The Student’s Desk

That we may know Christ

How Extensive is God’s Love?

(Luke 15)

How extensive is God’s love? What is it like? Who does it extend to? And, how does it affect our attitude towards others as Christians?

These are all interesting questions. They are questions that were raised by the Pharisees and teachers of the law – the religious officials. Not in the polite “Dear Jesus” kind of way, but by their actions. We are told in that they were muttering against Jesus because he was socialising with tax collectors and sinners, and openly welcomed welcoming them (v2 ). These two groups of people were considered to be the scum of Jewish society – human garbage.

So if Jesus was who he was claiming to be – God’s Messiah – what was he doing hanging out with tax collectors in sinners? To draw a modern parallel, I guess it would be something like Jesus going to Kings Cross, and spend the night wining and dining with drug dealers and prostitutes. What would we think of our King Jesus then? What would the response be in the Christian community? Would we question Jesus’ Messiahship? Would we doubt that Jesus is God’s son? Would we be any different from the Pharisees and teachers of the law? Would we?

In response to this self-righteous attitude, Jesus tells three parables in Luke 15 that communicate that God is a God who searches, finds, and cares for sinners. We would profit greatly from reflecting on these parables, since in these parables we find answers to the questions I’ve just raised. Though we may know the answers, we may seldom think of their implications. So let’s raise those questions again, one at a time, and have a good solid reminder.

Firstly, What is God’s love like?

The first two parables indicate that God’s love is a searching love. Looking for that which has been lost.

The first two parables are about two people of humble means. The first is about a shepherd (vv4-7) who has a mob of 100 sheep. From the commentary I read, most shepherds had a mob of sheep up to 200, and 300 was considered a large mob. So 100 sheep was quite a small mob. We are told that 1 of the 100 goes missing, so he leaves the remaining 99 sheep and searches for the missing sheep.

Similarly, in the second parable (vv8-9), we are told of a woman who has 10 coins, taken to be 10 days wages. One coin goes missing, so she turns the house up side down, cleaning and sweeping, looking for this one lost coin. The fact that the woman needs to light a lamp would suggest she has no windows in her house, indicating her humble means.

So it’s to be quite expected that the shepherd will run off and find his lost sheep, and the woman will turn the house upside down looking for a days wage. When they find what they have lost they rejoice, and savour the moment with friends.

Both these parables serve to remind us that God’s love is a searching love. This love will spare no expense for those who a lost. Just like the shepherd who left 99 sheep in the open to find the one sheep and the woman who did not stop looking, until she found her lost coin. God’s love is searching out his people.

Occasionally, I hear someone say that they’ve found God. I think to myself, “That’s interesting. I didn’t know God was lost. Where was he?”

Again, in this post-modern society, it tends to be popular just to let people find their own way to God. Yet from this passage, and others, it’s clearly not the person who looks for God. In Roman’s 3:11 we are told “there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.”

Rather, it is God who puts in the hard yards, searching, calling, and bringing people, you and me, into his kingdom. When a sinner does come into God’s kingdom, heaven throws a party (v10), just as the shepherd and the woman in the parable celebrated when they found what they were searching for.

Don’t you think that’s amazing? The day you came into a personal relationship with Jesus, the day you were saved, God and all his angels threw a party. I can’t get over that! So God’s love is a searching love.

Secondly, who is this love for? How far does it extend?

I think we’re use to the idea that God loves sinners. We can handle the idea that people aren’t perfect. It’s quite normal to end up with a speeding ticket, or a copy of a friend’s CD, not that I’m advocating that behaviour. But, we can handle God’s love extending to those sorts of people.

          But what about someone who’s really fouled up? What about some who’s made a total mess of things, and their life is barely worth salvaging. The kind of people I’ve heard being referred to as a “waste of space”. Does God’s love extend to those sorts of people?

In the third parable, we meet such a person. The younger son of two (vv11-19). The parable involves a common Jewish family with uncommon circumstances. Two sons, a father, and an estate. We are told of a younger son that does everything a Jewish boy would never do. It is a parable designed to be shocking to those who heard it.

So what does this younger son do? Firstly, he demands his inheritance from his father. This is not the polite request for a loan to see out the week like young people might request today. Like today, the recipients of the inheritance didn’t get it until the person had died. So this is much more then a request for money. Loaded in this demand is the desire to terminate the relationship he has with his father, and cut himself off from the family unit. He wants for himself a life of independence. Michael Frost, an Australian preacher, interprets the words of the young son as “Dad, I wish you were dead!” While some commentators reject this interpretation, it nonetheless captures the blatant disregard for his father, and the duty owed to his family.

Just imagine, tomorrow morning while sipping your coffee, your teenage child comes in and says, “hurry up and die so I can get my inheritance!” How would you respond? Would your first response be to reach for your cheque book? Hand them the cheque saying, “There you go, have yourself a good time!” Somehow I very much doubt it.

Remarkably, this is what the father did. OK maybe they didn’t have cheque books in those days, but we are told in the same verse that he divides the property. No sooner does the son receive his inheritance than he takes off to a distant country. This moving away, I think, demonstrates two things:

1) It is a further expression of cutting ties with his family. There was no Telstra in 1stcentury Rome. No mobile phones! (Just how did a young person cope?) So being away from home, he had no means to communicate with his family. No “Hi dad, how’s it going? I saw the Colosseum today!” His family was as good as dead to him, and visa versa.

2) I think it demonstrates how he removed himself from God. Even though the text doesn’t say, I’m presuming the people who heard this parable would have imagined that this family lived in or near Jerusalem since that is where Jesus is heading when he tells this parable. And Jerusalem was where the temple was, which represented God’s presence, and Israel was God’s nation. So to remove yourself from Jerusalem, to move out of Israel, would be to remove yourself from God, to deny your religion.

Are you starting to feel the gravity of this son’s sin? But wait there’s more! As a special addition, he squanders his wealth in wild living. He indulges in what would be the 1st century equivalent of ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’, and has himself a good time. This is a young Jew behaving anything like a Jew!

So what’s he done?

He’s shown disregard for his family.

He’s shown disregard for God, and his religion.

He has indulged in sensuous living.

See, this younger son is a bit more than the sheep who got left behind isn’t he? Or the coin that slipped through the hole in the purse. He’s done his level best to offend his family and God. Anyone would be offended by this son’s behaviour. He’s really not the type you’d invite for afternoon tea. The severity of his sin is illustrated by the severity of the circumstances measured out to him:

1) He’s out of money. I can just imagine this son, going to his favourite night club, and I’m being metaphoric, and at the end of the night, he whips out his trusty credit card to pay his tab, puts it through the machine, and the message comes back “TRANSACTION DENIED. INSUFFICIENT FUNDS.” So he begs the bar tender to try again, and the same thing happens. Ever had that happen to you? It’s a horrible feeling. As a result, this son is promptly ousted by the bouncers giving him the kind advice not to come back on account of his physical well being.

2) The country he’s living in experienced a severe famine. From that we can assume food prices are going up, inflation is out of control, poverty is around every corner, and to use another metaphor, the country is going into recession.

3) From riches to rags, he’s impoverished! His independent life has become a life of dependence. The only job he could get was feeding pigs, another aspect of the parable that is meant to shock us. Pigs were regard as unclean by the Jews. If you came in contact with something that was unclean, you were made ceremoniously unclean, and had to purify yourself before God. Therefore, under no circumstances were Jews to go anywhere near pigs. So what was a young Jewish man doing feeding pigs? Further this job couldn’t even put bread on the table, as we are told “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating,…” (v16)

This is a strong indication of how desperate his situation is. No family, no money, no property, and the only job he can get, doesn’t even provide for his own needs. He’s a young man, in an impoverished situation, in an impoverished country. Once more, he deserved it. As a Jew he couldn’t have sunk any lower.

After a while, he does a reality check, and works out he’d be better off at home than living off pig pods. I’ve never tasted one, but I can’t imagine they’d be all that satisfying. But notice how he doesn’t presume upon the grace of his father? He doesn’t think to himself, “I’ll just rock up on the front door step with a plastic bag of dirty clothes, say ‘sorry dad’ and everything will be cool”. No! He knows he’s messed up. He knows he’s burnt his bridges. He knows he can’t assume the relationship he had before with his father, at least he not on his part. He knows he has no claim on his father’s mercy. This then is a true image of repentance.

So, he resolves to hire himself out to his father as a slave, the lowest category of employment. It would be similar to putting your name down for casual work today, and hoping the phone will ring. The work and income aren’t guaranteed. Maybe they’ll call you, maybe they won’t. Such is his desperation. I can just imagine this son on his way home practicing his speech over and over and over again in his head, getting the delivery just right. Will his dad give him the job, despite everything he’s done?

As this son gets nearer to home, we are told the father saw him while he was still off in the distance, and runs to him (v20). I don’t know if this is right or wrong, but I often picture a fat man in long robs hurtling down the street unable to control his emotions – a most undignified scene indeed. But such is the love and compassion he has for his son! I can imagine the son trying to commence his well-rehearsed speech, and every time he tries to commence his speech he just gets smothered in more and more hugs and kisses.

Refusing to hear the speech, the father calls to his servants, “Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.” (vv22-23). The son didn’t get the job he was hoping for. Rather he received complete and full restoration. He was given full rights as a son. Further, the father puts on one big party. The fattened calf we read about was reserved for religious festivals such as Passover. So this is not your usual BBQ that we enjoy as Australians when friends and relatives come ‘round. It’s not as if they ran out of meat and they just happened to have a spare cow around the back. This is a big deal.

This action on the part of his father illustrates the love God has for sinners. God isn’t leaning on the front gate wondering whether or not people will come in. He is out there, working in the world pursuing sinners and bringing them into his kingdom, and every time a sinner comes into his kingdom a party erupts in heaven.

Amongst the many pages of reading I do for my studies, I found a story of a modern day lost son. After a number of years he writes to his parents saying, “I’ve messed up, I’m sorry. I’ll be passing by on such a day, if your prepared to forgive me, please hang a white handkerchief in my bedroom window. If I don’t see it, I’ll just keep going.”

So he comes around the corner, with his heart in his mouth, hoping, just hoping to see this white handkerchief. When he spots the house he finds it draped in white sheets, white towels, white pillow cases, white tea towels, any white material his parents could get their hands on! Do you think he got the idea that his parents wanted him back? Of course he did!

Again this story illustrates just how much God welcomes sinners. But God didn’t demonstrate his forgiveness by hanging out white tea towels. He demonstrated it by hanging his only Son on a Roman cross, cancelling the debt that you owe him. Do you think God wants you back in a relationship with him? You better believe it!

If you are reading this, and you haven’t experienced the love of God, and know what it is to be in relationship with him, can I say to you that God desires very much to have you back, despite anything you may have or haven’t done. I’d encourage you to find a Christian whom you can speak to, and learn what it is to live in a proper relationship with God.

          So God’s love is a searching love, and it is an extensive love.

Thirdly, for us who claim to be Christians, how should God’s love affect our lives? How should it affect our attitude toward others?

The parable continues with the focus on the older son. While the home welcoming party for the younger son continues on into the evening, the older son comes home from the days work. As he nears the house, he hears the commotion of the party. So he inquires as for the reason for the party, and is promptly told, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ (v27). The older son, far from impressed, is enraged with fury, and has it out with his father. Why? There are a few clues in the heated argument he has with his father (vv28-30). He exclaims that he’s been slaving away, and working his guts out for his father, and has never disobeyed his orders. In other words, he had a works based mentality. His relationship with his father was all about ticking boxes. It wasn’t based on love. He’s complaint is that a huge injustice has taken place, and he draws up a ledger of what the other son has done. “It’s not fair!” he’s saying. Ever heard that from your kids?

Because of his works based mentality, he’s missed the point of what it is to be in relationship with his father. Being in relationship with his father was never about ticking boxes so he could get this, that, and the other thing. Being in a relationship with his father meant being in constant relationship with him, and sharing in everything he owns and does. The father reminds him that he need not have worked for anything because everything that belonged to the father was there for his enjoyment. But because he is so pre-occupied with his own concerns and his works based mentality, we find the father having to coerce his son to be involved in what he is doing, and to celebrate the return of his brother.

Our relationship with God is simular. We are not to slip into a works based mentality – “if I’ll do this, then God will do that.” We are in constant fellowship with God, not just for an hour on Sunday. We have been given his creation to enjoy. Most importantly, we are to take part in God’s activity in the world.

Similar to the older son, we too can be so pre-occupied with our own concerns, we can miss the point of what it means to be a Christian. God longs for us to be involved in what he is doing. He’s already at work in the world, and he’s calling us to the party!

For as long as I can remember, I have been trying to prove to myself, and the rest of the world, that I am not disabled. Yet somehow reality keeps dictating otherwise. In the 10 years or so since high school, I really had very little to do with disabled people. So you might well imagine the last thing I wanted to do was walk into a room full of disabled people. Yet I knew God was at work amongst disabled people. And I believed, and still believe that God is inviting me to the party. Before I could answer the invitation, I had a real mountain of pride and apprehension to climb over.

God longs for each of us to be involved in what he is doing. This doesn’t necessarily mean uprooting your life and going to Bible College, though for some, it may mean this. It might mean simply sharing a cup of coffee with a non-Christian, or offering a listening ear to a struggling Christian. While for others, it may mean going to Kings Cross, and witnessing to drug dealers and prostitutes. Our Church is involved in many different ministries, and it may be worthwhile for you to pray about them, and discuss your involvement with an elder. A list of just some of the ministries can be found on the inside cover of The Sentinel under Elders Ministry Oversights.

Finally, we’re not told what the son does. We’re left in standing in the older son’s shoes. What we he do? Will he stand hard and fast to his legalistic ways, or will he rejoice with his father?

          What will you do? Will you remain pre-occupied with your own concerns? Or will you join in God’s party?

© The Student’s Desk, 2007.

October 6, 2007 Posted by | Articles, Bible Exposition, Religious | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment