God's Compassion for Sinners
God's Compassion for Sinners
I have never known a time when Christians have been more mad about more things than we are now. Over the last 30 years, something dramatic has happened in America. For hundreds of years the foundation of our land was built on JChristian truth. Suddenly everything changed. It wasn't our land anymore, and we who affirmed Christian principles found ourselves on the outside looking in intimidated, marginalized, , and ridiculed.
As all of this unfolded, despair has turned into a souring, growing anger in God's people. We're angry about values, politics, television, media, education, the violation of the unborn, condoms, and criminals. This anger has given rise to a warrior instinct in the body of Christ that has left us with a radical profile. We're shouting more, and we're shooting at doctors of abortion clinics. Publicly we are perceived to be long on madness and short on mercy, to be more committed to our consternation than we are to compassion.
Something is out of joint in the body of Christ because our madness is unlike Christ. Although he always held to the truth, he did it with grace. His life and ministry were marked not by consternation but by compassion.
Christ exemplified moving to the core of the crowd.
Luke 15 contains three of the most famous parables in Scripture: the story of the shepherd who lost one of his hundred sheep and went to find it; the story of the widow woman who had a bag of coins, lost one of these coins, and went to find it; and the story of the lost son, which we call the Prodigal Son.
One might question what was happening in that moment that caused Jesus to tell these three stories. The answer to that is locked in verses one and two, which tell of a polarization between the upset religious folks of the day and the people in their culture who didn't rise to their standards. What is fascinating is that you have Christ compassionately hanging around the worst kind of people of his day.
Verse one says, "Now all the tax gatherers and the sinners were coming near him to listen to him." Jesus was probably in the outer court of the temple, maybe in the marketplace, and gathered around Christ right at the core of the crowd were the tax gatherers and "sinners." These were the worst kind of people the Jews knew.
The tax collectors were Jews who had sold out to the occupying empire to collect exorbitant taxes from their own people on behalf of the Roman empire. The empire said to them, "If you want to attach a few assessments of your own, you can do that." So they put all those assessments in their own pockets. There were no people in that day more reviled than the tax gatherers.
The sinners were people who did whatever they wanted with no regard for the law that the Pharisees held to be so important. Christ is at the core of the crowd with the worst kind of people of his day.
Around the fringe of the crowd are the religious folks, and they're grumbling, saying, "This man spends time with sinners." There is the polarization of the text Christ at the core of the crowd, the religious at the fringe murmuring and grumbling.
We find ourselves there today, at the fringe of the crowd grumbling about people like that. We become grumbling warriors instead of committed seekers. Christ calls us to the core of the crowd to be committed seekers. Jesus said, "I have come to seek and to save that which is lost." When he left us in his Ascension, he said, "As the Father sent me, so send I you."
It's more like we're on a mission, not a mission. We have a nickname for tow trucks here in America: a wrecker. When I was in England, I noticed their tow trucks all have one big word on them: RECOVERY. When I saw that, I thought, Same vehicle, same instruments, same mission totally different perspective. We say, "There goes a wrecker." They say, "Here comes recover." A lot of people in the body of Christ move like a wrecker, but Christ came on a recovery mission. That's why Jesus was at the core of the crowd.
The Pharisees' dislike of the sinners and tax collectors was a profound theological problem. They understood well God's holiness and perfection, but they knew nothing of God's compassionate mercy and grace. That's why Christ told these stories. Every one demonstrates that a God who had lost something significant would be compelled to go after what he had lost.
Christ does not condone the sin of the crowd.
There is a risk for Christ to be at the core of the crowd. If he hangs out with those kinds of people, some people will think he's light on sin. In response, he tells the story of the lost son.
The text says, "A certain man had two sons and the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.' And so he divided his wealth between his younger and elder son." Verse 13 says, "And not many days later the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living."
In these two verses, Jesus makes a clear point about the weight of sin by pointing out the three ways the prodigal son offends his father.
Offense number one: he asks for his inheritance early. In the Palestinian culture, even today, you don't do that, for it is similar to wishing your parents were dead. It is the deepest offense a child can impose upon a parent, and the Pharisees understood that.
The second terrible offense against the father came when the text says, he "gathers all that he has." He cashes out his portion of the estate. Unlike today, the estate was not measured in stock portfolios, bonds, money market funds, and cash. Instead, wealth was measured in land and in flocks. He cashes out the assets of his inheritance, he sells a portion of the land. In the Palestinian culture you don't sell land that belongs to your family. Land is a valuable family heritage.
The son's third offense is he squanders his inheritance in loose living. The land and flocks were the family's social security system. Aged parents made it through the end of their lives by living off the estate. Not only does the rebellious son sell part of the estate, he spends his family's social security system in a far land.
When we cut our independence from God, our sin, no matter how safe and private it may be, is a phenomenally deep offense to God always. Christ makes it clear he understands the weight of sin.
This boy goes through a vortex of degradation. Notice in verse 13 his step of : "He squandered the estate with loose living." When you're loose, you do anything you want: no leash and no tethers. Step number one in the degradation of sin is , which leads to .
Verse 14 says he spent everything. Sin is an expensive business. It is never an investment. When we sin, we always spend relationships, health, time that we never get back again.
S leads to , and leads to .
It says, "When he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be in need. And he went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine." Think of the degradation of that moment.
The text says he fed himself with the pods they fed to the pigs, and nothing ever satisfied him. The word pod is for carob pod. There were two carob pods in that day. One is rich in sugar and nourishment, the other had no nourishment only fiber. At this moment of degradation he tried to stuff himself, and nothing satisfied.
Some of us have been there. We have felt the degradation of sin and sought for something to satisfy us. The problem is that the longer it goes, the emptier we feel.
Verse 17 says ultimately he came to his senses. We also do that. We go to bed at night, put our heads on our pillows, and say to ourselves, How did I get like this? I can't believe I turned out like this. This is , the feeling that you have to do something about your situation. The whole vortex of sin , , and leads to . And that is what led this boy to .
Verse 17 says when he came to his senses he said, "How many of my father's hired men have more than enough bread? And I'm dying out here with hunger. I will get up and go to my father." He practices a little speech to his father: "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired men."
You're thinking, Bravo for the boy. Repentance has come.
But he says he is no longer worthy to be called his son, and he'd be glad to be made as one of his hired men. In the system of that day, a household had three kinds of laborers. The bondslave attached himself to the head master of the home out of love and loyalty for nothing in return. It was the most intimate expression of servitude. Then there were the household servants who had a little more independence. Finally there were the hired men day laborers who lived in the village, who came to work, collected their paychecks, and went back to the village, and did whatever they wanted to do.
Have you ever met somebody who says, "I don't like where I ended up. I need God." She reaches out for God, but she says, "Keep your distance." That's exactly what this boy has done. This is not repentance; this is .
Jesus Christ in this story makes this point: I can be compassionately committed to these worst kind of people, but I fully understand what a weighty thing sin is in its offense to a father and in the degradation of an individual life.
At this point the Pharisees agree, saying, "Exactly. These are sinners. They've offended God. They're degraded. Amen. Preach that sermon. 'Turn or burn; forsake or bake.' We love this kind of stuff."
But Christ doesn't stop there. He moves from the weight of the sin toward God and from the sinner to the worth of a sinner's life.
Christ demonstrated the value of the sinner in the Father's eyes.
Verse 20 says, "He got up, came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him." I find myself wondering how his father saw him from such a long way off. I wouldn't be surprised if this dad on a regular basis, walking across his estate, didn't cast his eyes down that road to see if maybe his boy was coming back.
If I were the dad and I saw this boy coming home, I'd say, "Aaah, the wretch is coming home, huh? This kid embarrassed me. He broke every Jewish custom. He offended me so deeply."
But the text says, "When he saw his son a long way off, he felt compassion for him."
The one offended most deeply was the one who cared most deeply for this boy. That explains why Christ is at the core of the crowd. He knows they're sinners. He knows they're the worst kind of people in the Jewish economy. But he knows their worth and feels compassion for them and reaches out to bring them home.
The text says not only did the dad feel compassion for him, but the dad ran to meet him. When this Jewish dad ran and grabbed the boy, throwing his arms around him and kissing him over and over, this would have shocked the Pharisees. A kiss in Palestinian culture is a sign for full acceptance and friendship. In that public way, he received him and restored him, and the boy falls before him.
The boys says, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I am no longer worthy to be called your son" period. He does not ask to be made as one of the hired servants. This boy is stunned by grace. The arrogance of his spirit is melted because this one he had offended so deeply cared so much about him. And he threw himself on his dad's mercy.
That is true repentance. True repentance is when we come to God with no deals. We don't cut deals at the Cross. No negotiations. No strings attached. We realize what a terrible offense our lives have been to God, and he reaches out and compassionately welcomes us. There, we fall in abject repentance and throw ourselves on his mercy.
When the dad received the son, that was a marvelous act of grace. If I'd been the dad, I'd say, "Let's go home. Wait till your mother sees you. And by the way, I'm glad to welcome you back, but you're on probation for six months."
This father, however, takes him back to the estate and says, "Bring my boy a robe." Which was a sign of familyship. He says, "Give my son the family ring," which was a sign of family authority. He says, "Get shoes for this boy's feet," which was a sign of a free man, not a slave.
God the father has marvelously recognized the worth of the sinner. He has totally forgiven him, and he has not put him on probation. He has cut him fully into the family no conditions, no probation fully restored to the father and the family.
Christ said, "I'm at the core of the crowd because God the Father has compassion on the lost son and seeks to welcome him and give him full sonship in his family." He told this story to explain to these grumbling warriors at the fringe of the crowd why he was compassionately at the core of the crowd.
One of the important applications for us today is the probing of our own souls. When we look at those around us maybe the "worst" kind of people in our culture who are so unlike us in thought and value and philosophy and orientation do we see them through eyes of compassion? Do we understand not only the weight of the sin but also the worth of them as sinner? Or are we still mad at people like this?
God calls us to be middlemen in compassion transactions, to let his compassion flow through us. It's not easy.
Dan Rather was on our campus a couple of years ago to interview on our national radio broadcast Open Line. Dan Rather has not been one of my favorite people. I looked at him as part of the left wing media establishment with its secular, pluralistic, relativistic, God philosophy. He seemed a little cold to me and a touch arrogant, and he was never one of my favorite anchormen. And there he was on our campus.
Well, during a break he and I spent a bit of time together, and I was shocked because he was the warmest individual. He seemed interested in everything I was saying, and he seemed to care about me.
He said, "I grew up in a Baptist home. In my grandma's house the only things she had to read were the Bible and the Sears Roebuck catalog." He continued, "My grandmother read me the Bible every day."
He went back to the interview, and at the close as the tapes were rolling, ready to go nationwide, one of the interviewers said to him, "Mr. Rather, excuse me, I don't want to hurry anything. But if you were to die today and stand before God at the edge of heaven, and God were to say to you, 'Why should I let you into my heaven?' what would you say?"
He paused and said, "Well, I have to say it wouldn't be for anything I have done. It would have to be totally by the grace of God."
All of that to say this: I have no idea what his spiritual condition is. This is not a statement about his spiritual condition; it is a statement about a shame I bear in my heart. The shame is it didn't cross my mind once to pray for Dan Rather that God would compassionately reach out and embrace his soul, cancel hell and guarantee heaven, and fill him with abundant living. I hate to tell you that; it just never crossed my mind. I was too mad about all this stuff to think about his need for a Savior. I refused to be a middleman in a compassion transaction between God and one who possibly needed him.
So where are we? Are we long on madness and short on mercy? Do we have more commitment to our consternation than we do to the compassion of God? Then something needs to change. We need to move from that grumbling warrior fringe to the core of the crowd with Christ.
Joseph Stowell is president of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. He can be heard weekly on Moody's broadcasts, "Proclaim" and "Moody Presents." He is author of Far From Home.
(c) Joseph Stowell
Preaching Today Tape #188
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Joseph Stowell is president of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and author of numerous books, including Jesus Nation (Tyndale).