Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, "Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound." Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. He answered his father, "Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him." Then his father said, "Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found." (Luke 15:25–34, CEB)You know, at first glance, there are really three separate stories here, and they really don’t seem to belong together. In fact, two of these stories appear in the other gospels, but they are never grouped together in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.
Three separate stories…
First, you have this message of Jesus: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must lose his own life. …” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said this just after he commissioned his 12 apostles. In John’s gospel, Jesus uttered these words just after He entered Jerusalem for the last time, when He was beginning to talk about His death a lot! Second, you have this parable of Jesus about building projects. “Don’t start something you cannot finish.” Luke is the only gospel writer to share this saying of Jesus with us, and I think it is the key to Jesus’ point here. We’ll come back to it. Third, you have one of the most recognizable statements Jesus ever made. “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, it is worthless.” In Matthew’s gospel, these words are at the center of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus talks about salt and fire in the context of judgment (both of them refine us, purifying us for the end).
So, what is going on here? Why does Luke take these three stories and put them in a different order? As you know, all of the gospel writers do this. Most of the stories are not in chronological order. They were not interested in giving us chronological history. They were giving us theological history. They moved the stories of Jesus around to help make their points. Not in a dishonest way; that is just how they wrote history! There is a good reason Luke took these accounts that appear in other gospels and grouped them together with this new material about a construction project.
Let’s allow the center story to serve as the main point. Do not start something you cannot finish! No one would start a building project without considering the cost. No one would go to war without first sizing up their odds. This is Jesus’ main point. And what is the construction project to which He is referring? What is the campaign He is talking about? The Christian life! Do not begin following Jesus unless you know what you are getting yourself into! It is not a cheap life, it requires everything you have, and you cannot do it half way. It takes everything, and Luke surrounds this main story with two other well-known messages of Jesus that help to underscore what Jesus is trying to communicate.
Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sister—yes, even one’s one life—cannot be my disciple.
Salt is good, but if salt loses its flavor, how will it become salty again? It has no value at all.Do you see why Luke put these sayings together? This message of Jesus was so central to His teaching; Luke wanted to make sure you didn’t miss it. So, he gave you three separate sermons of Jesus in one package!
“Don’t miss this!”
“This is core!”
“This is at the heart of Jesus’ message when He walked among us!”
So, church, let me echo the words of Luke once again: “Whoever has ears to hear should pay attention!”
Half-hearted attempts to follow Jesus, like half-finished construction projects, will only make a person look ridiculous. Like a hypocrite, saying with your mouth that you are a follower of Jesus, yet living like you’ve never heard of Him; hoarding your money, ignoring injustices in the world, risking everything for more and more power. True discipleship causes us to lose our lives. True discipleship causes us to stay “salty.” One way that we lose our lives and remain salty is by giving our time and energy to others, but investing in people. Christianity is not about punching your time clock at this building (or any other church building). That is not what being a Christian means. In the earliest days of the church, attending this assembly was only a tiny part of the Christian life. The Christian life happened outside of these walls. This was just something true disciples did once a week together. But I fear that in our time, this moment has become the center of the Christian life. This has become what being a Christian is all about. But that is not what Jesus intended. This is not what Jesus came to model. Instead, the life Jesus came to model was one that invested its time and energy in people, a life that is not centered on self, but a life that is centered on others. That message is at the heart of the Christian life. That message was at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. A life that is centered on others brings good news to the world. A life that is centered on others is noticed, and it changes things.
This weekend our nation remembers Martin Luther King Jr. in a special way. King moved to Montgomery, Alabama when he was only 25 years old to become the Pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Less than a year after he arrived, he was catapulted into the national spotlight when he became the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He spent the next 13 years speaking, marching, and giving his time and energy to help African Americans, most of whom he would never meet. On April 4, 1968, when he was only was only 39 years old, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Such a short life! But I would dare to say, if not for the way in which Martin Luther King Jr. lived his life for others, we would probably not have an African American president today. Or, if that is not your political persuasion, we probably would not have had an African American Secretary of State during the Bush administration. We would probably not have children that cannot comprehend the idea of separate water fountains and schools for people of a different color.
Now this is important…why did King live his life that way? Was it because he loved the spotlight? Was it because he was paid well to do it? In an interview with King, at the height of notoriety, he was asked, “Who are you? Are you a civil rights leader? Are you the voice for African Americans? Are you a renegade?” King’s response is priceless: “No, I’m just a Baptist preacher.” The reason King did what he did had everything to do with his belief that God created us equal. He counted the cost of being a follower of Christ, and He joined up anyway! Sometimes Jesus’ disciples are noticed on a grand scale like King; other times, Jesus’ disciples make their impact in much less grandiose ways.
I would dare to say that every person in this room is here because of the influence of someone else. Someone in your life made the decision to share the story of Jesus with you and their decision to do that has had lasting, perhaps generational impact, on your life. A mother, a father, a friend, someone invested his or her time, energy, and resources into your life. If they had not, where would you be today?
I’d like for you to take out a piece of paper. I want you to write two names on that piece of paper. First, who is mostly responsible for your relationship with Jesus today? Who told you about God? Who taught you the stories? Who shared with you what it means to be a disciple of Jesus? Second, in whose life will I invest my time, energy, and resources to help them establish a relationship with Jesus—your children, a neighbor, a spouse, an enemy? One day, in the distant future, another preacher might ask their congregation to do this same thing. Will your name appear on any of those pieces of paper? Don’t lose your saltiness! Do not allow this to be the beginning and end of your Christian experience. Move outside these walls and make a difference. Invest yourself in people! That is the high calling to which you have been called by Christ.