When Lorie and I lived in Michigan, a few families got together because someone who had moved away was in town for a visit. Everyone is having a great afternoon, and a few hours into the event, families started to head home. But not me and Lorie. We were having a great time, and enjoying catching up with friends.
Pretty soon the host started dropping hints. “My, where did the day go?” “Well, it’s getting close to dinner time.” I was oblivious.
After awhile, the host said, “Well, would you like to stay for dinner?” Sure!
Have you ever been in a situation where you extended an invitation, but it was reluctant? You offered the invitation because you felt you had no choice? You offered the invitation, but you really hoped that the other party would decline?
Many Christians think that’s how God feels. They have thoughts like: “God saved me, but he surely can’t like me very much knowing the kind of person I am.” “I followed the biblical formula for salvation, so God has to let me in, but he’s not very happy with me.” There’s a famous evangelistic method in which God is portrayed as being at the gates of heaven, asking people “Why should I let you in.”
That resonates with worldly thinking because people see God as a stern faced man with his arms crossed. He’s just looking for an excuse to keep you out.
Today’s parable presents a completely different picture of God! People are not clambering to be allowed into the father house - the father is going out to them. The father is not reluctant with his love. It overflows!
Our handbook has given this parable a new name: “The Father of Two Lost Sons.” The boys represent two kinds of lostness. One son is in open rebellion to the father. The other son is in proximity to the father, and is working for the father, but his heart is far from the father.
We also see God portrayed as a gracious and loving father. We learn that God longs for fellowship with us. He seeks us. We also learn that when God extends his mercy to others, we are to respond with joy and celebration.
Paul Isaak said it like this: “A banquet of great joy is provided by this waiting Father, who is none other than the waiting, running, embracing, partying, and kissing God. The parable describes God’s goodness, grace, boundless mercy and abundant love.”
Principle One: Like the younger son, we’ve rebelled against our Father and squandered His good gifts. (Luke 15:11-19)
Before we read it, take a look at the whole chapter of Luke 15. There are three parables in the chapter: (lost sheep, lost coin, lost son.) They came in a setting that heightened the drama of their stories.
Look at verses 1-2. The religious leaders were complaining because Jesus would have dinner with sinners. Jesus didn’t give a defence for his actions. Instead, he told three stories.
A man with 100 sheep loses one. Instead of being content with the remaining 99, he searches for the lost sheep and then gathers his friends for a party to celebrate finding the one that was lost.
A woman with 10 coins loses one and conducts an extensive search to find the missing coin. When she finds it, she gathers her friends for a party to celebrate finding the lost coin.
In the parable we look at today, Jesus is even more clear. As we read it, Jesus puts Himself in the role of the loving father. The religious leaders who don’t like Jesus hanging out with sinners are the resentful elder brother. Here’s how the story begins:
Luke 15:11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
Luke 15:17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” ’
At first, this story is hard to relate to. Most inheritances don’t come early. There are private business owners who turn over their company to their dependants while still alive. Some parents begin turning over their assets to their children before dying. For the most part, and for the majority of people, the inheritance comes at the death of the parents.
But beyond the financial transaction, we may not immediately relate to the attitude of this punk asking for his share. This is disrespectful and rude. He wants to take the money and split town. He has no desire for a relationship with his dad. He wants the cash, and he wants to take off and live life his own way. It’s surprising to us that the father would do it. Both boys receive their inheritance.
But there’s a side to this story that we readily understand. The younger son’s request epitomizes the depth of sin. Don’t you know people who treat God the way the younger son did? “God, I want what You can give me, but I don’t want You!” “I have no desire in a relationship, but I want the good stuff you can provide me.” “I want to profit from the blessings you can give me, but I’m not going to submit to your laws.” Do you know people who enjoy God’s creation but snub the Creator? Do you know people who want to go to heaven as long as it doesn’t involve submitting to God? More to the point - have you ever acted this way?
We’ll come back to the older son, but we can understand him as well. There are people who appear close to the father, but don’t share the heart of the father and are actually far away. It’s like to religions man or the church member who wants God’s blessing but doesn’t care about God’s name being honored. He doesn’t care about his brother, and he doesn’t care much for his father either!
Well, the young son goes off to live as he pleases. He takes the cash and starts partying! He doesn’t stop until it’s all gone.
Now he’s desperate, so he tries to get by hiring himself out. In the Greek, the word “hired” is “glued.” He’s at the end of his rope, and he’s clinging to whatever he can to keep from starving to death.
This is a serious problem in Jewish thinking. Look at the bottom half of page 39: Jesus subtly let the Jewish audience know that the boy was now working for Gentiles, those who did not know the one true God. He said that the boy was sent into the fields to feed pigs. Not only did the younger son start working for a foreigner, he was also actually feeding pigs—the most despised and unclean of animals for a Jew! The Jewish Talmud says, “Cursed be the man who breeds swine.” The Jews in Jesus’ audience must have bristled at such a terrible picture of this younger son’s sin and no doubt agreed with the son’s assessment that he was no longer worthy to be a son.
Here’s the point: Rebellion eventually leads people to squander away their lives. Once that happens, they are at the mercy of whatever they’ve glued themselves to. People attach themselves to drugs, alcohol, casinos, sex, music, TV, pornography. We become addicted to something or someone we think will provide hope, but instead, the addiction brings enslavement.
When he hits rock bottom, he comes to his senses. By rock bottom I mean there’s only two options: Die of malnourishment or return home. He realizes that while he’s craving the pigs food, the lowest of his fathers servants has plenty of food. He also realized that he is unworthy to be his father’s son!
He determined to go home. He prepares a speech in which he repents of his sin. He plans on living as a servant in his father’s house.
The crucial moment in the story comes as the son approaches his hometown. Jesus tells us the father saw his son while he was still a long way off. The boy was at the edge of town, ready to complete the final bit of this journey. The father had been watching diligently, hoping to see some glimpse of his son.
Principle Two: Like the father, God celebrates when a sinner returns to Him. (Luke 15:20-24)
Luke 15:20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
This son had had humiliated the father’s name and honor. He sold off his precious inheritance. He deserted the village. He had foolishly squandered all the money and then wound up glued to a pagan pig farmer. He made himself unclean. This son was a complete embarrassment!
So what does the father do? He didn’t spend this time sulking, being resentful or planning revenge. He didn’t worry about what the neighbors thought. He spent the time watching for his boy to return - hoping that they would enjoy a relationship of love.
When the kid shows up at the edge of town, the father runs to him! You’d expect the father to have his arms crossed and a scowl on his face. Or maybe he would sit in his study and act like he didn’t notice the boy arriving.
It’s important to know that In Middle Eastern culture, running was considered shameful. Remember what their clothing was like then? I read that an honorable man pulling up his robes and running down the road would be similar to you going out for a stroll in your boxers while your neighbors sipping coffee on their porches. A man of honor never did this around in public!
Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did for us? We’re the ones who have been eating pig food. We’re the ones who smell like manure and need a shower. We’re the ones who have acted shamefully and should be embarrassed. Jesus decided to humiliate himself! He takes all our shame and guilt. He becomes the one who is despised.
The son was not fully prepared for this moment. In verses 18-19, he had planned a speech. But now, as it’s time for him to give it, he realizes something. He acknowledged his sin, and that he was unworthy, but he skipped the part about no longer being a son.
The handbook helps us understand why in page 41: The son understood his unworthiness to be part of the family and receive such love. He recognized the weight and depth of his sin and the shame and agony that he put his father through. But now he was truly repentant! He no longer mentioned his plan to become a hired servant. He realized that the problem was never just about money, the inheritance, and all the squandered belongings. The true issue had always been the broken relationship, which had now been restored due to the father’s outrageous display of love and acceptance. The father had accepted the boy back as a son, not a servant, not a scoundrel, and not as an infidel.
The father treats this boy like a prince! There’s a robe and a ring. There’s a huge feast!
Remember - the setting for Jesus telling this story is that the religious leaders didn't like him hanging out with sinners - but in this story, we’re supposed to see the heart of God. The father is standing on his porch. He’s waiting and watching for his lost son. When he sees him, he runs toward his son, taking the shame of the community upon himself.
Consider Jesus. He willingly took the shame of Israel and the evil of the entire world upon His shoulders while nailed to a cross. The hate of humankind and the wrath of God fell upon Him as He took the shame and pain that we deserved.
Principle Three: Like the older son, some resent God’s grace and cling to religious observance. (Luke 15:25-32)
Finally, Jesus turned the focus back to the older son, who has not been mentioned since the beginning of the parable.
Luke 15:25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ ”
You'd expect that if there’s a party going on to celebrate a family member, the older son should join in. It’s simply the right thing to do. Instead, the older son stayed outside, choosing to murmur about the apparent unfairness of his father’s actions.
The father, treats the older son with the same love and compassion as the younger! He leaves his guests. He implores his son to change his mind and join the celebration.
These two sons represent two types of sin. Some people sin in outward rebellion like what we see in the younger son. Some people sin with inward bitterness concealed in the older son.
The gracious father responded to both his children with honor and love. The younger son fell with tears of repentance into his father’s arms.
The older son simply voiced a whiny complaint. He viewed his dad from a commercial perspective. He boasting about his faithful service. He spoke as if his father were only a boss to be obeyed. He was convinced he had been treated wrongly. The older son refused to call the younger son his “brother.” He said, “But when this son of yours came…”
The younger son learned the important lesson that part of repentance involves accepting that we are the father’s son. The older son failed to understand that repentance also means accepting the wayward brother as a true brother!
There are churchgoers who see sinners finding acceptance in the family of God and that irritates them!
Here’s what we see in this older brother: He was shocked and surprised at the return of his sinning brother. He was offended and jealous at the father’s celebration. He was angry at the father’s forgiving love. He declared his own self-righteousness. He focused on his brother’s sinfulness rather than his newfound repentance.
We call this the parable of the Prodigal Son. Our handbook calls it the Father of Two Lost Sons. When we remember the setting, the older son is just as important to the story as the younger.
In the younger son, we see a clear demonstration of how God treats and responds to the rebellious sinner who repents. It’s a beautiful picture of god’s grace and mercy.
In the older son, we see a rebuke of the religious leaders who are unhappy with Jesus. By picturing them as the older brother in the story, Jesus helps us understand some important principles. First: The offer of salvation is the offer of a close relationship with God. Of course Jesus is eating with sinners! Bringing sinners into fellowship is the whole point! Second, God’s grace is more generous than we can imagine. Third, God expects us to respond with joy at the salvation of sinners. Fourth, the transformation that takes place at conversion is profound. Fifth, at the foot of the cross, we are brothers, and despite our past and our failings, we are to treat each other that way.