Bible Study 2021
Parable of the Lost Sons
I. THE YOUNGER SON
Let us turn now to Luke 15:11-32. When we come to a parable like this, it's important for us to remember that its truths are set in a culture that is very different from our own. It is not a story that can be superficially understood as to its richness and therefore its message. There are nuances, there are subtleties, and there are cultural attitudes and features here that give it its full meaning.
Remember, whatever the Bible meant to the people to whom it was written, it also means today. And one of the sad realities of our modern world is that we're in a hurry to read the Bible and apply the Bible without ever interpreting it. And in an effort to update the Bible, we ignore its original context, in a hurry to push it into the twenty-first century. It is important that we hear it the way the audience of Jesus heard it.
There were in their minds ingrained ideas, ingrained cultural attitudes, unspoken feelings that existed in the Middle-Eastern peasant village life. These are the things that make it live and these are the things that will allow us to live in it. Even most of the educated people of that time would have their root in simple, agrarian village life. There were things felt but never spoken.
A bit of background so that we know where we are. Christ is on the way to Jerusalem, the last months of His life. He intends to offer Himself as God's perfect sacrifice for sin, die on the cross and then rise again from the dead, having accomplished our redemption. He has ministered nearly three years and preached the message of the kingdom of God through repentance and faith in Him as the Messiah.
He has developed enemies, the Pharisees and the scribes. They basically created the religion of Judaism at the time. They have great influence in the synagogues, which are the Jewish people come together to be taught. They are legalistic. And they are corrupt inwardly. So you have a populace that is either hostile or indifferent to Jesus under their influence. Mostly they hate Jesus.
That is because Jesus directly confronted them on their hypocrisy. He identified them as self-righteous not truly understanding the Scripture or the will of God. He told them they did not know God. They did not know the way of salvation. He told them they were excluded from the kingdom of God because they were inwardly corrupt and they were headed to divine judgment.
This is not what they wanted to hear. And though He said it with compassion, mercy and grace, no matter how He said it, they hated it. And so, wanting to attack Jesus back, they came up with the worst possible thing they could say about Him and that is that He did what He did by the power of Satan. The opposite of representing God, they said Jesus represents the devil himself.
And so that is the lie that they spread throughout the land. Any way they could find to affirm that lie, they did so. Jesus associates with tax collectors, prostitutes, criminals who are called sinners. And whenever they saw Jesus with sinners, they loved to say that He was comfortable with Satan's people and uncomfortable with the people of God, whom they believed themselves to be.
And so that is the reason that precipitates the parable Jesus tells. Luke 15:1 says, "All the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Jesus." They were willing to listen and so they came. Verse 2, “This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that He was associating with such sinful people, even eating with them!” Eating with someone was tacit affirmation and approval.
And so they were outraged. They kept themselves aloof from all of these kinds of people in some effort to protect their own imagined purity. Despite the miracles of Jesus, despite the power and the clarity and the transforming nature of His words, they kept coming back to the fact that He was satanic. And that was evident because He was associating with sinners who according to them belonged to the devil.
And the answer is simple. “The reason I associate with these sinners is because I have come to seek and to save those which are lost," as He says in Luke 19:10. "I do this because it is the Father's joy to save lost sinners." And He goes on to tell a story about a shepherd who had a 100 sheep and he lost one. And he searched and found it, and brought the sheep back. What is the point of the story?
Verse 7, “In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!” And that is a sarcastic rebuke of the Pharisees who thought they were righteous and needed no repentance. Heaven has no joy in you; heaven's joy is in the salvation of one lost sinner who repents.
What Jesus is saying to them is ‘you are so far from God, you don't even understand what makes God have joy’. It is the salvation of sinners. And that then leads to the story which is the main parable. But this story goes even beyond that and it identifies the nature of repentance. In this story it is fully defined and for the first time in this story, the Pharisees and the scribes actually appear.
They are a character in this story and we see them in all their ugliness, and so did they see themselves. And that's the surprise ending of the story. Up to that point, they were pretty much in agreement with the story. And that was Christ's approach, to get them to buy into the story, and then to get them to understand the ethical issues in the story because they celebrated their own high level of ethics.
And then to take their own ethical understanding and turn it on them and make the theology of the story like a knife that penetrated their sinful hearts. The first two stories, about the sheep and the coin, emphasize God as the seeker, the one who finds and the one who rejoices. But the third story looks not so much at the divine side, but at the human side: sin, repentance, recovery, and rejection.
Now the parable doesn't contain the whole of salvation theology. But it does lead us to the cross because it's a story of reconciliation. There is no reconciliation apart from the death of Christ, who having paid the penalty in full for the sinner provides reconciliation. But this parable deals with some of the essential elements of sin and recovery, forgiveness, rejoicing and rejection.
There are three characters, the younger son, the father, and the older son. So let us begin with the younger son. Think first, about a shameless request, and then a shameless rebellion. Verse 11-12, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. 12 The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.”
It's not really the tale of one son, it's the tale of two sons and the climax of the whole story indicates that it is the other son, the one we don't think about, that is really the main objective in the story. But we call this younger son the prodigal son. "Prodigal" basically means "spendthrift," somebody who is wasteful, extravagantly self-indulgent. The young man is the classic illustration of wasting your life.
When Jesus said what was in verse 12, imagine what the Pharisees and scribes thought. This is an outrageous statement. The younger man is utterly disrespectful and lacks any love for his father whatsoever. There is no gratitude for the legacy that generations of his family have provided for his father and one day for him. It would be like saying, "Dad, I wish you were dead. I want my share and I want it now.”
In a culture based upon the Ten Commandments, "Honor your father and your mother," it had been improved on where honoring your father was like at the top of the list of social life. And any son who made such an outrageous request from a healthy father is understood by everyone to be wishing his father was dead, because you never got your inheritance until your father died.
But if he did this, he would be slapped across the face and then he would be shamed publicly and perhaps dispossessed of everything and perhaps even dismissed from the family. That's why in verse 24 when he comes back, the father says, "This son of mine was dead." And he says it again in verse 32 to the older brother, "This brother of yours was dead." And the only way back in was restitution.
The father was at the head of the honor list. Then came the older brother. Then came the younger. This is shameless at its highest level. The lowest in the line of honor was expressing aggravation and hatred for his father even when he's still alive and standing in the way of him getting what he wants. There was no way that Jesus could portray greater shame upon a person than that act.
And his request: "Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me." He uses the word “estate,” and it means the goods, the property. He's asking for the material stuff; land, animals, buildings, whatever of the family possessions he is entitled to get. And according to Deuteronomy 21:17, the estate would be divided unequally. The older son gets double what the younger son gets.
So whatever was one-third of everything that this family had is what he wants. And they must have had a lot. They had hired men whom they employed outside their normal family servants. They had animals, including a fattened calf. And they must have had a substantial enough estate that he thought if he could get his one-third, he could fund his rebellion pretty well.
When you receive your inheritance from your father, you literally are receiving the responsibility to manage all the assets of the estate on behalf of the family present, and therefore build the estate for the family in the future. So, with “inheritance” comes responsibility, accountability for the future. He didn't want any of that. I just want my stuff. I don't want any responsibility.
He wants freedom, independence. He wants distance, he wants to go as far away from all restraint, all accountability that he can. He doesn't want to obey his father. He doesn't want to be directed by his father. He doesn't want to have to answer to his father. He wants nothing to do with anybody who knows him. He wants out, but he wants out with all that he can get to finance his leaving.
He's asking to have now what he should wait for after his father dies. The village would get word of this typically. They would expect the father to be angry, ashamed and dishonored. They would expect him to be furious with his son. They would expect him to slap the boy across the face, to rebuke him, to punish him, to dismiss him from the family, and perhaps even to hold a funeral.
But this is the first surprise in verse 12, "And he divided his wealth between them." This is what the family's life for generations has produced. This is his source of livelihood. But to this kind of son with this kind of request, for a father to do this was shocking stuff. Rather than strike him across the face for his insolence, the father grants him what he wants. He is willing to endure the agony of rejected love.
And this is the most painful of any personal agony, the agony of rejected love. The greater the love, the greater the pain when that love is rejected. This is God giving the sinner his freedom. There's no law in the customs of Israel that would forbid a father to do this. And the sinner is not really breaking the law but he is demonstrating the absence of a relationship. And that's the point.
The sinner has no relationship to God whatsoever. He doesn't care about God, and wants nothing to do with God, nothing to do with the family of God, and doesn't want to answer to God, and wants no accountability to God, and doesn't want any kind of relationship at all. It is like Romans 1:24, God gave them up. And God, in the agony of rejected love, lets the sinner go.
Now notice in verse 12 that he divided his wealth between them. And so they both received their portions. This was very unusual for this to happen. According to the Mishnah, which is the codification of Jewish law, if a father decided to do this, the sons had to hold the property until the father died and only then could they do with it what they pleased. But the younger son wanted it all now.
Verse 13, “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living.” He didn't wait long, he couldn't wait. Literally that says he turned it all into cash. He has no love for his father. He has absolutely no love for his older brother either and his older brother has no love for him. And, the older brother has no love for the father either.
His property can be sold, which means buildings, land, animals, whatever it was. He gets the cash now. Whoever bought it can't take possession until the father dies. So the father basically has no relationship with either son. These are two kinds of people who have no relationship with God. One is irreligious and one is religious. One is as far away from God as he can get. The other is as close as he can be.
This is the foolishness of the sinner. He wants to get away from God now. He sells cheap all the opportunities that God has provided for him, all the good gifts, everything that's good that God has put into his world. All that goodness of God that's meant to lead him into a relationship with God he spurns and once he gets his cash, you see in verse 13, "He went on a journey to a distant land."
He went to a Gentile land, which was a horror. This kid is as bad as anybody could be. You can't be worse than to scorn and dishonor your father. And add to that materialistic greed. And you add to that selling off the generational family estate. The family for sure then would have had a funeral in the village. To repair all that he would have to come back and buy the estate back.
The whole scene is filled with shame. It's a totally dysfunctional family, a loving generous father who's provided massive gifts for his two sons. One is a flagrant, rebellious, irreligious sinner, the other is a religious one who stayed home but neither of them has any relationship to the father or to each other. Verse 13 says, that when he got there, he “squandered his estate with wild living."
He just threw it away. Hence “prodigal,” he wasted it; loose living, reckless and wasteful living. In fact in verse 30, his older brother says, "He squandered your money with prostitutes." And Jesus puts that in the story because that's an accurate reflection of what He wants to convey the young man did. He wasted his life. He trashed his life, we would say in the current vernacular.
Now this young son represents open sinners, the rebels, the dissolute, the dissipated, the debauched, the immoral, those who make no pretense of faith in God, no pretense of love for God. This is the tax collectors and the sinners, the outcasts, the irreligious. And they run as far as they can from God because they have no love for Him and no relationship with Him. They don't want anything to do with His law or His rule.
But sin never works out the way it looks. Verse 14, “About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve.” That kind of introduces the fact that when he arrived in the far country, he was the new guy in town with the big bankroll. He sets himself on the party trail and goes on a wild spree, collecting around him all kinds of people who wanted his money.
"But a great famine swept over the land." That's how life is. Some things are your fault and some things are not. But having those things together can be devastating. What is a severe famine? The times when Israel was under siege and women ate their afterbirth and even cannibalized their children. That's in the Old Testament. That is a level of desperation that's beyond anything we can conceive of.
And the Pharisees and the scribes listening to the story now are feeling the weight of the horror of the life of this young man. It is life at its lowest in the pits at the most desperate. He has no family. He has nobody left. He's in a foreign land, nowhere to turn. All his resources are gone. He is destitute. He is on skid row. He is penny-less. He is alone. The party is over for sure.
But he's still not ready to go home. Still not ready to fully humble himself, to go back, to be shamed, to be humiliated, to face his father and the resentment of his older brother for having wasted the substance. The older brother knows that, once the thing was split, he no longer could draw resources from the other third, and it would cheat him out of what he would get and that elevates his hatred.
So he does what people tend to do when they hit bottom. It says at the end of verse 14, "He began to starve." And like typical sinners, he comes up with the first plan. Verse 15, “He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs.” This is typical of the sinner, runs from God, lives a rebellious life, sins up a storm, and winds up with absolutely nothing.
He didn't get what he wanted out of his escapade. He left a loving father. He ended up with a hard life. He wanted his lusts fulfilled without interruption and without rebuke. What he got was pain and loneliness. He was actually facing death. So, he went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country. “Citizen” is a word that refers to a privileged person. Not everybody was a citizen.
And the picture here is of a man who is now a beggar. This is the lowest possible thing that anybody could ever do and as it turns out, it doesn't pay anything. But to get rid of the guy he says, "Go to the field and feed my pigs." And so desperate, he does it. This is a Jewish boy feeding pigs in a Gentile land. Leviticus 11:7, Deuteronomy 14:8, indicate that Jews could not eat pork, they’re unclean animals.
Verse 16, “The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.” He was so hungry that he was not just feeding pigs and earning wages; he was thinking about eating their food. He is so low, he can't get lower. And whatever promise about job and money, verse 16 says at the end, "No one gave him anything."
You cannot begin to understand the elitist sensitivities of the Pharisees and the scribes imagining a Jewish young man doing this; unthinkable. And in the end, nobody gave him anything. This is the greatest tragedy that they could ever conceive of. This is the most despicable kind of conduct that they could conceive. And that was the point. And now he's starving to death. This is desperation.
What is the lesson here? The lesson is that sin is rebellion against God the Father. It is not rebellion so much against His law, it is more rebellion against His relationship. It is the violation of His Fatherhood, His love. Sin is disdain for God's law, but before that it is disdain for God's person, God's authority and God's will. Sin is shunning all responsibility, all accountability. It is to deny God His place.
Sin is to hate God. It is to wish God was dead. It is to not love Him at all, dishonor Him. It is to take all the gifts that He's surrounded you with in life and squander them as if they were nothing. It is to run as far from God as you can get to give Him no thought, no regard and no concern. It is to waste your life in self-indulgence and dissipation and unrestrained lust.
Sin is to shun all except what you want and it is reckless evil and selfish indulgence that ends you up in the pig slop, bankrupt spiritually, empty, destitute, nobody to help, nowhere to turn, facing death and eternal death. And when the sinner has exhausted his plan: I'll take drugs, I'll drink alcohol, I'll go to some self-help group, I'll move to a new neighborhood, I'll marry a new person.
When all that stuff is exhausted, the sinner wakes up at the bottom. When he's broken. Verse 17, “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger!” He believes in his father. This is a picture of one whose repentance leads to salvation because you see not only repentance here but faith in his father.
He trusts in his father's goodness, compassion, generosity and mercy. Repentance is linked to faith. He knows the kind of man his father is and in spite of the way he has blasphemed his father, dishonored his father, the terrible way he has lived his life, coming to the very bottom he knows his father is a forgiving man and penitently he trusts to go back and receive forgiveness.
So verse 18-19, “I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’ All the Pharisees and scribes would say that's exactly what he needs to do, that's sensible thinking. He had a little dialogue with himself, he understood, he had nowhere to go but home.
He understood something about the goodness of the father. He's ready to place himself on the mercy of the father having repented of his sins. He has no right to the home, no right to deplete the family resources any further. He's just going to work when they want to invest some money in something that's going to bring a dividend like anybody else will work. His sensible thinking then moves his will.
This is how repentance works. First of all the sinner comes to his senses, begins to really look and assess where he is and where he's headed, to the inevitable death and destruction and eternal damnation. The sinner says I can't keep going this direction. There's only one to whom I can turn, that's the Father whom I have dishonored. I have to go back to Him. I have to cast myself on His mercy, forgiveness and love.
It's very humbling, very embarrassing, very shameful, but he says I'm going to do it. And listen to how he is about his own self-indictment. "I have sinned against heaven and in your sight." He's genuinely penitent. This is the stuff of real repentance. He is saying, "My sins rise to the very presence of God they stack so high." This is true repentance, no excuses, no blame anywhere but himself.
II. THE FATHER
And so true penitence matched with true trust in a Father's love and forgiveness starts the sinner back. Every sinner who repents starts with powerful conviction of his own or her own condition, destitute, empty, headed for eternal death. Every sinner who comes back takes full responsibility for that sin and sees it as an offense that rises as high as heaven. Every sinner who comes back sets his course toward God.
But the Jews would have understood that when you come back, God will accept you if you do the work. He had forfeited them all when he took his part of the estate and liquidated it and squandered it. He’ll never be a son again. At least that should be his view. I'm no longer worthy to be called your son, just make me a hired man. Just give me a job and over the years I'm going to work to earn back everything I lost.
I don't ever expect you to receive me on my terms. Remember now, he's dead, they had a ceremony when he left, a funeral. That's why he's referred to twice by the father as my son who was dead. I don't expect to live in the home. I don't expect to be a slave. I don't even expect a relationship with you, father, I just want to work and I'll earn my way back. Make me as one of your hired men.
You know, there's real faith here in God and there's real repentance. And those Pharisees and Sadducees at this point would be applauding. They would think, that's what he's got to do. Up to now they're generally affirming the story. They didn't like the story because dishonoring the father was distasteful to them. They were horrified when the young man left and conducted his life in that way.
They were even more horrified when he ended up with pigs who were considered utterly unclean. But since then, they liked the idea that he came to his senses. They like the idea that he's coming back. And they know there's no instant reconciliation. That's not how it's done. He's penitent and he trusts his father but he's going to have to earn his way back. That's pure Pharisaic theology.
Everybody would understand it because that was the way they thought it had to be done. The party is over for good. The laughs are gone and the friends are gone. It's as bad as it can get and he's about to die. Not every sinner is that wretched. Not every sinner spends his money on harlots. The point is we want to know what this father is going to do to a sinner who is as bad as it can get.
Now comes to the fourth point in the flow, a shameful reception; this is amazing, this is paradoxical and this is shocking. Verse 20, “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.” For the Pharisees and scribes this is a shameful reception by their assessment.
The younger son is truly penitent. He will work as a hired man to be paid to earn his way back. And he will work to earn it. That's pretty much how people feel. That's how the Jews felt. And when he does come to his father they would know what the father would do. First, the father would not be available. He had been dishonored. His respect had been tarnished in the community.
And this is what would be done in the Middle East then and perhaps even today, the father would refuse to meet him. The father would make him sit outside the gate of the home somewhere in that village for days in public view. So that the whole town could heap scorn on him, so that they could bring the retribution upon his head that he deserved for the way he dishonored his father.
All the rabbis taught that repentance was work a man does to earn God's favor when he feels sorry for his sin. That's what repentance was, you feel sorry for your sin, you want to be restored to God so you do the work and by that work you gain favor with God by making restitution. Everybody knew that was the way it was done. And the village would let him work there with some dignity.
But that is not what happened. While he was still a long way off, he hadn't reached the entrance to the village, his father sees him which is an indication of the father seeking, isn't it? Everybody would know that the father is looking. They would assume he had been looking a lot, that he knew the kind of life that his son was living, would end up the way it ended, so that he could come back.
Why is the father looking? He wants to reach his son before his son reaches the village. He not only wants to initiate the reconciliation. He wants to get to his son before his son gets to the village. Why? He wants to protect him from the shame. He wants to protect him from the scorn and the abuse and the slander, which was expected, which was part of the culture, which was expected.
How does he protect the boy? He sees him, it says, when he's still a long way off from the village. It says he felt compassion. Not just compassion for his past sin, not just compassion for his present condition as he was in rags and smelled like a pig, but compassion for what he was about to experience. And so it says he ran. Now Middle Eastern noblemen don't run.
It's almost as if he's impatient. He can't get there fast enough. And this is beneath his dignity. One of the main reasons why Middle Easterners of rank do not run is that traditionally they all have long robes. This is true of both men and women. No one can run in a long robe without taking it up into his or her hands. When this occurs the legs are exposed, which is considered humiliating.
This is so much a part of Middle Eastern culture that in Arabic versions of the New Testament, there is just an unwillingness to have this father run. In the Arabic translations say he hastened, and he hurried. For 1,000 years of Arabic translations of this account, such phrases were employed, almost as if there was a conspiracy to avoid the truth of the text: that the father ran.
What is God running for? The Father runs, taking the shame, to protect the son from taking the shame. He takes the scorn and the mockery and the slander so that his son doesn't have to bear it. And then when he finally gets there, he embraced him, buried his head on the dirty neck of his son. And now we know that the father has been suffering silently for the whole time he's been gone.
Now that quiet, silent suffering love was publicly displayed as he runs through the street, bringing shame on himself, to embrace his son and spare him from shame. Everybody now knows how much that father loves that son. By the time the boy walked into the village, he was a fully reconciled son. And if that's not enough, it says, "And he kissed him repeatedly, on the lips, on the cheek, anywhere.
This is amazing. This is the kiss of affection that is repeated. He is ready to kiss his Father's feet, but His Father is kissing his head. In their culture this is a gesture of acceptance, friendship, love, forgiveness, restoration and reconciliation. And all of that happens before the son says one word. What does he have to say? He is there, that is enough to show his faith in the father and his repentance.
This is totally unorthodox. Hence and this is where the story has its huge surprise. The father condescends, humbles himself out of this deep love for this son, comes all the way down from his house to the dirt of the village, runs through, bearing the scorn and the shame, throws his arms around the penitent, believing sinner who is coming to him in his filthy, unclean rags.
That father is doing exactly what Jesus did. He came down into our village to run the gauntlet and bear the shame and the slander and the mockery to throw His arms around us and kiss us and reconcile with us. The shock is all this happened without any works. It was all grace as the verse 21 makes clear. “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son."
But he left something out. What did he leave out? He left out the last one, "Please take me on as a hired servant." Why? Because there's no need for works; he has just received grace. This is the jolt. But when the son speaks, he leaves out the works part: full repentance, full faith and no works. Why? Because he's already been received as a son, he's already been forgiven.
He's already received mercy. He's already been reconciled. His repentance is real. His faith is true. And his father responds with complete forgiveness and reconciliation. Now the son knows, I don't have to work my way back. He kissed me. He took my shame. That's all the sinner ever has to do, is come penitently, trusting in God. And the Savior runs to the sinner asking nothing, because that is the joy of God.
The whole of human history since the Fall is about recovering lost sinners; that's God's chief business. That is His highest joy. And a broken relationship can't be fixed with money. A broken relationship can only be fixed when the offended person is willing to be reconciled. And God, the offended person, who is continually offended by the sinner, is willing to be reconciled.
The Pharisees and the scribes are shaking their heads saying, "What in the world is this?" Because they don't get it. The father is God and the son is the sinner, and this is what God does. He runs to redeem penitent sinners who come to Him for mercy. And Jesus is explaining exactly why He spends His time with those people. It is God in Christ bearing our shame to protect us from Himself.
Verse 22, “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet.” And here again the eyes roll. The father did a shameful run and now he heaps blessing on this reconciled son. They couldn't understand that a father wouldn't be more protective of his own honor. He gives him three things, a robe, a ring, and sandals.
Well the families in those days had a special robe and it was the robe that was the most beautiful robe, the most finely crafted. And then he puts a ring on his hand. That would again be mind-boggling because it was a signet ring and it had on the ring a seal so that when you stamped your ring into the melted wax on a document, it was an authentication of that document and it had authority.
This is the full honor of son-ship. The father is about to call for the greatest celebration that's ever occurred in that family, and he's giving away the garment that he would normally wear. This is a way of saying to the son, "Everything I have is yours." Again, this father is not at all concerned about his own honor. They don't know that God's honor comes in his loving grace and forgiveness.
Even though the father has already given that part of the estate to the older son who's still in the home, the father can apply the right to use that at his own discretion since he is still the patriarch of the family. So what he does is lay claim to all that belongs to the older son and say it's all yours. How could you reward this kid for the way he behaved and tap the stuff that belongs to the oldest who stayed home?"
This again is just beyond their comprehension. But that's what the father says. That older son probably would have worn that robe first at his wedding because that's when that robe would come out. But now the younger brother has it. This doesn't make any sense. You don't reward somebody who does that. You reward this guy who stayed home, right? Wrong.
All the assets of the family and all the possessions of the family can be moved around by whoever has the stamp. He has authority to act in behalf of his father. He has authority to act in the place of his father. He has authority to dispense all the family resources. There is no waiting period here. There is no limit on the privileges. This is son-ship at the highest level.
And it comes swiftly. All of this should have gone to the older son. Sandals on his feet: a sign that he's the master now; he's not a hired man, he's not even a slave, he's the master. He has authority. He has honor. He has responsibility. He has respect. He is a fully-vested son who can act in the place of his father and who has a right to access all the family treasures.
What's the message here? Grace triumphs over sin at its worst. The parable isn't saying that every sinner reaches the level he did, but when sinners do, grace still triumphs. This is a completely new idea, undeserved forgiveness, undeserved son-ship, undeserved salvation, undeserved honor, respect, responsibility, fully vested son without any restitution, and without any works.
This kind of lavish love, this kind of grace bestowed upon a penitent, trusting sinner is a bizarre idea in a legalistic mind. And then the attention focuses from the son to the father. Verse 23, “And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast.” He calls for a party to end all parties. Verse 24, “for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.”
This is the biggest event that has ever happened in the history of the family or the village from the perspective of the father. And here we have the picture of heaven, rejoicing. Just one lost sinner comes home and God puts on a mega feast. Bring that fattened calf, that corn-fed prime veal, kill it. And all that butchery would go on, getting ready for dinner together later that evening.
It would be an insult to the villagers to have a whole calf and not invite everybody. And it had to be eaten at one sitting. They didn't preserve meat. Everybody come on and join the party. The one who was dead has come to life. Who brought him to life? Did he earn it back? No. His father gave it back. He was lost. But who embraced him and kissed him and made him fully a son? His father did.
The son has new life, new status and a new attitude. He has for the first time a real relationship with a loving, forgiving father who has made him heir of everything he possesses to whom he has been reconciled and to whom he will eagerly give his love. The son entrusts his life to the father and the father entrusts his resources to the son. The son is finally home. He's in the father's house.
III. THE OLDER SON
Verse 25, “Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house.” Most people say the older son was a Christian. No, that's not true at all. Now understand, that the Pharisees and the scribes, are sitting there listening to the story, and everything that was done up to now is shameful. They're just waiting for somebody to do the right thing.
So this is their guy, "His older son was in the field." What surprises me is that the father hasn't told him anything even though he was the primary planner in the family. He had the responsibility to plan all the events, particularly those that were designed to be in honor of the family. And the party was in honor of the son who came back, and the father who reconciled him.
But nobody told him. The reason is that he has no relationship to the father. The father knows he has no interest in his brother, he proved that when he didn't try to stop his brother from doing what was terrible. He had no interest in his father, proved that by not intervening between his brother and his father to stop his younger brother from such a dishonorable act toward his father.
In fact, he took his part of the inheritance gladly, never defending his father's honor. He has no relationship to anybody in the family. Being out in the field is sort of a metaphor for where he was in terms of that family. The younger son was in a far country, this guy is in a far field. The symbolism is there, they're both distant from the father. They both come home but to very different receptions.
It says he came and approached the house. And since he hadn't up to that point heard anything, it must have been an indication it was a pretty big estate. This father has a great estate where someone can actually be far enough away you don't even know when a huge celebration involving hundreds of people is going on at your house, which is a way to indicate the greatness of the kingdom of God.
The Jews have been making critical judgments all the way along. Jesus was a master at this. They had to make ethical judgments all the way. There they are, the experts on honor and shame, having been surprised and shocked and outraged by the conduct of everybody, they are about to find somebody they like who turns out to be a picture of them. It's brilliant stuff.
They understand nothing of divine grace. They don't understand the loving heart of God. They don't understand His mercy and tenderness, compassion, forgiveness and desire to reconcile with sinners. They know nothing of that. That's why they don't understand why Jesus, God in human flesh, spends His time with sinners. This is the one guy that makes sense to them.
Finally they have somebody they can identify with, somebody who knows what honor is. He's a Pharisee. He wants to appear religious. On the outside he upholds all the modes of external honor. And so, he arrives. "And when he approached the house he heard music and dancing," and then it should say, "And he rushed in to his father and said, 'Father, what's all the joy about?'"
He knew the father ached in his heart for his young son from the time he was gone. He knew he had gone out to look for him every day. No one had told him yet that his brother was back. Whatever made his father joyfull would make him joyfull too, if he loved his father. But he did not love his father. He only loved himself. It's all about him, his property, his reputation and his prestige.
Verse 26, “So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.” This is shocking. I go out there to sit under the tree and make sure everybody's does what they're supposed to. I come in and you've got the biggest celebration ever. What is going on? And the servant says to him in verse 27, "Oh, your brother has come." Wow, that should have filled his heart with joy.
Verse 27, “Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.” His worst fears, his brother came back, and his father received him. Look at the phrase "safe and sound." In the Septuagint that word is almost always connected to shalom which means peace. He has received him back in peace. This is peace of a full reconciliation between father and son.
This is the worst possible outcome because now the father is using his resources on this party. The younger son has already depleted the whole family treasury by taking his one third, selling it cheaply and leaving, which meant that that couldn't grow so that the older son when the father did die would have more. Now he is back depleting more of these family resources. And the father is using those resources on him.
The son is the favored guest at the banquet but the banquet is really in honor of the father. The town is there to celebrate a father who's merciful, gracious, kind, loving and reconciling. You see, that's the picture of heaven's joy. And the legalist who thinks you earn your way to heaven doesn't understand that God's joy is found in justifying the ungodly and in forgiving the sinner.
The older son’s worst fears have come true. His brother's back, his father has embraced him, which is outrageous. And for the first time the Pharisees are saying, "Yep, that's exactly what he should feel. He should be outraged. We are outraged. And so he can't be a part of a shameful event. His father has gotten the whole community involved in this shameful celebration.
Verse 28, “But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.” And that's the answer to the original issue, isn't it? The Pharisees accused Christ because he receives and eats with sinners. They didn't understand that that is God's joy and Christ's joy, in receiving repentant sinners, prodigals, the immoral and the outcasts.
But for a legalist, that's absolutely outrageous. He had no love for his brother. And he had no love for his father. He is no believer and no Christian. This is the religious hypocrite standing on the outside condemning the gracious work of salvation. Anger is the only emotion he feels. And the Pharisees and scribes agree with that. Yeah, we are angry too. This is absolutely unacceptable conduct.
Legalists don't believe in grace. They don't understand unmerited favor. They don't understand free forgiveness. They don't understand the removal of punishment. They don't understand somebody else bearing their punishment. And so here is a public display of private hatred. But here his real attitude comes out. He cannot enter into this joy because he has no love for God.
This is religious hypocrisy. It's still in the world today everywhere. People who hang around the house of God but they don't know the heart of God. They're trying to earn their way to heaven, which is the greatest deception that Satan has ever invented and it is the characteristic of every false religion on the planet. Salvation comes only to those that are spiritually bankrupt before God.
So the older son has the perfect opportunity, if he chose to, to honor his father. But he is a rebel. He's not an outward rebel, he's an inward one and they're worse. He's a secret sinner. He feels all the same lusts that his brother felt, but he hides them well because legalism never changes your flesh. He's driven by pride more than anything else. And now we see that he hates his father and his brother.
And that's exactly the way the Pharisees were. Hypocrites are religious. They're moral. But they have no relationship to God. They have no desire to honor Him. It's all about their own self-promotion, thinking somehow they can earn their way into the goodwill of people and even God. They are completely alienated from God. They follow the external religious and moral patterns.
Jesus said about them, on the outside they're painted white, inside they are full of dead men's bones, like rotting corpses. Deep inside they are filled with bitterness, hatred, jealousy, anger and lust. And the older son is likely in real life envying the prodigal. He would hate seeing his brother live it up in the very sins that he openly condemns but he inwardly desires the same thing.
He feels like he earned his praise. He earns his position. He earns his reward. He earns his honor by his rigorous, painful, loveless obedience, performing the duties while hiding his secret sin. Well the truth is, the hypocrite is profoundly lost because he spent his whole life convincing everybody he's good and it's a long ways from there to admitting you're really wretched.
You don't need to repent. You're good. Back in verse 7, the ninety-nine so-called righteous persons who don't need to repent. But as long as you don't need to repent like the prodigal, you can't be saved. You can't enter the kingdom of God. Jesus came to save sinners, self-confessed, repenting sinners. Repentance is the key to everything. This older son has no interest in that.
Works may appear good. They may appear good. And they may be on a human level good. That is they help people. They're kind. They relieve people's suffering. They're charitable. They're philanthropic, or whatever. But they are really sinful when they are done by the unregenerate person because they lack purity and they lack a true motive which is the glory of God.
And as such, good works tend to layer the deception so that the person instead of seeing himself as wretched, begins to convince himself by his goodness that he is far better than he really is. So anybody who thinks that by their good works they are earning favor with God is just making the deception further buried in their hearts, and all these layers of good work makes it harder to get to reality.
The father knows he has his second rebel son and we're now going to find out how God feels about religious hypocrites. The traditional Middle Eastern response would be to take the son and give him a public beating for dishonor. But nothing goes the way you think it's going to go in this story. Instead of the father ordering him to be beaten and locked in a room, the dishonored father comes out and starts begging him.
Here the father shows up again in mercy. Here he shows up again in compassion and love and humility and kindness, comes out, goes out in mercy and he reaches to the hypocrite the same way he reached the younger son, the rebel. He comes out and goes alongside his older son. And he pleads with him, and he calls him to come to the kingdom, to come to his house, to come to the celebration.
And this son is like the Pharisees and scribes who were in the house, they were the religious ones, they were the dutiful ones, they were the moral ones. But they didn't know the heart of God. They had no understanding of the joy of God. They had no interest in saving lost sinners. They refused to honor God for saving grace, which has always been the way God saved. They refused to go in.
Verse 29, “So he answered and said to his father, ‘For 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.” Now there is a legalist mentality. He was no different than the younger son. He wanted what he wanted. He just had a different way to get it.
He didn't have the courage of his younger brother. But he decided to hang around and wait till the father dies and then get it. It's nothing but slavery to him, and he was bitter, resentful and angry. Here is the self-image of a hypocrite, "I have never transgressed a command of yours." This person thinks that he is good, because he has done good for self-satisfaction and pride as a way to earn salvation.
But he still feels perfect and needs no repentance. Nobody goes into the kingdom of God without repentance. Here are the Pharisees and the scribes, in the house of God, making a public display of affection for God, wearing clerical garb, and attending religious activities, outwardly good, but having no relationship with God, no concern for the honor of God and no understanding of grace.
The son isn't finished. He sees his father as a violator of righteous standards of which he is the source. "I have never neglected a command of yours and yet you have never given me a goat, that I might be merry with my friends.” I've been the worker and I don't even get a goat. He's done nothing for you and he gets the fattened calf. This is not fair. This is not equitable. This is not righteous.
He is accusing the father of favoritism. But he's also pointing out that when he has a party, it's not going to include his brother or his father. He lives in a different world. He has a completely different group of friends. He parties with those who think the way he thinks. He parties with those who have no connection to the father. This is just like the Pharisees who associated only with themselves.
Verse 30, “But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.” He won't even say my brother, there is so much disdain in him. Here is a celebration with music and dancing and the younger son is having a time of joy. And out in the dark of the night the older brother is attacking the virtue, the integrity, the character of his father.
And while they're all inside honoring that father, he's on the outside heaping contempt on him. These are the Pharisees. They saw themselves as righteous. They saw themselves as just. They therefore sat in judgment on God in Christ and they condemned Jesus for His mercy, compassion, love, and the gospel of grace. And the Pharisees would see this older brother as somebody who holds up honor.”
A Pharisee would think that younger son should be dead. If you spend your money on harlots, you deserve death. In Deuteronomy 21:18 to 21, you get stoned to death. And instead of dead, look at the party. This is incongruous. This is outrageous. This is shameful, everything about it. It's a reaction by the older son who is looking at the whole thing as shameful.
You killed the fattened calf for him. Not really. The fattened calf was really killed for the father. The father is the one who gets the credit. He's the reconciler. He determines who is going to be reconciled and under what terms. He's the one who ran and embraced and kissed. It really was a celebration of the father. But his anger has completely blinded him. And he has no knowledge of his father.
The father is the main figure at the feast. The father is the one they're all honoring for such loving forgiveness. And the people will accept the younger son because the father has. And so it's really the father who is being celebrated in heaven, the joy of heaven, the eternal joy of the angels and all the redeemed that gather around the throne of God and that comes to God Himself for being the reconciler.
In heaven, the direction of our praise isn't going to be toward the sinners. It's going to be toward the Savior. Verse 31, “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.” The father speaks to him in endearing terms and that's the heart of God toward a wretched hypocrite. Sometimes, it's easier to be patient with prodigals than it is with hypocrites.
We all love a story about a wicked, outrageous sinner who is converted, but we aren't nearly as excited about a hypocrite that's converted. Because, that's even rarer. People who are in false religion don't come as often. In fact, it rarely says in all four gospels that a Pharisee believed in Jesus and was saved. The father knows he's estranged. You've been around here superficially.
Everything has always been available, it's all here. If you ever wanted a relationship with me, I was here with everything I have. He says, "All that is mine is yours. I don't ever have to split it up." And here's the picture of the magnanimity of God and the endlessness of His grace and His resources. You'll never earn it. But it's here if you ever want to establish a relationship with Me.
Verse 32, “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.” Divine joy is released when one sinner repents and is reconciled. And heaven's joy will be released not just for a prodigal, nor the immoral and irreligious and blatantly sinful, but for secret sinners, the rebels, the hypocrites, the ones whose lawlessness is all on the inside.
Christ is saying, "I go out into the street for the prodigal and I go out into the courtyard for you. I humble Myself and take on public shame for all sinners. I come with love and compassion and forgiveness and I am ready to embrace you and to kiss you and to give you full son-ship with all its privileges, not just if you're the prodigal, but even if you're the hypocrite." This is a salvation invitation.
The younger son was overwhelmed with his father's grace. Immediately confessed his sin, confessed his unworthiness in the very most magnanimous ways and he received instantaneously forgiveness, reconciliation, son-ship, all the rights and privileges that the father had at his disposal to give. He entered into the celebration of the father's joy. That is eternal salvation.
The older son, with the same tenderness, the same kindness, the same mercy, was offered the same grace. But he reacts with bitter resentment, attacks the virtue, the integrity of the father. And his father makes one final appeal. "My child, it's all here. We had to celebrate,” implied, and we will celebrate for you too if you come. And it stops in verse 32. What happened?
What did the older son do? The guests are all there. They're waiting. Now I would love to write one, but I don't get to write the end. Who wrote the end? The Pharisees wrote the end. Here's the end they wrote. "And the older son, being outraged at his father, picked up a piece of wood and beat him to death in front of everyone." That's the ending they wrote. That's the cross. Let's pray.