
But there are also high-bottom alcoholics, and these folks may get up every morning and shave and go to work and look pretty normal, but the truth is they are also out of control, they are also governed by the bottle, they also feel a desperation about themselves, and they are also therefore at rock bottom. It may be a high bottom, but it's down there, just the same.
To repeat an old joke, the difference between the drunk and the alcoholic is that the drunk doesn't have to go to all those meetings!
Whatever the alcoholic at bottom looks like, still the truth is there; he has to wake up to the truth about himself before he can get help. He has to stop denying that he is in need before he can turn around. He has to hit rock bottom, however it looks, before he can start the tortured way back up.
I see that as a truth about all of us, whether or not we are tipplers, whether or not we can identify some specific and obvious problem that has a grip on our lives. All of us, I suspect, have to discover and experience what a mess we’ve made of our lives before we can begin again. Every one of us has to strike some kind of rock bottom, whether it be a low bottom or a high bottom really does not matter, before we can start to get our lives in order. And most of all, we have to stop denying that we need help. We just cannot keep on pretending that we have it all together when, in fact, we do not. We do not. The Bible teaches, after all, that there is a complete, total, one hundred percent chance that we need to turn around. All have sinned, all without exception, and all have come short of the glory of God. All have come short of what God intended for us.
There is, I say, a one hundred percent chance that we are going to make a mess of managing our lives, and therefore a one hundred percent chance that we are going to be slipping and sliding in the direction of rock bottom. The issue is not whether we are moving that way; the issue is whether we will understand it, see it for what it is, whether we will at some point quit denying it, and go ahead with the turnaround.
The master psychologist named Jesus of Nazareth understands us. The teacher with all insight into human nature teaches us how to see it for what it is. And this Jesus, this master psychologist, this insightu1 teacher, who is also one in whom the fullness of God dwells, one in whom the Almighty Himself has chosen to live, this one also reaches out to turn us around and to pull us out once we've hit that rock bottom.
I want you this morning to notice how he teaches us about all this in his matchless parable. This wonderful story, with so many layers of meaning, last week informed us of a waiting father, a God who would take risks to give us our freedom, a father who would love us and care for us all the way to the cross, a father who would empty his deep pockets, just for us.
This week we focus on the prodigal himself, the younger brother of the story. And in him we are given a picture of hitting rock bottom, hitting rock bottom in all the most important ways. The ways we too hit rock bottom, and therefore the ways we will have to stop denying if we expect to come home.
Now the outline is really very simple today. Some of you are reading in the area of spiritual disciplines. And if you are, you know, perhaps, the author Richard Foster. One of Richard Foster's books is entitled, “Money, Sex, and Power.” Money, sex and power, an unholy Trinity, maybe, but I expect you can see pretty quickly what he is getting at. Foster says that these are the arenas of life in which we will most easily lose our disciplines, these are the facets of our lives which give us the most occasion to sin. In terms of what I am talking about today, I would say that these are the places where most of us head toward rock bottom. And when you read the parable of the Prodigal, that is exactly what you discover. The outline is simple, memorable: money, sex, and power.