A Son Runs Away From Home But Then Comes Back
September 16, 2007
日本キリスト教団 頌栄教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Shoei Church, Church of Christ, Japan
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA
1. For today's gospel reading the famous passage called "The Parable Of 'The Prodigal Son'" was read. It is written that way even in the subheading in The New Interconfessional Bible. However, there is something we need to be careful about in calling it "The Parable Of 'The Prodigal Son'" because when we designate it that way, for some reason or other we might end up hearing it as a story of "A bad fellow who had lived it up wildly rehabilitates and turns into an honest man." Was Jesus giving a message about that? Not just here but when we read chapter fifteen in its entirety, it doesn't seem that way at all.
2. This is one of three parables Jesus gave [in this chapter]. The first parable is the section from verse four, and the subheading for it is recorded as "The Parable Of 'The Lost Sheep'." The story tells of a shepherd tracking down a stray sheep. It is not a story that says that some errant sheep has a change of heart and becomes good. The second parable is "The Parable Of 'The Lost Coin'." This, similarly, is a story about a woman searching for a coin that she had lost. It is clearly not a story of a coin with a twisted spirit becoming an honest coin. When we consider it within the train of thought, even the one we read today does not have the theme of a prodigal son becoming a diligent son. It is the story of a son who had gone off and disappeared but has come back. Therefore, as today's sermon title I have not used "The Prodigal Son Has Rehabilitated"; I have used "A Son Runs Away From Home But Then Comes Back." To begin with, Jesus didn't say one word about a son being rehabilitated or reborn. It is just the tale of a runaway son famished with hunger going back home. Through and through the major point is that he goes back home.
Separated Far From The Father
3. Let's try to follow the story's plot. To begin, please look from verses twelve to sixteen. A certain man had two sons. One day the younger brother asks his father for his share of the property, "Father, please give me the share of the property which I am to receive."
4. The method for the distribution of property was set forth in the law. The eldest son receives double that of the others. Thus, in this instance, the younger brother's share was one third. He certainly does have a share of his own. However, no where in the world, not even in the Jewish world does a father, while still living, normally distribute his assets to his children. Even if he did distribute his assets in some kind of special situation, as long as the father was living, all of the assets would still be placed under his authority. A child only obtains ownership and does not have the right to dispose or to sell.
5. Yet though, this son not only asked for a distribution of the property, the scripture says, he "exchanged it all for money" and set off on a journey. This is not merely an act where he ignored the proper conventions. It means that the lower ranking son "had regarded his father as dead already." Naturally as it should be, the son had not been living on his own so far in life. He had been living so far with everything he needed in order to live being given to him from his father. Nevertheless, even though he had been receiving absolutely everything from his father, he was regarding his father as [some] being already dead.
6. This is the relationship, to begin with, of the younger son and the father. So far the younger son was physically near to his father. He was in his father's house. He was not far away. But, we could say that his heart was already separated from him from a great distance. It was not because he set off on a journey that he was separated so far away from him. He was already far away. His father was a dead being. There was a huge distance between father and son.
7. Well, as we would expect it, Jesus was not telling any gossip. He was telling about God and human. Don't you think it is possible for there to be a relationship like that between God and a human? In spite of the fact that God is near, for some people God is just a dead being, or they wish he was dead. The situation is possible where a human being ignores and rejects a relationship from his or her end of things. The parable begins from there.
8. With that then, let's change focus from the younger son to the father. Generally speaking, in Jewish society the father had exceedingly great authority and legal power over the family; because according to the law of Moses, a son rebellious against his parents was supposed to be dealt the penalty of death by stoning, (Deuteronomy 21:18ff). So, even in this instance in this story, with all the power behind him, the father could have kept this younger brother at home as society would have expected him to. Treating the son like a slave, he could have placed him under watch and tied him down to the house. But the father didn't do that. Why [didn't he]? Because relationships don't change by brute force or legal compulsion. Because his son would never be close to him by such a method.
9. Then, astonishing as it is, the father divides the property as requested. Everyone who heard this probably thought, "What kind of father is that?" But, when God was compared to this father in the parable, I'm pretty sure many were thinking along those same lines, don't you? Doesn't the same thing happen between God and people? There are occasions when God does do as a person wishes things to be and as a person wants. Just like this smaller son, it can happen that even though [we] kick God [our] Father [we] still get a hold of what [we] were asking for and see the fulfillment of what [we] were requesting. And often times without even thinking about [our] relationship to God, we think that we're happy and blessed just because these wishes of ours like they've been had been fulfilled. If each of our wishes comes into our possession one by one, we rejoice with a wild boisterous dance.
10. However, this narrative, which Jesus gave, clearly shows that the fulfillment of a person's wishes do not simply mean happiness. I say that because this younger brother is obviously unhappy and messed up. Though he had all the time been with his dad yet he was separated a long way off from him. That was a disaster of unhappiness. Then after what he wanted materialized, he became more and more alienated from him. That must have been worse still, even more [remoteness]. For, that's exactly the same [thing] as [when] the sheep got separated from the shepherd and went wandering about in the wilderness, and it is the same [thing] as [when] the coin got separated from the hand of the woman and rolled into the darkness.
11. And if that truly was something disastrous, misfortunate and unhappy, the time would soon come when its bad nature would become clear. He would come head to head with his own bad times. It is written as follows. "When he had squandered just about everything, a fierce famine took place in that region, and he began to have a hard time even eating," (verse fourteen). When he had been loaded with the things given to him by his father, he did not realize the truth of how far he had been from his father. He did not realize his misfortune either. But, he did realize it when he had lost that which had been given to him.
12. Make no mistake about it. He did not become [alert] to his misfortune and unhappiness because a fierce famine took place in the region. The fact that he was already in a bad state became clear to him via the famine. Similarly, when we too are loaded with the things we have been given by God the Father, we do not notice the disaster of it all even though we are separated from the father. We realize it when we've lost it all. Don't you agree with me on that? In some cases it may be food. It may be neighbors, family, health, or property. Or it may even [involve] our own lives. Yes, that's right. Sooner or later everyone will definitely have to come face to face with this. It's all from God. When we become aware that we are losing it, how our relationship is with God the Father will come back to us as a question again.
Returning To Father
13. That's what happened to the youngest son. So what did he do after that? During the famine he came to his senses and said, "Get up from here and go to dad and say to him, 'Oh father, I have sinned against heaven and against my father also. I no longer am qualified to be called your son. Please make me one of the employees.'" A major point in this is not that he has done a self-examination of his lifestyle of dissipation. That is not the crucial point, rather it is the fact that he resolved to go back to his father. It is the fact that he changed directions and that in having truly changed directions he had begun his walk. He had taken the very first step back.
14. But, human resolve and action were not all there was to it. In verse twenty the text says, "While he was still separated far from him." Yes, he was still far away. Though he was coming nearer to the house, there was still a huge huge distance between father and child. That's how it still looked; because just as he put it, he was no longer worthy to be called son. So, who could bridge that distance, who could fill that gap between them? Not the son; but the father [could]. That's what Jesus said. The father spotted his son. The father burst with mercy and compassion. The father took off running to him. Yes, he did, he ran to him! And he hugged his neck and kissed him. Because of the father the distance was down to zero. Then, the father ordered the servants, "Hurry and bring the best clothes, dress my son, put a ring on his finger, and put footwear on his feet," (verse twenty-two). The father treated the returned son as his son. At which point the son became his son in the truest sense.
15. In the same way then, God himself is ultimately the one who bridges the gap between God and a human being. The father runs up to his child. God runs up to people. Jesus was telling this [because] he knew it. He knew that the very reason that he was on this earth was to project forth the figure of the father running forward to each person. That's what it means by God the Father's having sent Christ into the world of people. That's what it means by his having crucified his only son for our sins. The distance was down to zero not because we did anything, but because of Christ's cross which God had set up for him and because of the atonement for sins which came through the cross. That's how we've become accepted by God, and then in the truest sense, we become children of God.
People Separated Afar Off The Same Way
16. Well, the story doesn't end with that. Let's keep looking at still one more thing. The older brother comes on the scene at this stage. When the lower ranking brother returned home, his big brother was in the field. The older brother was sweating out there in the field working when the father said, "Let's eat and celebrate" on behalf of my returned son, and he held a big dinner, and the younger brother was eating and drinking by his father's side. After returning from the field, the older brother heard the buzz of music and dancing, and then when he found out the reason for the celebration he became enraged. He refused to join the celebration. I don't think he was overdoing it. His opinion was justifiable. The older brother said to his father, "Here's how I see it. I have served my father many years. Not once have I ever gone against your orders. Yet for all that, you have never given me even one kid of a goat that I might feast with my friends, have you? Yet, when that son of yours comes back after eating up your house and home with prostitutes, you slay a fat calf for him," (verses twenty-nine and thirty).
17. First of all, let's interpret his words on face value. I doubt actually that he never did go against his [father's] orders. Since he was also human, we could argue that he did a wrong thing or two which was hidden from his father, but there is no need to vilify him. Getting past that though, the issue of whether he was a truly righteous person, in this case, doesn't really matter much. It's like this parable doesn't even take issue with whether or not the returned son truly was rehabilitated and became diligent. The major point between the younger son and the father is the distance between them. Also, the major point between the older brother and the father is the same [as that of the younger son and the father]. It is the distances between the [two] pairs.
18. The father says to this [angry] son. "Oh my child, you have always been with me. All that is mine is yours," (verse thirty-one). That's right, the brother had always been with the father as one would expect him to be. But, yet now he was not able to treat his father's joy as his own joy. He could not join in with his father's joy. The older son calls his own brother whom his father was taking joy in as "that son of yours," (verse thirty). The senior brother places himself at a far spot from his own brother. In consequence, he places himself at a remote spot from the joy of his father. In effect, the senior brother also is separated far from his father just like the junior one once had been separated far from his father.
19. Even here at this point it is the father who acts in order to fill the gap. The father steps outside the house and draws near to the older brother to soothe him [because] he refuses to come in. The father speaks directly to the heart of this son, and beckons him to share his joy with him. Therefore, repentance for him was not about becoming a better person than he was. It was about accepting his brother whom his father loved and sitting down at the table of celebration with his father. By doing that then, the senior brother would also become a son in the truest sense.
20. As for those who have already been Christians for a long time, for those who have been serving God for a long period with an awareness already of themselves as children of God, perhaps this repentance like that being required of the older brother is being required of you. So that you might live joining in with the father's heart truly as a child of God.