Note: During Lent, our church is studying Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God. The sermons for the next few weeks will incorporate some of the ideas of the study.
Once the son repents and the father forgives, we see the son restored to his status in the family. His plan was to earn his way back in, starting as a hired servant and then after he paid his debt, to become once again a member of the family. But his father's forgiveness has cut that one off and he is once again a son.
In his culture, "son" was more than a simple biological relationship. It was a position, almost like an official office within the family structure, and it's to that status he's been restored. By once again being a son and heir, he is returned to his family responsibilities as well as privileges.
Of course, we recognize daughters as well as sons as having responsibilities to the family, and we recognize their equality and important roles as well. If Jesus were telling this story to us, he would have changed it so that it fit our understanding. We can probably help "translate" it from the ancient Near East to our own society by including the word "heir" as we study it, since we would understand daughters and sons as heirs to a family legacy.
But on the other hand, that culture also viewed things like the family and the family legacy differently than we do. Being a part of the family meant taking place in a generational story that included ancestors and descendants. The family was your means of survival if you had trouble -- some rulers or some religions might have charitable works, but nothing on the scale of our society and so you relied on your family to help you if you were unable to work yourself.
Like today, wealth was the source of the family's strength and ability to help its members. But unlike today, that wealth was not stocks or bank deposits, but land and property. Dividing the property each generation would drain the family's strength, so the bulk went to the oldest son. He had the responsibility of carrying that family legacy forward, so he was given the means to do it. But the other sons had responsibilities as well, and so the younger son's return meant he was again to take up that work.
We say that our repentance and God's forgiveness has restored our status as heirs to God, a status we lost when we centered our lives on things other than God. God received us not as debtors with something to work off, but as children with our place in the family. As we consider this, we might see changes it could bring in our lives.
As children and heirs, we have an access to God through an intimate relationship. Whenever Prince William and Princess Kate have their children, those kids will be able to see the Queen of England without an appointment. Sasha and Malia Obama can visit the President of the United States without an appointment. Do you think that kind of access to God changes your relationship with him, and with the rest of the world? Does it provide a peace and a sense of security that might not come from anywhere or anything else? It does for me.
We also have responsibilities -- perhaps not the same responsibilities as Jesus, our "elder brother," but responsibilities all the same. We have roles in continuing the family business, so to speak.
Our family business is bringing people into this family fellowship and serving people in need. That description's probably not complete, but it covers the bases. We have roles in that business. God assigned us these tasks as a part of our family responsibilities. Of course people outside the church often engage in some of the same work. Many folks who are not believers help feed the hungry, clothe the needy and visit the sick, and we should be glad they do. But it's our job to do it, our task, our mission. Our welcome back into the family is a call to take up that mission and return to it, if we laid it down, or to start it, if we never did.
The math is kind of odd -- the older son in the story is upset because the younger son's return means his inheritance is diminished. But it seems as though the welcoming of more and more heirs to the kingdom, more and more people into the family of God, only serves to increase the wealth of God's love.
So who wouldn't want that?