Sermon from Sunday March 10th 2013 4th Sunday in the Season of Lent
The Prodigal Sons
Our sermon text this morning is found in Luke's Gospel, chapter 15. I'm reading the first three verses:
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable:
New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®
The parable we're looking at this morning is one of the best-known parables in the entire Bible. The story, of course, is well-known. The message is clear. This parable still has a powerful impact on those who hear it, even today. To us, this is "The Parable of the Prodigal Son." As we hear the story, the younger son initially catches our attention. We follow the events of his life. All of us, in one way or another, can identify with the Prodigal Son. That's why the story never loses its relevance.
When we look more closely at the parable, however, we’re reminded that the father had TWO sons. And when we look more closely, we realize that the parable also has much to say about the father's elder son. Twelve verses in Luke, chapter 15 are dedicated to the younger son. And seven additional verses focus on the elder brother. So both sons are important in the story. This morning, I want you to know that the elder brother is not an optional addition to the story. He’s absolutely central to the proper understanding of it. I pray that God would bless our consideration of this important part of His Holy Word this morning!
The first three verses of Luke, chapter 15 are Luke's introductory comments to the parable. And not just to this particular parable, mind you, but to three different parables, all found in this chapter of Luke. All three of those parables deal with something lost: first, a lost sheep; second, a lost coin; and third, a lost son. Or, perhaps, to be more accurate, I should say lost sons, plural. We need to remember that all of these parables were told by Jesus to the same audience and for the same reason. They were all directed to the Jewish religious leaders – the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Jesus hoped that they would see themselves in each one, and change their behavior accordingly.
Luke tells us that the Jewish religious leaders were upset with Jesus because of the kind of people he hung around with. In this case, it was the fact that Jesus was socializing with tax collectors and sinners. And, if socializing with these folks wasn't bad enough, Jesus sat down to eat with them. Back in those days, eating with someone meant that you recognized them as a worthwhile person. The Jewish leaders were scandalized by this behavior. Unlike Jesus, the religious leaders scrupulously avoided people like this. To them, these people were unclean. Tax collectors worked hand in hand with the Romans. For that reason, they were thought of as traitors and turncoats by the Jews. It was into this kind of context, then, that Jesus introduced the three parables on LOSTNESS that we find in Luke chapter 15.
The story, of course, is very familiar. A father had two sons. The younger son, as you know, chafed under his father's authority at home and wanted to leave. So, he took his share of the inheritance early and left his Father’s house. His father didn't have to give him the inheritance early, but he did. He was willing to take a risk with his younger son. So, money in hand, the younger son left for the far country. He left home for a place that played the game of life by a totally different set of rules. And you know the story – the younger son squandered his inheritance. He had a great time – for a while. But then he hit the wall. We’re told that there was a severe famine in that land. The younger son was soon broke – penniless. As my father once said, it didn’t take him long to go from the penthouse to the outhouse.
The younger son hit rock bottom. He did manage to get a job – but it was looking after pigs, something no self-respecting Jewish person would want to do. But there he was, in the pig pen. The food that the pigs were eating looked good to him. He quickly learned an important lesson – he learned that life in the far country wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. The far country was a place where people thought only about themselves. His fair-weather friends were long gone. And he was alone.
While he was away from his father's house, the younger son had a chance to see things in a whole new way. He thought about the fact that his father's hired men had more to eat then he did. From the perspective of the far country, his father's house looked quite different from the way it used to look. So he made up his mind to go back. He knew that he couldn't return expecting the same relationship with his father that he used to have – after all, he'd squandered his inheritance. He knew that if he returned, it would have to be as one of his father's servants. If he returned, he’s have to pay room and board. But that was better than what he presently had.
So he went returned home, rehearsing along the way what he was going to say to his father. He returned, expecting his father to be angry with him. But while he was still a long way from the house, his father saw him on the road. The truth is that his father had been looking for him. And instead of receiving a stern lecture from his father, which wouldn’t have been necessary anyway, his father ran up to him and embraced him. Instead of being put on probation, which wouldn’t have been necessary, considering his change of heart, his father showered him with blessings. Instead of being made one of the servants, his father accepted him back with the full rights and privileges of a son.
So there you have it – the first half of the story. In this first part of the story, we learn a great deal about the prodigal son, and we learn a fair bit about the father. But what about the elder brother? After all, he’s the one that Jesus wants the Jewish religious leaders to identify with. Well, being a conscientious, hard-working fellow, the elder brother was out in the fields when his brother returned. As a matter of fact, due to his work responsibilities, he wasn’t actually there to see the reunion of father and son. When he got back to the house, he asked a servant what was going on. The servant said that his brother was back and that everyone was rejoicing because they had him home safe and sound.
Now this, of course, is where things get really interesting. Now, you'd expect the elder brother to share the joy and excitement of having his long-lost sibling home. You'd expect him to join the celebrations. But, if that’s what you expected him to do, you’d be disappointed. That’s because the elder brother wasn't joyful – he was angry, and he said so. The father, ever gracious, begged his older son to join the celebrations. He pleaded with his son. I'm reading Luke chapter 15, verses 29 and 30. Listen to the elder brother’s tone of voice:
29 … ‘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. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (N.I.V.)
The elder son's attitude is clearly one of contempt – disrespect for his loving father. He's short-tempered and angry. He’s self-righteously hard done by.
He has a five-point argument:
- FIRST -- "I've slaved for you," he said, “while this useless brother of mine was out on the town, I was out in the fields in the heat of the day.”
- SECOND -- "I've never disobeyed you," “while my brother was out there breaking every rule in the book.
- THIRD -- "You’ve never even gave me a young goat for a celebration," but my brother gets the very best of everything. And, for what?”
- FOURTH -- "I've always been careful with your resources," but this son of yours tossed your inheritance to the four winds.”
- FIFTH -- "I've got good friends, fine upstanding friends," but this son of yours hangs around with the lowest of the low.”
You may have noticed that the elder brother wouldn't even stoop to pronounce his younger brother's name. He just refers to him as "this son of yours." It’s as if he’s saying:
“He’s your son, dad.”
“He’s your problem.”
His father, of course, had every right to be angry with such a self-righteous display. But he wasn’t angry.
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’” (N.I.V.)
Notice what’s happening here. The father pleaded with his stubborn son. He begged him to see the bigger picture. He reminded his elder son of their close relationship:
"You are always WITH ME," he said.
He spoke of the blessings he had shared – and would share in the future – with his elder son:
"Everything I have is yours!"
The bottom line?
"We had to celebrate.
As I mentioned earlier, the parable of the Prodigal Son could just as easily be called the Parable of the Lost Sons. It’s clear that both sons had a problem. But the younger son dealt with his. The elder son, on the other hand, wouldn't admit that he had a problem. The younger son learned the hard way that living in the far country is living without hope. In the far country, there’s no room for God in the hearts of the people. In the far country, people give up
- plenty for poverty,
- freedom for slavery, and
- honor for shame.
The far country says, "You can have it all." But it doesn't deliver on its promise. Everything in the far country, even the food, doesn’t satisfy. The younger son learned an important lesson about repentance. In this parable, we can see why tax collectors and sinners found Jesus so attractive. Jesus didn't condemn them, as the religious leaders did. He didn’t avoid them, or shun them. Instead, he offered them forgiveness and a brand new start in life.
In the parable before us this morning, Jesus clearly pointed out the self-righteousness of the religious leaders. He showed that repentance comes to those who, enabled by the Holy Spirit, openly and sincerely admit their sins. Salvation comes to those who renounce their own righteousness and cling tightly to the righteousness that God gives them through His Son. The younger son represents those who leave the Christian faith for a while and eventually return, wiser and more mature, never to leave again.
The elder son, however, is a totally different story. He represents religious people who want to play the game by their own rules. He represents those who believe that their good works will please God and earn his favor. When you think about it, the younger son is easier to deal with, although his sin seems, at first, to be more extreme. The elder son, on the other hand, is a tough nut to crack because he’s convinced himself that he doesn't need to change. Self-righteous people deceive themselves about the consequences of sin.
The elder brother was self-righteous. He wouldn't think of confessing his sin because, as far as he was concerned, he had no sin to confess. Jesus told this parable with the hope that the Jewish religious leaders would see themselves in it and confess their sin of self-righteousness. Jesus was upset because the Jewish religious leaders scorned the tax collectors and those they called "sinners" instead of offering them God's hope and forgiveness. Jesus was upset because the Jewish leaders isolated themselves, finding fault with others, while seeing no need to confess their own sins.
Both sons both had a problem, but the elder son's problem, it seems to me, was most difficult to deal with. The younger son, moved to repentance by God’s Holy Spirit, made a new start in his life. But the elder son stubbornly held on to his old ways and his old attitudes. Jesus’ parable clearly teaches that God gladly receives repentant sinners. What we have here in this parable is Jesus' response to the Pharisees’ loveless brand of religion. Some of us can identify with the younger son in the parable. Others may identify with the older brother and his attitude. But no matter what our sin, Christ is our gracious Savior and Lord. He died on the cross for our sins, whatever they may be, and He was raised from the dead for our justification. In Him, we have an abundant life in the here and now, and the promise of eternal life with Him in heaven. Amen.
Let's Pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – Remind us of the truths taught in this parable. Keep us from the futility and emptiness of life in the far country. And keep us also from the elder brother’s loveless, pride-filled attitude. In Jesus’ name.