March 10, 2013 - Luke 15.1-3, 11-32

“The Prodigal God”

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

March 10, 2013

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”3So he told them this parable: 11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate. 25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’


It is a great mistake to think that this is a story about just one son.  It is a story about 2 sons.  We are meant to compare and contrast them.  If we don’t compare and contrast them, we miss the radical story that Jesus is leading us to.


This parable undermines the existing paradigms that we have for understanding our relationship with God.


“A Man had two sons…” it begins.  The younger son demands his share of the inheritance.  The original listeners would have been amazed at such a request.  His demand was both disrespectful and irregular.  He was breaking the family ties and treating his father as if he were dead, or that he wished he were dead.  But as surprising as the younger son’s request is, the father’s response is even more surprising.  The father’s response – he divided his life – bios – between them.  He is left with 2 thirds of the estate.


The younger son wants the Father’s things, but not the Father.  He wants the money, the prestige, the material goods – but not the Father and not the Father’s heart. 


Son squanders his fortune in idolatrous living – debauched living – the word here refers specifically to drunkenness, prostitution, carousing, rebelliousness, etc.  The famine only quickened his impoverishment.  All in a gentile land.


For a Jewish man, his fall was complete and total.  He longed to take the place of a pig.  He had reaped the fruit of his foolishness.  But it is here that the younger son’s return begins.  It is in the mire of the swine pen that he comes to himself.  It is here that he realizes what he has done.  He knows that even his father’s slaves have enough to eat.


He rehearses his speech.  “Father, I have sinned against heaven and you.  I am not worthy to be called your son.  Treat me like one of your hired hands.”  He wants to make amends – to pay the Father back.  Makes his way home, rehearsing his speech.  It is important to know that he is not just seeking to improve his circumstances; he realizes that he has sinned against his father and against God.  His journey begins with this realization.  Joachim Jeremias says “Repentance means learning to say “Abba” again, putting one’s whole trust in the heavenly Father, returning to the Father’s house and the father’s arms.”


What occurs next is one of the best word pictures in scripture.  Nothing else comes as close to describing the character of God as does the image that Jesus paints for us of the waiting Father.  Longing for his son’s return, he is peering down the road when he sees a figure, and he realizes that it is his lost son.  In ancient Palestine, it was regarded as unbecoming – a real loss of dignity – for a grown man to run.  It just was not done.  But the Father doesn’t care about any of that – he sees his son returning – and he RUNS to meet him.  The old man RUNS.  He might have said later, “Dignity Schmignity, my son is alive!”  But he didn’t even think that much when he sees him.  His response is immediate. 


Son starts his speech but doesn’t even get to say it.  He is interrupted.  The son does not even make it to the house.  Father evidentially isn’t listening.  Robe, ring, sandals and fatted calf.  It’s a party!  It’s like a scene from a Robert Altman film where everyone is talking over everyone.  The father has responded even before the son can get a single word out of his mouth.  The father is not going to allow the son to earn his way back – he brings his son back.  The picture is one of sheer grace.  By sheer grace, the Father confers sonship upon his younger sons again.  There is no penance required – it is enough that the son has come home.


Some people are like the younger son.  They want the things that God provides, but they don’t want God.  They want their independence, they want to choose their own path, and they believe that will be enough for them.  And some of them decide to go home.  And because the Father in the parable represents God, we are being told something radical.  No matter who you are, no matter what you have done, if you come home, God will accept you and God will love you – just as you are.  All of us are like the younger son at first when we come to God.  We know we are sinners and we want to earn our way back, and God will have none of it.  He makes us sons through Jesus and we are accepted because of God’s love – not what we are.


This scene of the reunited father and son would make a great ending to a great movie.  Everything appears to be back to normal.  The family appears to be reunited, right?  But our story is not done.  There is one character in the story left, and we have not heard from him.  He has not learned that the younger brother has been found.


Almost always, this story is thought of in the most sentimental terms.  We hear of this awesome love reuniting father and son and we weep.  But the original listeners, the Pharisees and the tax collectors and sinners, they were not weeping.  They were thunderstruck.  They were offended.  Jesus’ purpose in telling this story was not to give us a sentimental message about God accepting us, but was to say this: everything you have ever heard and everything you have ever thought about how to approach God IS WRONG.


So Jesus continues.  The older brother is in the field.  He hears music and dancing.  He calls a servant over and asks what is going on.  He is informed that “your brother has come home, your father has killed the fatted calf and there is a feast.”  The elder brother was furious.  It is now his turn to assault the family.  By not going in, he is saying that he will not be a part of this family.  This forces the father to come out and plead with the older brother.


Look at what the elder son says.  For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”  Notice that he says “This son of yours,” not “this brother of mine,” not even “your son” thereby excluding himself from the family.  He will not acknowledge any relation.  I am not related to this family if this is how it’s going to be.


The elder brother is furious, but he is particularly angry about the expense.  Meat was a delicacy, especially the fattened calf.


This is the greatest day in the Father’s life.  But the elder brother doesn’t care.  All he sees is his father using up his inheritance in a way he doesn’t approve of.  He is squandering all his birthright on this frivolous feast. 


So what does this elder brother care about?  The elder brother cares about the father’s things, but he doesn’t really care about the father.  He cares about the estate, the expense.  He cares about the father’s things, but he doesn’t care about the father’s heart.


When he goes out to plead with the elder son, the father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” And that is the literal truth.  Everything else they had was spent.  It was all gone except for what was left for the elder son and his inheritance.  His is the only heir.  Is it any wonder that all the elder son can see is his share diminishing as a result of this feast being thrown for his sinful, wayward brother?  He has done it again.


So how does the father respond?  “My son, I still want you in the feast.”  And then we are left with a cliffhanger.  Just as we are on the edge of our seats, just as we are waiting to see if the family will be reunited - Jesus ends the story there, with the father and the elder son standing in the field.  Ends it right there.  What is Jesus trying to tell us by ending the story this way?


Part of Jesus’ genius as a storyteller is that in the first half of the story we get a very traditional picture of sin. Young brat insults his father and family, wastes money, prostitutes and the like.  Yep, it’s right there.  We recognize that as sin.


But when we get to the second part, Jesus has completely turned the tables.  What we see now is two sons, one good and one bad.  But both have been alienated from the Father. They both want the Father’s things, but not the Father. They both have been using the Father to get the things they really love.  But one has been doing it by being very bad, and the other has been doing it by being very good. 


Why does the elder brother not go into the feast?  He tells us.  “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command.” There it is.  “That’s the reason I am mad, that’s the reason I won’t go in.”  In other words, the thing that is keeping him from the father is the elder brother’s goodness, or righteousness that will not let him go in to the feast.


The younger brother is trying to get control by leaving and disobeying.  But the elder brother is trying to get control by staying and obeying.  The younger brother is trying to get control of the father’s things by breaking all the rules.  But the elder brother is trying to get control of the father’s things by being legalistic and keeping all the rules.  And Jesus is saying this:  They are both lost.  They are both without a relationship to the Father.  And they are both alienated from God.  So there are 2 kinds of “lostness.”  You can escape God just as much through self-righteousness, morality and religion just as much as you can through unrighteousness, immorality and irreligion.


There are a lot of Christians with an elder brother type of heart.  If in your heart of hearts you say, “I try very hard, I live a good life, I keep all the rules, I go to church, I pray, I try to serve Jesus and therefore God, you owe it to me to answer my prayers, give me a good life, and when I die to take me to heaven.”  If that is the language of your heart, then Jesus is your model, he is your example, he is your boss, but he is not your savior.  You are seeking to be your own savior.  All of your morality, all of your religion is really just a way to get from God what you want.  And they are not God himself.  This is called self- idolatry, and it is a sin. 


Elder brothers obey to get things from God, and if those things don’t materialize, elder brothers get very angry.  They will not rejoice, they will not come into the feast.  They refuse to be a part of the family if their demands are not met.  But gospel Christians obey God just to get God.  Just to love God. 


So the end of this parable has the sinful younger brother coming into the house to be saved and the elder brother refusing to come in and be saved.  The original listeners knew exactly what he was saying.  And it is the complete reversal of everything that they have ever been taught.  The lover of prostitutes is saved and the man of good moral standing is lost.


Most of us think that God wants good people.  Nope.  God wants new people.  We like to think that the good are saved and the bad are lost.  The truth is that they are both lost.  Jesus shows that even though they look different, underneath they are exactly the same.  We like to think that our sins are the only things we need to repent of, but Jesus shows us that we need to repent of the very reason we ever did anything good in the first place.


Remember the context of this teaching of Jesus.  There are 2 groups of people surrounding him: Tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees and teachers of the law.  The tax collectors and sinners are the younger son, and the Pharisees and religious leaders are like the elder brother.  These 2 sons represent these 2 groups of people.  Jesus does this so we can learn something about both groups.  Both groups have a way of trying to make the world work for them, and both groups are lost.  Both groups – both sons – are trying to be their own savior.  That will not work.


The gospel of Jesus Christ is neither morality nor immorality, it is neither religion nor irreligion, nor is it halfway in the middle.  It is something else entirely.  So whether we are a younger brother or an elder brother, each one of us needs to come home. 


Why would Jesus end the parable this way?  The elder brother and father are just standing out in the field.  There is no resolution.  What’s going to happen?  I think he does this because he wants us to see ourselves in the story.  Jesus wants us to see that we need something that is missing in our lives.  Jesus wants us to long for something.  Jesus wants us to seek something. Jesus wants us to hope for home, to long for our own place at the table of the Father’s feast.


So how do we come home?  We need three things.  1) We need the initiating love of God.  The father goes out to each of his sons.  God is seeking all of us before we ever find God.  2) Secondly, we need to repent not just of our sins, like the younger brother, but also for perhaps the reason we ever came to church in the first place, which was to earn the things of God by being good.  We must repent of our sins and our self-righteousness.  Only then can we know we have transferred our trust from ourselves to Jesus for our salvation.  3) Thirdly, we need to be “melted and moved”[1] by what it cost to bring us home. 


There are actually three parables in this chapter.  The first is one about a lost sheep.  The second is about a lost coin.  In the first, the shepherd goes out to seek the lost sheep.  In the second, a woman tears her house apart to find this lost coin.  But in this parable, no one goes after the younger brother when he becomes lost.  That is significant.  The original listeners would have known whose job it was to go after the younger brother.  It was the elder brother’s job.  He should have gone out and sought his lost brother, at whatever the cost.  But he didn’t.  He wasn’t a good elder brother.  He wasn’t going to spend whatever it took to find his lost brother.  Finding lost brothers is never free.  Someone has to pay.  The Restoration of the younger son is free – for the younger brother.  But it cost the elder son a great deal.


Jesus is our true elder brother.  In the story, the elder brother is a Pharisee, which is bad for the younger brother.  But we get Jesus.  And thank God for that, because Jesus came out to get us, and paid everything to do it.  Salvation is free for us, but it costs God everything.


The word Prodigal means “recklessly extravagant” or “having spent everything.”  This parable is most often called “The Prodigal Son” after the younger son’s ways of losing money.  However, it rightly ought to be called “The Prodigal God” because it is God that truly spends everything to get us to come home. 


Have you been moved and melted by what Jesus did to bring you home?  If you have, and if you see that, then you won’t rely on self-discovery or self-righteousness, you will be a true Christian.








[1] Keller, Timothy.  The Prodigal God: Finding Your Place at the Table, Zondervan Publishing.


  December 2017  
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