The ultimate question one can ask is, “…is there a God?” If the answer is ‘…yes’, the second most important question is “…what’s He like?” We can answer by defining God by His attributes – that He’s all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent, unchanging and eternal.
But, an equally important aspect to His attributes is His character. If we ask, “…what is His character?”, the answer is straightforward. God is like Jesus. Some see a dichotomy between what God is like and what Jesus is like. Some are afraid of God, but few are afraid of Jesus. In the Old Testament, God is the judge of sinners. In the New Testament, Jesus is the friend of sinners.
Some of us like Jesus but feel less sure of God. We understand God through the person of Jesus, not the other way around. We do not know Jesus by knowing God. Jesus told His disciples, “…no one comes to the Father except through Me.” – John 14:6 (NIV). If we are to know God, we need to know Christ. “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father.” – John 14:9 (NIV). The true God is known by knowing Christ, for He is Christ-like. AW Tozer said, “…what comes to mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us”.
Pre-eminently thinking about God must include thinking about Jesus. In Luke 15, Jesus told three parables – the passage begins like this. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” – Luke 15:1-2 (NIV).
Two categories of people are here – the tax collectors and sinners listening, and the Pharisees and teachers muttering. If you asked the Pharisees and teachers who the spiritual outcasts were among them, they would immediately say the tax collectors and sinners. If you asked the tax collectors and sinners the same question, they would agree immediately it was them.
If you asked both groups who the friends of God were, they would agree equally it was the Pharisees and teachers. The two groups were in complete agreement that God does not look on sin because of His purity. What both hadn’t any grasp of was what Paul wrote in Romans 5:20, “…where sin abounded, grace abounded much more…” (NIV). God is closest to those who know their sin and furthest from those who don’t. Ironically, the ones who don’t know their sin are the Pharisees and teachers, the ones who do know their sin are the tax collectors and sinners. Therefore, every measure by which both groups determined a person’s relationship to God was wrong!
The Pharisees and teachers grumbled that Jesus received sinners and ate with them. They didn’t say Jesus was feeding sinners – which might be a good thing to do. At best, feeding people is generous, at worst it’s patronising. What offended the Pharisees and teachers was that Jesus befriended sinners – taking them into His ‘turf’, if you like, as His friends, showing no discernment as to their true condition.
This discussion led to three parables – the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. We know the parable of the lost sheep – a shepherd counting his 100 sheep finds one missing and goes to find it. In the parable of the lost coin, a woman loses one of her 10 silver coins, lights a lamp and looks in every possible place in her house until she finds it.
The sheep is outside and conscious that it is lost – the coin is inside and has no consciousness. These two pictures of one lost on the outside and another lost on the inside are brought together in the next parable of two sons. Both are lost, the one is on the outside, the other is on the inside. The one on the outside knew he was lost, the one on the inside didn’t.
Though we usually call it the parable of the prodigal son, ‘sons’ is plural, as Jesus tells it. “…A certain man had two sons…” – Luke 15:11 (NIV). “…The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.” –
Luke 15:12 (NIV). There’s no further discussion or debate recorded about that – we’re simply told the father gave him what he requested. We know how and why he divided his property for there were laws about it, the younger son got a third. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living” – Luke 15:13 (NIV).
From Israel, the only way to go is east – maybe to Mesopotamia’s attractions – one of the great civilisations of the day. Perhaps it was the lights of Babylon or the culture of Nineveh that beckoned. We don’t know, but we do know that he arrived with cash in his pocket and quickly accumulated lots of friends. Then, the inevitable happened. His money ran out, just as a famine was spreading through the land. In desperation, the son hired himself out to a pig breeder who gave him the job of feeding pigs. He was so hungry he would’ve eaten the food the pigs were being fed. You’ll appreciate the degradation of this for a Jewish boy to whom pigs were unclean. As Jesus told this story, those listening would’ve grasped its full impact. He had sunk to the lowest of lows.
Something then happened which could only really occur when he was in the pig pen. “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.” – Luke 15:17 (NIV).
The key phrase is “…when he came to himself…” We rarely come to ourselves in comfort – we usually meet our real selves in trouble. The best thing about being in trouble is that things that really matter, begin to really matter.
God often waits a long time for people to come to themselves. That’s why, like the father in our story, God lets us go in the first place. One of the most frightening things the New Testament teaches about the wrath of God is that, God hands us over to our own desires and their repercussions. “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts…” – Romans 1:24 (NIV).
In the following verses Romans tell us God hands people over to materialism, sensualism and egotism – their own choices – until they find themselves in a pig pen. If they have the humility to come to themselves, then He can get their attention. To arrive at the story’s end – a transformed boy who returns home – the father had had to let him go, which portrays how God lets us go. We can live under illusions about ourselves, or a carefully managed image we present to others, but – alone in a pig pen when it’s just us – we have to be honest. The son’s honesty is, “I’ve sinned, I’ve messed up, I need to go home.”
Luke 15:20 is a wonderful verse, “…when he was still a great way off, his father saw him…” (NIV). Had his father been outside every morning, looking down the road? Perhaps. When he let his son go, he took the risk he might never see him again. Slowly, as his father recognised his son, he, “… ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” (NIV). That’s far from the reaction the son was expecting. He was returning with a well-rehearsed apology in his pocket.
The son begins, “…Father, I have sinned against Heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ – Luke 15:21 (NIV). Before he could finish, the father interrupts… “‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry. – Luke 15-22-24 (NIV).
God is like Jesus – and Jesus is telling us something about Himself. The father welcomes, forgives, reinstates, and dresses the son in new clothing. He’s celebrating. Some of us may see ourselves in the younger son and have found ourselves in ‘pig pens’. A pig pen of greed, lust, pride or jealousy. If we are in one, we’re halfway home when we come to ourselves, for when we begin to move back home, we’ll discover the Father has been watching the road all along, He is waiting and He’ll run to celebrate you.
An old hymn says,
“I’ve wandered far away from God,
Now, I’m coming home.
The paths of isn too long I’ve trod,
Lord, I’m coming home.
Coming home, coming home,
Never more to roam.
Open wide Your arms of love,
Lord, I’m coming home.
My soul is sick, my heart is sore,
Lord, I’m coming home.
My strength renewed, my hope restored,
Lord, I’m coming home.”
Is that your prayer?
Finally, something else of note is also taking place – the oldest son, who’d been diligently working on the property, is angry and resentful when he’s told his brother is home. Jesus is implying to the Pharisees and teachers, “…are you recognising the older brother? Are you seeing yourself in the mirror of this story?”
It is more difficult to see ourselves in the older son, for he never ‘comes to himself’. He justifies himself and deflects his own needs by criticizing his brother. But the story ends with the younger rebellious son back in fellowship with his Father. The boy who never left home though is distant and remote. The one who feels he has done well has the most difficulty facing his real need. That was the real thrust of the story. God is like Jesus, and He is the friend of sinners, for He said, “… I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” – Luke 5:32 (NIV). It is self-righteousness that gets in the way, and that is where repentance fails to come! The story starts with the youngest lost son and ends with the eldest lost son. You and I can be one or the other.
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About the author
Charles Price serves as the ‘Minister at large’ at the People’s Church in Toronto, Canada.
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