I’ve been teaching a series of classes on the parables of Jesus, and will be sharing some of my thoughts on here. My favorite is one that perhaps you’ve read: The Parable of the Prodigal Son, found in Luke 15. This amazing story speaks to God’s incredible and unconditional love – yes, unconditional. God never says that his love is conditional upon any act of ours, and this parable teaches this more clearly than any other story or teaching in the bible that I can think of. I realize this is a bit long, but I encourage you to take a moment to read through this and reflect.
Luke 15:11-12: Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
According to the OT in Deuteronomy 21:17, the oldest son would get a double portion of the inheritance from his parents. So in this case, there are two sons to which the entire estate would be divided, and there therefore, the oldest son would get 2/3, and the youngest would get 1/3. With me so far? The math isn’t that important but my degrees are in engineering so I really can’t help myself. In fact, if anyone is curious:
Inheritance_Older = 2* Inheritance_total / (Number of sons +1)
And while each of the sons would have a right to the father’s estate, it wasn’t until he died. And so for his son to have come to him in this way asking for his inheritance early would have been crazy; it would have been unheard of. Tim Keller says it very well: “To ask for the inheritance while the father is still alive is to wish him dead...what the younger son is saying is I want your stuff but I don’t want you...I want the father’s things but I don’t want the father. My relationship with you has been a means to an end and I’m tired of it...I want my stuff now.”
What’s even perhaps crazier is the fact that the father gives it to him. According to Deuteronomy, this kind of act, if this son were truly rebellious and disobedient would have been punishable by death. The middle-eastern culture at this time was immensely patriarchal, and respect and honor towards your father was absolutely required. So, at a minimum he would have been driven from the home and disowned. But he didn’t do that; instead, when his son rebelled against him, offended him, shamed him, the father ignored the cultural norms of the day and the bible says he divided his property between them. We’ll come back to that in a minute, but continuing in verse 13.
Luke 15:13-16: “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
So here he is, the younger son has gone off into the world, left the father’s house and went on to waste his wealth in “wild living”. He squandered his inheritance, and eventually begins to get desperate and hungry. So hungry, in fact that he wants to eat the pig’s food, but no one would even give him that.
Luke 15:17-20a: “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
Middle-eastern historian Kenneth Bailey explains in his book “Jacob and the Prodigal” that based on the Jerusalem Talmud and other reliable texts, we know that at the time of Jesus the Jews had a method of punishing any Jewish boy who lost his family inheritance to Gentiles; such a loss would be shameful and disgusting. And so in order to discourage any thought of committing such an offense, the community developed what was called the Kezazah ceremony, or “cutting off” ceremony. Here’s what they would do: the villagers would fill large earthenware pots with burned nuts and corn and break it in front of the guilty party while shouting “so and so is cut off from his people.” And from that moment on, they would have nothing to do with him. And notice what could be a very subtle and easily missed detail: Jesus includes the fact that “he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.” Here’s the thing: Jewish people don’t eat pigs! Therefore, they don’t keep them as farm animals. Jesus purposely includes this detail because he wants his audience to know that this boy didn’t just squander his family inheritance, but he did so in a Gentile country amongst gentiles. Jesus wanted his audience to know that this boy would be subject to the Kezazah or “cutting off” ceremony upon his return, and so as the boy crafts this plan, this is in the back of his mind. He, no doubt would have known about this. He’s thinking “oh boy...I’m in trouble. I squandered my inheritance to gentiles, and I’m going to be punished by the village...and therefore I need to somehow make up this money so I can pay it back and regain my honor so that I’m not kicked out of town...”
So he comes up with this threefold plan; today, he may have had a PowerPoint presentation with these three parts which included the following: (1) confess my sin to my father, (2) act humble, and (3) offer to work as a servant...not as a slave, but as servant. Notice and remember his plan, because we’ll come back to this in a moment.
Luke 15:20b-21: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“While he was still a long way off.” The implication here is not just physically a long way off, but spiritually. He has shamed his father and squandered his inheritance, and note that he has not truly repented of his sin: rather he is clearly looking for a way to get some food and to work in order to pay back his debt. And what does his father do? He runs to him!!! He pursues him even though he’s still a long way off in his heart, and we see this crazy truth and that is that:
God is pursuing you far more than you could ever pursue Him
Look what Romans 5:6-8 says:
Romans 5:6-8: You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
I can’t imagine a more compelling argument that God is in pursuit of us than the fact that he came to earth and died for us while we were still sinners! I’m reminded of the Sistine chapel ceiling, which is full of beautiful paintings. Take a look at it below; I cropped out certain parts for you there. I know, I know “its art”. But hey, I’m more of a left brain science guy as we already established, so sorry!
I want you to notice something here: notice Adam, who simply represents man: you and me. Look what he’s doing: he’s laying back casually, taking it easy, and he very slightly reaches his hand out towards God. But note that God is outstretched forward, fully extended reaching out towards man. He’s pursuing him relentlessly. God is pursuing you and me far more than we could ever pursue Him. Thank God for that!
Notice also that not only does the father run out to meet him, but he threw his arms around him and kissed him. And not only did he do that, but he did it before hearing his prepared speech!!! The father does not demonstrate his great, self-sacrificing love in response to his son’s confession, but rather as a prelude to it!!!! Just like Christ dying for us while we still in our sin, the father runs down his son before he even has a chance to apologize. And THEN the son says to his father “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ And he stops there...nothing else. He doesn’t say a word about being hired on as a servant, or working off his debt, and in that instant his words take on significantly greater meaning than they ever did in his scheming little three point PowerPoint plan.
And I want you to notice something here that I believe is missed in many commentaries and sermons; perhaps you caught it already. But notice earlier, when the younger son hatched his plan for restitution. Notice his objective, notice his motivation, his goal, and his heart. What was it after? Was he truly repentant for his sin against his father? No!! His objective, motivation and heart was to get food. He was not truly convicted of his sin against his family, he did not recognize the pain and suffering he left in his wake! Rather, Jesus says that “he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” He was not truly repentant! He was suffering and hatched a plan so that he could eat. His heart was after food, not his father. So he sets off with a plan in his pocket but is blind-sided and completely surprised when his father runs out to meet him. His father shames himself, and hugs and kisses him before he even says a word. And in that moment, the son sees his father’s grace, his unconditional love and forgiveness, and realizes that he doesn’t need to buy his way back into the house and he now offers a true heartfelt apology and repentance, which is much, much different to his previous manipulative scheme to feed his stomach. And so we see another amazing and critically biblical truth and that is this:
God’s grace leads us to true repentance
Said another way, it’s not repentance that leads to God’s love. You see, God loves us already!! It’s God’s love and a true revelation of that from God that leads to true repentance.
And finally, we also see here something else here and that is this: the father also knew about the Kezazah ceremony; he knew the shame and punishment that was due to his son, and so he runs out to meet him at the edge of town to reconcile their relationship before the villagers are able to get to him. This should not be skipped over too quickly: you see this father was a wealthy land owner, he was well known and respected in his community. And during that time and even today, in the Middle-East, well-respected men don’t run in public. At least one reason for this is that they wear a robe and they think that they look ridiculous running around lifting up their robe and exposing their legs, and so they didn’t do it. And so here we have this father for the second time violating cultural and social norms, exposing himself to public humiliation out of compassion for his son. And we see this awesome truth and will continue to expand throughout this passage and that is that:
God saved us at great expense to himself
And while the father publically shamed himself numerous times by violating cultural and societal norms, he lost a great amount of money and land, he didn’t complain once. He did this completely willing because that’s what true love looks like. In a true loving relationship, when the rubber hits the road, you would do anything for someone...freely!! And that’s what God has done for us. And while it was free to us, we must never forget the price that he paid on our behalf, all in the desire to bring us home just like the prodigal son. And you know what? We’re not home yet. In some ways we’re still on our way, still perhaps still a long way off, but know this: God is pursuing you!! He’s coming after you. Whatever you’ve done, it doesn’t really matter; whatever baggage you may have, it doesn’t really matter; just lay it at the feet of Jesus, and here’s what he does...
Luke 15:22-24: “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
The father doesn’t put him in timeout, he doesn’t put him to work in the fields to pay off his so-called debt, he doesn’t shame him, he doesn’t punish him. In fact he saves him from the Kezazah ceremony and takes HIS shame upon himself instead. And somehow the father does the complete opposite of what the audience would have expected from a middle-eastern patriarch, and here comes the younger son, straight out from the pigsty, starving, hungry, dirty, and look what his dad does. He says “you know what, I’m not even going to clean you up first. You don’t even need to take a bath; here are my robes, here in fact is my best robe and my ring, my sandals.” He says “you can come to me as you are, and then I’ll clean you up.” And this is what God is screaming out to the world. Come to me.
Abigail Van Buren says “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” The moment we forget that, the moment we lose perspective, is the moment we become Pharisees. Jesus says “come to me all who are weary and I’ll give you rest”. He doesn’t say “get your act together, then come to me.” He says “trust in me, come to me in your brokenness, follow me, and I’ll give you everything.” And according to the bible, indeed:
God gives us everything
- He clothes us in his righteousness...2 Corinthians 5:21
- He shares his throne...Revelation 3:21
- He shares his inheritance....Colossians 1:12
- He shares his riches....Philippians
- He shares his authority...1 Corinthians 6
- He calls us Brothers and sisters....
He wants to give us everything that is his! Such an awesome God we have!!!
Luke 15:25-30: “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
And finally, we shift gears now to the “older brother. The one whom no one really talks about since this parable is supposedly about the so-called “prodigal son.” Singular. But the truth is that this brother is just as lost as the other. Look what just happened. His father graciously blesses his youngest son whom he loves, and whom he missed for however long it’s been, and the older brother “became angry and refused to go in” to the party. “Hey look look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders...yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends!” He says “this isn’t fair.” But what’s happened here is Jesus is exposing his heart, and all of a sudden, we see what the older son really wants and that is his father’s stuff, just like the younger son. And we see that even though the older brother has been with his father this whole time, he’s now outside in the dark and not a part of the celebration. Just like the younger son, neither of them really wanted their father, but rather they wanted his stuff. They wanted what only he could give them, the stuff they really loved.
And we see something important: both of these sons were lost. Their hearts were not turned towards their father. Their love was not for him, but for something else. Their hearts were not right. What’s interesting is how their hearts were exposed in this story. The younger son’s heart was exposed through his obvious sin. He left home, he hooked up with prostitutes (maybe), he did some vile, nasty stuff. His sin was obvious and out on the table. Everybody looked at it and said “yeah...I can tell that’s sin right there.” THAT guy is a sinner! I know one when I see one! The older son, on the other hand, according to this passage “never disobeyed your orders” he said. He obeyed the letter of the law. He was obedient, and anyone who were to look at him they would likely conclude that he was a good guy.
Here’s the crazy thing about Jesus, about the bible. The bible actually teaches that we can do good things, that we can live a life that on the surface appears to be good, and that we can do all the things that the bible says we’re supposed to do, all the things that are “good”, and yet, according to the bible, we may not be in right standing with God. Now how could this be?? There’s this crazy verse in Romans 14...that says the following:
Romans 14:23b: ...everything that does not come from faith is sin.
According to the bible, my actions themselves, while important, have less value than my heart and motivation does. And this leads us to another key teaching in this story and that is this:
God cares more about our heart than our outward behaviors
And we see this throughout scriptures!! That if I do “good” without trusting in God, with a desire other than to please God and to give him glory, then my actions are sinful. This is crazy and it’s counterintuitive, but it is absolutely biblical. John Piper puts it this way: “Anything, absolutely any act or attitude which is owing to a lack of trust in God is sin, no matter how moral it may appear to men. God looks on the heart.” And the older brother has now exposed his heart and it is not pretty. His heart says that he is envious of his brother, he is angry at his father, he is presumptuous in what is his; after all, his inheritance is only his once his father dies. And what’s interesting here is in a sense, the older brother is lose because of his goodness. His so-called goodness is keeping him from the father. He says “father, I have obeyed everything you’ve said.” And yet he’s outside in the cold. And so it’s not his outward sins keeping him from his father, it’s his goodness, his self-righteousness. It’s his heart.
And these two brothers, with their behaviors are at two ends of the spectrum, both need a heart change, and this only comes from the beautiful, unimaginable grace and love that God has for his children. And look I don’t want to be misconstrued here, absolutely God cares about our behaviors, but the biggest mistake we could even make is that this book right here is meant to simply be a book of rules, a bunch of do’s and don’ts, a religion. Where somehow we earn good favor with God through our good behavior. Think about how disgusting that would be. Can you imagine a relationship, a meaningful relationship, where you’re opinion of that person hinged upon what they did for you? This would be a horrible relationship, one doomed to failure, and it’s not at all what the bible teaches. It’s about love, not religion. Let’s not miss the point!! God’s greatest desire is for us to love him!!! He loves us already and just wants us to get that. And when we get that, perhaps we can be freed from ourselves, freed from our sin, freed from our baggage, to simply love him back.
Luke 15:31-32: “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The father goes out to the older son, just like he did to the younger son, and invites him into the celebration as well. And so what do we do with this? What is the practicality of this? Here’s what I want to do: I want to leave you with one question, and that is this:
Are you an older brother or a younger brother?
Don’t be too quick to answer!!!! My fear is that like the older brother in this story, many people don’t realize their heart condition because they are so lost in their goodness. This leads to judgment, rather than love, towards the lost. These people are self-righteous and pious, and somehow, according to Jesus it’s easier for the younger brother to see his heart problem than for the older brother. But the good news is this: Jesus doesn’t just invite the younger brother in, he invites the older as well.
I don’t care how long you’ve been going to church; in fact, perhaps the longer you’ve been going, the more important this message is: if you don’t come to the throne of God in awe and wonder, and just say “oh my God! I can’t believe you’ve done this for me!” Then we need to hear this Gospel over and over again because that is the proper response!!!
I heard this story awhile back about a woman who had a daughter who was 28 years old, but she had a mental disability which kept her mind at about the level of a 6 year old. I can’t remember if she had the baby out of wedlock or if the dad died, but in any case she was single and taking care of her daughter. Can you imagine the difficulty? She went through much of her life as a single woman, and she never thought she would ever marry again. But then she met this man, and long story short, eventually he asked her to marry him. As they went through their marriage counseling some things came out. One of those things was that she was really struggling with the fact that this guy really wanted her because she knew that with her came her daughter, and she battled with this. “How could you possibly want all this? All this baggage? All this difficulty?” She struggled with this so much. But they were able to work through it and they went to get married. And the daughter, this 28 year old mentally challenged girl, was the flower girl at their wedding. Can you can imagine how amazing, how awesome this would be? And then after they did their vows, after they were pronounced married, the pastor announces something incredible, and that is that the groom has something else that he wanted to do. And the groom then pulled out another ring and he looked over to the daughter, and he explained that this ring was for her, and that he wanted her to know that he is taking her as his very own. And this girl apparently the moment he said that, she SCREAMED...this 6 year old in a 28 year old body screams and runs up to the stage to hug him and just says “I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU!!!” And where this woman was thinking “are you sure you want me!!” He said “absolutely yes...no question...I want you and everything that comes with you...”
God says that to US: “I want you. You are my children. You are my bride. I love you more than anything you can imagine.”
And the question is: do you get that!!?? Do you think about that?? “Man God you love me?? You want me? With all this crap?? I’m your bride, I’m your child?? You’re putting your robes on me! You put that ring on my finger???” This is crazy!!
The younger son finally got this. He got it. His dad loves him no matter what and his love is not contingent on anything. But with the older son we’re left hanging; Jesus doesn’t tell us what happens with the older son. Does he come in to the party? Does he see his wicked motivation and evil heart? Or does he still feel self-righteous in his own actions?
Man I hope you’re not living life today thinking: “hey God, look what I’m doing for you. I go to church on Sundays. Sometimes even on a beautiful day, when I could have gone to the beach, I could have gone golfing, but God look what I’m for you. Look how good I am.” Or maybe you’re not even saying that to God, maybe just to yourself: “man I’m GOOD!” Or perhaps not even so clear as this; perhaps you simply look at others and judge them simply because their sin looks different from yours.
NO!! Let’s come to our graceful, loving God because we love him; I want to follow you, like little children, like the younger son, like the disabled daughter, and just scream out to him God, thank you!!! We accept this love, and God we want to love you back. I want to follow you. I can’t believe this. I can’t believe that this God would do this for me!!
God, thank you! You are so awesome! I can’t believe what you’ve done for me! I was lost but you found me! God, come into my life and clean me up; cleanse my heart anew. My heart is messed up, God, but I know you love me. God I see this now and I ask for forgiveness. I repent of my outward sins, and my wicked heart. And God, I repent of my evil intentions and motivations. Turn my heart back towards you today. God I need you and I love you and I want a relationship with you! In Jesus name, Amen!!