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Life of Christ (2007-2009)

The Prodigal Son

Luke 15:11-32

Lesson audio

It has been called “the greatest short story ever told.” The quotation is attributed to Dickens, Emerson, Twain and a variety of religious authors. It is certainly famous enough to justify the phrase.

Luk 15:11-32 NIV Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. (12) The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them. (13) "Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. (14) After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. (15) So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. (16) He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. (17) "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! (18) I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. (19) I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' (20) So he got up and went to his father.

"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (21) "The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.[2]' (22) "But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. (23) Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. (24) For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate. (25) "Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. (26) So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. (27) 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' (28) "The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. (29) But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. (30) But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!' (31) " 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. (32) But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "

Background

This parable is given in the context of yet another argument with the Pharisees. Their complaint on this occasion is that Jesus has no sense of propriety about what kind of people a good rabbi would associate with. In particular, Jesus seems to have a fondness for tax collectors and other assorted sinners.

To this, Jesus tells three parables:

  • First is the parable of the lost sheep. Sheep manage to go astray with very little effort. Here Jesus makes the remark that there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than there is for ninety-nine who don’t need repentance.
  • The second is the lost coin. It didn’t lose itself, but the woman still searches for it – and rejoices when it is found.

The rejoicing continues in this third parable.

The prodigal son

We may first consider the title character. It is convenient to look at him in three lights: before his repentance, during his change and when he comes home.

Before

One thing is clear: this is a boy in rebellion. He has looked at his father’s style (i.e. hard work) and decided he doesn’t like the look. He therefore wants out. Indeed, “I want” is often the source of sin. In this there is a curious cycle played out in every generation.

It is simply this: we want, we get what we want – and then we don’t like the result.

The Change

May I point out one little, tiny variation of the theme usually sounded? It’s easy to imagine the boy in a state of depression. We often picture this young man as making an emotional decision – largely because this parable is used so frequently in altar calls. But it’s false. The decision taken here is taken rationally – when the boy comes to his senses.

Note, too, that this is a decision that results in action. It is not just coming to the front at an altar call; this kid has quite a hike ahead of him. As he is going on the way he is rehearsing his speech.

One thing we may point out: he has learned the futility of wealth. Every one is your friend when you are dispensing the gold; no one cares about your diet when you are broke.

After

The young man’s repentance teaches us these lessons:

  • He acknowledges his sin against his father – but also his sin against God. It is the nature of sin that it is an offense against God. Which might explain why his forgiveness is so necessary.
  • He humbles himself. There is no hint of the more common method of coming home acting like you’re a success.
  • He knows what he deserves. He’s prepared to take his lumps.

The Father

The obvious picture here is that of God the Father. It is an interesting parallel, which teaches much.

A long way off

That little phrase gives up some golden thought:

  • If he saw him that far away, the father must have been looking for him. Think of the anguish; every day his eyes look down the road, looking for the one sight he desires most.
  • As he waited, he waited with mercy, not punishment. The kid’s speech was thought out beforehand; so was the father’s response. It’s just that they didn’t match. Did you notice that the father never responds to the kid’s speech?
  • If God does that, how then should we pray for the sinners on our prayer list?
Running

“He ran to his son” – a simple statement, but with great implications for us.

  • This is, as far as I can determine, the only instance in which God the Father is pictured as running. The Sovereign of the Universe packs up his dignity, runs down a dusty road and embraces the prodigal. It is love in action.
  • Note that he comes himself – he doesn’t send a servant to him. As Christ came to us, you may recall.
  • His servants run with him. Our Lord runs to welcome the sinner home; his servants can do no less.
His loving mercy

We are about to encounter the older brother’s reaction, so we need a little groundwork here.

  • If they call it mercy, then you didn’t earn it. Mercy cannot be given because you deserve it. Judgment can.
  • There is no attempt here, or anywhere in Scripture, to distinguish worthy sinners from unworthy sinners. Even Christ never attempted that distinction. The only distinction given is between the repentant and those who are not.
  • As is shown by Christ’s remarks about Nineveh[1], even the greatest offenders have a place in the kingdom – if they repent.
Rejoice

Just in case you’re not convinced of how overwhelming the father’s reaction would have been, consider these items:

·         The party was dad’s idea.

·         He went all out at the party – killing the fatted calf.

That’s how sinners are welcomed home in the kingdom of God.

The older brother

Let us begin by saying that the older brother is not Snidely Whiplash.[2] He doesn’t see things dad’s way, but by our standards the boy is not getting a fair deal here.

His complaint

In his mind, the older brother has a fair grievance: he’s being treated unjustly. The kid comes home and gets a party; surely fairness would dictate that he should have more than that? And what has he gotten?

A good part of this is the view the righteous take of themselves. There is a fair amount of sense in his position – but there is also a fair amount of envy, as well. He knows that the remainder of dad’s estate will go to him; he knows that dad thinks well of him. What he wants is fair treatment – justice, in effect.

Take this from inside the brother’s head. His view of himself is that he has done well and behaved righteously – and therefore is deserving of reward for this. His brother is a scoundrel; not only did he squander his inheritance, it looks like he’s getting a hero’s welcome for doing it! If spending all his money on booze and prostitutes gets you this kind of welcome home, what should the faithful son get?

Can you hear the envy of the sinner? Can you hear the contempt for his brother?

His father’s reply

Perhaps you didn’t notice this, but the father came out to his older son – because the son wouldn’t come near the house. It’s the same as with the prodigal.

He doesn’t deny that his brother has sinned, as well as being rather foolish in the process. His reply is simply this: the most important thing is neither the righteousness of the older brother nor the sins of the younger one. The most important thing is the love of the Father.

Lessons

May I point out:

  • The father goes out to sinners – even the self-righteous ones. Should we not do the same as we can?
  • To receive mercy means that you didn’t deserve. If you are saved by grace, you are a sinner. No one earns mercy.
  • Forgiveness: the mercy of God towards us. Which he then commands us to give to others.

[1] Matthew 12:41

[2] A cartoon character, a caricature of the villains of old-fashioned melodrama. Ties damsels to railroad tracks, etc.

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