home > Pastor’s Desk > 2022 > August 12th > The Prodigal Father

 Does anyone know what the word prodigal means? Perhaps most people assume that it means: “wanderer”, or “rebel”, or perhaps even “backslider” or that it only applies to sons. This seems to be based on the story that Jesus told in Luke 15 to which most Bible Publishers assign the division title – The Parable of the Prodigal Son. But the word prodigal does not occur in this parable. Interestingly, there are three lead characters in this shocking and famous parable: the father and his two sons. One of these was genuinely ‘prodigal’, and, as Tim Keller points out, it was neither son! To appreciate what Keller means we might need to take another look at what the word prodigal actually means. It comes from the verb prodigious which means remarkably great in extent, size, or degree (New Oxford American Dictionary). It is a word often used to describe an author who regularly writes books – John Grisham is a prodigious author. A prodigal person is therefore, prolific, extravagant, excessive, and, lavish. Keller points out that even though most people ascribe this to the wayward son in the parable, it is more appropriately a designation for the lead character in the story, the father!

About the (Prodigal) Father

Jesus told this parable to grumbling Pharisees and scribes who resented that Jesus was welcoming “tax collectors and sinners [who] were all drawing near to Him” (Luke 15:1-2). Christ tells these religious folk three “lost” parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The twist in the last of these parables comes at the end when it is revealed that it is not the formerly wayward son who was lost, but the upright, dutiful, rule-keeping, son instead! The older son seems to be representing those who were keeping the Heavenly Father’s Old Covenant, while the formerly wayward but repentant son seems to be representing all those who have turned to the Heavenly Father in faith and repentance and accepted the New Covenant of God’s grace and forgiveness.

But it becomes clear from Christ’s parable that the Father loves both boys dearly (revealing His love for both Jews and Gentiles). The father’s deep love for both of his sons was also tinged with the hope that each of them would return that love toward him, but initially, neither did. This tells us a lot about who the lead character in this story represents. God the Father is immeasurably loving and kind toward each of us and, like the father in this parabolic story, He too longs for each of us to return that love to Him.

The Prodigal father provided well for his family
The Prodigal Father modelled how to work
The Prodigal Father taught his family about God
The Prodigal Father was greatly misunderstood

And the younger of them said to his father,
‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’
And he divided his property between them.
Luke 15:12

The demand by the younger son in Christ’s story would have been shocking and scandalous to Jesus’ original Jewish audience. No Jewish father would have tolerated such perfidiousness from their son! But not only does the father grant his younger son’s demand, he actually also divided his property between the older and younger sons! The father had given away everything he had to his two sons! 

Initially, the listener would have been given the impression that it was the younger son who had rejected his father. But by the end of the story they would have learned that it was both of the father’s sons who had rejected him, yet it was the younger son who had turned to his father in an acknowledgment of his guilt and shame and sought his father’s forgiveness.

Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had
and took a journey into a far country,
and there he squandered his property in reckless living.
Luke 15:13

While his wayward son was off breaking his father’s heart and trashing their family name, the father was ever hopeful that his son would soon realise the truth – that he was loved, cared for, nurtured, and provided for by his loving father – and always had been. Sometimes it takes the wayward to hit rock-bottom before they look up.

Things got so bad for the younger wayward son that he stooped as low as he could go just to survive. Again, in a shocking twist, he got a job feeding pigs (Lk. 15:15)! This was something no-self-respecting Jew would even countenance! Yet it was at his lowest point that the wayward came to his senses and realised what a fool he had been. He was prepared to return to his father and plead for him not to accept him back as a son, but as a hired-servant (Luke 15:18-19). Ironically, this was already the self-perceived status of his older brother.

The father in this story again did something completely unthinkable to any betrayed Jewish father – he ran to meet his perfidious son! And to make matters worse for the Pharisees and scribes, the father gave his son five symbols of love and acceptance: (i) An embrace; (ii) A kiss; (iii) a robe; (iv) a ring; and, (v) a pair of sandals. The younger son had taken the time spent in the long journey home to rehearse what he would say to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants” (Lk. 15:18b-19a). Despite his repeated rehearsal of this plea, all he was able to say when eventually reached his father was, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  But this was enough. It expressed his repentance and contrition. And with that abbreviated plea for forgiveness instigated not by words but attitude and action, his father ran to him, welcomed him, and restored him. Since this father is a portrayal of our Heavenly father it reveals a treasure-trove of insights of what He is like as well.

But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. - Luke 15:22
And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. -Luke 15:23
For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. -Luke 15:24
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. -Luke 15:25

The fact that the father, despite having given away all he had as a premature inheritance to his two sons, was able to recover financially in a relatively short period of time – so that he could put on a lavish (prodigious) celebration feast for the return of his formerly wayward son, should tell us a lot about our heavenly father. Just as the father in this story was generous, gracious, merciful, optimistic, loving, kind, and diligent, so is our Heavenly Father. 

There is, though, a warning in this story, which is embodied by the attitude of the older son. He treated his father as his master, his employer. His relationship with his father was purely functional requiring him to dutifully serve his father. This older son deprived himself of his father’s love and ended up the way of all father-deprived children. He became angry, resentful, judgmental, and bitter. This older son represents all that is bad about the Old Covenant. 

But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, -Luke 15:28
but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. -Luke 15:29
But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ -Luke 15:30
And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” -Luke 15:31-32

The older son was angry. He was angry at his father. He was angry at his brother. The father was grieved when his younger son betrayed him. But the father was also grieved that his older son would not eat a meal with him. The prodigal father loved to celebrate. He enjoyed music, dancing, feasting, happiness. The return of his repentant younger son gave him the reason to once again celebrate because their relationship had now been restored. The fact that the father and his younger son were now reunited had never meant that there was no room in the father’s heart to celebrate his relationship with his older son. In fact, he had longed for his older son to celebrate this with him. And this should once again teach us something about God our Heavenly Father that is worth us celebrating together this weekend.

One son thought that he pleased his father by what he did.
One son thought that he pleased his father despite what he did.
Jesus told us this story to teach us something about God.

This is why Tim Keller says that this parable of Christ reveals something gloriously magnificent about our Father God, that He is, in the best sense of the word prodigal, our Prodigal Heavenly Father! 

Your Pastor,

Andrew

Let me know what you think below in the comment section and feel free to share this someone who might benefit from this Pastor’s Desk.

1 Comment

  1. Nicky Marzetti

    An enlightening read!

    Reply

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WHAT WOULD IT TAKE FOR ATHEIST & MAGICIAN PENN JILLETTE TO BECOME A CHRISTIAN?

I’ve been praying for Penn Jillette for some time now. It began when I first heard him ridicule the Bible and Christianity. My fascination with Penn (and Teller), and other world-class magicians, has been due to my pursuit to develop my craft of preaching. There are a lot of similarities between preachers and magicians (just as there is also a lot similarities between solo musicians and preachers). I seek to learn from magicians about how to keep an audience’s attention, how to tell a story, and how to make a point by employing the element of surprise. But there are some significant differences between what magicians do and what preachers do though. A magician is deliberately deceptive. A preacher is striving to uphold truth in an honest way.

THINK ABOUT THIS

In Australia, it’s football finals time and the U.S. the last Grand Slam event for the year has just concluded. I find a lot of life lessons from observing elite athletes — including and especially those who play football and those who play tennis. Most people might consider football to be a team sport and tennis to be individual sport. But the distinction is not so clear these days. Often times footballers are individually coached by “position coaches” and a tennis player is often just who the public sees of a team of people responsible for the performance of that player. At the time of writing, there are remaining four Australian Rules Football (AFL) teams about to play off in the Preliminary Finals (including my beloved Geelong Cats). Last weekend, Carlos Alcaraz of Spain defeated Casper Ruud of Norway. Both players have intriguing stories which I will mention shortly. In the AFL, after a disastrous last season, the Collingwood Magpies appointed a new coach for this season, Craig McRae. Even though they got off to a slow start this season, under McRae’s oversight ended up having an 11-straight winning streak toward the end of the season and now look like genuine  Premiership contenders. What do Carlos Alcaraz, Casper Ruud, Craig McRae, and the Collingwood football team, all have in common? All the players at the elite level of their sport make an enormous commitment to train, practice, sleep, hydrate, and eat a regulated diet. Yet at the very highest levels in their respective sporting codes the difference between the elite and the extra-elite is no longer skill or fitness. In fact, the difference between them is so applicable to everyday life that it may be the most relevant and do-able thing you hear for a long time. So, think about this.

LOOKING BACK OVER THE PAST 200 YEARS

As Kim and I enjoyed our weekly coffee-date this morning at Stillwater, she looked out ruminatively across at all of the development that has taken place over the years where the North and South Esks merge to form the Tamar River.

“I wonder if the settlers who came here two hundred years ago” she asked, “could have imagined the silos would have been built over there and then turned into a luxury hotel, or that two bridges would have been built here, or that their tiny village would grow into a large city?”

“What’s more interesting” I responded, “is if anyone today can envision what it will all look like in another two hundred years!”

And my response then got me thinking. Could it be possible to imagine what Launceston will end up looking like in two hundred years—and, what about our church? What will our church will look like in two hundred years?

relevance-intact-the-place-of-the-church-in-tasmania

Tasmanian churches play a vital role in our state as a moral compass and social leader. Our moral compass was given to us 2,000 years ago by Christ  who then commissioned the Church to preach, teach, and care in His Name. The Church’s role as a social leader was instigated by Jesus who embraced the shunned, condemned oppressors of the vulnerable, and upheld the sacredness of every human life and taught His followers to do likewise. Two thousand years later, Tasmanian churches gather weekly and continue proclaim the good news that Jesus taught, care for the poor and homeless, feed the hungry, welcome refugees, and provide thousands of young Tasmanians with an education. This is why the former Examiner deputy editor recently described the Tasmanian Church as “the most fundamental pillar in society” but then described it as being led by “a pious clique of fancy robed hypocrites, with less and less relevance each year to the wider community” (28/8/2022). The basis for his sharp criticism is grounded in his assessment that the Tasmanian Church has not recalibrated its moral compass to align itself with culture’s progressive values. Here’s why I disagree with the esteemed former deputy editor.

THE GOOD SAMARITAN AND THE INN-KEEPER

WHO IS MY NEIGHBOUR? The Jewish leaders had a very strict understanding of who God accepted and who God rejected. Obviously, they taught, God had accepted the Jews as His favourite – particularly Jewish men. Jewish women were sort of accepted, but only as second-class members of God’s people. This obviously also meant that unless a gentile (a non-Jew) converted to Judaism they could not be accepted by God. Therefore, God rejected all gentiles — and He especially rejected Roman gentiles — but He reserved His ultimate rejection for Samaritans! Jesus then tells the Temple-lawyer the story of the Good Samaritan.

SUPER SUCCESSFUL CHRISTIANS

Spare a thought for those people who are often overlooked by churches—and if they are Christians—they frequently struggle to even find a suitable church where they can deepen their relationship with Christ. Often we think of those who struggle with life as those who are “down and out” and blighted by impoverishment, or destitution, or ill-health, or family breakdown, or poor mental health. But surprisingly, even those who are seen as super-successful because of their wealth, social stature, public acclaim or amazing achievements, are actually struggling with loneliness, emptiness, and poor mental health — even if they are a Christian. These super-successful Christians are CEOs of large companies, or world-class or national sporting champions, or internationally renowned performing artists, or A-lister actors, or media personalities, or highly sought after professionals such as surgeons or barristers. They often pay a high price for their success, including, long work hours, constant stress, public criticism, extended time away from their families, fierce competition, and strained marriages. These pressures are exacerbated by their constant travel associated with their work which also makes them vulnerable to exhaustion and extraordinary temptations. This is why these super-successful Christians need to join the kind of church that can provide them with the kind of support, counsel, and accountability that every Christian needs. Here’s how a church can become this kind of church.

MAKING CHURCH A WELCOMING HOME

For many people, making a decision to attend a church is a significant and potentially daunting decision. As they come through the front door they are entering an unfamiliar environment. It is also an environment that may be associated with preconceived ideas of what the expectations and rules of the church community may be. These people probably will not know anybody and they might have concerns that relate to their previous or current lifestyle. For those of us who are regular church attendees, it is possible that we may not fully appreciate the challenges a new attendee may be facing. When we can relate to these concerns, I believe we are better equipped to provide a warm and patient “welcome” to what we hope will become their new church home.

LOVE IN ACTION

Physical illnesses and stressful events are endemic in our society. They can be likened to the thorns that cause both pain and damage. It doesn’t take much for them to impact a person’s life in ways that they did not expect. I believe that we can become more resilient as followers of Jesus by applying an appropriate solution to a known problem. I believe that an appropriate and important part of the solution is for us to show love the way that Jesus demonstrated love during His ministry on earth.

THE TOOLS OF REMEMBERING

I like to think I have a pretty good memory.  I like to think I’m organised.  Generally, I am – I don’t double book appointments, I keep track of what I’m doing and when, I mostly turn up on time. But, on reflection, I’m not so sure this means I have a good memory.

TRUTH vs SOMETHING BIG AND HAIRY

“You were lying in your bed, you were feeling kind of sleepy.
But you couldn’t close your eyes because the room was getting creepy.
Were those eyeballs in the closet? Was that Godzilla in the hall?
There was something big and hairy casting shadows on the wall.
Now your heart is beating like a drum, your skin is getting clammy.
There’s a hundred tiny monsters jumping right into your jammies”!

These are lyrics from a song on the very first Veggie Tales video every made. The title of the song?  “God is bigger than the Boogie Man”. Junior Asparagus was lying in bed frightened, and Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber appeared to tell him that he doesn’t have to be scared of the imaginary monsters because, “God is the bigger.” My childhood night-time fears weren’t so much about big and hairy monsters, aka boogie men, or Godzilla in the hall. My fears were house fires – our home burning down, and “burglars” or “robbers”. But I certainly identify with lying in bed, my heart beating like a drum, my skin getting clammy, my imagination in overdrive.