For the past six months or so, I have been hanging out in the book of Luke. Months back I picked up a commentary on Luke and decided to recover the familiar ground. Just after that, Luke became the text for weekly sermons at church. Most recently, I was invited to a neighborhood Lenten Bible study on the parable of the Lost Son, Luke 15. Having always loved Luke’s gospel, this all suits me just fine, and I thought I knew it pretty well. But, there is something about slowing down, approaching a text having asked the Spirit for a fresh vision, and taking the time to really reflect on what is being being said, intimated, and even not said at all that stretches understanding in new ways.
Most broadly, I’ve been struck by the way in which Luke fixes the reader’s attention on Jesus’ care for the weak, the marginalized, the outcast. I learned in my reading this time around that there is some possibility that Luke may have been a slave for at least a time. This would not be unlikely as in age of the Romans, well-educated Greeks were highly sought after as slaves for the empire. A physician, like Luke, would have been quite valuable to the Romans. It also would have given him a place of low standing in spite of his gifts and education. Perhaps this is why he focused on those who would have had no voice and no standing in the heavily hierarchical societies of both the Roman empire and the Jewish culture of the first century. Regardless of whether or not Luke was actually a slave, a freed slave, or a free man altogether, his emphasis on the least of these—women, the demon-possessed, paralytics, tax-collectors, lepers, prostitutes—augments the compassion of Christ for those who are broken in both body and spirit. Likewise, Luke shows us that those who vainly think they are without need garner both the ire and the disappointed frustration of Christ. Both sets of people are equally lost and in need of redemption. None of us can read Luke without seeing ourselves somewhere and realizing that we, too, are in grave need.
Specifically and most personally, I have been lead to reflect a great deal on what it means to love God, not just for what He has done for me, but for who He is. Reading through story after story of our Lord’s interactions with people, I’m always left wondering, “But did they love Him”? That topic came up this morning in Bible study. Neither the older nor the younger brother in the parable of The Lost Son really loved the Father. Rather, they loved the benefits the Father was able to provide them. It’s convicting and painful to reflect on the proclivity we all have to love the gifts more than the Giver.
As is so often the case in the telling of parables, what Jesus neglects to say is as instructive as what He does say. The hearer is left with many questions. One of the things He never says in relation to this story is whether either son, in the end, actually comes to genuinely love the Father. As Jesus left the story in a bit of a cliffhanger where the older son is concerned, it is a bit easier to infer that this son is still harboring a hardness of heart as the story closes. The younger son appears to have realized the error of his ways and seems to be truly repentant, yet no verification is given that what he now desires is the fellowship of the father himself and not just a job and three squares. By Christ leaving out such pertinent information, the hearer is left with white space prompting questions and allowing him to put himself into the story. Which brother am I? Do I love God merely as a receiver of His good gifts? Does my heart long to be in loving fellowship with my Father? Am I content to live as His servant? Do I delight in obeying Him?
There are no answers given here, but verses 18 and 19 reveal an attitude of spirit that is necessary for living in relationship with our Father:
“I will arise and go to my Father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.'”
This, then, has become my Lenten reflection: May these words be the first conscious thought of each morning. May I learn to think of the rising of each new day as a fresh opportunity to spend time in my Father’s presence, serving Him in humble gratitude, thanking Him for His gifts, but more importantly, loving Him as my generous and loving father who delights to call me His child.