Selected highlights from this sermon.
In the parable of the prodigal son, we’ve all heard that the relationship between the father and his son mirrors that of God the Father and those who need to return to Him.
But have you ever asked yourself, “Why did Jesus also include the elder brother?” This part of the parable, often overlooked, is the heart of the story. In this message, Pastor Lutzer will explain why this part of the story is so important and why when God deals with us, it is always on the basis of grace—not merit.
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Jesus was a master storyteller. He loved to tell these parables because they always had a story that took place here on earth and represented a much bigger story as to what was happening in heaven. They were examples of spiritual truth, and what a storyteller he was.
Today I have the privilege of speaking on one of his most familiar stories – most familiar parable. In principle it’s a story that has happened a thousand times. It’s about a young man who is brought up in a good home with a good dad, but with the love of pleasure coursing through his veins he decides to leave home, and he goes to his father and requests his inheritance. As a matter of fact, he, in effect, said to his dad, “I can’t wait until you die. I wish you were dead, but I can’t wait until you die, so give me the inheritance that belongs to me, and I want it right now.”
If you have your Bibles you can turn with me to Luke 15 and I am going to read part of the story to you. I know you know it but we need to hear it once again before we understand its meaning. Beginning in Luke 15:11, “There was a man who had two sons. 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. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. 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! I will arise and I will go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced and kissed him. 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.’ 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. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.”
I’ll read the rest later.
When that young man got his inheritance according to the laws of the Old Testament he would have received a third of what was coming to him, and his elder brother, whom we shall meet in a few moments and who was a complainer, would have received two-thirds of the inheritance.
The young boy takes all of his money and he begins in the far country, and wordless, the father watches him go down the road because the father knows what the far country is like. The father understands that in the far country you will always eventually find a famine. And so the father lets the boy go because there does come a time when parents have to let their children make their own decisions when they are old enough, and so it is that the boy goes. And the Scripture says that he squandered his money on riotous living.
I love the King James Version at this point, which translates it, “He wasted his substance on riotous living.” That’s a good translation because you see he was really wasting, wasn’t he? And today we use the same expression. We say of somebody, “He got wasted.” I remember Rebecca and me attending a funeral of a teenager who overdosed on drugs and I thought, “What a waste.” What a waste it was.
So the boy goes from one job to another and finally he goes to someone who keeps pigs. Now you need to understand that in those days pigs especially were considered to be unclean animals – not just simply physically unclean, which they are, but ceremonially unclean. And here he is in contact with pigs, and he’s willing to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs are eating. Whatever religious scruples he was brought up with didn’t apply now because this boy was hungry and he needed a living and he needed to eat. And then we come to that amazing phrase. Don’t you love it? “When he came to himself!” When he came to his senses he began to think of his father, and you know it is true that sin has a certain amount of insanity connected with it. And when we begin to understand where it is leading us then we begin to say, “Do you know what? I think it’s time for me to return home to God and to my people.”
So this boy there in the pigsty prepares a speech, and he wants to give it, and will have an opportunity to give it when he gets home. He says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven.” He understood that his sin was first and foremost against God. He said, “I have sinned against heaven and I have sinned against you. I am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.”
Now we pick up the theme from the standpoint of the father, and because we honor fathers today I want us to see how this father reacted, and then we will draw from it some lessons for us as fathers today.
Back home on the farm the father could never forget his son because even though the boy left the father’s home, the boy could not leave the father’s heart, and the father was waiting for his boy. You say, “How do we know that?” Well the text that I just read says that when the boy was afar off the father ran to meet him. How could the father possibly see this child afar off unless he was looking for him? But there he was patiently waiting for his son. He didn’t know when the son would come home. He didn’t know if his son would come home. All that he knew was that his longing and his desire was for this boy.
Those of you who are fathers and mothers will agree with me that a parent is only as happy as his saddest child, and when you have a child in the far country and you know what that far country is like, you begin to think about them, and oh how you wish that they’d come home. The father was waiting.
Never forget that in the parable that Jesus told the father basically is God. That’s the point of the story. There are some of you to whom I am speaking today and you think to yourself, “You know, I’ve wandered so far away from God; I’ve crossed so many different boundaries. I can’t come back to him today because God probably is so mad at me, he doesn’t even want to see me.” Well I have some good news for you today, my dear friend, as I look into your eyes. The reluctance is not on the part of the Father. The Father’s arms are outstretched. The Father is waiting and there is more grace in the Father’s heart than there is sin in your past. The Father waits for you. (applause)
And then, secondly, notice that the father is willing to be shamed for his son. We don’t understand this in today’s culture because what we’re talking about here is something that a father might do today and we might think nothing of it, but you must understand the Middle East shame culture. Shame was used to keep people in line and it was always accompanied by being ostracized if you didn’t stay in line. If you disgraced your family, as far as the family was concerned they had a funeral for you. You had disgraced them. They cut you off. Sometimes when the parents died their wayward child was not listed in the obituary. As far as they were concerned this was the end of that boy, and this disgrace was huge. People in the village talked about the man who had two sons – the good boy who stayed home and then the bad boy who ran off and ran into the far country. And so the Bible says that this man, however, broke all convention. You never had the patriarch of a family run because of excitement. Maybe he would run if there was a fire, but he would never run because of the fact that he was so excited to meet someone. But here’s a man who was willing to not only meet his son, but run to meet him, robes flowing and all. Forget the dignity. “My boy is coming home.”
You have to understand why the father ran to get the son and was willing to forego any kind of cultural pressure in terms of the shame factor. You must understand that the reason is because he loved his boy, but also because he wanted to get to him before the people in the village did, and especially before the elder brother got to him. And so the father runs to see his child and is willing to forget the protocol and he goes and runs.
The Pharisees to whom Jesus told this parable, because he was speaking to them and their self-righteousness as we’ll see in a moment, were standing there saying, “How can a man do that?” and this father is saying, “I’m willing to put my arms around him even with the smell of pigs on his clothes. Just let me hold my boy in my arms.” And so the father is not only waiting for the son but the father also is willing to be shamed for the son, and then the father forgives the son. This is an amazing story.
Do you remember how I read a moment ago what the boy said in the pigsty? He’s rehearsing his speech, and there in the pigsty he says, “I am going to say to my father, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you and am no more worthy to be called thy son. Make me as one of thy hired servants.” So he is rehearsing the speech as he goes home. He gets to his father and he cannot complete the speech. There’s an ending that is missing. He does get out the words, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against thee and am no more worthy to be called thy son,” but then he wants to say, “Make me as one of thy hired servants,” but that’s not what he said to his father. Why? It was because he was being smothered with kisses and he could not finish the speech he had made. The father had welcomed his wayward boy. So here he is also willing to forgive his son.
Now if a father were to do that we’d say, “That is absolutely remarkable. What a dad this is.” Talk about grace-based parenting, but it even gets better than that. You’ll notice in the text that he says to the servants, “Bring hither the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet, and you know that calf that we have for special occasions (everybody kept a fattened calf in case they needed a feast sometime) – you know the fattened calf (not the skinny one). Kill it and let’s have a party because this my son was dead and is alive and was lost and is found.”
When the man said, “Find the best robe and put it on him,” he was really talking about his own robe. In those days the patriarch of the family had a special robe that he wore only on very festive occasions, and what he was saying to those who were listening (his servants), was, “Bring the best robe (which, of course, they understood to mean to be his own robe) and let’s put that on him. Let’s put a ring on his finger as a symbol of authority,” and no servant in those days would ever wear shoes. “But let us also put shoes on is feet, and then let’s kill the fattened calf, and let’s celebrate.”
You say, “Well, wasn’t this father a little bit naive? I mean after all, this boy had disgraced him, and had squandered his inheritance.” The answer is yes; it may appear that way, and I’m sure that the next day they had some talks about accountability, but for tonight let’s throw a party. “This, my son, was dead. The villagers thought that we should have a funeral for him, but he’s alive, and he was lost and he is found.”
The Pharisees to whom this story was being told looked at this and thought to themselves, “This is absolutely absurd.” Love does things that are foolish but love has power and if you love your boy you will welcome him home despite his sin.
Now there’s something else that the father does, and that is he finds himself in a predicament that he has to actually now defend his son. Now it gets intriguing, and when you first read the story of the prodigal you think to yourself, “You know if Jesus were a good story teller he’d stop there. After all, the boy is home. It’s a wonderful parable on God’s forgiveness,” but then Jesus adds this bit about the elder brother. And what Jesus adds about the elder brother actually turns out to be the very heart of this story. It is the heart of this parable.
Let’s pick it up in verse 25. “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘You know your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.”
Did the older brother say, “Great! I’ve been praying that he’d come home. This is wonderful. Praise God for this grace and mercy that my father showed to this kid brother of mine. I can hardly wait to welcome him.” No, that’s not the way it turned out. He said in verse 28 that he was angry. He refused to go in. “His father came out and entreated him, 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. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you’ve killed the fattened calf for him!’ The father says to him, ‘Son, you’re always with me and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” And the story ends there and we never find out whether or not the brother went into the feast. The answer is he probably didn’t.
What’s going on here? What Jesus wanted to do to the Pharisees who were criticizing him for spending time with the tax gatherers and the sinners was he wanted to illustrate that those who understand their need, and even those who have gone to the far country actually are much more welcomed by the father than somebody who believes that his relationship with God is based on his performance. You see, here’s a young man who said to himself, “I’m doing all of the right things. I am the one who gets up early in the morning. I go to bed late at night, and the farm is prospering because of me, and you don’t do this for me.”
Of course the father says, “Everything that I have is yours.”
Several lessons immediately grow out of this parable and that is that it is possible to be a son of God and still live like a servant. It’s as if this man didn’t understand that he had an inheritance. He could throw a party whenever he wanted to throw a party but as long as his relationship with the father was based on a sense of duty (it was based on a conviction of merit) his anger toward his father grew.
And I might say to those of you who believe that your relationship with God is based on merit, you are going to be angry with God and you are going to be angry with others. If you believe that God owes you, and the reason that God owes you is because of what you’ve done and you have abided by the rules, have tried to go to church and be the best person you possibly can be, and therefore God owes you blessing and he owes you heaven, you are going to be bitterly disappointed and angry because when God doesn’t come through for you and when you begin to understand that your merit does not add anything to God’s grace toward you, then you will become bitter and angry and your soul will be closed to the Father.
You see, the elder brother illustrates the fact that it is possible to be busy in the Father’s work and still not share the Father’s heart. It’s possible for you to be faithful in your service to the Lord, and yet there’s no connection really with your Father. All that there is, is resentment, particularly toward those whom God seems to bless.
By the way, have you ever noticed that God sometimes blesses some people more than he should? Have you ever noticed that? I’ve certainly noticed that sometimes God blesses people that I wouldn’t bless if I were God. Are you envious because God is generous? As a matter of fact, when this boy is emoting here and explaining why he won’t come into the feast, you’ll notice he says, “When this thy son.” He never called him his brother. He says, “When this thy son has come who has devoured thy living with harlots, with prostitutes, you killed for him the fatted calf.” Interestingly nowhere in the text earlier does it say that the boy did that. The older brother is kind of tipping his hand as to what he would be doing if he had the nerve to leave the farm and spend time in the far country. And so there he is, out of sorts with his father.
Why was the father so delighted to see this wayward boy? The wayward boy came and said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against thee, and if I am to receive even so much as a crust of bread, it is going to be a demonstration of your matchless grace.” And the father loved that because the Father deals with us on the basis of grace and not merit. And so what the father was saying was, “At last I have somebody who is willing to wear my robe, and to have the ring, and to give shoes to because I am a giving father. I love to give and as long as I was dealing with the older brother on the basis of merit I couldn’t give because I only deal with you on the basis of grace.”
Some of you think that the way to the Father is by being good. It’s good to be good, but that’s not the way to the Father. The only way to the Father is by grace. I think it was Mark Twain who said on one occasion, “Having spent a great deal of my life with good people, I now understand why Jesus spent most of his time with tax gatherers and sinners.” (Laughter) We all know what it’s like to be with good people – judgmental people. They become the standard by which others should be judged, resentful of God’s mercy poured out on other people. Why? It’s because they are out of touch with the Father’s heart, though they delight in the fact that they have been so very good.
Let me ask this question. How does this relate to those of us who are fathers? And I understand that we can’t take all of the things that are here with this father and apply them because certainly with our children we do have issues of accountability. But first of all I want us to understand that as fathers we have the responsibility of being lawgivers but also grace givers, and this is very important.
You know, I have noticed that there are many fathers who are lawgivers, and they like to shout out their laws. They like to be almost abusive in terms of their expectations. They like to criticize. They like to say that in this home this is going to be the standard, and you’d better abide by it, etc., etc. Where is the grace? Where is the humility that says as a teenager I did the same thing you are doing and here’s what God taught me about why it’s wrong and why this is a better path.
I cannot stress enough that we as fathers need to have law but we also need to exercise grace. Grace isn’t a lax attitude toward what our children are doing. It is forgiving especially when they admit that they have done wrong. Grace is necessary. (applause)
This is a true story about a young girl brought up in a very good home, by the way, with church-going and loving parents as she admitted. But she ran away from home as a teenager. Her parents had no idea where she was. She didn’t connect with them for months, and when she did she was God knows where. What a tragedy in her life. I cannot even tell you the heartbreak that the far country brought for her. She had a couple of children with different fathers, going from one job to another, with abuse and all the things that happen when you are in the far country. Thirty years later she picked up the phone and called her father – her loving father, and the first words out of her father’s mouth were, “Where are you and how can I help you?” That’s what grace does. Law might have said, “You’ve disgraced us. You’ve been away for thirty years. You’ve embarrassed us as a family. Why should we have a relationship with you now? You made your own bed. You can sleep in it.” No, no, no! Grace goes to the farthest reaches and grace is extended to the most needy of sinners because grace represents God.
Years ago I told you this story but there are dozens just like it. It’s about a father who was in a meeting and he was seeing what God was doing among people, and how families were being reconciled even within the church where he was, and he was angry with his five sons. He had a bad relationship with all of them, and of course, it was always their fault. They never lived up to his expectations. They never really obeyed him. They didn’t really respect him, and he tried to work with them and tried to give them the right formula to be the people that they should be, and of course all of them missed the mark. You know there are some parents who no matter how far you throw or kick the football, even when it is in the air they move the goalposts so that you can never possibly please them. But there he is. He’s a Christian he says, and as he sees what God is doing and how he is breaking self-righteous elder brother hearts in this church he takes his fist and pounds it into his hand and says, “God, you will never get me.” Imagine a Christian saying that.
And some of you who are listening who are not believers are saying the very same thing now. You say, “Well, God isn’t going to get me.” Well, I am very glad to say that eventually God got him. And when he began to see his part in the struggle he humbled himself and went to all five children and said, “Will you forgive me for my self-righteousness?”
You know there are children who just want to embarrass their parents and they want to do that because they want to hurt their parents, so you know they’ll dye their hair blue or something, and everyone will say, “Oh, whose child is that? Oh, it’s So-and-So’s child. Well isn’t that a Christian family?” Or they’ll put on a tattoo that is very obvious. They want to embarrass their parents because they are angry. I think, for example, of one mother who when meeting her daughter’s boyfriend said, “Well, there’s one thing that can be said about him.” She was looking for something positive and she said, “At least the words on his tattoo were spelled correctly.” (laughter)
Parents, if you are ashamed to continue to love your child, take a lesson from this man who said he was willing to forego the shame and even love the wayward child. So let us keep in mind that first of all we must always welcome wayward children.
Secondly, you must understand that as parents we have the responsibility of bringing peace to our homes, don’t we? I’m thinking, for example, of this man who ended up with a family problem. Here you have an elder son, and you know the elder son is usually the achiever. They are the ones who are the perfectionists. They are the ones that outshine all the others that come behind them, and the children that come behind them can never live up to the expectations of the elder one, and so you’ve got that in your home where you are negotiating issues between two different kinds of children – the wayward one over here, and the goody-two-shoes over here, and what you must see is that it is your responsibility to bring about some kind of harmony. You have to invite each of them to the feast, so to speak, and that’s what he did.
The fact is that the Pharisees never really attended the feast. As long as they were merit-based and thought to themselves that their own righteousness should gain some kind of approval before God, they continued in that vein all the time and never really understood grace. And that’s what leads me now to the final conclusion.
When God deals with us it is always on the basis of grace and not merit. It may be better to be the elder brother who stayed home than the wayward one who went to the far country. Sometimes when you are in the far country you cannot come back but this elder brother could never really appreciate the father or love the father unless he came to the father in grace, unless he acknowledged his own sin, acknowledged the fact that his relationship to the father could not be based on his performance and came with a sense of repentance and hope and said, “Dad, I too have sinned, and because I have sinned I also seek your forgiveness and your grace.” And the Bible says that where sin abounded, grace abounded more. And as we come to God we are faced with a God who loves to give grace.
It was the great preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon who said that we pile up a mountain of sin and then God comes along and piles up a mountain of grace that is higher than our mountain of sin, and then we continue to pile up our sins and God shows more grace and he shows a greater mountain of grace because grace is greater than our sin.
I conclude today by asking you a question. Do you find yourself distant from the Father? Some of you do because you have never trusted Christ as Savior and your whole life has been performance based and God doesn’t accept it and so you don’t know the Father personally. You have to come to him through Jesus Christ and I’ll tell you what he does when we come to him.
You know the robe that the father was willing to give to his son – his very own? When we come to the Father through Christ, Jesus takes off his robe, so to speak, and he gives it to us. He gives us the robe of righteousness. He gives us a ring that shows our authority. He gives us shoes to show that we are no longer just slaves but we are sons and we are daughters, but the only welcome that we can have to the Father is through Jesus Christ our Lord. He’s the one who puts us in touch with the Father.
There is a story, which I read many years ago, and I am not able to verify it but I’ll simply share it with you. It’s about a wayward son who was off in the far country, and he didn’t know whether or not his parents would welcome him home, but he did know that when the train came into their town that the tracks were actually quite close to the back of his house. So he wrote them a letter in which he said, “I don’t know whether or not you want me back, and I understand if you don’t want me back, but if you do, I will take the train to town and if you tie a handkerchief on a branch of the tree in the backyard I’ll know that you want me back. If it’s not there I’ll just keep going to the next town. Well, as the story goes, as the train was rumbling through his town he pressed his nose against the window, almost afraid to look at the tree in their backyard, only to discover that every branch had a handkerchief.
God says to you today, “Your reluctance is what hinders you. It’s not me. I love to dispense grace. I’d love to give you a party and welcome you into the family, but you can’t do it by being good. You can only do it through repentance and faith, through Christ our Lord. Grace and not law!
Let’s pray together.
Father, we want to thank you today for your mercy and for your grace. Thank you that all of us are prodigals. Thank you, Father, that the elder brother was also a prodigal but unfortunately didn’t know it. And so we pray that through self-revelation of your Holy Spirit that you might help all of us to see what our needs are in your presence.
Now, before I close, where are you in your relationship to God? There’s no reluctance on his part. Why don’t you talk to him right now even where you are?
Father, we ask in Jesus’ name that those who do not know you as Savior will come to know you through Christ through grace, and for those who do, help us, Lord, to rejoice when you lavish grace on others. Help us, Father, to have a heart like yours where we can enjoy your grace and delight in the fact that others are receiving it too. Do that, Father, for us we pray in Jesus’ matchless name. Amen.
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