If we were to see our pastor (or priest or preacher) sitting in a pub with what appears to be a glass of whiskey and sharing a joke with a woman who looks like she might be a prostitute, what is the first thing that would cross our minds? I am certain that a lot of us would think that the pastor/priest/preacher was up to no good and revealing his true character!
Should it surprise us, then, that the religious leaders of his time questioned the character of Jesus when they saw him constantly consorting with people they believed to be of low morals. He sat with the tax collectors, generally considered extortionists because they often collected more than what was fair for personal gain, and traitors for their collaboration with the Roman government. He hung out with women, some of them known to be adulterers, allowing them to even travel with him as part of his team. And he seemed to enjoy eating and drinking with them generally having a jolly good time. One day they made the mistake of grumbling in his hearing about how he welcomed sinners and he immediately got into story telling mode, telling them three parables in quick succession, undoubtedly hoping that at least one of them might make them realize the great love that God had for his people and what his own mission was all about. All are to be found in Luke 15. The first parable was about a sheep that was lost, the second about a coin that had gone missing, and the third, which we looked at in our last issue, was about a son who had moved out of his house and got swallowed by the world. In all three cases, the featured object or person was found, resulting in great joy to the person who had lost them. Let’s take a look at the first story, which is short, but still has a lot of lessons to teach us. “Which one of you,” Jesus asks, trying to let the Pharisees see their own hypocrisy and double standards, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (v.4). These were people from an agrarian culture and they would know the value that every single sheep had to its owner. “And when he has found it,” Jesus continues, “he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost’” (v.5). God is like that shepherd, with a seeking love. He does not simply wait for us to return, but continuously tries to reach out to those who are lost and bring them home. As evidence of this love, God sent his son Jesus to save the world. Scripture, in what is perhaps the most quoted sentence of all time, declares: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). This came at a high cost, a sacrifice by God of his Son, and although the sacrifice was yet to be made, Jesus had already given the Scribes and Pharisees several clues about what was to happen in previous allegories about shepherds and sheep. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:11-15). The difference between a good shepherd and a hired hand is obvious. The hired hand does not have anything personally invested in the sheep he is looking after. When danger threatens he flees for his life. But it’s different for the shepherd, who looks after the sheep as his own and will guard them and protect them with his life, prepared to lay it down if necessary. Jesus laid his life down for his sheep—us—even though perhaps we are not worthy of saving, which is another sign of the great love that God has for us. Paul, in his brilliant letter to the Romans puts it wonderfully when he writes: “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). That is the point that Jesus was trying to drive home to the Scribes and the Pharisees, who were so caught up with their own sense of righteousness, they looked down upon everyone else. Soon after Jesus had asked Levi (the Greek name for Matthew) to follow him, the tax collector gave a great banquet for him in his house, inviting a great number of people that the Scribes and the Pharisees thought way below them. They asked: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:30-32). Jesus came for the lost, the sinners, and that is all of us “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The Pharisees and Scribes thought they were righteous because they believed they fulfilled what the law demanded, but that was only in their eyes. On several occasions Jesus tried to strip them of this self-righteousness so they would understand they were in as much need of salvation as the people they considered sinners. On one occasion he told them: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22). Over the years many of us have become Pharisaical in attitude, looking down upon those we believe less than us, forgetting that at one point we were all sinners and were it not for the grace of God we would all still be lost; and the Church, instead of becoming a haven for the lost, is largely becoming the trumpeting ground for the self-righteous. There is the story told of the pastor who met a prostitute who was depressed to the point of being suicidal. After encouraging her in the best manner he could, the pastor suggested she come to church that Sunday. “Why would I want to do that,” the woman replied. “I feel depressed enough already.” The woman knew that only condemnation awaited her should she come to church. She probably had experience of it before. In order to draw people to Jesus—and salvation— we have to open the doors to everybody graciously. In his document Misericordiae Vultus (The Face of Mercy). Pope Francis said that the church’s “very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. Perhaps we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy.” We can learn again, and in the manner of the Good Shepherd we have to go out to find the lost again, letting people know that they can expect merciful and compassionate love, not judgment and condemnation. And for this we may need to go to places some people might deem unacceptable to be in. Scripture does tell us to be separate from the world and not to yoke ourselves with unbelievers, but this does not mean we need to isolate ourselves from others. We are told to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, but salt needs to be mixed with the meat, and light has to shine in the darkness, to fulfill their purposes. Many people came to Jesus, but he didn’t wait for them; he went out to them, eating with them and drinking with them; mixing with them. And when we do the same and bring one of these lost ones home, all of heaven will rejoice with us, in the same manner a shepherd and his friends rejoice at finding a sheep that is lost.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the better known parables of Jesus, with hospitals, organizations and even laws named after the hero of this story.
The parable has been interpreted in various ways, with a popular one saying the traveler represents man, the robbers represent the devil, the priest and the Levite represent the Law and its sacrifices, and the Good Samaritan represents Jesus. The wine stands for the blood of Christ, the oil stands for the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the inn is the Church, and the innkeeper its priests. The two coins signify the Sacraments. While this interpretation is immensely satisfying, explaining as it does every character and element in the story, is this what Jesus is really teaching in this parable and are there possibly other lessons that he wants to teach us through it? Let us look at the story again in the context of which it was told and see if we might get some answers. It has been an eventful day for the apostles. The twelve people Jesus has chosen to be his first evangelists have returned from an amazing mission where they have delivered a number of people from demonic oppression and are ecstatic about it. Even as Jesus affirms the authority he has given them over Satan, he tells that although they have every reason to be happy that the spirits have submitted to them, they should be happier that their names are written in heaven. Then he says: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Luke 10: 21), before telling his disciples. “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” (Luke 10:23-24). Let us consider how the story starts: “Then a lawyer stands up to test Jesus” (v.25a). The lawyer in the context of this story is somebody well versed in Mosaic law. He has presumably heard some of the conversation between Jesus and his apostles. If he overheard the last exchange, which may have discomfited him because of the personal implications to himself, he wants to ascertain Jesus’ own understanding of the law by testing him. This doesn’t necessarily imply any negative connotations, but doesn’t preclude it either. As with many conversations that Jesus had with other Jewish leaders and legalists, they often sought to trap him, and the fact that he stood up, might indicate the latter. He wanted to draw attention to himself and to let the other listeners know that this was a loaded question. And that there might be more to follow. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v.25b). It’s not the only time someone has asked Jesus this question. A rich young man also asked Jesus the same question (see Mark 10:17-22). Jesus responds by throwing the question back. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (v.26). In effect Jesus is saying, “You are the lawyer. You know the law. You tell me what it says.” He responds somewhat similarly to the rich young man, saying to him: “You know the commandments. You know what they say.” Do keep in mind that the law is still in force; Jesus has not yet fulfilled its demands (cf. Matthew 5:17-19). The lawyer answers correctly, integrating the commands given in Deuteronomy 6.5 and Leviticus 19:18, to reveal some understanding of what God deemed important. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (v.27). Jesus, himself, would quote the same commandments to another lawyer on another occasion (see Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus responds: “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (v.28). This isn’t quite what the lawyer was expecting. He was up on his feet, intending to have a long discourse with Jesus, but the dialog had already ended, and he was feeling like a student in front of a teacher, which wasn’t what he had intended at all. So he asks another question: “And who is my neighbor?” (v.29). And Jesus responds by telling a parable that indicted the Jewish leadership, including the lawyer who asked the question. It was a simple enough story about a man falling into the hands of robbers as he journeyed from Jerusalem to Jericho. This was on a road that was a stretch of 20 miles, often referred to as The Way of Blood, for the robberies that took place on it by bandits. The robbers stripped him, beat him up, and left him for dead.
A priest passed down the road, but when he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side. Then a Levite passed along too and he did the same. How were Levites different from the priests? Simply put, all priests were Levites, being selected from the tribe of Levi, but not all Levites were priests. The function of the priests was primarily concerned with offering sacrifices on the altar, blessing the people in the name of God, and given the responsibility for carrying the ark of the covenant. Those Levites who were not priests were assigned duties assisting the priests, preparing the cereal offerings, and caring for the courts and the chambers of the sanctuary. Later, the Levites were involved in interpreting the law and thus functioned as teachers. The lawyer asking the question was probably the latter. Then a Samaritan came on the road. Samaritans were people who lived in what had been the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Although they worshiped Yahweh as did the Jews, their religion was not mainstream Judaism and because of their imperfect adherence to the faith—they accepted only the Torah as canonical—and their partly pagan ancestry, the Samaritans were despised by ordinary Jews. This Samaritan doesn’t cross over to other side, but with great compassion attends to the man. He cleans his wounds and dresses them, applying oil and wine, before putting the man on his donkey and taking him to an inn. He gives the innkeeper two denarii (about two days wages) to provide food, board and care for the man, promising to cover anything extra on his way back. Having told the story, Jesus poses the question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (v.36). The answer, of course, was obvious, and although it was one the lawyer almost certainly was loathe to give, he found himself forced to: He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (v.37).
Go And Do Likewise
Every adult Indian has almost certainly come across an accident, and there is a good chance that it has been a bad one, leaving one or more of the victims seriously injured. Every such Indian has undoubtedly been cautioned about rendering assistance to the wounded, told, “Don’t get involved.” This is not advice given out of cruelty, but rather out of prudence, because getting involved often has bad repercussions to the person giving aid. There have been incidents where people who helped those injured in accidents were accused of having injured the victim themselves.
This can have horrific consequences, like one reported in neighboring China not too long ago. Toddler Wang Yue was run over by two vehicles. The entire incident was caught on a video, which showed eighteen people seeing the child but refusing to help. Videos taken of accidents in India and other countries might very well show the same thing, which is why many governments have a Good Samaritan Law, which penalizes people who fail to help in a situation of this type, while indemnifying them from lawsuits if their efforts are in vain. But it isn’t always the fear of consequences that stops us from rendering assistance to people. There are often times when we might be reluctant to offer assistance to people we look upon as being different from us, or perceiving as enemies. The Jews and Samaritans were traditional enemies and didn’t even speak to each other, which is what accounts for the Samaritan woman’s surprise when Jesus asked her for a drink of water as she went to draw water from the well he was sitting beside. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) (John 4:9) But not being of the same race, color, creed, background, culture of any of the hundreds of differences that separate one person from another cannot stop us from helping somebody in need. Not even the fact that the person might be an enemy should prevent that, which is why Jesus chose this particular example of a Samaritan helping a Jew, forcing a revision of who we might consider to be our “neighbor”. It is, quite simply, anybody who is in need that you might be in a position to help, and if we have difficulty understanding this, all we need to do is put ourselves in the position of the dying man. If we were in a similar position would we not want somebody to help us? That is why the commandment, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself!” Right through Scripture we are constantly encouraged to “extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13); “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44); and “work for the good of all” (Galatians 6:10). The Samaritan did that without a second thought, but in truth it should have been the priest and the Levite to extend a hand first. Not only did they know the law, they taught it to others, but when they made a distinction between people because of their race and religion, they became hypocritical, failing to practice what they preach and revealing how shallow their faith really was.
It is not very different today, with a certain hard heartedness evident in many of our leaders of today, and unless we take a hard look at ourselves, examining with brutal honesty if we practice what we preach, we will continue to see the hemorrhaging of the Catholic Church as its flock leave it for the love and compassion they find in other churches. We practice religion, overlooking relationship, first with Jesus, then with each other. We can’t have the second without the first, because only through Christ can we learn the essence of love and compassion.
We started this article with a look at traditional representations of the characters in the parable and they work very well for the lessons they teach us, especially with the insight that at a given time and in a given situation we are all the characters in this story! We are, firstly, the injured person on the road, left helpless and dying by the robber of our souls, who is Satan. Jesus is the Good Samaritan, who stops to nurse us back to life, depositing us at the inn, which is the Church, and entrusting us into the care of the innkeeper, who is the pastor or priest whose duty it is to take care of the injured, weak and helpless nursing them to health and wholeness. Hopefully, the innkeeper does a good job because he is going to be called to account for what he did. The Good Samaritan that is Jesus says, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend’ (v.35). There is an implicit threat here too that is often missed. Where there is a reward for a job well done, there is also punishment for a job that’s not, and if the innkeeper doesn’t look after the wounded person enstrusted into his care, he will get just desserts. “When I come back,” says the Good Samaritan. Jesus is going to come back, and there will be an accounting that has to be given when that happens. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats speaks about this in horrific detail as does the Parable of the Unfaithful Slave. In his conclusion to the latter parable Jesus says, “That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:47-48). Back to us in our role as the injured person. We don’t remain injured forever; we eventually recover and once we get on our feet again, we become the traveler on the road, encountering others who are injured and left for dying on a daily basis. Only if we truly understand that the person lying there dying was in the same position we were not too long ago we run the risk of being the first two characters who walk down the road: the priest, who knows and teaches his faith, but doesn’t practice it; or the Levite, who knows and teaches all the rules, but doesn’t follow them. Full of self-righteousness and an exaggerated sense of their own importance, the priest and Levites of Jesus’ time earned his rebuke and wrath when he walked upon this earth, and we will earn the same when he returns if we behave improperly. If, however, we understand what Jesus has done for us, we can only look upon others in a similar situation with compassion and then we will become like the Good Samaritan, not letting the threat of danger getting in our way of helping others, instead of taking the traditional approach of “not getting involved” The Samaritan in the story was aware of the dangers of the road that he traveled. It was not called The Way of Blood for nothing. He must have surely wondered if the robbers were still around, or if others were prowling about waiting for their victim, but he took the risk nonetheless. Christians are asked to take risks. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus declares in John 15:13. Or one’s neighbors. He didn’t let business (or busyness) get in his way either. He obviously had places to go to, people to meet, things to do, but he had his priorities right. The life of a man was infinitely more valuable than anything he might have had on his plate. And then, risk and business ignored, like the Samaritan we will apply balm to the wounds of the injured—bringing the healing of Jesus to soul, heart, mind, spirit and even body-—and bring them to the inn (Church) for the baptism of salvation. The understanding and special grace that some of us obtain might also inspire us to become innkeepers, shepherds of God’s flock, and hopefully remember years after we have taken up the job, the reasons why we took it up. Not for glory, or position, or power, or money, but for the love of God and for the service of his people.
There is another character in this story—the elder son—who is often given scant attention in the telling of this tale, which is a pity because there are as many lessons to be learned from him as from his younger brother. Jesus was trying to make the Pharisees understand that he was a representation of them, but most of them didn’t seem to get the point. Let’s hope we do.
The parable retold again
Imagine, if you will, that you have a younger brother, who for some strange reason is beloved of your father. You never could understand this because you were the one who was always respectful and responsible, while he was carefree and wild. You resented him for the attention he received, but even more so because there was a part of you that wished could be like him.One day this younger brother suddenly gets it in his head to “find himself” (or some equally asinine thing) and takes off with nearly half the family fortune in tow. Nothing is heard from him for years although from time to time you would hear some disquieting rumors that made you squirm in embarrassment at the shame he was bringing the family. Then, many years later, as you are working in the field, you hear the sound of merriment coming from the house. Curiously, you approach the house and spotting a servant, ask him what was happening. “Oh, don’t you know?” the servant responds. “Your younger brother is back and your father is throwing a party. He has even killed the fatted calf for him.” You freeze, then feel the cold chill of anger sweep through your body. “How can this be? What justice is this? Instead of being punished, as he deserves, he is being feted!” You tremble, then begin to shake as the rage overpowers you. You see your father coming out with a big smile of happiness on his face. “Come in, come in,” he says. “Your brother is back.” It is perhaps that smile of happiness that tips you over the edge, and although you have never so much as raised your voice at your father before, you now raise a finger. “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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” This is what the boy said quoted word for word from Scripture (Luke 15:29-30).
The elder son was outraged and to any sensible person such outrage is probably justified. How could you possibly reward somebody who has proved himself to be such a wastrel while denying proper reward to somebody who so obviously deserved it? The elder son had been obedient, loyal, dutiful, faithful, hardworking and respectable. And, yet, the younger son who had disgraced himself and the family was getting a party thrown for him! Where was the justice in this?The elder son didn’t understand—as many of us don’t—two vital facts: One, he didn’t understand his identity; who he truly was in relation to his father. Two, he didn’t understand his father and the tremendous love and compassion he had for his children. The elder son thought of himself as a slave who was required to obey what was asked of him, and saw his father as somebody he had to serve in order to be rewarded! This is a mind set that many of us have developed from years of conditioning that hard work is rewarded while shoddy work is punished. It is a belief system that we have extended to the spiritual as well, but heaven follows a totally different system that is based on grace, not merit. The reason for this is because we can’t earn our way into heaven! The Pharisees thought they could. They believed that obeying the law would get them into heaven, and therefore followed it to the letter, not realizing that the purpose of the law was not to get us into heaven—it couldn’t—but to show us our sinfulness and the subsequent need for a savior. The Pharisees didn’t get it. They thought that just because they didn’t kill anyone or sleep with someone else’s wife they were perfect. Consequently, they put up a great show in public about how holy they were, and reinforced this self-righteousness by looking down upon everybody else as “sinners”. This is why Jesus had to constantly rebuke them, trying to strip them of their self-righteousness. Jesus scolded them: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22). And then: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27).
The Pharisees got angry at what Jesus said. The elder brother in this story represented them and mirrored that anger. See how, in his anger, he reveals his total lack of understanding. “All these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command,” he says. And then he goes on, the real reasons for his outrage surfacing. “Yet, you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”One can imagine the sadness the father felt at the paucity of love in his elder son’s heart for his brother, distancing himself from his own sonship by referring to him as “this son of yours”, and his frustration at the complete lack of comprehension his elder son had of his father’s extraordinary act of grace. But for those who put confidence in their own efforts, grace is an alien concept. One can also imagine him wanting to grab the boy by the shoulders and shake him, crying, “You foolish boy! What’s the matter with you? You have lived with me all your life and you never realized who you were! You never understood your identity. You are my son. My son! Everything that I have, everything that I own belongs to you! Why are you moaning about me giving you a goat when you could have had anything you wanted—a calf, a cow, a bull—any time you wanted! The whole farm belongs to you! But you never understood that because you never understood me. You never understood my love. You believed it had to be earned when it was there for free! Do you understand? For free!” Instead, the father said quietly, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.” (Luke 15:31-32). Even while assuring his elder son that his inheritance was secure, his father tries to get him to realize that this is a matter of relationship, not of being right. This is a matter of grace, not of law. And, ultimately, this is a matter of love and forgiveness, not of punishment. Still addressing himself to the Pharisees, Jesus was trying to show them how much like the elder son they were, living by the letter of the law, but with the spirit of the law far from their hearts, believing that if they followed the rules they would be able to earn their reward. (And they had rules for everything, which we will look at as we progress through this series). Jesus had berated them before on the subject: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).
The Pharisees Today
So many Christians today live the same way. Many of us have never left home to travel to distant lands. We have remained in the faith, saying our prayers and going for mass faithfully over the years. We have not despised our inheritance. We have not strayed to any great extent. We have not engaged in wild living. Yet our lives are characterized by the same things that marked the elder son in our story. We are filled with anger, resentment, bitterness and jealousy. And so little love.We, also, are so particular about following rules. We know that Christ has secured our salvation, but we still feel that we need to earn our place at the banquet table. And when we see those we don’t believe deserve to be there feasting, we feel outraged. And in our outrage, we do what the younger son did in the beginning: break the father’s heart! The parable of the lost son is not just about one lost son. The elder son was lost too. He was not physically cut off from his father like his younger brother was, which perhaps made it very difficult for him to realize this truth, but spiritually he was just as separated, if not more. Many of us who call ourselves Christians are lost as well. So what happens to us? What happens to the elder son? Does he go in? Jesus doesn’t tell us. But I believe each of us writes our own ending to this story. We can remain out in the cold, alone and isolated, resentful of those who are inside the house, partaking in the feast. Or we can go inside the house where it is warm and cosy and join them in a great celebration. The choice is ours.
Undoubtedly one of the most famous stories ever told, this tale of a father’s unconditional and forgiving love has been told a million times in pulpits around the world. It is a story of grace and if one ever needs an understanding of what that word means, they can find it in the parable of two brothers and their amazing father. The problem, however, with a story that has become so familiar, is that it breeds the proverbial contempt, so it wouldn’t hurt to retell the story, perhaps in a more modern context.
The parable retold
A very rich man had two sons and they were as different from each other as night is from day. The elder son was a studious, industrious sort of chap who plodded day after day through life and was so formal in his approach towards everything, he was positively boring. The younger was wild, like a horse that couldn’t be tamed and his restless spirit yearned to be free. Although he had all the creature comforts anyone could want in a house that had more bathrooms than it had people, he felt stifled by it and one day decided he had enough of the easy life. So he bullied his father into giving him his share of the inheritance and took off as far away as he could get.
With a lot of money in hand, he gave his wildness free rein, drinking, gambling, womanizing, but although he had the time of his life to begin with, he soon began to feel depressed. The wild life wasn’t satisfying him as much as he thought it would; on the contrary it was leaving him very empty and he would wake up in the morning with a bitterness in his mouth and hollowness in his heart. Soon, the drinking, gambling and womanizing increased, but now it was more to fill the empty spaces in his soul rather than the pleasure it brought him. He often thought of home, longing to return, but his pride stopped him. Soon his money began to run out, and as soon as that did, his friends ran out as well. Now it became a struggle to survive. To make matters worse a recession hit the country and there were no jobs to be found. One day, lying in his bed staring at the ceiling fan that remained motionless because his electricity had been cut for nonpayment of the bill, he came to his senses. “This is madness,” he thought. “What am I doing here in this heat, hungry and broke when my father’s servants are provided with everything. Better for me to be a servant in my father’s home. Let me see if my father will hire me.” So he trudged back home, a dirty, dejected, dismal boy. As he approached the wide wooden doors of his home, they were flung open and there stood his father. He opened his mouth to make his excuses, but before he could utter a word a pair of arms enveloped him in a warm embrace. “I missed you, son,” his father said. “Welcome home.”
Scripture tells us that it is by grace we are saved, by the unmerited favor of God upon us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
We were all like the younger son in this story, dead, as Paul writes in the letter to the Ephesians, through the trespasses and sins in which we lived. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7). It is an understanding of this great love that changes us, as it must have changed the boy in our story, shocked not only by the unconditional and immediate forgiveness he received, but also by the restoration of all that he had lost. He had been prepared to work as a servant in the household, but he was restored to his original place as the son and heir of the father. We will look at how this happened, but let us look at this entire story in proper context.
Jesus always had a huge audience, although one suspects many were there more for the miracles than the message. Most of these were ordinary people, despised by the religious elite comprising the Scribes and the Pharisees, not so much for their lack of wealth as for their “sinfulness”. Although they were constantly at loggerheads with Jesus, it didn’t prevent them from coming to check out the things he was saying, and they were horrified at the manner in which he consorted with these people. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they grumbled (cf. Luke 15:2). They couldn’t imagine how anybody who was “holy” would contaminate himself with somebody who was not.
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” Jesus had said to them on one occasion. “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners”(Matthew 9:12). This time, however, he decides to tell them a few stories, hoping that they would understand how self-righteous they were being and how hypocritical they were. One story was about a shepherd who goes looking for a sheep who had wandered off from the others, another was about a woman who found a coin she had misplaced, and the third was about a father whose wayward son returned to him. The theme in all of them was finding what was lost.
The main characters in this story, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and His Brother, are a man and his two sons. The man is rich, something we know by the fact that he has estates, servants and cattle. Now in an agrarian society (the cattle points to that!), a rich man occupies a very prominent place in society. He has honor, power and respect in the community. It was honor, power and respect that the sons were entitled to, but it wasn’t something that the younger son seemed too interested in. Unlike the elder son who was loyal and obedient, he smarted under his father’s authority and wanted to do his own thing, go his own way. So one day he went to his father and asked him for his share of his inheritance.
There is no culture in the world where the property of a man is divided before his death. True, there are occasions when a father might divide his property because he wishes to discontinue active interest in his business, go on a cruise, or some other reason, but the initiative for this lies with the father. Never is a child permitted to ask his father for his inheritance without intending serious disrespect, because the demand effectively implies the child wishes his father dead. Despite his shock, sorrow and shame, the father undoubtedly tried to talk his son out of the folly of his ways, but seeing his son was so adamant, he acceded to his demands and divided his property between the two. The younger son took his share of the estate, which according to Mosaic law would be one-third of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17), and then went about doing something totally illegal: He sold his inheritance and with the money he obtained from the sale, he skipped town! Settling down in a new place, far from his family, he began to spend his life in wasteful living. (That is where the term “prodigal” comes from: it means “wasteful”.) And like most fortunes that aren’t earned with hard work, this one quickly began to dwindle, until one day there was nothing left. As fate would have it—or as God would have it—there was a famine in the country and there was no food or work to be found. His friends—who had been with him all these months living off him—were nowhere to be found, and in desperation, the young man took a job feeding pigs to support himself. In Jewish culture, pigs were unclean animals (see Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 15:8), and it is indicative of how low the young man had sunk that he had to support himself feeding them. There in the pig sty, as he found himself envying the pigs the food they were eating, the young man came to his senses.
Coming to One’s Senses
It was inevitable that the young man came to his senses, just as it is inevitable that all of us will come to our senses. The only question is: Where will it be? In the comfort of your armchair, as you read this? In a pig sty, like this boy found himself? In a jail cell, like this author found himself? (see: The Return of the Prodigal) Or after we are dead, when there is precious little we can do about it? But all of us will come to our senses. What does this mean? Three things:
One: understanding that there is a problem. As the prodigal son fed the pigs and envied them the food they ate, he thought, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger” (Luke 15:17). The realization that he had a problem might seem obvious to many of us who are reading this, but it isn’t always so obvious when we are in a similar situation ourselves. We rationalize the situations in our lives, even when they are very bad. This boy thankfully didn’t. Two: acknowledging one’s responsibility for the problem. We often blame others for the bad state of affairs. This boy didn’t. He acknowledged his mistake. “I have sinned against heaven,” he admitted (Luke 15:18). Three: taking the steps necessary to rectify the problem. The boy said, “I will get up and go to my father” (cf Luke 15:18).
Let’s do a brief side-step here to look at Jesus’ mastery over the art of story telling. Though he is talking to a whole mix of people, he is addressing himself especially to the Pharisees. He has led them to an entire gamut of emotions in the span of a few minutes, beginning with outrage (the son asks his father for his inheritance), then through anger (the son wastes his money on wild—read: sinful—living), followed by disgust (the boy feeds pigs!), which is accompanied by a certain sense of satisfaction (the guy got what he deserved!). Now that he is set to return home, they are waiting for the payback! They are sure that the son is going to get the whipping of a lifetime, if not worse and they can’t wait for it to happen! Boy, are they in for a shock!
Scripture tells us that “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion” (Luke 15:20). Many of us picture the father eagerly waiting on the roof of his house for his son to come home, but although he undoubtedly longed for the return of his son, it is highly unlikely that all he did was wait for him. As the boy trudged home, villagers on the outskirts of town would have seen him approach and somebody would have recognized him. Word would have spread rapidly and by the time the boy reached his father’s house (weak from hunger and tired from his journey he couldn’t have been walking very fast), his father would have received the news about his return. Like the Pharisees, the villagers who had gathered around were waiting for the certain retribution that would follow. But to everybody’s surprise, including the son’s, the father embraced him, and then turned to the servants and said to them: “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15:22-24). While this story is essentially one of forgiveness, it is also one of tremendous love, and we see it in the instructions the father gives to the servants. What do they signify?
The Robe, the Ring and the Sandals
He tells the servants to bring out the best robe. The best robe in the house is the one worn by the father. The next time the boy goes into the marketplace wearing his father’s robe, people are going to see him coming and believe it is the father coming and give him the respect due the father!
The second thing he asks the servants to bring is a ring. A ring is a symbol of power and authority. This boy, who has squandered his father’s wealth in wild living, can go about his father’s business, telling people what they need to do and they will have to do it, because he wears the ring on his finger. The third thing he tells the servants to bring is sandals. In a Jewish household, the only people allowed to wear footwear in the house was the father and his sons. He was declaring in no uncertain terms that the boy, despite everything he had done, was still his son, entitled to the rights of a son. We all know this story is illustrative of God (the father) and us (the sons). When we return home to the father, we get more than forgiveness; we get special gifts: a robe, a ring and sandals. What do these gifts represent to us?
In Isaiah 61:10, we see the prophet describing a “robe of righteousness” as being one of the garments of salvation. This is the robe of righteousness that is given to all of us who return to the father in repentance and are baptized in the name of Jesus (cf. Romans 3:22). We also see a robe described in Revelations 6:11 that is going to be given to all the saints who enter heaven.
It’s the best robe in the house! Intended for us! And what happens to us when we wear it? We become like the father! “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). In Matthew 5:48, Jesus tells us to be perfect as the heavenly father is perfect. We are all called to be perfect. But we can’t be perfect by our own efforts. However, when we put on the robe of righteousness that comes through faith, we are gradually transformed into the likeness of the father.
A ring is given to us too, a ring of power and authority. What power, though? In Acts 1:8, Jesus says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We receive the power of the Holy Spirit. To do what?
In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus says, “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is how we go about our father’s business, being witnesses to the ends of the earth and making disciples of all nations, all through the power of the Holy Spirit with the authority of Jesus.
We too are made sons of God when we return home. John proclaims it boldly in his first letter. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1).
Paul too confirms that “the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ ...” (Romans 8:16-17). We are inheritors, not only of the kingdom of heaven, but also of earth, and all of God’s promises.
The Fatted Calf
The story ends with a celebration, a fatted calf killed in honor of the returning son. As Jesus says, “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
The celebration has deeper meaning, however, and a teacher who told her young class the parable of the prodigal son tried to bring this deeper meaning to the children. At the end of the lesson, she asked the children who they thought suffered the most: the father, the elder son, or the younger son. A bright spark at the back of the class chirped, “The fatted calf!” This was, of course, a joke, but the child was right. It was the fattened calf who suffered the most. In our parable this is Jesus, the lamb of God. Sin demands sacrificial atonement because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and “life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement“ (Leviticus 17:11). This used to be the blood of animals. In Leviticus 9 we see Moses telling Aaron and the elders of Israel to “take a bull calf for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering, without blemish, and offer them before the Lord. Take a male goat for a sin-offering; a calf and a lamb, yearlings without blemish, for a burnt-offering; and an ox and a ram for an offering of well-being to sacrifice before the Lord; and a grain-offering mixed with oil. Draw near to the altar and sacrifice your sin-offering and your burnt-offering, and make atonement for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the offering of the people, and make atonement for them; as the Lord has commanded” (Leviticus 9:2-3,7). To ensure the sacrifice was perfect, the Israelites would separate a lamb, calf or goat that was without blemish at birth and raise it up, often with more care than they would a little child, until it was ready to be sacrificed at the altar. They would then take it to the priest, where they would place their hand on the animal, identifying with the animal and in some metaphysical way, transferring their sins onto the animal. Then the animal would be killed, it’s blood sprinkled over the altar. When we are baptized in Jesus, the same transference happens, only it is for all time. Made righteous in him, we can simply walk through the door to our Father’s house, wearing the robe of righteousness, the ring of power and authority, and the sandals of sonship, and reign in love, joy and peace forever. And remember the party is forever.
Picture this: You are at a prayer service and Jesus makes a surprise appearance. He says, “I see that you are interested in finding the kingdom of heaven. Listen: the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Got it?” He smiles brightly at you and walks away.
Did you understand that? If this was the first time you were hearing this parable, it is likely that you didn’t and your face looks as blank as the rest of the people gathered for the meeting. However, you want to understand what he said, so you run to Jesus just as he is about to heal somebody of cancer and say, “Lord, that thing that you said about the kingdom of heaven. I didn’t get it. What did you mean?” Jesus seems a little surprised to find somebody actually interested in what he had said; most only came for the healing. “Ah, you want to know about the kingdom.” he says pleased. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he continues. “Listen: the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” He smiles his dazzling smile again and walks away. This doesn’t make much sense either, but you will not be dissuaded by an inability to understand his words, knowing that they conceal something of great value. Perhaps like the treasure hidden in the field that Jesus spoke about. So in your mind’s eye, you travel to that field. It is quite an ordinary field. There is nothing to distinguish it from thousands of other fields around the world. In the middle of the field walks a man. He is an ordinary man. There is nothing to distinguish him from thousands of other men in the world. This man is plowing the field. It is a hot afternoon, and the sun blazes overhead. The man wipes the perspiration off his brow, wishing the day was over so he could go home to a refreshing shower and a hot meal with his family. As he plows, his plow suddenly hits something hard in the ground making him stop. He curses, thinking he has hit another rock. He reaches for his shovel and begins digging the earth. To his surprise, he doesn’t find a rock, but a chest that looks like it might contain treasure. His anger turns to excitement as, heart beating fast, he pulls the chest out of the ground, wondering if he may have found something valuable. He opens it, and there before his eyes lies treasure more valuable than he could ever have dreamed of in his wildest imagination. Even if he had worked for a thousand years, he could not have earned the wealth that lay before him now. He was rich! He ponders his options. He could take the chest home. But what if someone else claimed it later? Besides, where there was treasure buried, there was often more to be found. Better to buy the field so he owns all of it, and owns it outright. He knows it will cost him all he has, but so what? What he has here is worth much, much more. So he puts the chest back into the ground and covers it with earth again, carefully marking the spot. He goes home, takes an inventory of everything he owns, sells it all, and then buys that field! What a story! You are starting to shake now because you know the kingdom of heaven is like that treasure. But what is it that is so valuable? Righteousness? Peace? Joy? That’s what a popular song says the kingdom is. But that doesn’t seem entirely right; it has to be more. Where does the righteousness, peace and joy come from? From Jesus. Is the treasure Jesus? And there suddenly standing in front of you is Jesus himself, the smile on his face shining like a thousand suns, and you know you have the answer to your question! And then the pieces rapidly start falling into place. In the first parable the man found treasure quite by accident, digging in a field. In the second story, the merchant found treasure because he went looking for it. But in both cases once the treasure was found the results were identical. Recognizing the value of the treasure they had found, both men sold whatever they had in order to possess it. Have we found the treasure that is Jesus? And if we have, have we understood his value? These are the questions that we need to ask. And answer.
The treasure that is Jesus
There are many stories of men and women who, like the farmer in the field have discovered treasure accidentally. Perhaps one of the most famous is found in Scripture itself. It’s the story of a man named Saul who, after he found treasure, became Paul. We can understand this parable even better if we look at his life.
Saul was a Jew. He was a Pharisee. Pharisees were famous for their righteousness—read: self-righteousness—but even among them, Paul was in a league of his own. He believed in the law and he believed that one should follow it right down to the last letter. He was an intelligent man who in all probability learned at the feet of the famous Jewish rabbi Gamaliel. He knew the Scriptures, the word of God. And because he knew the word of God, he thought he knew God. And like anyone who thinks he knows God, he was arrogant about his faith. So when he heard about Jesus and the people who followed him, it made him mad because he believed they were being blasphemous and was determined to exterminate them. All this changed one day when he watched one of these “blasphemers” being stoned to death. This man was Stephen. Here is a brief introduction about him. As the early church grew, the twelve apostles found themselves faced with the problem of how to feed the increasing numbers of people joining their community. After some discussion, they decided to appoint seven other men to look after food while they, themselves, focused on preaching the gospel. One of the seven men that they chose was Stephen. Now Stephen, as it says in Acts 6:8, was a man full of God’s grace and power. He did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Needless to say, this angered the Jews who trumped up false charges against him. They had him brought before the Sanhedrin where they asked him to defend himself. Stephen gave a long speech, talking about Abraham and Jacob and Joseph and Moses, finally ending with these words: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it” (Acts 7:51-53). Scripture describes the horrific incident that followed. When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him. (Acts 7:54-8:1). One cannot imagine everything that went through Saul’s head as he had listened to this uneducated man speak about God and the things of God with such authority, and then watch him go to his death, praying for those who were killing him, but one can imagine that Saul must have sensed that there was something that Stephen knew that he didn’t. Saul knew about God because he had studied about him in the Scriptures, but here was a man who seemed to actually know God. He could see it in his face, which Scripture says was like the face of an angel (cf Acts 6:15). A few days later, Saul met God himself. He was on his way to Damascus, armed with a bunch of letters from the high priests that gave him the authority to arrest anybody he found preaching the new religion. “Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”” (Acts 9:3-5). This momentous event changed Saul forever as it does anybody who discovers the treasure that is Jesus and understands how valuable he is. As he would say later in his letter to the Philippians: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (Philippians 3:4-9). Most of us reading this have found the treasure that is Jesus. But how many of us really know the value of the treasure we have found? Many of us are like Rob Cutshaw, a rock hound who owned a little roadside shop outside Andrews, in North Carolina. A rock hound is a person who hunts for pretty rocks, which he sells to collectors or jewelry makers. Rob knew enough about rocks to decide which rocks would sell, but not enough to know how much they were worth. One day, Rob found a big blue rock, and he thought it would fetch him about five hundred dollars. But nobody was willing to pay that much for it, so he tucked it under his bed, deciding that he would sell it in an emergency; if he ever had to pay the water or electricity bill and didn’t have enough money. Fortunately, Rob didn’t run into an emergency because it turned out that the rock he had was the largest, most valuable sapphire ever found. Now known as “The Star of David” the rock is worth over 5 million dollars! We have a great treasure in Jesus, but do the equivalent of tucking him under our beds, keeping him there for an emergency. When we are sick, or in financial difficulty, or in other need, we believe we will find a use for him, not really understanding the value of the treasure we have discovered. Paul discovered its value and he gave up everything because he knew that it was all worthless when compared to owning Christ. He understood what the man in that field understood. He understood what Stephen understood. He understood what every man who truly discovers Christ understands. That everything else in the world is rubbish when compared to the kingdom of heaven!
When Jesus was preaching on the beach one day, such large crowds gathered that he got into a boat and used that as his pulpit. He then told them a parable about a farmer who sowed seed, some of which fell on the path where birds ate it, some of which fell on rocky ground where they sprang up quickly because the soil was shallow but died just as quickly because they had no root, and some of which fell among thorns which grew up to choke them. Some seed, however, fell on good soil and brought forth grain that led to a wonderful harvest.
Later, when Jesus was alone with his apostles, he explained this parable to them because they didn’t understand it any more than the others who heard him. Although parables were generally simple stories used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, his seemed more like riddles. Jesus told them that the seed was the word of God. The hard path represented people with hard hearts who didn’t understand the word, leaving it easy for the enemy to snatch away. The rocky soil represented those who received the word of God eagerly, but the moment trouble or persecution struck, gave up their faith. The thorny ground represented those who heard the word and received it eagerly, but were too enamored by the world to benefit from it. And the good soil stood for those who heard, believed, understood, accepted and obeyed; these would go on to bear fruit in abundance. “So why didn’t you say this like it is,” the apostles wanted to know. “Why do you speak to us in parables?” If they expected a simple answer, they were to be disappointed. “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” Jesus was, of course, quoting the prophet Isaiah, another great man of depth. So why did Jesus speak in parables? There were several reasons. One was because he didn’t always find a receptive audience. Despite the great miracles that he worked, people didn’t come to repentance as in the case of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum (see Matthew 11: 20-24). Another reason was because his enemies constantly tried to trick him so that they could bring charges against him. One day when he entered the synagogue he found a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees asked him if it was lawful to cure on the sabbath. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. (Matthew 12:11-13). The Pharisees were furious and looked for ways to destroy him. When he spoke in parables, they couldn’t really figure out what he was saying. But neither could the others, except those who really were interested in the kingdom of heaven. Which brings us to the third reason. Jesus once said, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). Most people couldn’t really be bothered with the kingdom of heaven. We figure we have one life here on earth; we might as well live it to the fullest, preferring to ignore the fact (if we consider it at all) that there is another life beyond this, and that lasts for eternity. We have to seek that life and only those interested can find it. If we do we have Jesus’ assurance: “Seek and you will find!” (Matthew 7:7; emphasis added), he says. Understanding our preoccupation with worldly necessities, he says on another occasion, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). But we need to seek. Only then can we find.
Fundamental to Understanding
This particular parable is fundamental to our understanding of other parables. In Mark 4, where we find another narration of the same parable, Jesus asks, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13).
The parable also gives us an understanding of ourselves and how we receive the word of God into our lives. We are one of the four types of people described in this story and it is imperative that we realize which type we are if we are to change. Jesus is the sower, as he explains in another parable—the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares—but every preacher is a sower too, and as one such person, I see these types of people every time I preach. These personal glimpses might prove illuminating. Let’s take them in turn.
Jesus says these people are those who hear the word of the kingdom and do not understand it.
We need to first realize that many of these people, like the Pharisees, are believers, not atheists or followers of a different god, although Paul does speak of them and their condition in his letter to the Corinthians. “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). The god of this world is, of course, Satan, and while he contributes to the blindness, it is precipitated by our own hardness of heart. Satan does the same thing with believers, whose hearts have become hardened by years, if not decades of legalistic practices doing things because they are taught to do them, without having a sense of the reasoning behind what they are taught. Jesus scolded the Pharisees for this attitude. “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others” (Luke 11:42). I used to wonder about these people, because they come for mass services, retreats and prayer meetings and listen to the word, but do not seem to understand a thing that is said. It isn’t stupidity that prevents them from understanding, however, because they are definitely not stupid; on the contrary many are very intelligent. And they seem to be attentive, but the coldness in their eyes mirrors the hardness of their hearts, and you know that nothing you say is penetrating. They have evaluated you, sometimes even before the first word is spoken, and discarded everything you say as irrelevant or, worse, erroneous because it doesn’t fit in with their belief systems or the things they have been taught. One suspects the only reason they are listening to you is to gather ammunition they can use against you in case you trip up and say something wrong. Jesus faced the same problem with the religious leaders of his time. What he said was so radical, they couldn’t even begin to accept his teachings, although they had judged him much before they heard a single thing he said. This judgment was delivered at the very start of his ministry soon after he had asked Levi, the tax collector, to follow him. Levi invited him for dinner along with several of his friends and when the scribes and the Pharisees saw that he was eating with people they deemed a disreputable lot, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (see Mark 2:13-17). They had already decided that a man was known by the company he kept and the company Jesus kept said a lot about who he was. This is why, when Jesus was explaining the Parable of the Sower to his apostles, he said that many prophets and righteous people longed to see what they saw and longed to hear what they heard, but neither saw not heard, because they didn’t listen and didn’t perceive. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus said: “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them” (Matthew 13:14-15).
The Stony Places
The second type of person that Jesus talks about are those who hear the word and immediately receive it with joy.
These people are a preacher’s delight. Well, at least at first. They hear the word of God and the joy in their faces is so transparent, it makes the entire job of proclaiming the word of God seem so incredibly satisfying. Unfortunately this doesn’t last long, because theirs is only an emotional response to something that makes them feel good at that particular moment. They don’t have a solid foundation. Like a plant without roots that are deep, these people wither away at the slightest sign of persecution. Jesus said: “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Matthew 7:26-27). Sometimes the sowers (preachers) are to blame. More eager to ratchet up numbers than actually bring people to a deep conversion experience, they promise listeners a happy life with Jesus taking care of all their needs and resolving all their problems, instead of preaching the basic gospel message, which is that Jesus is there to bring us to salvation. This is primary. When people discover that their problems have not disappeared and all their needs are not being met, they toss Jesus aside believing they have been fed a lie. Evangelist Ray Comfort illustrates this wonderfully when he tells us to imagine telling a plane traveler that strapping a parachute on his back will make the flight comfortable and pleasant. He gets on the plane and finds the flight anything but comfortable. He cannot sit properly for one and the parachute starts to weigh him down for another. Soon he will be even more discomfited by the sniggers of the other passengers and in disgust will take the parachute off and toss it aside. Imagine, however, that the passenger is told that at some point in the flight he will have to jump out of the aircraft. Any discomfort now becomes irrelevant and the others can laugh as much as they like, he knows that the parachute is going to save his life and he is not going to take it off his shoulders for anything in the world. This is not to say that Jesus doesn’t bring us peace and doesn’t take care of our needs; he does, but that is not the main reason to believe in him. The primary reason is that he takes us to heaven. And that precedes everything else. As he says, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things (the things we need) will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
Among the Thorns
The third type of person that Jesus talks about are those who hear the word but the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the pleasures of life (added in Luke’s gospel) choke it so it yields nothing.
All of us are familiar with the three “thorns” that Jesus speaks about here. Who hasn’t, at some point or the other, been preoccupied with the constant pressures of ordinary life—providing for our needs and the needs of our family, gainful employment, social duties and responsibilities, and the like? These can be very distracting, causing us to ignore God and Christian growth. Every time I finish preaching a retreat, I invite people to join a year long program where they are taught the faith with three express purposes: to learn it, to live it, and—most importantly—to share it. This program requires a mere three hours a week, and although the response is wonderful, many of those who don’t join say the reason is because they have other commitments: house cleaning, taking their children to sports practice, their TV time, and similar excuses. I do not deprecate the importance of these activities, but I do question the priorities. God and spiritual growth is usually at the bottom of the list. Who hasn’t, also, been seduced by the lure of riches? The desire to buy the things the world keeps trying to sell us, while upgrading our lives constantly to outdo our neighbors and secure our future is something that has motivated everybody since the beginning of time. Yet, isn’t this so fleeting? We place our security in our finances instead of our God, unmindful of the fact that this might not last. Jesus told a parable about a rich farmer who once had a huge crop (see Luke 12:13-21). Instead of being happy, he began to worry about where he was going to store it all, until he thought about it and decided he would tear down his old barns, build new ones where he could put everything and then eat, drink and make merry for the rest of his life. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” (Luke 12:20). Jesus then made his point: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). Furthermore, in our pursuit of wealth, we have often been dishonest, manipulative and oppressive. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, writes: “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Timothy 6:6-10). As for the pleasures of life, sex, alcohol, drugs, gambling and other vices have beckoned most of us at some time or the other with their promise of instant gratification. But as anyone who has ever succumbed to the lure of these things can testify, the gratification is short lived and never quite delivers on its promise, binding many in a trap from which there seems to be no escape. Paul cautions: “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (Galatians 6:8). Earlier in this letter Paul speaks about how the Spirit and the flesh constantly wage war against each other. “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:17-21). The warning doesn’t seem to perturb those inclined toward such things which is another reason they choose not to listen. Why change?
The Good Ground
And finally we come to the good soil, the people who hear the word and understand it, and fortunately there are a lot of them.
These are people who do not blindly accept anything said to them, but like the Bereans, search the Scriptures to see if what was told to them was true. These are people who hunger for the word, listen to it, gain understanding, and then do what it says. And, consequently, these are people who bear fruit in great abundance. What kind of fruit will they bear? The fruit of the Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). This leads to becoming true disciples, which, in turn, helps us to win souls to Christ, fulfilling the great commission that Jesus has given all of us who claim to believe in him. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-19).
Application for Listeners to the Word
It is one thing to understand the meaning of the parable; quite another to apply it in our lives, and the best way to begin is by asking the question: What kind of soil am I?
If I am like the soil by the wayside, and I have heard the gospel message and understand what it means and am not yet a Christian, the longer I wait the harder my heart is going to become. If I am a Christian but am so rigid in my practices that my heart is closed to the things that God is saying to me, I should start to open my heart to him. And then, as James says, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing” (James 1:22-25). If I am like the soil sown in stony places, and have responded to the gospel with enthusiasm but then fallen away, I should take another look at Jesus and the real reason I need to believe in him. It isn’t to give me days of unbroken sunshine, but to give me an eternity with him in heaven, and just this knowledge is enough to result in lifelong rejoicing. If I am like the soil among the thorns that bear no fruit, I should remember to heed what Jesus said about branches that bear no fruit. “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6). But then I can take hope from what he says next: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:7-8). If I have responded like the good soil, then I can be assured of several things. That I have a good and noble heart, that I have come to understand the word, that I have been keeping it with fortitude, and that I am bearing the fruit of the Spirit that God says I should.
Application for Sowers of the Word
If a successful harvest depended only on the existing conditions of the soil, then the sower can do precious little except toss seeds and hope they land in the right places. However, as any good gardener can tell us, we can make the soil more fertile, by taking the rocks and thorns out of the soil, plowing long and deep so any hard clumps of soil are broken, adding good soil, and enriching it with the proper nutrients and fertilizer. Once planted, we just need to make sure the seeds germinate and then are well tended, receiving the requisite amount of water and sunlight.
All this takes time and effort, but it is tragic how few preachers of the word spend time on preparation, many just going through the motions because it is something they have to do once a week, not understanding the huge responsibility that lies on their shoulders. This is kingdom growing, and has to be taken seriously because we will be called to account for it. The preparation has to involve time spent with God, because we need his wisdom and revelation to be able to understand the things he wishes to tell us. The prophet Isaiah said: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9) Understanding the thoughts of God are in a way like ants trying to understand our thoughts. Yet, it is possible through the Spirit of wisdom and understanding the prophet speaks about (see Isaiah 11:2). Paul prayed that we would receive them, because he knew that without them, we would be “listening without understanding and looking without perceiving”. “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him” (Ephesians 1:17). This, however, requires humility. Years of theological study can give us a lot of knowledge about God, but actually knowing God comes from time spent with him, seeking his truths like a little child. This is why Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Matthew 11:25). We can learn from others as well, even those who may not have had the education and experience that we have had. This comes from a willingness to listen to others. A wise man was once asked why he usually remained quiet in conversations when he had so much to share. His reply was edifying. “I know what I know,” he said. “But others might know things I don’t know. How can I learn if I don’t listen?” Good gardeners invest time and money in purchasing new equipment and acquiring new skills, yet those engaged in the far more important work of growing God’s kingdom invest little, if anything. Public speaking classes, vocal training exercises, the judicious use of illustrations and anecdotes, and even some drama, all help to make the soil ready for planting. We might have prepared the world’s best sermon, but of what possible benefit if everybody in the congregation is fast asleep? Seminaries put students through years of studying, but it is the rare seminary that invests in teaching them to effectively share the prodigious knowledge that they receive. There is the story told of three boys talking about their fathers. One of them said, “My father is a great professor. When he talks, only ten people in the world can understand him!” Not to be outdone, the second boy said, “My father is great brain surgeon and when he talks about his work only five people in the whole world can understand what he is saying.” The third boy said, “My father is a preacher. When he preaches nobody can understand what he is saying.” If people can’t understand what we say, let it be because of their inability to listen, not our own inability to speak clearly. May the Lord bless us all.
The prophet, he saw the heavens open
And a rider, he set forth
His eyes were filled with flames of fire
And a sword came out his throat
With it he’d strike down nations
And rule them with a rod
His name is called the Word of God
And he is the Lord of Lords
He’ll be riding a white horse
When he comes back again
And the fire in his eyes should warn you
That he's coming to judge men
Two thousand years ago and some
God came down from his throne
He came to forgive our trespasses
And to make us be reborn
He told us before he went away
That he'd be coming back again
But this time to expect no mercy
Cause he'd be coming to judge men
Oh, we're running out of time
The end of days is at hand
Cause all the signs that Jesus foretold
Are happenin' across the lands
Now is the time to make our peace
With God and fellow man
And be prepared for his return
And the fulfilment of all plans
© 2017 Aneel Aranha
What can I say about the way I feel, Lord?
What do I do about the way I think?
Sometimes I feel I’m on top of the whole world,
But mostly I find I’m starting to sink.
I know that I should keep my eyes on you,
I know I should believe in what you say,
But there is only doubt and despair, Lord
And I must admit it’s very hard to pray.
Oh, I love you
I really do
But I don’t know Lord
How to trust in you.
I love you (yes, I love you)
I really do
But please teach me Lord,
To have faith in you
You’ve said your piece, now you listen to me, child,
I know what you’re going through in your life,
The tunnel you’re in seems dark and long,
There seems no end to trouble and strife.
All you need to do is cling to me now,
Though you say you cannot really pray,
Cause you need to be sure of just one thing,
That I love you and I am here to stay.
I love you
It’s really true
Just know this, child
That I am with you
I love you (yes, I love you)
I really do,
Hold on to that love
And I will take you through
I love you
I love you
Sweet sweet child,
How I love you
© 2017 Aneel Aranha
I’m redeemed, I am saved, I’m restored and I’m forgiven
That’s because I believe in my Lord
That he came and he died for my sins and my failures
‘Cause he loves me, the Blessed Lamb of God
I am washed, I am cleansed, I’m pure and I’m holy
That’s because I believe in my Lord
That he came and he died for my sins and my failures
‘Cause he loves me, the Blessed Lamb of God
I am blessed, I’m healed, in spirit, heart, mind and body
That’s because I believe in my Lord
That he came and he died for my sins and my failures
‘Cause he loves me, the Blessed Lamb of God
I’m free, I’m strong, I’m totally victorious
That’s because I believe in my Lord
That he came and he died for my sins and my failures
‘Cause he loves me, the Blessed Lamb of God
I’m a friend of my God and I’m a friend of Jesus
That’s because I believe in his love
That he came and he died for my sins and my failures
‘Cause he loves me, the Blessed Lamb of God
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia
Alleluia, alleluia, to the Lord
For he came and he died for my sins and my failures
‘Cause he loves me, the Blessed Lamb of God
His name is Jesus, His name is Jesus, his name is Jesus
He’s my Lord
His name is Jesus, His name is Jesus,
Oh Lord, my God
For he came and he died for my sins and my failures
‘Cause he loves me, the Blessed Lamb of God
© 2017 Aneel Aranha
Preacher, talk to the heartless people,
Preacher, preach to the fleshless bones,
Preacher, say to the faithless wanderers,
You should return to the ways of the Lord,
And if they heed the word that I tell them,
I will cover them with new skin,
I will put my breath upon them,
And I will send my Spirit Wind.
Now we’re living in another age,
But things are the same again,
Folks have turned away from the Lord,
And are living lives full of shame,
Just like the people of years gone by
Their hearts are just like stone,
They have no love for God or men,
And they’re just like dead bones.
God is saying to the men that he’s chosen,
Who he’s sending out into the cold,
He says: Set forth, don’t be afraid,
Just go and speak my word.
© 2017 Aneel Aranha