By Paul Koch –
Before us today is one of the most enduring and well-known parables of our Lord. The famous story of the prodigal son is one that most Christians are already fairly comfortable with. You’ve probably heard a sermon or two on this text, so you’ve most likely already drawn a few conclusions of your own about it. But before we get into this story and really examine it, I think we need to take a moment to understand the context in which this parable is told, for the context is crucial. Who is Jesus addressing when he tells this story, and why is he addressing them? Well, at the beginning of chapter 15 we find that our Lord is gaining popularity with one particular group of individuals, the tax collectors and sinners. This didn’t sit well with the religious leaders. The Pharisees and the scribes looked with contempt upon our Lord and grumbled amongst themselves saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” It is his reception, his welcome, his inclusion of open sinners that offends them. And this is the context that brings forth the parable.
This story is about far more than a prodigal son. In fact, it is a story about two sons. And perhaps most importantly it is a story about a father who seems to possess the most radical and wondrous love you could imagine. It begins, though, with the younger son. This guy says to his father, “Give to me my share of the property that is to come.” What that means is he wants what he would get when his father dies. He wants his share of the inheritance, and he wants it now. This is tantamount, especially in our Lord’s day, to wishing that your father was dead. This kid is the epitome of the ungrateful spoiled child who just wants what he can get and things only of himself. The shocking thing is that the father actually gives him his share. And what does he do with it? Exactly what you expect such an ungrateful person to do. He gathers it all up and takes a journey to a far country spends it all, every last bit of his father’s life on reckless living.
Well, no doubt it must have been fun for a while. No doubt there were some epic stories made, but then it all comes crashing down. For at the very time that he ran out of money, a severe famine arose on the land. And apparently this guy didn’t make any real friends with all that wealth. He ends up with absolutely nothing. The only work he finds is working for a Gentile feeding his pigs. And he is so hungry that he longs to join these unclean animals and share in the pig’s food. But then he thinks to himself about who he is, about where he came from, about his father and what sort of man he is. Surely, he thought he might return home. He might beg to be given a job a servant in his father’s household, for even they are treated far better than this. And he even rehearses what he is going to say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”
Now it ought to be easy to see yourself in this younger son. Just think of the great blessings you’ve received form your Father in heaven. Think of your reason and creativity and material gains in this life. Think of how you have squandered them, how you’ve wasted what he has given you with your own reckless and selfish living. The very fact that you are here this morning, gathering in this place of worship means you’ve been there at the low moment when you’ve realized that you aren’t worthy to be called his child, that you were doomed to waste away in a foreign land apart from the household of your Father. And so you’ve come with your well-rehearsed lines of confession in the hope that he might welcome you once again.
As we see ourselves in this younger son, we ought to be overjoyed at the reaction of the father. As he returned home, we are told that the father sees him a long way off. It’s almost as if he went out every day to look down the road for the hope that it might be the day that his son returned to him. And when he sees him, this ungrateful son, who squandered his father’s wealth and wished that he was dead, the father forgets all that and runs down the lane to meet him. He embraces him and kisses him. And the son begins his rehearsed lines, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” and before he can finish, the father calls his servants to bring the best robe and clothe him, to put the signet ring upon his finger and shoes upon his feet. He restores his son to his station and calls for a great celebration. Because, as he says, “His son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
What wondrous love is this that brings a father to weep over his wayward son. He doesn’t demand a certain amount of sorrow or remorse from him. He doesn’t put him on some probationary standing to see if he really learned his lesson. He doesn’t wonder if he is sorry enough, or humble enough, or broken enough. He doesn’t seek what is fair or just. He forgives—complete and total.
And here we relax and smile, for we find in this story the love of our Father. A Father who didn’t wait for you to produce the proper fruit of repentance but humbled himself to cloth you, restore you, and heal you. But this story isn’t finished, not even close. To stop here would be to forget the context. This wasn’t a story told just to wayward and broken sinners. It was told to those who grumbled because Jesus welcomes them, rejoices over them, celebrates with them. There is another son that we must turn our attention toward.
Now he wasn’t there when his younger brother came home. He didn’t see the reunion and restoration and the love of the father. And why wasn’t he there? He was doing what a faithful son ought to have been doing. He was in the field getting work done, just as he had always done. And when he finds out what is going on his reaction isn’t joy, it isn’t celebration and happiness. He’s upset. He sees how unfair it is and he’s right. It’s not fair. So, he refuses to go in. Now, I know you don’t like to see yourself in this brother. You want to be the repentant prodigal who get the underserved mercy, not the stodgy older son who refuses to celebrate. But don’t be too quick to think that this isn’t you. Especially if you worked hard to be faithful, especially if you study the Word and pray with diligence. If you attend to the things of God and worship his name, more than likely you find it easy to judge others, especially those who haven’t proven to you that they are sorry enough or ashamed enough of their transgressions. The church is made up of older brothers.
And yet, one more time it is the wondrous love of this father that changes things. The same father then ran down the path to embrace his prodigal son now heads into the fields to entreat his faithful son to join in the celebration. He cuts his father short; he knows injustice when he sees it, “You never threw a party for me and my friends but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” And you can almost imagine the tears welling up in his father’s eyes. As he looks at this faithful son and says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” He pleads that his son who had been faithful in his work, faithful in his devotion, faithful in his obedience, would also be faithful in his mercy, faithful in his compassion, faithful in his love.
This story cuts to the heart of us all. It is about the wondrous love of God, a love that stands at the heart of all that you are as his children. Those on the outside wondering if they can come back into the household, wondering if their sins have separated them from the love of God find a Father who has never stopped searching for what was lost. And those on the inside, those who receive the regular blessings of the Father, you find a love that has never diminished, a love that still entreats and welcomes and invites you. With no concern for his own honor or prestige, he welcomes you, forgives you, loves you. And what a wondrous love it is.
Soli Deo Gloria