“While He Was Still a Long Way Off”
Luke 15: 11-32
(This one is a long one, so if you don’t have time to read it just yet, it is also episode 2 of my “You’re Not Listening To This” Podcast. So you can listen to it here instead)
(as always, phrases in bold are hyperlinks)
I have this friend. This guy I met in college. You know, back when we were all “intellectuals” and people asked questions like “Do you think what I think blue is, is what you think blue is?” or of course “what’s your favorite type of beer and why?”… I had this friend.
One day this guy asked him who is favorite author was. I remember quickly scanning my brain, cross-referencing “typical college guy” answers against this friend’s general attire and facial hair choices…
Vonnegut? Thompson? Grisham? Suess?… Better not be J.K. Rowling! (no offense)
Then my friend responded as sincerely as I can possibly stress to you:
The guy asked: “Paul?…Paul who?”
“Paul, man! Like, First and Second Corinthians Paul! Yo, have you read Romans?! Romans is legit!”
The kid turned and stared at me like, “what am I supposed to do with that answer?” And in all honesty, I thought my boy was messing with the kid. I remember thinking that he couldn’t have been serious. I mean, I grew up in church. I was pretty hardcore coming in to college about the ole Good Book, but who picks an author from the Bible as their favorite?! I mean, that’s pretty corny right? It was just the three of us there man, keep it real. The newest part of that book is 2000 years old! Surely there’s some other author. But now, some 13 years of living later, I completely understand! And Romans is legit! “There is therefore now NO condemnation…!” That’s probably the most impactful sentence I’ve ever come across.
But, I think I have a new favorite…
Now, Paul’s still the man, but something really jumped off the page for me recently when I was skimming through Luke. (I know that probably sounds weird… Feels weird typing it but bear with me.)
“While he was still a long way off…”
Allow me to lay some context: Luke 15 contains three stories. Each story is intended to point out a flaw in the thinking of “the church” at the time. This idea that God, Grace, Salvation etc., are for us on the inside; not those people on the outside. We aren’t like them. (Not to suggest such thoughts are still rampant in the Christian community today, of course…)
In response, Jesus tells these three stories. 100 sheep, 10 coins, and 2 sons. now, it’s not 99 eagles and 1 worm or 9 crisp Franklins and 1 penny. It’s not a prince and a pauper. Jesus is clearly making the point that all are on equal playing ground. The preacher and the prostitute. But I’m only going to deal with the third story right now. Likely, it is the most well-known of these stories: the Story of the Lost Son or The Prodigal Son (verses 11-32.) I love everything about the story. It’s so perfectly simple yet incredibly layered.
If I may paraphrase:
There’s this Father. It seems implied from the story that this guy is rich. One of his sons comes to him and basically says, “Pops, I’m tired of waiting for my inheritance, give me my share now and I’m going to go make my own way.” The father obliges. The son takes off, blows all his money on partying and prostitutes (you know… like ya do), and ends up dead broke.
Things get real.
He winds up having to take a job feeding pigs. (At the time this story was told and to whom this story was told, having to work with pigs was falling pretty low). Because of the famine and lack of cash, he ends up jealous of the pigs, wishing he could at least eat at the trough with them. (Falling even lower.) Finally, he “comes to his senses” and realizes that even the hired servants back at his father’s house get 3 squares a day. Yet here he was, son of the master, starving to death.
He realizes, he’s got to get back home. But he can’t just show back up after what he’s done. He can’t just waltz back to his father’s house like nothing had happened. He’s got to do something to earn his way back into his father’s good graces. So he comes up with this speech; this great apology, where he’ll tell his father how sorry he is, how big a mistake he’s made, and how he’s not fit to be called the man’s son anymore.
He did not expect or even plan to ask for forgiveness. He didn’t feel deserving.
He did not expect to be taken back in as family. He had fallen too far. Crossed the line too many times. Already wasted his inheritance.
So he decided to ask his father to consider taking him back in as one of those lowly servants so that maybe he could at least earn something to eat.
But verse 20 says: “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him.”
The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’ But the father wasn’t listening.” In fact, he threw a giant party. The father gave him clothes and jewelry. He had a feast prepared. No condemnation. No lectures. No need for explanation. Just sheer joy that his son was back!
See this kid thought that because he had made mistakes, he would have to come crawling back home, groveling. Begging. Slaving away. Just to hopefully get some table scraps. He never even considered that he would be taken back in like he’d never left, let alone being celebrated. But not only was he welcomed back, he didn’t even have to get all the way home first! While he was still a long way off, the father ran to HIM! He tried to apologize and make a deal with his father. He tried to plead his case and admit his faults and failures. He hoped to earn his keep. But his pleas and his confessions were completely ignored. He was forgiven the moment he turned back toward home. While he was still a long way off…
He didn’t get it all “right” first. He didn’t have a complete life change. There’s nothing to really suggest that he matured. He didn’t build a life that mirrored his father’s first so he’d have something to show for himself. Some proof of his conversion. He didn’t even seem to see the error in his ways until he was completely destitute. It’s not like he snapped out of his selfishness while he had other choices. He came home because he had to. Yet, all that was required of him was to simply turn back toward the father who was, clearly, already watching and waiting… And while he was still a long way off the father met him where he was! It’s a short phrase for sure, but it changes everything.
See, so many times I’ve felt discouraged because I didn’t think I was doing this whole “Christian thing” right. I’ve felt that I’d angered God with my misbehavior. My lack of faith. My stubbornness. My selfishness. My mouth. My mind…
Then I feel trapped. Like I have to dig myself out of this hole and check all these things off of this list before I can come back home. Like I’ve got to earn my way back in to Grace. Back to Love. I mean, why would He take me back now?… Again?
See we have this tendency to put so much emphasis on behavior modification. So much emphasis on character and what being a “believer” should look like. Then we bury ourselves in the guilt of not “pulling it off,” and believe me, we are NOT pulling it off. None of us. So in countless instances, the burden of these illusions either makes a person cynical and ambivalent toward even the idea of God or afraid to seek Him out until they’ve “proven themselves worthy.” If you’ve ever felt that way, you probably know that the weight of that is immense. In fact, it’s crushing…
But it’s also, unnecessary.
(Matthew 11:28-30 illustrates this beautifully in the Message translation: It says: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”)
See, if you wait until you earn it, you’ll never get there. But if you will simply turn back toward home, there He will be running to you! Grace pouring all over you. No matter how far away you think you may be, you can always come back home. And regardless of how good, or bad, your little speech, apology or repentance is, it doesn’t matter. The Father isn’t listening. He’s already forgiven you. He’s already planning your Welcome Home Party. Even while you are still a long way off…
But then there’s the other side to this story. See the Prodigal son had an older brother. (The true point of the story.) A brother who always did the right thing. Never left the father’s side. Never embarrassed him. Never abandoned him. This older son WAS checking all the things off the list. Church every weekend. Reading his Bible every day. Paying his tithes. This guy isn’t cussing. Doesn’t watch porn. Doesn’t lie. He’s never wasted anything he’s been given. As a matter of fact, when baby brother was crawling back home to grovel, he was out working his father’s fields. He was walking back home, wiping his brow after long day’s work, when he heard the celebration. And then he finds out the Father had taken his brother back in…just like that! And not only taking him back but throwing a huge party?.. Well, if I may be frank, he got pissed!
He refused to join the celebration. Why would he want to? He knew what kind of guy his little brother was. He knew the reputation. He was probably standing right there when his little brother demanded his inheritance and left in the first place. He had probably heard all kinds or rumors about what little bro was doing out there while he stayed at home working his tail off day after day. Who do you think had to pick up the slack? And now, after all his brother had done wrong, he just…shows up and gets a party?! No, he just couldn’t get behind that idea. What was the father thinking?!
As the story goes, the father ends up going after the older brother too. Except this time, the older brother ignores what the father is trying to say. He waived his perceived spotless record in the father’s face and thought if anyone deserved a party, it was him! Why should this scum of a younger brother, who committed every infraction in the book, get all this pomp and circumstance when he, the elder, had done everything he was supposed to do this whole time and never had this kind of show thrown for him?
The father’s response is simple. “My child, you’re always with me. Everything I have is yours. But your brother was dead and is now alive. Lost, but now found.”
See, the older son thought he’d earned his position with the father. He thought that his behavior made him worthy. He thought his compliance brought him into the family. His hard work. He looked at all the bad his brother had done and assumed he was the better man. But, again, look at what the father said:
MY son. You are always with ME. Everything I have is yours.
What the older son failed to realize was what made him a son was not who he was… but whose he was. He hadn’t earned anything. It was all a gift!
He forgot that all have sinned and come short. He forgot that we are all in need of Grace, no matter how righteous we think we are.
Going back to Paul, he wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9 that it is by Grace that we are saved, through faith, and even that faith is a gift from God. Not by works, lest any man should boast.
Not to be rude, but most of us are that older brother. Instead of focusing on the unconditional, irrational, infallible love the Father gives, we focus on the worth of the recipient.
We compare… We rank… We judge…We fail to realize that if we truly understood Grace and its continuous necessity in covering our own lives, we’d be too busy rejoicing to judge our brother’s.
What deeply saddens me, is we end up attacking people over the most sensitive aspects of their lives. Things people are already struggling with and feeling guilty about. See, we all have our “little things” we are working on, so we aren’t going to proselytize about those. We only jump at the “big ones.” The one’s we likely aren’t even tempted by in the first place! Yet we think we are so righteous for not doing them? I’m not going to make a list because that would be counterproductive to the point. However, I’d bet some “sin” jumped into each of your minds the second you read that. So when we see someone dealing with those big ones, whatever they are, what do we do? Do we meet them with love, grace, and empathy? Or do we get on our social media soap boxes and rain down judgement and condemnation?
Or maybe we just get these little thoughts: “well, I may struggle with this, but at least I don’t do that,” and “if you believe that, well, then I guess I’ll just have to pray for you.” Or “I thought he was supposed to be a Christian” or “I wonder what church she goes to.”
No matter how nicely we may be able to word it, what we are really doing is patting ourselves on the back and putting ourselves up on the scoreboard. Maybe things have not changed much since Jesus’ day and we are still categorizing each other as us and them.
We are earning it and they aren’t…
But just like the older brother, we are missing the point, and we are missing the party. See, we can stay in the Father’s house and still be “a long way off.”
Alright, if you’ve read this far, you impress me because this is a lot longer than I intended. But before I let you go, there’s just one more thing. Each son, at different points, declared themselves worthy while proving themselves otherwise. One almost starved to death trying to do to it all on his own, and the other missed out on the party because he couldn’t understand Grace.
But do you know who’s really killing it in this story? The father’s servants.
Think about it:
Who did the prodigal son think of when he decided to come home? It sure wasn’t his older brother, who he probably knew was judging him. It was the servants.
Who did the father turn to when it was time to ready the celebration? The servants.
Who seemed to unquestioningly rejoice the return and forgiveness of the lost? It was the servants…
No titles. No glory. No comparisons.
They weren’t off making their own way, wasting their blessings. Neither were they so concerned with being “out in the field” doing what they thought the father would want. Instead, they simply stayed close to the Father. They listened to and rejoiced with the Father.
Nothing points to them being proud, jealous, or judgmental of either son’s behavior… or for that matter, the Father’s, even though it was seemingly irrational.
They weren’t elevating themselves or degrading anyone else.
They weren’t keeping score.
See, while the older brother couldn’t celebrate because of what he THOUGHT about his brother, the servants couldn’t help but celebrate because of what they KNEW about the Father.
May we each grow in grace and in God to become more like the servants who simply trusted the Father and less like either son who only trusted himself.
(All that crammed into 21 versus! And this is an outdated dead book?! Maybe it’s not the Book that’s the problem. Maybe it’s the readers)