Tuesday, November 9, 2010

October 31, 2010 - Prodigal Lives Like Ours

Prodigal Lives like Ours
Luke 15.11-32

[The King’s Search]
    In the last of Tolstoy's "Twenty-three Tales" he tells the story of a king who is searching for the answers to three questions:
    +How can I know the right time to begin everything?
    +How do I know the right people to listen to?
    +And what things are most important and require my first attention?

    His search took him to the hut of a wise old hermit. Dressed in pauper's clothes, the king visited the hermit who lived deep in the forest.  As he approached the hermit, he saw that the hermit was on the verge of collapse. The king took the shovel the hermit had been working with and finished the job of digging his garden.
    At sundown, a bearded man with a terrible stomach wound staggered to the hermit's yard.  Unknown to the king, the man's wound had been dealt by the king's own guards who were keeping watch in the forest.  Gently, the king cleaned the wound, bandaged it, and stopped the bleeding.  Night fell, and the king slept on the threshold of the hut.
    When he awoke, he tended to the bearded man's wound and checked on the hermit.  The wounded man, overcome by guilt, made a confession to the king. He had been lying in wait for the king to return from the hermit's hut so he could kill him.  He was seeking revenge for a judgment the king had made against his brother some time in the past.  The king listened intently and then promised to send his own doctor to tend the man's wound.  Then he prepared to take his leave.
    Remembering his mission, the king asked the hermit the answers to the three questions.
    The hermit patiently explained that the king had received his answers on the previous day.  When the king had come upon the sickly hermit, he had finished digging his garden for him.  This was both the right thing at the right time and the most important matter at hand.  Had the king chosen instead to leave, he would have been killed by his enemy in the forest. Secondly, he helped the wounded man, which was again, the right thing at the right time.
    The hermit continued, "Remember then,
        +there is only one *time* that is important.  Now!" It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.
        +And then he added, "The *most necessary person* is the one with whom you are for you cannot know whether you will ever have dealings with any one else.
        +and the *most important thing* and the thing which requires your first attention is to do that person good, because for that *purpose* alone are we sent into this life!"(1).

The question that haunts me today is whether we are living with purpose – or just living? Tolstoy struggled with this question; you can see him working to answer it throughout his writings. We too must find purpose for our lives. We need a sense of purpose that shapes the way we live, the way we spend our money; the way we give our money; the great projects to which we give our lives.

    The parable of the Prodigal Son is only wonderful if you don't look at it closely.

    For years, we have imagined ourselves the Prodigal Child on an impulsive spending binge, then imagine ourselves coming home to Daddy with our maxed out Visa card in our hands. Right on cue, Daddy comes out with a big embrace and a smile to say, "Don't worry; it's only money. You didn't do anything we can't fix. Come on home." If sin and redemption are like this, then sign me up!
    Now, look at the story of the prodigal more closely. By looking at the Biblical world, we can see how grievously hurtful his actions have been. Most of what he did cannot be undone.
1. In a rural village in Biblical times, wealth was in the land your family owned and farmed. The father has inherited this land from his father and expects to hand it down to his sons; each generation of the family will make its living on this land. Even as the current father holds the family land in his name, he knows that he only holds it in trust for the family and he will pass it along to the next generation.

[LAND GRANT]  My great-grandpa Chisam received a Revolutionary War land grant from his father. It was located in White County, Tennessee, not far from the Warren County line. The family story says: when the Revolutionary War was over, the new American government did not have the money to pay the soldiers, so they told them they could go into the wilderness beyond the Appalachian Mountains. There each soldier was allowed to stake a claim on all the land he could walk around in a day. So, my Revolutionary War ancestor went to White County and staked his claim. There he settled down to farm and raise a family. When he died, he passed it to his children and they to their children after them.
    Years passed, and my great-grandfather inherited this land grant when it was his turn. Unfortunately, he wanted to hunt and fish more than he wanted to farm. So, to support his family, he began to sell of bits and pieces of the land grant until it was little more than a large building lot where the house was located. And that went to some other branch of the family. So, by the time I came along, the old people in the family knew where the land grant used to be, but it belonged to many others – not to our family. I remember going to the home place and standing where I could look around at the land which surrounded it. It is a magnificent piece of land. For years afterwards, the old people would tell that story, and then they would just drop the subject. That was the legacy of great-grandpa. The land that came to our family from such a noble beginning is lost from the family forever.

This legacy, and the possibility of losing it, is what every Biblical family understood. The wealth the father holds, which he will pass along to his sons, is family land. When the prodigal son sells it off, the land is not coming back. This is a decision with permanent results.

2. Now, the younger son comes to the father and says, "Divide to me the share that will come to me." We are talking about his inheritance when his father dies. He is basically saying to the old man, "Let's pretend you are dead; what do I get?" It is a horrible request. None of us can imagine saying such a cruel thing to our parents. It is unthinkable. But, the younger son asks, "Let's pretend you're dead." The hurt is beyond measure.

3. Jesus does not say WHY the father agreed to answer the younger son's question or why he was willing to transfer the property to the boy. He just says that the father did divide the property and transferred it to the boy. Now, the boy goes to the village gate and sells it at a fire sale price.
    Understand that the sale is not done in secret; in Biblical villages land was sold in the village gate where everyone could hear the transaction for themselves. You must also understand that the boy cannot sell this property without the father's approval – and maybe his insistence. It is humiliating for him. The village neighbors see exactly what is happening, and they know what the boy is doing to their long-time friend. They do not like it. They also understand that land is something that families hold in trust from generation to generation. This fire sale strikes at the heart of the village solidarity and order that they all count on.
    As much as the boy is shunning his father, he is also shunning the village which has raised him. He is walking away from his friends who expected to know him and expected to help him raise children of his own. This is humiliating for the whole village.

4. Dividing farm land is not easy. Taking the younger boy's portion and cutting it out of the farm will place the remaining farm operation at risk. That land down by the creek which was perfect for grazing the cattle – gone. The vineyard that provided income – sold. The remaining farming operation must be reorganized and watched closely.

5. So, this is the prodigal. He willingly humiliates his father and the entire village. He turns his stake in their lives to cash and leaves town. He has said, "I'm through with you and everything you represent. I will never be back." And the village, in solidarity with the humiliated father, is thinking, "Good riddance."

    So, as you read the story of the prodigal son, I caution you not to get to attached to the younger son. He does permanent damage to his family and his village; he is not the character you want to claim for yourself.

II. Adam Hamilton in his study on stewardship and money, titled:  Enough, takes this moment to look back at the Prodigal Son. He sees in the prodigal the modern tendency to live for the moment. The prodigal also demonstrates the life that is too busy with consumption to build anything or to work for anything.
        1. Many of have a bit of the prodigal son in us: We have the habits of squandering and wasting money.
        2. Society and the constant advertizing around us tell us that our life-purpose is to consume. Analysts tells us that one of the reasons for the current Great Recession is that Americans have been scared into saving more and spending less.
    What is it that comedian Rodney Dangerfield famously said? "I resemble that remark." Do we resemble this description of Americans squandering and wasting money? Maybe we haven't lost the family land grant single-handedly; but maybe we have spent so much on nothing that we cannot do some other, substantial things that require money.

III. So, what is our purpose as human beings and as Christians? While the ads that surround us tell us that our purpose is to consume, the Bible tells us that our life purpose is to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our money and possessions should be devoted to helping us fulfill this calling.

    Remember God's call to Abraham in the 12th chapter of the book of Genesis?

12:1  Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12.1-3).

Imagine God saying to you and to me: "I will bless you... so that you will be a blessing." Our purpose in life is not our own pleasure, as the prodigal son thought.
    The playwright George Bernard Shaw said it this way in the **Epistle Dedicatory** in the **Man and Superman**:
This is the true joy in life:
+the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one;
+the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap;
    +the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish, little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy (3).

[What's Your Purpose in Life?]
    Josh McDowell tells about an executive “headhunter” who recruits corporate executives for large firms. This headhunter once told McDowell that when he interviews an executive, he likes to disarm him. “I offer him a drink,” said the headhunter, “take off my coat, undo my tie, throw up my feet and talk about baseball, football, family, whatever, until he’s all relaxed. Then, when I think I’ve got him relaxed, I lean over, look him square in the eye and say, ‘What’s your purpose in life?’ It’s amazing how top executives fall apart at that question.”
    Then he told about interviewing one fellow recently. He had him all disarmed, had his feet up on his desk, talking about football. Then the headhunter leaned over and said, “What’s your purpose in life, Bob?” And the executive said, without blinking an eye, “To go to heaven and take as many people with me as I can.”
    “For the first time in my career,” said the headhunter, “I was speechless.” No wonder. He had encountered someone who was prepared. He was ready. His purpose, “To go to heaven and take as many people with me as I can.”(4).

If someone at lunch after church today leans across the table and asks you this question, what will you answer? What is your purpose in life?

[Whatever It Takes]
    A motivational speaker once said there are two kinds of people in this world: those who say *whatever* and those who say, *whatever it takes*. *Whatever* is the response of the shrug. It's a who cares? attitude, one of indifference and apathy. *Whatever it takes* is the response of the committed. It's a can do attitude that refuses to give up or give in. Think about those two responses when it comes to the Church's mission.
    Jesus said to love your neighbor. *Whatever*.
    Jesus said to go and make disciples of all people. *Whatever*.
        Jesus said there is more rejoicing over one sinner who is found than 99 that stayed within the fold. *Whatever*.
Now, lets change that response to *Whatever it takes*.
    Jesus said to love your neighbor. *Whatever it takes*.
    Jesus said to go and make disciples of all people. *Whatever it takes*.
        Jesus said there is more rejoicing over one sinner who is found than 99 that stayed within the fold. *Whatever it takes*.
Are you and I, like Paul, willing to do *whatever it takes* to win the world to Christ? (5).

[CONCL] Now, let's get practical. In Adam Hamilton's study, *Enough*, he is applying these principles to the way we use our money and resources. Getting practical means applying the great principles and purposes of our lives to the way we use our money and resources. He offers several practical steps:

        +Set goals. What do we want to accomplish in the coming year, in the coming five years? How can we use our money to reach that goal?
        +Develop a plan. The saying is true: "A failure to plan is a plan to fail." So, develop and plan and get started.
        +Do your giving intentionally. For many of us, giving intentionally means giving a percentage or a tithe of our income.
        +Focus on God's purpose for your life. Life does not grow until it is stretched. Choose God's great purposes for your life. Let God's purposes stretch you and call out your very best.

1. Tolstoy, Leo. "Three Questions," a short-story from Twenty-three Tales.
3. Shaw, George Bernard. The Man and Superman, penguin Press, 2001; p. 32
4. Dr. Gary Nicolosi, Sermons: “Preparing for the End Time”
5. Reverend Dr. Gary Nicolosi, Sermon

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