Which Son Are You?
Dr. Jim Denison
Thesis: We are each welcome in the Kingdom of God
One of the most encouraging readings I have ever found is this adaptation from Henri Nouwein’s classic book The Beloved:
I have called you by name
from the very beginning.
You are mine and I am yours.
You are my beloved,
on you my favor rests.
I have molded you in the depths of the earth
and knitted you together in your mother’s womb.
I have carved you in the palm of my hand
and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace.
I look at you with infinite tenderness
and care for you with a care more intimate
than that of a mother for her child.
I have counted every hair on your head
and guided you at every step.
Wherever you go, I go with you,
and wherever you rest, I keep watch.
I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger
and drink that will quench all your thirst.
I will not hide my face from you.
You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased.
Do these words touch you at a deep place in your soul? Why?
The most popular hymn in America is “Amazing Grace.” This is the conclusion of a survey of more than 10,000 newspaper readers. Others on the top ten list: “How Great Thou Art”; “In The Garden”; “The Old Rugged Cross”; “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”; “A Mighty Fortress”; “Blessed Assurance”; “He Lives”; “Victory In Jesus”; and “Holy, Holy, Holy.” What do our most beloved hymns have in common?
Blaise Pascal was by every measure a genius. He is considered the father of the modern computer, and was famous in his day for his work on probability theory and the problem of the vacuum. He devised Paris’s first public transportation system. And he was a man of remarkable insight into the human condition.
Consider his diagnosis of our basic problem: “All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they employ, they all strive towards this goal. The reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in two different ways. The will never takes the least step except to that end. This is the motive of every act of every man. . . .
“Yet for very many years no one without faith has ever reached the goal at which everyone is continually aiming. All men complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, strong, weak, learned, ignorant, healthy, sick, in every country, at every time, of all ages, and all conditions. . . .
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object.”
What is this “infinite and immutable object”? What is it that we need most in our lives? This week we are privileged to walk through “the greatest short story in the world” (Barclay 204). Here we’ll find the answer to our souls’ deepest longing, the hub into which all the spokes of our lives fit. Here is the “true north” which makes sense of our chaos, the discovery which alone can give life genuine significance.
This key to the meaning of life is found when you answer one question: which son in our story are you?
Leaving the home of grace
“There was a man who had two sons” (v. 11). And so our story begins. The man was presumably a Palestinian Jewish farmer or landowner. His “many” servants (v. 17) attested to his wealth. He was a man blessed with lands, possessions, and sons. Until today.
This day, “The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate'” (v. 12a). Nothing in the story indicates that either son was married, yet both were wealthy and would likely wed when reaching the marriage age of 30. And so they were both under this age; the younger son is perhaps closer to 20 (Fitzmyer 1087). And their father was still a relatively young man.
Nonetheless, his younger son wanted the part of the state which customarily came to him at his father’s death. Assuming there were only two sons, the older would receive 2/3 of the estate, so-called “double share” (Deuteronomy 21.17), while the younger received 1/3. Such a request was not impossible legally, but it was as much an outrage as a similar demand would be in our society today.
Despite this grave insult, the father did as his younger son asked: “So he divided his property between them” (v. 12b). This decision marked a formal and legal division of his goods (Rienecker 186), a binding action for them all. It would appear that the younger son received his part of the estate in money or moveable property, while the elder received the lands and fixed property (Barnes 102). If this is true, the father must have given a great deal of his personal possessions to constitute the estate owed his younger son. Every day would bring a fresh reminder of all he no longer owned—in his property and in his son.
Here we see the first appearance of that grace which is the central focus of Jesus’ parable. The father was not bound to grant his son’s disrespectful demand. He was not bound to give such personal possession to constitute an estate he did not owe until his death. But he gives what the son asks, with no word of complaint or censure. How many parents would do the same for one of their sons today? Would you?