Eugene Ionesco’s, Exit the King is a clever play about life and death. Reportedly, the Romanian-French Ionesco who died in 1994, said about the play: I told myself that one could learn to die, that I could learn to die, that one can also help other people to die. This seems to me the most important thing we can do, since we’re all of us dying men who refuse to die. The play is an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying.

Now I don’t want to be morbid, but I raise the subject for two reasons. First, Ionesco understood that because life is fleeting – as Ukranians know all too well right now – we need to consider our values and priorities. Second, in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal (Luke 15:11-24) a key theme is our lostness: we look for life in the wrong places.

Throughout his ministry Jesus of Nazareth challenges us all to consider our hearts’ desires.

The opening lines of Luke chapter 15 reveal that two very different groups of people were in Jesus’ audience at that time – what we might call the sinners and the saints. The sinners were society’s outcasts, the fraudsters and the immoral; the saints were the religious establishment. The first group needed to learn that at the heart of God’s nature is mercy and forgiveness; the second needed to be shocked out of their self-righteousness. The two groups had two very different views about life and death.

Knowing that mindsets are very hard to shift, Jesus didn’t preach a sermon nor engage in debate. He simply told three stories – about a shepherd who had lost a sheep, about a woman who had lost a coin, and about a father who had lost two sons. I’ll focus here on the father and his younger son.

The clever story opens with the younger son asking his father for his inheritance. The son, by asking this implies that he wished his father were dead. Nevertheless, the father gave him what he wanted. But it was not long before the money was gone. Having no friends or credit line, the son was soon without food and homeless. Worse followed. With a drought and a crash in primary industry, the best he could do was become a day-laborer, feeding pigs. Even so, he starved. His thoughts turned to home – to his father, the farm, and the food.

The son weighed the odds. ‘Here I am, feeding pigs,’ he reflected. ‘The casual-workers on Dad’s farm are better off than me. I’m a fool. I’ll have to bury my pride and go home. I’ll have to tell Dad I’m really sorry I messed up and don’t deserve a thing. I’ll ask him to take me in as one of the hired-workers.’

Jesus’ story would have captured everyone’s attention. Some hearers would have been saying to themselves, ‘That’s me.’ Another group would have said, ‘That son doesn’t deserve to be forgiven’.

How would the father react? That is the question.

Like most fathers, he knew what his son was like and what he would do. But he still loved him. In fact, he’d been on the lookout for his return. And when word came that his son was on his way home, he immediately raced out to greet him.

We need to feel the impact of Jesus’ story. No self-respecting citizen in that culture would ever run down the street. He would walk with dignity and deliberation. Furthermore, this father wasn’t racing out to greet a son who had graduated with a doctorate and made his first million before he was twenty-five. The father’s action came at a personal public humiliation.

Yet the father not only ran but threw his arms around his son and kissed him. The son, no doubt overwhelmed, was honest and expressed his sorrow and deep repentance: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  Period. Full stop.

He had planned to add, ‘Treat me as one of your hired servants.’ But he now realized this was not appropriate. For the first time he understood that he’d never really known his father, nor how much his father loved him. He had never appreciated the privilege of being a son.

What was the younger son’s problem? He wanted his father’s wealth so he could enjoy all the pleasures that took his fancy without accountability.

Here is heart of the human dilemma. We think that our possessions and the pleasures we pursue are the be-all and end-all of life. Reckoning they are secure we find they aren’t secure at all. We look for life in the wrong places because we’ve left God out of the equation of the meaning of life.

Jesus’ great longing is for us to be honest and humble enough to say, ‘Lord, I know you are true and I know everything I have comes from you. Please forgive me for turning my back on you. Help me to honor you above all else in life.’

Can God find it in his heart to forgive us? Jesus also answers this. In verse 22 we read that before the younger son could catch his breath, his father was busy ordering new clothes, shoes, and a ring – the best of everything. The most elaborate and expensive feast was prepared, and the father tells us why: ‘For this my son was dead, now he is alive, he was lost but now he has been found.’

The Prayer of Humble Access takes up the principle of God’s willingness to forgive the repentant heart when it says the Lord’s nature is always to have mercy.

We easily miss the force of the father’s words in Jesus’ story, ‘For this my son was dead, now he is alive…’ We may have everything the world offers, but until we have turned to Jesus Christ, in God’s sight we are the walking dead.

How good it is that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). And how good it is to have gospel ministries such as TheWord121 to introduce family and friends to him so that they may not die but have life forevermore.

A prayer. Almighty God, grant that we, who justly deserve to be punished for our sinful deeds, may in your mercy and kindness be pardoned and restored; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

(Note: Today’s Word is adapted from my Luke: The Unexpected God, 2nd Edition, Aquila: 2019)