June 2019   
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Luke 15:11-32


            Pastor Tim Keller observes that Jesus tells this story about not one, but two lost sons.  He says the older son is just as lost as the younger one.  While some of you may be able to relate to the character of the younger brother in this story, a lot of us (myself included) can see ourselves in the character of the older brother.  That’s a problem we need to work on.  It scares me how much I’m like the older brother.  In fact, the problem with most declining churches today is that we are so much like the older brother that we don’t know how to reach out to the lost younger brother.

            Jesus says his mission was “to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)  God has a heart for souls who are lost.  If we don’t already share God’s heart for the lost, then we need to recapture our sense of how much we need God’s mercy, just as much as the brother who ran off and became a party animal.

            Jesus starts his story with an almost unheard-of scenario in his day: a son asks for his inheritance in advance.  This was NOT the normal way to receive an inheritance.  Basically, the kid was saying, “Dad, hurry up and die!”  The father, without protest, cashes in 1/3 of what he has, and lets the son go his way. 

Jesus doesn’t say what far country the kid goes to (we’ve gotta remember, it’s only a parable), but we can use our imagination.  Maybe he goes to Alexandria, Egypt, a metro area so big that a Jew could disappear into the crowd and live like a pagan and no one would know.  Or maybe he goes to the hot springs of central Turkey, the “Beverly Hills” where so many Jews in Jesus’ day went to party.  It’s a wonderful place to go wild.  Wherever it was, when he gets there, the son blows the whole wad on “riotous living.”  (The word Luke uses here means any kind of reckless, degrading, or harmful kind of excess.)

Jesus says that when our party animal has spent all he has, the economy crashes.  A famine hits, where the price of bread could easily skyrocket 1000%.  The kid’s life as a party animal is over.  His empty stomach and his desperation drive him ultimately to one of the most degrading lines of work imaginable for a Jew: hog farming.  Hog farming was illegal in Jewish territory, as it is today in most parts of the Middle East.  To the Jews, nothing was more filthy or disgusting.  The rabbis would say, “Cursed is the man who rears swine, or who teaches his son Greek philosophy.”  And to wish to share their food is about as low as you could get. 

Ironically, our former party animal now literally “lusts” to fill his stomach, not with fine wines or imported game, but with the dry pods of the carob tree (from which we get our carob powder), pods that were used for fodder and were eaten by only the very poorest of the people.  One rabbi once said, “When the Israelites are reduced to eating carob pods, then they repent.”

Today’s runaways know the modern meaning of what it means to hit bottom.  In place of a hog lot to suffer in, teenage boys sell their bodies on the street to customers known as “chicken hawks,” while pimps prowl the bus and train stations looking for more.  Kids quickly get trapped in a lifestyle from which they can’t break free.  Scared and confused, when they suddenly begin to “be in want,” they don’t know where to turn.  They’ll submit to anyone, they’ll eat anything, they’ll sleep anywhere, with anyone, at any price; some of them, there’s nothing they haven’t done.  Enslaved by drugs, they end up physically wasted and scarred for life. 

A Christian muscle man named Keith Craft has said, “Sin will cost you more than you want to pay, it will take you farther than you want to go, and it will leave you there longer than you wanted to stay.”  That’s what the Prodigal Son finds.  He finds that life without his father is no life at all.

Maybe your life has been nowhere nearly a mess like the Prodigal Son.  And yet, in some ways, all of us are like him.  We’ve all tried to find happiness, success, or affirmation somewhere other than God.  We try to find unconditional love in places where it can’t be found.

Maybe you find yourself at a point of desperation in your life, where you want to know, “How do I get right with God?”  Perhaps you feel trapped by the fear that you’ve committed the unpardonable sin, the fear that God will never take you back.

Like the party animal up to his armpits in hog manure, sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we come to our senses and start to seek God.  When we get down to stealing carob pods out of the hog trough, maybe we’ll repent.  For the runaway on the street, it may take a narrow brush with death or testing positive for AIDS to shake them out of their stupor.  For the Prodigal Son, it was the sight of himself salivating over hog food that brought him to his senses and convinced him to go back to that place he was ashamed to go.

We all know what happens next.  The party animal’s father comes running.  (Aristotle said, “Great men never run in public.”)  Not only does the father take him back, he welcomes him back like a king.  He gives him the best robe in the house, he throws a banquet, he even hires a symphonia (a live band) for the celebration.  What did the son ever do to deserve such a welcome?  As the son himself confesses, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  In fact, it was this lavish display of undeserved love that provokes the resentment of the older brother.

See how the older brother’s blazing anger keeps him out of the feast being thrown by his father.  The older brother is consumed by resentment that he gets no payoff for his years of faithful service.  “Look, all these years I’ve been working like a slave for you, and I’ve never disobeyed your command, and look what I get for it – not even a goat for a dinner party!”  Older siblings tend to think that God “owes” us earthly rewards if we live a reasonably good life, which is why we get bitter if and when life does not turn out as happy as we had planned. 

(By the way, I’m not talking about literal birth order.  In fact, older Baby Boomers have often been like the younger brother in this parable, while younger Baby Boomers have looked at the messed-up lives of their older siblings and said, “Not for me!”) 

The path of older siblings is just as bad as that of younger siblings; it’s just different.  Those who are like the older brother tend to be condescending, condemning, anxious, joyless, often bitter and resentful toward life’s circumstances, with an insecurity that makes them both oversensitive to criticism and rejection, but harsh in their criticism of others.  (Ouch!)  Older siblings are just as lost as the younger ones.

Pride in his good deeds is part of what keeps the older brother out of the celebration.  Tim Keller says that not only do we need to repent of what we have done wrong, but to truly become Christians “we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right.”  John Calvin points us to Isaiah 64:6, which says that all our righteous deeds are like “filthy rags” (the Hebrew here has to be edited for a family audience).  Even the good we try to do is usually shot through with pride and self-interest. We help the poor, then we get mad when they don’t appreciate what we did for them.  We take pride that we’re not as bad as those people who “live like hell.”  And then we get cancer or lose our job, and ask, “What good do I get for all my effort to live a good life?  How come the adulterer gets a promotion and I don’t?”  It’s all Older Brother.  Because of our pride and self-righteous bitterness, we are all just as lost as Junior.

Older siblings find it hard to reach out to party animals like the younger brother.  We can’t relate.  We don’t understand.  Perhaps we’ve never been there ourselves.  Or perhaps it’s been so long since we’ve been there that we don’t remember, or maybe we want to forget.  Our new self-image doesn’t want to identify with the lost soul we used to be.  The truth is that we all need to rediscover how lost we are without Jesus.  Jesus came to save both the Goody Two-Shoes and the Party Animal.  The older sibling needs him just as badly as the younger one.    If only we truly believed that, it could transform our ability to reach out to other lost souls.

You all who are Older Sibling-types like me: We need to never forget how lost we are without Jesus.  We need to truly believe that we are just as lost as those whose lives are more obviously messed-up and out of control.  We need to quit thinking in terms of “good people” and “bad people.”  We need to see ourselves as all just as lost, just as much in need of a Savior.  If we can do that, we can get rid of the condemning, condescending attitude that often gets in our way and makes unbelievers keep their distance from us.

As I look at myself, I see so much of my attitude that needs to change.  It’s an attitude that bleeds into the way I preach and the way I relate to outsiders.  A complete change job will probably take a lifetime.  The Good News is that Jesus doesn’t come to leave us just as we are.  He comes to deliver us.  He comes to transform us.  He comes to make both the Goody Two-Shoes and the Party Animal into new people.

Reaching out to the world around us is a tall order.  It will require us to break out of the “holy huddle.”  It can sometimes get messy dealing with people whose lives are out of control.  Jesus shows us how.  Jesus loved people without loving their sin.  And even though he was without sin, the lost people of his day were attracted to him.  They knew he cared.

Likewise, people today who are outside the church need to be able to see that we truly care about them as people.  It can be hard to love such people when we come to them with an Older-Sibling attitude.  It’s a lot easier to love them when we see them as lost souls just like us, who need Christ no more and no less than us.  If we are younger siblings who have just been rescued from the misery of eating out of the hog trough, the grace or undeserved favor of God is probably still fresh in our minds.  (We need to keep it fresh in our minds.)  But if our life has been like that of the Older Brother, we need to remind ourselves again and again how lost we are without the undeserved mercy of God.  We can’t claim to be “holier-than-thou.”  We’re just one beggar telling another beggar where to find Bread.

Churches will never grow as long as lost people are uncomfortable around us.  Jesus, the only sinless man who ever lived, attracted sinners.  If we’re not attracting sinners, there must be some way we are not being like Jesus.  Jesus could identify with the sinner, even though he had never sinned himself.  He had such a compassion for those who were lost, that it overcame any discomfort that sinners must have felt.  After one of Jesus’ miracles, Peter cries, “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”  But Jesus overcame Peter’s discomfort, by refusing to let go of him.  The best way we can overcome the discomfort that lost people feel around us is to keep fresh in our minds how much both of are lost without Christ, and by refusing to let go of them.  It’s too easy to let go too quickly when we’re dealing with people whose lives are a mess. It’s far from easy, but we need to spend more time getting to know such souls and letting them get to know us.  We won’t always like what we see.  But just like in fishing, you only catch fish when you keep your line in the water.  Likewise, the only way to reach souls outside the church is to find ways to spend more time with them.  One way is a way pioneered by Steve Sjogren called “servant evangelism.”  Churches do free car washes, give out bottle of water at parades, and find other ways to show God’s love to people who would never darken the door of a church, which opens all sorts of opportunities to explain, “Why are you doing this?” “Because of God’s undeserved love for us!”  Churches that are in decline need to break out of our Older Brother way of relating to the world.

Two lost brothers: a party animal starving for carob pods from the hog trough, and a Goody Two-Shoes whose self-inflicted pride and bitterness threatens to shut him out of his father’s mercy.  Jesus comes to rescue both of us from our lostness, so that we may be reconciled to the God who has slain the fatted calf for us.  Jesus has paid the price to make that reunion possible.  May each of us respond by seeking to reach out to other lost souls like ourselves.

Lord, help us to never forget how lost we really are, no matter which brother in this story we most resemble.  Give us a heart to reach out humbly to others who are lost like us, so that all may know the One who came to seek and to save the lost.  We ask for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

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