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About this series
The Prodigal and the Perfectionist
Why We All Need Grace
How often has something seemed confusing until you saw a picture of it and then you thought, "Oh, now I get it!"? Grace is like that -- confusing, until we get a picture of what it is. Scripture tells us that God's grace is available to all who will receive it. But how can we receive it, if we don't really know what it is, or even why we need it? In this series, Chip Ingram explains the meaning of grace that Jesus so clearly revealed, in the parable of Luke 15. Jesus' intention was to help people, then and now, understand God's generous heart and why He is so ready to pour out His abundant grace on all who will receive it.More from this series
By way of review, each story, one big story, talks about things to make one really big point. Each story has five things in common.
Number one, something valuable is lost. Right? A coin, a sheep, a son. Actually, two sons. Number two, an intensive search occurs. They are searching and really looking.
Number three, that which was lost is found. Number four, a great celebration follows. The shepherd calls his friends, the woman calls her friends, the father, literally, you’re going to learn, it’s a Near Eastern village, the entire village would come to this party.
And then, fifth, the spiritual application is explained. So each time Jesus talks about the value of one single sinner, someone far from God, whether they are religious or not, coming to God and the joy, the celebration, the party that happens in heaven.
What we learned from the parable or the following things, by way of review, is that God deeply values irreligious, immoral, lost people. And part of the message is going to be, He wants us to deeply value immoral, lost, irreligious people as were many of us.
God actively is pursuing a relationship with lost people. This whole story is Jesus is getting criticized because He is relating and hanging out and eating and loving and caring about them.
Third, heaven rejoices when one lost person repents. The value of that lost person exponentially increases. The story keeps building to a climax. A sheep would be worth something, the coin more, and the son is far more.
The story, in story number three, represents the father - is God. Jesus is going to completely redefine Him, especially for the Pharisees. This is what God is like instead of who you think He is like.
The two sons depicted, the younger son is the immoral sinner. The older son is the righteous or religious sinner. But both are far from God. Both are disconnected from the Father.
And then, finally, both sons are equally lost, but not equally aware of their lostness.
Now, here is what I want to do. I want to walk through our time with the younger son and I am going to ask you to put on some new glasses and see this story, if you had grown up in a peasant village in the Middle East, at the time of Jesus.
What you learn is that, actually, a lot hasn’t changed in a lot of these villages. Because what you’re going to see is when you understand, if you understood, the story He is going to tell would have never happened. It would have never happened.
In fact, it was scandalous. They were shocked. I will tell you, as we begin to open up the story, the disciples are over here with their mouth going…and the Pharisees are over here going, “No way!”
Because what Jesus is going to do for them, and I pray for us, He is going to completely redefine what God is like. Left to yourself, left to myself, people left to themselves, we create in our mind and our heart a god who can never, ever be pleased. A god who will probably be holding out on us and who we can’t trust. A god who is not really good and so we basically say, I’m in control, I’m doing life my way, I will build my security. You know what? I’ll give some, maybe a little words and comments and, yeah, I want to believe in God but when pressure comes, I’m in control. This deal is about me and my life and what I can do.
And our sense is that there is some way, maybe someday, we can earn God’s favor. That is hardwired into human beings. And Jesus is going to destroy that.
So what can we learn about the three main characters? First, the son’s request. Pick it up in verse 12 here. The son’s request. He says to his father, “I want mine now.”
This is completely culturally never done, completely unacceptable. In fact, in this particular culture, even today, you never even discuss inheritance. Never even discuss it. In fact, I don’t have time to develop it, but the little speech about his dad, he phrases a number, he uses three or four different words to get around the word. He doesn’t say, “I want my inheritance.”
Basically, he says, “I want what is coming to me,” and he avoids that because once you get the inheritance, two things happen. You not only get the property and the money that is due you, but you also get the responsibility of taking over that part of the family when that happens.
He wants his stuff, but he doesn’t want any of the responsibility. In fact, what he is really saying, his son’s message is, “I wish you were dead.” This son is revealing his heart. He is rebellious, he is self-centered, he is cruel, and he is callous. He doesn’t care about the father, he doesn’t care how he feels, “I wish you were dead. I just want what I can get, and I want it right now.”
The implications for the father, economically and socially, this is where it gets interesting. According to Jewish law, the older son got a double portion of any inheritance. According to Jewish law, you could get your inheritance, you could possess it, but it wouldn’t be dispossessed.
In other words, so you could actually, it would be yours but the father has authority over it until he dies and then it’s yours to spend. So this son comes and says, “I want mine now.”
Well, first of all, the men in the village, when they heard this, their natural response would be, Take him out. Take him out. He has shamed the father, he has shamed the village, we don’t want those kind of people here. Kick him out of the family, banish him. That would have been the normal response.
The father doesn’t do that. They are listening to this story going, No father would do this!
Second thing that is happening is is that he didn’t go down to the bank and say, “Well, I need to cash in some of my 401k or I’ll tell you what…” Wealth was not liquid. He had land and property that generation after generation after generation had been given his family. Then he had barns and then he had livestock.
For this younger son to ask for this now, he is squandering the future. Twenty, thirty, forty years later when this father is going to die, his estate is going to be this big, not this big. And so he says, “I want it now.”
So he is the younger son, so he gets a third of the estate. And the only way to get the third of the estate is the father, now, is completely embarrassed. He looks like a fool.
He is selling property. Well, isn’t that your family property? “Yeah!” You’re selling your livestock? “Yeah!” You’re selling two of your barns? “Yeah!” Why? “I’m going to give a third of all that I have to this son and not only that he can possess it, but I’m going to let him have it.”
Literally, a little phrase later, he gets his things together, the phrase literally means he cashed out. And, by the way, he would be ridiculed. He would be scorned. People would be talking about, Do you believe this guy? Do you believe this kid? This is the most ruthless, selfish, narcissistic…
So he is going to sell it fast. What happens when you sell stuff fast? Right? I think in business you guys call it a “fire sale.” You don’t get a lot for it.
And so he is completely discrediting his father. So the father now, economically, huge implication.
Socially, huge. You fool. You should have kicked him out of the family. By all rights, a rebellious son at this level, you might jot down Deuteronomy chapter 21: 18 to 21. A rebellious son in some cultures, in the law, you could stone him.
The father is giving this son the exact opposite of what anyone in this village could ever fathom any father would ever do. He is a notorious sinner in his actions. Now, be thinking about, Why is Jesus telling this story? And who is Jesus hanging out with? And what are these very religious people, who know the Bible backwards and forwards and they tithe down to the mint and the herbs.
The father’s unprecedented response shocked His audience. That’s putting it mildly. They were absolutely undone. And at this point, they are not thinking highly of the father. Stupid. Foolish. What is he thinking? He is violating hundreds of years of culture in our village.
Finally, we learn not only about the young son, who is a selfish, I’m in it for me, I’m going to be in control of my life; a father that doesn’t seem to make sense who actually takes the shame on him instead of the son; and then now we have the older son’s shocking silence reveals he has a broken relationship with his father and a broken relationship with his younger brother.
At the very bottom, I put the book that I told you about of the man who lived in the Middle Eastern culture for sixty years. And he said, “I have taught this message of Luke 15 thousands of times and when I get to this portion of it and I say, ‘There is a rift in the family. The father and the younger son – who should solve this?’” And he said one thousand out of a thousand times: the older brother, that’s his job.
In the Middle East you don’t want to lose face. It would have been the older brother’s job to go to the younger brother and say, “What are you thinking, you little idiot? How do you think it makes dad feel? What are you doing to the inheritance? In fact, what are you doing to me? You’re making a laughing stock in the village! Now, there’s no way you’re going to do – hey, Dad, I’m really, really sorry. Let me work something out.”
And he would negotiate or he would put a pact together so that he could resolve this. The older brother was responsible, as his role in the family, because he is going to be the new head of the family.
He is silent. He doesn’t care how his father is viewed. And he doesn’t care about his younger brother. So that’s what we learn about the three main characters.
Now, let’s dig in and what can we learn about ourselves? Because the younger brother doesn’t just represent these lost, immoral people of that day. It’s really a picture of all of us, left to ourselves, and our attitude toward God the Father.
And so you notice it says he went to a distant country. We know from what he does it’s a Gentile area. And he goes to this distant country and he has cashed out and basically what he has done is he squanders all of the father’s resources.
Now, this was also very interesting to me as I have studied this. Because you always wonder, his older brother says he – I don’t know if it was his own thinking, If I would have left, this is how I would have squandered it. Because we never know how. But he goes, “This son of yours squandered it with prostitutes.”
And that certainly may be the case and historically, an immoral lifestyle seems to be a part of this. But one of the other things that is interesting is if you would go to a different land in this time, to win friends and influence people, you would have parties. You would want to be seen as generous. You would want to get acceptance. And you’re in this Gentile area.
And he’s got a lot of money. And so he is inviting a lot of friends and having a lot of parties and they are probably pretty wild parties. And everyone is, “Oh, it’s great, great, great! He’s the guy that’s got the stuff!”
And then pretty soon, because they are all friendships based on, “This guy is going to pay the bill; we’ll go party with him.” And then it says, “A severe famine comes.” And the word severe and famine is, picture in your mind a Compassion or a World Vision commercial with the little kids with their little tiny bodies and their ribs sticking out. That’s this.
And there was no government, there were no relief organizations, in other words, there are no crops. And so he finds himself, and in this culture, you don’t help foreigners. You take care of your own family at best.
And so he is out of money, he is in the Gentile world, his big party lifestyle is upside down. And now he is stuck. And he goes through this internal time of, What am I going to do?
And so, literally, the phrase is: “He hires himself out.” Literally the word is: “He attached himself to,” a business person there. The words used here, probably it was someone of wealth, who even in the famine, had resources.
And this Gentile doesn’t want to help him. And so the picture here, if you have a Jewish boy, you don’t want to help him, but there is some sort of social obligation, what do you do? You give him a job that you know he can’t do. This is sort of like, maybe some of you have experienced this, a company decides they want to get rid of someone but they don’t want to fire them and so they give them a job that they know they will hate. “We are transferring you to Siberia!” “We are going to have you,” they have been out on the field, “we would like you on the desk and the hours are from six a.m. because we, actually, it’s actually from 3 a.m. to, because we want you to do work with…”
You just create a job where the person goes, “I can’t do this,” so they quit. And that’s what happens here. He is given a job, it’s absolutely the lowest point that you could ever get at.
And he’s looking at what the pigs eat. And then notice he has a turning point. And the turning point is interesting. He comes to his senses. And I would like to suggest that the reason he came to his senses was he was really hungry. He was really desperate.
And the memory of his father, in the Jewish culture at the time, there was a bondservant, if you read through the Old Testament, this is someone who served a master and there is such a love relationship, at some point in time, he says, “I never want to not be your servant.” And, literally, they would go against a post and they would take an awl and they would drive a hole and they would put an earring and that would mean he is a bondservant, a part of this family.
And he just says, “I’m a part of the family.” He would be well taken care of and, “I never want to be sold; I never want to leave.” Then there were other servants or slaves and then there were hired workers.
The bondservants would often live in the house; the hired workers would often live on the estate, the other servants; and then there were the casual workers. And this is the word he is referring to. These were people, like if you go to a Wal-Mart parking lot, if you go to a Target parking lot and people who are looking for work and they are just hanging out, hoping that, “Hey, do you need some help today?” That’s what these people did.
They got up every day, they lived in town, didn’t have any regular work, they were called “hired help.” And what goes through this guy’s mind is, his father is good and kind and generous, because he wouldn’t have to do this. But he takes care of the bondservants, he takes care of the slaves on the estate, but these hired workers, all they really deserve is, “Hey, look, here is your paycheck,” but no, no, no, no. They are treated like family. They eat plenty. He takes care of them.
He is now remembering what kind of man his father is. And he realizes, at this point, and by the way, this is how a lot of us come to the Father. It’s called desperation. I would love it if it was in some great, holy moment we said, You know what? My life is so wonderful. I don’t know if there really is a God. But I think out of the goodness and wonderfulness of my heart I think I will pursue the God that is.
The fact of the matter is we are high-control people who tend to be very selfish by nature. We get it very naturally. You don’t have to teach your kids to be selfish. You don’t have to teach your kids to fight. You don’t have to teach your kids to be greedy. And when they grow up they become like us where we do it in very sophisticated ways where we can actually look nice and sweet and still be selfish and greedy. Right? You guys don’t like that too much, but it’s true.
And it’s when we are desperate. It’s when we realize, You know what? I can’t make this marriage work. Or, You know what? I have been to a lot of doctors and this isn’t going to go away. Or, I have tried this job, this job, this job and by now I thought I would be here and I’m here. Or, I am struggling and I’m discouraged and I am depressed and I am trying hard to have a positive attitude and I have listened to those self-help tapes but it’s just not working.
At some point, where you find yourself next to a bed with one of your children in ICU and you don’t know if they are going to make it. And all of a sudden, the reality of what matters in life versus all the stuff and all the junk and all the pressure and you cry out to God like never before.
And what is amazing is, instead of being consistent and going, Wow, I noticed when things were going well you weren’t talking to Me much. You meet a God whose arms are open. And that’s what Jesus is trying to teach them.