Of all the people alive on earth today, you and I are the most blessed. Why? Because
this morning … and again tomorrow morning …you and I have the privilege of listening to Jesus of Nazareth - the smartest person who ever lived, as He tells the story which throughout the centuries has been called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” It is recorded by Luke the Physician in the 15th chapter of his gospel.
Luke 15 has been called “The Gospel within the Gospel.” And rightly so! For we have in Luke 15 the gospel in its “purest form,” so to speak. Especially in the parable of “The Prodigal Son.” Which we will discover should actually be called “The Parable of the Prodigal Sons.” And which, we will discover, should actually be called “The Parable of the Prodigal Father.”
Most of us in this room and in the transmission sites have heard this story many times. How many of you have heard this story? [raising of hand]. Most of us. And yet, like me, you long to hear it again and again. Many preachers listening to me today have preached this many times. And yet, like me, long to preach it again and again. One day, we are really going to believe what Jesus reveals in this parable!
One day we are really going to believe His Gospel!
“The Greatest Story Ever Told,” has redemptive effect in any cultural setting. Canadian, British, American, Mexican, Brazilian, South African, Asian. BUT the story really comes alive and does its redemptive work when it is heard in the original context in which Jesus told it. When it is heard in its Middle-Eastern cultural context.
This morning we will work through the first half of the parable. The text we just read. Luke 15, verses 1-24. Tomorrow we will work through the second half of the parable.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
Whenever we read Jesus’ story, we need to remember that He taught it to Pharisees and scribes. It was not spoken to the crowds. And we need to remember that Jesus told the story to justify His behavior, behavior that the Pharisees and scribes judged to be shameful and scandalous.
Now who are these scribes and Pharisees with whom Jesus is regularly in trouble? The scribes are the professional theologians of the day. They were entrusted with the task of teaching and protecting the law of God and all the oral traditions that had worked up around the law. And it was incumbent upon their office to interrogate Jesus about His teaching.
The Pharisees are the devout lay leaders of the day. They were committed to keeping and obeying the Law of God, and the 631 other regulations that had been built around the original Ten Commandments.
Now, although the scribes and Pharisees have received rather bad press, we must not too quickly dismiss them. They were well motivated. They wanted to be holy. They wanted to please God. They wanted to help others be holy.
So do I. So do you. Right? We want to be holy.
The problem was their concept of holiness. For them, holiness meant conformity to the rules. One achieves holiness by keeping rules and regulations. They missed the point. Holiness cannot be legislated. Holiness comes from relationship, relationship with the Holy One. And that relationship cannot be initiated or sustained by mere conformity to rules.
You are Shaming the Law and the God of the Law
Now, here is the critical fact to keep in mind when reading Jesus’ story. The scribes and Pharisees thought of themselves as the protectors of Israel’s Law, and therefore, protectors of Israel’s God. And as far as they were concerned, Jesus of Nazareth was shaming the reputation of Israel’s God. Jesus was shaming the Law. Jesus was shaming the Living God. At issue is the character and glory of the Holy God!
Now, who are these “sinners” and tax-collectors with whom Jesus is always in company? The tax-collectors were Jews working for the Roman government. They would buy the right to collect taxes in a specific region. As long as they delivered the agreed upon amount of money to the Romans, they were free to create any other taxes they wanted to. They were, therefore, “ripping off” their fellow Jews.
The word “sinners” is the Pharisees’ word. You might note that in the
Gospels, Jesus never addresses a human being with the word “sinners”. It refers to people who broke the Law. Such people were considered “unclean,” and ostracized by those who thought of themselves as law-keepers. Sinners and tax-collectors flocked to Jesus.
That is an understatement!
They could see that there was something different about the Nazarene Rabbi. They wanted to be near Jesus. And, scandal of scandals . Jesus wanted to be near them!
Luke says – chapter 15, verse 2 –
“Jesus received them, Jesus welcomed them.”
The word Luke uses literally means “to welcome into fellowship.” Even more, “to welcome one as a member of one’s family.” But the really shameful and scandalous thing for the scribes and Pharisees is that Jesus ate with sinners and tax-collectors.
He ate with them! In the Middle-East, eating with someone means so much more than in a Western culture. To eat with a person in the Middle East is a sacramental act, signifying total acceptance.
I learned this living in Manila. As I mentioned from 1985-1989, I served as a pastor of Union Church of Manila. During the Advent Christmas season of 1985, a new couple began to worship at the church. She came from a Roman Catholic background, and he was a Moslem from Iran. They were working together for a Jewish clothing manufacturer. Roman Catholic – Moslem working for a Jewish worker.
The wife has been coming to worship and she wanted her Moslem husband to come. He resisted. And she asked him, “Come for four Sundays and I will leave you alone”. So during the Advent season he agreed and they began coming.
Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, he became more agitated and angry. He was offended by the things I was saying about Jesus. He was a big man – about 6 feet 4 inches, black moustache and really big. And when he was angry, he was angry.
Through his wife, he invited me to have lunch. I agreed. So one day we met in a Mexican restaurant. A Caucasian of Swedish descend, a Moslem from Iran having burritos in a Mexican restaurant in Manila. But that’s the world we live in.
After lunch, we stood up, and he put his big arms around me and enfolded me. And he said to me, “ if you need anything, just ask me”. I looked up at him and said “why?” “Because you are now my brother.” And I said “Why?” “You ate with me.”
Scandal of scandals!
This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They said out of disgust and anger. Jesus of Nazareth is shaming Israel’s Law. And He is shaming the reputation of Israel’s God. Jesus responds to these accusations by telling the three parables recorded in Luke 15.
They are often called the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. But that is too bad. For the subject of the story is not who or what is lost, but whose is lost.
-- The emphasis is not on the lost sheep, but the shepherd;
-- the emphasis is not on the lost coin, but on the woman; and
-- the emphasis is not on the lost sons, but on the father.
And here is the most important point to grasp.
Through these parables, Jesus is painting a portrait. A portrait of the Holy God whose reputation the scribes and Pharisees want to protect. Here, the Incarnate God, the One who can say “they who see me have seen the Father,” paints a picture of the Father.
This is why these parables have so powerfully transformed human lies in any cultural setting. In the feelings of the shepherd for his sheep, and his actions toward the sheep; in the feelings of the woman for her coins, and her actions toward her coin; in the feelings of the father towards his sons, and his action toward his sons, we discover who the Father is and what the Father is like.
This is so important to grasps: the subject of these stories is the Holy One whose reputation scribes and Pharisees are zealous to protect.
For it turns out, through these stories, Jesus makes things worse for himself! He heightens the scandal!
Let me show you.
The Actions of the Younger Son
Luke 15, verse 11… “There was a man who had two sons.” Two sons. This tells us that we will miss the message of the story if we focus on only one son. It turns out that both sons leave their father. The younger son by travelling to “the far country,” and the older son while staying at home.
The younger son says to his father (vs. 12), “Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.”
That was a cruel thing to say! It is as though the boy said, “father, let’s just pretend you are dead, and you give me my inheritance now”.
Dr. Kenneth Bailey, a Presbyterian Theologian and Missionary I mentioned, spent most of his life studying and teaching the Gospels in the Middle-East. In his book The Cross and the Prodigal, he points out that such a request was unheard of in that culture. It was unimaginable.
Dr. Bailey says he tested this in endless villages throughout the Middle-East. He would ask, “Has anyone in your village ever made such a request?” The answer was always “No.” He then asked, “If anyone did make such a request, what would happen?” And the answer was always, “His father would beat him, of course!” Why? Because “the request means he wants his father to die!”
An in asking the question, the son is shaming his father. I have tested this myself throughout the Philippines, in Armenia, and got the same answers! NO!
What a self-centered, demanding, rebellious, ungrateful son. “Father give me…” Give me – that is the key-note of his conversation. “… give me my share of your estate.”
Now here we learn the basic nature of sin. Sin is not breaking the rules, although that is involved. Sin is breaking a relationship. At the beginning of the story, the younger son has not broken any rules, but he has broken his father’s heart. As we will see tomorrow, the older son keeps the rules, but also breaks his father’s heart – at an even deeper level.
Now how does the father portrayed by Jesus respond to the younger son’s cruel request? In an unexpected way!
As the Middle-Eastern villagers told Kenneth Bailey, the father is expected to beat the son. But what does the father portrayed by Jesus do? Surprise! He grants the request. (v. 12) “He divided his wealth between his sons”
The father gives the younger son one third of the family’s wealth! One third! And he lets his son go. There is another surprise in the father’s response. At this point, the Middle Easterner expects the father to at least say something like, “OK, go… but you are no longer my son.”
But this father does not say that. And in so doing, he is opening himself up more deeply to suffering. He is opening himself up to greater pain. Now remember Jesus is painting a portrait of the Living God, whom the scribes and Pharisees were zealous to protect.
The younger son then gathers together all that he has to set off to the far country. The term “gather together” (v. 13), could actually be rendered “turned into cash.” He liquidates his assets so he can travel quickly. Notice that Jesus says, “he does this quickly.”
(v. 13) – “not many days later.” The reason for the haste is not simply to get on with his journey. Rather, as Kenneth Bailey suggests, “as he goes from one prospective buyer to another, the intensity of the community hatred and disgust mounts. At every turn he is greeted by amazement, and horror, and rejection.”
So he has to move quickly for his own safety! This part of the cultural background will come into the story later on.
The son leaves, goes to the far country, far from his own people, squanders his wealth in “loose living”. That is a Biblical euphemism for “wine, women, and song.” He lives so loosely he loses everything. One third of the family’s wealth – gone!
Then a famine hits. Thank God that it does not go well in the far country. Thank God that when He lets us have our way it does not go well.
When the son had lots of money to throw around, he had lots of “friends.” Now that the money is gone, no friends. And, Jesus says, “ the younger son began to be in need”. Why not go home? He does eventually decide to go home. But now, why not go home at this point? Because he is afraid to go home.
Why afraid? For one thing, he will have to face the taunting and jesting of the villagers when he comes through the village gates. “Ha, ha, ha –you went off to enjoy life! And look at you, hungry, and dirty , what a total failure!” He cannot, at that point, imagine enduring such shame.
Furthermore, the younger son does not immediately go home, because he does not want to encounter the hostility and anger of the elders of the village. They might beat him. They will certainly make things miserable, he would even starve in the village.
Furthermore, he does not go home because he fears the scorn of his older brother. The older brother might say, “You lousy, good-for-nothing-bum! You wasted one third of the family’s wealth. You have no right to be here!”
I am the oldest of five sons, and I can imagine me saying that to my younger brother if he has done this.
Or the elder brother might have some mercy and say, “you blew it. Now get it back. And when you have recovered it all, then you can come home”.
I wonder how many younger siblings are kept from the father’s house by older siblings?
Scribes and Pharisees, if they let you in at all, demand that you first measure up. So the younger son will stay under the famine and not face the scorn of his older brother.
One other thing explains why the boy does not go home at this point. It is the father. He is afraid of his father. He fully expects the anger, scorn, punishment and rejection of the father. The father has every right to so feel and act. He has every right to forget his son-- “you made your bed –sleep in it!”
So the son chooses to stay in the far country. He goes to one of the citizens in the far country – to a Gentile (v. 15). He begs for work. Now here is an interesting point to note. The word “he hired himself” (v. 15) literally means “he glued himself.”
The picture is a sheer desperation. He is forcing himself on that Gentile – “I will do anything!” It’s likely that this Gentile really does not want to help the boy and tries to get rid of him by offering him a Jewish boy something he would reject.
“Sure, kid… feed the pigs.” Pigs were the garbage collectors. Yet the son would rather do that than go home. That’s how powerful shame is. The situation worsens. He would gladly have eaten anything he was feeding the pigs. But no one gave him anything to eat – not even pig-food.
Comes to His Senses
Then, Jesus says, “the son comes to his senses”. Look at verse 17: “How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am here starving to death!”
What made him come to his senses? His need? Partly. Dale Bruner, who taught at the Theological Seminary in the Philippines, helps me see a deeper reason.
What brought the boy to his senses was “the memory of the father.” The younger son remembers the goodness of his father. “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare…” He remembers that the father treated his servants and employees generously.
What a reputation! Oh that my children and grandchildren would remember that of me when I am gone!
So the younger son says to himself, “What am I doing here? I will get up, go home, and ask to become a hired man.” I will face the taunting and scorn and rejection, but at least I will not starve!
So off he goes, ragged, weary, needing a bath, and nothing left of his inheritance. As he walks home, he puts together a speech.
It is in verses 18 & 19. Look carefully. Verses 18 & 19. The speech has three parts. And I can imagine him practicing his speech as he made his way home.
Part 1: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight.”
Part 1 is his confession. He knows that what he has done is wrong, and shameful.
Part 2: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Part 2 is the recognition of the consequences of his sin. He knows that he has shamed the father, the family, and the village. He knows he has broken the relationship. He has no claim to son-ship.
Part 3: “Make me to be one of your hired men.”
Part 3 is his attempt to make up for his sin, his offer to pay off the debt.
So, review the speech. How many parts? Three.
Part 1: “Father I have sinned against heaven and in your sight.”
Part 2: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Part 3: “Make me as one of your hired men.”
And he says it over and over and over again as he makes his way home. And now we come to the heart of the story. Would you turn to each other and say, “We are coming to the heart of the story”.
Remember why Jesus is telling it. He is justifying and interpreting His behavior, which the scribes and Pharisees considered scandalous.
At this point the scribes and Pharisees are listening very carefully.
Jesus says, “But while the son was a long way off…” (v. 20). Yes? “…his father saw him.” What?! His father saw him!
Everyone in that day expected the father to have forgotten the son, to have lost himself in his business. But no, not this father. He has been longing for his son. He has been standing at the village gate, looking and waiting for his son. While it was a long way off the father saw his son. The father was watching and waiting for his son.
Do you believe the Father sees you today? Do you believe the Father is watching and waiting for loved ones that are in the far country? For your children and grandchildren? Do you see Him waiting for you?
Jesus continues, “… and the father felt compassion for him.”
Everyone in that day expected scorn, and disgust and indignation. “The kid blew it. He would not listen. He never listens to me. He had to have his own way, well, let him have it!”
But no, not this father. This father is filled with compassion. The word that Luke uses is the word related to the guts, to the “inward parts” – splangkna. The father is deeply moved. He is ripped up in his guts for his son. What a picture of the Holy God! The suffering Father.
Jesus continues. “And the father ran to his son…” (v.20).
The father ran. In the Middle-East and in Asia, a man of the father’s age and stature never ran in public for any reason.
An Indo-Canadian friend of mine, Soniya Mathew, “that would never, ever, ever happen in India!” And it would never happen in the Middle-East. It is a shameful thing to do. To run in public meant that the father have to lift up his robe, and thereby exposing his undergarments – a very shameful act.
The father ran! Literally, he raced! The father raced to see his son. What a picture of the Living God: the running Father.
Do you see Him? Do you see Him running for you? Running for your children and grandchildren? Running for your neighbors?
Why run? Because he longs to see his son. Yes. And because, and here is where the culture background comes into play, the father knows what the son is going to face as he comes through the gate. The father knows that the son will be heckled and humiliated. The father knows that the son may even be beaten by the elders. So the father runs to head it all off.
Shameful act! Merciful act! What a story!
Jesus continues, “and the father embraced him, threw his arms around him, and kissed him” (v. 20). Literally, kept kissing him, again and again and again.
What a scandalous picture Jesus is painting of the Holy God!
The father should have remained back in his house. But Jesus knows a different father. This father had been waiting, and longing, and suffering. And when he saw his son, he ran to him, threw his arms around him, and kissed him – filthy though he may be!
And get this.
By that act… kissing the son in public… the father shames himself. By that act, the father takes upon himself all the shame of his son. The father transfers the shame of his son to himself. And now, whatever it was that the villagers, the elders, and the older son wanted to do to the younger son, they must do to the father.
While stunned by this surprising, scandalous love, the son gives his speech.
Remember it? How many parts? Three.
The son begins, verse 21, “Father I have sinned against heaven and in your sight.” The father lets him says Part 1.
That is redemptive. God lets us clear the air. God hears our confession.
The son continues, verse 21, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
The father lets him say Part 2. It must be said, for it means we know how damaging sin is. It means we know that sin broke the relationship.
There is a third part. Remember? What is it?
“Make me one of your hired men.” So the son takes a deep breath, preparing to say Part 3. But before he can say part 3, the father surprises him again.
Verse 22 – The father interrupts the son with his own speech. That interruption is the Gospel!
The father cuts off part 3. God will not hear it. We can say it, but God will not hear it. It is irrelevant. God will not let us try to make up for our sin. God will not let us try to pay the debt.
How could we? What could we possibly give? God will not let us try to earn our way back into the family. Oh, we do it all the time. We get busy doing lots of good deeds. We give ourselves to intense religious ritual. We wallow in guilt, thinking that if we suffer enough God will finally accept us.
The father interrupts the son before he can give part 3. For there is nothing the son can do, but come home. That is all God wants.
Come to our senses, turn around, and go home.
As I said, Part 3 of the son’s speech is cut off by the father’s speech. And what the father says is another surprise!
Everyone expects something like, “go get a shower, kid. And put some clean clothes on.” But not this father!
Verse 22 – “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him.” The best robe is the father’s robe. Surprise! The prodigal son is going to enter the village and attend a party, wearing his father’s robe!
What a picture of the Holy God! The father dresses the prodigal son. The Holy God clothes us, unholy sinners, with His own holiness. He covers my rags with His own Holy robe!
There is more… another surprise.
Verse.22: “Quick! Put a ring on his finger.” The ring is the so-called signet ring, the ring with which the father seals all his official documents.
My goodness! The son who squandered one third of the family’s wealth is given authority to manage what remains of the family business and wealth!
Sinners? Leaders in the Kingdom of God? Tax-collectors? Managers of the household of God?
There is more… another surprise.
Verse 22: “Quick! Put sandals on his feet!” Slaves went barefoot. Sons and daughters wore shoes.
There is more… another surprise.
Verse 23: “Quick! Bring the fattened calf and kill it.”
The fattened calf was reserved the highest guests. The highest honor that can be paid to any guest (in that day) was to butcher a calf.
Sinners and tax-collectors? Worth butchering the fattened calf? Honored guests at the meal of the Holy One?
There is more! Yet one more surprise.
Verse 23: “Quick! Let us have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again. He was lost and he is found.”
Jesus reveals that Rejoicing Father. The feast-making God who loves to have a party with those who come home.
Everything …everything the father does in this parable is unexpected and culturally scandalous.
Everything. Everything the father does is shameful and scandalous. Just as Jesus’ treatment of sinners and tax-collectors is unexpected and religiously scandalous.
Jesus defends His scandalous actions by the even more scandalous claim that in Him the Holy One, God the Father, is welcoming sinners and eats with them. In Jesus, the Holy One embraces sinners. It is the embrace that makes us holy!
Do you believe that?
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound …”
The Grace of One Who only acts in ways that honors His name!
Here is the Good news. The news every person on this planet is longing to hear. In the Incarnation, the Living and Holy God lifts the hem of His robe, and runs toward lost sons and daughters. On the cross, the Living and Holy God, takes upon Himself all the shame. He takes upon Himself all the shame of all the sinners of the world. And rejoices as He does it!
So what if some religious folks think that God thereby tarnishes His reputation. All that matters is that lost sons and daughters have come home.
Besides, Jesus is not tarnishing God’s reputation. Jesus is honoring God’s reputation as no one ever had. Can I say that again: Jesus is honoring the Father’s reputation as no one ever had. For this is the Name the Holy One wants to have in the world:
“This Man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Brothers and sisters, it is safe to come home. It matters not what you have done or not done. It matters not what you have done or not done since the last time you heard the parable.
Just turn around, and come home. You may be here this morning, and you want to come home. I invite you then to do so. Jesus says, “the younger son got up and went home.” Would you like to come home, this morning I invite you and stand, and we will pray for you.
Hear the Lord Jesus says to you, “Welcome home! I grab you in my arms and my embrace will make you whole.”
Lord Jesus, as we prayed just about every morning during the Conference, there is simply is no one like YOU. No one else could have told this story because only You know the Father’s heart. Thank You for opening that heart to us. And I think I can speak for everyone in this room and at the transmission sites, we come home. We come home. Amen.