Every week, we say in church, and perhaps every day in the privacy of our own homes – the Lord’s Prayer – including that little phrase Father, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. Naturally, we appreciate that on the one hand forgiving others is a really good and tremendous thing to do, and yet we still tussle with it don’t we?; because on the other hand we are painfully aware that true forgiveness hurts – it isn’t easy and occasionally seems downright impossible. Especially when it appears to be so counter-intuitive, going against every fibre of our being that cries out for justice and the recognition of the hurt that has been caused. Perhaps it’s easy to forgive small things we say, inconsequential things, things that don’t really matter or affect us, but big things that’s a whole different ball game – that’s serious! And that’s why when we see forgiveness in others, sometimes painfully given – it generates such a mixed response in us – “I wish I could be as forgiving as he was!” we say or “how can she possibly forgive that?” And yet despite this mixed reaction, deep down we admire it and applaud it because we know that it’s good, and in reality forgiveness doesn’t need to undermine our desire for justice, but what it does do is that it strips that desire of hatred, and allows it to be more constructive, providing the framework for mutual reconciliation and moving on, or if sadly that isn’t possible, it does at least provide us with the moral high ground ‘I won’t allow myself to sink to your level – I’m better that that! . “Forgive us our sins” we say “as we forgive others” But you know what! That’s sometimes, where the problem is, after all it’s usually easy to see the faults in others, but it’s not so easy to see the faults in ourselves. “I’m not that bad we say!” I haven’t done much wrong in my life or caused anybody any harm! Particularly not, when you compare my life with others! Well of course I hope that’s true, but we really do need to be careful here! Because if we are not careful, we are simply asking God to forgive us the small things, the things that don’t really matter, when in truth it all matters, especially those larger things that we have conveniently tucked away to the far corners of our mind, or are holding figuratively speaking at arm’s length from him, but of course, he can see them and knows all about them anyway, so we might as well bring them out into the open.
Our passage for today, is the story of the prodigal son, it’s a much loved story which talks about the love of God, and as I’m sure you all know it is really the story of two sons, the younger one who went away and squandered his father’s wealth, and the elder one who obediently stayed at home and loyally served him – but for the purposes of this sermon, I would like us to concentrate just for a moment on that younger son, the one who behaved so foolishly and was rather stupid.
Luke 15.11–16 (NIV – Anglicised)
11 Jesus said: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no-one gave him anything.
This young man has really got himself into a mess hadn’t he? Up to this point he hasn’t thought about anyone or anything else but himself – in fact his whole world had been self-centred and focused upon him – his life, his desires and wishes. It has all been about me, me, me!
Now we have to be careful here that we don’t actually start to view this story though the prism of our modern day eyes and experience, for today, we are so used to young people going away to college or to university that we don’t really tend to think about it very much or think of it as unusual. Yes, of course it can be tough for some parents and their children, but on the whole we generally see it as all being part of growing up, the educational process, trusting that our children will have a good experience, learn from any mistakes and come away with all the appropriate qualifications resulting in them becoming mature, successful, young independent adults. But that’s not how it was in Jesus’ day, the mere fact that the younger brother wanted to leave home and not help support the family unit was considered a terribly shameful thing. For not only was it usual for family members to rely upon each other, pitching in and making ends meet, but elderly parents were supposed to be loved, honoured and valued, and respectfully looked after in their old age. Yes, of course it was perfectly possible for the father to decide which parts of his property should be divided and allocated to his sons, but that distribution would normally happened after death, after the old man had died, not before hand – so, to do so now whilst the old man was still alive was practically unthinkable. The mere fact that the younger son went so brazenly up to his father and asked for his share of the inheritance was almost as good as that young man saying to him that he wished he were dead. Equally by dividing the property so that the younger son could have his portion immediately, the father was implicitly accepting that from now on the family pot would be much, much smaller making it much, much harder for he and the elder son to make a living. As I’m sure you can appreciate, the younger son’s desire for immediate independence had a huge and long lasting impact upon the rest of the family making their future all the more precarious. And it wasn’t exactly, as if the younger brother used his money wisely, to set up a home or a business or to make his future secure, oh no, he simply used it for pleasure, to enjoy the current moment with reckless living far away from his father’s watchful eye or authority. A fact that was not lost on the older brother who later accused him of spending it on prostitutes and reckless living. But of course all good things come to an end, for eventually the boy’s money was gone and with it – his friends. The high life had come to an end, as had the wine, women and song – and food, for famine had struck, there was no food, so how could he possibly survive now? The mere fact that he as a Jew was tempted to eat the pods that were given to the pigs shows just how far he had fallen!
And then we come to a key point in the story – for in verse 17, we are told that the boy ‘came to his senses’ . The boy came to his senses! R. C. Sproul in his little commentary on this passage, observes how sometimes a person can get so caught up in a kind of activity that they don’t even know who they are anymore. It’s like they become someone else – and it’s not hard is it – to think of such examples today. But before we are too quick to point the finger, perhaps we should take a moment to think about our own lives, deeds and actions, have we today or at some point in the past got so wrapped up in things that we can’t or couldn’t see ‘the wood for the trees’ – have we now or at anytime previously lost our sense of what is right or wrong and with it our perspective of precisely who we are before God. Sproul notes once again, that one of the greatest abilities that we seem to have as human beings is our ability to deceive ourselves – the ability to rationalize things so that they suit us; make up excuses to explain our behaviour; blame our circumstances to shift the burden of responsibility away from us and our actions. If we are ever, going to be able to put things right, then we need a reality check, and come to that point when we wake up and effectively ‘come to our senses’ only then can we truly start to travel down the road of repentance and recovery. When he had come to his senses the boy said:
Luke 15.17–20 (NIV – Anglicised)
17 ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
Now it could be argued (and some have) that once again the younger brother is only thinking about himself and his immediate hunger and that it’s a real cheek that he should think of returning to his father who he has previously slighted, and sponge of him now that he’s in trouble. But I don’t think that that does justice to the young man’s contrition. Yes, at first, when he was having a good time, in a country far away, he was glad that his father couldn’t see him believing that he wouldn’t understand, but now that he is broken, he resolves to go to his father, confess his sin and acknowledge that he isn’t worthy to be called his son. This young man has got to the point where he could echo the words of the psalmist is psalm 51:
Psalm 51.1–3 (NIV – Anglicised)
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
The younger brother has got to the point where he recognizes that’s he made a real hash of things, hurt his family and ruined his life, and in his contrition he is at last ready to acknowledge he has sinned against ‘heaven (that is God) and his father, and that he’s no longer worthy to be called a son, and if he’s allowed to return he’s prepared to make amends and be treated no better than one of his father’s workers.
But of course we should remember that forgiveness isn’t cheap it always comes at a cost, John Goldingay in his commentary on this passage says this “When your wife has caught you being unfaithful, a gift of flowers or even a new car is not going to get you anywhere”. In other words one needs to get beyond the tokens and down to serious honest, repentance if you are ever going to have the chance to work things out. The same is true with God, all you can do is cast yourself on God’s grace as someone who is totally crushed and broken by the price you have paid for your wrongdoing and that’s where this young man had got to, he was prepared to return to his father utterly broken and throw himself upon his mercy. Hadn’t Jesus said from the cross “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” but now this young man had woken up, and had come to his senses.
The young man returns home, and many people would expect him to be punished and rebuked by his father, but this old man had also paid a heavy price he’d lost his son. Out of love he allowed the boy to leave his house, but he was never out of his heart. He was always on the lookout for him, which is why he saw him while he was still a long way off. No doubt he looked totally different from when he left but the Father recognized him all the same and ran towards him. Culturally, you know, it was considered very undignified thing for this old man to run, for who knows as he hastily hitched up his robes, there was a slight danger that he might actually expose himself but the old man didn’t care, he ran and greeted his son, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. Even before the young man had a chance to say anything, the father knew that he was utterly broken and forgave him – that’s what the hugs and kisses are all about, he loves his son and forgives him.
“Father I have sinned against heaven and against you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son”
The old man doesn’t answer all at once, but his actions speak louder than words:
Luke 15.22–23 (NIV – Anglicised)
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.
The best robe, a ceremonial robe, a mark of honour, treat this son of mine who has suddenly come home as a special guest with honour in our house. The signet ring, signifies the granting, the placing and transferring of authority from the father to the son, and so before everyone the father bestowes upon him, once again the authority of sonship in his father’s house. And finally the sandals, sandals were a luxury worn by free men but never by slaves. The young man had appeared at his door with bare feet , looking like a slave, but the father is signifying to him that he will not take him back into his house as hired worker or slave, but only as a son. And with all of that restoration and reconciliation there is only one thing that they can possibly do in the circumstances and that is to celebrate. Hadn’t Jesus said?
Luke 15.7 (NIV – Anglicised)
7 I tell you the truth there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
Of course they celebrate, for not only has the young man ‘come to his senses’ but the father loves him.
Now, I don’t know where you are in all this! I don’t know precisely what has made you you, or brought you to this point in your lives, but I do know that whoever we are, we need to be honest with ourselves and with God. Some of us need to forgive and many, many more of us I suspect need to be forgiven. The Lord’s Prayer is a great prayer, but it’s also a serious challenge; Father, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. For that to happen we need to be honest with ourselves and make a sincere confession for all those things we have done wrong, continue to do wrong and struggle with – we need to be contrite and truly repentant. Ironically, sometimes we are fearful of letting go of past baggage because it can at times be strangely comforting, but it doesn’t help us and it doesn’t help our current relationships nor our relationship with God, instead our attitude should mirror that of the psalmist who said:
Psalm 51.17 (NIV – Anglicised)
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Resulting in the heartfelt plea:
Psalm 51.11 (NIV – Anglicised)
11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Psalm 51.10 (NIV – Anglicised)
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
In the name of Christ. Amen.