The Prodigal Son

As we read through Luke 15:11-32, let’s first remember the audience of this parable. Verses 1-2 tell us that all the tax collectors and “sinners” drew near to Jesus. You see, there was just something about Jesus that attracted people and made them feel accepted and loved – no matter what their sordid past may have been. But, of course, the Pharisees couldn’t stand this about Jesus! They grumbled against Jesus, complaining, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” This context sets the stage for our parable of the prodigal son.

We all know the story: A spoiled kid demands his father’s inheritance. The father agrees and divides his estate between his two boys. After packing up for a far country and then squandering his small fortune, the younger son eventually finds himself starving in the middle of a famine. So, dejected and humiliated, he decides to head home, practicing his apology speech: “‘Father, I have done wrong—wrong against God and against you. I have forfeited any right to be treated like your son, but I’m wondering if you’d treat me as one of your hired servants?’” (verses 18-19, The Voice) But even while the son was a great way off, “the father saw him and ran out to him, enfolded him in an embrace, and kissed him!” (You see, the father had never stopped looking for him!) And then, the party is on! The joy of the father knows no bounds – he lavishes his son with extravagant affection! And that’s where our story happily ends, right? Well, not quite yet.

The focus of the parable shifts to the older son. Rather than rejoicing that his brother has returned, the older son bitterly laments to his dad, “Listen, all these years I’ve worked hard for you. I’ve never disobeyed one of your orders. But how many times have you even given me a little goat to roast for a party with my friends?” These words show us that not only has the oldest son labored with the attitude of a begrudging servant, rather than a devoted son, but he has also completely misunderstood the character of his Father! The older brother continues: “So this son of yours comes, this wasteful delinquent who has spent your hard-earned wealth on loose women, and what do you do? You butcher the fattest calf from our herd!”

Jesus’ point in this story is that the youngest son represents the publicans and sinners while the oldest son represents the Pharisees. Like the older son, the Pharisees had been hard at work, strictly adhering to the law and their ceremonial traditions in the hope of earning the inheritance of the heavenly Father. Both the older son and the Pharisees were serving, not from love but from a sense of duty – the goal was to earn their righteousness. But Jesus’ point is that the Father’s extravagant love has nothing to do with what we earn – and isn’t that terrific news for us!? The Father pleads with his son: “My son [huios – my dear, beloved son], you are always with me, and all I have is yours. Isn’t it right to join in the celebration and be happy? This is your brother we’re talking about. He was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found again!” We don’t know how the story ends because this parable is actually an invitation – to the Pharisees of Christ’s day as well as to us. It’s an invitation to accept the Father’s extravagant, prodigal love. Because even though we may think we are the dutiful older son, we are, in fact, that runaway son in a far country. But in exchange for our filth and spiritual poverty, God offers to lavish upon us His robe of righteousness and the riches of heaven! He’s inviting us to biggest party the universe has ever seen! It’s simply an offer we can’t refuse.


The Shrewd Manager

Hi there from the Stepping Stones team! We just wanted to share a little of what we learned together in our Bible study this last Sabbath. Let’s dive right in to the “Parable of the Shrewd Manager” from Luke 16:1-13.

Our story begins with an asset manager (or steward) who is accused fraud. When his boss learns of the charges, he threatens to fire the steward and demands an account of all his past financial transactions. At this predicament, the steward laments, “‘Oh, no! Now what am I going to do? I’m going to lose my job here, and I’m too weak to dig ditches and too proud to beg. I have an idea. This plan will mean that I have a lot of hospitable friends when I get fired’” (Luke 16:3-4, The Voice). So the steward goes around visiting his master’s tenants slashing their debts left and right in the hopes of making some obliging friends along the way. Now, what’s surprising with Jesus’ story is that when the master figures out what the steward is doing, rather than immediately firing him, the master actually praises the steward for his “shrewdness”! Wha…? Is Jesus commending dishonest behavior here? First of all, we have to remember that, as manager of his master’s assets, the steward retained legitimate authority to reduce the debts of his boss’s tenants. In Jesus’ cultural context, a steward typically had free-reign to conduct business transactions as he deemed appropriate (so long as his boss’ profit margins were in the black at the end of the day). Furthermore, many scholars believe that, by cutting the tenant’s debts, the steward was forgoing his own personal commission in the transaction.

But either way, that really isn’t the point Jesus was trying to make with this parable. Jesus is certainly not holding up the “shrewd” steward as a shining example of moral excellence. Instead Jesus tells us to take note: “The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” In other words, I believe Jesus is telling us to look at the drive, dedication, and passion with which those of the world pursue their pleasure-loving, money-making schemes versus how we pursue the Kingdom of God! As one article stated, “if we were only as shrewd in our dealings with the Kingdom of God as we are with making ends meet, imagine the spiritual possibilities.

In the end, Jesus’ message to us as stewards of God’s kingdom is very simple: “Learn some lessons from this crooked but clever asset manager. Realize that the purpose of money is to strengthen friendships, to provide opportunities for being generous and kind. Eventually money will be useless to you—but if you use it generously to serve others, you will be welcomed joyfully into your eternal destination” (Luke 16:9, The Voice). In closing, I just wanted to share a few life-application questions I dug up from which we can all think about over the next week:

  • How are we exercising our stewardship? Are we using our worldly wealth (the wealth that comes from God for He supplies all our needs) to bless others? Or are we squandering it or merely storing it up for our own use? This wealth will not make any difference in heaven (we can’t take it with us and we can’t spend it there anyways). It only bears eternal fruit if we use it wisely here while on earth.
  • Are we faithfully sharing the abundance of spiritual wealth with those around us – with our family, our neighbours, our co-workers, our household?

The Cost of Non-Discipleship?

Our Stepping Stones class studied Luke 14:25-33 this week – a passage often called “Counting the Cost.” Here Jesus gives us a picture of radical discipleship. He forces us to make a choice about the priorities in our lives – to place our walk with Him above any other commitment, including that of family. We are called to take up our cross and follow our Master. (See verses 25-27). Jesus then launches into two mini parables, one about building a tower and the other about leading an army into battle: “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it…Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand” (vs. 28, 31).

I had always thought Jesus’ point here was that we need to sit down and “count the cost” and prepare ourselves before we commit to the road of discipleship – that we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and decide whether we are really ready to give what it takes. Do I have it in me? Am I really prepared to take up my cross? As I would reflect on whether I measured up to the task or not, I would find myself completely discouraged by my woeful inadequacy. This parable disturbed me. But then, in preparation for this study, I ran across a mind-blowing article entitled “A Most Misunderstood Parable” by Jeff Dunn. In this article, Dunn challenges our traditional interpretation of Jesus’ teaching: “Since when have made walking with Jesus something that is dependent on our possessions, abilities and strengths?” Dunn then quotes a thought-provoking article in Christianity Today by Andy Crouch:

Make no mistake. The tower builder and the king are not models of discipleship. When does Jesus ever speak of discipleship as if it were a construction project, carefully calculated and accounted for, or a war, in which we marshal our own forces and find them adequate for the battle? Biblical faith is the abandonment of our tower building, the surrender of our ambitions to foolishly fight our way to security…Jesus invites the crowds following him to sit down and count the costs not of discipleship, but of non-discipleship. Non-discipleship means believing that we will be able to complete our insane Babel of self-provision; non-discipleship means blindly rushing into battle as enemies of God, having vastly overestimated our ability to prevail.

I think it’s fascinating how Crouch ties Jesus’ teaching in with the term “Babel of self-provision.” After all, isn’t that exactly what the builders of the ancient tower of Babel were trying to do?! Make a name for themselves by their own self-sufficiency? (See Genesis 11.) And speaking of towers and armies, isn’t it interesting that Revelation 20 also talks about an end-time spiritual battle where the Satan and his angels along with the unsaved of the earth will marshal their forces in a final attempt to do things their way in their own strength? Forget God’s plan; we can do this ourselves! Maybe that’s why Jesus says in Luke 14:32 (my own paraphrase): “and while the opposing army – which is sure to win, by the way – is still a great way off, won’t you send a delegation to ask for conditions of peace?” There’s no hope for you. Surrender now! But you know what the best news is here? There are no terms for peace! Jesus Christ offers us unconditional peace with heaven by the merit of His sacrifice alone! (See Col. 1:20.) In closing, perhaps Jeff Dunn sums it up best:

So what is Jesus looking for if not for those who are ready to buckle up their chin straps and give it their best effort? He is looking for quitters. He is looking for losers who know they don’t have what it will take. He is looking for the poor in spirit-poor because they have renounced all, given up on ever having enough to even make it one second on their own strength…

Do you have what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus? No, you don’t. Not now, not tomorrow, not ever. And that is the best news you could hear.