If you are familiar with the TV show called The Office, you know that one of the characters in that TV show is Dwight Schrute, who is played by Rainn Wilson. In his social media channels, Rainn Wilson recently released a video titled “Somebody doesn’t know who they are sitting next to”. In the video, which he obviously shot with his smartphone, it begins on a plane with the camera facing Wilson. He is wearing a face mask, but you can tell that it is him. Then the camera pans to Wilson’s left where we see a fellow airline passenger who is busy eating snacks and is totally engrossed in watching whatever is on the screen on the back of the seat ahead of him. Then Wilson pans a little further and we see that the man next to him is watching an episode of The Office. And at the exact moment when Wilson is videoing the screen, on the screen is Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson playing their characters of Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute. Then the camera pans around back to Rainn Wilson. Now, the man next to Wilson is obviously a fan of The Office, otherwise why would he choose to watch it on the plane. Yet there he is, watching Dwight Schrute on a plane while the actor who plays him is sitting right next to him, and he doesn’t even know it. Sometimes, we don’t realize how close we are to something special.
One of those really special things in life that God has given us is grace. Grace is the undeserved love, favor and all the gifts that God gives to us. We could say that justice is getting what we deserve, mercy is not getting what we deserve, and grace is getting what we don’t deserve. And God the Father gives us all his grace through his Son, Jesus Christ. The deeper question we are going to consider in this article is What role does grace play in your life? Because, with grace as with other things in life, we may not realize how close we are to something special. To help us as we think about this question, we are going to look at what is perhaps the most well-known of all the stories that Jesus told, often known as the Story of the Prodigal Son, and it is found in Luke 15:11-32. If you have a Bible or a Bible app with you, I invite you to turn there now.
What Gives God Joy
To help us as we begin looking at this story, we need to go back to the beginning of the chapter to see the context in which Jesus told it. In verses 1 to 3 we read, Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: (Luke 15:1-3)
As we do that, we see that Jesus is hanging out with a bunch of people a bunch of tax collectors and other people that the religious leaders of that time would have considered sinners and those religious leaders, the Pharisees and the scribes, are grumbling about what Jesus is doing. So Jesus tells them three stories. The first story is about a shepherd that had 100 sheep and one went missing. So the shepherd goes searching for that one lost sheep, and when he find it, he lifts it up on his shoulders and joyfully carries it back to the rest of the flock. The second story is about a woman who had 10 coins and she lost one. These coins might and these might have been part of her wedding headdress so they were not only precious in value, but precious in terms of personal value to her and so one coin is missing and so she lights a lamp as he searches through the whole house until finally she finds that one coin and she invites all of her neighbors to join with her and celebrate her with her in the joy that she has over finding this one coin. And note the comparison, there’s joy over the one sheet that’s found, while the 99 are left in the open field. There’s joy over the one coin that’s found, while the rest the other nine are all caps. And through these stories, Jesus is telling the Pharisees that what gives God joy is when sinners even one sinner repents and comes home to God. That’s what gives God joy: when sinners repent and come home to him.
A Father and His Two Sons
But then Jesus tells the Pharisees and scribes a third story about a father and his two sons. As we look at this story, there are two things that are important for us to remember. First, Jesus is telling this story in a Middle Eastern context, and the culture and customs of that time makes the vastness and depth of the grace in Jesus’ story incredibly greater than what we might get from a surface reading of the story in our culture today. The second thing that is important for us to remember is that Jesus’ story is about God and the people in that time, the Pharisees and scribes on the one hand, and the tax collectors and other sinners on the other hand.
One day, the younger son goes to his father and asks for his share of his father’s estate while his father was still alive. Essentially, he is telling his father that he’d wishes he were dead. This would be an immense action of disrespect in that culture and time, as it would be today. Yet that makes what happens next all the more amazing. The father complies with his younger son’s disrespectful request and divides his property between his two sons. Keep in mind that those listening to Jesus would probably have understood that this family likely lived in a village, like people generally did in that time, and all the neighbors would very quickly know what the father had done. The father brought shame on himself by agreeing to his younger son’s request. He would be known as the foolish father who doesn’t know how to properly manage his affairs or his family.
The younger brother very quickly took his share of his father’s estate to a far country and squandered it in reckless living. When his money ran out, a famine hit that land and he was forced to work for a farmer in that country who sent him out to the fields to look after his pigs. For Jews, pigs are unclean animals and looking after them is something that a proper Jew would never do. Not only is the younger brother working at a despicable and demeaning occupation. He is all alone out in the fields and he is starving. No one is with him, no one cares for him, no one is giving him anything. The food that the pigs were eating starts to look appetizing to him.
Eventually he comes to his senses and says to himself, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise 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 as one of your hired servants.”’ (Luke 15:17-19) Now the younger brother has a plan. He realizes that life with his father is vastly superior to life without his father. But he greatly underestimates how much his father loves him.
The Father Restores His Youngest Son
Here is what happened next: 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20) The father had been watching and waiting for his youngest son. And when he saw him coming down the road into the village, the father gathered up his gown around his waist, exposing his legs, which would have been very scandalous in that culture, and ran toward his wayward son. For an old man to run would also have been a very shameful thing back then and everyone in the village would have seen it. “Look!” his neighbors would have said to each other. “There goes the village idiot. It was shameful when he gave a big chunk of his estate to that no-good son of his, and now he has made himself a bigger fool by running down the road to meet him. On top of that, the son comes home as dirty as a pig and he smells like one too, and the father went ahead and hugged and kissed him! It is unbelievable that anyone would do that!”
The son tries to give his practiced speech to his father, thinking that will get him what he wants, but the father does not pay any attention to his words. Jesus tells us, 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:22-24) The father was not operating according to the younger son’s plan. He wasn’t going to hire his son, he was going to restore him back into the family. The shoes meant that the son was no longer a homeless slave, the robe meant the father had made him an honored guest, and the ring indicated that he was once again his father’s son and was given authority to make transactions on behalf of his father. The fattened calf was a special animal, one that had been carefully chosen, set aside and fed an enriched diet so it could be used for a wonderful family celebration at some point in the future. You see, they didn’t have refrigeration back then and they didn’t have groceries stores where you could go to pick up some last minute things for when company unexpectedly popped in. You could only do this if you were well off because it took a lot of expense to keep a fattened calf around. You had to prepare to celebrate well in advance, probably at least a year. And you likely only had one fattened calf around your place, so it had to be a very important celebration before it got butchered. If your Aunt May and your Uncle Ben from Alberta stopped by on the way to Vancouver Island, they might get the fattened goat. But if fattened calf is going to be on the menu, that has to be a very special occasion. So the party begins.
There are Two Lost Sons
When the older brother hears that his younger brother has returned, he becomes angry and refuses to join the celebration. When his father came out to him and begged him to join the celebration: …he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:29-30) He holds himself up as the pinnacle of virtue, blames his father as the reason for his anger, and throws his brother under the bus, refusing to even call him his brother as he admits he knew the trouble his brother was in while he, who should have helped him, did nothing.
Through this story, Jesus is extending an invitation to the Pharisees and scribes to come and join God’s celebration over tax collectors and other sinners who are coming home. They are the older brother who refused to share in the father’s joy when the younger brother came home. That’s what makes Jesus’ ending to the story so powerful. The father pleads with his eldest son, It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:32) Jesus doesn’t tell us how the older brother responds. He leaves it as an open question that we must answer for ourselves.
Jesus’ Story is Also An Invitation for Us
Jesus’ story is an invitation for us also. We don’t know how close we are to heavenly joy because we don’t fully know how much God loves us. Just as the father in Jesus’ story brought shame on himself by agreeing to his youngest son’s dishonorable request, by running to him when he returned and welcoming him back into the family, so also God brought our shame on himself by becoming human and bearing our shame on a cross. And when that shame was fully destroyed, only then did Jesus give up his life and die. And then, on the third day that followed, Jesus rose from the dead to open God’s family to all shame filled sinners like us. Shame says, “There is something wrong with you.” Jesus says, “All your weaknesses and deficiencies are remedied in me and I have made you a beloved, forgiven child of God. That is who you are and it is who you will always be. And at the end of time, when I return to make you and all things new, I will make your inner restoration complete on the outside also and you will see with your own eyes. You will live with me and everyone else who looks to me in faith in the new heaven and earth forever.
That is God’s grace for you. But here is the thing. God has more grace for you than you can even imagine, and he is inviting you to come even closer to him than you already are and share in the amazing joy that he has when even one sinner repents. Because of Jesus, we know that we already have God’s grace. When we are joyful over the things that make God joyful, then we know that God’s grace is saturating our heart.
A Real-life Prodigal Son Inspires Others
John Newton was born in London, England in 1725, and his loving mother raised him on the stories of the Bible and the hymns of the Christian faith. She died shortly before he turned seven, and at the age of eleven he went to sea with his father, a ship’s captain. After making several voyages with his father, he was pressed into service in the Royal Navy. At one point, he tried to desert and was punished by being stripped naked, chained to the deck, flogged with eight lashes, and his rank was reduced to that of a common seaman. Humiliated and disgraced, Newton considered committing suicide. He joined the crew of another ship, but he did not get along with the rest of his mates and they left him in Africa with a slave trader who treated Newton like a slave. Three years later he was rescued by a sea captain who had been asked by Newton’s father to search for him. As that ship returned to England, it was nearly destroyed in a storm and during that storm, Newton began praying to God for mercy, after which the storm began to die down. That was the moment when Newton began to come to his sense like the younger son in Jesus’ story.
Though faith was beginning to form in Newton’s heart, he was still involved in the ocean transport of slaves. In 1754, a decline in health forced him to give up the sea and ten years later, he became an Anglican priest and started serving at Olney, England, where he remained for 43 years. He wrote a hymn to accompany his 1773 New Year’s sermon, which was titled, “Faith’s Review and Expectations.” A review of his own life prompted Newton to write the hymn that we now know as “Amazing Grace.” [i][ii]
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see.[iii]
Dear friends, you and I are the lost, blind wretches that Jesus plucked from the darkness that ensnared us and lifted us up into the light of his amazing grace, where we live a new life as a beloved, forgiven child of God. So the challenge that I want to leave with you today is this: Embrace God’s amazing grace and unconditional love for you with every fiber of your being. As you do that, God’s grace and love will shine through you, and you will be filled with joy as God’s grace touches the hearts of other lost, blind wretches and welcomes them home. Amen.
[i] “John Newton,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (Internet; available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Newton; accessed April 16, 2023).
[ii] “’A Wretch Like Me’—The Story of John Newton (1725-1807),” Museum of the Bible (Internet; available at: https://www.museumofthebible.org/a-wretch-like-me; accessed April 16, 2023).
[iii] “’Amazing Grace’ lyrics,” AZLyrics.com (Internet; available at: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/ildivo/amazinggrace.html; accessed April 16, 2023).