Child’s Sin - thrive UMC Official Blog

Child’s Sin

This morning we’re going to read one of the most famous of all of Jesus’s parables.  But before we do, I think it’s important that we remember the Easter invitation to ‘look again.’  Last week, we read from the final chapter of Luke, where the resurrected Christ appeared to the disciples and ‘opened their minds to the scriptures.’  He told them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45-47).  This is the central invitation our risen lord leaves with his disciples: preach a new knowing for the forgiveness of sins –to all nations.

            So, with that in mind, we’re going to go back and look at a few of Jesus’s teachings with post-Easter eyes.  And today’s story in particular, I think, will help us gain a clearer picture of what it means and what it looks like to forgive.  Jesus has been teaching to a crowd, but the Pharisees and the legal experts –the popular religious people of Jesus’s day- are grumbling about him, because, and I quote, Jesus “welcomes sinners to eat with him!” 

            To their grumbling, Jesus responds with three parables, all of them are about lost things.  First Jesus tells a story about a lost sheep, then one about a lost coin, and then finally, our reading for today focuses on a lost son.  Turn with me to Luke 15, we’ll be reading the first part of that parable, in verses 11-20.

          Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.

14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.


               So here Jesus is doing his thing, traveling around and teaching about what it takes to be his disciple, and some spiritual leaders –Pharisees and professional experts on the Hebrew scriptures- start grumbling at the company Jesus keeps.  And again: their specific complaint is that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them.

             Jesus, then, turns around and starts telling stories about lost things. 

            Now, what do lost things have to do with sinners?  We’ll come back to that in a bit.

            But first, let’s take a look at the story.  A man has two sons.  The younger one says to his father, “Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ This, by the way, is not a very considerate request for a son to make.  As it is today, to ask for your inheritance from your parent before they have died is what we would call … a little rude.  It’s the equivalent of saying: ‘dad you’re great and all, but I can’t wait around all this time just for you to kick the bucket, so I want my share of you stuff now!’ 

            To this the father, shockingly, agrees: he divides his estate, and gives the younger son his share, which would have amounted to one third of everything the father owned (the eldest son always gets a double-portion, according to the custom of the day). 

            So imagine that: the father inherits what he has received from his father’s house, and he works his whole life being scrupulous and responsible, while raising two sons.  All this, only to have his younger son reach adulthood and demand his cut before dear old dad has grown old.  And then, it says, this rascally youth takes all that stuff –33.3% of everything, and he leaves!  Once abroad, this young son literally scatters his inheritance everywhere, in an act that is the precise opposite of saving.  His lifestyle was ‘wasteful.’ And soon he ends up hungry and degraded.  He ends up being so poor, and so hungry, that his only option is to hire himself out to a citizen of the land to tend pigs!  Shepherds of sheep, in the eyes of Jewish people, were lowly people: but to but to have to resort to being a shepherd for pigs –for unclean animals- this was the absolute worst!  Even the filthy Greeks thought being a swine heard was low work!  And this young Jewish man, born of a reputable house, finds himself now so destitute, and so hungry, that he even covets the slop he’s feeding to the pigs!  Now I’ve fed pigs before –can you imagine being so hungry that you’d want to have what they’re eating? 

But no one will give him a thing.

            Then, however, it says, in a beautiful turn of phrase: he ‘comes to himself’ –he regains his senses and says, “how many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death!  I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son.  Take me as one of your hired hands.”  And he went!

            At last it comes to light in the story that this son… is a sinner.

            And the question here, begged in the text, is twofold: first of all, where did sin enter this strange and wonderful story?  (Was it when the son ran out of the last of his resources?  Was it when he left his father’s household?  Was it when he asked for his share of the inheritance? Could it have perhaps happened at some invisible moment before that? It’d be worth a conversation with a few others over coffee or a bible study? 

The second –but much more urgent question is: what do we do with the sin and the sinner now that they’re present?

            For the Pharisees and legal experts who grumbled against Jesus, the response was so obvious you shouldn’t have to talk about it: you send the sinner away!  Sin was viewed as a kind of moral toxin, and if you let it get too close, it could taint you and ruin your holiness.  And if you weren’t pure and holy, then God-they had thought- wouldn’t want anything to do with you, and would not approach your, and would not bless you.  So get those sinners out of here

            For Jesus, however, as we’ve already seen, there was one response to sin that needed to be proclaimed from here to the ends of every nation: forgiveness. Forgive sin.  

            Of course most of you know by now that I have a kind of obsession with words and their meanings, so I wanted to share with you what I’ve found.  In the original Greek, the word that we translate as ‘forgiveness’ simply means ‘release’ or ‘to send away’ or ‘to discharge.’  So the resurrected Jesus charged the disciples to preach the releasing or the discharge of sin. 

            But what could really blow your mind on this topic is what you would discover if you’d look up the Greek word that we translate as ‘sin.’  The Greek word used by Jesus to talk about what we call sin is, “hamartia.”  Say it with me: hamartia.  Now, some of you have perhaps heard that this particular word was used as a term in archery, for something like missing the mark.  And that’s also true –and there’s a Hebrew words that was used in much the same way.  But if you look at the word itself, Hamartia, you’ll discover that it starts with a negative prefix –sort of like ‘un’ in English, and slaps that in front of a form of the Greek noun ‘meros.’  Now what meros means is ‘portion’ or ‘share.’  So at its most literal level, hamartia means ‘not-portion.’  It means you’re missing out, or have lost your share.  

            So what Jesus does is he tells the story of a son who literally loses the “portion” he was due from his father.  Now, in another week or so, we’ll talk about the same problem from the Father’s perspective in this story, but for now, we’re invited to look at it through the starving son’s eyes.  And for him, the son, the problem is that his share has totally run out.  Maybe he made some bad choices along the way, maybe he wasn’t a very considerate or responsible son to his father –but the issue staring him straight in the face at this moment in the story is that he is so poor and so destitute that he’s in danger of starving to death.  That is the problem of sin for this sinning son: there are things he needs –food, shelter, love– and he doesn’t have them.  And he cannot get them for himself by his own power.  This isn’t a vague moral problem for him, this is a matter of life and death –if he doesn’t get what he needs, then he will die. 

            So the best plan he can come up with is to go back home, because he knows the things he needs can be found there.

            But consider this: If his father sends him away when he goes back, because he was already given his portion so its his problem now that it’s gone –or if the father refuses to even hire his son as a laborer because he has a track-record of irresponsibility, then that son is doomed. Right?  So if your response to sin is to send the sinner away, then this parable powerfully illustrates that sending them away will condemn them to death. 

            And by the way, does that do anything at all to help the problem?  If the problem is that a needed thing is missing, and you’re trying to ‘release’ the sin by ‘releasing’ the sinner –does that do anything to diminish the power of sin?  No, in fact, it only reinforces it!  By sending the sinner away, you are actually intensifying the sin!  This young man, who has a serious hunger problem, will have to expend a great deal of energy to walk all the way back home.  So if, when he gets there, dad slams the door in his face, every additional step he takes after that will only cost him more precious energy and bring him closer and closer to starving!  And maybe this son will get so desperate, that he’ll start stealing bread from other people –and that could result in them being hungry and desperate and disgruntled, and on and on! 

            This is what Jesus is calling us to see and remember: sin is indeed a serious problem.  And we do absolutely need to send the sin away.  But don’t forget: sin is a thing missing.  Sin, at its heart is loss. It’s the loss of God’s portion for us –the loss of what’s precious and life-giving.  And that’s why Jesus responds to the self-righteous grumbling of a few spiritual leaders with three different stories about people losing a precious thing.  Because we need to be reminded of what’s precious and what matters most.  And what matters most to God is God’s children.

            Today we live in a world and in a church that’s divided.  And it’s divided by sin.  But we will not help the world with its sin problem by trying to separate ourselves from sinners.  I love that moment in Jesus’s story, where the newly destitute son is sitting alone in his hunger.  There he watches the pigs eat –these unclean animals, and it says he ‘covets’ their food.  And then it says “he comes to himself!”  Apparently, he had not quite been himself when he’d squandered his inheritance on a frivolous and wasteful lifestyle. But rather he comes to himself when he remembers his life with his parent –when he remembers how he had lived when he was at home.  And his real self, his authentic self, leads him to return.  To go back home, where even the workers have more than their fill.

            This morning, on this blessed Mother’s Day, I want to encourage you to spend some time with this prodigal child –the one who asked for his due before the right time, and who left to live it up, only to end up being left out.  Can we look at his desperation and remain unmoved?  Or shall we the the proclamation of the risen Christ and give ourselves over to difficult pursuit of forgiveness?