“Jesus continued: ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them.’” (1-2)
Last week we finished the Gospel of Luke. In it, we learned the good news of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection for our sins. For the next 6 weeks, we’re going to be looking at the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-32. These studies come from Timothy Keller’s series, “Finding Your Place at the Table.” Today will just be an overview and introduction of the story. We’ll be looking at how the gospel creates a special kind of community, a new kind of community, a community that God intended for mankind to have. We’ll also see how God’s original community was assaulted because of idolatry. And we’ll see how it was restored through agony.
I. Assault on Community. Luke 15:11-32 is a very familiar parable about a father who has two sons. The younger son rebels, repents, and is welcomed back home by the father. The older son gets mad at his father for allowing his brother to return. So he refuses to celebrate his brother’s redemption. When we read this story, it’s hard to see that it’s about an assault on community. It seems to be more about God who forgives sinners no matter what they have done. But to Jesus’ listeners, it was clear that this story was about a family that was completely falling apart. At first, this family seemed like any typical Middle Eastern family. Jesus says in verse 11, “There was a man who had two sons.” But in the next 20 verses, Mr. Keller points out two great assaults unfolding on this family and on the community.
The first assault. Verse 12 says, “The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.'” Asking your father for money so that you could live a wild sinful life was pretty bad. But wanting it before your father even died, was even worse. Basically what this son was saying was, “Dad, I wish you dead.” If my youngest son Luke wished me dead, I would probably start crying. In those days, a Middle Eastern father would have responded not by crying, but by striking his son on the face for his audacity and driving him out of the house followed by several verbal and physical blows. In verse 12, we see the 1st assault came from the younger brother. His actions were an assault on the family. First, he assaulted his father’s estate. In ancient days, the eldest son got a double portion of the inheritance. Because there were 2 sons, the younger son would have gotten 1/3 of the estate. So in order to give his son his share of the inheritance, the father would have to sell part of his land, thus he assaulted his father’s estate. Second, the younger son assaulted the family’s name. Back then, news spread like wild fire. Especially when it had something to do with an insolent son. So when the community heard about what had happened, the family’s name, the family’s reputation, would have been ruined. Third, the younger son assaulted the cohesion of the family. What the son was saying was, “I want out of here. I don’t want to have anything more to do with this family. Good-bye!”
The second assault. When it seems that the family was completely ruined, in the middle of the story, we see that that the younger son comes to his senses, repents, and is unconditionally welcomed back home by his father. In the moment of the greatest triumphant though, something else happens. The older brother gets mad and assaults the integrity of the family. Now a second assault comes through the older brother. He’s mad because all the property is his. But because the younger son returned, he would lose another 1/3 of it when his father actually died. So out of anger and resentment, the older brother refuses to go in to the welcoming home party. A major crisis was still going on. And the community would have seen this and would have thought, “Those rebellious kids! What’s wrong with them?” So now there’s an assault on the community as well.
What is causing this family to fall apart? It’s hard to see it, but when you look closely at the parable, we see that it’s idolatry. The younger son had lived with his father for many years. He ate with him, obeyed him, did what he was asked to do, cleaned the kitty litter box, did his homework, and so on. But when he says, “I’m tired of waiting for you to die. Give me my money now!”, it reveals that he had only been obeying his father for one reason. The only thing that the younger son wanted was his father’s possessions, not the joy and the happiness of his father. I’m sure at first, he wanted to have both the father and the father’s things. But when he realized that he couldn’t have both, he chose the father’s things over the father. In this way, he revealed that he loved the father’s things more than the father himself, more than the beauty of the father. So he had to cut out. According to the Bible, this is the definition of idolatry, loving the things of this world more than loving God. Many of us are like this. Like the younger son, we serve God for many years. We go to church, read the Bible, obey the 10 Commandments, but all along our hearts are actually on the Father’s things, not on the Father. Their heart’s are on God’s blessings. They want good health, a job, a spouse, life to go well, and so on. Of course, wanting these things aren’t bad. But what if God doesn’t give them to you? What will you do? When you see the chance for love or the chance for money will you say, “You know what. Give me mine, I’m out of here!”
I’m sure we’re all saying, “That’s not me. I’m here in church today. I haven’t cut out on God.” But there’s another form of idolatry, elder brother idolatry. When the younger brother came home, it was pretty obvious that this was the greatest day in the father’s life. The father was so happy that he ran to his son, kissed him, and killed the fattened calf. In those days beef was a delicacy, sort of like shrimp scampi and fillet mignon is to us. And whenever the fattened was killed, that meant the whole community was invited. But the elder son didn’t care. The only thing he could see was that the father was now spending his share of the inheritance. Cleary, the elder son’s heart had been set on the father’s things, just as much as the younger brother’s. He said to his father in verses 29-30, “Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” This son is mad. He’s angry. He’s so furious at the father that he decides to publicly humiliate him by making him leave the feast and coming out to get him. In those days, the father would have never left the party. But this father did. It’s obvious that the elder son didn’t care about his father’s feelings. He didn’t care that he was shattering his father’s heart. The only thing he cared about was the father’s things.
So now we have two forms of idolatry. The younger brother’s idolatry is in the form of his immorality, “I’ll do what I want.” And the elder brother’s idolatry is in the form of self-righteousness and anger. Why are self-righteousness and anger idolatry? Because the older brother feels that the father owes him. He says in verse 29 out of anger, “'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” This son has been faithfully reading the Bible, going to church, obeying the 10 Commandments, doing whatever the father had asked him to do. But, he’s angry at the father because he wanted the father’s things, not the father. If you’re angry and things don’t go the way you want or expect them to, then you also have your heart set on the father’s things and not on the father. You’re not obeying and serving God because of who He is, because of His Beauty and His Majesty. You’re not delighting in Him, but you’re just obeying and serving Him to get what you want. So there’s a good boy and a bad boy idolatry, and both destroy the community.
How does idolatry destroy the community? St. Augustine, a 6th century Pope, describes this best in his book, Confessions. St. Augustine had a problem with 2 things, food and women. He said that he couldn’t get enough of beautiful bodies, smells, and tastes. But because he was so driven to beauty, he realized that 3 things were happening in his life. 1st, he was always empty and unsatisfied. 2nd, he was always doing things that he didn’t want to do but kept on doing. 3rd, his relationships were always breaking up. His theory was, all of our problems come from “disordered loves”. God created the world with a certain order. Material things were created to be on a lower order than people. Some people love Twitter, but Twitter is not above people. Also, God created people to be on a lower order than God. We all love our moms, our dads, our families our friends, but we should never regard them more important than God. So, if we put beauty, money, possessions, or our kitty cats over people, then we have what St. Augustine calls a disordered love. And if we put people above God, if we love them more than we love God, that’s also a disordered love. All disordered loves lead to brokenness. And all the problems we have in life come from disordered loves. Why is this? Tim Keller mentions 3 problems that disordered love creates: 1) It starves you, 2) It emotionally enslaves you, 3) It divides you.
1st, disordered love starves you. Even though our nation is so blessed, we are the most depressed, most divorced, and the most suicidal nation in the world. Why is this? God created us in a certain way that only he can satisfy us. So when we love the things of the world, we’re hungry for me. We’re never satisfied. The things of this world cannot satisfy us. Even though we have them, we still want more. We’re hungry and we’re starving for more.
2nd, disordered love emotionally enslaves you. What was the problem of the elder brother? He said in verse 29, “You never gave me even a young goat.” His heart was on his father’s possessions. He was enslaved by his father’s things. They became his ultimate hope, his ultimate path to what he thought was happiness. So to get them, he worked hard for his father, faithfully, day and night. But when they were jeopardized, he went crazy.
3rd, disordered love divides you. So why does idolatry destroy a community? Tim Keller says, the best way to understand this is by looking at how St. Augustine explains the beauty of the Trinity in book Confessions.. The Biblical definition of the Trinity is that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three in one. Though there are 3 of them, all of them together make up one God. They are a community of beings, knowing and loving one another and communicating with each other. This is what a community is. A community is made up of loving relationships working together, not outside of each other, not over or above each other, but together. Jesus said in John 17:1, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” This means that the Father lives to glorify the Son and the Son lives to glorify the Father and the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit lives to glorify the Father and the Son. Each divine being lives to serve the others, to glorify the others, and to adore the others. They don’t take the glory for themselves, but they give it. And if we were made in the image of a Triune God, then that means there’s 2 reasons for our existence:
1st, our life is about community. If we put power, love, achievements, money, honor, and glory above friends, family, church community, peers, coworkers, or anyone, we’re going to kill and destroy our community. God did not make us to be like this. Genesis 1:26 tells us that the Triune God made us in their own image, in their own likeness. We were made to be a community.
2nd, our life is meant to do what the Triune God does with himself. Each of the divine beings center on the others. They don’s say, “Me, me, me”, but each one gives glory and adoration to the others. So if we were made in the image of God, then we were meant to put God in the center of our lives. We were meant to serve God and to glorify God, not ourselves. What happens when we struggle to put God first? God promises that he’ll give us peace and joy in our hearts. He’ll do this by fulfilling all of our needs for power, beauty, honor, love and rest. This is what God does. And we can give them to others. But if we seek these things in other finite human beings, we’re going to be too broken up and too angry like the elder brother, and too addicted like the younger brother to care about anyone. We, as sinful human beings, need to have our disordered loves healed so that God becomes the beauty and the center or our lives. We can’t just believe in God and obey him, if we do, then we’ll be like the younger or the elder brother. But we have to completely center lives on the Triune God and say, “I Don’t care what you give me or how many prayers you answer. I love you. I find you not useful just to get things, but I find you beautiful and I serve You for who You are.”
II. Idolatry is overcome by agony. Do you remember what a typical Middle Eastern father would have done if his son said to him, “Give me my inheritance now!”? He would have struck him on the face and would have driven him out of the house followed by several verbal and physical blows. Usually when someone we love insults or hurts us badly, we cover the wound by turning our affection of them into anger and bitterness. What if the father had done that? Then there would be no chance for reconciliation. The son would have never wanted to come back. Even if he tried, the fathers’ heart would not have been open to him. But what did the father do? Verse 12 tells us that “he divided his property between them.” Here, the Geek word for “Property” does not mean possession, rather Jesus uses the Greek word, “Bios”, which means biology, life. The only way for the father to give 1/3 of the property was by selling part of it. They didn’t have banks, ATM machines, or even credit cards like we do. The father would have had to sell part of his ancestral land. This was a hard thing to do. In those days, land was the family’s identity. It was their life. But because of the younger son’s sins, the only way the father could keep open the possibility of salvation, was to tear his own life apart. The father suffered for his son’s sake. He did so for the possibility of his son’s redemption.
Near the end of St. Augustine’s Confessions, he tells us how his soul was healed. He says, “It’s all about beauty.” If we just say, “Well, I guess I better love God more and put him before my family, otherwise I’m going to screw my family up.” Or, “I better serve God more than I like making money because if I don’t, I might wind up worrying too much and doing something totally unethical.” But St. Augustine says we can’t do that with an act of the will. We can’t just say, “Well I guess I better serve God before anything else.” It takes more than an conscience effort. He says that the answer to all of our problems, the answer to all the breakups in our community, the answer to all disordered loves is, we have to see God as beautiful. When St. Augustine saw the beauty of God he said, “How have you loved me, oh Father, who did not spare your only Son, but delivered him up for us. How have you loved us, Lord Jesus, who though equal with the Father became obedient unto death, even to death on the cross. Father, your Son became both victor and victim for us. Victor because he was the victim. Father, your Son became Priest and sacrifice for us. Priest because he was the sacrifice. Out of slaves he made us sons because though he was a Son, he became a slave and served you and us instead of himself. Rightly then is my hope fixed strongly on him and this will heal all the diseases of my soul. There is nothing more beautiful, there is no more beautiful sight or even thought than that an infinitely perfect and happy being would descend into this world and sacrifice everything, for ungrateful undeserving human beings like us. That an infinitely happy being who doesn’t have to do, would tear his life apart for us.” If you even get a glimpse of the beauty of that, it will heal the diseases of your soul. You’ll have to go after the beauty of God. God’s beauty will have to engage action. It will center you on God so that you’ll find the freedom to love everyone around you. May God help you to find the beauty in him.