This story is an emotional roller-coaster. In a matter of moments you experience a barrage of grief, anger, outrage, elation, back to irritation, compassion.
The mood swing that you experience is so incredible that there is a sense in which you don’t know if your tears are those of joy or sadness or outrage.
There’s no doubt that the pathos of the passage is so great because you find yourself in the story somewhere. You identify with one of the characters. And that is what Jesus specifically intended. He designed it for that very purpose.
But we should not miss the main element of the story. The story turns on one figure. And really, it wouldn’t have the effect that it does if it were not for the father figure in the story. And that is where your attention needs to be focused.
That is why I think the parable has the wrong heading (at least in my Bible). The parable is typically known as the Lost Son (or the Prodigal Son). A better title would probably be the parable of the Lost Sons because, in reality, the story is about two sons who are estranged.
But even that doesn’t really get at what is really the central focus of the story. Perhaps a better name for it would be the parable of the Loving Father.
Tim Keller has written a book which is aptly called, “Prodigal God.” It’s an attention grabber, for sure. After all, it is the younger son that is the prodigal. He’s the one who squanders all his goods on reckless living.
But the word Prodigal means reckless, or wasteful. And Keller makes the point that the father figure’s love is so extravagant that it is almost seems wasteful and reckless. And it kind of has to be, if he is going to love sinners such as us.
This morning, I want us to consider the three sons in this story so that we might just how great our Heavenly Father’s love really is. .
We begin to see the depth of the father’s love as we look at his dealings with the younger son.
I. The Father’s great love, as it is witnessed in the younger son
And indeed, there is no missing how grand his love is. The story commences with this boy saying to his father, “Show me the money.” He asks for his inheritance. Then after a couple of days, perhaps waiting long enough to liquidate his assets and turn it all into cash, he hits the road.
Some scholars make a big deal out of his asking for the inheritance. They say that this was his way of saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” Others downplay the idea because it was common back in those days for the family patriarch to doll out the inheritance before he died.
But one thing we can say is that the son was estranged from his father. And his life was given over to a hedonistic glut. He went away and squandered it all in reckless living. He was living for the moment without any consideration of his Father or His wishes.
Everybody sitting around Jesus knew exactly who he was talking about. This boy represents all the sinners who were gathered there. And perhaps even some of you may identify. You’ve taken your leave of the Lord. You’ve disavowed his authority over you and have given no heed to his commands. And you’ve sought to live a life of independence and self indulgence. And perhaps, even like the prodigal, you found yourself sitting among pigs, wallowing in the folly of the lifestyle you’ve chosen.
Perhaps you’ve wondered if, after having lived this way, the Lord would ever receive you back? The answer is given to you in verses 17 and following. The son decides to return home. Why not just become one of the slaves in the household. That would be better than his present conditions. So he starts back and he resolves to confess his sins to his father and beg for his mercy.
But what does the father do? (Remember this is more about the Father’s love than it is about the son!) The old man hikes up his robes and runs out to meet him. He’s so elated at the child’s return that doesn’t care about what his neighbor’s might think. He casts off all protocols when it comes to how to act dignified. Over his shoulder he cries, “Get me a robe! Get me a ring! My boy is home!” He lavishes his love upon him as he embraces him and kisses him.
You’ll notice that He does not wait to have the boy clean up. You have to picture the boy bearing all the marks of his disgrace. Maybe he tried pressing the wrinkles out of his tattered clothes. Maybe he tried running his fingers through his hair to look a little more presentable. But nothing can disguise the filth that still clings to him. The father grabs him, despite his wretched state.
Years ago we would go and visit my grandmother. And if the wind was blowing the wrong way, we could catch the rather strong aroma that wafted over from the pig farm that was located just a couple miles down the road. If your nostrils have never had the pleasure of sniffing the delights of a pig sty, let me just say, “There’s a reason why they were considered to be unclean animals.” It is one of the foulest smells you can ever experience.
The boy here could not have been in the least bit appealing to his father. But that didn’t stop his father from wrapping his arms around him and planting his lips upon his face.
That is how great the Father’s love is.
You may be estranged from the Father right now. There may be no end to how foul your sins may be. But you must know that such things do not keep the Lord from receiving you as one of his children. The Lord loves sinners and if you turn to him he will pardon all that you have done.
The Lord assures you of this by affirming his love, and giving you and indication of how great that love really is.
But you’ll notice that the story does not end there. The story goes on in verses 25-32 to talk about the older brother’s reaction to all this. And in these verses you have another opportunity to witness the depth of the Father’s love.
II. The Father’s great love, as it is witnessed in the older son
The older son, of course, represents the Pharisees and the scribes. Here you have guys who were “good people.” All their lives they had sought to be faithful to the Father. They have been obedient, never even asking for a goat.
But you see something of the heart. Outwardly there has been compliance. But here the inward attitude slips out. The older son is outraged that such extravagance is being displayed towards his younger brother. All this singing and dancing! The guy is a male whore! He’s so indignant that he will not even go near the house.
But notice how the father’s love is displayed. He goes out to him. He could have sent a servant to the son and demanded that he come. That was his right as the head of house. But he accommodates his son so as not to further offend him. And rather than yelling at him and reprimanding him for how foolish he is being, in verse 28 it says that he “entreated him.” To entreat someone is to gently coax them. It’s kind of like the father is pleading (almost begging!) him to come in.
Verse 29 tells us something of the resentment that the older son has. He says, “All these years I have served you; I’ve never disobeyed your command, yet you never even gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you throw a big party for him.”
Now, think for a minute about what is being communicated here. What is the older brother really saying? If you would summarize what he just said, how would you do it? Is he not saying, “That’s not fair!” He’s also saying, “You owe me! He doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment, but I do!”
Keep in mind that this represents a lot of us. It is typical of our attitude. I made the joke last time about these tax collectors and prostitutes representing democrats. But the older brother is your white, upper middle class, republican. He is your average evangelical or Reformed church goer. We are obeying. We are not living any scandalous life. Things look like they are (for the most part) all together. We are teaching Sunday School, we are leading worship, we are doing the homeschool thing—just like good Christian people should do. And deep down inside we think we are racking up points.
Even though all our life looks nice and tidy, in reality our hearts might not be set aright. Even though we are right here on the farm, or in the church, we very well may be just as far away from the Lord as the younger brother was.
Notice then how the Father responds. (Remember, that’s to be the real focus)
He even begins his speech by calling him, “son.” It was his way of affirming his love for the man. In other words, He’s saying, “You are not my slave. I don’t deal with you on the basis of your performance. I deal with you on the basis of what you are in relation to me. I deal with you on the basis of the covenant I have with you.” And he sweetly reasons with him, saying, “It is fitting to celebrate. Don’t you understand that this is a time for merriment because he was lost, and now he is found! He was dead, but now he is alive!”
Notice the love here. We often think that the Pharisees were Jesus’ primary enemies. And, yes, they were. But in all his dealings with them, he still loved them. Even though he might have dealt harshly with them at times, that didn’t mean that he hated them. Always and at all times he was reaching out to them. He was calling them to repentance and extending even to them the offer of salvation.
And here, the Pharisees and scribes would have identified with the older brother. And they understood that Jesus was extending an olive branch to them. “Please, won’t you join us? There is joy to be had. There is a celebration within these doors, will you not accept me and my offer? Will you stop thinking about yourself and how good you’ve been and start delighting in how gracious I am?”
You will notice that that is where the parable leaves off. It doesn’t give us the end of the story. You are left wondering, “What does he do? Does he come in or does he just keep on pouting?” I think that was purposeful. It was Jesus’ way of saying, “The ball is in your court.”
When I was growing up, there were a series of books that were very popular. They were called, “Choose your own adventure” books. When you got so far into the book, the author would give you options from which to choose. You could either open this door, or you could keep running down the hallway. And if you chose to open the door, then you would have to turn to a certain page to find out what happens.
That’s essentially what is happening here. You get to choose your own adventure. The question Jesus asks is, “Are you going to join us? Will you continue to hold a grudge against God? Or will you come to the grand celebration and glory in the bounty of his grace?
I once heard a man preach on this passage, and he did a great job concluding his message that way. He left it with a real cliffhanger.
But I don’t feel I can do that. No matter how important it is for you to feel the weight of what Christ says here, I feel that the message cannot be concluded without having properly considered the last son.
Perhaps you thought I misspoke earlier when I said there were three sons in this passage. But I did not. There are three sons here. The love of the father is seen in how he deals with the younger brother. His love is displayed in how he deals with the older brother. But we must not forget that the one who tells the story is the Eternal Son. And the love of the Father is most clearly expressed in him.
III. The Father’s great love, as it is witnessed in the eternal Son
The story of the lost sons has to be kept within the larger narrative of the gospel. As Jesus tells this story of two estranged sons, you have to keep in mind that he himself was estranged from His Father.
There could perhaps be no better text for the beginning of advent season. Because this passage reminds us that our Heavenly Father lost a Son. Jesus had existed in the bosom of the Father from all eternity. But when the time had fully come He came down to earth and he was estranged from the Father.
You all know the verse so well that tells you of the love that the Father had. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him will have eternal life.”
When you hear that exacerbated cry on the cross, “My Father, My Father, why have you forsaken me?” You need to hear the echoing pain of the Father who is turning his back on his own son!
There is that story in the Old Testament where King David’s son, Absalom, turns on him. He seeks to usurp the crown. After a series of events, Absalom ends up dying. Despite all the evil that he did, at the end of the story David weeps over his son. He cries, “Absalom, Absalom, My son. My son Absalom.” No matter what evil was done, David loved his son. And the loss was altogether unbearable.
There is nothing easy about losing a son. And the grief that the Father must have had over the loss of His Son, cannot be fully grasped.
Yet he did it for you. He did it so that he might have a relationship with a sinner like you—so that you might be called His son.
This whole story started out with the preposterous notion: he receives sinners? In response Jesus gives a resounding, “YES!” The only question left to answer is, “How will you respond?”
Kindled Fire is dedicated
to the preaching and teaching ministry of
Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.