Sermon 2: The Son Returns - Rev. J. L. van Popta
Scripture Reading: Psalm 51
Text: Luke 15:14-20
Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ
When children, infants grow, they soon are confronted with mirrors. Mother changes them on the counter and then holds the babe in front of the mirror. At first, the child does not recognize himself. He is just curious about those people over there. He sees two: one who looks like mom, and a little stranger smiling and waving and babbling. And then suddenly the expression changes. The child, the toddler, in a moment understands. He sees—not a stranger—but himself. He sees in the stranger one who acts in similar ways. In his little mind, he says, "That’s me!"
And so it is with parables. Especially I think, in this parable. We often only listen to it as an interesting tale. A story about a bad son, with whom we have very little to do. He is a rather irresponsible fellow. Certainly, he is like many we have come to know over the years. Perhaps last time you were thinking of someone who, like that younger son, left home to seek his fame and fortune apart from the family home apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we might even feel a little sorry for him, although we figure that at his lowest, he gets what he deserves. But yet, when all is said and done, there seems to be a happy ending, and that pleases us because we like happy endings. And as we hear the parable we think that perhaps there is some similarity and familiarity with what we are hearing. Then suddenly as you hear the story, as you listen to and understand the parable, you say in amazement, "It’s me. There I am. That irresponsible son, that’s me."
This parable of the Lord Jesus was not told to entertain but to educate. And not to educate us about others, about other parents’ wayward sons, but to cut to the core of our own being. To the heart of each of us. To teach us about our own relationship with the heavenly Father. To teach us of Christ who came to seek the lost and to save sinners. When we carefully gaze into the parables of Jesus, we suddenly see ourselves. And the father is the Father in heaven who waits for us. It is Jesus Christ himself who welcomes us. Stand here quietly with me and look carefully in the mirror of God’s Word. I invite you to gaze with me into this mirror that the Lord Jesus Christ sets in front of us and see yourself.
I proclaim the Word of God as it comes to us in the Lord’s parable with this theme.
The son, having lost everything, returns.
- 1. He lost himself
- 2. He lost his son ship
- 3. Finding home
1. He lost himself
The young man spends his wealth wildly. He lives as one of the lonely people… where do they all come from? He spends his money wildly. The capital he received from his father is wasted. He used, and abused, and squandered what his father had given him. There he is, in that far off land. He went far, because if there was anything that reminded him of his childhood home, it would cramp his style. When the son left home, he was not just leaving father behind. He was saying, "No" to the father. This is in a sense, Adam’s rebellion: his rejection of the God who loved him; in whose love he was created; by whose love he was sustained. It is Adam’s rebellion, which placed him outside the garden. It is mankind’s rebellion, our rebellion, far from the tree of life.
The young man left home with pride and money determined to live his own life. Far from father, and family, and community. Now he has lost everything. Pride, wealth, community and family. When he had wealth and spent it in wild living we can imagine that he did it with his new found friends, who enjoyed his wealth. But now, no one in his surroundings cares one whit for him. They only noticed him, this stranger, when he had money. But when he now has no money left to spend, no gifts left to give, no parties at his place, he stopped existing for them. He is a foreigner, a stranger, a vagabond, a rootless person, a visitor with no family in a distant land. Real loneliness sets in. This happens with the realization that we have lost all sense of having things in common. Poverty has come upon him like an armed man. Then, to make things even worse, a serious famine strikes the land. There is no rain. Food is scarce. The economy grinds to a halt. Employment is hard to find. Here is this lone Jew in a far land, without money or friends. He would be especially vulnerable in a great famine. And he began to be in need. So he begins to look for work.
He joins himself to a Gentile, to work for him. Here this young Jewish nobleman attaches himself to the household of a Gentile. This, of course, is a reference to what we read in the first verse of this chapter. The tax collectors had hired themselves out to the Romans to do their work. They were the collaborators, the Quislings, the NSBers, the Benedict Arnolds of the Jewish world. Traitors! Unclean, vile sinners. These are the ones who so offended the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. These are the ones who, when Jesus ate with them, robbed the Lord of credibility in the eyes of the leaders of the people. This young man in the parable hired himself out to a Gentile, just like a tax collector. First he lost the family inheritance among the Gentiles, in itself an affront to Jewish custom and an intolerable sin, but now he is hiring himself out to the Gentiles. Step by step he is losing himself. He is losing his identity. He does no longer know who he is.
Is this not the sickness of our age? We live in a culture that does not know itself or its roots. A culture that in one generation no longer knows of Jesus Christ, of God or of the cross. Think about the art that’s created, the music that we listen to. Is not creativity squandered when the design of creation is no longer a part of the artistic process? When the mystery of form and balance and harmony is abandoned, is it not because the artist no longer knows the thoughts of the Father, the Creator, and that the Creator’s theme and overture have escaped his ear and eye? Art then becomes merely the expression of dim dreams, faint hopes, the musings of a man who contemplates the world and thinks: "I must say something; but what is there to talk about?"
Our culture today is the culture of a young man who has lost himself because he has lost connection to the father. Our culture today, and it is a culture that infiltrates the church in many ways, is based upon the dreams of a homeless man who plods down the endless empty streets of time because the lights in the windows of father’s house no longer shine out above him. He is lost. And not only art and music but also science and business and farming. We too are in danger of being lost in the far country, disconnected from the father squandering our inheritance. We as Reformed people may be spending our inheritance, wasting it in frivolous living in a far country, far from the father’s house.
We are so busy, busy, busy. Perhaps we are so busy, because we are afraid to sit still. We need to turn on the radio, the TV, the VCR, Nintendo. We need diversion: sports, entertainment, work. But there is little time for Father. We live in an age of diversion and entertainment like no other age. The 500 channel universe. Satellite dishes to bring into our homes the emptiness of the far country. Because we are far from home, we are afraid to be alone. There must be something to do.
He was bound by his urges, so he had to satisfy them: alcohol, drugs, pornography. And then he is no longer free. Now he is bound by homesickness, so he must be entertained. He thought that leaving home brought freedom. He thought that leaving father’s house led to liberty. But he only found bondage. He thought that leaving father’s estate brought wealth and he found poverty. Poverty! That young man—his friends would have thought: How free! How marvellously free! So independent of his father! He is the superman! The man who lives his life as he sees fit! But the young man knows. He knows his bondage. His chains. His shadow lands. His shackles. The world sees the façade: So beautiful and fine! But inside it all is a botched up life. The young man hears the rattle of the chains that bind him to his lostness. No one hears but him. No one knows but him—and the father who watched him go off into his bondage.
And so he goes from bad to worse. He hires himself out to a Gentile. This young man, never dependent on any man, subject only to his father, is now a hired hand. And so he loses not only himself but in a sense he loses his son ship.
2. He lost his son ship
The Greek text says that he attached himself to a citizen of that country. He kind of glues himself to some nobleman. To a rich landowner. How ironic! He had been son of a rich landowner. One who had servants, and hired hands, and day laborers. And he had been the inheritor. He had been the son. And now here he is, attached to someone else’s household. He, who had been free, becomes a subject. He, who had been a son, becomes a slave, a servant. He becomes a hired man and has to work in the field for a man other than his father. A stranger in a strange land.
He is under a master, a man, who has no interest in him, for whom he hardly exists. He is given the lowliest job there is. A swineherd. [[This is no comment on those who raise hogs today; this is a different age.]] Even among the Gentiles of the day, this was a lowly calling. In Egypt, for example, only the swineherds were banned from any and every temple. If shepherds we considered among the lowliest of the land, then a swineherd was the lowest: nothing was worse than caring for pigs. This was the bottom of the social class. Even among Gentiles. It is as if the landowner in politeness attempts to turn away the foreigner. "Yes, I have work: You may take care of my pigs." He offers this job in the hope that the lad will have some pride and leave for other places. It is like a boss who wants to get rid of an employee without firing him. Transfer him to Inuvik. To Tuktoyuktuk. "He will quit before he goes there. I’ll give him the dirtiest job around, perhaps he’ll go away." This citizen of the faraway country—He knows by the accent and dress that the foreigner is a Jew. "He will certainly refuse. He will not work with pigs." Pigs are unclean to Jews.
But the young Jew, he takes the job. And in so doing, loses his identity. He works for a Gentile: he would work on the Sabbath. He tends pigs. All connection to the father’s house is broken. He has abandoned everything. He is no longer a son. But he will do this for food. And yet goes hungry. His life is worse than that of the animals that he must care for. He would be glad to share with the animals the food that they will eat, but none will give him any. The pigs, the hogs, they get what no one wants. It is a famine and the swine they get, not the scrapings of the pot, but the husks—the pods—of a bitter plant. The pods of a carob tree, a bitter plant, that no one eats except in dire straits. Because of the famine, the people eat the bitter seeds of the carob shrub and the pods are fed to pigs. But there is no food, not even pods, for this lost lonely lad.
He likely complains. He likely asks for food, but no one listens or pays attention. He is but a foreigner. And he is starving. Dying of hunger. Alone. And so he realizes the end of freedom. He realizes what it means to have no father. He realizes what it means now not to be a son. He discovers lostness as the destiny of liberty. And so he comes to his senses.
He knows the truth. He knows that there is a father. That he has a father. He knows his father loves him. And he sees the bondage he is in. As servant of a Gentile. A stranger lost in a foreign land. Hungry. And so he resolves to return home. He has come to his senses. He says to himself: "How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and her I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father…." This thought will not release him. It is as if his loneliness has gripped his heart. The thoughts of father’s house are calling him. The memory of father’s house is calling him. He knows his father, that he is kind and gracious. His proud heart is broken. His spirit contrite. A flood of tears gives him release. For a long time, he has not mentioned father’s name. But now, now father’s name comes to his lips. He resolves to call on father. "I will set out and go back to my father. I will say to him: ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’"
The father’s hired men have food to spare. He knows his father’s grace and kindness. He knows that his father’s workmen don’t go hungry. He knows that his father’s hired men will be treated kindly, even in the midst of a severe famine. "Among them there must be a place for me. And here I am hungry, dying among the Gentiles instead of dining among my father’s household."
Before we go on, we need reflect on this young man’s confession and on his planned request. We need to think about who might be found in father’s house. First, there are the children, the eldest son, now sole inheritor. Then the servants, born within the house, or long a part of the household. They share in bed and board. They participate in the father’s joys and sorrows. Then there is the paid staff. Those who work for the estate but are not part of it. And last are those who are hired on, on a daily basis. The hired men. These have no participation in the estate. They are hired, but are not part of the large family.
And this is where this young man plans to seek a place. Among the hired men. He hopes he might share in the grace of the father, knowing that he has no right in the estate. He thinks that he might be accepted as a "hanger on." As one out on the fringes. For even for those whom the father does not know, his gracious giving flows.
The son has seen how unworthy he is. He has lost his son ship. And so, he plans to come to father and asked that be me made as one of the hired men. Made. He knows that he must go to father and call him thus: Father. But he will ask that he be made into a hired man. He will, in front of his father, and his elder brother, and the servants, the paid staff, even before the hired men—he will humble himself. See then that he longs for more than bread. He longs for the comfort of father’s home. Where even among the lowliest the grace of father flows generously. He longs for the fellowship of his father’s home. He wants to and longs to belong again. But he has squandered his inheritance. He is no longer worthy to be son. He has lost his son ship. He has lost his identity. And yet he longs for home: For father’s home.
3 Finding Home
And so he sets out. He got up and set out to find home. This does not mean that he was sitting down. Or that he was lying about, down with the hogs. No, this describes the changing of the mind. This is the repentance that has come upon this young man. He will stand up and gird himself. He will wrap his robe, now rags, about himself, and with herder’s staff in hand will set out for home and find it. Weak and spent from the depths of his misery he turns to home. He plans his confession of sin. How many times he must have practiced what he was to say! Our text tells us that he was saying these things. He was repeating them.
He realizes now that he has sinned against heaven and his father. When a Jew would say that he sinned against heaven, it was a way of saying that he had sinned against God, without taking God’s name on his lips. This young man realizes that his sin first of all is against God. And is this not the case? Think of Psalm 51, where David confesses his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah. He says to the Lord, "Against you, you only have I sinned."
This is the confession of this young man. "I have sinned against heaven, father. In my refusal to submit to your authority, in my rejection of your covenant home, in my denial of my son ship, in my sin against you, I have sinned against God." If there had been only guilt towards father, then this young man would still not have understood the depths of his misery. But it was because he understood that he has sinned against heaven—in that we see that he is on the way to true repentance. This young man is a poor, poor, man on his way back to his father. He is a poor, poor, man seeking home. He has realized that separating from his father to gain freedom is as absurd as that a person should fret over being dependent on air and so, to assert his freedom, should hold his breath.
He is disgusted with himself. He sees his father’s house in his mind’s eye. He sees that which he has lost and to which he has no claim. He sees his father and knows that he has no son ship. But now he sees his father’s face and knows that father waits for him. He looks down upon his empty hands, his dirty clothes, and feels ashamed and fears to even lift his eyes up to his father, and yet he knows that father waits for him.
There is one bell, one clarion call, which is heard above all the noise, all the tinkling of the chimes, all the clashing of the cymbals of the far country. There is one voice that is heard above all the hubbub of the distant land. That voice, that call, has never ceased. It rings within his heart. He hears it in his ears and he listens and he follows.
This repentance of this lost son is not just something negative. It is not just disgust with self. It is not just loneliness. It is not just homesickness. It is not just self-interest. It is not just turning from the world, from the pigsty of this age. It is not just turning from something. It is turning to something. A turning back home. Whenever the New Testament speaks of repentance, there is the sound of joy as background. Scripture does not say, "Repent! Or hell will burn you up." It does not say, "Repent! This is your fire insurance." No! It says, "Repent! The kingdom of heaven is at hand!"
When the son has come to the end of his road, then God begins with his. The end, from man’s point of view, is the beginning from God’s point of view—that is repentance. Disgust with yourself will not heal. Sorrow in itself will not cure. Disgust and sorrow in this world, of this world, is a repentance that leads to death (2 Cor 7:10). It is a misery that leads to nihilism. To an emptiness that none can fill. To despair.
No, it is the other way around! It is that he has seen in his mind’s eye, his father’s house again. That is why he is disgusted with himself. Because he knows that father loves him still. It was the father’s influence from afar. It was not the far country that disgusted him and turned him home. It was the consciousness of home that drew him away from the far country in disgust. It is the Holy Spirit working in his heart. It was the call of father. It was the voice of the Good Shepherd calling out his name.
And so the lost son arises and goes home. In all his rags, he dares to approach his father’s house. And he practices his confession. He does not say: "Father, I have grown up now. I have suffered and atoned for my errors. I have learned from the school of hard knocks. I have paid for my sins. I have a claim to your love. Take me as I am." So many say when a young man, or woman, leaves father’s house for a while, that it is just a stage they go through. That they need to sow their wild oats. That they will learn from this experience. And that they will be a better person for it. That in this way they will better appreciate the love of father’s house. But Jesus’ parables say nothing of this.
The son who is coming home practices his confession. "Father I have sinned against heaven and against you! Make me a hired servant." And yet this man has not yet learned, he does not really know his father. His confession, which he practices on the long hard journey home, the words that he repeats again and again, are like saying this: "I will go to father and confess my errors in the hope that he will give minimal punishment for my impudence and that he will allow me to survive on the condition of hard labour." He knows that he can cast himself on father’s love, but yet he fears his anger, his wrath, his justice. He dares not ask forgiveness. He comes confessing sin, seeking a place, a small place where blessing might splash over into his life…. but he will work hard for it.
We know that in this parable, the son is received back home. But this is not because of his great maturity. It is not because of the lessons he learned in the far country. It is not even because of his repentance or his sincerity. It is not by his promise of hard labour. Not even his confession earned him his restoration. It is only because of father’s love that he is received back home. That father embraces him. [We will hear more of this another time].
Here a man has no claim at all. Here a sinner has no right at all. And by his father’s love he found home. Found son ship. Found himself. It is the amazing, gracious mystery of God’s love in Christ, that he seeks the lost, that he waits for their homecoming, that he embraces us at all. Have you seen yourself within the mirror?