Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, August 24, 2019
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Evaluating By Worldly Standards

2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Luke 15:1-2 and 11-32

The first two verses of chapter 15 set the stage for all three of the stories that follow. Jesus is welcoming the “undesirables.” He is even eating with them. In first century Hebrew culture, to eat together was a sign of acceptance and equality.

The Pharisees and Scribes would never do that. They would not associate with tax collectors and prostitutes. They would evaluate them by the standards of the world, as Paul talked about in 2 Corinthians 5. Those people are losers, traitors, the worst of the worst. I think probably the equivalent in our society today would be drug dealers and child molesters. Those are probably the kinds of people that we think about in the same way that first century Pharisees thought about tax collectors and prostitutes.

But Jesus sees them as God sees all people: Made in the image of God and loved by God. Jesus illustrates this point with one of his most beloved parables. Perhaps this is the best known of Jesus’ parables. And if all someone knows about Jesus’ teaching is the so-called “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” then I would say that they are off on the right foot.

You know the story, I’m sure, so we don’t need to talk about it too much, but I do think there are some points where it helps to understand the culture and see how that influences the story.

A father has two sons. The younger son wants his share of the inheritance right now. By law, his share of the estate as the younger son would be one-third. The first-born son always got a double share. He asks for it. Now that in itself was an insult. It was the equivalent of him saying to his father, “I wish you were already dead.”

Now the father could split his estate and “retire,” but that would be his choice, not his son’s. And if he did, then he remained the legal owner of everything till his death. His sons weren’t free to sell anything without his permission. But the younger son does it anyway. He sells his share of the estate and takes off for a distant land.

Part of the genius of this story is how it speaks to so many common human experiences: Youthful rebellion, the appeal of the new and foreign, alienation from family, and nostalgia for the past.

He goes off and lives as he pleases, wasting his father’s money on “wild living.” But he ends up in trouble. Since the younger son is unmarried in the story, we can

assume that he is no more than 18-20 years old. A man would typically marry by that age. He is inexperienced with money, and he runs out. And he ends up in a desperate situation. He is forced to take work feeding the pigs, an unpleasant job for anyone, but especially for a Jewish man.

Verse 17 literally says, “He came to himself.” It gets translated here as, “He came to his senses,” but literally it’s, “He came to himself.” There is a moment of realization, a moment of facing oneself, seeing himself as he truly is. Repentance is a moment of understanding who we really are. Apart from God, we can never be our true selves. As long as we are living apart from God, we are also living apart from our true identity. We are made in the image of God and made for relationship with God. Repentance means acknowledging that reality.

He resolves to go home and to ask to be taken on as a hired man. He knows he has no business thinking of himself as a son anymore. A hired man was the bottom of the totem pole. We might think that it would be better than being a slave, but it wasn’t. A slave was a member of the household. A slave could not be fired or let go if times were tight. A hired hand could be.

Instead, while he is still a long way off, the father sees him coming. That tells us, of course, that the father is looking for him, hoping he’ll come back some day. The father is an obvious picture of God, and God is the real hero of the story. The father loves and longs for relationship with the son, just as God loves and longs for relationship with every person who is living apart from him.

The son tries to give his spiel about, “Take me on as a hired hand,” but the father doesn’t even give him a chance. He is welcomed back home as a son. The father gives him “the best robe in the house,” which would be the father’s own robe, a sign of honor. He puts a ring, which would be a signet ring, a ring with the family crest on it, on his finger, reinstating him into the family. And he gives him shoes. Household slaves generally did not wear shoes. So he is still a son. And then they celebrate.

But, of course, there’s one guy who’s not happy: The older brother. He represents the attitude of the Pharisees and Scribes who would rather see sinners die in their sins than be welcomed back into the household of God. He refuses to go in. He refuses to be glad at his brother’s homecoming.

The father goes out and begs him to come in. He tells him, “All I have is yours.” That was true. All the father still owned belonged now to the older son. He wasn’t losing anything by welcoming his brother home. There is nothing to be lost when a sinner comes home to God.

The story has no ending. Does the older brother go in? Does he reconcile with his younger brother? We don’t know. There is no ending because it’s up to us to decide what we will do when the lost come home.

Back in February at the men’s chili supper, we had Jon Kolb, former player for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as our keynote speaker. He talked about this story and related it to the story of the lost axe head in 2 Kings 6. That’s just a little story about a young prophet who loses the head of his axe when it flies off and falls into the water of the Jordan River. And the prophet Elisha does a miracle and the axe head floats to the top and is saved.

Jon talked about how that axe head was worthless, lying at the bottom of the river. It had no value there. And many people are seen by the world as worthless, having no value, lost causes. Jon talked about growing up the son of a poor migrant oilfield worker in Texas and Oklahoma. He talked about going to school, being the only poor white kid in a classroom full of even poorer American Indian children. He talked about feeding the pigs when he was a kid. As he told us, “All crap is bad, but pig crap is the worst.”

Of course, he went on to a very successful career in football. But he continues to work with lost causes. His ministry today works with children and adults who are “permanently disabled.” Folks who can’t receive therapy or rehab because the insurance companies say they can’t get any better. So they get nothing. They’re lost causes in the eyes of the world.

No person should ever be thought of as a lost cause. To do so is to deny the power of God and the essential nature of human beings made in the image of God.

If there is a concern for the American Church today, it might be this: Are the “lost causes” of the world finding a seat at our table? Are the poor, the disabled, the outsiders, the notorious sinners finding a place at our table? Or is the American Church just a refuge for the clean, the well-mannered, and the socially acceptable?

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