Let Us Pray:
Living God, we thank you for the words we’ve just read. We believe that by your Spirit you enabled Luke, the physician, to write these words accurately. And I pray now in your mercy and grace, that in the midst of the weariness and apprehension of this time, You will make these words come alive in our experience as never before. For we pray in Jesus name, Amen.
This morning we continue making our way through the greatest story ever told. That is what people have called the text we just read in Luke 15.
The Gospel within the Gospel
As I noted yesterday, Luke 15 has been called “the gospel within the Gospel.” For in Luke 15, Jesus preaches His gospel in its “purest form,” so to speak. Especially in the parable usually called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” I say “usually,” for we will discover this morning, it should be called “The Parable of the Prodigal Sons.” And even more accurately “The Parable of the Prodigal Father.”
The greatest story ever told has redemptive power in any cultural setting. But the story really comes alive and does its redemptive work, when it is heard in the original context in which Jesus first told it. When it is heard in its Middle-Eastern cultural context.
Review the context for the parable
As I said yesterday, whenever we read and reflect on Jesus’ parable in Luke 15 we need to remember two points. First, Jesus taught the stories in response to accusations made against Him by scribes and Pharisees. Together the scribes and Pharisees were the self-appointed guardians of the reputation of Israel’s Law and Israel’s God. They were zealous to protect the name of God. A most worthy ambition! As far as they were concerned, Jesus of Nazareth was shaming that Name, and thereby putting Israel at the risk of losing God’s blessing.
Accusation – shaming the Law and the God of the Law
Why did they think that?
Because sinners and tax-collectors were flocking to Jesus. They could see that there was something different about this rabbi. They wanted to be near Him. And scandal of scandals, Jesus wanted to be near them! “Be near” is putting it mildly! Jesus “received” them. It means “welcome as brothers and sisters.” Jesus was making sinners and tax-collectors members of His own family.
And Jesus was eating with them! Double scandalous! In the Middle-Eastern culture to eat a meal with another person is a sacramental act, an act signifying total, unreserved acceptance. Jesus was welcoming sinners and tax-collectors just as they were! And the Scribes and the Pharisees were horrified. So they level the accusation:
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
It is said with disgust and anger. In their minds such behaviour was shameful. It was bringing shame on Israel’s Law. And it was bringing shame on Israel’s God.
“Shame on you, Jesus of Nazareth!”
And how does Jesus respond to this accusation? By telling the parable in Luke 15!
Response – tell the parables!
The second fact to keep in mind whenever we read Jesus’ story is even more important. Through these stories Jesus is painting a picture. He is painting a picture of the Living God. A picture of the Holy God the scribes and Pharisees are so zealous to protect.
Pictures of the Father Jesus knows and loves
Through the interaction of the shepherd with his sheep, the woman with her coins, and the father with his sons, Jesus is giving us a compelling portrait of Who the Holy God is, and what the Holy God is like. And we can trust this portrait! Why? The painter is the Only Begotten Son of God. The story-teller is the One Who knows the Father’s heart. He has lived in the Father’s heart from all eternity. He comes to us from the Father’s heart.
Now, when Jesus opens up this heart in His stories, especially in the Parable of the Prodigal Sons, He only heightens the scandal … precipitating a crisis that leads to His crucifixion. After the scribes and Pharisees hear this story they are resolved to crucify Him.
Luke 15, verse 11.
Jesus says, ‘There was a man who had two sons.’
This tells us that we will not grasp the message of the story until we enter into the interaction between the father and the older son. But before we do, let me quickly review the interaction between the father and the younger son.
Review the story of the younger son:
The younger son breaks his father’s heart by requesting his share of the family inheritance before the father dies. In that culture, the request is tantamount to wanting his father to die. The father, surprisingly, grants the request! And he gives the younger son one third of the family wealth.
The younger son turns his inheritance into cash, heads off to the far country, where he squanders everything he had – one third of the family wealth. Now fortunately for him, a famine hits the far country, and he ends up in need. Things become so bad that he ends up feeding pigs, and longing to eat what the pigs were eating.
Then Jesus says – verse 15 – the younger son finally “came to his senses.”
He remembers how good his father is. His father generously provides even for his hired men. So the younger son decides to go home. Now, as I tried to show you yesterday, that was a big gamble – a big risk. For he knows all too well what awaits him as he goes home:
- The taunting and humiliation of the villagers.
- The hostility and fury of the village elders.
- The scorn of his older brother.
- And, he expects, the anger and rejection of his father.
But, since he is desperate… he will endure it all. He heads home, hoping only to be treated as one of the father’s hired servants. He has a speech. Remember how many parts it has? 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 one of your hired men.”
That would be grace enough! He realizes he has sinned against God and his father. He realizes that he has no claim to sonship. He realizes that the father has every right to turn him away – indeed to refuse to see him.
When he arrives at the village gate, he is overwhelmed by a series of incredible surprises. Everything the father does in relationship to the younger son is culturally unexpected. I use the word “everything” intentionally – everything the father does with the younger son is culturally unexpected.
- The father has been waiting, longing for his son.
- When the father sees him, he runs toward him – a shameful act for a man of his age and status.
- The father embraces him – even when the son is still filthy … another shameful act.
- And then he keeps kissing the son – even while the son is dirty and unclean.
For in these acts, the father has taken on the shame of his son! And whatever it was that the villagers, elders, and older son wanted to do to the younger son, they must now do to the father!
The surprises continue.
The father will not listen to the younger son’s request to be treated as a servant. Instead, the father orders the other servants:
- To put a robe on the son – the best robe, the father’s robe.
- To put a ring on his finger – the signet ring, the symbol of the father’s authority.
- To put shoes on his feet – the symbol of sonship. And
- To kill the fattened calf – the gesture of hospitality given only to the highest guests.
Let us have a party to celebrate the “homecoming” of the prodigal!
In the first half of the parable, Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees that the God whose reputation they are zealous to protect is the God Who embraces repentant sinners and then throws a party for them! The Holy One risks the divine reputation in order to welcome home lost sons and daughters.
Message of the first-half of the parable:
This is why I have referred to this parable as the “Parable of the Prodigal Father.” Everything the father does is culturally unexpected … and scandalous.
Jesus is revealing a
Joyfully celebrated in the contemporary song with the refrain:
“Oh the overwhelming, never ending, wreck-less love of God.”
The story of the older son and the father:
Now, let us move into the interaction between the father and the older son.
- 25-28 – the older son
Luke 15:25 – “His older son was in the field.” Now, the older son represents most of us in this room. We have not gone off to the far country and squandered our resources and loose living. We have sought to be faithful and obedient. We tried to carry out our duties. Someone has said that the older son is the one who only needs to be told once to make his bed and puts his toys away. The older son is the one who does not need to be reminded to do his homework. Or to call his grandmother on her birthday.
Now we discover in the second half of Jesus’ parable that although the older son does not go to the far country, he nevertheless breaks his father’s heart. We discover, therefore, that there are two kinds of sinners: law-breakers and law-keepers. Both stand in the need of grace.
The older son comes from the field where he has been carrying out his responsibilities. He hears music and dancing coming from the house. And what is his first response?
“Oh, Wonderful! Something good has happened. My father is happy.I will go and find out why my father is happy, and enter into his joy!”
No.That is not his first response. His first response is suspicion. There is something wrong with this picture.He calls one of the boys playing in the street outside the home and asks what is going on. The boy tells the son the good news – or what should have been good news.
“Your brother has come home. Your father has killed the fattened calf because he receives him back safe and sound.”
Jesus says - verse 28 – the older brother “became very angry.”
Angry? Why angry? Because the younger son has shamed the name of the father, the family, and the village… and he is not being punished! He is not being made to measure up.
You see, for scribes and Pharisees, “repentance” – without which no one can be saved – means conformity to the rules. You can come back in the fold, if and when you measure up to the rules. The younger son comes home, he is welcomed into his father’s house before he measures up. The younger son does not even promise to measure up!
For Jesus, however, repentance is something else.
- Repentance means coming to one’s senses.
- Repentance means realizing one’s sinfulness and unworthiness.
- Repentance means coming home and banking on the mercy and grace of God.
The older son is so upset because the father has upset his idea of religion and righteousness. But what makes him so angry? Is that the father himself brought further shame on his name?
Let me repeat that because it is critical for the story. What makes the older son so angry is that the father himself has brought more shame on his own name. The music and the dancing, the killing of the fattened calf are all the father’s doing. All for the sake of the prodigal! And it’s too much for the older son to handle!
So, Jesus says – verse 28- “the older son was not willing to go in,”
or as another version has it, “the older son refused to go in [the house].”
Underline that phrase: not willing to go in. Underline that the older son refused to go in.
Why underline it?
Because in that refusing to go in, the older son, who is so concerned about the father’s reputation, shames his father! Why does this shame his father? Here again I am helped by the work of Dr. Kenneth Bailey. He points out that in the Middle-East the children are expected to be present when a party is thrown for an honoured guest.
Eugene told me earlier that that was the expectation on you as a young boy.
I experienced this in the Philippines. When Sharon and I visited a home, key members of the family were expected to be there. I remember being in Seoul, Korea, and after preaching on Easter Sunday, we went to the pastor’s home, and all four of his busy sons had to be there – two of them clearly did not want to be there! But they had to.
The oldest son in particular is expected to “move around the guests, offer compliments, make sure everyone has enough to eat…” In short, the oldest son is to serve as a host. By refusing to come into the house, the older son shames his father in front of the whole village!
Furthermore, the oldest son is expected to serve the honoured guests of the meal. This was a symbolic gesture by which the father of the house says, “you are so important to me that my oldest son is your servant.”
No wonder the older son does not want to go into the house! The father has made the younger son the honoured guest! The older son is expected to come in, celebrate with the father, and serve the younger son. Oh dear.
There is more to the cultural background. The older son is expected to embrace the honoured guest and hand out compliments. He refuses… again, shaming his father.
Are you following what Jesus is doing in this story?
Now, here is the most shameful act of all. If a son disagrees with his father, he is never to reveal it publicly. This is true in Asian cultures also, is it not?
The older son should have entered the party, carried out his responsibilities, and then when the guests were gone, he can express his disagreement with the father. But by staying outside, the older son has publicly disgraced his father. Publicly shamed him. Because the father has butchered the fattened calf, all the important people of the village are there. And he insults the father in front of them all. You see then, that the older son has broken his father’s heart. Perhaps at a deeper level than the younger son.
v.28 – the father
Now, as I said at the beginning, Jesus teaches this parable to reveal the heart of the Holy God. How does the father in the story respond to all this insulting behaviour?
Just as He did with the younger son. Unexpectedly. Scandalously.
Everyone expects the father to ignore his son, or to punish him for his public insolence. But what does the father portrayed by Jesus do?
Verse 28 – “The father came out.”
Surprise! The father came out. The older son refuses to go in, so the father comes out. For the second time that day the father goes out of the house, and thereby publicly humiliates himself. He goes out not to condemn or to punish, but to take on the shame of the older son!
In the first half of the story, we discover in Jesus that God the Father takes on the shame of law-breaking sinners. In the second half of the story, we discover that Jesus takes on the shame of law-keeping sinners.
The father loves both sons. God’s scandalous love is for sinners and tax-collectors… and for scribes and Pharisees. What a picture of the Holy God Jesus is painting!
The father goes out to his older son. He leaves the party … and goes out to his son. And he pleads with his son to see things from the perspective of the father. To see things from the perspective of the father’s heart. It is what God the Father is asking us to do … to see the people around us from the Father’s heart.
I like how an eleventh century scholar comments on this part of the story:
“Look at the heart of this father! It is full of tenderness and love - in that he left the banquet, the guests, and his younger son, to plead with the older son to come in. [and this line:] It is as if his own joy is incomplete as long as one of his children is grieving.”
Now, how does this older son respond to this scandalous love? The younger son was humbled by it … and let the father love him. What does the older son do?
He further insults his father!
Also has a speech
We see this in his speech to the father. Remember that the younger son had a speech? So does the older son.
Verses 29-30. Listen carefully.
It reveals how far he has inwardly strayed while staying in the father’s home.
v. 29 and 30.
“Look! All these years I’ve been serving you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
Oh, how those words stabbed the father’s heart. Notice how the older son begins: “Look!” There is no title of respect, no honorific address. Just, “look!” My goodness. Even when the younger son wanted to break the relationship, he has enough respect to say, “father.” The older son does not even say that.
As Kenneth Bailey observes: “The younger son is a rebel and he knows it. The older son is a rebel and he does not know it.”
Imagine! The father comes out to plead with his son, and the son shakes his finger in his father’s face : “look!”
There is more to the insult. The older son reveals that the father and the father’s friends are not his friends! Listen carefully to his speech.
“You never even gave me a goat to celebrate with my friends.”
Wait a minute…. your friends? Who are those people in the house? The entire village is here. You mean they are not your friends? Then who are? The older son has inadvertently revealed that he is not part of the family and the circle of the father.
So an Arab scholar Ibrahim Sa’id writes:
“the older son is no better than the prodigal son who took his portion and traveled into a far country. The difference between them is that the prodigal son was an ‘honourable sinner’ in that he was perfectly open to his father. He told his father all that was on his heart. But the older brother was a ‘hypocritical sinner’, because he hid his feelings in his heart. He remained in the house all the while hating his father”.
There is more!
The older son attacks his brother – and thereby the father. He accuses the younger son of wasting everything on prostitution, a fact which he can only assume. So he is implicitly questioning the father’s intelligence.
“Do you not see? Your son is a loser…” “The kid does not love you. If he did, he would have saved some of his inheritance to take care of you when you are old. Instead, he squandered your wealth.”
The older son insults the father’s intelligence, calling into question his ability to see reality. But the most painful insult of the speech is the last line of his speech.
“All these years I have served you and never disobeyed your orders.”
Do you hear him? “All these years I have served you and never disobeyed your orders.” The older son is saying he thinks his relationship with the father is based on keeping the rules. If he kept the rules and did his duty, they had a relationship.
But what kind of relationship is that? It’s not parent-child, but master-slave.
Do you see the tragedy? All those years the older son missed the point; like so many of us - older sons and daughters.
The younger son came home with a speech. It had three parts. Part three: “make me to be one of your hired men.”
He thought he could get into good standing with his father by working, by earning. He discovered it is all a matter of grace. Do you see the tragedy in this story! The older son has been living part three of the younger son’s speech all his life!
“All these years I have been serving you.” Stayed home. Never went to the far country. But he never knew the father’s heart.
Compare with the speech of the younger son!
Everything the older son does wounds and insults the father. So how does the father portrayed by Jesus respond to all this further insult?
You guessed it… scandalously!
Again, everyone in that culture expects the father to be furious. But instead, the father humiliates himself before the whole village. The father could have ordered the son to carry out his duties. But what would that have gained? So the father again pleads with the older son.
v. 31-32 – the father
verse 31 “My son,” says the father – This word translated “son” is a very tender and affectionate word. “My child, my child.” It’s more tender and affectionate than the word the father used for the younger son. That’s because older sons and daughters often need extra reassurance that we belong.
“My child.” The father continues – verse 32- “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”
And his speech
The father assures the older son of his status and his rights. The “home-coming” of the younger son does not threaten the older son. God the Father is full of grace. When He gives grace to others, He does not take it from us. There is plenty of grace to go around – for younger son and older son. And then the father opens his heart to his son.
“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.”
Jesus reveals the pleading Father. The God who pleads with His children to enter into the joy He has in being gracious. If the message to the younger son is “come home,” the message to the older son is “come in.” Come in to the father’s heart. All those years the older son thought he was in the father’s house because he was so good, so faithful, so obedient. So when the younger son gets to come home freely, without having to serve for a while, without having first to conform to all the rules, his brother was jealous and angry.
Scribes and Pharisees think their relationship with God is based on their performance and character. They therefore demand that sinners and tax-collectors relate to God on the same terms: performance and character. Whenever you or I think we that we are in the Kingdom of God because we earned it, we will expect others to earn it too. But we did not earn it!
Hear the words of the pleading father: “My child, my child. Thank you for all your service. Thank you for all your diligence. Thank you for seeking to be holy. But that is not why you belong to me. You belong to me simply because I love you.”
So, the message of the second half of the parable:___________________
In his classic book Dynamics of A Spiritual Life, Richard Lovelace observes how rampant the “older brother syndrome” is in the church.
“Many professing Christians draw their assurance of acceptance with God from their sincerity, from their past experience of conversion, from their religious performance or from the relative infrequency of their conscious will-ful disobedience. Few know how to start each day with a thoroughgoing stand upon Luther’s platform: you are accepted, looking outward in faith and claiming the wholly alien righteousness of God as the only ground of acceptance” .
I am in the family of God for one reason: the Father came out to me, and His Only-Begotten Son, took on my shame, and welcomed me in scandalous love. There is no other reason.
What are we going to do in response to Jesus’ parable? How are you and I going to respond to this portrait of Jesus’ Father?
Younger brothers and sisters, you law-breakers, you who have gone off to the far country. Come home! It is safe to come home. The Father is waiting, and He will run to you and embrace you with scandalous love.
Older brothers and sisters, you law-keepers, you have been in the Father’s house and serve these many years. Come in! The Father is pleading, come into my heart. Let me love you simply because I love you. Let me be to you a different kind of Father!
How do we respond today?
Now I am sure you have noticed that Jesus ends His parable “in mid-air,” so to speak. There is no closure, there is no conclusion. We are not told what the older son will do in response to the scandalous love of his father. So we are left with the question: How should the story end?
In light of the cultural setting of the story, there are really only two possible endings to the story.
One finds the older son humbling himself. He recognizes how far he has strayed from the father’s heart; he recognizes that he has rebelled against and insulted the father. So he gives in and lets the father love him.
That is one possible ending.
The other possible ending finds the older son hardening his heart. This ending has the older son deciding that he now must vindicate the name of the family which the father has shamed.
So Kenneth Bailey cautiously speculates: “Is this not the end of the story:
[Holds up the stick and shakes it]
‘The older son in great anger took his stick and he beat his father’?”
I was among the people of Eather Garde in northern Philippines. I was there for the celebration of a new Bible translation made by Wycliffe. I taught this parable and I ask the people how should it end?
The lead elder was sitting in the front row. His name was Francis. He would not look at me and he would not look at the translator. Finally the translator said to Francis: “You are going to shame Mr. Johnson unless you answer the question.”
So this small humble Filipino with his walking stick stood up. He would not look at me. And he said, “this is how the story ends: the older son in great anger took his stick and beat his father.”
And is that not what the scribes and Pharisees ended up doing? They could not handle Jesus’ portrait of the Holy One’s heart. So, in the name of holiness, they killed the Holy One’s manifestation. The accusation, “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them” gives way to, “crucify! crucify! crucify!”
And they did. They killed the embodiment of the Father’s love. And then, from the cross, one more scandalous word: [hold stick over the back of his neck with both hands]
“Father… forgive them… they do not know what they are doing.”
[puts down the stick] [quiet moments]
“Lord Jesus, thank You for revealing Your Father’s heart to us. We would have never figured this out on our own. We would project our own experience on the Father. You have lived in the Father’s heart for all eternity, and now You have come to show us what that heart is all about. Draw us all the way in, that we might be alive and this scandalous love, and help us then turn to those around us, and love them just as scandalously. There simply is no One like You. All Praises be unto You. Amen.