Luke 15:11–20 (NRSV)
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and 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.
Introduction. Each year I look forward Trunk-or-Treat, where 400-500 children and youth that dress up in their costumes and “beg” for candy. For the children, it is an enriching experience as they put on their masks and use their imagination to be someone or something else.
When we become adults, the wearing of mask is seldom healthy. Like the Phantom of the Opera, we attempt to hide our true selves from others and even ourselves. We pretend at times to be alright when inside we are hurting badly or falling apart. When asked, “How are you doing,” we respond with a faux smile and say, “I doing fine.” The mask disguises what is really going on inside us and we do not want to be vulnerable. Unfortunately the masks we wear do not protect us but they take us to deeper levels of misery and despair.
There are few stories that Jesus told any richer than the parable of the Prodigal Son and Loving Father. The angles at which we could look at this story could carry us through for three-month a sermon series. Today I want to examine this story from the position of recovery. I suspect that nearly all of us can connect to some aspect of the story – to the son, the father or as a friend of the son or father.
A man had two sons. The younger came to his father and requested his share of the estate be given to him before his father died. The son wanted immediately to enjoy what would rightfully be his. Even though it was against his father’s better judgment, the father granted him his request. The son took his part, severed ties with his family and left for another place. Most knew, except the son, that his choice was not a good one and was likely not to end well.
Often we wonder why some make the choices they do. Had the father failed this young man and not guided him appropriately? Was the home a place the son needed to escape? Was he neglected or abused? Was it a matter that he was greedy? Did others encourage him to do this? Did he want to spread his wings and have fun?
When those we love – whether son or daughter, father or mother, grandchild, husband or wife – make unhealthy and damaging lifestyle choices, we wonder why. Often we heap blame on ourselves. Others often toss blame our way. Sometimes the blame is to some degree warranted and sometimes it is no.
I imagine the father in our story wondered what he had done or had failed to do – maybe nothing; maybe a lot. Fundamentally, the father like all us, had to own up to what was his and cast off what was not.
The bottom line was the younger son made the choice. Many among us make poor life choices. Most never intend to walk the paths they eventually find themselves but their simple or profound choices take them along those difficult routes. The choice may be the first drink or first snort and then the next. It may be the choice of bouncing from job to job. It may be the choice of spending more than you make. It may be not forgiving a spouse and working though the little things. It may be turning one’s back of God. But in the beginning, the choice is ours.
One question I have in this story is why nothing is said about the father trying to warn and convince his son not to make this choice. Did he attempt to intervene? The way Jesus tells the parable, it is cut and dry. The son asks and the father gives him his share.
But as this story is lived out for most – mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, close friends – conversation and warning abound. If any of us see one we love making choices that we perceive is likely to lead to a bad end, we care enough to act. We share, we talk, we place books about the subject on the coffee table, we offer counseling, we encourage the person talk with our pastor, we seek someone who made the choice and suffered as a result.
I am sure our loving father in the story would have done everything in his power to influence his son’s decision. But it is clear that he came to the point where he allowed him to make his choice. When we have done what we can do, love allows the one loved to make the choice. The father made his choice to allow the son to decide. I can only imagine what he felt. He made the choice to allow his son to suffer the consequences for his choice to take the money and run.
The slide to slavery.
With his estate liquefied and in hand, the younger son hit the road and traveled to a place where he could set up a new identity. He put on a mask to be someone else. No doubt the young man thought he was free and now could ride the crest of his wealth.
Jesus said that the young man quickly squandered his resources on wild living. After a time he was broke. What he hope would give him freedom brought him to become a slave to his circumstances. He had to hire himself out as a common laborer at a pig farm. He lacked the power and resources to free himself.
When any of continue to pursue poor life choices we eventually become slaves. A guy sees a picture on a website ad that stimulates him and he chooses to give it a click. The next time it is easier to make the click. With more clicks over time, he longs to satisfy his desire to see more. So many find themselves enslaved to pornography. His slavery impacts his relationship with the significant female in his life, his relationship with God and how he feels about himself.
Other life choices other than addiction lead people to slavery as well. Early in ministry I encountered a man whose wife had died at a premature age. When I came to know this man, his wife had been dead for a several years. Grief is normal and natural for all of us when we lose someone we love. But this man became enslaved to his grief. He seemed to shape his daily life. He lived with an internal pain and misery that he could not escape. I don’t remember ever seeing him smile or hearing him laugh. I suspect that his slavery to grief led him to an early death.
Taking off the mask.
The slavery the prodigal encountered brought him to the place that was the first step to his recovery. Jesus said that as he was suffering from his desperate situation and hunger, he “came to himself.” (I love that expression.) Up to this point, he had not been thinking so great. He took off his mask and was ready to come clean about where he was and what was needed. He had really messed up and needed to seek an amends with his father.
Many, if not most of you, have heard of The Twelve Steps. Now you may not know any of them but you are aware they have something to do with recovery. In the mid-1930’s, Alcoholic Anonymous was born as a couple of guys who had struggled with the addiction formed a relationship and support system. Borrowing heavily from a Christian group that had influenced their recovery, the 12 Steps were developed and made part of a book designed to help people struggling with alcohol abuse. Since that point, the 12 steps have been used to help people struggling with various addictions, compulsive behaviors and co-dependency.
The first step is – “We are powerless over our addiction and our lives had become unmanageable.”
The prodigal realized he was powerless over the slavery in which he found himself. He could no longer manage his situation. He took off the mask.
Coming to realize we are powerless over our grief, our fears, our anger, our desire to control, our addictions, etc. is the first step in moving to true freedom. For many, it means going through some really tough times and crises to get to that point. The realization is not the end of the journey to freedom, it is the beginning.
The Waiting Father.
The prodigal after realizing he was helpless started his journey to freedom. He did not know what he would face though, when he arrived home. He carefully rehearsed his confession and his request – “Father, I have sinned against you, I am no longer worthy to be called you son. Please take me back as a hired hand.” The younger son did not know exactly what he would experience and how his father would react. Yet he was willing to take the risk.
When any of us start down the freeway to freedom, we do not know how those we love will react. In some situations, we have so wounded others either by our actions or neglect that they may not be favorably inclined toward us. They may not trust us. They may be tired of being hurt and there is the risk they will not receive us. But taking off the mask requires we take the step.
What been going on with the father during this story? Can any of you relate to him as a person who loves another person deeply who is enslaved to some hurt, habit or hang-up? Have you been deeply burned and wounded by that person’s attitudes, behaviors and actions? As a pastor, I have had many conversations with people who have been there and are there. How are these to act? How are they to relate?
The waiting father gives us some clues about what we can do. Now let me say before I share these that nothing here is said of needed boundaries, particularly as it relates to addict family members. Addicts are often professional liars and manipulators. In one moment they may want to change and then the other they are using those they love to feed their habits. In my extended family I can see how that one troubled man is bleeding his parents dry.
Jesus tells us that the father saw his son coming from a long way from home. In other words, he was out looking for his son. He never lost love and concern for the one he loved. He did not give up hope. When he saw his son, he ran to him. At that first sign of son taking a step, he opened his arms to him.
When the father heard the son’s confession, he started taking steps of reconciliation.
There is a tough line for us here when someone has been enslaved to a hurt, habit or hang-up. We open our arms yet we need our boundaries. We love yet we don’t facilitate and enable bad behavior.
We must always listen for genuine repentance and look for signs of turning by those we love. Yes, there will be risk of being burned. But there is hope of seeing deliverance and personally being set free from the slavery we have encountered.
Recovery at OUMC will be for both the sons and fathers among us – for the one suffering the hurts, habits and hang-ups as well as those who love them.