Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Posts tagged ‘prodigal son’

Loving Sinners

PRODIGAL SON 03

If you must go to one extreme or the other- either loving sinners or making a positive impression on church people– you should probably err in favor of loving sinners too much.  The church people will eventually get over it.  The sinners never will.

That thought struck me as I was working through Luke 15 which concludes with the parable of the prodigal son.  As the chapter begins, Christ is confronted by religious leaders who resent all the notorious sinners who seem attracted to the Lord.  The Pharisees and others are convinced he shouldn’t even be seen with these reprobates; much less eat with them.  Christ answers their accusations with three consecutive stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son.  All three are valuable.  All three are at risk.  And a big celebration in Heaven ensues when each of the three is restored.

Jesus saw himself as a holy shepherd rather than a holy warrior.  When we imagine our mission in terms of holy wars and crusades, it tends to make lost people feel like enemies who must be conquered.  The whole point of Christ’s words in Luke 15 is that lost people are God’s creations and his treasures, not his enemies.  We can hate the ideas of the world (Revelation 2:6) but we can’t hate the people of the world.  We are warned that must never love the things of this world, but we absolutely have to love the people. Otherwise, we will never reach them with the Gospel.

Here in the United States, the saints need to learn a hard lesson which Christians in hostile regions of the world mastered generations ago.  We must be counter cultural, not anti-cultural.  Anti-cultural people go around mad at the world because they hate the vulgar movies, they decry the angry song lyrics, they are appalled by the sexual immorality, and they are enraged that it’s politically incorrect to use the term Christmas.  Jesus was never anti-cultural even though he strongly opposed many of the fashionable ideas of his day.  He wanted to influence sinners, not arrest them.  Counter cultural means I am working to change the culture, to subvert it.  Jesus looked for loving ways to illustrate truth, embody faith, and swim against the cultural tides.  But he never launched culture wars or urged his followers to take our country back.  We are here for souls, not political victories.

Christ emphasizes that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents and returns to God than over 99 who don’t need to repent.  Of course God loves the 99 safely in the fold.  They are members of his family, people his son died for, but they are safe and secure.  The sheep who have strayed are the ones who are at risk.  If something doesn’t change, they will never be found.

Some of God’s people need to fall in love with the family business once again. The grace of God produces magnificent saints.  But first, some saints have to love some sinners.  Lift up the Cross!

The Search for the Prodigal

Why is it that prodigal daughters never come home?  In fact, they actually do.  Pastor Jim Cymbala recalls the night when months of tearful prayers were answered through a phone call from his long lost daughter.  She did indeed come home to her dad and eventually her heavenly father, but she was never called prodigal.  That’s because we only use the term for rebellious young males.  What’s more, we most commonly use the word incorrectly!

Not long ago, I read a review of the popular motion picture, Warrior.  The article explained that the martial arts film “tells the familiar story of a prodigal son.”  How would you define that term?  Most of us would reply that it’s a lad who rebels and leaves home, only to return later to make peace with his family and start anew.  Right? Wrong.

This common mistake serves to illustrate the amazing power of God’s Word.  We all know the term prodigal son only because of the familiar story in the Gospel of Luke.  An ungrateful young adult insults his father and demands his inheritance in advance.  When his kindly dad gives him his way, the young man takes all that wealth to a distant land where he squanders it all in decadence and immorality.  Waking up one day to discover he is friendless, penniless, and hopeless, he comes to his senses and returns home.  There he begs his father’s forgiveness, insisting that he is no longer worthy to be called a son, and asks only that his father might hire him and pay him as a servant.

Hence, almost everyone in the Western world and many far beyond have come to assume that prodigal has something to do with a young man who runs away, realizes his error, and finally returns home to his father.  That’s not what the word means.  Our word prodigal goes back to the Latin term prodigus.  It doesn’t mean rebellious or wayward or even repentant.  It means wasteful or excessively extravagant!  The prodigal son earned his title when he blew his entire fortune overnight.  The full account is found in Luke 15: 11-32.

But here’s another funny little fact.  The word prodigal is never found in the parable.  Luke simply refers to the wastrel as the younger son.  The term prodigal is only found in captions and headings dating back to the earliest English translation of the Bible.  Some suggest it is first found in the Douay-Rheims Bible from 1582.  A few scholars believe it goes back to the Latin Vulgate, where it would have been expressed filius prodigus.  So while Luke never included the word prodigal, our mistaken assumption comes from the caption added later.

That’s how deeply the Bible is imbedded in the subconscious of most Western men and women.  Even those who never read the Word of God find its words and ideas are mentally  imported through stories and conversation from culture and conversation.  For instance, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is full of terms from the Bible.  Over a year ago, I had the privilege of sharing the Gospel with a friend who had grown up in Japan just after World War II.  Although she was raised as a Buddhist, her parents had sent her to a Catholic School as a child so that she could enjoy the advantage of speaking English.  Many of the English texts she learned to read were from the Holy Bible.  She grew up, married, and remained a Buddhist for most of her adult life.  After her Christian husband passed away, she came to my office and asked how she, too, could become a believer.  And as I began to share verses from the Bible, I noticed her lips moving quietly, reciting the words with me.  She hadn’t thought about them for decades but they had been there since elementary school, deeply rooted and waiting to bear fruit.

Our mistaken notion of that odd word prodigal reminds us that the Bible is still a defining voice in the lives of secular Americans.  One day the Holy Spirit will fan revival into flames and we will see those kernels of truth popping open and bringing faith and righteousness, fluffy and white and salty, into lives we had thought were lost forever.

Go back and read Luke 15 again.  And lift up the cross!

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