Australian Bible Church April 15, 2012
A Presbyterian Church presenting Christ without Compromise,
from the Bible without Qualification
A Message not only for Presbyterians, but for the World
LOST AND FOUND
Often has this parable in Luke 15 been told. It touches the heart, to learn of abused affection, paternal kindness exploited, wild dreams of self-indulgent youth, descent into despair as the lively flames of hell wrap themselves about the misplaced carcass of the deluded; less often do we publicly hear of the delight of the father at the return of the displaced and misused, repentant and restored son. Perhaps less often still, do we gather that the staid and solid, serviceable and secure brother of the wastrel has entertained a grim opinion of his own labour, without much in the way of joy, so that he is ready to pounce like an expectant leopard on the returning vagrant, protesting the fuss made of him, who has merely dumped duty and lived in a soporific and sybaritic dream.
THE STORY OF THE PARABLE
First, let us re-tell the exact story of the parable. A young man, on a farm, wants his share of the patrimony NOW. He'll get it and goes into the fiasco of so-called 'wild' living. In this, many helped him spend in buckets, what his fathers had prepared with labours innumerable, till with no money, and the good-timers as fast gone as the money, no heart at any time having been involved in these ruthless and revolting sprees, he is reduced to caring for pigs and sharing their food. Realising the degradation and hopeless seeming nature of his new plight, he resolves that even a SERVANT of his father fared better than this, came to himself, saw his folly, and returned with a view to taking a servant's post at his father's farm, having aborted the kindness for his continuing life, and now willing just to live.
The father, whose heart HAD been in the life of his son, was not without hope and seeing him coming a long way off, came out to meet him, rejoiced, gave him signs of acceptance and renewal in his household, slew the prime calf for a feast, and met with the older son's dour displeasure. WHY this for that ... you could almost hear 'piece of muck.' Have I not served and laboured, continued and been stalwart and reliable, adding to the total takings over the farm over the years. I, even I have not received such signs of acceptance and rejoicing as this wastrel. How come! we seem to hear in modern jargon.
Son, says the father, you have been with me all through, our habitual comradeship, a virtual partnership, means that all that I have is yours. Why worry about that ? Don't you even realise that your brother was a dead loss, as one dead. Forget for a moment, the finance, and consider the human side, the relationship aspect and the fact that he, dead like a burnt out wire, now lives, once without communication, now speaks freely, once a ghastly memory, has become possessor of a happy face and enmembered once more in our midst.
THE MEANING OF THE PARABLE
Blood is thicker than water ? Is that all that it is ? It IS part of it, that what you have begotten is special, contains even aspects of your physical being, that it has been nurtured, watched, superintended as it grew, its hopes treasured, its needs met, its life aided; and for the Christian, its place in the kingdom of heaven has been sought strenuously, if perhaps it find God, and so live for ever, and be in the w ay which would make this eminently desirable at the same time, that is, be washed, redeemed and restored to the Father of spirits.
Thus, the procreation, though important, is but a small part of it; for the social, the shepherding, the envisagements, the inner work and prayer, all are there, all make a bond. More than even all of these, there is the responsibility: a child has been given to you, and the parents have occasion to prize this being, wrought in body on a pattern, individualised in a format, inter-related in a personality, vulnerable to sin and shame, hopeful for wisdom and peace, object of love, sought for as one to be loved of God. Then, that life is not only cherished, in prospect of wonderful good to come, but blessed with the filling of emptiness, with the Spirit of the Lord, adopted and nurtured by God Himself.
Hope is stronger than mere goodwill, for God lives, and so do we who know Him, and life without Him is as pebbles, which might have been a mountain, the sunshine of divine presence glowing on its top. How deeply therefore must the responsible parent seek at cost, to surround the child with godly influences, preserve it from hateful propaganda from the government, such as now routinely occurs in schools and colleges which it seeks to contain with its 'curriculum', filled with dead-beat virtual atheism (accounts which do not diverge in essence from the same, in their truncated or aborted reductionist accounts, whether in geology, biology, astronomy or history). It registers empty of wisdom concerning life's most important goals and values, intimations and manifestations.
To bring up children in the fear and admonition of the Lord is not a hope; it should become practice, as the case may demand. If they play truant, foul the care, rupture the realism, follow their penchants, indulge their fancies or simply want, through ambition 'to get somewhere' and hence pretend to follow the governmental traps and deviousness, then that is one thing. To dump them in whatever comes, that is another.
Even, however, with the best of every provision, a child may
play the fool, experience the tsunamis of rebellion, the volcanic thrust of
self-will, the tedium of self-importance. What then? With all of these
preliminaries done, what if there is STILL a failure, a recidivist, a ruin ?
Love hopes, piety prays, and the expectation of good at last does not die. Thus as in the parable, the father is able to see the return afar off. Ready for it, his heart there already, practical action from the father follows at once, with balm for the wound, pardon to the penitent, and restoration to the redeemed.
Where is this redemption in the parable ? As in the art-work of parables, there are things for intimations which occur in unexpected ways, as in a visual puzzle, and you have to seek it out, and in doing so, find an impact not so readily seen if you had simply been TOLD. The fatted calf is slain for a feast thus long made possible, perhaps in hope. A valuable item is lost and a more valuable one is gained. The animal is gone; the son is returned. It is like a sacrifice: the one needs it, and the other gives it. The beast is the cost of the fulfilment of the occasion's rejoicing. Thus the cross of Christ is the cost of the adoption of sinners, through grace and faith, on repentance, to belong to their new and celestial family.
The profile of the elder brother implies that some value their own work, do not do it out of love and with joy, for the kingdom of heaven, but count it out, like money at the merchant's, in order to buy or gain results and rewards. One can think of not much more horrible. Love is measured by gain ? You get out of it more than you put into it, and hence do it ? If it were more, you might do it even more readily ? You are bought, in will, by rewards ? The actual job is a mere means of increasing your moral, spiritual or similar CAPITAL, prize, eternal uppity-ness ? You are paying for what you want, as in the corner shop ?
IF you love someone, then to be nearer may indeed be a reward, and to please that party may be a treasure, and if this is the concept, then well: love seeks growth of love, joy in fellowship seeks its maturity in reality. It is pure. It is in its own domain. If however you put on a love and maintain a demeanour BECAUSE of the standing or uplift or personal profit or exultation, like a merchant, and use spiritual things and categories for personal uplift, how do you differ from the Pharisees, whose ways did not appeal to Christ at all (cf. Matthew 23). They too would manipulate the spiritual for their gain, and adopt godly posturing without even entering into the deeper matters of the law, such as justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23). It was all pretence, marshmallow, shallow, sallow, with no heart!
Thus the FIRST thing is to love God with ALL your heart. There is nothing left over for yourself. That is His care, while it does not mean disregard of your best way to live in the Lord by any means, it DOES mean that all your care is first for Him. For the rest, all is parity, your neighbour as yourself. Responsibilities and opportunities multiply in the family; but a due regard for all is in view, even if some by their dissidence from deity, make themselves either scarce, or mopishly or modishly unreachable, unteachable, and more sinks for uselessly given funds. The elder brother in the parable, therefore, is a warning blast on the trumpet of truth.
In reality, what met the wastrel, and moved his heart from mere woe, to realisation of his position ? What enabled him to swallow shame, eat pride, feast on disgrace and return like a skunk recently disregarded because of its smell danger, and return!
MANY are the other possible responses to his new situation. There is the room in the parable for the work of the Holy Spirit. Moving his heart to realism, encouraging him past mere defeatism, hastening in his heart, an awareness that there is reality in his father's love, making him willing to abase himself, he being convicted as he is humbled within. He begins to realise the nearness of the Lord, with a care and a grace which like a blue sky on a fair day, is THERE above and operative all the time. This is the SPIRITUAL blue sky, and in the clearing of his mind, the stormy grey clouds make way.
The father, standing of course for God, sees him a great way off. Thus God has forever known who will be His, and hoping with a longing not diminished by the presence of our centuries, He is ready to act in all solemnity and authority. That is set in terms of the needed sacrifice: for us, Christ crucified, yes who moreover is risen (Romans 8:34). Soon the sacrifice would enter into the returned, just as the bread of life, symbolising life, goes within. Then, as He says, the one who loves Him keeps His words, and He and the Father will indwell that one (John 14:21-23). You are thus returned to the family in all the intimacy of great rejoicing, fully accepted (Ephesians 1:6, literally, engraced, surrounded or imbued with grace in Christ).
Strong are the possible strainers, to remove you like an impurity when you come. If you have faith in the Lord, these will not deter you (cf. Luke 11:53). Some will want you to have what amounts to a repetitive sacrifice, as if entry were not once and for all secured by a once for all sacrifice, providing eternal redemption (Hebrews 9-10, 9:12,25-28, 10:10-14), and even have you worship symbols. It is not symbols but reality, however, which is gained, and remains in the new-bound family, and not imagination but God who is to be worshipped, and that in terms of the cross with all its meaning, and not a symbol of its advent.
Some will want you to add your pittance of imperfection to the cost, as if in part-payment, so insulting the father, and pretend you had not exhausted your merit bank by having only debt, for the wages of sin is debt, and with what will you repay ? increased debt as with Australia and China, only adds from your continued imperfection, each day as it comes and goes!
No, only Christ is the ransom, and the rest is to be in this spirit, but without human payment from sinners (Ephesians 2, Romans 3, Galatians 1, 3). Contribute at this level ? Nothing doing! You are ENTIRELY to wait upon the love of the Father, and the once only sacrifice, indeed that of the Son Himself, and add NOTHING to that lustre of perfection, as if to invent a meretricious heaven, more savouring of hell, and self-regard, self-effort as means of securing a place. Come in without hope or offering, but Christ, or stay out; for if you offer anything at all with Him, an addition, you will never enter through the needle-gate. Unless you forsake ALL you have, including self-praise and payment of part cost, you CANNOT even be one of His disciples (Luke 14:27ff.).
So devious and undesirable is the state of the human heart without Christ, that simple as the core of the Gospel is, people have great imagination with which to defile it, and like the elder brother, want personal worth to weigh as a ground of acceptance, and thus of exclusion of those without it. You may have to do penance, or make masses, or confess to a priest or cult leader, but not so is the simple Gospel acceptance. So far from being in need of some index, prize, portent, contribution, the Father not only freely but delightedly accepts the returned wastrel and shows that one at once every kind of respect and embrace!
Finally, what meaning attaches to the elder brother's protest that in all the years of his working on the farm, so conscientiously, the father had never even given him a young goat for celebration with his friends.
In view of the spiritual meaning which as in biblical parables, underlies the discourse, the meaning must move to sacrifice in parallel with the basic meaning of the fatted calf, the emblem of acceptance, the cost aspect, in reality betokening Christ. There simply IS no other sacrifice; there IS no other substitutionary sacrifice. The ONLY sacrifice in the New Covenant is the central theme in the Old Covenant, the coming Messiah and His dealings. There is neither any other foundation to this faith, thus fulfilled in that sacrificial unity from the second member of the Trinity, nor any other sacrifice, for this one sums up, contains and fulfils all the symbolism of all the other ones. The blood of animals, says Hebrews 9:12-14, can never take away sin; it betokens, symbolises it. Christ is the one who HAS what can pay it away, and this is even referred to, in terms of the incarnation as the redemption God has made by His own blood (Hebrews 9:6-12,22, Acts 20:28).
Hence, in the parable, ALL needed was already present in one sacrifice, and nothing else was needed, either young goats or other! When the occasion came for the display of the necessities, then that one fatted calf was used; and nothing else would ever suffice. Hence it was not given in this New Testament expression in its sublime simplicity, severance of symbols in favour or one reality, providing eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12). The human side ? the sacrifices of a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart (Psalm 51:17). Then is man receptive to God.
Thus do parables have their own intimations and beauty, their own artistry and ways of pinioning understanding, holding it down till it realises what is there, and then letting it arise with a smile of intense satisfaction, knowing the loving care with which the whole has been constructed, not in dogmatic deliverances, but astute and telling imprint that lingers in the mind and challenges the soul. Praise God for the parables of Jesus, and praise Him yet more, with the life of Christ, obtainable so simply, from Him who did so much to keep it simple; that then, and only then, you might start moving from milk food to meat, and savour to the full the entirety of depths in the love and wisdom of God (I Corinthians 3), in Him who does not confuse begetting a child, with its education, or founding a saint with the later labours of the same!