Luke 15:11ff “Jesus continued: ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them. 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 . . .’”
There is an obvious break here before the crowd was to hear the parable of the prodigal son. You can see how Luke introduces it by interjecting the two words, “Jesus continued . . .” (v.11). He is still addressing these two opposing groups of people (who themselves were divided against one another). There were the tax-collectors and ‘sinners,’ contemptuous of one another, but all of them irreligious and careless breakers of God’s law, and there were also the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who had lost the real significance of God’s law in the mists of their multitudinous precepts. There was no love lost between the two halves of his audience, and especially from the Pharisees there was no love for Jesus but even some of them became his disciples. But what our Lord has to say in this famous parable addresses them all. One cannot pontificate that the target of this parable is Pharisaic hypocrisy and the real secret of understanding it is to examine the elder brother. Surely this is the clearest of all the parables; there is no mystery to the meaning of this incident. Jesus preached it to a cross-section of sinners and its message of the incredible grace of God to repentant sinners was totally relevant to every one of them as it is to all of us. You may think you are very familiar with this parable and so a little cool in hearing another sermon on it, but Jesus will continue to deal with you through its story today. He that has ears to hear let him hear!
Jesus chose to speak by the means of this unforgettable story. It is an oral portrait of God’s redemption with its own validity and finality. The parable is more accurate and more moving and even more profound than a series of straight forward propositions that Jesus could have made about the sin of his hearers and what they had to believe and do. The picture he paints of the Prodigal Son is very evocative, and open-ended. It remains hooked into a memory cell long after our explanations will be forgotten. The story itself is what we fall back upon more than the doctrines than I intend to derive from it. I want this picture to live in you for the rest of the week; it is of an old man running to kiss and hug his son before the boy changes his mind and turns away.
THE REBELLION OF THE SON.
Jesus tells us of a boy who went to his land-owning father one day saying, “Gimme!” It was not a brand new coat of many colours or a stallion that he asked for but his share of the estate. Receiving this he’d then forfeit any right he had to his father’s land. All that remained would pass to his older brother. Let’s be sure we’ve understood how families like this worked. “When the father divided the property between the two sons, and the younger son turned his share into cash, this must have meant that the actual land that the father owned had been valued and then divided into two. Then the younger boy sold off his share to someone else. The shame that this would bring on the family would be added to the shame the son had already brought on the father by asking for his share before the father’s death; it was the equivalent of saying ‘I wish you were dead.’ The father bore those two blows without recrimination. To this day, there are people in traditional cultures who find the story at that point quite incredible. Fathers simply don’t behave like that; this father (they think) should have beaten his son, or thrown him out. There is a depth of mystery already built into the story before the son even leaves home” (Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone, SPCK, 2001, p.187).
Again, in modern Western culture teenagers routinely leave home to move into a flat in town with their friends, or they leave the rural village to pursue their future and their fortune in the big city, or they even go abroad. Polish teenagers leave Poland in their thousands for the UK, but in Jesus’ culture this again would be seen as shameful, because now the younger son was abandoning his obligation to care for his father in his old age. He cared more about his inheritance than about his father.
Then we are told that the son got together all he had, in other words, he turned everything he possessed, flocks and herds, into cash. He was leaving once and for all, nothing was left behind; he was not returning. Everything was taken. He had no pleasure in the company of his father and his brother; he proceeded to put as many miles between himself and his homestead as possible. He found that old life restricting, suffocating and narrow. He headed for a place very far from where he’d been raised, in fact he went to another country; Jesus calls it “a distant country” (v.13). So he was choosing the life of paganism over the privileges of living in the Promised Land. He was turning his back on the covenant people of God – just like any rebellious young person today who leaves the church. He will have nothing to do with it. He wants no reminders of God. That is such an illogical and impossible step to take, because one cannot escape the omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent God even if one took the wings of the morning and flew to the ends of the earth. God is everywhere and at all times; at 3 o’clock in the morning he can waken you in your bed and call you to think of him.
In that distant country this prodigal son made new friends, spoke another language, picked up new habits and traditions; he wore different styled clothes. “Now I have finally got away from all that I was that I hated so much,” he thought to himself. “Nobody knows me here, and I can do whatever I want, without any comments, without anyone’s frown, without Dad’s disapproval.” He answered to no one, and so he proceeded to taste all the forbidden pleasures that he couldn’t even imagine while living in his father’s narrow world. It was not that in the distant city he would go to weddings and 21st birthday parties and anniversary celebrations. All such activities are legitimate for the disciple of God. Jesus himself went to weddings and feasts, but this young man was unrestrained in his sensuality and spendthrift extravagance. His motto was ‘spend, spend, spend, for tomorrow we might die’ and in that process he gathered scores of hangers on. Every itch was scratched. Every appetite was satisfied. He deprived himself of no new sensation. He sowed to the flesh thinking that this was the abundant life. He never lacked companionship until the time came, far quicker than he had imagined, when he discovered that he’d spent everything, and then there were no more free feasts of roast pork for his cronies, no more hunting expeditions, no free wine, no women to buy. He didn’t have a penny in his pockets; he had no savings, no family to turn to and all his fair-weather friends had left him.
On top of all that a recession hit the country caused by a fierce drought, dust everywhere and unemployment and starvation throughout the land; people were fleeing to the city. The boom had become bust. The dream had faded in the blinding light of the endless burning sun. His friends were no more, and utterly alone he was confronted with the reality of our groaning world, of life lived under the curse. But he could still fall lower still. For a Jew to have anything to do with pigs was bad enough; for him to be feeding them as his new companions each day was more despicable. Could he fall any further? Yes. He was hungry enough to devour their food. It was very bad news. His degradation had now reached a new low. He not only herded the swine, he herded with them. He ate from the pig’s own feeding trough. Sin is a hard master. He was in bondage to poverty amongst the pigs. What began as one thrill after another ended in serfdom. He was like the party drinker who becomes a drunk. He was like the drug user who becomes an addict. He was like the promiscuous person who gets AIDS. The party had become a prison. This is what sin does when it does its worst.
Are you seeing the picture here? Do you see the depths to which this boy has fallen? There is no redeeming feature about this man, from the time he asks his father for his portion of his inheritance and heads off as far from him as he can go right on to the field of pigs. You see you can allegorize this parable and say that the Prodigal Son is ‘the sinner.’ You can say that he is a type of every sinner who’s a long way from God. Then, before we know it, we are saying to every man and woman and those middle aged ladies of the utmost decorum, “There you are with the pigs and the prostitutes, squandering all that your loving father has given to you.” That is not the message of this parable. This man is not ‘Everyman.’ This boy is not your run-of-the-mill sinner. This man is how he is described in this parable, a rake, a fool, a drunkard, a waster, a derelict, a heart-breaker. That is what he is, and he does not stand in this parable as the spiritual symbol of the ordinary sinner. He stands in this parable as the symbol of the sinner in the pits, as far as you can go, as low as you can fall, in the gutter, on the waterfront, on deathrow. He is the extreme, thrown out of low company. If ever there were a son whom a father would refuse then it would be this son. If ever there was a sinner whom God would reject it would be this man, this prodigal, this Saul of Tarsus the torturer, the Jesus hater, this Gadarene demoniac, this John Newton, the would-be suicide bomber, this bigot. He is not an ordinary sinner. This man is on the lowest rung of the ladder, an inch about the surface of the cesspit and sinking into it ever faster.
We can think of the angels waiting and watching and wondering, “What is God going to do with this one?” They are debating whether he is the worst. Such wonderful privileges given to him but all contemptuously rejected. Such depravity embraced so zealously. “Is he the worst of all? Was King Saul the worst, or the Gadarene demoniac, or the prodigal son? Is he worse than Saul of Tarsus?” The angels are discussing it. “Will our Lord receive this one? Surely not him! Never him!”
It means for you and me today that we can never think, let alone say, “Someone who has been as bad as me for such a long time, falling repeatdly, could never be saved.” We can think that we’re unique in our shame, so extraordinary, so guilty, so depraved, so abandoned, so far gone that there is no hope for us. Yet here in this man we meet the worst possible scenario, the most abandoned of men, the most selfish, the most cruel, the most wretched, the most hopeless. Here is the chief of sinners and yet there is a road from where he was to where the Father is, and there is a road from where you are to where God is. Wherever we might be today in the depths of our own abandonness, and hypocrisy, and intellectual arrogance, and the pain that we have caused those who love us the most and the momentum of our own human immorality, from wherever you are at this moment there is a road to the Father.
THE REPENTANCE OF THE SON.
What is the theme that runs through this chapter? It is not that God rejoices in sinners. Not at all. It is that God rejoices in sinners repenting. It is there in verse seven and it is there again in verse ten. So what is this word ‘repentance’? What does it mean to repent? The answer is here in the parable of the prodigal son. What happened to him? Two or three things:
i] “He came to his senses” Jesus says (v.17). He saw what he had done. He realised where his life was at that moment. He knew where he was at. He was far from home; he was penniless; he was homeless, hopeless, disgraced, discredited, abandoned, and so he came to his senses. Again I say to you that this was not a typical sinner, but the worst sinner. Yet isn’t it true finally of all of us that our return to God must involve a coming to ourselves, to face up to our own condition. Maybe like the prodigal our lives bear all the hallmarks of perdition. Maybe our sin is notorious and when we come to ourselves we see it. You see it’s one of the great marvels of the Bible, this book which even at a literary level is a superb document.
You’d have thought, you know, that this man would always have been aware of his condition each step of the way. There are some men so abandoned that you’d look at them and say, “They must know the truth about themselves. They have to know. The alcoholic knows. The paedophile knows. The drug addict is aware what he is doing to his health; he realizes what he is doing to his family and his friends and his church? He must know. Surely he has come to his senses. But you go into the Old Testament and you find that marvelous story of King David. He’d committed two foul sins, adultery and murder, and that man isn’t in the least bit troubled, not in the least. There is no contrition at all. You’d have thought that he’d come to his senses, that he couldn’t sleep at night, that he’d be overwhelmed with remorse. No, God had to send a prophet to tell David that adultery was a sin, and murder was a sin and he had committed those sins.
There are many men and women here today, and their sin is staring them in the face, but they haven’t come to their senses. We are standing on the forecourt of judgment and on the threshold of eternity, and all we have are the baubles, the gewgaws and toys of our materialism, the remnants of our career, some property, some family, some money, some memories and that is all. We haven’t yet come to our senses. Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. We have our own goals, our objectives, our chief ends towards which we are aiming the remainder of our lives, maybe to gather a glittering prize. Then you remember John Milton, that at the moment when we think the prize is in our grasp, ‘come the blind furies with their abhorred shears and they slit the thin spun line.’ What have we got?
I don’t want to sentimentalize, but many of you can recall the tragic pictures of former great statesmen in their declining years, Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson and Ronald Reagan. There were all the achievement, all the ego-reinforcing attainments of outstanding lives, these enormously influential figures with the plaudits and accolades that they had received from nations they had led, and yet, in their final years, what did they have? What were they? It seems to speak so eloquently of the insubstantialness of human attainments, because those men had all attained so much, and yet at the last I doubt if they ever knew it. So repentance, I say, begins with a sinner coming to his senses, coming out of the shadow-lands of life without God into the brighter reality of self-understanding and self-evaluation. The gospel is not a call to fantasy; it is not a leap into the dark. It is facing honestly the reality of who you are. What is repentance?
ii] He remembered his father; the noun ‘father’ occurrs only once in the parable so far, but now in the next six verses from the seventeenth verse it occurs seven times. How important that is. The Shorter Catechism tells us that repentance begins with an apprehension of the mercy of God. You start to believe that though you have been a wretched, proud and vain person yet God might be merciful to you. We know that a man will never repent unless he has hope. It may only be a glimmer. It may just be a ‘may be,’ but he must have some encouragement that going back to God is worthwhile. And today I can give you this encouragement. Jesus said, “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” Or as Eerdman Neumeister wrote first in German:
Sinners Jesus will receive, Sound this word of grace to all
Who the heavenly pathway leave, All who linger, all who fall.
Sing it o’er and over again, Christ receiveth sinful men
Make the message clear and plain Christ receiveth sinful men.
Come, and He will give you rest; Trust Him, for His Word is plain
He will take the sinfulest; Christ receiveth sinful men.
Now my heart condemns me not, Pure before the law I stand
He who cleansed me from all spot, Satisfied its last demand.
Christ receiveth sinful men, Even me with all my sin
Purged from every spot and stain, Heaven with Him I enter in.
Sing it o’er and over again, Christ receiveth sinful men
Make the message clear and plain Christ receiveth sinful men.
I don’t care who you are, what you’ve been, where you spent last night. It doesn’t matter. If you come to him in repentance for your sin then you will in no wise be cast out. There is that hope, that glimmer for every man. What had caused this change in this boy? Somewhere in the prodigal’s upbringing it had been implanted indelibly in his consciousness that whenever things went wrong, and however badly they went wrong he could always go back home, and he must always come back. He hadn’t been taught, “If you disgrace this family then never come back.” He hadn’t been conditioned to the view, “If you let us down then don’t bother to come back. If you bring shame on our name then stay away.” He’d been told, and he saw this truth lived out in the practice of his father, “However low you go, and however deep the abyss or appaling the degradation, you must always feel that this is your home, and here you can return.”
I would beg and plead with all parents that they give their children the same absolute and unconditional security, that your sons and daughters know if you and they face the ultimate in tragedy they can still come home. If they become drunkards then they can still come home. If they marry the wrong people then they can still come home. If they get AIDS then they can still come home. If they get pregnant then they can come home. If they have an abortion they can still come home. If they end up in jail they can come home. They must have and they need that assurance. It is one of the most basic elements in the divine pedagogy, and that is how God trains his children. He wants them to exemplify and reflect his own fatherhood. It gives them this security, and this son comes to his senses, and he leaves the distant city with all its wretched memories and where can he go? He turns to him old home. That is repentance; it is the double turning, from the love of the world and the things of the world, from the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, from all of that, a turning from it, and a turning to God our Father in hope of his mercy. What else is repentance?
iii] He came to his father with an imperfect faith. The boy turned for home and he rehearsed what he was going to say. This is what I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’” (vv.18&19). This man thought of returning slowly along the road he had so eagerly walked a year or so earlier, full of excitement and anticipation of the new life he was going to experience in that country. He wouldn’t return home so speedily, and he was full of doubt as to the kind of welcome he’d receive from the family he had abused and hurt so deeply. So he made up a little speech; he’d say to his father, “I can never be a member of this family again, but give me a job. I’d rather feed your cattle and clean out the barns than feed swine a moment longer in this far away place.” Those were his thoughts; he would make peace with his father by his lowly expectations and requests. He’d lost all his self-respect and now he wanted this simple and elementary status of being a hired servant in his own nation back on the family farm.
The boy could not comprehend the greatness of his father’s grace. He had low views of him. His father was too small in his eyes, and yet his father took him back. His father cut down his speech when he was only half way through it. In other words, you don’t have to get your pleas for forgiveness sinlessly and spotlessly correct in order for God to welcome you. There can be an awful lot of confusion mixed with our coming to Christ and yet God will still answer exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or even think. Through the grace of Christ God will grant our heart’s desire. Jesus doesn’t teach us that unless our grasp of God is absolutely orthodox and our faith as firm as the Rock of Gibraltar that he won’t receive us sinners. The boy went pleading to his father to appoint him as a workman, but the father made him a son.
THE RETURN OF THE SON.
There is a tremendous welcome given to this prodigal debauchee, this man from the far country. He turns the corner of the lane and sees the old house and he is fearful, and uncertain and trying to remember his speech. He is dreading what might be the response of the father he has hurt so much. He is asking himself what kind of welcome he is going to get and whether he has chosen the right words to defuse the situation. But we are told that while he was still a long way off his father saw him, and what his father saw filled his heart with compassion for his son. His father saw him as a pitiable figure, the boy so thin, so bedraggled, looking so wretched, undernourished and weak, maybe so filthy with the smell of the swine still on him, shame and fear written all over his face. But he’d come home.
It was enough for his father to run out to him, the farmhouse door left open, the farmgate unclosed and those old legs running towards his son, running lest the boy funk the meeting and turn away too overwhelmed with shame to walk the last hundred yards. And when his father reaches him, he wraps his arms around him and sobs out his love, wetting his son’s cheeks with his tears, and kissing him as he used to when he was a little boy. “I’ll never let you go again,” he said.
That was only the beginning of the welcome. The surprised servants arrived on the scene and he barked out orders to them, “Get the best robe, and the ring and the sandals. Slaughter the fattened calf! We’re having a feast.” He doesn’t snarl at the boy, “What have you been doing with my money? How could have got into such a mess? What a shape you’re in!” He didn’t say to his son, “Don’t you know what disgrace you’ve brought on us all. Do you know the anxiety you’ve caused your mother? Don’t you know what we felt all the time you were away? Did you ever think of getting in touch with us?’ There’s none of that in the narrative. None of that whatsoever, rather there’s a party taking place. There is soon the smell of delicious roast veal in the air, and the sound of musical instruments being tuned and soon the men and women of the estate are gathering and there is dancing. Why? Because the son of the owner was dead, but he is alive again He was lost but now he is found. Everything is forgotten in the joy of that restoration. It is resurrection day on the farm. There is renewal and reconciliation. “So they began to celebrate” (v.24).
What does this mean in simple teaching if you can reduce such a picture of joy to words? It is speaking of the great welcome that God gives to his own returning children, and how he expresses his joy in the gifts he confers upon us. He gives us all we need at the moment of our conversion. In that very moment God does so much for us. He freely pardons all our sins, all our past sins, all our present sins and all our future sins. What wonderful eloquence is in the father’s silence! Sin was surely written all over this boy’s face and his taste of the world had registered itself in his whole appearance, and yet the father doesn’t mention it. God doesn’t hurl our pasts at us. He forgives and freely pardons all our sin. In that moment we, who have been so unsanitary, become as clean and white as freshly fallen snow. Your sins though they be as crimson shall be whiter than snow.
I am sure that this boy would have begun to murmur some words of apology; “ . . . but what about what I did . . . don’t you want to discuss my shameful actions . . .?” And often at conversion the new Christian does the same thing. He wants to bring up his past. He’s worried about what he’s done. He cannot believe that God simply has consigned it all to the depths of the ocean and it will never be brought from that place again. It is all forgiven. There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus. The past is past and we are to forget the things that are behind.
Then at once we are made sons. It is not that for the first five years we inhabit a lower rank of servant, and then after we have earned that we have the right to become sons. No, immediately the best robe is put on him and that means sonship, and the ring is put on his finger, and that also means sonship, and the sandals are put on his feet and that also is another of the insignia of sonship. Slaves and servants never wore those; only sons, and if sons then heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. Everything in heaven and earth is belongs to us. All things are ours, purchased for us by Christ’s obedience even to the death of the cross.
This man had walked home all the way from the scene of his shame, and in his speech he was going to say to his father, “Make me a cattleman on your farm,” but the father made him a son again, and we are made sons, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood. Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. We are in that moment given the gift of the Holy Spirit, filling us, baptizing us into one body and sealing us, because we might be tempted to say, “Father, I can’t make it as your son. I have fallen in the past and I fear that I will fall again. I can’t live up to being your son; I might disgrace you again and bring new shame and new infamy on your name.” Can we really make it? Can we live new lives in Christ Jesus? Can we be saints? Can we be holy? Can we persevere in obedience? Can we keep going? We bring all these worries with us to Christ, and they are all met. We come poor in spirit to him, and he greets us and fills us with his Spirit. All we need to live to the glory of God he provides for us. All we need to serve God he gives to us. All we need to do his will is freely bestowed upon us to us. That is God’s response. We come to him so tremulously. We have nothing at all to bring to him; we are carrying no purse and no bag, and then God gives us everything we need to do his will to make us zealous in the good works he has foreordained. He joins us to his Son Jesus Christ and we are one in him for ever, his life renewing and fructifying and irrigating our lives day by day. We are met with a complete and free pardon. We are given the sealed parchment of our adoption into the family of God. We are all given the riches of baptism into the Spirit of God. That is the way God welcomes returning prodigals.
What did that boy do as he stood amongst the swine, gripped by the pangs of hunger, stinking of pigs? He made a decision; “I will set out and go back to my father” (v.18). No person ever became a Christian without making a decision, and unashamedly I want you to make a decision today. I want you to say, “I will set out and go to my Father.” Make up your mind to do it now. This prodigal son was transformed, and his recovery was achieved by to his coming to himself, and remembering his father’s mercy and making a decision that he would go home. He was determined, and without that, all his thinking and grieving and longing and rehearsals would have been futile. Many a man and women, boy or girl have stopped at the third point. They have come to terms with themselves, they have decided to go to God for mercy and they have decided to make that decision . . . but not yet. So many of you might be thinking, “but not yet.” But let me add this, that what saved this man was not only that he made a decision. What saved him was this, that “he got up and went to his father” (v.19).
Where have many of you stopped? At the first point of knowing that you are a penniless sinner. Many agree but have stopped at that point. At point number two, “I know that God is merciful.” Many have stopped there. Or at the third point, “I will make my decision.” Isn’t it tragic that we should go so far and still be lost? I put it to you again that the whole issue rests upon that statement, “he got up and went.” Suppose he had all the knowledge of the Bible in the world, and all the conviction of sin in the world, and all the spiritual hunger in the world, and all the moral reformation in the world, if the boy hadn’t gone home then he’d never have known the reconciling welcome of the father, his hug and kiss and the feast of delight that erupted at his homecoming welcoming him back again.
If you ask me what saved him then I say that it was the abundant pardoning love of the Father. If you ask me what saved him then I say it was the journey back home. Both of those; it is always both of those, and that is the journey I want you to make, from where you are to where Christ is; from where you are to where this merciful God is, the one who is slow to anger and great in longsuffering. Let’s indeed come to ourselves, and let’s indeed believe in the mercy of God, and let’s make up our minds to go, but please, having done all that, go! Make the journey from the distant country to the Father’s house. Let’s start now. No more delays . . . no more excuses . . . no more putting it off . . . come now to the Father . . . here he is and he is willing to welcome you . . . doubt no more.
5th June 2011 GEOFF THOMAS