Philippians 2:6-11
Luke 15:11-24

Because it is often easy to get lost in the forest for the trees, I’d like for us to take a step back and take a gander at the big picture.

In Luke 15, Jesus weaves together these three splendid stories so that His listeners will be enabled to comprehend something about who His Father is and what He is like. In contrast to the thinking of the day held by the religious teachers, that certain people (the poor, lepers, women, tax collectors, gentiles, sinners) did not matter to God; and therefore, were to be shunned; Jesus paints a picture, especially in the story of the prodigal son, of a God that is always seeking, constantly searching for ALL lost souls and is filled with great joy when those lost souls allow themselves to be found.

Last week, the focus was on the prodigal son; especially as it concerned him coming to his senses and then making a decision to return to his father’s home. And I posed the thought-provoking question, Is it possible that some of us might be living between coming to our senses and coming home? And I encouraged all of us to consider making a decision to come home.

Today, I want to explore the actions of the father of the prodigal.

But before I read the story of the prodigal son, I would like to do some Bible Study with you aided by Professor of Theology, Kenneth Bailey, who for over 20 years of lived and taught throughout the middle-east. Bailey penned four books on Luke 15, including this one, Jacob and the Prodigal.

Bailey notes that we often think of this parable solely in terms of featuring three people; the father, the son and the older brother who appears at the end of the scene. However, reading between the lines affirms what Bible scholars know, that the stories Jesus tells are about people living in community.

In each of the first two parables in this trilogy the community is called to gather for a celebration. … Like the shepherd and the woman, the father invites the community to a festive banquet. Anticipating a crowd, he orders the butchering of a calf rather than a sheep or a duck. Community based professional musicians are hired for the occasion. The older brother has a circle of friends who live nearby and who could attend a party for him. In short, this is a parable about three people living in a community, a community that is just offstage throughout the parable. Each twist and turn of the story expects the reader/listener to be aware of that offstage presence. 1

This community aspect of the parable is vitally important in fully appreciating the picture Jesus paints of who His Father is and what He is like. For the father goes against three mid-east traditions in full view of the community.

First, the father grants his son’s demand for inheritance.

The text implies that the father (in violation of long-established custom) grants both the inheritance and the right to sell, knowing full well that the exercise of this unprecedented privilege will expose his family to public shame.” 2

Secondly, the father desires to spare his son the kezazah ceremony. (You recall from last week, the Kezazah ceremony was developed to shun any Jewish boy who lost family money to gentiles).

The father also remembers the kezazah ceremony. He knows only too well how the village will treat his son when he returns in rags. Thus, the father also prepares a plan for their meeting. His plan is to reach the boy before the boy reaches the village and thereby protect him from the wrath of the community. The father realizes that if he is able to achieve reconciliation with his son in public, no one in the village will treat the prodigal badly. If the community witnesses the reconciliation, there will be no suggestion from any quarter that the kezazah ceremony should be enacted. But to achieve that goal, self-empting humiliation will be required of the father. … Spotting the boy “while he is at a distance” (i.e., before he reaches the village [Luke 15:20]), the father takes his long robes in his hand and runs down the crowded street to welcome his pig herder son. As he does so, he humiliates himself before the village. Out of compassion, he empties himself, assumes the form of a servant and runs to reconcile his estranged son. Traditional Middle Easterners, wearing long robes, do not run in public. They never have. To do so would be deeply humiliating. The father runs, knowing that doing so will deflect the attention of the community away from his ragged son to himself.” 3

Thirdly, the father bucks mid-east cultural norms and throws a party for his son! It would have been one thing to throw a private family-only party, but no, this father invites the entire community. Rather than a shunning kezazah ceremony, the father provides a welcome home party.

Now we are ready for the reading of the text and will hear it, I pray, with newly opened ears.

To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, “I want my share of your estate now before you die.” So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.” So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.”

But his father said to the servants, “Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.” So the party began. (Luke 15:11-24).

For the already mentioned three reasons, the story we naturally refer to as the story of the ‘prodigal son,’ ought rightly be known as the story of the ‘father’s extravagant love.’ For although the prodigal son plays an important role, he only deserves an academy award for best actor in a supporting role. Make no bones about it, the Oscar for best actor, unanimously and unequivocally, goes to the father for his demonstration of that extravagant love the Bible refers to as ‘GRACE.’

No one in their wildest dreams would have imagined that father humiliating himself the way he did before the entire community; especially after the way his son treated him.

Sometimes we treat our heavenly father the way the prodigal treated his father.

And like the prodigal did we feel don’t deserve our Father’s love. Sometimes we feel ugly and unlovable.

I was reading about a lady who fell prey to buying an ugly bedspread at a garage sale because she got it for only $5. Determined to take advantage of her bargain, she began to use it but each time she made that bed she would say to herself, “That’s an ugly bedspread, why did I ever buy that?” Until one day she went shopping at a Neiman Marcus store and saw the exact same bedspread on sale for $95. Suddenly, the bedspread took on new beauty and she couldn’t wait to get home and tell her husband. 4

This past Thursday, as we did the introduction of What’s So Amazing About Grace? one of the discussion questions was, “Do you feel covered by grace?”

And someone said, “What about you, Randy?”

And I said, “If it wasn’t for grace I would be lost. And I told them that just the day before I looked in the mirror and began to think about how ugly I can be, how much I mess up and how I don’t think I deserve to be a pastor. And then I remembered His grace has me covered. And how much did it cost for me to be covered by His grace? The life of God’s own Son. Suddenly my life took on new beauty.

Each time we receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we need to remember the lengths that God the Father went in sending His own Son, how deep His love for us really is.

In his fine book, Love Beyond Reason, John Ortberg writes:

God filled the world with beauty and mystery, with waterfalls and sunsets and glaciers and tropics and banana cream pie, but God said, “I don’t just love you this much.” God gave you a mind, the ability to know right from wrong, to choose good, life, but God said, “I don’t just love you this much.” God gave you people. Teachers, friends, heroes, persons with whom to know the joy of intimacy and community. But God said, “I don’t just love you this much.” Then God gave Jesus. Jesus was God’s ultimate attempt to let us know what we mean to Him. He was led to the cross to pay the debt we couldn’t. He was led to the cross and God said, “Now you can be freed from every regret. No more guilt. Every demand of justice satisfied. Now at last you understand the place you have in My heart.” 5

Max Lucado tells a story of something that occurred at Disney World in Orlando.

As always Cinderella’s Castle was packed with kids and parents. Suddenly all the children rushed to one side. Cinderella; the pristine princess, a gorgeous young girl with each hair in place, flawless skin, and a beaming smile had just entered through a door.

The other side of the castle was now vacant except for a boy maybe seven or eight. His age was hard to determine because of the disfigurement of his body. Dwarfed in height, face deformed, he stood watching quietly and wistfully. He wanted to be with the other children, reaching for Cinderella, calling her name. But the fear of yet another rejection had him frozen to the floor.

Like the father in today’s story, from across the room, Cinderella spotted the boy. Filled with love and compassion she immediately began walking in his direction, knelt at eye level with the stunned little boy, and placed a kiss on his face.

That act of grace by Cinderella points to the depth of the Father’s love for us. However; her act doesn’t fully tell the story. For the Father’s only Son accomplished much more than Cinderella did. 6

Cinderella gave only a kiss. When she stood to leave, she took her beauty with her; the boy was still deformed. What if Cinderella had done what Jesus did; what if she’d assumed his state? What if she had somehow given him her beauty and taken on his disfigurement?

That’s what Jesus did for us. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about the great exchange; what some call the reversal of fortunes:

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. (II Co. 5:21)

You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that by His poverty He could make you rich. (II Corinthians 8:9)

Wisdom unsearchable God the invisible,
Love indestructible in frailty appears.
Lord of infinity stooping so tenderly,
Lifts our humanity to the heights of His throne.
O what a mystery meekness and majesty,
Bow down and worship for this is your God 7

Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit Priest, founder and director of the world’s largest gang intervention and rehabilitation program, in his book, Tattoos on the Heart, retells the story of a 15-year-old gang member named Rico who was doing time.

Father Boyle and Rico were making their way to the prison chapel for worship when Boyle casually asked if Rico’s father would be coming. “No,” he said, “He’s a heroin addict, used to always beat me.”

Then something snapped inside Rico as he recalled: “I think I was in fourth grade, I was sent home in the middle of the day. When I got home, my dad says, ‘Why did they send you home?’

Cuz my dad always beat me, I said, ‘If I tell you, promise you won’t hit me?’”

He just said, “I’m your father, course I’m not gonna hit you.”

“So I told him.”

At that moment Rico began to cry uncontrollably. Boyle put his arm around him until he slowly calmed down. When Rico could finally speak again, he spoke quietly: “He beat me with a pipe … can you believe it, with a metal pipe.”

As they were entering the chapel, Boyle asked about his mother. Rico pointed to a small woman, “That’s her over there; there’s no one like her.” Then he said, “I’ve been locked up here for a year and half. She comes to see me every Sunday. You know how many buses she takes?”

Rico started sobbing again, but after catching his breath, he gasped through the sobs, “Seven buses; she takes seven buses.”

Father Boyle concludes this story with an analogy. “God the Father, as revealed in the person of Jesus, loves us like Rico’s mother loves her son; with commitment, steadfastness, and sacrifice.

According to Boyle, we have a God “who takes seven buses to get to us.” All throughout His ministry—His birth on Christmas morning, His meals with sinners, His healing of the sick, His death on the cross He showed us the heart of His Father, the God who takes a long journey of love to find us. 8

John Ortberg writes: “He is the finder of directionally-challenged sheep, the searcher of missing coins, the embracer of foolish prodigal sons. His favorite department is lost and found. His love has no limits, His grace has no measure.” 9

1 Bailey, Kenneth. Jacob and the Prodigal. [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, © 2003]. Page 100.

2 Ibid, page 101.

3 Ibid, pages 107-110.

4 Miller, Larry and Cathy. God’s Chicken Soup for the Spirit.
[Lancaster, Pa.: Starburst Publishers, © 1996]. Page 281.

5 Ortberg, John. Love Beyond Reason. [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, © 1998]. Page 72.

6 Lucado, Max. A Gentle Thunder. [Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, © 1995]. Page 83.

7 Kendrick, Graham. Meekness and Majesty. Song from Sacred Journey released 2002.

8 Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart. [New York: Free Press, 2010), pp. 26-27

9 Ortberg, ibid, page 74.