The Father’s Love for His Two Lost Sons
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
I’m not sure how you’d rank them, but if I were to rank what we might call “The Gospel of Luke’s Greatest Hits,” then my top five might look something like this:
5. The Christmas story, which is not unique to Luke but most often read from Luke 1–2
4. The Road to Emmaus where two disciples meet Jesus after his resurrection from Luke 24
3. The story of the thief on the cross who finds forgiveness from Luke 23
2. The good Samaritan from Luke 10
1. The story of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15, which is our passage this morning.
I’m going to read the first two verses of the chapter, which should better set the stage for Luke’s Greatest Hit. In these verses we read of two types of people in the audience, which relate to the two children in the parable. Then I’ll jump down to v. 11 and read to the end of the chapter. Follow along with me as I read, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” . . .
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. “Heavenly Father . . .”
Whenever you study the parables in the gospel accounts, there’s something helpful to keep in mind. It’s something Jason and I probably think about every time we preach a parable, but it’s not necessarily something we point out on Sundays, but I thought it might be helpful to point out this time.
If I asked you the question, “How many main points can a parable have?” how would you answer? Is it one? Two? Three? An infinite number of main points?
In biblical interpretation, a standard answer to that question—an answer we find compelling—is this: A parable only has one main point, or as many main points as it has characters. I’ll say it again. A parable only has one main point, or as many main points as it has characters. This prevents interpreters from leaning too heavily on minor details and making them into the main thing.
With this in mind, how many points should our parable have? I’m going with three, which is why I titled the sermon not merely the “Parodical Son” but “The Father’s Love for His Two Lost Sons.” And as we’ll see, it’s not only the so-called prodigal son who was lost but the older brother as well.
1. The Younger Lost Son, vv. 11–24
Let’s start off looking at what we should learn from the younger son. I won’t rehash everything, but I will point out a few details.
When the son asks for his share of the father’s inheritance, it’s often pointed out that he’s essentially asking that his father were already dead. It’s only upon death, after all, that one typically receives an inheritance. And as quickly as this son receives the wealth, he’s gone. We read in v. 13,
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.
For the son to gather “all he had” for his journey, it meant that he had to liquidate the equity in the property back home; he had to sell whatever land and tools and animals he had received to get cash. This would have been especially insulting. It likely took the father his whole life, if not longer, to accumulate his wealth. When I say, “if not longer,” this is what I mean. Property rights were more important to Jewish people back then because property was to stay in the hands of specific families from generation to generation to generation. Property and genealogy were bound up together with one’s Jewishness, one’s connection to Abraham and the Promised Land. Therefore, if asking for an inheritance early was equivalent to wishing one’s father dead, then to sell everything and leave so quickly was tantamount to spitting on his father’s early grave.
The passage says the son was looking for a “far country.” Maybe you can relate. How many people here are trying to get to this place? If I just moved . . . if I just got out of Harrisburg . . . if I only could start over . . . if I only went to where there were mountains or oceans or big cities or no cities. This is not simply a “young person thing.” And it’s not entirely wrong to have the itch for a “far country.” To a degree, we ought to have an unsettledness about us. As C.S. Lewis has written, if there are desires that this world can’t seem to satisfy, then we know we were made for another world, God’s far-far country, if you will.
But the younger son’s journey isn’t to God’s Forever Far Country. He instead tries to make that far country, one here on earth, which doesn’t work out so well, partly through his own fault (“reckless living”) and partly through no fault of his own (“a famine”). Now he’s in trouble. The only job he can find is tending pigs. To the ears of a Jewish person, this would have been lower than low. The pigs and the “far country” all smacked of Gentile, non-religious flagrant sin and lostness.
Imagine it like this. Imagine growing up with a father who was a religious, southern, Republican who was also well-decorated for his service to our military. And for the father’s second career after the military, this father owns a local bank in a rural community. The son asks for his share of the family business, which he quickly sells. He liquidates the assets in his branch of the bank, moves to Manhattan, loses all his money in wild living, and can only find employment doing grunt work in the publishing house of an atheistic, non-profit organization which tends to be sympathetic to Muslim terrorists. It’s the only work he can find—working for people that share completely different values.
But all this, I believe, is not the main thing we’re supposed to see when we look at this son. This son is a model of repentance. He’s not simply the prodigal son but the repentant son. When, as it says in v. 17 that “he came to himself,” he comes home to his father and says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21).
For inasmuch as he is a picture of wild living, he is more a picture of humility and contrition and conversion. The son brings no demands. He makes no excuses. He comes only with a sincere apology and an appeal to his father’s mercy.
And what happens to him when he comes home? Well . . . let’s wait until point three to talk about the love of the father for his lost, younger son. Before we talk about the father’s love, let’s talk about the older brother.
2. The Older Lost Son, vv. 25–32
I came across an article this week that related to some of the issues brought up in this passage. The article begins like this:
Sometime in 2014, the former Mayor of New York City, made a pretty stunning statement. It was in the middle of a speech in which he was reflecting on his own legacy at the age of 72. He spoke about initiatives he had spearheaded in [order] to reduce obesity, eliminate second-hand smoke from public spaces, and neuter gun violence on the streets. In each instance, Mayor Bloomberg had demonstrated a desire to promote human health, safety, and flourishing.
The surprising part of his speech was the takeaway, in which he speculated about the afterlife. He said, and I quote, “I’m telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I’m heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.” 1
The first thing you notice of course is the belief that he has not only earned his salvation, but so clearly done so that he need not be bothered by God asking him things. That’s, to put it mildly, something worth discussing. But something else jumps out at me too. As I read the article, I can’t help wondering something. Yes, he’d spent a good many years doing quite a few things to reduce obesity and improve other public health things, but what might this quote communicate about how he truly felt towards those who needed such help? From this quote, it would seem that he was a public servant, but he served with his nose turned up and chest puffed out. In this way, he’s a modern older brother (to use the language of he parable).
This reminds me of what Pastor Jason mentioned last week. He noted that when he flies on airplanes and a stranger asks, “What do you do?” and he says, “I’m a pastor in a Christian church,” the conversation irrevocably changes, and most of the time not for the better. Many times I’ve experienced something similar.
But generally speaking, I’m not sure this reaction is entirely unwarranted. The reaction of “Yikes, I’m sitting next to a pastor for the next two hours,” is not unwarranted. Too often those most connected to “religion” are those who are most insufferable to be around. That’s because too often, despite what we would say that we believe, deep down what we actually believe is that our resume is what earns us the love of the Father, which makes us insufferable—to ourselves and others.
The older brother might have made for a decent employee, but you would not have wanted to have him as your friend. And as for a being a son, the older brother was as spiritually lost as the younger son even though he was geographically closer to the father. In our words, we might call him a lost church-goer.
Look how this section begins in v. 25:
“Now his older son was in the field . . .
Could there be a more fitting description? Of course the older brother was in the field slaving away. The older brother must be working. His status as a son depends on it. He must have his nose to the grindstone, his hand to the plow, his candle burnt at both ends. If he doesn’t, his father won’t love him, or so he thinks. He must be working in the nursery and the café and read his Bible for 30 minutes and hand out gospel tracks, and he must let everyone see how exhausted he is all the time to show people how much he’s worthy of his Heavenly Father’s love.
This makes him insufferable in so many ways. Look again at his words in vv. 29–30.
29 but he answered his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!”
I want to point out five aspects of this “older brother mentality” that can infect the church. First, those with an “older brother mentality” always believe they are being treated worse than they deserve. In v. 29 he says to his father, “[despite the way I’ve obeyed you], you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” Geeze-Louise, can’t a guy who never needs anything at least get some love now and then. No one ever treats the older brother as well as he deserves, so he thinks.
Second, those with an “older brother mentality” always maximize the faults of others and minimize their own. He says he has “never disobeyed” a command. Really? Really? He, and he alone, is the only son who has never, even in the smallest way, disobeyed his father? And then in v. 30, he speaks of the younger brother as one who “devoured [the father’s] property with prostitutes.” But wait a second. We don’t even know if this thing about prostitutes is true. In v. 13, it’s said that the son squandered the money in reckless living, but we’re never told anything about prostitutes. He either fabricated this detail to make himself look better or, at a minimum, he’s simply not able to let the more general description of his brother’s sin go by without rubbing the particular vulgarities of his sin in his face. Older brothers minimize their sin and maximize the sins of others.
Third, those with an “older brother mentality” deflect any blame that could be theirs. Not only does the older brother rub the younger brother’s face in his sin, but he lays the blame at the feet of the father as well. We see this in the way pronouns are used and family relationship are named. When the older brother asks what’s going on, the servant says, “your brother has come home” (v. 27). However, when the older brother makes his speech, he says to his father, “this son of yours” (v. 30). He’s not my brother; he’s your son and this is your fault. Never once did this brother stop to consider, “Maybe one reason my brother ran off to a far country was because I’m a jerk and he wanted to get away from me as far as possible.” That thought never entered his head.
Fourth, those with an “older brother mentality” have a short fuse. They are—at any moment—ready to erupt, even when there should be celebration and dancing and joy.
And finally, I’ll mention that older brothers are always tried. This is not said directly in the text, but I think it’s a justified inference. It’s tiring to earn your father’s love. It wears you out keeping track of other people’s sins and constantly doing image management for your own sin. There is no rest in slavery, only in sonship.
Here’s the list of “older brother” traits I see:
1. Believing you are being treated worse than you deserve,
2. Maximizing the faults of others and minimize your own,
3. Deflecting blame that could be yours,
4. Having have a short fuse, and
5. Being tried.
Now, let me make this more personable. If as you listen to this list, you primary see someone else as being guilty of all these sins, then you need to know Jesus is talking to you. But if as you listen to this list, you can see yourself, take heart. There is one more character in this parable and one more point to be made.
3. The Relentless Love of the Father, vv. 11–32
The last point is the relentless love of the father for both of his sons. The love for the first son is more obvious, so let’s talk about that first.
That father, each afternoon, it would seem, goes up to the rooftop of his bank, to look a long way off and see if today might be the day that his son was coming home. I know a father who once had a prodigal daughter. He called her every day at noon, and she never picked up the phone, but he left a kind voicemail anyway. And then one day she did pick up the phone. And one day this younger son does come home. When he does, the father races down the stairs, throws off his tie and suit coat, sprints to his son and embraces him. And when the son starts in on his speech, did you notice what happens? The son doesn’t even get to finish his speech. When he practiced his speech in vv. 18–19, it was longer. But when he speaks to the father, the father interrupts him, shouting to the workers to begin the celebrations. “My son is home. And he’s not going to come home as merely a worker; give him my ring.” Many interpreters think this ring would have likely had a seal on it, a symbol of the father’s authority and indicating the son’s full acceptance.
In last week’s passage we learned in v. 7 that there is joy in heaven when even one sinner repents. The reason there is joy in all of heaven when one sinner repents is because God the Father is full of joy when one sinner repents, and that joy is contagious throughout Heaven, just as it is here around this father’s estate—everyone celebrates . . . well, not everyone.
We should also consider the love the father has for the older son. It’s subtler, but it’s certainly there. When this older brother won’t come to the celebrations, what does the father do? The father goes to seek and save his lost son. The older brother would spiral around deeper and deeper into his legalism and self-pity and self-justification. But his dad aims to pull him out of it. And when the older brother lays the blame for the younger son’s reckless living at the father’s feet (“this son of yours,” he says) and he maligns the father for being stingy with him (“you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends”), the father lovelingly says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (v. 31). Oh what love the father has lavished upon him!
Let me draw this to a close. As I spent time studying this passage and seeing what many of the commentators have said about it, something interesting was pointed out. Apparently, there was a time when people seemed to critique this parable because the parable doesn’t focus on the cross and on atonement. By this I mean, some have apparently pointed out—and I didn’t read anyone who said this firsthand—that it’s a problem that the father just takes the son back and there is no mention of the cross or how Jesus would have to die for the sins of this son, or both sons, really. The parable almost seems like cheap forgiveness.
But this brings us back to where I began. A parable only has as many points as there are characters. And we don’t just have this one parable; we have all of Luke’s gospel. Said differently, we don’t just have a greatest hit, we have the whole album. When we consider the whole of Luke’s gospel, we do realize the need for our sin to be atoned for and that forgiveness is purchased by Jesus on the cross. Yet each parable doesn’t have to say everything. We should let this parable be what it is. And the primary contribution of this parable is to highlight the love of the Father that would compel the Son to go to the cross in the first place. This parable is there so that when we read about the cross we realize all of the warmth and love and joy that there is for sinners.
Church, whether you see yourself more in the younger brother or the elder, know this: when you come home, repenting of your sin and throwing yourself on God’s mercy, which was purchased for you in Christ, you are not merely tolerated. You are not merely allowed to come into the church and be a slave. God puts a ring on your finger and says, “All I have is yours. And whatever you don’t see and feel of that promise in this life, you will know it someday fully and forever. The true and better far country is coming.”
Pray with me as Noah and the music team come back up. Let’s pray . . .