THE FOLLOWING IS A SERMON THAT I DID AT NORTHMINSTER CHURCH ON JANUARY 14, 2018. YOU CAN LISTEN TO THE FULL SERMON HERE. I am indebted to Timothy Keller, Matt Chandler, and Kenneth Bailey for helping me rethink this parable every time I study it and preach it again.
To understand this parable, you have to understand two things
The first is- Who is hearing the parable? The beginning of Luke 15 tells us: “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.”
Tax Collectors and Sinners were a group of people. Tax collector not a cheat trying to get rich. Not like a bad used car salesman. They were sell outs who made money by supporting the occupying armies. They were traitors. They were hated by the community. Sinners are a class of people who, because of illness or livelihood, could never enter the Temple. This included deformities and diseases such as the blind, lame, bleeding, or lepers, and jobs such as prostitution, working as a mercenary for the Romans, and the tax collectors.
These people are drawing near to hear him. They were taught that they were outcast and cursed by God. They can never be made right with God. But they are attracted to the teachings of Jesus, and welcomed by him.
The Scribes and Pharisees are the other side of spectrum. They are super religious and upright. They believe they have gained favor with God and have a special relationship with God. And they are questioning why Jesus would associate with these Tax Collectors and Scribes.
Jesus gives this parable to these two specific groups, and you can’t understand the parable if you don’t understand those groups.
The second thing you have to understand to get the parable is Who is the star of the parable?
We call this the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is a bad name for the parable, and puts us in the wrong mindset to understand it. Jesus introduces the parable by saying, “There was a man who had two sons.” So the parable is about the Father, and there are two sons, and we are meant to compare the two sons to ultimately say something about the Father.
So, Let’s get into the story. Act 1: The Lost Younger Brother
The younger goes to his father and demands his share of the estate. In those days, your land was who you were. Your land was your livelihood and your family heritage. So to help keep the family livelihood together, when a patriarch died, the property was divided among his sons.
But here is the thing, this all happened at the Father’s death. To go and demand your estate while the Father was alive was a shameful and terrible thing to do. This was to wish your father dead. It was to say, “I want your stuff, but I don’t want anything to do with you.”
This was also a very public comment. The father did not have money in the bank, or stock. To give the son his share, he would have had to liquidate assets. He would have had to sell part of the property, the vineyard, the sheep… So everyone in the community would have known what was happening.
What this father should have done is shamed and disowned the son. He should have chased the son out of the house and never spoken to him again. The community would have understood. But instead, this Father gave this nasty son what he asked for. He divided his property, but the word for property in Greek is bios meaning life. This is the same word we get the word biology from. Your property was so much a part of your life that the word for property is the word for life. So, in a sense, the father divides himself, he divides his life for the son who rebels against him. He loves the son even in the son’s rejection of him.
The younger brother then goes to a far away land and spends all his money on reckless living. This is actually what the word prodigal means. We use the word Prodigal to describe rebellious children that leave home, but we do that because of this story. The word actually just means to spend lavishly.
So, he spends like crazy, on what we are not told, though the elder brother thinks it is on women. Then a drought hits the land. He is broke. He has no family to turn to in this land. And he ends up working feeding pigs, and so hungry that he would eat what the pigs were eating. Think about his—are pigs good or bad animals for Jews? Bad. They are unclean. Being a pig worker would likely put you in the category of sinner—unwelcome in the temple.
But the son comes to his senses. He hatches a plan. He knows there is no way his father will take him back. That is out of the question. But if he goes back and becomes a hired servant, then he would be able to survived, and could learn a craft and start to pay my father back.
Both groups listening to the parable understand this plan. Come groveling back, stay in the status of sinner, work as a servant. Spend your whole life trying to come back from your mistakes. The sinners and the tax collectors identify with this. The Priests and Scribes recognize this as exactly what those sinners and tax collectors deserve.
But the parable takes a shocking twist. The Father sees the younger son a ways off in the distance. For how many days had he scanned the horizon, hoping and praying that his son would come home. And when he sees him, he takes off running to him.
Middle Easter patriarchs did not run. Children ran. Women could run. Young men could run. But patriarchs—no way. You would have to pick up your cloak and expose your legs. But this father runs and embraces his son and kisses him. This father actually acts more like a mother.
The son begins his apology and his plan, just as he had been practicing it over and over on the long walk home. But the father will have none of it. He interrupts before the apology even gets going. He tells the servants to bring the best robe—that would have been his robe. And he puts his ring on him. Your ring was the authority of the family. It was also the credit card of the day. It would have had a seal on it that would give the carrier the right to do business in the name of the father.
The father will not even consider making his son a servant. This son is instantly a son again. He then slays the fatted calf. Understand, meat was expensive and would not keep well without refrigeration. A fatted calf was expensive and would have fed the whole community. So the whole village is invited to the party.
The son that was dead is alive. The son that was lost is found. In most interpretations of the parable, that should be the end. But there is another part to the story.
Act 2: The Lost Elder Brother- The elder brother is off working in the fields. No one tells him of his brother’s return. The whole community has been invited to a party, but the elder brother does not know about it. He finds out about the party when he hears the music and dancing a long way off. Note: you know it is a rocking party when you hear the dancing a mile off. This party is epic.
But when the elder brother hears that the party is for his younger brother, he refuses to go into the party. The father goes out to meet him in the field. This is again a public rejection of the father, this time by the elder brother.
Listen again to the elder brother’s words: “‘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, fwho has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!”
He does not address his father as father, but begins “look.” It could be translated into English something like “Look you!” We can imagine his finger pointed at his father. He says he has served his father these many years. The word is really slaved. I have slaved for you for these years, but you never even gave me a goat. But then this “son of yours” comes back. He will not call him his brother. It is this son of yours. He is outraged at his father’s reckless spending.
But the father replies: “‘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 iwas dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
He tells this elder brother that all he has is yours. If the elder brother had not enjoyed the Father’s stuff it is not because the father was unwilling to give them.
The father is once again rejected by a son that seems to want his stuff, but not him. Yet, again, look at the grace of this father. He does not yell at the elder brother, or drag him into the party. He goes out and entreats him. He begs him. He pleads with him. Come to the party. Be part of my joy.
Interestingly, there is no Act 3 to this parable. It simply ends. A cliffhanger that leaves us wondering what happened. Will the elder brother go into the party? But that is the point.
Do you see what Jesus has done? He has masterfully painted both audiences into the story. The sinners and tax collectors are the younger brother, and the priests and scribes are the elder brother. These younger brothers are coming to Jesus and listening, but the elder brothers in the crowd are judging the younger brothers and Jesus’ response to the younger brothers.
And the expectations of both sons are blown away. We have two sons—one is very good and one is very bad, but both are alienated from the Father. They did not love the father, they wanted the father’s things. The sons are both lost. The bad one is lost in his badness and his good son is lost in his goodness.
Jesus is showing that there are two ways to be lost from God—one is by being really bad and outright rejecting God, so that you think God could never love or forgive you. The other is to be so good and holy that you don’t think you need God, or God should love you, but this is also a rejection of God.
This seems as wrong to us as we hear the story as it would have for those in the original crowd. The good one should be in and the bad one should be out. But the parable ends with the reverse.
Today you stand in the crowd hearing this parable. Which brother are you?
Maybe you are a younger son. You have rebelled. You have run as far away from God as you could, done terrible things, and feel like you could never come back to the love of God.
Or maybe you are the elder brother. You have been good your whole life, never left home, always volunteered for lots of stuff at church, but you don’t have a deep or authentic relationship with God. In fact, when life does not go your way, you get mad at God, because God owes you something. In fact, God is lucky to have you.
By the way, the Greek word for elder is presbuteros. You may not realize it, but you know this word. Presbuteros is a word used to name a form of church government led by elders called Presbyterian. The Elder brother is the Presbyerian brother.
But lets be sure we don’t get too wrapped up in the brothers, because, according to Jesus, the star of the parable is the Father. And this father is unlike any earthly father, just as this God is unlike any other perspective of God. This is why the early Christians were called atheists—because their God did not even remotely resemble other Gods.
This father is publicly rejected by two sons who want stuff from him but don’t want him, but does not react in anger, as he rightly could do. Instead, this father extends grace and more grace. He sacrifices and gives and gives and pleads and loves these sons when they deserve the opposites.
Remember that the word prodigal actually means to spend lavishly. It is actually the Father who spends the most lavishly. He represents our prodigal God, who gives and gives to us.
So if you are a younger brother, and you have run the other way and been bad, I want you to get this image of God watching in the distance for you to return, and this father running to you and embracing you. You can’t be too bad that this God will not put his cloak on you and welcome you as a son or daughter.
And, if you are that elder brother, that Presbyterian brother, and you have slaved for God but not ever let him be your father, I want you to hold onto this image of God coming to you and pleading with you, begging you, come into the party. Come into the party. All that I have is yours.
That is our God. He sacrifices and spends for us, even dividing his own bios, his own life, on the cross. What will you do with your heavenly father?