About a month ago, I had the privilege of giving a meditation in our afternoon service. I hesitate to say I preached because I was a bundle of nerves as I walked up to the front of the sanctuary. My delivery was amateurish and I didn't project my voice. I suppose it is to be expected because it was the first time, but I was disappointed in myself. I received lots of encouragement after the service though so I take that highly into consideration. Following are my notes, which I followed almost word for word.
The Suffering Father
Scripture Luke 15:11-32
Text: Romans 11:11-12
For the sermon this evening I will attempt to keep in mind two distinct cultures. The North American Culture we live in and the Japanese culture I served in. I will try to look at the parable through both sets of eyes and come to a cross culture conclusion. Unfortunately I know much less about Japanese than North American culture, but Ill do my best to try a bring across a taste of the Japanese worldview.
Let me begin by saying that it is often a good idea to let a story stand on its own. To let the listener or reader ponder it and feel how it fits them. As an example, when we tell a joke and someone doesnt get the joke, we have to go through a long explanation, and the joke loses its funniness. Rather a good story is like a painting left for us to take in and interpret for ourselves.
Well I will try not to explain the story, but I will try to help you to understand it. I will try my best to provide you with important background information and insight into the parable. In this way we get a better picture of the story.
The story starts out in verse 11 with: there was a father who had two sons. This is an important line, There was a father who had two sons.
Right off the bat in verse 12 we have the younger son asking for his share of the estate. To the original listeners this would be an appalling thing to say, it would be a grievous request. Unheard of. Woo the audacity of that punk kid.
According to Deuteronomy the inheritance would be 1/3 of the fathers estate. The Law also mandated that the father would retain control of the land. The father was not to sell it, but neither was the heir.
Next in verse 13, we pick up with the younger son getting together all he had to set off for a far away place where he lived fast and loose.
We see that the younger son did sell the land he was not supposed to sell, compounding the insult against his father. He first insulted the father by asking for his inheritance and then he has the gall to sell that inheritance.
Verse 14 and 15 find the young son alone and penniless, reduced to the lowly task of feeding pigs. This is especially insulting to Jewish ears who realize that feeding pigs is against the law, further reinforcing their disdain of the lad.
The young son separated himself from his father. He wanted freedom, thinking that freedom was to be independent.
He finally comes to the conclusion in vs. 17 that freedom is really found with his father and decides to head back home in hopes of becoming a hired hand.
We pick up in verse 20b.
But while he was still a long way off, the father saw him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The father was waiting. The father (an oldish man) ran to his son.
This is a point that oriental people will understand better than North Americans. A man over the age of thirty would not run. It would be a most undignified thing for a man of status to do. Even if he was in a great hurry, he should carry on in a sedate and stately manner. You can just see the inhabitants of the village shaking their heads yet again at the odd things that happen in this family.
But the father runs.
Even before the son has time to tell his father about the plans he has been thinking about since he started back home, the father throws his arms around his returning son.
The son manages to get in that he is no longer worthy to be called a son, but the father responds with action.
He commands his servants to bring out his best robe to put on his son. He has a ring put on his sons finger and sandals on his feet. The fattened calf is prepared for a big to do.
Killing the fattened calf means that the whole village would be invited to the party. The calf is too large to be eaten by just the family and since the meat would spoil quickly, it all had to be eaten.
The robe would most likely be the robe the father wore on grand occasions, this is another point that the oriental listener or reader would assume. As the villagers came to the party they would see the newly returned son wearing the robe. The robe would be a symbol of acceptance to the father and because of that there would be reconciliation between the son and the people of the village.
The ring would be the family signet ring, the ring with which documents were signed. In North America we always use our signature as our mark, but in the oriental world everyone uses a specialized seal. In Japan they are finely carved and great care goes into choosing just the right marks for the seal.
The son also gets a pair of sandals, and these set him apart from the slaves, because sons wore something on their feet while slaves went barefoot.
The celebration commences. Can you imagine. The whole village has turned out for the party. It is the place to be. Everyone is enjoying the plentiful food, enjoying the atmosphere, the hospitality of the host, People are making music, and others are dancing. It would be grand to join in and share in the merriment.
But now the older son turns up. He has been working in the fields, and didnt yet know about his brothers return. He turns up at the party wondering what is going on, and asks a servant to find out what is going on. He finds out that his kid brother had the nerve to turn up at the family home. The older sons heart becomes angry and he refuses to join the party.
It would have been the custom, that the older son would not only join the party but take charge of the party, greeting guests, making sure everyone has food and wine, he would show joy at his brothers return and treat him as the guest of honour.
But; the father is insulted yet again.
For the second time that day the father humiliates himself in front of the villagers and pleads with his older son to come in and join the party.
The father could have coerced the older son. He could have reminded the older son of his social obligations, he could have given him a lecture about his duty. This would be just the right button to push for an oldest Japanese son. Appealing to his sense of duty and honour.
But what would the father gain? He wants his son not a servant.
The story ends with the father talking to the oldest son, we are left hanging. Does the older son return to the party? Or does he leave in a huff.
Quite often when we read a good story we tend to identify with one of the characters in the story. It is not necessarily the same story character for each reader, sometimes there are several characters with which we can identify. I think the same holds true with this story. I would say there are three main characters in this story to identify with. There may be one or two of you in the crowd this evening who identify with the pig farmer, but we will leave him for another day. In the meantime the three main players/characters are the younger son, the older son and the father. Most of us will have some empathy for each of the three characters, we can see their point of view, but when we look at this story in its context of the bible we usually empathize with one character most of all.
Taking the story at face value there may be Christian parents who worry about their children and identify with the father. Digging a little deeper many of us will identify with the younger son, having experienced the state of once being lost and now being found. In Japan I found out that most people identify with the older son. They can relate to his unquestioning loyalty and duty, the way he always stuck by the family. They can relate to him being ticked off by the younger brother leaving, shirking his responsibilities, and they can relate to the way the older son felt when his younger brother returned home and was welcomed straightaway back into the family.
The older sons refusal to join the celebration however results in another break of relationship with the father that is almost as great as the break in relationship we saw at the beginning of the story.
The central part of this story is neither of the sons but rather the father. The father suffered while his young son went astray. He watched and waited for him, and was so ready to receive him that he knew his son was coming back while still a long way off. The father suffered the loss of his young son until he came back, but the older son was also lost. And now the father is out watching and waiting. Suffering again while he awaits the return of the older son.
What do the robe, the ring, the sandals and the fattened calf mean? The father is celebrating the restoration of a broken relationship. He was not suffering all those days because of the loss of 1/3 of his estate. For that the son could have made restitution over a period of time. But a new relationship cannot be earned. It can only come as a free gift from the father.
The son could not become a servant. That would imply that he could earn his way back into his fathers good graces.
As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast.
Just by looking at the traditional name of this parable the prodigal son we can gain an insight to the use of this parable. Too often preaching on this parable (probably the best known of all the parables) focuses on the negative, on the lost ness of the son rather than on the shining nugget of grace that is central to the story.
We can understand from this parable that the father is God our heavenly father. His two sons are Israel and the Gentiles. The older son is Israel and God pleads with him to accept his younger brother. The younger son is the Gentile Christians. These are Gods two sons, and in Jesus parable we see how God approaches them. He loves them both, he does not favour one over the other. The actions of the two sons cause the father to suffer, but he waits full of grace for them to return of their own free will.
This story is about the grace of God. For us as the younger son we were saved by Gods grace through faith and it is extended for all who have not yet come to know Christ. Our father was waiting with open arms for the first son to come home and is now waiting for the second son to come home.
With this in mind we must graciously proclaim the gospel to all cultures and peoples, weather in North America or Japan. God will be faithful in making the seeds grow. The grace of God transcends all cultures and God is sovereign over all cultures. We can rely upon him to be waiting with open arms.