Most of us believe that the prodigal son came home from the pigs and prostitutes to stay, and joined hands with his father’s household, and they all lived happily ever after. I’m a cynical, old preacher and, trust me on this, it didn’t happen that way. It never does.
It was probably more like the cartoon that showed the prodigal son standing before his father. The father is saying, “Okay, okay. Welcome home. But son, this is the fourth fatted calf we’ve killed this month!”
I know me and I know you. Frankly, there is always the attraction of the pig farm. It just doesn’t go away.
You know the story (Luke 15). It’s about two boys and their rich father. The younger son, tired of waiting for his father to die, asks the father to go ahead and give him his share of his inheritance. To the surprise of everybody, I suppose, the father does exactly that. The younger son goes off to a far country and blows his entire inheritance. You name it. Parties. Prostitutes. Parasites. (The parasites left him once the money ran out.) The son ended up working on a pig farm and eating alongside the pigs.
Then the younger son had an attack of sanity and ran home, asking for forgiveness. His father welcomed him with open arms. Not only that. The father threw a party for his lost son. His brother, the older son, was not happy (and incidentally that was the reason Jesus told the parable in the first place). He had done everything right but his father had never, ever, given him a party with his friends. So the older son refused to go to the party.
I wish I had been there for that party and met the prodigal son. I suspect it was a really good party—in my imagination I think of the barbeque, good wine and a dynamite country band. During a break in the music, for a breath of fresh air, I would maybe go outside to smoke my pipe and run into the prodigal son. I would say to him, “This is quite a party. Your dad must love you a lot.” He would smile and say, “You have no idea.”
“Would you mind if I give you some advice?” I would ask after a moment.
The prodigal son would nod. And I would tell him, “Tomorrow, you’ll go back into the fields—hard work, hot sun and tired body. And when you do, you’ll think back to the pig farm. Believe it or not, it will be attractive to you. My advice: when that happens and you start thinking of the parties, prostitutes and fun you had in the far country, don’t forget the smell of the pigs. And more important, don’t forget tonight with the taste of the wine and the sound of the music.”
I’m not so wise. But I know people and I know me. And it’s all over the Bible.
After Peter made a statement of commitment that he would never turn away from Christ, he denied Jesus three times...and went back to the far country. And much later, Paul accurately described him as a hypocrite.
John Mark went on the first missionary journey...and then deserted Paul and Barnabus.
The entire church at Galatia turned away from the truth they knew. Paul wrote, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1).
Demas, to whom Paul referred in 2 Timothy, was in love with the world and deserted Paul.
One of the great controversies in the Early Church was over how those who had denied Christ during the persecutions should be received by the church.
It’s the way of all flesh. Trust me. The prodigal son returned to the far country to visit. Maybe he didn’t stay there as long, but he did go back.
We can all identify. If you’ve struggled with your sin, if you’ve made all kinds of promises to God and broken them, if you’ve tried and tried but hardly ever gotten it right, and if you’ve wondered if God has had it with you, I have some good news from 1 Peter 2:9-10. It’s for the prodigal still attracted to the far country.
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” 1 Peter 2:9-10
The Gospel isn’t just for the lost. It’s for the saved too. Sometimes we need to be reminded to never forget where God found us.
Peter reminded them (and us) of the darkness.
The far country can sometimes be a fun place. I haven’t been a Christian for so long that I’ve forgotten. But I also remember the demons that came at night. My mother used to say that she could stand anything when the sun came up...but it was the nights that were so hard. That’s true with me. I remember nights once the fire died down and I was left alone. I would wonder who I was, what life was about, and if anything made any difference whatsoever.
The historians talked to me about the past and the sociologists about the future. The scientists likened me to a rat running through a maze and the philosophers tried to give me a reason for doing so. But at night in the dark, there was just a cold, empty silence. I thought a lot about dying and what they might chisel on my tombstone with only a comma between the dates of my birth and death...and I had no idea what that comma even signified.
Do you remember the dark?
I know about the dark and the demons that reside there. As a preacher, I’ve gone there to find friends who had slipped into the darkness. But—God, help me—I’m sometimes still attracted to the dark and I sometimes go there. I didn’t think I would. I thought I’d always remember the pain; but for some reason, I still visit. What’s with that?
Peter reminded them (and us) of the loneliness.
I love the church, but it drives me nuts. If you aren’t into messiness, bad communication, misunderstanding, gossip, judgment and sin, then you should stay away from the church. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been hurt by the church and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve hurt people in the church.
But still...there is something to be said about being with people who have left the dark and know why. Maybe it’s the war stories. Maybe it’s the songs. But there is something about the fellowship of Christians that is different and comforting.
Whenever I teach seminary students, I resolve to tell them the truth about the church. I don’t want them to be surprised. But along with that, I appoint a student who is charged, when I get too negative and we’re all thinking about becoming Buddhists, to raise his hand to stop me. One time, when I was being particularly negative, that student raised his hand. I started talking about people—the man who hugged me when my father died, the woman I hurt but forgave me and said it was okay, the old man who fathered me, and others—and then, to my surprise, I found myself close to tears.
It must have been really hard for the older brother to stand outside the party, to put his nose up to the window and to watch the celebration at a distance, and to feel so terribly lonely.
One of my friends says that people in the church have their noses up against the window looking outside and they think You’re going to hell and it won’t be worth it. What ought to be happening is the world with their noses up against the church window, watching and wanting to join the party.
Sometimes I get tired of people and run away. It’s dark and lonely in the far country but for some reason I don’t understand, I’m still attracted to it, and sometimes go there. What’s with that?
Peter reminded them (and us) of the guilt.
“Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
I have a friend who was an atheist for years. When his baby was born and he was so excited, I remember asking him, “Who are you going to thank?” He went quiet.
My issue is guilt. Who is going to forgive me? I bought the product and the storekeeper isn’t there anymore. I can’t return it. And I feel so very guilty.
Have you heard the statement, “Christians aren’t perfect...just forgiven”? I’ve noticed that people who say, “Well, I’m not perfect” really mean “...but I’m better than you are.” Not only are Christians not perfect, sometimes we’re worse than unbelievers. Our witness isn’t our purity, but God’s forgiveness. I don’t think anybody has been won to Christ by our goodness. In fact, just the opposite. They are won by the proclamation of what God has done for us.
I’ve noticed that people who say, “Well, I’m not perfect” really mean “...but I’m better than you are.” Not only are Christians not perfect, sometimes we’re worse than unbelievers.
A friend once told me that he was sinning less because he couldn’t afford the price he had to pay. He said, “Sin isn’t what you do, it’s how you feel after you did it.”
You would think that, in gratitude, I would be a lot better than I am. But sometimes I get tired of trying to be good...and just sin. I know about the dark, the loneliness and the guilt, but I still sin in the far country. What’s with that?
Someone has said that the trouble with a living sacrifice is that it keeps crawling off the altar. That’s true.
No matter how dark it is, and how lonely and guilty we feel, we prodigals sometimes run to the far country. I suspect that prodigal in the parable did too.
Let me tell you my version of the rest of the story of the self-righteous older brother. Everybody knows about him. He stayed home and did everything right.
The older brother, in his anger at the party his father had thrown for his sinful brother, decided to throw his own party with all of his friends. Do you know what happened? The older brother got plastered—falling down drunk—and said and did things that surprised and shocked everybody there. He gambled away his inheritance in a card game with his friends. He made a pass at one of the servants. He made such a fool of himself that most of his friends left the party early.
The older brother woke up the next morning with the mother of all hangovers. Then he remembered the party the night before. “My God,” he said, “I don’t believe I did that! I’m no different than my brother.”
At that moment, the older brother, like his younger brother, “came to himself.”
That evening he packed an overnight bag and headed for the pig farm in the far country to find his brother. When he found his younger brother, he threw his arms around him, asked for forgiveness, and they wept together. The older brother said, “Let’s go home. Our father is waiting.”
In other words, they did church. That’s what church is. It’s not about wonderful, nice and obedient people who never go to the far country. It’s about sinners who reach out to sinners and say, “Don’t forget about home. Don’t forget the sound of the music and the taste of the wine.”
Church is a place for prodigals who returned to the far country—but maybe didn’t stay as long. We come together to weep, to confess, and to help one another maybe not go to the far country quite as often.
Time to Draw Away
Read Luke 15:11-32 & Romans 8
Do you find yourself sometimes returning to the far country? What’s that like? What do you miss? Even in (especially in) your sojourn, God the Father calls, loves, forgives and accepts you. And he’s waiting for your return with open arms.
Read more from Steve Brown here