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Luke 15:11-32, Luke 13:1-5
Good morning. I did not expect to preach again until March because I scheduled myself to have a February break I am going off on a short break this week and I will only be back on the 22nd, but this week had been eventful. Darryl’s mom fell and broke her knee, fractured her knee and is fractured in an odd way and needed immediate surgery and so Darryl asked me if I could find someone to take over the preaching slot and of course it was Wednesday or Thursday right (looks at Pauline)?
I was in India with Pauline at the Asian Consultation on Church Responses to Human Sexuality and Gender Minorities when he asked me when we were there – and I already had a sermon germinating in my mind so you know I just smiled to myself and of course I will do it.
Last Monday, when Pauline and myself left office for the airport this book was sitting in the room next to the desktops and I spotted it you know, it was a small book the title tickled my interest, “The Prodigal God” similar to a sermon Clarence preached long time ago even back in our time in Yangtze. But the author was really the one that sparked my interest. This is by Timothy Keller. He is a pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York and he is from an Evangelical background and I was curious about what he had to say because we disagree on some aspect of theology and this book was based on a sermon he had heard preached by Dr Edmund P Clowney over 30 years ago and Dr Edmund Clowney was his mentor and this is of course based on the parable of the Prodigal.
Let me read it to you.
(11) Then Jesus[a] said, “There was a man who had two sons. (12) The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. (13) A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. (14) When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. (15) So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. (16) He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. (17) But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! (18) I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; (19) I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ (20) So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. (21) Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] (22) But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. (23) And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; (24) for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
(25) “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. (26) He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. (27) He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ (28) Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. (29) But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. (30) But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ (31) Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. (32) But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
Very familiar parable and we have heard it many many times in this church and many many times all over. It demonstrates God’s love for us. But when I read this book and we were in the ecumenical Christian centre and we end about 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock every day, I don’t get to bed until 1130 to 12 and it was a very quiet place and it was perfect like a retreat. So this book was my companion in the few nights there and that is why when Darryl asked me to preach and whether I could find someone to take over the preaching I was like “Yes”, my material, the thoughts in my head has found a way to express themselves in some way.
We are familiar with The Return of The Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. Some of us have even done a bible study using this book many years ago. This was one of the bible study books and Nouwen use Rembrandt’s painting as a way of reflecting on the parable.
Nouwen invites us to enter into the space, into the story, into the parable and take on the roles of the characters and using the painting, he invited us to take a look and become the younger son, the father, the older son who is standing by the side looking on and even the characters hiding in the shadow perhaps the servants, friends, family and even the mother. That is not a difficult thing to put ourselves into the character. That is one way of reading the text. But what we want to set is the context of this parable.
This parable is located with two other parables and they come together. We should not read one without reading the other. But it comes with also the context of what was happening then. Right there in the beginning of chapter 15, the first two verses say, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. (2) And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus of course probably hearing their mumblings told the parable of the lost sheep then the parable of the lost coin and then the parable of the prodigal. The prodigal I think is a misnomer in some way because when we talk about the prodigal son we keep focusing on the younger son. You see it is easy to identify with the tax collectors and the sinners and the younger child. We often see ourselves as the ones who wandered off and then now returning back to God’s family. Because it resonates with a lot of our stories of running away, thinking that God would not love us or accept us because of who we are and hearing so much condemnation from the older siblings of today.
But Timothy Keller argues that there are actually two lost children in the parable. The younger sibling and the older sibling. And recently I was reading another book I cannot remember which book I was reading because I was trying to find where did I read this that the parable focus is actually on the older sibling because at the end of the story the older sibling was never resolve. We do not know if the older sibling did join the partying and the celebration or continue to stand outside fuming and angry.
And when we hear stories like that that are unresolved in the bible especially Jesus’ parables or Jesus’ stories or the narratives with Jesus, the open-endedness of the story is important because it is a challenge to the listener, how do you want the story to end?
So the parable likely was directed at the Pharisees and the Scribes inviting them to think of their response whether they will join in the celebration as well. But why is the older sibling also a lost child?
Timothy Keller asked the question, “What is the motivation for the elder sibling to keep obeying the father’s command to stay at home and be the good child?” What was the motivation? Was it out of love for the father? Or was it for something else? So when we read what was the older son’s reaction, the older sibling, he became angry and refuse to go in.
And he didn’t even address his father properly, he said, ‘Listen!’ Wow, when someone say ‘Listen!’ this person is rather angry and not really respectful. It is basically someone coming to me and “Listen! Miak you need to…!” ‘For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat.’
Why was he slaving away? Why was he never disobedient? It’s because he wants to get something in return. He was working hard to get something. In his heart, it has crossed his mind before, he was not eyeing the fatted calf but eyeing the young goat to celebrate and party with his friends. And because he never got what he was working for, he gets angry.
In the book, I appreciate this, Timothy Keller quotes from Elizabeth Elliot who told an apocryphal story. Apocryphal stories are stories about Jesus but are not found in the bible. I want to read you this one because it is very very insightful.
One day, Jesus said to his disciples, I’d like you to carry a stone for me. He didn’t give them any explanation, so the disciples started looking for stones to carry and Peter being the practical one found the smallest stone that he could possibly find almost like a pebble. Then Jesus said to them ‘Follow me’ and he led them on a journey.
And at about noon time Jesus had everyone sit down. He waved his hands and all the stones turn to bread and he said to them ‘now its time for lunch’. In a few seconds, Peter’s lunch was over. When lunch was done Jesus told them to stand up. He said again ‘I’d like you to carry a stone for me’. This time Peter said ‘A-ha! Now I got it!’ So he looked around and saw a small boulder. He hoisted it on his back and it was painful. It made him stagger. But he said ‘I cannot wait for supper’. Jesus then said ‘follow me’. (Oh, you all are getting it. You know the story won’t end the way we think right?)
He led them on a journey and Peter, poor Peter, barely was able to keep up. At around supper time, Jesus led them to the side of the river and then he said ‘now everyone throw your stones into the river’, they did. Then he said ‘Follow me’ and began to walk. Peter and the others looked at him dumbfounded. Jesus sighed and said, ‘Don’t you remember what I asked you to do? Who were you carrying the stone for?’
When we follow rules, when we do things, when we get engaged, who are we doing it for? The older sibling was doing it for himself not for the love of the father, not for anything else but for his own benefit. There is another story here that is not about Jesus and I enjoy this story a lot.
There was a king and then there was a gardener who was gardening. One day he found that one of the carrots in the garden grew up to an enormous size that he has never seen before and he went “Wow! I have such a huge carrot I’ve never seen it before! I want to give it to the king as a gift.” So he went to the king and gave this carrot to the king and said “My lord, this is the biggest carrot I have ever seen in my life that has grown in my garden, I would like to give it to you as a gift.” The king was moved and the king was glad. And the king said, “Because of your love for me, I will give to you the garden next to yours so that you got a bigger plot.” And so he went back with doubled the size of his garden in a way.
The noble man found out about this and “Wow! The king is such a generous king. I will give him the best horse from my stables.” Of course in his mind was, the king will give me the stables next to mine. And he went to the king and said, “My lord, I love you very much and I’ll give to you this stallion! The best in my stables as a token of my love for you.” But of course the king was a wise king. The king knew and discern the heart of the noble man.
And then the king accepted the gift, thank him and sent him away. The noble man was stunned, that was not what he expected. And he kind of like, “er… I thought you were going to give me something else?” But the king’s response to him was, (oh, I love the… I want to read you the actual line) “Let me explain” said the king. “The gardener was giving me the carrot but you were giving yourself the horse.”
We need to understand the call to live out who we are called to be, to love, to seek justice, to love mercy, to do justice, and walk humbly with God not for the sake of ourselves but for the sake of love, for the sake of justice, for the sake of God. We need to understand what is our motivation for obeying God or becoming good. What is the older sibling’s motivation for obeying the parent?
For us, we need to think for ourselves do we do it for our own sake? To avoid punishment? To seek rewards or are we to do what we are called to do for God’s sake, for God’s glory, for the sake of truth, love and justice?
The older sibling was lost because the older sibling thought that the parent’s love can be earned.
But what does the father say to him? “Son, you are always with me, and what is mine is yours.” Love isn’t earned, and neither is grace.
We talked about the two lost siblings but there is also a big question here. In the first two parables, the parable of the lost sheep and lost coin – something is lost, the sheep or the coin, and someone goes out and searches diligently for what has been lost, and then what was lost is found, and there is great rejoicing great celebration. As Keller points out “The searchers let nothing distract them or stand in their way.”
So when we hear the third parable, the parable of the prodigal sibling or the lost sibling, we are prepared to expect someone to go in search of the first younger child when he went astray. No one does. This story echoes many stories of sibling rivalry in the bible – and the oldest of them all – the story of Cain and Abel. God tells Cain – You are your brother’s keeper.
Keller writes “This is what the elder brother in the parable should have done; this is what a true elder brother would have done.”
He would have said “Father, my younger brother has been a fool, and now his life is in ruins. But I will go look for him and bring him home. And if the inheritance is gone – as I expect it – I’ll bring him back into the family at my expense.”
I’ll bring him back into the family at my expense. Remember the story starts off with the younger brother asking for his portion of inheritance, he has already taken his. What remains, if you think about it clearly, is actually the elder sibling’s. Maybe that is why he got so angry. The fatted calf is actually his. The ring and the robes was given to the younger brother was also his. That was his part that was left over after he claimed everything.
But Keller says “The true elder sibling will go out in search of the younger sibling at his own expense. Because mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrong doer. There is a cost to be a true elder sibling.” There is a cost to love. There is a cost to forgiveness. If the wrong doer has to do something to merit it then it isn’t mercy. And forgiveness always come to the cost at the one granting forgiveness.
When we moved here very very early on, someone broke the mechanism of the sliding door. No one came up to own up that was why I was angry. I want people to be accountable for wrong doing. But I am not going to ask the person to pay for the cost of repairing the door. I am very prepared to forgive that, I don’t think anyone did that on purpose, to damage the door. I want accountability and the forgiving of that damage, the cost of repairing that door. It cost us as a community.
Forgiveness has a cost. If someone broke something of yours and you forgive that person, whatever that has been damaged is still damaged and who has to pay for the fixing or restoration? The one forgiving.
And we need to think about this, as we journey in life when we talk about forgiveness. When we talk about love, we need to recognize there is a cost that is part of our journey. The cost of being the elder sibling.
Restoration has a cost.
Last week when I was in India I shared about our journey as a church as a community because this is an opportunity to allow people to see how we have come this far. We would not have come this far without people like Rev Yap and Anthony Yeo in our midst.
They who came onboard in the early days, Anthony Yeo preached here almost every quarter. His last sermon was preached in 2009 and he passed away in June if I remembered correctly. But all we see are what they did but we do not know the cost they paid. Both Rev Yap and Anthony Yeo and many people who stood with us has lost friends.
Anthony Yeo’s church split over exactly what he did for us. He was very involved in this church and his church split because of that. There was a price. He lost friends. Lifelong friends who walked with him, disagreed with him and they fell out.
Rev Yap, for those of you who do not know, the Methodist Church took away his pension, meagre as it is it wasn’t much. You know, he had a pension from the Methodist Church and they took it away from him. He will never tell you that because it is not something he will brag about. But there is a cost in walking with, there is cost in loving people, there is a cost in doing justice.
And when we were in India, Pauline and myself, we saw friends who stood up for us with nothing to gain. Our friends, (did I write their name?) Father Philip Kuruvilla, Father Thomas Ninan, the Metropolitan Coorilos and one professor from George Zechariah. These are the ones who really spoke out. There are many of them there. Some are just trying to find out how we can be allies.
But amongst them and there are a few more so many people to name, there are fifty of us there at this consultation. Imagine the Metropolitan which is the equivalent of the bishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church standing up and saying “You know, we need to do this”.
There would be a cost to his political you know within the politics in
his church but he is willing to stand up despite the cost that is involve. What has he to gain? Actually very little.
The ethics professor of Union Theological College in Bangalore Professor George Zechariah was passionate. He was sitting next to me on the panel the way he spoke he was like “we are not doing enough”. His wife was also there at the consultation.
In that place I saw our elder siblings in our midst. They were standing up and doing the right thing not for themselves but for God’s sake, for love’s sake, for justice’s sake. It will cost them dearly I think. And it might have already cost to some of them. I do not know.
But when people do this work for love for God truly for the other and not for themselves they will not come up and say this is not what I have given up. This is my sacrifice. When people truly really do it for someone else for God, they will not claim credit. They will not draw attention to themselves.
This I think is what being engaged looks like. Engaged not that we want to earn something, earn God’s love or we are afraid of being punish if we do not do the right thing. But the way that Jesus invited us to think about by living this character out.
The lost siblings are not the way to God. You know going out in the world seeking your own paths. But sticking to religious rules being obedient and slavishly obeying rules is also not the way to God because that is its own prison.
That is also carrying the stone not for Jesus but for ourselves. That is also giving the carrot or the horse, we are not giving the horse to God we are giving the horse to ourselves because there is something in it. We need to think about our motivations. I always like to go back, and I think I preached this verse recently from Luke 13 and this is interesting, this is two chapters before.
At the very time, there was some person who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate has mingled with their sacrifices. Meaning these Galileans were doing a religious ritual and they were killed by the Romans, so their blood were mingled with their sacrifices. So they told Jesus about them and he ask them “do you think these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans. Meaning that this happened because they were sinners and they were being punished. But Jesus reply was “No I tell you but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.”
All those eighteen who were killed when the tower Siloam fell on them, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you but unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.
What is Jesus asking them to repent of? And often we read the next passage about you know planting the tree and digging up and allowing to put manure and see if the tree bears fruit before cutting it down.
That’s often where we connect. But I think this also connects very closely to chapter 15. This connects to why are we doing what we do for? Do we do… do we try to be holy people because we want to escape punishment? We want to escape bad luck or misfortune that may befall on us. But Jesus tell us to repent because we are called not to do things for our own sake but for the sake of God.
I… you know… as Gary said, I travelled more than him in the first month… this period than he has travelled. That is rare right? So, erm during the earlier or the late part of January I went to Sydney and Melbourne . There was a conference in Sydney and I took the opportunity to go to Melbourne to meet our… we have a cell group now in… cell group size in Melbourne you know, I think we have seven or eight folks there now and they can form a worship team. Some of the most talented people are there right? Right (laughs).
And I met up with Carolyn. Carolyn Newall. Some of you might know her, she was teaching here in 2009 2010 I think, my dates are not very good. I know that she was here when I was in seminary. And when I came back we were doing Amplify and I was invited to work with her. And we sat down one afternoon to talk about what we are going to do and we talked till about nine or ten, six seven hours about theology and everything.
And then that very day I told her you and I are going to preach together and we did a tag team that has never done before and I have not done before and it went so smoothly because we were able to follow on each other’s thought and each other’s ideas.
That coffee that we had or that brunch that we had I had the opportunity to engage with someone in theological discussion. And she said something that was interesting. Because we were talking about original sin. And she said, “Miak, you might not have an idea of what original sin is. But as a mother, I know. When I gave birth to my sons, my twins, I saw original sin. Because a baby will keep crying and crying to have its needs met. Its hunger met.”
And she said, “For the baby, the baby is the center of the universe. When we are born, all we understand is ourselves and our needs. We are selfish. It is survival right? It’s a kind of survival instinct. Original sin is basically self-centeredness that the whole universe revolves around us and she said it’s never more apparent in babies.”
But as grow up we learn that the world does not revolve around us. We learn how to connect with people outside of ourselves, different from ourselves, beyond ourselves.
And as I thought about it, when we talked more, I came to the realization or not the realization and probably knew in the back of my mind but join connecting the dots.
That spiritual growth is God-centeredness. Spiritual Growth is God-centeredness. That we are no longer centered on ourselves but centered in God. And our journey of growth, spiritual maturity is moving away from self-centeredness to God-centeredness.
Be the true elder sibling is being God-centered. That we do not do things for ourselves but rather for someone else’s sake. For the sake of love, for the sake of justice, for the sake of God.
This is the journey that we are called to make. This is what we are supposed to build up. We may stumble along the way but sometimes we go like “er, you know today can I take a break God? You know, from doing things for other people and do it for ourselves?”
But this is the journey we have to make. And we have the biggest example or the best example of the elder sibling.
Timothy Keller, points to Jesus as the ultimate elder sibling. The one who forgave, the one who made the ultimate sacrifice not for his own sake but for the sake of others. And it was like “ding” light bulbs light up as I was reading it and I was very move. It helped me to see things in a different light. It helped me… well maybe not in a different light… it helped me to crystalize what I have been wrestling so long with. How do I tell people to stop doing this for trying to earn God’s love.
Stop trying to be nice just because you want to get something out from it. But be nice and good for the sake of God.
As we continue this year, as we adventure, as we journey, as the journey of spiritual growth that we are seeking, I want to invite you to keep thinking about what we should be doing, and also the motivation of why we do what we do. We need a re-orientation of our hearts. Then we will be born again. Then we will be transformed. Then we will be people who love with no other motive but to love.
I saw that in India. The opening worship was so powerful to me I was stunned. I did not expect that to happen. I expect to learn something from India, I did not expect healing.
The hymn they picked up was a modern hymn and they used erm… they used the melody of the symphony no. 9. (talks to audience: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 what do we normally called it in church? (hums music)) … Joyful, Joyful!
The last verse mentioned marriage equality. And I was floored. Because… and I was reflecting after that why I was so stunned because I don’t even dare to imagine marriage equality in any context in Asia.
I am basically just there to say, you need to include, accept and welcome LGBTIQ people in church.
They who organized this, they who planned the worship included that. And I found immense healing in that. And its powerful. So when I did my first presentation in I acknowledged that. And they were also stunned. They did not know what they will do and their impact they will have on the people like us.
And I thought I had long reconciled, long come at peace with who I am and who has God called me to be. But that healing because I’ve only heard the angry elder sibling saying, “you know, he has squandered his inheritance and he do not deserve to be back here” that is the elder sibling I’ve heard.
But in this past week, I had met so many elder siblings who follow the way of Christ.
There is hope. There is something beyond us. And is time for us to learn to live out our lives and see ourselves living as true elder siblings for all people.
To love them for the sake of love, for the sake of God, with no conditions. To forgive, and understand the cost of forgiveness to us. And to see our spiritual growth as God-centeredness. Parable of the Lost Siblings