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April 24 lesson: A Family Reunion

April 18, 2016
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A Family Reunion

Spring Quarter: The Gift of Faith
Unit 2: The Gift of Faith

Sunday school lesson for the week of April 24, 2016
By Dr. Hal Brady

Lesson Scripture: Luke 15: 11-32

The parable before us today is perhaps the most loved story in all the Bible. Labelled, “The parable of the prodigal son,” it is really about the benevolence of a loving and forgiving Father. 

At any rate, this parable is the third in a row concerning lost things. Jesus told this parable as a response to the grumbling of some who observed that he associated with “sinners” (Luke 15: 1, 2). And we note that each of these parables about lost things ends with rejoicing over the lost being found. The first is about a lost sheep, the second is about a lost coin, and our scripture lesson is about a lost son.

As scholars remind us, these parables relate something important about God’s love and the mission of Jesus. They show us that God’s love seeks those who have turned away. Indeed, the mission of Jesus is to bring those people into relationship with God.

It is important to note here that when the valued item is found in each parable, there always follows a celebration. But the ending of this parable before us today is different and more complicated than the other two parables.

As you know, this story has three actors. First, there is the son who ran away. The story actually begins when this younger son asks for his portion of his father’s estate.  It was unusual and probably shameful to have a son ask for his inheritance before the father died. Doing so has the same meaning as if to say, “I wish you were dead.”

But the father is willing to shoulder the disgrace. Actually, the father is pictured here as One who is letting a sinner go his way.

What was feared, however, happens! The son squanders his fortune in a distant land. He lives and plays hard and soon finds himself out of money with no safety net.

And to make matters worse, there is a famine. And he needs to eat. So he ends up taking a shameful job. Scholars tell us that we should assume that this character is Jewish because everyone in Jesus’ audience is. So, feeding the pigs is dishonorable work because he is taking care of unclean animals. He has sunk even lower; he thinks about eating the pig’s food. With no one to help him, this younger son is living a tragedy.

However, the story takes a dramatic turn in verse 17. Verse 17 reads, “But when he came to himself….” Hello! This younger son recognizes that things have to change. He realizes how far he has fallen so he decides that he will be better off as a slave of his father than laboring on the edge of the earth alone. 

Again, he comes “to his senses.” How foolish to starve when his father’s slaves live better than he does. So he resolves to confess to his father and ask for the status as a slave. He is aware that he has sinned against heaven and his father, and he knows he should admit it. Realizing he is no longer worthy to hold the status of a son, this younger prodigal heads home to admit the wrong and the harm he has done.

We need to keep in mind that this “repentance” is a significant element in the story.

The second actor in the story is by far the most important. Normally, I would save this actor till last, but that would interrupt the flow of the story. The second actor is the father and, in reality, he is the main actor. Consequently we should never take our eyes off him. Ultimately, the question is not whether we are like the younger or older son but are we like the father. The spotlight is never really off the father. Someone paid the father in this parable a compliment when he said, “He acts like a mother.”

In the story, the father sees his son while he is a great distance away and rushes to greet him in the most loving of ways. He is full of joy and welcomes him home with hugs and kisses. 

Normally, a father wants to be addressed by the son and to receive some indication of respect before responding. But God’s compassion is exceptional. He is simply overjoyed to have his son home. 

The son begins his prepared speech of repentance but does not even get through his confession before the father makes it clear that restoration awaits him. Immediately, he is given a robe and sandals appropriate for the celebration. He is also given a ring, and we are told that this ring may well represent the authority of the father; it is certainly a sign that he is a member of the family who owns the business. 

The celebration that follows is extravagant. There’s music and dancing and sumptuous foods. The father invites the entire community to rejoice with him on the recovery of his son. He then describes his son’s recovery in the most unforgettable terms, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” “And they celebrated.” (v. 24) 

The meaning here is that this younger son had been lost to the family but now he is rejoined to their life.

The third actor in the story is the elder brother. In Luke chapter 15, there are four lost items – a sheep, a coin, a prodigal son, and his elder brother. The first three are obviously lost. However, the fourth is lost but doesn’t know it. In reality, he’s the tragic figure. This elder brother is not even aware of his lost-ness. He never strayed or broke the rules yet he missed out on the gift of his father’s extravagant love. 

Hear me now! This elder brother had grown up under his father’s kindness and love, yet somehow he never seemed to understand his father. We see this tragedy in their conversation about the younger son. This older brother simply cannot understand how his father could still love the boy, much less welcome him home with a party. Notice the elder brother doesn’t call this younger boy “my brother” but “this son of yours.” Simply stated, this elder brother cannot acknowledge that he has a brother because he doesn’t understand his father’s heart.

Now, what this older son wants is justice. He wants to be treated fairly. If his brother gets a party, he deserves more. And the older brother is right, what is happening is not fair. As scholars remind us, it is, rather, an expression of the abundant love of the father. What the older brother fails to realize is that the love the father has for the younger son does not diminish the love he has for the older one.

In passing, note that the father’s love does not excuse the younger son, but it does welcome his return.  The father’s love also comes to expression in what he gives the older son. All the father’s property is the older son’s possession (v. 31). Therefore, the return of the lost son does not diminish the gifts of the father for the older son who had remained faithful. 

According to scholars, very importantly, this parable has an open-ended conclusion. We do not know what the older brother does. We note the father’s repeated reason for joy (the return of the lost son). Then the story ends. In the context of Luke’s narrative, those who criticized Jesus for eating with sinners are here offered the chance to rejoice as those who were lost are recovered.

Love in the family

As you know, this lesson is entitled “A Family Reunion.” Though we don’t know all the details about the previous relationships of the father and his sons or the brothers with each other, we do know that it takes courage to admit wrong and ask forgiveness within the family. We may know how the elder brother felt when the younger son who had caused all the turmoil, has love lavished on him when he decides to return. As parents, we may know the devastation of seeing our children make decisions that hurt themselves and all the other members of the family. Or we may understand the need to get away or the regret of hurting others in the family. 

Regardless of which character we may identify with or which tensions we have experienced in the family, we are aware of the pain involved for all.

But, as scholars attest, whatever our experience in our families, this parable reminds us of the desire we all have for loving families; for places where we are loved and forgiven. Without doubt, our yearning is for safe places to be loved and to love others.

Being reminded here of the hurt estrangement causes in families, the love demonstrated by the father in this parable directs us to the path of healing for our families. Remember, our eyes should never be off the father.

In the larger perspective, this path is about love for people who repent. And it is also about how people who have been faithful should respond when God’s love celebrates the return of one who has rejected God and God’s purpose for life.

The Church as the family of God

In the New Testament, the most common way that believers address one another is “brother” or “sister.” Using these designations assumes that believers are taken into a new family, the family of God. Here, God is seen as the loving parent who has prepared a place for his children to live and love.

No matter how often we have failed, and all of us have failed frequently, we can be assured that God continually reaches out to us in love and restores us to our proper place in His family. Our parable asserts powerfully that there is nothing we could do to keep God from loving us. The prodigal son squandered all the family gifts, led a disreputable life and returns with nothing. Yet, the father receives him and us with a party, a celebration.

As Max Lucado describes it, “Jesus is happiest when the lost are found. For him, no moment compares to the moment of salvation. Let one child become part of God’s family or restored to God’s family and all heaven rejoices.”

Who deserves a celebration?

Scholars remind us that this parable intends us to think about how we receive those who have been offensive – offensive to us, our churches, or God’s purposes in the world. At this point, the elder brother is the faithful person in the pew. He is the one who closely monitors the person whose reputation is less than desirable as he comes into the church. How will this person’s arrival effect the overall welfare of the church?

Those who questioned Jesus’ choice of dinner companions didn’t want others to think that the behavior of those people was acceptable to God. And they were right in wanting to protect the community against lowering their moral standards. But listen carefully! They were dead wrong to think that this meant excluding those who had done wrong.

Luke constructs this parable so that the prodigal son repents. He “comes to his senses” about his foolish living and determines to return to the family. The elder son is now expected to receive him back as a genuine brother and even throw him a party in celebration.

In much the same way, faithful church members are expected to welcome new or returning brothers or sisters who have departed from God’s way, damaged the church’s image and expressed remorse. There, some church members are even expected to love these offenders and celebrate their return.

So how can the church members do that? They can share their love of God because they have been the recipients of this same love. It is the love of God that brings us into God’s community and makes us all brothers and sisters. We must never take our eyes off the Father.

Action Plan:
  1. What can help to keep families together?
  2. Discuss what points Jesus is trying to make by telling this parable before us today.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.

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