Teach Us to Number Our Days: For All These Years

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
March 10, 2013

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Our Gospel lesson for today is the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15, one of the best-known and most-loved stories in all the Bible, but that’s also one of the things that makes it so hard to preach.  As soon as I say, “There was a man who had two sons,” you say, “Oh, I know this one,” and you turn off the switch to your brain.  But today I need you to keep it on, because I’m going to ask you to do something that will require your full brain power.  I’m going to ask you to help me fit this story into the sermon series I’ve been preaching, the one called “Teach Us to Number Our Days.”  If you’ve been here you know that it’s based on Psalm 90 where Moses says, “Lord, since we’re not going to live forever, not in this life anyway, teach us to live life well, and to make every day count.”  And for the last few weeks the Lord Jesus Christ has been doing exactly that—he’s been teaching us how to live. 

Three weeks ago he taught us how to resist temptation by being very clear about who we are and why we’re here, which means also being clear about who we are not and why we are not here.  Two weeks ago he taught us to overcome fear by thinking of others more than we think of ourselves and by always putting them first.  Last week he urged us to live fruitful lives, so that we would be ready for whatever comes next, no matter what.  But are there some practical life lessons in the parable of the Prodigal Son?  That’s what I’m going to ask you to listen for as I read Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 from the New Revised Standard Version, the one I use in my study, and even as you listen for those lessons, listen for the Word of the Lord.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:

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 traveled 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 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.’ 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 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’”(NRSV). 

If this were a classroom instead of a church sanctuary I would ask, “Did anybody hear a lesson about life in that story, about how to live life well and make every day count?”  And some smart aleck on the front row would say, “Yes.  Don’t squander your property in dissolute living.”  Well…yes.  That’s a good lesson.  Those are not words we use every day but you probably get the point: squander means to spend wastefully, extravagantly, like the guy who lights his cigar with a hundred dollar bill, and dissolute means to be indifferent to moral restraints.  Some of its synonyms are: “corrupt, loose, wanton, and debauched.”  Even though those are not words we use every day either, I think you get the point.  If you live your life like that, throwing money at anyone or anything that looks like fun, you could end up as this poor prodigal did, with nothing—no money, no friends, and having to feed pigs to keep himself alive during a severe famine in a far-off country.  It doesn’t get much worse than that does it? 

Again, if this were a classroom instead of a church sanctuary I might ask, “What’s another lesson we can learn?”  And some sweet child in the back of the class would raise her hand and say, “You can always go home again.”   And I would say, “Oh, how I wish that were true!”  It’s true for the Prodigal.  He “comes to his senses” in that far country, realizes that when he was living at home he always had plenty to eat and a warm, comfortable bed to fall into at night.  He decides to go home and tell his father that he’s messed up, that he’s no longer worthy to be called his son.  He thinks that if he can just work as one of his father’s hired hands it will be better than the life he’s living.  But not every father is like the father in this story, as some of you know.  Some fathers would say, “Oh, so this is how it is?  You’re going to throw away everything I worked for and then come back begging for more?  That’s not how it works in the real world, son.  Choices have consequences” (I think I’ve actually said that to my own children). 

But the father in this story is not like most fathers, is he?  Not at all.  Instead of slamming the door in his son’s face he yanks it open, runs down the road, hugs the boy, and kisses him on both cheeks.  The boy says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son…”  But before he can say, “Treat me as one of your hired hands,” the father is shouting instructions to his servants: “Quick!  Get a robe—the best one!—and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet.  Kill the fatted calf and let’s have a party because this son of mine who was as good as dead is alive again.  I thought he was lost and gone forever, but look: here he is!”  The lesson?  I don’t know that there is a lesson except this one: if you are fortunate enough to have a father like that one you are very fortunate indeed. 

And if you have an older brother like the one in this story, well, welcome to the human race, because this brother does almost exactly what you would expect.  He can’t get happy about the Prodigal’s homecoming because his brother has gone off and squandered the family fortune while he, the responsible one, has stayed on the farm, probably doing his brother’s share of the work as well as his own.  He refuses to come in to the party.  And when his father comes out the brother explodes: “Listen!  For all these years I’ve been working like a slave for you, and I never once disobeyed your command, and yet you never even gave me a goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours drags himself home after throwing your money away on prostitutes, you kill the fatted calf!”  He’s questioning his father’s sanity is what he’s doing, because none of this makes sense to him.  But the father says, as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world, “Son, you are always with me, and everything that I have is yours, but we had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead, and he’s come back to life again; he was lost, and now he’s found!”

And maybe that is the lesson: that when you find something that’s been lost you celebrate, and when something dead comes back to life you rejoice.  The father acts as if he doesn’t really have a choice in the matter.  “We had to celebrate and rejoice,” he says.  Had to.  There was no other option.  And that’s when I’m reminded that Jesus was not so much trying to teach us lessons about how to live our lives as he was trying to teach the scribes and Pharisees lessons about how to respond when someone repents.  They were the ones grumbling because Jesus was welcoming sinners and tax collectors and eating with them.  Jesus tells this story as a response to their grumbling, and he tells two other stories as well. 

One is about a man who loses one sheep out of a hundred and scours the hillsides looking for it.  When he finds it he throws a big party and invites all his friends and neighbors to celebrate with him because he found his lost sheep.  The other is about a woman who loses one coin out of ten and turns the house upside down looking for it.  When she finds it she throws a party, and invites her friends and neighbors to celebrate with her because she found her lost coin.  And then Jesus tells this story, which seems to have the same point, that when something lost is found you should celebrate.  In context the message is clear: “You scribes and Pharisees, instead of grumbling because I eat with sinners and tax collectors, should rejoice as the angels in heaven rejoice every time a sinner repents, every time a prodigal comes home.”

But they can’t.  They are like that older brother who can only compare himself and how hard he has worked and how faithful he has been with the younger brother who has blown the inheritance and brought shame on the family.  And, honestly, this may be a lesson we need to learn.  In spite of all our talk about being saved by grace through faith we still put a lot of emphasis on righteousness, don’t we?  Doing the right things, believing the right things?  And when somebody shows up who has done all the wrong things we say, “Well, look who’s here…it’s the Prodigal Son!”  We try to be gracious, and loving, and accepting, but the kind of grace we offer is a far cry from the party this father throws.  As I said, he doesn’t ask for an apology.  He doesn’t wait for an explanation.  He just gives orders to kill the fatted calf and strike up the band.  I’ve been wondering why there is so much difference between our grace and this father’s grace.  Is it because we don’t think we have very much, and certainly not enough to squander on every prodigal who comes along?  If so, then perhaps we need to learn this very important lesson:

I got it from Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, but Rob admits that he got it from Tim Keller’s book, the Prodigal God.[i]  So, maybe the writer of Ecclesiastes was right when he said there is nothing new under the sun (1:9).  Still, it was new to me, and it may be new to you.  It goes like this, essentially: that the younger son had a story about himself, one in which he had sinned against heaven and against his father, that he was therefore no longer worthy to be treated as a son and should instead be treated as a hired hand.  The older brother had a story about himself, too, in which he had worked like a slave for his father for all these years and his father hadn’t given him so much as a goat to celebrate with his friends.  Now, think about these two stories, and think about what it would do to you to let yourself be defined by either one.  In the first you are a miserable sinner who is no longer worthy to be called a son.  In the second you are a slave who is never even given so much as a goat.  That’s the way these two sons talk about themselves. 

But listen to the way the father talks about them.

He won’t let the first one finish his speech.  Before he can choke out the part about “Treat me like one of your hired hands” the father is saying, “Bring a robe!  Bring a ring!  Start to dance!  Start to sing!  Because this son of mine (did you hear that?), this son of mine was dead, and now he’s alive again.  He was lost, and now he’s found!”  In an instant the boy goes from being a miserable sinner who is no longer worthy to being the resurrected and recovered son of his euphoric father.  And it’s the same for the older son.  In the story he tells about himself he’s been working like a slave for all these years and his father never gave him so much as a goat to celebrate with his friends.  But the father says, “Son! You are with me always, and everything I have is yours!”  Can you hear the difference?  “I’m a slave!” the boy says. “No, you’re not,” says the father. “You’re my son.”  “You never gave me so much as a goat!” the boy says.  “Everything I have is yours,” replies the father.  “I don’t have to give them to you; they have been given, already.  They are yours and you are mine.  That’s how it has always been and that’s how it will always be!”

So, here’s the lesson: these boys had to decide which story they would live by—their stories about themselves or the Father’s story about them.  And I think that’s what we have to do, too, whether we are the older son or the younger son, the Pharisee or the sinner: we have to decide whether we are going to be defined by our version of the story or by the Father’s.  Let’s agree that the writer of Psalm 90 was right, and that we won’t live forever in this world.  Don’t you think it would make a difference to the rest of our days to live by the Father’s story about us instead of our own?  It would make a difference to me.  Because here’s the truth: I’m harder on myself than anyone else.  It’s easy for me to see how far short of God’s glory I fall (Rom. 3:23), easy to believe my righteousness is as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6), easy to think that I am chief among sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).  What’s hard for me is to believe that I am a beloved child of God, whose sins have been forgiven and whose debts have been paid.  But can you see how much difference it would make in my life to live by one story rather than the other? 

I once heard John Claypool say that if we could hear every morning what Jesus heard when he was baptized—“This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased”—it would change our lives.  I think that’s true; I think it would change our lives.  Because we would begin to live by the Father’s story about us rather than our own stories about ourselves.  I think Jesus lived by the Father’s story about him and I think it made all the difference in his life.  I think he was more fearless, more faithful, than anyone who has ever lived because he knew he was God’s beloved child.  And I think he was more generous with his grace than anyone who has ever lived because he knew there was always more where that came from.  But look at us.  We are so often so fearful, so faithless.  We measure out the grace of God in coffee spoons.  But what if we could learn to live by a different story?  What if we could stop judging people out of fear that there wouldn’t be enough grace left over for us and instead start celebrating every time a sinner repents, every time a prodigal comes home?  Don’t you think heaven would come to earth in a moment like that, and don’t you think it would feel…

…like a party?

—Jim Somerville 2013

[i] Rob Bell, Love Wins (HarperCollins, 2011), pp. 164-191.  The endnote that references Bell’s indebtedness to Timothy Keller’s book, The Prodigal God, is on page 201.


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