A Happy Ending
Written by Ed Allen
Sunday, 04 April 2010 09:00
A look at three surprises that give definition to our faith.
Based in part on the book The Prodigal God by Tim Keller.
A. Perhaps the most famous of Jesus’ stories.
The key to understanding Jesus’ message in this story is to understand the 3 great surprises he inserts. Grappling with these surprises not only shows us what a good story-teller Jesus is, but it also helps us unwrap the incredible truth at the heart of it.
Passage: Luke 15
B. Before we unwrap the parable, let’s start with a detour:
Ecclesiastes... everything is meaningless
This book is cool because it asks hard, real questions – comes to wrong conclusions but asks real questions little wonder we go to extraordinary lengths to find meaning and connection in our own lives Jesus’ story gives us the two main ways we try to find meaning and connection. And at the end we’ll look at a third way – which is way of life offered by Jesus and we’ll find out that this is the real way.
C. The first way of finding meaning and connection are represented by the younger brother in Jesus’ story.
1. These are the younger brother’s slogans:
- Find myself, do my own thing
- discover the real me
- do what I want to do
- don’t tie me down
- don’t fence me in
- I’m going to grab all of the life I can get my hands on and live it to the fullest
- I won’t judge you – what right do I have to do that – just don’t judge me
- Ff it’s your thing that’s cool
- you do your thing and I’ll do mine
2. The younger brother story
3. Obviously, the father in the parable represents God.
So think about what it says that Jesus makes the God character in his story so gullible; he’s manipulated, he’s deceived by his own child.
4. Maybe, or maybe not.
Maybe you and I should be very careful about what we ask God for. Maybe the father gives in to the son’s request because He knows it’s the only shot He has at really having His son’s heart.
5. Maybe God gives us what we want at times only to let us find out that what we wanted is not really what we wanted.
Sometimes, our way of finding meaning and connection do not end up giving us meaning and connection.
6. So the father divides his property and gives the younger son his share.
The younger son goes off into the world to do his thing. And while doing his thing, he has a great time; he rocks the whole pleasure spectrum. But eventually … he exhausts all of his resources and is reduced to living in squalor.
7. At this point, the younger brother realizes the terrible mistake he has made.
He realizes the folly of his pleasure-driven, self-salvation project.
8. So he decides to return to his father and do penance.
So keep in mind Keller’s notion that the younger brother is living out a self-salvation project. Because when the younger brother realizes that he didn’t get what he wanted by pursuing just what he wanted … he tries a different approach. He decides that he must earn his father’s love and respect. He must pay for what he has done and earn his way back into the family.
8. And you know what, this sounds noble at first.
It sounds right. Then we realize it’s just another take on the younger brother saving himself.
D. I’m reminded of (Ephesians 2:8-9). We do not find satisfying meaning and connection by selfish pursuit of our own wants and desires NOR do we find it by earning it, we cannot earn it.
God gives us meaning and connection – real meaning and connection – as a gift, but we have to say yes.
- There is someone here today who has abandoned God and needs to say yes. There’s someone here who feels like a wayward son. You have tried your own self-salvation project and it has not worked. This may be the time for you to say yes to God. To accept His terms. To receive His gift.
- Knowing that real meaning and connection come to us as a gift brings us to Jesus’ second great surprise. Surprise #2: the father short circuits the son’s self salvation project. He sees the son at a distance and he runs to meet him. He cuts short his son’s rehearsed speech. He won’t allow the son’s talk of penance. This is not a love that can be earned. It does not need to be.
- The father orders his servants to throw a party. He welcomes the son back into the family. This is surprise number two: when an irresponsible, profligate, reckless and undeserving sinner comes to God – God doesn’t stand in judgment waiting to hear just the right amount of contrition and see just the right amount of groveling. When an irresponsible, profligate, reckless, and undeserving sinner comes to God – God throws a party!
- God’s aim is not to judge us. God’s aim is to fills us with life, to connect us to himself, to fill us with a sense of meaning and purpose. God’s attitude toward us is dominated by love.
- But let’s not forget that God’s love comes at a great cost.
E. This party is a very costly affair.
- The fattened calf … the signette ring (family seal), the robe (Sunday go to meetin clothes) … Probably invited all of the neighbors. Does not worry about what the neighbors would be thinking. Does not wait for the son to prove himself. Think of the level of forgiveness expressed by the father here. And think of the cost of the whole affair.
- So who do you think paid for this party? The father of course. Shows how generous he is. But not only the father. The older brother also has to pay for this party, because all of the remaining family assets belong to him. No wonder he’s mad, right?
- I did everything right. I stayed with you. I obeyed all your rules and what does it get me? You waste my inheritance on this son of yours who’s been off spending his own part of the inheritance on prostitutes.
- Those of us who hear this story today may not be offended enough at what Jesus is saying here. Jesus is talking to highly observant, pro-life Catholics; he’s talking to tea-party, give-my-kids all the right opportunities Bible churchers. He’s talking to the most religious among us. He’s talking to the people who are trying very, very hard to live their lives the right way. Sure, maybe we can be a little judgmental at times, maybe we can be a little critical, but we’re the ones trying to obey the rules and get it right.
- And it seems like Jesus … is telling us that all of this effort is nothing more than a second fruitless way of finding meaning and connection. So here it is; this is what the older brother is thinking: I’ll be good and do everything just right, exactly according to the rules, and that way life will work just like I want it to. That way, life owes me smooth sailing. My parents, or my boss or God have to give me the right stuff because I’ve done everything that was asked of me.
- After all, doesn’t God want us to be good?
- Of course, He does, but our goodness does not earn us any points with God. He’s not after goodness in us. He’s after relationship with us – and when we have relationship with Him goodness naturally follows – not a goodness that is motivated by earning brownie points – a free goodness offered gladly that flows naturally from who we are.
- You see, the party offered by the father in Jesus’ story … this is the happiest day of the father’s life. If the older son really loved the father, he would be rejoicing – for the father if not for his own brother. But he can’t. He can’t rejoice. This whole thing doesn’t make any sense to him. It doesn’t fit with his way of finding meaning and connection. He must feel … lost.
- “Life doesn’t work that way, Dad. You have to earn what you get and you earn it by being gooder than other people.”
F. This brings us to surprise number 3: the story ends with the older brother out in the cold;
He does not go in and join the party. The party here represents being with God. It represents having a relationship with God. The older brother, the one who has done everything right, is on the outside and that’s where Jesus leaves us!
- Read verses 25-32
- This is older brother spirituality. This is the older brother pathway toward meaning and connection. It gets everything right except the main thing. It misses the main point. It misses a real connection with the Father. As we listen to the older brother respond to his father we realize he doesn’t really love his father. Just like the younger brother, he loves the father’s stuff. He just has a different approach to getting it. He also engages in a self salvation project. It’s called being good. But this project is not any more successful than the younger brother’s self salvation project.
- Blue Like Jazz pages 79-81 – Grace makes Xnity different
What this story needs is what every truly satisfying story has: it needs a happy ending.
How do we get it? How do we get a happy ending here? And more importantly, how do we get a happy ending for ourselves?
- Just as in Jesus’ story, to get our happy ending we need to experience God’s initiating love. Just like the father ran out to embrace the younger son and went out to reason with the older son, God meets us. In exactly the way that we need Him to meet us – God meets us. And we need to say yes to His invitation.
- Secondly, we need to say no to our own self-salvation project. Whenever you say yes to one thing you have to say no to something else. In the case of the younger son, he has to say no to a long list of pleasure-seeking mistakes. But that’s not enough. The older brother doesn’t have such a list. But he still has to say no. In his case, and in the younger brother’s case, they have to say no to their way of thinking, their pattern of life, their way of finding meaning and connection.
- Finally, both sons – and all of us – need someone to pay the price for the feast. Restoration always costs someone something. We need someone to pay that cost because we can’t do it.
- I love Tim Keller’s observation about the end of this story. He reminds us that what this story needed was a true older brother. In ancient near eastern culture it would have been the job of the true older brother to go after his younger brother – both to rescue the younger brother and to honor the family name. That’s what we need.
- Keller pages 81-84
- Whatever form of finding meaning and connection we have pursued, whatever form of lostness we find ourselves in, we need a true older brother. That’s how we get our happy ending.
- Jesus is that true older brother. He’s the one that paid the cost for our festival. He sought us out and made a way for us to be restored to the family and brought back to relationship with God.