Big Idea: Receive the inexhaustible, unrelenting love of God SO THAT you can offer the inexhaustible, unrelenting love of God.
Other potential words for “persistent”: relentless, persevering, ruthless, unyielding, unrelenting, resolute, untiring, tenacious, constant, unconditional, inexhaustible
The story of two sons and their father
He was standing on the middle landing of our stairs in the house drunk…angry drunk. I was at the top of the stairs; my mom and dad were at the bottom. This had happened before – not all of us being there at the stairs, but my brother coming home drunk.
But tonight was different.
We’d been doing family counseling because of my brother’s addictions and its affect on us as a family. And my dad had finally agreed that if (or when) he came home drunk again, he would not be allowed to stay, but would have to go spend the night at the local Rescue Mission.
I was 15 at the time. I remember because I couldn’t drive yet, but I rode in the car with my dad and brother – to be of some kind of help to my dad. How do you drive when you are weeping so hard you can’t really see?
You see, for my dad, this was heartbreaking. Yes it was the right thing to do – the loving thing to do for my mom, me, my sister, and my grandma who lived with us. It was the right and loving thing to do for my brother – to love him well in his pain and brokenness. To let by brother continually stay was not only unwise, but a form of enabling.
But that didn’t make it any easier. This was my dad’s son… whom he loved… whom he delighted in for who he was.
So I got in the back of the car, my dad and brother in the front, and my dad drove us to the mission and let my brother out – who stood outside the mission (he did eventually go inside, but he didn’t let my dad see that even though we sat there for a while waiting to see him go in). And then we drove home.
We didn’t talk. I just sat next to him. Once home, the weeping continued for a little while, my mom present to my dad in comfort and in prayer. She called and found out my brother did check in for the night and we were all able then to settle for the night.
For my brother, this was not necessarily a significant night. It was a few months before he would make the turn to sobriety and an eventual return to God, both of which have stood now for 25+ years. In fact, my brother as a follower of Jesus is a substance abuse counselor.
BUT FOR ME, this night is one of the most significant memories of my growing up
Why? I’ll explain in a little bit.
TRANSITION - RECAP
We have entered into our Legacy series once again, this time following Jesus and his life and teachings as He moves down the road towards resurrection.
RE-CAP and OVERVIEW:
Last week Steve took us carefully through a series of parables that concluded with Jesus’ invitation to “seek first His kingdom.” To recognize that “The kingdom of God is better than anything else in this world and an intoxicating taste of the next!” Steve Znachko, March 1-2, 2014.
We will be with the parables again this week, but as you have already seen in this service, we will focus on one particular story of Jesus – a story quite famous to us, maybe even those of us who have little knowledge of the Bible’s contents – and a story whose message is central to our understanding of who God is AND who God is calling us to be.
So turn with me to this parable, found in Luke 15:11-32, in the “house” Bibles.
It is known, as mentioned previously, most often as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” But that may be the least accurate of all possible titles as we will see.
As we come to the story, let’s remember the context: Jesus is responding to the “muttering” of Pharisees who are accusatorily saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And this parable is the third in a string of parables, following that of the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep – two parables that speak to the initiative of God to do exactly what the Pharisees accuse of: God lovingly pursuing sinners. And this parable about these two sons falls into that same line of teaching about God.
It begins with a scandalous request:
READ vs. 11-14
11Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.
The younger son is doing EVERYTHING wrong here: cultural background helps us understand the scandal of what is happening here in the son’s request.
· The son likely would have known by age 18 what his inheritance would be = A LOT!
o father wealthy – had hired servants (as we learn later in the story)
So this boy KNEW he was going to get a lot of “money.” And he wanted it now; for whatever reason, this younger son was rebelling against his father and family. So… he asks:
· request for inheritance = “Father, I can’t wait for you to die; in fact, I wish you were dead.”
· At this point, father chooses love and grace: the ask was a supreme dishonor, punishable by beating, but the father gives the inheritance
o Sacrifice and risk for the father here: this was money he was supposed to be able to live off of until he died!
And the rebelling continues with what this son does with the money…
· “distant country” – this Jewish boy goes to a Gentile land – scandal – and in doing so, demonstrates NOT ONLY a rejection of his father, but a “heartless rejection” of his family, community, upbringing, and tradition
o Equal to betrayal!
· “squandered his wealth in wild living” – in this case, wild living then would be similar to wild living now: namely prostitutes as mentioned later in the story and all that goes with that - EVIL to have been so foolish!
So foolish as to have nothing left when the famine hit.
So what does this son do?
READ vs. 15-20
15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20So he got up and went to his father.
Now in the minds of the hearers, this is the just consequence for the son’s choice – he’s getting what he deserves:
· feeding and subsequently wanting to eat the food of the most unclean animal in Jewish tradition: pigs!
· Repulsive and disgusting in every sense of the words!
· this son is now cut off from the Jewish community – no help, no charity will be offered him
But the boy as it says, comes to his senses to return to his father – very possibly NOT so much out of remorse, but out of desperation. In fact, it is likely the hearers would have seen this decision to return as extremely presumptuous, NOT humble.
So home he heads. And what is his reception? As unexpected as his rebellious request for his inheritance.
READ vs. 20b-24
“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.
21“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
This rebellious son’s reception is one of undignified celebration!
His father, compassion-filled, does what no Jewish elder would have done: he runs to him! And he cuts him off in mid-explanation! It is as if the father hasn’t even heard the “I’ve sinned against heaven and against you” part. Then the best robe, which would have been the rode of his father, is put on him and a calf, that would have fed the whole village, is slaughtered in order to have a party!
This son might have only initially been coming home in remorse, but it sure seems that IN THAT MOMENT, he was coming home in repentance – repentance welcomed by the inexhaustible, unrelenting love of his father!
But the scandal of rebellion is not reserved to the prodigal alone; no the elder brother – the older son – jumps in on the act with his own acts of rebellion.
READ vs. 25-28a
25“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28“The older brother became angry and refused to go in.
Like his younger brother, the elder son rebels:
1. (First) elder brothers were to be the reconcilers between fathers and younger siblings in this culture – this brother flatly denies that role
2. (Second) His anger and refusal to enter house = insult to father’s dignity, worthy of a beating
Yet like with his rebellious younger son, the father once again GOES TO his rebellious son – this time the older one – with his inexhaustible, unrelenting love.
READ vs. 28b-32
So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
This compassion-filled, loving father goes to his son only to hear his rebellion explicitly:
· Elder son fails to greet his father appropriately, punishable by beating
· Insults his father with his smug, judgmental questioning of the love and grace his father has offered
· Calls his brother “that son of yours” – doesn’t own his connection to him in the family
AND YET… his father just reminds him that ALL he has – not just this son’s inheritance – but ALL he has is his son’s already. He’s already an heir. And even more, he ALWAYS has access and relationship with his father to engage if he will just choose to do it.
Interesting to NOTE: though the story indicates the prodigal went into the home with his dad, there is no indication that the elder son did
Two rebellious sons loved inexhaustibly and unrelentingly by their compassion-filled / grace-filled father.
Yes so much more than just the “parable of the prodigal son.”
An exercise I have come across to help me engage with Scripture is to read a story and imagine myself in it – as a character OR even as an observer.
I wonder what that would be like for you to do with this story.
Where might you see yourself in this story?
I think that is part of what Jesus was trying to challenge the Pharisees to do when he shared it with them. Remember he’s sharing this in the context of people who have lived as prodigals and elder brothers both.
Who might you identify with? Let’s consider the characters again.
The prodigal son who lived to reject his father in order to live independently
· rejects father with his request for inheritance
· rejects father with his choice to leave not only home, but his family, community, and all tradition
· rejects father with his squandering of his wealth on selfish living
· EVEN rejects father initially by asking simply to be servant – assumes being a son is out of the question…takes things into his own hands again
Can you identify?
Henri Nouwen in his remarkable book based on his reflections on this parable and Rembrandt painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son (one of the three most influential books to my faith and relationship with God by the way – I cannot recommend it highly enough), says this about his own identification with the prodigal:
“I am the prodigal every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.” Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son
I am – me – I am rebellious like the prodigal every time I pursue unconditional love anywhere other than God because there is NO OTHER unconditional love to be found in this world. And so are you!
And then there’s this judgmental, elder son (who seems to be a caricature of the Pharisees who initiated Jesus telling this story)
· an elder son who…
o ”exteriorly did all the things a good son is supposed to do, but interiorly, wandered away from his father.” Nouwen
· who wandered from his father’s loving example
· wandered from his father’s love itself
· rejects his father’s love in favor of his judgmental attitude, his entitled arrogance
We are all the prodigal at one point OR many in our lives. We are all the judgmental, entitled, arrogant elder brother too.
Can you see it in your own life?
And yet God is to us like as the father Jesus speaks of:
· God came to us in Jesus Christ and continually seeks to come to us to draw us to Himself by His Spirit
· God sees our rejection of Him and watches for us to return in repentance
o Watches for us like I imagine the father in the story – I can’t help but wonder if the story was expanded if Jesus might have spoken about a father who liked to be out at the front of his house MORE THAN the back because he was always looking up in HOPES that his son would be walking down that path one day – and then when he finally was, he didn’t wait for his son to reach him– he couldn’t wait: he’d been waiting enough – so he runs!
· God hears our excuses, our explanations of why we can only be the least in his kingdom – like the father’s hired hands - and says, “Enough of that: you are my son, my daughter, my beloved! With you I am well-pleased!”
Do you not get it, those of you who have rejected God’s love? Those of you who have wandered from His love?
He’s watching for you. He’s not going to wait for you to get all the way back to Him. You turn towards him, you take your step of repentance and God is coming to you because God is watching for you!
“The question is not ‘How am I to love God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be loved by God?’” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home. […] God is the father who watches and waits for his children, runs out to meet them, embraces them, pleads with them, begs and urges them to come home. It might sound strange but God wants to find me as much as, if not more than, I want to find God.” Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son
His love is unconditional…
…it is persistent and unyielding, constant and unwavering
… untiring and relentless, persevering and resolute
…limitless, boundless, endless, infinite beyond imagination whose depths, height, length, and width CANNOT be fathomed!
… marked by unrestrained passion, it is tenacious and furious
You (and I) are loved with the INEXHAUSTIBLE and UNRELENTING love of God!
NOTHING stands in the way of God’s love – except your surrender – for God will NOT force His love onto you and He will NOT make you love Him.
It’s the message of the parables that surround these ones of Luke 15. If you go back and read the passages leading into and out of this parable (Luke 15) in Luke 14 and 16, they speak to this reality of God’s desire for all to know Him, yet a knowing of Him that will come only through one’s surrender of self and selfishness to entrust themselves to God in Jesus Christ.
The father embraces his prodigal boy with inexhaustible love, but he didn’t force him in the door. He took his unrelenting (relentless) love TO his judgmental, entitled elder son, but he didn’t make him come inside.
Similarly the choice is up to you.
Is it really any choice? The God of the universe made known to us most explicitly in Jesus Christ, who is telling this story to make a point about God’s heart of love for sinners of which we all are (or were) one, inexhaustibly and unrelentingly loves you!
But there is another choice as well in this story, one that I don’t think I ever saw until I read Nouwen’s work, but one that puts a powerful twist on the story. Another character for me to identify with.
It is the choice to become the father. And not just a choice, but more accurately, the challenge.
Here’s how Nouwen states the challenge:
“He (God) loves us before any human person can show love to us. He loves us with a “first” love, an unlimited, unconditional love, wants us to be his beloved children, and tells us to become as loving as himself. […] The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father.” Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son
The challenge to do as Jesus taught in Luke:
“Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” Luke 6:36
We choose to prove that we believe we are loved by God by then loving like God has loved us. Jesus expresses precisely this challenge to be living proof of God’s love because we have been loved in John 15:
“As the father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. My command is this: love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:9,12
We do this – we become the father, loving others well LIKE THE FATHER – when we recognize the brokenness of the world and GRIEVE over it like the Father does – when the things that break the heart of God break our hearts.
And then we offer ourselves generously as ambassadors of the father’s love, blessing the downtrodden, broken, rebellious, and arrogant with the immensity of God’s love.
Blessing instead of judging OR standing back, away from those who appear to be prodigals OR elder brothers, we engage to find out their story, listen for the ways they have been wounded and need God’s love, and stand as God in flesh with hands outstretched to welcome them home saying,
“You are loved. The inexhaustible, relentless love of God is for you. There’s nothing you can have done that negates that love. No shame, no guilt, no fear powerful enough to stop the unrelenting love of God coming into your life to bring healing, wholeness, freedom, and reconciliation. Here, let me show you!”
And this is the challenge to me and to you. As disciples of Jesus called to serve and love others, we are called to grow in maturity so as to become the father.
And it is that truth that makes my memory of that night with my brother and dad so significant to me.
My dad wasn’t perfect. No one is. His road had taken him through times of being a prodigal and times of being the elder brother both. BUT he came to receive the love of God which matured him to become the father. And so my dad not only was father to me and my siblings; he was (became) as thee FATHER.
“The community does not need yet another younger or elder son, whether converted or not, but a father who lives with outstretched hands, always desiring to let them rest on the shoulders of his returning children.” Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son
This was my dad. And the reason that tangible memory of that night with the brother is so significant to me, is because the weeping of my father was the weeping of a father always ready to rest his hands on the shoulders of us, his returning children.
All six of us – my siblings and I – have lived the roles of prodigal and elder child at one point or another in our lives and all six of us have experienced the hands of our father on our shoulders welcoming us home AND “home” into the inexhaustible(ly), unrelentingly loving hands of our heavenly Father – my dad’s love the proof to me of God’s great love.
SO to you my friends today,
As prodigal child and elder child, receive the inexhaustible, unrelenting love of God.
(CG: separate slides please)
But receive it SO THAT as the father, you can offer the inexhaustible, unrelenting love of God!
SO THAT you can be through your life, the proof of this unfathomable love of God!