Rebel, Runby Ed de la Cour on August 29, 2017
August 20, 2017
Luke 15: 11 – 32
We are never quite certain how rebellion begins, but we are quite sure that the heart and the mind happily conspire to bring rebellion to life.
There are a number of truths to be found in the parable of the prodigal. One truth surely is that every one of us has schemed and plotted to get what we want out of life. We have finagled, we have maneuvered, we have manipulated, and we have misused people and situations all to benefit our own desires. We’re all rebels. We’re all prodigals. We’re all runners at heart.
Before we get into the story, remember that a parable is a simple story that makes a teaching point. The parables of Jesus touched folks on a deeply personal level and they taught powerful lessons. In His parables it’s not hard to figure out that Jesus is talking to you and me.
In Luke 15, Jesus gave three parables, the first is about a sheep that wandered off and became lost. The next story is about a woman who lost a valuable silver coin. Lastly, there’s this one, about a lost and wayward son. In each parable we get to see how much lost things, and finally, how much lost people matter to God.
In the parable we read, Jesus spoke of a young man, who certainly must have thought about what he was going to do for a long while. One day, he went to his father and asked to be given the entirety of whatever inheritance he had coming once the father passed away. I am not sure, but I think this is pretty much unheard of! What kind of person has the chutzpah, the thoughtless arrogance, the audacity, the unmitigated gall, to do such a thing to his family, and especially to his own father? And yet, not only did he ask, but the father agreed and gave him his share of the estate. That makes me nearly speechless.
I don’t suppose it must have taken very long, but as soon as the younger son could liquidate the assets he was given, he packed his bags. He was off and out the door. As far as he was concerned, his family was dead to him. He left his former life in the rear view mirror. Just like the Joni Mitchell song says, he “was a free man in Paris. (He) felt unfettered and alive.” He was a rebel and he was proud of it. And like another song says:
“He's a rebel and he'll never ever be any good
He's a rebel 'cause he never ever does what he should.”
From James Dean to John Lennon to Curt Cobain, rebels are exciting. They do bad stuff. They live out of control lives. By and large, rebels tend to live fast, play hard, and die young. Everyone wants to be a rebel, but no one wants to think about the consequences of living in rebellion. Certainly this young man closed his ears to his father’s pleas. You can just hear the father crying, “Don’t do this, son. Don’t cut yourself off like this.” But the young man paid no attention and the broken-hearted father was left standing alone by the door. The old man watched the young rebel walk down the driveway. As soon as he was on the street, his son was off and running, both literally and figuratively.
We are not told how long the young man was on the run from his father, but we can make some assumptions. If there was an inheritance to split, it must have been enough to make his escape worthwhile. He was able to move to “a far country.” He was far enough away that he could live as freely and as unrestrained as he wanted. He ran and he kept on running. He didn’t have the maturity to steward his resources, so he blew through all the money and all the friends his father’s money had bought. The party ended in a blaze of wine, women, and song. His quality of life began to devolve into a downward spiral while his funds and his relationships sputtered. He ran out of money and he ran out of friends at the same time. Finally, he ended up as a young Jewish boy working for a pig farmer. Let me say, that kind of conclusion is hard for an observant Jew to imagine. Feeding the pigs – that’s so very far away. It was while he was feeding those pigs that he slowly began to realize he was actually coveting the slop he was giving to the animals.
At some point in all our lives – or maybe even several points if we are really slow - we will have moments of clarity when we conclude we have taken the wrong road. We become able to see that our current trajectory is going to end in our death, or in our imprisonment, or certainly in abject failure. That moment of truth is God’s gift to us, even though when it happens, we are probably unaware of the timeliness of God’s activity.
Jesus said that moment of clarity arrived for the young man “when he came to his senses.” A rebel fears nothing more than being brought to his senses. That’s the last thing a rebel wants! Coming face to face with reality means being brought low to humility. That’s what happened to this young man. If I humble myself it means that my best thinking failed and failed badly. It means my best planning has come to nothing and I’m not as smart as I thought. It means all my hopes and dreams are based on a lie and that lie has gotten me nowhere. Humility will profit me very little if that humility doesn’t bring me to the place of repentance, when I turn away from my rebellion and I admit to my Father that I am wrong.
Whatever character defects the young man possessed, however many times he stood in the pig sty staring hungrily at the pig food, one day the cumulative effect of his long string of failures brought him to the conclusion that he must stop running from his father. No matter how bad he was, no matter how morally corrupt this man had become, he knew when it was time to give it up and start to walk the long road home.
If you are a parent, you may already know what it feels like to be the one watching at the window, to be the one waiting day after day, week after week, year after year, for your child to come back home. This father stood by his front door and watched every day, for who knows how long. Probably he waited for years. And then Jesus said, one day the father saw his son “while he was still a long way off.” We always like to think the best of ourselves, but the truth is if we are rebels, we are a long ways off. We are far from God. But don’t let that stop you. Another truth in this parable is that distance from God is not a problem. We think distance is a problem, but God says it isn’t. Jesus said, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” The truth is the moment you come to your senses and turn to come home, your Father will run to meet you. God is your Father. Your Father will run to you because the heart of God is filled with compassion for you! God, your Father, loves you.
There are a lot of earthly fathers who are not worthy of being called father. They are violent, nasty, untrustworthy creatures. The God of the Bible is everything your father was not. Our God is faithful and consistent. God’s love is forever. He doesn’t leave when life gets hard. He won’t hurt you for the sake of inflicting pain. Everything the Bible teaches about God as Father shows Him to be all you’ve ever wanted but never had in a Dad.
The young son is not the only rebel in the story. The older brother, the one who seemed to be so obedient, who seemed so caring for his father’s wishes, he now shows himself to be just as self-centered, just as self-possessed as his little brother. The older brother was what we would call the compliant child. He’s the child who always obeys, who is never a problem to his parents, who meets or exceeds their expectations all the time. As the first-born son of the father, this guy believed with all his heart that his spiritual life was in just fine condition. He is religiously content, but in his heart, he’s a rebel. So here’s another truth: even those of us who seem to be good are only pretending. In due course, our true colors will be revealed. Indeed, which of the two sons is the true prodigal?
The story of the prodigal shows both great success and great failure. After all is said and done, the young son turned his heart to the father, probably for the first time in his life. He was restored fully and successfully into his father’s love. In fact, he was more fully restored in love at that moment than he had ever dreamed possible before he ran away.
It’s painful to think about the older brother. Here’s a man who seemed so good, so attentive, and so devoted, but he finally turned his back on the love of his father. He was unable to see his brother through the father’s eyes. The father cannot believe his firstborn son could be so cold. He went outside and pleaded with his son, begged him to come back inside and rejoice with him and with everyone else. The fact that the older brother could lay hold of everything the father had simply was not enough to convince him to be glad for his brother’s homecoming. This supposedly strong relationship with his father failed utterly.
And what of the father? Despite his years of patient waiting, watching, and hoping for the return of his lost son, the father now faced the sad fact that his family is about to be torn apart again, this time by the one son he never expected to lose.
We can easily resonate with the characters in this story. The point of commonality between us is not the young man’s bad behaviors. Many prodigals live sober, otherwise successful, hard-working lives. They don’t get drunk or run around on their spouses. They are not running away from responsibility; they are just running away from God. They are rebels. They are running hard and they’re afraid to stop.
I have known life as a prodigal son. I spent well over a decade running from God and all that time I knew full well that I was running. I’m ashamed to say it, but I have also been the older brother. I have been the one who resented and resisted the grace of God for people I thought deserved to be punished rather than healed, punished rather than be forgiven by God. You may find you also fall into one or both categories.
This parable is a picture of the high value God places on people who are lost, the high value God places on people who are running away, who are rebels at heart. God wants you to know the love of the Father. He wants you to be able to live in a loving relationship with Him. It doesn’t matter whether you are actively running away from God or whether you are hanging onto the fiction that you are a good person. The father’s heart was just as open to the older brother as to the younger brother.
By the end of the parable, we have come to see that both sons are prodigals. The younger prodigal came home. His life had fallen apart, but he made the hard decision to humble himself, and in so doing, he was welcomed warmly by his father with open arms. The father was in full rejoice mode. He declared it was time for a feast because what had been lost, seemingly forever, was now found. The tragedy is that the older brother could not bring himself to come in out of the cold and find his peace in a relationship with God the Father.
Those of us who are older brothers have a hard time with the grace of God. Many of us have decided that we have to work for God’s grace. We believe that grace must be earned. Grace needs to be deserved. We’ve never been sure what to do with the thief on the cross. We believe that somehow we are going to get what we deserve. Do not fall for the lie that says karma is real. There is no karma in the Gospel of Jesus. The Good News of Jesus is completely the opposite of karma. Here’s why: Jesus suffered on the cross, not because He did wrong, but because we deserve to face God’s justice. In Jesus, the righteous suffered for the unrighteous. We sinned; Jesus paid. Where’s the karma in that? We go free because He gave His life for ours. We rebels are forgiven and, as a result, we do not get what we deserve.
Here’s the question God wants to ask: are you a rebel who is running from God, or are you a rebel who thinks you’re doing just fine?
The point of this parable is we’re all prodigals. We are all rebels on the run. Whether you’ve already stopped running or if you’re still trying to escape and evade, Jesus is here to say you matter to Him. Your church matters to Him. Your neighbors matter to Him. We are all prodigals. We all face the decision about whether we are willing to come home. Right now God is standing by the door of your life waiting for you to come to your senses and turn away from the busyness, turn away from the distractions, turn away from the idolatry of whatever is keeping you from living for Him.
All is forgiven. You can come home.
Edmund C. de la Cour
37 Buzzards Bay Avenue
Buzzards Bay, MA 02532-3132