He was dead and has come back to life!

 

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isa. 53:7a). When it comes to God’s grace and salvation through Jesus Christ, there is no exception. Jesus rejectss nobody but welcomes everyone who comes to hear him. However, religious leaders at the time of Jesus did not like Jesus’ fellowship with other sinners, even though they, too, were sinners. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law accused Jesus of having fellowship with “sinners” and tax collectors.  Knowing that they were trapped by sin and trapped in religion, Jesus told them parables to help them understand the spiritual truth. In Luke 15, Jesus told three parables pointing the same direction toward the message of repentance and forgiveness. Today, we are going to focus on the third parable, widely known as the prodigal son. Jesus redefines the meaning of life and death differently than what we are used to perceiving. You’ve probably heard the story and contemplated it many times. Its message is foundational to our Christian understanding of how our lives reflect heaven on earth.

There was a man who had two sons. The younger son wanted to get an inheritance from his father. He was probably in his late teens. He got tired of staying home under his father’s authority doing tedious work every day. He did not lack anything, but life seemed too boring to stay in his father’s house. One day, he said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” In a Jewish context, the younger son would receive half of what his elder brother received (Deut. 21:17). But he was not supposed to ask for his share of the inheritance while his father was alive. To do so would have been similar to saying, “I wish you were dead.” No father would be happy to hear such a demand from his child. Nevertheless, knowing what the consequences of his request would be, the father gave the younger son his share.

Soon after the younger son departed from his father’s house to a foreign land, he squandered his inheritance and spent all the money in wild living. As the time of pleasure came to an end, a great famine swept through the land, and he began to starve.  Nobody was around him anymore. He looked for a job, but none was offered except for feeding pigs.  This son of a wealthy Jewish man ended up working for a Gentile in a foreign land and caring for swine, a job of great dishonour of anyone, especially Jews. One day, he became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good. His situation was worse than that of an unclean animal. He could sink no lower. When he finally came to his senses, he became genuinely sorry for what he had done to his father. He said to himself, ‘At home, even the hired servants have enough food to spare, and here I am dying of hunger!  So, he finally made the most crucial decision in his life that he would return to his father. I will go home to my father and say,

Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.

This is the most concise prayer of confession that Jesus teaches for a sinner to make. He is terribly sorry for his sin against both heaven and his father. There is no arrogance nor justification for his actions in his confession. He comes with an attitude of true humility, repentance, self-denial. This short, simple, and heart-breaking confession was so powerful that it generates a strong signal, faster than the speed of light, sent off to his father’s heart everywhere in the universe for immediate rescue.  No wonder the father saw him while he was still a long way off. Landowners in Middle Eastern culture did not run. They would not greet a rebellious son this way. But this particular father shames himself with such behaviour. In running to his son, the father shows once again that he only cares about his son. The father threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son proceeds with his confession precisely that he had prepared:

Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.

But the father calls his servant to bring a clean set of clothes and dress his son. He orders the servants to put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  “Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let us have a feast and celebrate it. My son, my son, is here – he was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!” Here, Jesus redefines the spiritual meaning of life and death. The son has come from the lostness of the sinner to the complete restoration of sonship again. The joy of having a repentant son is no different from celebrating the joy of having the dead come back to life. The angels of heaven also celebrate the joy of the sinner’s recovery from repentance on earth. As we can see in the story, the father is not waiting to judge his son but ready to take him with love and forgiveness. The central theme of repentance and forgiveness in human history runs through the prodigal son’s story.

Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came home, he found out that his brother had come back. The older son became angry and refused to go in because he wasn’t happy that his younger brother had wasted his legacy and returned home safe and sound. He refused to join the celebration for his brother. He is so upset that he refers to his own brother, “this son of yours,” who has squandered your property with prostitutes. He was so preoccupied with self-righteousness and equity that he refused to go into the house to join the feast of the resurrection of his brother. For him, the father was unappreciative of his lifelong labour, and that was not fair. Even though the older son is self-righteous and self-directed, the father has compassion for him too. He comes out to the older son and tries to calm him down. The father tries to comfort him by explaining that everything belongs to him while he is with him. But the older son fails to understand the absolute joy is not based on the reward party but based on the restoration, salvation and resurrection of the lost ones.  The older brother who had been on the inside is now on the outside, whereas the younger brother who had been on the outside is now on the inside. What a change this is! Jesus’ words echoe again, “the last shall be the first, and the first shall be the last.”

There are two critical points of spiritual truth in this parable that Jesus wants us to understand. First, repentance is an individual event taking place locally, but its effect is universal. In the earlier parable of lost sheep in the same chapter, Jesus said, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent”(7). The joy of “lost and found” on earth is a celebratory event in heaven. Resurrection means complete restoration in the father’s house. The lost son regained his sonship without making any payment or sacrifice. It is utterly amazing that his father accepted his penitent son without asking for any form of payment. This is God’s grace.

Secondly, the older brother represents a self-righteous leader or a person such as the Pharisee and scribe who claims to serve God but cannot love and forgive the sinner. Jesus points out that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law should not be biased in associating with certain people only because God loves everyone. There is no condemnation in the father’s house. Jesus wants them not to be trapped in religion but to understand God’s will for all people. We, too, are often separated from God in our church life. Nevertheless, we do not often admit our sins against God and other brothers and sisters. In such a case, religion becomes an invisible prison in which we are trapped. Jesus came to save us not only from sin but also from religion. In that sense, the older son also turned away from his father and became a lost son. The younger son was dead and has risen to new life through repentance. The older son has yet to recognize that he was dead spiritually. Reconciliation includes the restoration of the relationship with God the Father and the restoration of the relationship between individuals in the community. We do not know if the older brother eventually comes in to celebrate or not. The story is left hanging as to what happens to the older brother. I wonder that is because we are invited to end it with our stories.

My story:

I remember an eternal moment that I took as an invitation to rewrite my story.

During the Christmas break in 1996, I was one of the very few international students left at the CMBC residence. Everyone else had gone to visit family for Christmas break. One of my friends in town came and saw me staying alone in my room. So, he invited me out to have buffalo wings at a restaurant with a few other friends. I found out that they were just hot spicy chicken wings. The restaurant owner had a contest that whoever could eat 8-10 buffalo wings without a drink would get a big bottle of Pepsi (or Coke) as a prize.  I liked spicy food so I thought I could handle them no problem!  I ate quite a few wings straight away before returning to the residence that night. But after I got back, I got so sick that night. I had severe stomach pain in the days after, which developed into all kinds of cold symptoms.  On Dec 31, 1996, I felt so sick that I thought I was going to die. I thought that was how I would end my life since it was the last day of the year. I fell asleep and had a weird dream. And I died in that dream. I felt that my body was transported through dark medium and arrived at a big gate where there was a gatekeeper standing. He did not look like an angel. Instead, his appearance was daunting. The gatekeeper asked me what I had done on earth. I was to respond to his question to enter the gate. I could say that I had worked hard and did many things in my life. However, I could not say a word out of my mouth. My tongue was too bound to speak. I could not help myself, but lost. I wished I could have another chance to live life again so that I could bring some stories. Thankfully, I woke up the following day and found that my illness was gone.

The story of the prodigal son reminds me of that moment I took as an invitation to rewrite my story. And it’s been 25 years since then. I wonder what kind of life story would be remembered for me and for you at our ends. Which son do you think you are in this story? If you identify with one of these brothers, how would you end your story in the book of the prodigal sons? The prodigal son’s story gives us a hint as to what the future of our own reports could look like. May the Lord guide your way through the remaining chapters of your life as his beloved child.  Amen.