Sermon, Prodigal God 3, The two lost sons: Give me my share
Sunday August 12, 2012.
Give me my share
The story begins when the younger son comes to the father and says, “Give me my share of the estate.”
In ancient times, when the father died, the oldest son always got “a double portion” of what any other child got. If there are two sons, the older would get two-thirds of the estate and so the younger would get one-third. This was to ensure that the family stayed together and had a surer future.
So the story opens with the younger son asking for his one-third share of the inheritance. Let’s look at: 1) the meaning, of the request, 2) the response to that request, and 3) what difference it makes for us.
1) the meaning of the request,
Th request is really wishing the Father dead. It is a disgraceful thing to do. it brings shame on family name in a place where everyone knows everyone for generations. This request rips the family apart.
WHY such a heartless and shameful action?
Because it is the human way….
Luther understood this well,
“For our sinful human nature which is with us every day is such that it doesn’t trust and believe God, and is constantly stirred up by bad desires and ideas” (Martin Luther, Large Catechism, Lord’s Prayer, 5th Petition)
And before Luther, St Augustine, in his ‘Confessions’, gives us a startling observation:
“A man has murdered another man—what was his motive? Either he desired his wife or his property or else he would steal to support himself; or else he was afraid of losing something to him; or else, having been injured, he was burning to be revenged.”
Augustine goes on to say that even a murderer murders because he loves something. He loves romance or wealth or his reputation or something else too much, inordinately, more than God, and that is why he murders. Our hearts are distorted by “disordered loves.” We love, rest our hearts in, and look to things to give us the joy and meaning that only the Lord can give.
The younger son may have lived with his father and may even have obeyed his father, but he didn’t love his father. The thing he loved, ultimately, was his father’s things, not his father. His heart was set on the wealth and on the comfort, freedom and status that wealth brings. His father was just a means to an end. Now, however, his patience was over. He knew that the request would be like a knife in his father’s heart, but he obviously didn’t care.
What about the older son? His way is looks different on the surface, but is really the same underneath.
In his good living and his long obedience to the Father he is still, at the end, furious with the father and humiliates him by refusing to go into the great feast. Why? The elder brother objects to the expense of what the father is doing. By his refusal to humbly enter the celebration of his lost brother with his Father, he shows that he has been obeying the father to get his things, and not because he loves him, since he is willing to put his Father to shame.
Both the older and younger sons love the father’s things, but not the father.
Both the younger and older brothers, despite outward appearances, have the same human heart we have – one that loves and relies on many things, self and even superstitions more than relying on the love, promises, word and mercy of God.
This parable of Jesus exposes the two ways human beings, with their idol making heart, try to be happy.
Self Discovery (Younger brother types) and moral conformity (older brother types)
Self Discovery: each person must be completely free to pursue their own goals, experiences, learning and self-actualisation regardless of society’s customs and expectations/rules. This approach to “finding one’s self” seems to have begun in the early 60’s and not stopped since. It seems that this is the prevailing approach to life in our time.
In this view the world would be a far better place if tradition, structure, prejudice, hierarchical authority and any other perceived barrier to individual freedom were at least weakened, if not removed.
“I am the only one who can decide what is best for me – what is right and wrong for me. I am going to live as I want to live – Eat pray love and find my true self and happiness”.
Moral Conformity: The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were very concerned about the keeping of the 10 commandments and the many moral and social rules that came from them for an understandable reason. The belief was basically that if every Jew in Israel kept the Law for one day, this would usher in the new age of the Promised Messiah. They and God’s people could maintain their place in God’s blessing and receive this great Day of the Lord through strict obedience to the Bible.
In this belief, it would be much better for everyone if all the “immoral people” – the people who just do their own thing with little regard for the wider good and communal wellbeing – would learn that it is not all about the individual or discovering one’s self or being happy.
Of course, there are those who try to live in both sides – the wealthy and very civic minded business man who serves his community, has a lovely wife and puts great effort into parenting his children while at the same time being besotted with pornography or worse.
Also, people change sides. Have you come across people who used to be pretty loose on living and into everything, who now have become very moral and even self-righteous? Or the other way: people who were definitely on the moral conformity side but through life and experience or some major event have turned their back on those traditional values and conventions and gone off to “discover themselves” and are now into all kinds of things?
See how sin is not just “breaking God’s rules” but trying to be God”.
Sin is not just bad behaviour, speaking or thinking, it is idolatry – a breaking of the first commandment to love the Lord with all our heart by relying on him for everything.
See how sin is really trying to get control over God – either by being very bad, like the younger son, or very good, like the older son, both relying on self rather than relying on the sheer grace of God – his promises, his authority, his Word, his community, his gifts?
In this parable, we see this alternative way in the Father’s response…..
2) the response to that request
That request of the younger son was a sharp knife through the heart of the Father and of the family. It literally ripped the family apart.
But what about the Father’s response?” Surely if someone wishes you dead and verbalises this wish with you, your reaction would be to retaliate or at least limit it to stop it from hurting so much.
But we hear this Father simply grant the son’s request. “He divided the estate between them”. – staggering for the first hearers of this parable…..Stunning to us too.
If the father had become embittered, and had perhaps beaten the young man or done something else severe to him, no restoration would have ever happened. The father’s heart would have been too hardened to ever receive him back, and the son may never have expected or wanted the father to do so.
By bearing the agony and pain of the son’s sin himself, instead of taking revenge, instead of paying the son back by inflicting pain on him, the father kept the door open in the relationship.
The father was willing to suffer for the sin of the child, so that someday reconciliation would be possible.
3) what difference it makes for us.
First, it means that whether we are irreligious, free-wheeling, “younger brother” types or moral, religious “elder brother” types, we have a problem with what Augustine calls “inordinate love” or idols of the heart.
Second, and this is the radical alternative to self discovery or being moral conformists to earn God favour….
It means that our Lord has done for us what the father in the parable did for his son.
- When God came into this world, we would have expected him to come in wrath, to appear and drive us out with blows. But he did not. He didn’t come with a sword in his hand, but with nails in his hands. He didn’t come to bring judgment, but to bear our judgment.
- Jesus went to the cross in weakness, and there, voluntarily, his life was literally torn apart.
- And for his only property left, his garment, they cast lots. But he did it so that, when we repent, like the younger son, forgiveness and reconciliation is now available.
And how does this help us with our “disordered loves”? It means there is real, true forgiveness for these loves of the old flesh in us. Our guilt is dealt with by Jesus’ blood.
When we receive those stunning word, “I forgive you all your sin”, when we remember that we were cleansed and filled with the Spirit in baptism; when we taste that meal for the forgiveness of sin, when we hear that word or love or that prayer of encouragement from a fellow sibling in the community of Jesus, we see the absolute beauty of what Jesus has done for us and it captures our hearts. Our heart is captivated by him….
As we receive what he’s done for you, it makes the worst times bearable and the best times leave-able.