The Lost Son

Finally, we come to the last story in Luke 15, commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son, or as I like to think of it, the parable of the lost son.  For again it ends with the theme of the lost discovered.  When the lost son is “found”, a party ensues and the father explains the celebration to the older brother with these words, “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” (Lk 15:32). 

Let’s go back to the start of the story.  A wealthy landowner had two sons.  The younger son requested his share of the inheritance from his father so he could set out on his own.  The father agreed and the younger son took the money and headed off to a far away country.  After squandering his inheritance on loose living, the son ended up working on a hog farm in a time of famine and was in the process of starving to death.  When the son came to his senses, he said, “My father’s servants are treated so much better than this.  I will go to my father.  I will throw myself on his mercy.  I will offer to become a servant and work off the money I wasted.”  So the son returned home.

Meanwhile back at the family farm, Jesus paints a picture of a lovesick father waiting and yearning for his lost son.  When the son returns, the father sees him from afar, is overwhelmed with compassion, runs to embrace him, kisses him, and announces a feast in his honor.  He will have nothing to do with his son’s plan to pay off the debt, but instead proclaims to all who will hear, “Rejoice with me.  My son who was as good as dead has come back to life.  My son who was lost has been found.” (Lk 15:23-24).

Let’s stop the narritive right here and say, “Wait just a minute.”  Are we to believe that after squandering his father’s money and inflicting the emotional pain of leaving without a trace, that all is forgiven?  What about working off the debt?  What about some probationary period to make sure the son’s change of heart is genuine?  And is Jesus’ parable really suggesting that the attitude of this father – celebrating his son’s return with forgiveness and no thought of repayment – is a picture of how God, the Father, accepts us?

That, my friends, is the absolute unadulterated beauty of the Christian message!  When we change our minds about Jesus Christ and embrace His message, all is forgiven.  There is no probationary period.  There is no “good works” requirement of being better than my neighbor, giving to charity, or performing any acts of penance.  To our calculating and cynical minds this is too good to be true.  That is the uniqueness of the Christian message.  And this free gift is being offered to you right now.

When you strip away the media caricature of Christianity, when you strip away the uninformed biases we have heard all of our lives about Christianity, at the heart of the Christian message is the story of a lovesick Father rejoicing in and accepting without reservation the person who embraces His message of good news.  And the good news is this:  Jesus Christ died for your sin problem and offers to set you free from its penalty and its power.

What sin problem?  In our human condition, in our default mode, all of us are guilty before a holy God of breaking His moral code.  Like the compassionate father’s offer of forgiveness and celebration to his son, God has a forgiveness and celebration offer for you.  His offer is summarized best in this single verse from His book, the Bible, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 6:23).

On the one hand, we have earned death as a wage for our sin.  This is the human condition.  We were born into it and have confirmed it by our sinful actions.  But in contrast to what we have earned, God offers eternal life as a gift.  The means to receive the gift is through Christ Jesus; by embracing His message of good news.  Good news for the needy.  Good news for the lost.  Good news for the oppressed.  Good news for sin’s captives.  Good news for you and me.

If the idea of embracing the good news message of Jesus Christ is new to you, let me offer you this.  When Jesus came to earth, He initiated a new arrangement between God and man.  His message of release from the penalty of our sin was totally founded upon His death, as a substitute for each of us, on a cross.  Under God’s old arrangement, the default arrangement for the whole human race, we stand guilty of breaking His moral code.  But that all goes by the wayside when we agree to God’s new arrangement by acknowledging our guilt, accepting the free gift of Christ’s death in our place, and embracing what Jesus says as true.  If you wish to say “I’m in” with this new arrangement, tell God in prayer about your decision.  Then, talk to someone about it.  If you would like to know more about God’s offer or talk with us about a decision you’ve made, please drop us a line at our contact page.

Good News for the Lost

Remember the context of Jesus’ first coming?  His contemporaries viewed the coming kingdom as a national deliverance from foreign oppression and personal deliverance for the righteous.  Jesus turned that idea on its head and proclaimed deliverance for the needy; the sick, the oppressed, the sinner.  The Jewish leaders expected judgment for the sinners, not redemption.  When Jesus ate with those considered “sinners,” it meant acceptance and recognition in their culture.  This coupled with His announcement that the kingdom had come to “sinners” led to many a protest from the religious leaders.  (See The Parables of Jesus by David Wenham for a longer explanation of the comparison between the self-righteousness of the religious leaders and the self-recognized spiritual poverty of the “sinners.”)

Jesus’ three parables of the lost things, from Luke 15, are given in this context.  “Now all the tax-gatherers and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him.  And both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’  And He told them this parable, saying,…” (Lk 15:1-3).  In Luke chapter 15, Jesus answers the protest of the religious leaders with three stories about lost things which illustrate that the very thing they were accusing Jesus of is exactly why He came; to rescue the needy.

In the story of the lost sheep (Lk 15:3-7), the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine and looks diligently for the one lost sheep until it is found.  He then “calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’  I [Jesus] tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous who need no repentance.” (Lk 15:6-7).  Notice the words “sinner who repents.”  Coming to Christ is an act of faith and repentance that starts with recognizing our need.  There is no repentance in the righteous ninety-nine, not because they are righteous in the justified sense, but because they think themselves righteous and in no need of repentance.  There is no rejoicing because they are not coming.  They do not recognize their need.  Not only is Christ’s message good news to the needy, but it brings joy to the shepherd, Jesus, when the lost are found.

The short story of the lost coin (Lk 15:8-10) again highlights the joy of finding that which was lost.  “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’  In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Lk 15:9-10).  The point of this story, as in the one above, is the joy that results when the lost have been found, when the sinner repents.  The focus of these two parables is less on the lost and more on the one doing the looking.  The concern and action by the shepherd and the woman demonstrate that the lost are a priority in Jesus’ ministry.

Finally, we come to the last story in Luke chapter 15.  And as with the others, it is an answer to the Pharisees charge in Luke 15:2 that Jesus welcomes “sinners.”  This is the parable of the lost son and continues the “lost things” theme of the chapter.  However, due to its length and incredible detail about the love of the Father for the lost, we will save our discussion for next time.

Good News for the Needy

The gospel writers often described the coming of the kingdom, as proclaimed by Jesus Himself from day one of His ministry, as good news.  “Jesus was going throughout all Galilee teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom…” (Mt 4:23).  To whom is the coming kingdom good news and how do we get in on the good news? 

Jesus consistently taught that the coming kingdom was good news to the needy; and the requirement of its citizens to acknowledge their need.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit (i.e. those who recognize their spiritual poverty), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3).  Good news for the needy is a recurring theme in Jesus’ explanation of the kingdom of heaven.

“And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:  ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer.  The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other people:  swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer.  I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.”  But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up His eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ ” (Lk 18:9-14).

Who went home “justified,” in right standing with God?  The sinner.  Why?  Because he recognized his spiritual poverty.  We see over and over in the gospels that the kingdom message is good news for the needy, the lost, the sinner.  And in a way, it is bad news for the self-righteous.  Jesus chief complaint in his interactions with the scribes and Pharisees was their religious pride, their self-righteousness.

The first line of the story really sets the stage for Jesus’ point.  There is nothing in the coming kingdom announcement for the self-righteous.  It adds nothing to what they believe they have already obtained.  But it means everything to the lost who bring no self-righteousness to the table, only their need.  The arrival of God’s kingdom, announced and initiated by Jesus Christ, is indeed good news for the needy.

The Mustard Seed and the Mustard Tree

Another kingdom parable is the story of the mustard seed.  Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds; but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” (Mt 13:31-32).  Again this illustration may have been designed by Jesus to assure those who had trouble reconciling the tiny beginnings of God’s kingdom ushered in by Christ (a mustard seed is about a millimeter in diameter) with the powerful and explosive revolution they were expecting from their Messiah. 

But as it turns out this parable is actually a prophecy that we see coming true throughout the church age to this very day.  The kingdom that began at Christ’s first coming essentially started in Acts 1 with a group of 120 people (Acts 1:15).  A tiny mustard seed in the big picture of the world’s past and present population.  From this mustard seed beginning, the worldwide church has grown incredibly to a number that cannot be counted.

Describing the kingdom of God as becoming a “tree for the birds to nest in” ties it into the Old Testament description of mighty kingdoms (Ez 17:23; 31:6; Dan 4:12).  In its currently quiet way, the church has become a mighty kingdom.  Its true size will eventually be known at the second coming of Christ.  Like the parable of the automatic kingdom, this story should encourage us when our ministry work appears to us the size of a mustard seed.  We should not despair at small beginnings, but see our work as a leaf or branch in the growing mustard tree; the universal and growing church of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Automatic Kingdom

Another parable that cues us in to the nature and workings of the kingdom of God is found in Mark 4:26-29 and again begins with, “The kingdom of God is like…”  In this case the kingdom is like “a man who casts seed upon the ground; and goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts up and grows – how, he himself does not know.  The earth produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head.  But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

This parable gives rise to our idea of the kingdom of God being a secret kingdom.  To His first century hearers, it must have appeared that all this talk of Jesus initiating the kingdom of God was not accompanied by action.  After all, Herod was still king.  The Romans still occupied Palestine.  And Jesus rebuffed any attempts to be made king in an earthly sense.  We may feel the same way today.  Why don’t we see more evidence in the world of God’s kingdom at work?

The fact is that God’s kingdom, though clearly operating on a world-wide scale, is a secret kingdom.  Just like the farmer in Jesus’ story had no idea how or even if the seed was growing, we may feel like the evidence of a growing kingdom is not very obvious.  In fact, if God is represented by the farmer as the planter, we may feel like He is following the farmer’s example of doing relatively little work while the seed is growing.  The words “goes to bed at night and gets up by day” suggest the farmer is not doing anything to make the seed grow.  He is just going about his normal business of waiting.  But God is working.  After all, unbeknownst to the farmer, God is growing the seed.

Notice how the seed is growing; “by itself.” (vs 28).  “By itself” is translated from the Greek word, automatos; the Greek root of our English word, automatic.  We are all familiar with the word “automatic” used to describe things that seem to run “by itself”, like an automatic transmission or automatic dishwasher.  The message here is that the kingdom starts as a seed.  Seed is vulnerable.  The beginning of God’s kingdom is vulnerable.  Jesus is a zygote in His mother’s womb.  With such a small start, how does the seed grow?  How does the kingdom grow?  According to this parable, it grows automatically.  And we know from the rest of the New Testament that it is God causing the growth that appears to be automatic.  This fits Jesus’ description of the church, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overpower it.” (Mt 16:18).

As with the parable of the wheat and the weeds, this should bring us great encouragement.  When it does not appear to us that things are happening fast enough, when evidence of God’s growing kingdom is blurry, rest assured that God is at work.  Growth is happening, “the seed sprouts up and grows…first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head.” (vs 27-28).  And similar to the wheat and the weeds, there is a harvest coming when, “he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (vs 29).

Now with God working automatically, do His kingdom citizens do nothing?  No!  We partner with God.  “What then is Apollos?  And what is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.  So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” (I Cor 3:5-7).  We plant the seed.  We water the seed.  We dive in wherever God leads us to be involved.

But God is the one who accomplishes the work.  We are not responsible to make it happen.  This can be such a challenge in ministry.  We want to see something happen.  We want to see something big happen.  But there are no Messiah complexes here.  The pressure is off us to make it happen.  Our role is the incredible opportunity to come alongside God and join Him in His work.  God is growing His secret kingdom.  Won’t you join Him in His work?