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The Loser Celebrates

The Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt van Rijn, circa 1668,The Hermitage Muesum, St. Petersburg Russia,
I have spent several recent posts discussing the justice and judgment aspects of God’s personality because they are there and all too real. But if it ended there, we miss the climax to the story. God IS just, and His moral character leaves no room for our selfishness. However, for some bizarre reason, He still loves us with a reckless, crazy abandon and therefore He is unable to just leave us to our fate, but pursues and searches for us, wooing us back to Himself. And when we have reconciliation, God celebrates.

Jesus describes this celebration three times in quick succession in Luke 15. These passages are often focused on what has been lost—a sheep, a coin, and a son. But the main focus is on the one who has done the losing, and there is a remarkable progression in the parables that we can miss if we treat them separately, so we will look at them as a whole, as Christ gave them.

“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.”
Then Jesus told them this parable:  “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“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. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! 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. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

In the first parable, the lost thing is one sheep out of 100, a relatively minor loss, but worthy enough to pursue wholeheartedly and celebrate its finding. In the second parable, it is one coin out of 10, or 10% of her ‘wealth’ (the coin was equivalent to the day’s wage for a man, so more than that for a woman, so her net worth was maybe two or three weeks’ wages—not much, but you lose 10% of that and you feel it!) In the third parable, the younger son is lost, flesh and blood. Furthermore, the son has shown extreme disrespect and even hatred towards his father—by asking for his share of the inheritance, he has essentially told his father that he is dead as far as that son is concerned, so the son is moving on with his life, and all love, honor and responsibility the son owes the father is null and void (Remember the commandment to honor one’s parents—this is an extreme and perverse rejection of that commandment).  So the progression of the lost item is going from less important in the world’s eyes to more important, but Christ considered them all equally important of his effort in recovering them.

They were also equal in the result. In each case the loser, when the lost item is found, doesn’t just celebrate, but calls others in to celebrate with them.  See the underlined portions—they say to their friends, “Come and rejoice with me!” Their joy is too great to keep to themselves.

Then Jesus hits the punchline, “In the same way…” there is celebration in heaven. What is missed on our modern understanding is the phraseology (see the bold print)—“rejoicing in heaven” and “rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God.” Among Jews, especially back then, God was too holy to refer to Him directly, so euphemisms were used such as these. Think about it—who else is in the ‘presence of the angels of God’ except God Himself!! It doesn’t say the angels rejoice (although I’m sure they do), but someone in their presence is rejoicing, and that would be the Creator Himself.

What does God’s celebrating over a redeemed human look like? Jesus again fills in some of the blanks, but first let’s look at an episode in the life of King David. In 2 Samuel 6, David has recovered the ark of the covenant from the Philistines and is bringing it back to Jerusalem. “Now King David was told, ‘The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-Edom and everything he has, because of the ark of God.’ So David went to bring up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf. Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the LORD with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets. As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart.” Why did she despise him? Because of the way he was humiliating himself romping around dancing in his robes in front of all of the people. He had abandoned himself to the celebration of the return of Israel’s greatest treasure. There is some indication in Scripture this is the degree of joy God feels over our repenting and turning back to Him.

In the Prodigal Son parable, the father is obviously God. What does He do? He is constantly on the watch for the son’s return, so that he sees him from a great distance and runs to meet him. Think about how awkward and undignified it is to run in the robes folks wore back then, especially someone of the stature and wealth of the father in this story. Then realize the son is in rags, unwashed, and reeking from living with pigs, the strongest representation in that culture of the very dirtiest of conditions. In today’s parlance, this boy had been mucking out porta-potties by hand with a sieve for weeks in the hottest summer heat. Yet the father recognizes him from a distance, runs to him, throws his arms around him and hugs and kisses him. He then orders him clothed in the finest garments in the house, and throws a blowout party inviting all to rejoice with Him.

This is the very heart of the Gospel. God hates passionately the muck in which we live our lives, yet when we come to our senses and turn to Him, He embraces us fully because through Christ we are made clean. The urine and filth of our selfishness is removed from us by His joyful sacrifice and He embraces us even while we are still in the midst of our uncleanness, the moment our heart turns from ourselves to Him. If we will turn from ourselves, He will worry about making us clean.

This one fact is what distinguishes Christianity from every other worldview on the planet—that we don’t have to become acceptable to God before He’ll take us. We don’t have to get our lives straight before we find salvation. When we realize we can’t fix ourselves and turn to Him in surrender, that is when we are saved and redeemed. He has made it His job to fix our problems, because He knows we can’t.

This is how God celebrates.

{I am deeply appreciative to Pastor Ron Parrish of Hope in the City, Austin, for sharing the basic ideas of this passage today.}


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