My Dad passed away eight and a half years ago and there is one piece of his estate that still isn’t settled. Over the past few months, my siblings and I have been looking into whether this is something that we could wrap that piece up now or wait until later. Over the course of our ongoing conversation, I have noticed a pattern that happens within me. First, I start thinking about what money I might receive when my Dad’s estate is settled. Then I start thinking about what I would like to buy with that money. Soon, in my heart, I begin to love and desire that thing that I want to buy. Then I start to feel anxious and afraid whenever it looks like something could delay or prevent me from getting this thing that I have begun to love. This is what we human beings tend to do. We tend to let our hearts love things. We can even make up outrageous stories about why we need them. And then we get angry, upset, worried or fearful whenever something threatens to come between us and the thing that we love.
To figure out what is going on inside of us, we can use our emotions and a little detective work to identify what we love. Think back to the last time that you got really emotional and it wasn’t at a wedding, funeral or graduation. Was there something being threatened? If so, what was it? Was it a dream for the future? Was it what other people thought of you? Was it something that you wanted to accomplish? Or was it a possession that you want to have or keep? That is the thing that you love.
Now here is why this is such a big problem. Think back again to that time of intense emotion and ask yourself where that emotion was directed. If you are like me, then those intense negative emotions were directed towards people. We tend to either swallow up our negative emotions and direct them internally toward ourselves, or we let someone else have a blast of how we are feeling. Either way it is usually people who feel the force of our negative emotions, and it happens because we want them to help us to get what we want. As the Minimalists, Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus, point out, we often, “Love Things and Use People” when it really ought to be the other way around.
What’s required is a total renovation and reorientation of our soul. Our thoughts and our desires need to re-aligned so we can be people who love others in life giving ways. A question that will help us to move towards the soul renovation and reorientation that we need is this: “Do you love people like God does?” If we are going to learn how to love, we might as well do so from the One who loves people perfectly, infinitely and unconditionally. To help us grow in loving people like God does, we are going to look at one of the most famous stories in the Bible told by Jesus. It is known by many names, but we will call it the Story of the Two Lost Sons, and it is found in Luke 15:11-32. If you have a Bible or a Bible app handy, I invite you to turn there now.
As you look at this passage, you should know that this is the third in a series of three stories that Jesus told to explain how God loves people. As we saw last week, Jesus tended to be in places where one would not expect the Son of God to go. Last week, we saw that he led his followers to the place where worship of the Greek god of fertility, Pan, was prominent. This week, our Bible passage tells us that Jesus was hanging out with tax collectors and other notorious sinners. You see, our God is a loving and gracious God who passionately desires that everyone be saved and understand the truth (see 1 Timothy 2:4).
God the Father sent Jesus into this world to be our Savior, and Jesus will go anywhere to save anyone because he loves everyone. As long as you have breath in your lungs, there is no place where you are beyond Jesus’ saving love and protective care. As long as your heart still beats in your chest, there is no person who cannot be redeemed by Jesus and welcomed home into God’s family as his beloved, forgiven child.
The reason that Jesus told this story is that he was being opposed in his desire to love people, and, in what might seem like a strange twist, this opposition came from religious leaders. The Pharisees and the teachers of religious law were aghast that Jesus would eat with sinners because, in that culture, eating with someone indicated close personal friendship. These religious leaders did not want to be contaminated by hanging out with broken, sinful people. They loved money and prestige more than people, and they used religion to get what they loved (see Luke 16:14). In Matthew 23, Jesus warned people,
“The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.
“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’ (Mt. 23:2-7)
What the Pharisees did not realize is that they too were broken sinful people. And even though the Pharisees loved things more than people and opposed Jesus on his mission of seeking and saving all that is lost, he still loved them. So he told them the story of two sons.
The younger son loved his father’s stuff more than he loved his father. So he asked for his share of his father’s estate, then took off for a distant land and spent all he had until he was destitute. His party friends all abandoned him and he was reduced to caring for pigs, the most demeaning job imaginable for a Jew, for Jews consider pigs to be unclean. No one cared enough about the younger son to give him food, and the pods that the pigs were eating were starting to look good. Finally he came to his senses and realized that his love for things had taken him away from the love of his father, a father who loved him and would provide him with everything that he really needed.
So the younger son made up his mind to return home and confess his mistake in the hopes that his father would hire him on as one of his workers. But as he approached the family home, the father humiliated himself by running toward his foul-smelling son, embracing him and fully restoring to his place in the family as his son. The father didn’t love his lost estate. He loved his youngest son, and so he ordered preparations be made for a feast to celebrate the return of his lost loved one.