August 2, 2015 / Pentecost 10
Luke 15:11-32 / The Search for Happiness
This parable that we just read today is said to be one of the greatest parables that Jesus had given. The NIV calls this parable “The Parable of the Lost Son,” but I think many of us can remember this parable as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” That is the more traditional title for this parable. It was already being called the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” in English bibles in the 1500s. Do you know what prodigal means? I’ll be honest, growing up I didn’t know really what that meant. I even would say it wrong as “prodicle” and not “prodigal” with a “g.” For some reason, I always thought prodigal meant “return,” since the son “returned” home. Well, for those who were too lazy to pick up a dictionary or bring it up on your phone, “Prodigal” simply means to act wasteful and reckless. We definitely see that reckless behavior with this younger son because he was searching for happiness. He wanted the fun and good life.
Do you ever find it difficult, though, to relate to this prodigal son? I mean, yes we want to have fun, but it’s not like we are necessarily up and leaving our families to start a new life in Las Vegas as professional gamblers. In fact, I just recently went to the casino and I was even responsible in my gambling by capping the amount I would spend. But I don't think we should count ourselves out so quickly. We know that happiness is fleeting yet we continue to strive to find anything that will make us happy and make us feel good. Especially if we have had a rough life, if there is an option for quick happiness and quick relief, wouldn’t you take it? Who doesn’t want a better life?
But we all know that happiness is subjective, right? What makes one person happy can be far different from what makes another person happy. Often, we have assumptions of what will make us happy. Someone may have claimed to have an awesome experience doing something, so we assume that we will love it too. It WILL make us happy. It has to! As Christians, we can become pressured by the world to see the world as our playground, as fun things, and things that feel good. The desires of our heart search for happiness based on what society tells us will be good.
The younger son had his heart set on the pleasures of this world that we know can be so alluring and so intoxicating. This son requested his share of the inheritance, which was a big deal because, technically, according to ancient inheritance laws, children had no right to ask for and to divide the inheritance until after the parent’s death. Yet, he had the guts to approach his dad, thinking, “Well, since you aren’t going to die anytime soon, any chance I could get that inheritance sooner?” For the sake of this child, this loving father decided to bless him with his inheritance, most likely in straight up cash money. The Son wanted to make his own way in the world and to enjoy himself for once. Jesus is brief about this prodigal life, but offers a glimpse as the older brother describes the younger’s sad lifestyle of spending his money on prostitutes. In the mind of this younger son, his heart desired pleasure and took it in any form necessary.
But what made the younger son so happy was different from the older brother. That’s what made the older brother so angry. For all his slaving, all his hard work, all his perfect obedience, what did the father get him? Nothing. He never got to know the joy of having a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. What kind of father is this guy? He seemed ungrateful for everything his son did. I think that a better name for this parable, rather than “The Lost Son,” would be the “Parable of the Two Lost Sons.” In this son’s boast of greatness, he sins against God’s greatest commandment of love. The son knew nothing of such a commandment. His heart’s search for happiness was a reward for everything he did. If I do this, this should happen: a life of happy cause and effect.
And in some cases, wouldn’t you agree with him? It wasn’t fair. It is so easy for us to look at our pedigree as Christians and question God about fairness when we hear of murderers and criminals who become Christian. That doesn’t seem fair that they should go to heaven after everything they did. What have I done? Maybe I sped in a construction zone. That doesn’t seem comparable! And in our search for happiness, we see what our true desires are, be it pleasure or reward. We are no better than these two sons.
The pleasures and the desires of our sinful heart are like a moth attracted to a bug zapper. We see the pleasure, the warmth, and the promise of great things. But what happens when a moth gets to the bug zapper? Look where the younger son’s definition of happiness took him. I’d like to think that this younger son suffered through three famines: a physical famine of the land, a financial famine, and a spiritual famine. This man was in a spiritual wasteland, and look at the extent he went to. You would think his life of crazy living, and spending his money on prostitutes would be considered the worst part. Not the case! This son takes it past what we think would probably be the bottom: He basically forced himself into a job, and the passive in the Greek brings out the point that the citizen didn’t want him, which explains the type of labor and probably the lack of good pay. He took on the lowest service, that of feeding pigs.
Remember, that to the Jews and the Pharisees, there was more than humiliation in this type of job. Pigs were unclean according to the Jewish law. In the eyes of the Jews, dealing with pigs was the most hideous thing you could do. Who knows? They may have even thought it worse than the son paying for prostitutes. This son kept going farther into wickedness. That is the association that Jesus brings out for us. Our sin results in separation from God. YOUR sin makes you a companion of pigs in more ways than one. More than that, sin makes us the ugliest, grossest, and smelliest pig.
This younger son finally came to that realization. His search for pleasure made his vision cloudy. It made him insane. Neither sense nor reason exist in sin. Think about it. It was insane for this son to leave his father, to dive into this crazy and reckless living, and then to go on until he ended up with the pigs and almost eating their food. That was insane! But, when our minds are so caught up on seeking pleasure, we will do anything to get it, no matter how insane it might be, or no matter how sinful it might be.
Happiness and pleasure seem so exciting. Well, that’s what the world tires to convince us of. Why do we always have the belief that Christianity isn’t exciting? There is the story of a kite that was flying high up in the sky. One day, this kite was getting bored with flying there. It began to think, “I really like where I’m at, but this string is really holding me back. If I could only get rid of this string, I would really be able to fly higher. I could fly above the clouds. I could fly to Italy and back. I’m limited by this string. I want to be able to experience the world and its happiness.” Whoever thought a kite would be sad?
One day the kite got its wish. The string broke and the kite came crashing down. The kite didn’t realize that the same string that kept it down also kept it up, because it needed some sense of resistance. Cutting the string didn’t make it freer, but made it crash and burn. We will always head toward disaster when we cut the string of dependence on God in search of more pleasure. The same string that seems to hold you down also keeps you flying high. Staying connected to him keeps us from falling. This son fell down hard. He recognized that. By use of the law, God enlightens us, the sinners. We begin to see things as they really are. We see the problems that sin and our search for pleasure really brings us.
In humility, this son had nothing left but hope that his father might take him back. He had no excuse for what he did. That is trust, inspired by what he knew about his father, that knowledge being derived from the Gospel. The younger son could do nothing more than trust in his Father, because that’s where he knew happiness would be. He approached his Father, but His father was already looking for him. In fact, his father had always been looking for him. Before the son utters a single word of confession, this younger son is already forgiven. He deserved nothing, but he received everything. The father received him back not as a servant or a slave but as a son.
This father reached out in love, mercy, and forgiveness to BOTH of his sons. So really, the best name for this parable is “The Father with two lost sons.” The central and most important figure in this parable isn’t the prodigal son and what he did, nor is it about the older son and what he didn’t do, but it is about the Father treating his children as they didn’t deserve.
Do you see why this is considered one of the most awesome parables that Jesus spoke? We are the epitome of these two sons. We’ve often rejected God, wandered in far countries, spent the good gifts He has given us in selfish and sinful pursuits. We find ourselves in some pigsty and we wonder, does God still love us? Can he really still look at me for what I just did? What is His attitude toward us now? But God, like the father in the Prodigal story, is watching for us. He wants us to repent and to turn away from the shallow view of worldly pleasures and to turn to God. These words remind us of God’s forgiveness for us. We can thank God everyday that He doesn’t deal with us as we deserve but when we turn to God in repentance, He comes running to greet us and He assures us of His unchanging love.
Following God is by no means a boring life. It’s a happy life! It’s a life of pleasure in the fact that we know that we are forgiven. Amen.