This morning I’d like to take our time together and examine what is largely perceived to be the world’s greatest short story… Jesus’ parable of The Prodigal Son recorded in Luke 15. This simple but beautifully dynamic tale of the tragic decisions of a wayward son, the loving heart of a father who graciously received him upon his return, and the pious actions of a bitter older brother is nothing shy of a brilliant stroke of storytelling.
Luke 15:11-13, “Then Jesus said: ‘A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So the father divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.”
To begin with, Jesus’ story opens with the introduction of three central characters: “A certain man” and his “two sons” (a younger and an older). What makes this interesting is the fact the title scholars have traditionally given to this parable (“The Prodigal Son”) is misleading.
Let’s start by looking at this younger son… Though we aren’t provided the reason for his request or what circumstances led to it, this younger son brazenly approaches his father and asks to be given his inheritance early. While there is no doubt this would have grieved his father and was abnormal, to say the least (the inheritance wasn’t normally given to the sons until the father had passed away), what’s happening wasn’t entirely uncustomary.
That said, after receiving his “portion of the goods,” it didn’t take long for this younger son to quickly head out of town revealing his true, underlying intentions. We’re told, “Not many days after, the younger son gathered all together” and “journeyed to a far country.” The idea behind this phrase “gathered all together” is that he liquidated all of his assets into cash.
Understand… The picture Jesus is painting to His audience is a young man who has completely rejected his father. He has no real interest in his birthright, no delight in his family's legacy or heritage. This request to receive the inheritance before his fathers passing was a means to an end. He wanted the freedom to start a life as far away from his father as possible - which is what’s implied by the idea of “journeying to a far country.”
Sadly for this young man, it didn’t take long upon arriving in such a country that he “waisted his possessions with prodigal living.” Once again, while it would appear this young man had simply squandered his inheritance, what Jesus is describing is a much more radical dynamic.
Upon arriving to this “far country” the young man adopted what we’d call a “prodigal lifestyle.” In the Greek this adverb we have translated as “prodigal” means to be “lax in morals.” In a sense this young man intentionally engaged in the opposite behavior he knew was right.
And notice what resulted… Jesus tells us he “waisted his possessions” or literally he “scattered his substance.” The great tragedy of this story is not that this young man ended up broke because of his behavior… The tragedy is that he ended up broken!
His “substance” or literally his “sub-stance” (the very thing upon which he’d once stood) - his core foundation had been slowly scattered and eroded with each rebellious decision. Because of his choices, this young man chose to operate in defiance to what he knew was true. He eventually found himself a shell of who he once was. This man had lost his way.
Luke 15:14-16, “But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.”
What a sad but expected turn of events… Did you notice that it was “when he had spent all” that “there arose a famine in that land?” It’s not an accident the very moment this young man had exhausted his resources and completely lost his way that a “famine” resulted.
We’re told, as a result, the young man “began to be in want.” His life was now empty, barren, fruitless. Everything that had at one point brought him satisfaction… Everything that had initially filled this new life with purpose… Everything that was making him happy dried up! He’s not only lost his way, but this “far country” has left him parched, thirsty, and wanting.
And if things couldn’t have gotten any worse what transpires next leaves Jesus’ audience in shock! This man not only preceded to “join himself to a citizen of that country,” but was “sent into the fields to feed swine!” As an unclean animal, the very thought of “feeding swine” was insulting to the Jewish sensibility. It was beyond degrading. It was offensive. Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse… They get terribly worse!
What Jesus is presenting to his audience was a young man who’s stubborn rebellion and rejection of his father had taken him to a place he never would have chosen. Not only was he broken, empty, and wanting, but everyone has completely bailed on him. Jesus simply says, “No one gave him anything.” This man is stuck alone in the muck of his own making.
Luke 15:17-20a, “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’ And he arose and came to his father…”
This phrase “when he came to himself” can be translated, “When he came to his senses.” In the depths of his sin… In this place of total want and brokenness… This young man awoke to a reality that had always existed. He was in this place because of his own choosing!
Though he’d treated his father as if he were dead to him and proceeded to squander the life he’d been given, he realizes his life didn’t have to remain in such a state. After all, his father wasn’t dead and the very home he was so quick to run from still remained!
It’s interesting but this young man, in such a depressing state, didn’t think about all of the strategies he could employ to improve his position in the pigpen. Instead, the mark of real sanity was his understanding he actually had a father and a home he could return too.
Notice the evolution in his thinking… First, he honestly compared his current situation (the fact he was “perishing with hunger”) with the environment he knew existed in his father’s home (even the “hired servants had bread enough to spare”). This man was finally willing to concede life with his father was far superior to life apart from his father.
Secondly, the young man was willing to admit that his present situation existed for one simple reason… He’d “sinned against heaven and before his father.” This prodigal wasn’t blaming his turn of circumstance or present situation on anyone other than himself. He’d acted the fool. His situation was the byproduct of his own rebellion. He was living in sin.
Third, it’s noteworthy that this young man didn’t possess any sense of entitlement. He knew there would be natural consequences for his actions. He’d rejected life with his father and then made a mess of the life his father had given him! He understood his unworthiness and true inadequacy. He even acknowledges he was “no longer worthy to be called a son.”
Fourth, it’s also evident his perspective and view of his father had completely changed. In the first exchange, the man commanded his father to “give him.” Now we find him willing to humbly ask his father to “make him.” The Prodigal Son has finally come to the point in his life where he’s willing to submit to the will and intentions of his father.
Finally, he rightly understood his will had to manifest into action. He declares, “I will arise, I will go, and I will say” only to then “arise and come to his father.” He didn’t just think about it… He acted! You see his contrition and his ultimate repentance was represented in the fact he’s willing to return and accept whatever position his father was willing to give him.
Luke 15:20b-24, “But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.”
At this point in Jesus’ parable, the scene shifts away from this Prodigal Son and onto the Prodigal’s Father. Though I’m sure this father was incredibly disappointed his son had asked for his inheritance early only to immediately reject life with him in order to start a new life for himself, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the father didn’t fight his son’s wishes.
This father loved his son enough to allow him to reject his love. Additionally, as an act of love this father allowed his son’s free will to set him upon a course he knew would end poorly.
Based on the verses we just read it’s likely not a day had gone by when this father didn’t long for his son's return. The fact is this statement “when he was still a great way off, his father saw him” indicates this dad had always been hoping his boy would come home.
Notice the first thing that happens within the heart of this father upon seeing his sons returning… Jesus tells us the father was filled with “compassion.” How amazing his immediate reaction was not anger, vindication, or even pity… It’s compassion! His heart was broken when he considered all of the terrible things that must have happened to bring his stubborn and rebellious son to this point where he’d humble himself and come home.
Once again to Jesus’ audience what follows was unthinkable. The idea that any father, yet alone this one would “run and fall on his son’s neck to kiss him” was simply unfathomable. In that culture a distinguished older man would never run - to do so was undignified. One would have excepted the father to remain seated waiting for the son to fall prostrate before him.
The reason this detail is so important is that it communicated to the audience the incredible depths of this father’s love for his son. While the son may have been on his way home it was the father who ran out to meet him. This father’s love for his son would not be restricted by custom. He cared not about dignity. As his heart moved so did his feet!
The tense Jesus uses is emphatic. This father grabbed hold of his son, embraced him, fell on his neck, and showered him with affection. Then when his son starts into his rehearsed speech the father all but cuts him off. This dad didn’t need to hear anything to know his son had repented. The simple fact he was headed home communicated all he needed to know!
What’s most amazing about this story is that the father did more than accept his prodigal, Jesus says he then instructed the servants to clothe his son with the “best robe” and to “put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet.” Beyond all of this, they were to bring out and slaughter “the fatted calf” so that all could join in the celebration of his son’s return.
Though the Prodigal rightly understood he was no longer “worthy” to be a son, the incredible thing is that his worthiness mattered not in the eyes of his father. Though he’d rejected his father and ran off to start a new life, the moment he returned not only did his father accept him and demonstrate love and affection towards him, but he restores him to his position of son. Max Lucado adds this great observation, “The difference between mercy and grace? Mercy gave the prodigal son a second chance. Grace gave him a feast.”
Luke 15:25-32, “Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’
But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.
But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’”
As Jesus is finishing his story the scene shifts one final time to the Prodigal’s Older Brother. Unlike his younger brother, this son hadn’t squandered his inheritance. Not only has he remained with his father, but he’s assumed the family business. Note: We see him returning from a long day in the “field” when “he heard the music and dancing.”
Outwardly, this older brother was the model son. From his own lips, we’re told he’d spent his years “serving” his father never once “transgressing his commandments.” And yet, while he’d been busy playing the part the problem is that he didn’t share his father’s heart.
Notice not only was “he angry” at the grace that had been shown his Prodigal Brother, but the way he reacts to the “pleading” of his father reveals an even deeper animus. His reaction was not a momentary rash of anger… This feeling towards his father had been brewing for some time. Fundamentally, this son disagreed with the way his father rewarded people.
Though his father deeply desired this son to join the other in this feast, the Prodigal’s brother stubbornly refuses for two simple reasons: One - He viewed his father’s grace as being unjust! Because his younger brother had “devoured his livelihood with harlots” the older son is convinced he didn't deserve forgiveness or restoration, yet alone such a reception.
Two it’s evident this older brother viewed his father’s grace as being unfair (unjust and unfair)! In the context of his obedience - in comparison to his younger brother's rebellion, this older brother couldn’t fathom why his father had never given him such a reception… He says, “You never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.”
Actor Ricky Gervais sympathizes with the older brother’s perspective writing, “I never understood redemption when I was young. Even before I was an atheist, I always thought with the prodigal son, ‘well, why's he getting the special treatment?’” Most can sympathize.
It’s interesting but the story-arch of this parable takes a fascinating twist at the end… One son rejects the father for carnal reasons only to return and enjoy the grace of his father.
Then because the obedient older son perceives his father’s grace as being unjust and unfair he proceeds to reject his father’s invitation to the feast on moral grounds. Ironically, Jesus ends the story with the prodigal restored to his father, and this older brother now alienated.
This leads us to two important observations… First, the Parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates the fact that your flesh can separate you from the love of your Father by employing one of two opposite strategies: Carnal Living or Religious Moralism.
To this point, Timothy Keller wrote, “Neither son loved the father for himself. They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently. It's a shocking message: Careful obedience to God's law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.”
But there is a second lesson… Because the demonstration of the Father’s grace only required repentance to be received and enjoyed, the Parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates that it’s often much harder for moralistic people (the self-righteous and religious) to enter the kingdom than those who’ve engaged in a prodigal lifestyle.
While it made sense to the Prodigal to repent and come home (life in the pigpen has a way of changing one's perspective) and even greater sense to enjoy the feast (he knew he was playing with house money), the truth is this older brother rejected his father and his invitation because he wouldn’t accept the terms for entry. Hearing that his father had given his brother something he’d been working so hard to attain was more than he could stomach.
You see the fundamental problem with religion is that it presents heaven as a reward, not a gift… Something we work hard to attain, not something God lovingly bestows. This is why grace is such an offense to the moralist. Jesus is saying the only prerequisite for salvation is that you receive something you could never have earned on your own.
For the Prodigal Son (the failure, sinner, down and outer) this is wonderful news. And yet, sadly for the Prodigal’s Brother, this reality was simply a bridge too far for him to cross. It’s sobering, but some good people will go to hell and some bad people will go to heaven!
Before we go any further I want to establish the larger context for why and to whom Jesus told this Parable of the Prodigal Son. If you’ll look back at the first three verses of Luke 15 we read, “Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Jesus to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, ‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So Jesus spoke this parable to them…”
For context, it’s rather amazing that Jesus’ audience was comprised of two vastly different groups. On one side you had a group of prodigals - these “tax collectors and sinners.” On the other side, you had a group of self-righteous older brothers - these “Pharisees and scribes.”
And while it seems obvious how this particular parable applied to each of these two subsets, the deeper point Jesus is making might not seem as obvious. Sure, there is an aspect to this story whereby Jesus is directly addressing the criticism He was receiving. While the Pharisees were “complaining” that He would willingly “receive sinners,” Jesus is making it clear His approach to such people was more in line with the heart of the Father than theirs.
And yet, beyond the obvious, I’m personally convinced Jesus’ larger purpose for this parable went unspoken. Keep in mind, the parable of the Prodigal Son is in actuality the last of three parables Jesus has just told this diverse crowd. What makes this significant is that the first two (the Parable of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin) established the reality that when something of value is lost we have a responsibility to go out to retrieve it.
Interestingly enough, while on the surface the story of the prodigal presents the opposite dynamic (a lost son willingly returning to his father), what’s left out of the parable may have been Jesus’ larger point. While the older brother (who’s attitude illustrated that of the religious leaders) was busy “serving” and “obeying the commands” of his father hoping his actions would lead to an increased favor, the truth is that if he really desired to please his Dad he would have gone to this “far country” to retrieve his prodigal brother instead.
In much a similar fashion the religious leaders had also been given an inheritance that they hadn’t squandered with prodigal living. Serving God and being obedient to His commands wasn’t a bad thing. And yet, in presenting the incredible joy the father experienced when the prodigal returned Jesus is illustrating a reality they’d missed.
It’s as though He’s saying, “Don’t you see what brings our Heavenly Father the most joy? It isn’t your service around His house or dedication and determination to obey all His commands… Instead, if you’re really desiring to bring the Father the greatest pleasure, like Me, you’d go out into this fallen world to retrieve your prodigal brothers and sisters!”
And why is this so important? As the Prodigal’s experience so starkly illustrated, the greatest lie ever told man is that life is better apart from the Father. This young man truly believed he was going to discover a better, more satisfying life in the world apart from the influence of his Dad. And yet, it didn’t take long for him to realize it was all a ruse.
Sadly, instead of happiness, he was filled with regret… Instead of meaning, he was void of purpose… Instead of fulfillment, he was left wanting… In place of community, he experienced loneliness. The Prodigal went out seeking greener pastures only to be left with famine.
In the end, the world turned him over, chewed him up, and spit him out worse than he was before. Yes, it’s absolutely true sin is an act of rebellion against the Creator, but the greatest damage sin yields are in the Creator’s design! Friend, prodigal living will literally kill you!
What’s so amazing about this parable is that while the Prodigal unexplainably came to his senses deciding to return to his father, this is not exactly an experience we share. Instead of the Father sitting at home waiting for you and me to finally wake up and come to Him, His firstborn Son Jesus intentionally set out on a mission to save! It’s in this sense that in contrast to the inaction of the older brother Jesus is presenting Himself as a more perfect brother!
Though He could have remained with His Father (“you are always with me”) and while it’s true He’s been given the full inheritance (“all that I have is yours”) Jesus willingly left His home and Father in heaven to come to a “far country” for a simple reason… To seek out the prodigal - you and I - knowing that nothing brings His Father more joy than when one of His children who “was dead is made alive again” - when that which “was lost is found.”
While the story ends with the older brother angry, self-righteous, and alienated (all of which was revealed in his reaction to the grace his prodigal brother had received from their father)… It’s this Prodigal, who’s life had been completed destroyed by sin, not only experiencing the love of his father… Not only being restored to his position as son… But in the end, even the servants observe he was now “safe and sound.” (This is one word indicating he was made whole). “Though my sins were as scarlet they shall be white as snow!”
Friend, if you identify this evening as a prodigal who’s rejected your Father’s love and your life is a mess as a result or if you identify as the self-righteous older brother struggling with grace because you find it unjust and unfair… Whether it’s carnal living or moralism alienating you from God, understand what Jesus is saying through this parable…
Not only does your heavenly Father love you, not only is His grace sufficient to restore you though you’re unworthy, but His Son Jesus (our more perfect brother) willingly came to earth to save you! Jesus came to a “far country” for the specific purpose of bringing you home.
When it’s all said and done this parable illustrates the reality that all of humanity is ultimately divided into only two basic categories (and it’s not believers and unbelievers, Christians and non-Christians, saints and sinners)… Instead, it’s Jesus and prodigals for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” This is what the older brother failed to understand.
Not only should this reality change the way you see the lost world around you (the only difference between you and the sinner is that you were once a prodigal and they presently are), but the grace you’ve received through Jesus should fill your heart with incredible love and compassion for the lost! You can always tell when a person has been transformed by the amazing grace of God… They demonstrate that grace to everyone around them!
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