No Gone Is Too Far Gone
I imagine he stunk. Clothes tattered. Hair matted. Beard stained. One shoe missing a sole. The other worn through. Personal hygiene out the window. Chin once high now drags his chest. His eyes scan the ground -- afraid to make eye contact lest he bump into a creditor. One front tooth is missing. Another is cracked. The chestful of gold chains are gone. Some sold. Most gambled. Or stolen. The ring his father once gave him was pawned weeks ago. He is now skinny, ribs showing. Hungry. And he's not just mildly entertaining the idea of what might be in the fridge. He is nauseas and can think of little else. The once lofty air has left the building.
This silent ending had a boisterous beginning. Not uncommon. It sounded like this: "I want what I want, when I want it, because I want it and I want it right now." His friends poured gasoline on the fire and pretty soon he was spitting flames. Angry, spiteful, full of himself, he went to his father. Stared down his nose. Disdain spread across his lips. He spouted: "I want my share. Now." Given the culture, his demand was unconscionable. Sort of like saying, "You are dead to me. I want nothing more to do with you and your silly, pathetic life. I'll take what's mine. From this moment, you're no longer my father and don't ever speak to me again."
Pockets full, he turned his back and, surrounded by a fair-weather posse, walked away. Laughing. Skipping. Slapping backs. Sucking courage from a brown bag. Glorious sin on the horizon.
Behind him, the father stood on the porch, a piercing pain in his chest.
The distance increased. Time passed. A poor fund manager, and unwise in pretty much every way, his prodigal living was short-lived. Highlife led to low life. The boy lived it up. Drunk whatever. Smoked whatever. Bought whatever. Slept with whomever. Whenever. Wherever. He was a man with no control over his spirit. Like a city broken down without walls.
To make matters worse, famine entered the story. The writing on the wall became clear. Once the sugar daddy had been picked clean, the posse stampeded.
Broke, hungry, alone and ashamed -- but not quite humbled -- he 'joined' himself to another. Said another way, he sold himself as a slave. Don't miss this -- he's a Jewish boy going to work for a gentile farmer raising pigs. This is apostasy. He could not have been any more unclean. There were laws about this and he had broken all of them.
Standing in that pen, surrounded by manure and swarming flies, holding the slop bucket, he stood just one final rung from the bottom.
We pick up the story as he is staring into the bucket with a raised eyebrow, watering mouth and thinking, "That's not so bad. I could probably get that down." The translation speaks of 'carob pods' -- sort of a bean-looking thing with the consistency of shoe leather. One of the only fruit-producing plants to actually produce fruit in that area during times of famine. It's a last resort -- even for the pigs.
Can you see him scratching his head? Deliberating? Staring around to see who might be watching? This is where he steps off the ladder. Feet on the bottom -- of the bottom. He has attempted to pull fire into his bosom and it is here that we see the third-degree burns. Not only has he sinned and fallen short, gone his own way, astray, he has missed the target entirely. To quote Isaiah, his righteousness is as "filthy rags." By 'rags,' Isaiah means used menstrual cloths. Let me spell this out. Left to our own devices -- like our Prodigal -- the best that we can produce -- absent a right relationship with the Father -- is no better than a bunch of used feminine products. That may offend you but that's Isaiah's point. Everything about the Prodigal is offensive and he is paying the price of his offense.
But notice what finds him. There in that muck and mire and sour stench, and poor choices and sin piled high, something swims past the reasonable filter of his mind and into the still-tender, yet-to-be-calloused, places of his heart. And it's not condemnation and finger-pointing shame. It's the memory of his dad. The love of the father.
Of all places for love to find him. (If you could see me, I am fist-pumping.)
Someone once asked me, "When is gone too far gone?" Here's my answer in a nutshell -- There is no place on planet earth that the love of The Father -- the blood of Jesus -- can't reach. His arm is not so short that it can not save. That means, this side of the grave, no one -- and I don't care who they are or what sin or sins they have or are committing -- is too far gone. There's yet hope. The blood of Jesus cries out to us and speaks a better word than that of Abel. "But..." You raise a finger and shake your head in protest. "You don't know what I've done." Or, you're pointing now, the anger rising. Spit forming in the corner of your mouth. "You don't know what they've done! To me." You're right. I don't. What I do know is that, "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." That means at our worst, most offensive, suffering the consequences of our own shame and defiant choices, a long way from home, Jesus poured out his soul unto the death. Why? Ask Him yourself. I won't spoil it for you. This is the mystery and wonder and majesty of The Cross.
Scripture doesn't say it but I think our prodigal ate the pods. A guess yes, but, it may well be an educated guess because scripture does say, "When he came to himself..." What better than the bitter, nasty aftertaste of the pod to shake some sense into him. Something akin to a 2x4 to the mule's head.
I love what happens next. He turns around. Note: he is turning his back toward his sin, and setting his face toward his father. Isaiah talked about this, too. He calls it, 'setting his face like a flint.' Look up 'repentance' in the dictionary and you will see a picture of this. A hesitant jog at first. Then a chin-raising trot. Lungs taking in air. When he reaches the hill a mile out from the farm, he is sprinting. Arms flinging sweat, a trail of dust in his wake. If you listen closely, you can hear the beginning of a sound emitting from his belly. Low. Guttural. It is the sound of pain leaving his body.
And here's the best part. My favorite picture in this story. It's the father. Still standing on the porch. Yet to leave his post. One hand shading his eyes. Scanning the horizon. Searching for any sign of movement.
Something atop the hill catches his eye. He squints. Leans. "Can't be. Too skinny." A shake of the head. "No swagger," He thinks to himself. "But..." Then a deeper glance as the figure gets closer. Doesnt' take long for that signature body language to register. The Father exits the porch as if shot out of a canon. Having closed the distance, the son falls at his father's feet. He is groveling. Face to toes. Snot mixing with tears. "Father, I have sinned..."
The father will have none of this. He lifts him, falls on his neck and kisses him. Pause here: I need that picture. The father kissing the son of squalor who willfully betrayed him. Gave him the finger. How many times have I done this? I can not count.
The son protests, arm's length, he has yet to make eye contact, "But Dad, I'm not worthy..."
The father waves him off, orders his servants, "Clothe my son! Bring me a ring! Carve the steaks! Raise the tent!" Servants scatter. The son stands in disbelief. Tattered and shattered. "But, Dad..." The son has come undone. "You don't know what all I've done. I'm unclean Please forgive --"
The father gently places his index finger under his son's chin and lifts it. Eye to eye. He thumbs away a tear. His eyes speak the words the son has needed to hear since he turned his back. The father pushes matted hair out of his eyes. "You, my son...are my son. Once dead, now alive. All is forgiven."
If you're the parent, or loved one, of a prodigal, let me bolster your hope with this: The Father has yet to leave His post. Eyes scanning the horizon. He sees the child. No darkness, no matter how dark, can hide him. Job says it this way: " For He [the Father] looks to the ends of the earth, And sees under the whole heavens, (28:24)." This hasn't all-of-a-sudden changed in 2015. It's not like God's eye sight has grown dim.
And despite the sons' total and complete depravity, the father is not interested in making him or her a slave. Even though that's his right. He is about total restoration. A complete returning to son-ship. An heir with all rights and privileges thereof.
If you're a prodigal, nothing but bad choices, poor decisions and carnage in your rearview, now surrounded by pigs and manure and staring at the pods, let me say this to you -- I don't care what you've done, where you've gone, where you are, or who you've become, the truth is this -- the sanctifying, redeeming, justifying, snatching-back-out-of-the-hand-of-the-devil-Blood-of-Jesus reaches to the far ends of the earth. Meaning? You can always come home. This side of the grave, No mess is too big. No gone is too far gone. To think otherwise is to make a mockery of the sacrifice of Jesus. You sure you want to do that?
Don't believe me? Don't take my word for it. This is Paul, speaking to the Romans. Like us, they'd ventured a long way from God. Paul called them 'God haters.' He said, "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies.  Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us." I can see Paul shaking his head. Think about it, Christ Himself, our High Priest, seated at the right hand of God, with the earth as His footstool is interceding for us. For you. For me. He has His Father's ear. Paul continues, "  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us." Here's the good part. Actually, it's all good. This is just especially good. " For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come,  nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:31,34-35,37-39) If you unpack this, nothing is excluded from this list. No exceptions.
Isaiah says this: " I will say to the north, 'Give them up!' And to the south, 'Do not keep them back!' Bring My sons from afar, And My daughters from the ends of the earth." (43:6)
Let me end with this. And I've already said it but it's one of my favorites and can't be repeated enough. When we say this, we should stand on our roof tops and shout at the top of our lungs: "...I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come,  nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Don't think I'm letting you or me off the hook. I'm not. To receive such unmerited Grace, we are required to do one thing. But, it's pretty simple and everyone can do it.
Turn. That's it. Just, turn back.
Don't shake me off. First step is always the toughest. Try it. Stand up, pitch your pride -- if you have any left, and put one foot in front of the other. Then another. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way, "Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a host of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus." Think about it, there is a host in heaven cheering you on. Pulling for you. Rooting for your return. You have your own cheering section. And see that word, "Fix." That's key.
I don't care what the shameful voices in your head tell you, the lies that the memories whisper, here is the Truth about you and me: Even when in a far off country, wasted life, stripped bare, smeared, squandered, nothing but scar tissue and shameful old, self-inflicted, wounds, the love of the Father finds the son.
He finds us.
"While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." No mess is too big. No shame too deep. No sin too horrible. And don't worry about what you'll say. When you return and stand face-to-face, you can't tell Him anything He doesn't already know. Nothing separates You from His love.
"So," you ask with a finger in the air, 'Charles, are you telling me that there is no place I can go that's too far gone?'" That's exactly what I'm telling you.
No gone is too far gone.