(Over the next few weeks, we will be releasing manuscripts from a series by Rev. Shane L. Bishop called “Re:member the Prodigal)
Text: Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32
We are going to spend the next several weeks exploring Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. This story only appears in Luke. Luke never personally knew Jesus. He was a missionary, a companion of Paul, a physician, a Greek Gentile, a scholar and a biographer. Luke is the author of both Luke and Acts, which is really a part one and part two of the same story. When people ask me where to start reading in the Bible, I always tell them to read Luke and then Acts. Luke was probably written somewhere between A.D. 62 and A.D. 69 and since Luke records the imprisonment of Paul that occurred in 62 A.D. and does not mention the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
For the purpose of this series we need to define three concepts:
Sin: The Greek word translated sin is harmartia which is a competitive archery term meaning to shoot at a target and miss the mark. Keep in mind that sin is defined as missing the mark, not as doing bad things.
Remember: To put back together. Antonym of dismember. Remembering here is a metaphor for salvation; God created humanity in wholeness, our sin dismembered us and Jesus came to remember us.
Prodigal: A squanderer. The tragic failure of an individual to capitalize on opportunity presented.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was reading from the prophet Isaiah behind the pulpit of the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord has come upon me, for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” After he had read this passage he boldly declared, “The Scripture has come true today before your very eyes.” With this statement, Jesus had taken a Scripture reading and turned it into a personal mission statement! By the time his sermon ends, the hometown crowd turns on him, forms a mob, drags him outside the village and attempts to throw him off a cliff; so much for opening night. In the aftermath, Jesus kicks off his ministry with a strategy of healing in some high profile contexts and then when the crowds gather, he mixes in some incredibly radical teaching. By the time we get to Luke 12, Jesus is driving a hard line and controversy and division are following him closely. Luke 15 tell us that Jesus’ polarizing teachings are drawing a most unlikely audience that was made up of two parts sinners and one part saints.
The Audience: In the ancient Jewish religious world there were People of the Law, religious folks, and People of the Land, non-religious folks. We divide things in much the same way when we say Christians and non-Christians or churched and un-churched. The idea was simple; People of the Law were good people who were going to dance in heaven and People of the Land were bad people who would burn in hell.
People of the Land
Tax Collectors were Jews who worked for the occupying Romans and their job was to collect taxes for their oppressors and from their countrymen. The problem was that tax rates were not public information so tax collectors often charged more than people were obliged to pay, sent Caesar his share and pocketed the rest. They were exploiters of their own people, they were rich and they were hated. There were tax collectors in the crowd that day.
Notorious Sinners were the people who drank too much, rejected Jewish morality, profited from various and sundry forms of depravity; made livings on the wrong side of the law and generally had friends in low places. They made their living and found their pleasures in the seedy underside of the predominately religious culture. They were probably free during the day to listen to Jesus because their affairs were conducted at night. The People of the Land were not objects of evangelism or compassion by the People of the Law but seen as dry wood for the flames of hell and the sooner they started burning the better.
People of the Law
Pharisees were a strict order of Judaism who thrived in a three hundred year window that included the time of Christ. The term literally means separatists and they were a group who by their piety, morality, dress and attention to the tiniest aspects of the Law separated themselves from the whole of the culture, even the very religious people. They were at odds with the other leading sect of Judaism the Sadducees over any number of things and especially at odds with Jesus who honestly did everything he could to aggravate them. Though we are not exactly sure what drew the People of the Land to Jesus, the People of the Law came to criticize. Their chief complaint was that Jesus was not just associating but even socializing with people of the worst sort. They knew this because they were people of the best sort and Jesus never hung out with them. It is in direct response to these criticisms that Jesus offers three stories about sheep, coins and sons that give an account of the pain of things lost and the joy of things found.
The Lost Sheep is a rural story and in it a small time shepherd with a flock of 100 sheep has one wander away. Shockingly, he leaves the flock unprotected, finds the lost sheep and triumphantly carries it home on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he does not run to buy a sheep shock collar, send him to obedience school or put his sheep in time out, rather he throws a party so his neighbors can rejoice with him. To this Jesus adds, “Heaven will be happier over one lost sinner who returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and have not strayed away.”
The Lost Coin: The next story is an urban story in which a woman has ten valuable coins and loses one. She takes a lamp, looks in every corner of the house and does not sleep until that coin is found. When she finds it, she calls in her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her because the lost has been found. Jesus adds, “In the same way there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.” In both of these stories Jesus illustrates that the pain of losing a thing should be more than eclipsed by the joy of finding a thing in a heart right with God. Now we get to Jesus’ final story in which we find two more lost things.
This story illustrates that while there are a million ways to miss God, there is only one way to find him and that is through Jesus Christ. As we revisit Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4: 18-19 we find some important things about his ministry we have to know as we begin this series:
- The Spirit of the Lord was upon him We can plan worship services, play great music, prepare stirring sermons, build massive structures, take huge offerings and do great good but it really doesn’t matter if the Spirit of the Lord isn’t with us. God’s presence is the single most important thing in a church. Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees was that their version of religion was wrung so tightly that it squeezed every drop of spirit, love and compassion out of them. We are all full of something and Jesus was full of the Spirit of the Lord.
- He was appointed to preach Good News to the poor Here Jesus declares his calling to the people the Pharisees didn’t want called at all. They wanted people who came in functional, cleaned up, looking good and with fat checkbooks. Jesus came for those who most desperately needed the hope God sent him to offer and some of these folks had checkered pasts, messy lives, lots of problems and if they ever had any money, they didn’t have it now. The good news in Luke was that Jesus was coming for those everybody else would have been happy to leave behind. The Pharisees clearly did not believe in a God who transformed lives…I do.
- He was sent to proclaim the time of the Lord’s favor had come Here was the newsflash: Jesus was coming for turncoats and drunks, not just for holy rollers. Jesus was coming for those who had squandered their chance for the abundant life he created for them. God’s favor was now upon these “publicans and sinners” who had previously, and probably deservedly, received no ones favor before. The reason a lot of churches don’t evangelize is because they are afraid of who may come. If Jesus was coming for the People of the Land, it is clear the People of the Law would be none too happy about it!
But shockingly, there is another side to this parabolic coin. Jesus implied the Pharisees, the most religious of the most religious, the holy rollers of their day, were also squanders. They had traded a personal relationship with God for the stifling legalism of tightly laced, strait jacket and mean spirited religion. Where the People of the Land had missed the mark in one direction, the People of the Law had missed the mark in the other. Jesus was claiming that the turncoats, drunks and holy rollers were all missing the bull’s eye. We can miss God’s mark by failing to be moral or by failing to care about the lives and souls of the immoral. We can miss God’s mark by our trespasses or by failing to forgive those who have trespassed against us. We can miss God’s mark by failing to be pious or by failing to offer the witness of God’s Good News to those who are not pious. Romans 6:23 says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” What Jesus’ peculiar audience had in common was that they had all found a way to miss God. How they would respond to that reality would determine their fate. Stories like this were why people tried to throw Jesus off of cliffs and why they would one day nail him to a cross.
Next week we are going to turn the spotlight on the younger brother in the parable. He was selfish and inconsiderate, restless, insolent and decadent. Finally, he leaves home with a restless heart, a pocket full of dollars and a head full of rock. He sets out to find is own destiny away from the expectations of his father, the disapproval of his brother, the core values of his upbringing and especially far away from God. But you all don’t know anyone like that…let us pray.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, A Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, is the Senior Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois.