Monday 3 May 2010

Despising Joy (Luke 15)

Luke 15 is not about salvation. That is, it is not primarily about salvation. Instead Jesus tells us three parables, all familiar, all precious and all focused on the joy - the joy of salvation.

The shepherd leaves his ninety-nine sheep to find that one lost sheep. But Jesus doesn't end there. He tells us that "when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.'" (verses 5-6)

Or the woman who turns her house upside down, just to find that one lost coin. She just cannot contain the news, "she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.'" (verse 9)

But it is the third parable that expands and fills in the meaning of this joy. A son insults his father by demanding his inheritance. He leaves for a distant country where, the text tells us, he " squandered his wealth on wild living" (verse 17). He comes to his senses, returns home, to the surprising embrace of his expectant father, who not only forgives instantly but rejoices over him.

"'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate." (verses 22-23)

Like the coin, and like the sheep, this son was lost. Like the shepherd, and like the woman, the father rejoices.

"For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate." (verse 24)

But the parable does not end there. This is a parable - Jesus tells us - about two sons (verse 11). And the older son now returns from working in the field. Three things we may note from the following exchange between the older son and his father.

1. The older brother justifies his anger, but also his lack of joy

The older son is not simply mad at his irresponsible younger brother. Rather he is deeply upset with his father.

"But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'" (verses 29-30)

According to him, his father is responsible for his joyless service. All these years, the elder brother had been slaving in the fields, never even having the means (a small goat) to celebrate with his friends. In other words, the older brother felt extremely wronged by his father, moreover, extremely right in feeling angry - and what fueled this sense of indignation was his years of hard work and obedience.

2. The father justifies his love, but also his joy

The father simply responds with generous and compassionate love. "My son," he says to him. Despite all the caricatures the older brother paints of himself as a worker and slave, the father reminds him he is always his son.

"you are always with me, and everything I have is yours." (verse 31)

But ... and here is the point Jesus is getting at - not just that this father, symbolising our heavenly Father - not just that God is loving, and not just that God is generous - but that God finds great joy in redeeming sinners. "But we had to celebrate/It was fitting to celebrate (ESV)" (verse 32)

Here the father picks up on the eldest son's complaint - the elder brother wanted to celebrate but his basis of celebration was his hard work and obedience. The father replies, there is a more compelling reason to celebrate - a more fitting one - The return of his younger brother. "This brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."

The father justifies his love, but also his joy.

3. Jesus draws us into the joy of salvation, but also the joy of the Saviour

Luke reminds us the context of the parable at the beginning of the chapter. The Pharisees and scribes were criticising Jesus for "welcoming and eating with sinners". And Jesus shrewdly incorporates the Pharisees into the third parable as the older brother. They cannot understand why Jesus would choose to associate himself with tax collectors, prostitutes and the like; the same way the older brother cannot bring himself to forgive his wayward brother, much less, join in his father's celebration over his younger brother's return.

But the peculiar charge Jesus makes in these three parables is not the lack of compassion, but the lack of joy. And boy, is that challenging!

The elder brother rejects the father by despising his joy. And the question at the end of the day is: do we have this joy? Or how do we get this joy? Or how do we experience this joy?

It is an important question because according to this passage, evidently the lack of this joy is symptomatic of the lack of love, a misunderstanding of God's heart, a confusion over Jesus's mission, and possibly more seriously, mistakenly assuming our false sense of self-righteousness in place to true forgiveness by the mercy and generosity of the father.

How do we get this joy Jesus talks about? I think this passage lays out the answer in at least two steps:

Beholding God's joy

Firstly, by recognising it is the Father's joy. "Rejoice with me," Jesus says in verse 6 and verse 9.

Here Jesus is doing something absolutely remarkable. He is displaying the heart of God's joy. What makes him tick. What really makes God's day. It's our salvation.

"I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent." (verse 7) He's high-fiving, chest-bumping, whoop-whopping in heaven when you turn to Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. God rejoices over each and every one of you, Christian!

So the first thing is to see that it is God's joy that is the focus, not just ours, but his as the Father, and his as our Saviour. Before we can rejoice in him, we must first see how much he rejoices over us!

Entering God's joy

Secondly, by entering into his joy. What do I mean: by entering into his joy?

In part, verses 6 and 9, clue us in on Jesus' invitation to rejoice with God. "Rejoice with me." That is: Jesus is calling his hearers, Jesus is calling us, to join him in the very activity that brings him so much joy. By bringing sinners to him. By welcoming sinners in him.

That is the heart of the father's request isn't it? "Join me in welcoming home your lost brother. He is home! He is back!" Or perhaps Jesus might even be suggesting we do even better than this elder brother might have done. Wouldn't it have been absolutely wonderful if it was the elder brother who welcomed lost son, instead of the father? Instead of having to be pleaded with, and coaxed into joining in the celebration, the elder brother should have thrown the party! Maybe even before that, the elder brother might have searched for his younger sibling when he had run away, not unlike the shepherd with the lost sheep and the woman with the coin.

In other words, God involves us in his joy and God enables us to experience his joy by getting us involved in his mission. In drawing a community of people around Jesus, who recognise their lostness and need for forgiveness. In announcing the good news of gospel, joyfully as did the shepherd and the woman. At times even lovingly pleading with tears to those who would reject the offer of the gospel, as the father does to his eldest son.

Do you realise that the greatest good God can give us, the greatest reward God can bestow upon us, is to draw us into his joy? In the parable of the talents, each servant is entrusted with a measure of gold by their master, and when his master returns, do you remember what he say to each servant, the word is actually slave, who has acted faithfully and responsibly?

"Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master." (Matthew 25:21 and 23)

Jesus calls us to enter into his joy. By turning to him who rejoices over us. By joining him in rejoicing over lost sons who return home to their heavenly father.

"Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."
(Hebrews 12:2)

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