WHAT IS THE NATURE OF GOD'S HEART?
Jesus Talks about Acceptance, Love and Grace
(A look at Luke 15-17.)
Light in the Closet strongly believes that God works in a uniquely individual way with each of His children. We sometimes have very little tolerance for those whose differences make us uncomfortable. All of God’s children have value and dignity, and it is wrong for any of us to deny dignity to our brothers and sisters. It is dangerous to judge someone else because the motives behind the actions are hard to see. Some, like the Biblical prodigal son in Luke chapter 15, take advantage of their relationship with God, squandering what God bestows on them. The prodigal son was driven by his passions and lusts, yet God ran to meet him and welcomed him home even though we was only returning to satisfy his physical hunger.
The Prodigal Son - Amazing Love, Amazing Grace
The story of the prodigal son was told by Jesus in response to complaints by the scribes and Pharisees. The Pharisees were upset with Jesus because he associated with tax gathers and sinners. I am convinced that many who say they follow Christ today, if they heard Jesus preach and saw who He associated with, would have serious objections as well.
In Luke 15 we read: “Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
It is a fact that Jesus went into places that were “off limits” to the respectable people of that day. He ate in the homes of people of low reputation and with those whom everyone agreed were sinners. Some today try to quantify this behavior by claiming that each of these encounters resulted in everyone present turning from their sinful ways and that Jesus knew this ahead of time so therefore these people really were more like unripe fruit that Jesus was picking. Sorry, that does not really cut it. Those who knew Jesus then and watched his ministry knew better. The Pharisees did not accuse Jesus of associating with sinners, because these people then all became “good tithe-paying Jews.”
What was Jesus’s attitude towards those who are sinners? This becomes evident as we continue in Luke 15:
In Luke 15 we read: “So He told them this parable, saying, ‘What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ “I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
Wow Jesus! Shouldn’t I also be rejoiced over? Since I am not lost that would make me one of those righteous ninety-nine. Are you saying that the angels consider the one person who is lost more valuable than me and my ninety-eight friends. That does not seem fair to me. Please Jesus can you explain this more?
So Jesus does (continuing in Luke): In Luke 15 we read: “Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’” In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
I don’t know Jesus, that seems a bit vague. All of those ten coins had equal worth. Why would the one coin that was lost be more precious than the other nine? All those coins looked the same, they were identical and had equal value. Why does this woman make such an effort to find just one?
Jesus continues with one of the best known stories, the prodigal son: In Luke 15 we read: “And He said, “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me ‘ So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him."
But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.’ So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.
Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’
But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with pros-titutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’
And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”
This story has been visited and revisited thousands of times by many preachers. Some call this the water mark of perfect repentance. They claim that the prodigal son left the depravity of the world (the pig sty) pulled himself up and made the long journey back home, contrite and fully aware of the magnitude of his sin. The son was repentant and deeply sorry for his actions and came to his father expecting nothing but scorn and a place with the servants. Wow what a humble spirit! But, the father in his mercy ran to greet him and gave him a reward for his effort of contrition and the long road back he had to travel to get right with him. Gee, how neatly this fits into the legalistic mentality. I suppose it could be looked at in this way, but those who push this interpretation, I believe are dead wrong! That interpretation is out of context, and way off the mark.
Lets look at the “whole” teaching of Jesus. What was his intent? What do the other two stories have to do with the prodigal son story? Are these random stories that Jesus was telling? Or, was Jesus using these three stories to answer the accusations of the Pharisees and teach relevant truth? I go with the later.
So what was Jesus addressing? We see that tax gathers were coming to Jesus to listen to what he had to say. (The lowest of the low to the Jewish people of that day. These were Jewish turn-coats who worked for the Roman government, excised large taxes from their friends and family, and kept huge amounts for themselves. The closest thing we have in today’s society would be criminals who demand paid protection from store owners.) Also, the sinners were coming to him (pretty much everyone else). This distinction is very telling. Why not just state that Jesus was befriending sinners? Wouldn’t that cover everyone anyway? Why the distinction?
It is clear from this statement that the Jews believed in a hierarchy of sin. The tax gathers where considered the lowest of the low, beyond redemption and association. It was difficult for them to see Jesus in the company of sinners in general (prostitutes, deviants, and low-life) but to be with a tax-gather! Why did the tax gathers occupy the lowest rung? Because they effected the Pharisees and scribes in the most direct way. They went toe-to-toe with them, disrespected them and demanded vast amounts of money and goods. The tax-gathers stole from the Jewish people which effected their ability to tithe. They usurped the authority of the Pharisees. To most of the Jewish people, these tax-gathers were beyond redemption and wholly outside the Jewish communities.
Through these three stories, Jesus addresses the issue of acceptance of sinners in general and the incorrect idea that some in society had less worth than others.
All in God's Family are Precious
He starts by telling the story of the lost sheep. All the sheep belong to the same flock and so members of the same family. They belong to a community that travels together and is under the watchful eye of the shepherd. In this story, one sheep out of one hundred is lost. The shepherd looks diligently until he finds that sheep, grabs it, flings it across his shoulders and carries it all the way back to the flock. Jesus is saying to his accusers, Look, we are all part of the same family. If one of our family members is lost, I am going to do what it takes to bring them back, even if I have to carry him all the way myself!
OK, great lesson Jesus. I get it, we are all Jews and we should all be together. I may not agree, but I get it.
All Have Equal Value and Worth
Then Jesus turns it up a notch. He tells another story about ten coins. The first story had one hundred sheep, and there was only one Ba-a-a-d one among them. Now in this story a woman has only ten coins, ALL of equal value. Why the drop in amounts? It is harder to ignore one in ten as it would be one in one hundred. In the story, the woman drops a coin, and cleans the whole house until she finds it. As in the first story, there is much rejoicing over the one that was found. We may have questioned the value of the one sheep lost, but all of these coins have equal value. Jesus is saying that all of us (no matter who awful our sins) have the exact same value. This addresses the idea that some sins or sinners are worse than others. Jesus is saying that we are all the same and no one is outside of redemption.
Wow Jesus, that is pretty radical. When is lunch being served? Got any fish and bread handy? We would like to see you do that food miracle again!
God’s Love is Radical
Jesus is not finished though. Next he tells the story of the prodigal son. Although he is the youngest son, he has the audacity to ask his father for his inheritance early. This is curious on a couple of levels. He was the “younger” son and the bulk would have normally fallen to the older son. However, the father divides the inheritance equally between the two boys, which is not the norm culturally. The Jewish people of the day would have seen this as a terrible breach in etiquette. And the message of Jesus that all those in the family deserve the same inheritance would be unmistakable. Normally in Jewish culture, the eldest daughter would have to be married before the younger, and the older son would of gotten his inheritance before the younger (if the younger received any at all). In this story, this very kind father agrees to the son’s request and gives to him a full share. What does this son do with his wealth? He squanders it on loose living and whores. Imagine if you will, listening to Jesus back then and hearing these words come out of his mouth. This disrespectful son is not much of a son at all. He is driven by his lusts, greed and a willingness to reject all the good advice his father has to offer. Yet the father gives him an inheritance anyway.
I’ve often heard people say, “If grace is so powerful and people can be forgiven for anything they do, then what keeps people from sinning? You have to repent first and not sin anymore to be saved. If grace were totally free, then we would want to continue to do those things we enjoy and are tempted by. There has to be accountability!”
Jesus’s answers to these questions are radically grace filled. In the story of the prodigal son, there is very little accountability. There is, however, dire consequences for this young man’s choices.
In the story, the son eventually runs out of money and is forced to find work. Having no skills to speak of, he ends up doing the worst job imaginable, and though he apparently tries to be self-sufficient is not able to make enough of an income to even feed himself.
At this point, the boy becomes hungry and his stomach begins to growl. He remembers the graciousness of his father and how much better his father treated his workers than his boss was treating him. Even though he was probably embarrassed to go, his appetite is strong, and he comes up with a plan. “I will tell my father that I know because of my actions and the way I left home, that I do not deserve to be his son anymore, and perhaps he will give me a job? Hey, that could work!”
On a personal note, I have to question his motives. His appetites drove him away from his father, and apparently his appetite has turned his attention towards home. I don’t see this trek towards home as a perfect picture of repentance. It was his desire to be fed that put him on the road home. He recog-nized that his father could meet his need, and even though his motives were selfish, the fact that he turned to his father for help was enough for his father to respond.
The story goes on. “While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” The father was anxiously awaiting his son’s return. I picture the father in the highest tower of his home continually gazing towards the horizon for any sign of the child. How long was the son gone? How long did the father sit there waiting? Would it not have been prudent for the father, if he was so interested, to have one of his servants take on the task of lookout? No, it is the father himself that sits and eagerly waits. As soon as he catches a glimpse of the son on the road, “while he was still a long way off” the father runs out of the house and races towards him, hugs him, and kisses him.
The son then goes into his rehearsed speech intending to get yet something else from his father and says, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ He intends to go on with the rest of the speech about becoming a hired hand and may have inquired as to when lunch might be served. But he is not able to finish the practiced speech. The father interrupts him and commands the servants there to quickly get the very best robe, new sandals, some bling (the ring was a sign of son-ship) and kill the fatted calf they had been preparing (perhaps for the son’s hopeful return) and celebrate!
I’ve often wondered how effective this parenting style would be. I know with my children I tend to try and steer them towards positive choices. If one of my children behaved like the prodigal son, squandered what was his and then returned for more, I doubt that my response would be “welcome home!” I love my children but there are certain actions I will not put up with and those would have dire consequences if my children were to engage in them.
My response to the return of the prodigal son would look more like this:
“So the son returned to the father’s home, came up to the door and knocked. The father had heard a rumor from a friend at work that day, that his delinquent son may be returning home. The knock at the door sent the father’s heart racing at the thought that this might actually be him. He told a servant to answer the door and the servant came back a bit nervous and said, “Master, your son has returned.”
The father was surprised and wanted time to consider his response. He told the servant to have the son wait in his office for him. He told another servant to find the eldest brother who was out in the field working, so that they might discuss together what to do. The servant did what he was told.
The older brother finally made it home, and the father and him considered together which course of action to take. Meanwhile, the prodigal son waited anxiously in the father's office while his stomach growled.
Finally the father and the older brother enter the study. They are offended by the smell of this young man, who has been sleeping with pigs for the past few months. The father reels back, and gets angry at the servant for letting this boy into his office in such a condition. “Quick, take him outside and hose him off,” the father demands, “Find one of his brother's old tunics to wear. And somebody, open a window!
After the son is cleaned up enough to be let back in the house, the father finally grants him audience and listens to the full speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”
“Is that it?” quips the Father. The father considers his son’s proposal. The story would continue from there with some bartering and perhaps at some point the boy may get a meal. I doubt it would have been a free lunch. The boy would have to prove he was contrite and I'm sure a curfew, as well as other restrictions, would be part of their new arrangement. Most would agree that my version is better parenting, and a much more normal response.
Jesus uses this story to contrast the difference between us and God. God is much more loving, and forgiving than our sense of “fairness” would allow for. Jesus continues “his version” of the story with the elder brother’s response.
Unlike my version, Jesus tells of an elder brother that discovers his younger delinquent brother is home only after the party has started. It is the sound of feasting that is his first clue. A feast he was not even invited to! He is very angry and confronts the father with the words, “this son of yours...” The father replies with the words, “He is your brother! Rejoice, he is home!”
In Jesus’ version God is looking for any sign that we may turn to him. When he sees the smallest gesture on our part, the smallest inroad, He comes running to meet us and ushers us into His home, gives us a gold ring, the finest clothing (the righteousness of God) to cover our stinky dirty frame, and throws the party to end all parties!
How deep His love is for us! How much He desires for us to be with Him. Is this good parenting? Perhaps not, but it is the heart of God and illustrates how ALL of His children are equal and precious in His sight. It is God who looks for us. It is Him who runs to us. It is He who carries us home.
I would love to stop the story here. It is a good ending. God loves us no matter what! However, there was another point Jesus addressed as well concerning the tax collectors.
Jesus Affirms the Value of the Tax Collector
In the Jewish culture, if someone in the family chose to go outside of the faith, or took up inappropriate activities or a lifestyle, the family would often disown him and could even go so far as have a funeral service for them. They were seen as having nothing to contribute and were totally shunned from the community. Jesus saw an opportunity to address this issue as well in the story of The Unrighteous Steward. In Luke 15 we read:
“Now He was also saying to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’”
“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes. And (so) he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’
And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.
And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.
He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much.
Therefore, if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him. And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God. The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.
I have recapped most all of the chapter because it really needs to be looked at in its entirety. In fact, the discourse continues with a reference to the divorce conversation he had earlier, and the importance of stewardship explored in the story of the rich man and the poor man.
But I will not go into those here. Instead, let us unpack this very curious story that at first doesn't seem to relate at all to the prodigal son.
The first three stories talked about all God’s children having equal access, worth and value. No lifestyle or sin was outside of God’s love and grace. Jesus also teaches us that there is no hierarchy of sin. Now Jesus goes into a story that has implications as to the motives behind the shunning of the tax gatherers. We read earlier that one of the main complaints of the Pharisees is that the tax gatherers were stealing funds from their treasuries. Jesus starts with this.
The parable of The Unrighteous Steward parallels what the tax gatherers were doing; collecting money, over charging, and keeping some for themselves. Basically they were stealing from the Romans and the Jewish people. They were living off of what was not rightfully theirs. Jesus tells of a dishonest manager who gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar. His master finds out about this and decides to fire him. Afraid for his welfare, this manager comes up with a plan to go to his master’s debtors and get them to alter their bills to reflect less than they owe. He does this to get on their good side and is basically buying their friendship. The master finds out and although the manager is still fired, is impressed by the cleverness of the man.
At first glance, this story appears out of nowhere. Jesus through the story is saying, “Hey Pharisees, you can learn something about business from these tax gatherers. Yes, they are unrighteous, but they still have something to contribute.” Jesus says it like this,
“...And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.
Jesus is saying, yes I know they are sinners, but they still have something to offer. They are shrewed business people and you could learn a thing or two from them. These unrighteous people are stealing from each other, but at least are using their money to buy friendships and create associations. THAT IS BETTER THAN YOU ARE DOING! Wow Jesus, could you be harsher? Are you saying we should be like the tax gatherers? No, but Jesus is saying that they have value, if only to show us by contrast the true nature of our motives.
Jesus Also Cares for the Pharisees
Jesus then pointedly addresses the motive of the Pharisees and scribes: “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. Therefore, if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?
Jesus, out of concern for the Pharisees, challenges them. He says they have been mishandling the money they have been entrusted with. If they cannot be trusted to handle material goods (that are God’s tithes not theirs) then how can they be trusted to handle the important treasure like the priesthood of the people, and the spiritual well-being of the Jewish nation? He does not say this to anger them, but to challenge them to righteous accountability.
A few years later, Paul will write to the Roman church saying, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this -- not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way....Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.
Jesus is letting the Pharisees know that they are no better than, and in some ways worse than the tax collectors.
He goes on to say: "No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Again he has addressed their motives. Who do they serve? Why do they judge others? Is it because they want financial gain, or are they genuinely concerned with these lost souls? If the latter, why are the sinners being shunned? Why are the Pharisees not doing the work of God and opening a door to these fellow Jews?
The scripture finishes with: "Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him. And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.
The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.”
Jesus affirms the law, but questions the motives of the Pharisees. He goes past the lesson of who is a sinner, and makes a straight-forward observation. Your motives are for personal gain, wealth and to gain social standing through self-righteous efforts. You may fool the community, but God knows your heart. Don’t think you can force your way into Heaven.
Jesus loves us all. He loves those who think themselves righteous and those who know they are unrighteous. Jesus came into this world not to condemn the world, but so it may be saved through Him.
“If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.”
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