Luke15v11to32: THE PARABLE OF THE PRODIGAL SON
(A) Introduction. Read: Luke15v11to32
The Parable of the Prodigal Son - along with the other two in the chapter - was prompted by the Pharisees disgust at the company Jesus kept. They muttered among themselves: "This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them." v2. The Pharisees believed God rejected and punished sinners. It was only people like themselves who kept the Law, at least outwardly, whom God welcomed and rewarded.
The Parable of the Lost Son is different from the other two parables in the series because it recognises that the lost have some part to play in their redemption.
Jesus tells the story of the two sons with incredible expertise. Every phrase contributes to the power of the parable. Above all it is a masterly, moving and amazing account of the almost incredible love God has for sinners.
(B) The younger son; the rebel who leaves home.
(1) He was a poor son.
The younger boy was a poor son in at least four ways:
(a) He wished his father was dead. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' v12.
When the father died the younger son would inherit one third of the estate. But he couldn't wait. He wanted his share NOW. He was much more attached to what his father had provided for him than to his father personally. When he was given what he wanted his father was as good as dead but that didn't concern the prodigal!
(b) He wanted to get away from home. Not long after that, the youngest son got together all he had, set off for a distant country.
Perhaps the prodigal found the company of his brother oppressive! Older brothers can be bossy and domineering - so my three younger brothers claim! Nonetheless the younger son also left his loving father who was clearly far from difficult to live with!
The prodigal wanted independence, freedom and a good time. He thought it would be a lot easier to enjoy himself far from home where he wouldn't have to worry about what anyone thought and nobody would tell tales to dad. He would be free from criticism from his older brother and nosey neighbours. It is always a dangerous time when youngsters leave a Christian home to attend college or start a new job.
(c) He squandered his inheritance. .....and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
He was not the first nor the last rich young man to do this. It was a case of easy come, easy go. The younger son was reckless - living as if there was no tomorrow. He shared the philosophy of those who say, "You only live once - enjoy!" The fact is, the prodigal was incredibly immature, stupid and crazy. He was wasting what his father had worked years to provide for him - wasting his substance in riotous living. The younger son was careering, out of control, downhill fast. It would all end in tears!
(d) He didn't care how his father felt. He was utterly selfish. The prodigal's attitude is summed up by the words, "Give me my share."
The prodigal didn't love his father. He was unconcerned by the distress he would cause his father - the tears that he would shed. The younger son was preoccupied with his own happiness. The boy was dead rotten selfish. He disgusts me - as do many young people who get into destructive relationships, take drugs and thieve, or worse, to feed their habit - to the unutterable misery of loving parents.
How different was the parting of the missionary John Paton from his dear father when he set off for his work in the South Pacific. He describes the journey he and his father had together and their farewell in these words:
My father's counsel and tears and heavenly conversation on that parting journey are fresh in my heart as if it had been but yesterday; and tears are on my cheeks as freely now as then, whenever memory steals me away to the scene. His tears fell fast when our eyes met each other in looks for which all speech was vain! He grasped my hand firmly for a minute in silence, and then solemnly said: "God bless you, my son! Your father's God prosper you, and keep you from all evil!" Unable to say more, his lips kept moving in silent prayer; in tears we embraced, and parted. I ran off as fast as I could; and, when about to turn a corner in the road where he would lose sight of me, I looked back and saw him still standing with head uncovered where I had left him gazing after me. Waving my hat in adieu, I was round the corner and out of sight in an instant. But my heart was too full and sore to carry me further, so I darted into the side of the road and wept for a time. Rising up cautiously, I climbed the dyke to see if he yet stood where I had left him; and just at that moment I caught a glimpse of him climbing the dyke and looking out for me! He did not see me, and after he had gazed eagerly in my direction for a while he got down, set his face towards home, and began to return, his head still uncovered, and his heart, I felt sure, still rising in prayers for me. I watched through blinding tears, till his form faded from my gaze; and then, hastening on my way, vowed deeply and oft, by the help of God, to live and act so as never to grieve or dishonour such a father and mother as He had given me. The appearance of my father when we parted has often through life risen vividly before my mind, and does so now as if it had been but an hour ago. In my earlier years particularly, when exposed to many temptations, his parting form rose before me as that of a guardian Angel. It is no pharisaism, but deep gratitude, which makes me here testify that the memory of that scene not only helped to keep me pure from the prevailing sins, but also stimulated me in all my studies, that I might not fall short of his hopes, and in all my Christian duties, that I might faithfully follow his shining example.
There are a great many like the younger son - who:
(a) Wish God dead. By far the largest proportion of militant atheists don't want God to exist. They hate the very idea that there is a Creator with a far greater intellect than theirs! They want to expunge every reference to God and reminder of God. The strident secularists take all God has given while wishing to remove all reference to him in public life.
(b) Want to get as far away from God as possible. Even those who wouldn't deny God's existence want to have as little to do with him as possible. They keep God at arm's length. The last thing that most people in England want is for God to interfere in their lives. They certainly don't want him to stop them enjoying themselves.
(c) Squander what God has given them; they waste their time, talents and wealth. People in Britain have never had so much - and yet so little of God's bounty is used to serve him - the giver of every good and perfect gift.
(d) Don't care how God feels about them. Heedless millions never consider how God feels about their selfish, reckless, heartless lifestyle. They have no love for their Maker. I can imagine the angels in heaven looking down on this sad, sick world and wondering why God cares so much!
(2) The redemptive process.
(a) In want. " .... he began to be in want (need).
The prodigal eventually found himself in want of:
(b) An outbreak of realism. When he came to his senses, he said, "How many of my Father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father ... ." v17and18.
(c) The plan.
The younger son had a plan. He decides to go home and tell his father what to do: "Make me like one of your hired men." v19. He is still prepared to order his father about!!
There is no doubt that the prodigal's return was motivated by self-interest. He didn't return home because he loved his father and was sorry that he had treated him so badly. He is going home to get a decent meal!
I have to say there is still not much to like about the prodigal. His motivation for returning home is hardly admirable!
But there are four hopeful signs:
Many lost souls follow the same route back to God as the prodigal:
There are numerous testimonies on the internet that illustrate how often sinner's follow the prodigals route to redemption. For example read Daisy's testimony at: Wordsof testimony. Daisy's life spiralled out of control through drug addiction. There is no doubt she hurt a lot of people and her conduct must have pained God. She writes of her conversion:
The night I remember most vividly was when there was a move of God in the service. I saw Bro. Michael (who is now my boyfriend) praising God with this huge smile on his face. I said, “God, I want joy like that.” I finally started wanting to change, but I wanted it to be real. I told God, “I don’t want something that’s based on emotion, I need something that’s real. If you’re willing to forgive me, take me back, and give me another chance, I need you to change me completely.” And, He did.
Reading Daisy's words I am struck by how like the prodigal she is. She is motivated by self-interest. Daisy seems to be taking a lot for granted! She is telling God what to do - as if he is under any obligation whatsoever to help her!! Daisy is hardly likeable - you would think it was scarcely worth God's bother to save her! This is a very important point - one we often overlook - because we greatly underestimate God's surpassing grace. In our heart of hearts we do believe we are worth saving!
(C) The older son - the rebel who never left home.
(1) He was a poor son too!
He was a poor son in at least four ways:
(a) He did not communicate with his father. The older son did not feel able to confide in his father. His relationship with him was to say the least very uneasy. When he came from the fields back to the house and heard revelry he didn't go and find his father to find out what was going on - he called a servant instead. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.
When his father does come out to him the older son complains: "Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends." v19. I don't expect he had ever asked his father to put on a party for his friends. He probably didn't have many! He seems unaware of his father's generous nature. He certainly wasn't very generous himself. The older brother was not short of goats to barbeque for such friends as he had.
(b) He knew better than his father. It is plain that the older brother did not think the prodigal was worth all the fuss. He thought his father was wrong to celebrate and so he became angry and refused to go in. Furthermore he accuses his father of not appreciating him. He said: "Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders." v29.
The older son was determined to put his father in the wrong. Who did he think he was? He treats his father with singular lack of respect.
(c) The older son was ungrateful. He appears to have forgotten that when his younger brother came into his inheritance he also came into his. Jesus tells us: So he divided his property between them. v12. All that the older son had he owed to the father.
(d) The older boy was out of sympathy with his father. He no more loved his father than did the prodigal. If he had he would have realised how his father missed his brother. Even Joseph's brothers knew that if Benjamin did not return home from Egypt to his father it would break old Jacob's heart. So Judah said to Joseph: "Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord's slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come upon my father." Gen44v33and34.
The older brother did not care about the father's heartache for the prodigal - the tears he shed and the prayers he made for his safe return. It is highly likely that the older son was in part responsible for his younger brother leaving home with his hard, self-righteous, mercenary, legalistic attitude.
(2) The redemptive process.
(a) The older son, whether he knew it or not, was in want of:
(b) The father's initiative. So his father went out and pleaded with him.
The old father graciously takes the initiative. He leaves the party to give his churlish older son a word of:
There are plenty of religious people who attend church who are like the older brother. Jesus was likening the ultra religious Pharisees to the elder brother. They believed in God, kept his Law and frequented both the temple and the synagogues. So some church goers:
(a) Don't have a very good relationship with God. They emphasise the need to fear God and find it difficult to pray to him as a loving heavenly father. 'Thees and Thous' are used in public prayer as if God is some 17th century deity. As for Jesus and Paul calling God, 'Abba' or 'Daddy,' well, that's just too embarrassing.
Highly legalistic, nominal Christians often seem to know better than God. I have mentioned my old friend Jack Finch before in my expositions. He wasn't without good qualities but he definitely thought that God was falling down on the job. He would often say to me as I took him to church, "If only God would put me in charge for a day - I would show them." Jack was all for smiting the Philistines! Thankfully for everyone, not least me, Jack never had his wish. He was not aware just how much forbearance God showed in not smiting him!
A critical, mean spirit does not sit comfortably with total dependence upon God's grace. If we are what we are only by the grace of God it ill behoves us to be lacking grace to others.
Nominal Christians who resemble the elder brother very rarely have a concern for lost souls. They do not share God's passion for their salvation. Legalistic believers are of the view that sinners on the road to perdition have only themselves to blame.
Lost souls who have been saved are not always warmly welcomed into the church - especially if they bring many of their worldly problems in with them. It is possible for long established Christians to become resentful of the time and energy the church leadership puts into dealing with new converts. They can react very much like the elder brother if they feel neglected by their pastor! See story told by Hugh Redwood.
(b) Are in want.
Christian service has become a chore, church attendance a habit and religious observance a loveless insurance against hell. There is no pleasure in pleasing Jesus and little real joy in the Lord. I have heard these sorts of Christians claim joy - but it is a deep, deep, deep down joy. It is so deep down I never saw any evidence of it whatsoever.
In his book, 'What's So Amazing About Grace,' Philip Yancey quotes Henri Nouwen who knew what it was to be like the older brother:
I know, from my own life, how diligently I have tried to be good, acceptable, likable, and a worthy example for others. There was always the conscious effort to avoid the pitfalls of sin and the constant fear of giving in to temptation. But with all of that there came a seriousness, a moralistic intensity - and even a touch of fanaticism - that made it increasingly difficult to feel at home in my Father's house. I became less, free, less spontaneous, less playful .....
This is a very clear statement of the position of the better sort of older brother!
(c) Need God to take the initiative.
If we are true Christian albeit stiff and starchy, prim and proper, legalistic and joyless ones there is plenty in God's word to:
(D) The loving Father.
(1) The father's love.
Jesus parable is a truly wonderful celebration of the incomparable and almost unbelievable love of God. The father's love was:
(a) Unmerited. Neither of the two sons is likable let alone lovable! Neither son deserved the father's love.
The prodigal didn't deserve it because by his actions he brought shame on his father. He sold part of the family estate and cleared off. The younger son could not have shown more contempt for his father if he had tried. But for his father's intervention the community would probably have broken off all relations with him. As we have seen, his return home was motivated more by self-interest than any concern for the father. Even his repentance was unconvincing.
The older son possessed many unlovely traits - like the legalistic Pharisees. He was hard, judgemental, proud, stubborn and churlish. He served his father in a grudging spirit without appearing to recognise what he owed him. The older son disliked his wayward brother and didn't want anything to do with him. He was quite an unpleasant character - lacking grace. He deserved to be ignored by his father - left out in the cold - but he wasn't.
The love God has for us is totally unmerited. We are no more likeable than those two brothers. If you could see me as God sees me - with all my faults - you wouldn't like me very much.
(b) Impartial. The father loved both his boys. So he divided his property between them. He also took steps to improve his relationship with both sons. He certainly did not love one more than the other.
It is hard to believe, but none the less true, that Jesus loves sinners in the church as much as sinners in the world. He wasn't only the friend of publicans and sinners - but of the Pharisees too. He no more shunned the company of Simon the Pharisee than he did that of Zacchaeus.
(c) Intelligent. The father gave each son what he needed:
The prodigal. There is something abandoned, extravagant - profligate - about the father's love for his wayward son. Every day the father looks out for his younger son. When he sees that dejected figure stumbling home he casts aside his dignity and with joyous abandon runs to meet him, throws his arms around the shabby, dusty derelict and kisses him. Such love! Once the prodigal is in the house the father gathers his servants and as a matter of urgency calls for the best robe to replace his son's rags, sandals for his bare feet and a ring for his long ring-less finger. What extravagant love for the down-at-heel, defeated, destitute, useless, spendthrift son who had been such a sorrow to his father. Such love! But more is to come! The father orders a celebratory feast. The fatted calf is slain - the wine flows - the whole household is in uproar. Such love - such profligate, 'over the top' love!
This is the love the prodigal needs to feel accepted and to restore his self respect and sense of worth. However, there is nothing calculating about the father's love. It is an expression of what he genuinely feels for his son. That is what makes it so amazing.
Many stories are told to reinforce the startling message of Jesus' parable - although in truth none quite measures up to the parable itself! Edward Markquart - former pastor at the First Lutheran Church in Seattle - had this to say in his sermon on the Parable of the Prodigal Son:
My favourite story about the waiting father is the old classic sermon illustration. I would like to share this old favourite story with you. The young son had gone to San Francisco. He was out of money, out of friends, out of options. He had hit the bottom and was at wits ends. This lost son wrote a letter home to his parents living in the Seattle area. He wrote, “Dear Mom and Dad, I have sinned deeply against you. I have sinned against you and I have sinned against God and I am not worthy to be called your son. There is no reason for you to love me or welcome me back home. I am at the bottom of the barrel and I need to come back home. I hope that you would welcome me. I have been given a ticket for a train, a ticket to get me back to Seattle. The train comes past our farm south of Seattle. The train comes around the bend and right past our farmhouse. If you want me to come home, please put a white towel on the clothesline, out in the back yard near the tracks. I will then know that you want me to come back home. If there is no towel there, I understand. I will understand that it is not right for me to come back home.” The young man sent the letter, got on the train, and started heading north. As he came closer and closer to home, he became more nervous inside and was pacing up and down the centre aisle of the train. As the train came closer and closer to his farmhouse, he couldn’t bear it anymore. He was momentarily sitting next to a man, and he said to him, “Sir, around this next corner, this next bend, there is going to be a farm house of the left. A white house. An old red barn behind it. A dilapidated fence. There will be a clothesline in the back yard. Would you do me a favour and look and see if there is a white towel hanging on the clothesline? I know it sounds peculiar, but I can’t bear to look.” Well, the train came closer and closer to the bend and started to go around the bend, and the young man’s heart was racing as fast as it could. The man said, “Look, look, look. Open your eyes.” The whole clothesline was covered with white towels. The oak trees were covered with white sheets. The barn roof was covered with sheets. The old dilapidated fence was covered with white sheets. There were sheets everywhere. The father and mother so deeply wanted their son to come back home.
Jesus' parable about the loving father tells us how God welcomes every sinner home -however depraved and destitute. It tells us something about God's vulnerability. The God of Jesus' parable is far removed from the Calvinistic God who has everything cut and dried before the foundation of the world. There would be no outpouring of emotion if the return of the prodigal was inevitable!
What love God has for us!
The older brother. He, too, undeserving though he was, received a tender expression of his father's love. What condescension the old father showed - going out to plead with him.
The father deals with his hard, censorious, unlikeable older son gently and tenderly. He soothes his fears, repairs his damaged ego and encourages him to rejoice that his lost brother is found.
Jesus does not tell us the outcome of the father's efforts on behalf of his older son. We don't know whether he repented of his self-righteous, legalistic attitude and went into the feast. But we do know that several Pharisees believed in Jesus - the two most notable examples being Nicodemus and Saul of Tarsus. Luke indicates in Acts 15 that former Pharisees were represented at the Counsel of Jerusalem and although Christians still retained some of their legalistic attitudes.
Young people brought up in Christian homes can identify strongly with the elder brother. I did. I can remember getting upset with my uncle Steven for condemning the older son in one of his Good Friday messages. I never strayed far from God! I attended church three times on a Sunday, knew my Bible, didn't swear, gamble, drink alcohol, smoke or engage in pre-marital sex! It took me some time to realise that I needed to be saved as much as the distant prodigal.
I read recently the testimony of young women whose upbringing was very similar to mine. There came a point in her life where she realised it didn't really matter that she could recite the books of the Bible off by heart or that she knew the answers to all the Sunday school questions: she needed God to have mercy on her. She needed to be saved.
Yet it is not easy for those like the older brother to repent. Henri Nouwen confessed: The more I reflect on the elder son in me, the more I realize how deeply rooted this form of lostness really is and how hard it is to return home from there. Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being.
Still, I am inclined to believe that if the older brother did repent it would be easier for him to remain close to the father than the prodigal. The younger son returned home destitute but not without some damaging baggage!
(2) The father's joy.
We should never forget the central theme of all three of Jesus' parables about the lost. The father was full of joy that his son who was lost was found; he who was dead was alive again. The father's joy was uninhibited, exuberant, unashamed and unselfish. He was glad for his boy's sake.
There isn't an hour that passes that God does not rejoice over a sinner who repents and believes in Jesus for salvation and newness of life. So many sinners are returning home - such joy for God. Heaven must be a merry place!
(3) The father's disappointment.
There is no doubt that the father was disappointed that the legalistic older brother did not share his joy over the return of the prodigal. Maybe the older son was too often in the far country in his desires and imagination.
God is disappointed with every Christian who forgets what they owe to grace, who are unwilling to show grace to others and lack the love and joy that accompanies it.
God's commitment to the lost makes him vulnerable. He experiences disappointment, sorrow and pain. But he experiences, too, the most intense joy in welcoming many sons and daughters home. Christians should in some small measure share both God's sadness and his gladness.