The Lord's Day Morning

December 19, 2010

Luke 15:11-32

“A Father's Prodigal Love for a Prodigal”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

O come let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker, for He is our God and we are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care. We will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the people. We will sing to You among the nations, for Your great mercy reaches to the clouds and Your truth to the heavens. Let us worship God!

Our Lord and our God, we come to adore You through Christ Jesus our Lord. And we adore the Lord Jesus Christ whom You, the Father, gave for our salvation and who willingly took our place, stood under Your wrath, bore it all on the cross, so that all those throughout this world who trust on Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel, might be forgiven and accepted and welcomed back into the family of God for eternal fellowship.

Heavenly Father, we ask that as we sing today that our songs would not be rote or merely sentimental, but that they would be filled with praise and gratitude to You for what You have done in Your Son. We ask that You would come and meet with us and speak to us today by Your Word, and that You would open our ears by Your Holy Spirit to truly hear and understand and to receive and act upon the truth that You speak to us by that same Word. We ask that You would be exalted in this and glorified and that we would give our whole selves to You in praise. Hear our prayers, Lord. Forgive our sins. Meet with us now. Bless this worship to Your own glory and our good. All in Jesus' name. Amen.

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 15. We’re going to be looking at verses 11 to 32. This is one of the most familiar stories that Jesus ever told. It's one of the greatest of the parables. And we are all perhaps in this room familiar with it. Even if you’re not a regular Bible reader, you know the story of the prodigal son. And so I want your eyes and your ears to be sharpened in your seeing and reading and hearing of this passage by looking out for a few things.

First of all, I want you to be on the lookout for each of the three main characters in this story and I want you to be asking yourself the question — “What would Jesus’ original hearers have thought about the descriptions of the prodigal son, of the loving father, and of the elder brother?”

When they hear the sins of the prodigal son, would they have been warmed up to him to identify with him and to like him? When they saw the leniency and the generosity in the face of scorn shown by the loving father, would they have esteemed him for that kind of generosity or would they have suspected him of a serious lack of judgment and a failure in paternal discipline? And would their attitude towards the sinners of their own time, even as the attitude of the elder brother to the prodigal, have been the same outlook as those of the Pharisees against the sinners with whom Jesus was associating?

So as we hear these familiar words read, let's be on the lookout for what we learn from each of these three characters. The first two characters are especially, in Jesus’ story, going to teach us surprising things about God our Heavenly Father. The third character, the elder brother, is there to raise a question about our own heart attitude towards repentant sinners, towards those who have done things grievously wrong and yet who have repented of those sins and thrown themselves on the Lord's mercy. So be on the lookout for these things as we read God's Word together.

And before we do let's pray and ask for His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, this is Your Word and this story is so familiar and well loved, that precisely because we know it and love it we might miss some of the rich store that You have in it for us. So we pray that by the Holy Spirit today You would open our eyes not to miss the truth that You have store for us in Your Word and that we would understand it and that we would be both convicted and encouraged and instructed and built up in grace, even as we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Your holy Word. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hear the Word of God:

“And He said, ‘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 he 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 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 still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him 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.

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, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and 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 killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are 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.’”

Amen and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

You couldn't have found a better passage to study the Sunday before Christmas because this story that Jesus tells so beautifully highlights important aspects of the Gospel message that we’ll celebrate come Christmas Day. This story comes in the wake of two other stories about things that are lost. You’ll remember them. Last week and this we've seen three things lost. First, we saw a lost sheep; then a lost coin; now a lost son.

But the dynamics of this story are fascinating, and as familiar as they may be to you, there is truth yet in store for you if you’ll pay close attention to God's Word, because Jesus’ words to His hearers would have been shocking. He does not paint a picture of the main character of focus in this story that is designed to make you immediately identify with and pull for him. In the first story, the key figure was the shepherd who went looking for the lost sheep and you can identify with that good shepherd out searching for that straying sheep in the middle of the night in all of its dangers. And then in the second story, the key figure was the woman who had lost the coin that may have been a part of her small dowry that she brought into marriage and she cleans her whole house looking through every crack and crevice until she finds that coin and you can identify with that woman who's lost something important and found it again.

But when Jesus begins to describe this prodigal, the very last thing that people in His own time would have done would have been to start rooting for him and pulling for him. In fact, the more Jesus tells you about this young man, the more reason you have to have contempt for him. And of course Jesus does that for a reason. In this story and in the next story, Jesus has unlikely protagonists planted right in the middle of an important lesson — a lesson about God, about the Gospel, and about our own hearts that are sometimes so hard to our need and so slow to repent of sin.

Now, there's so much in this passage that we could spend a series of sermons on it. So to focus our study, let's look at each of the three characters. I want us to look and see what we learn from the prodigal son, the younger brother, who goes off and lives a life which is reckless and riotous. Then, let's look at this loving father and let's learn both from the son, the prodigal, and from the father, truths about our Heavenly Father that Jesus intends us to learn. And then let's look at the elder brother. The elder brother, who often — has a — who has a heart that often looks like our hearts towards those who have repented of great sin, especially if that sin is against us.

I. The prodigal son.

Well, let's begin with the younger son. What do we learn from him? Jesus tells us that a young son goes to his father and he asks his father to divide the property with his elder brother and to give him what is coming to him. Now you understand that when Jesus said this, the people who were originally hearing Him would have been utterly shocked because they live in a culture where fathers were deeply respected and regarded and for that younger son to go and say to his father, “Father, go ahead and give me the inheritance that is coming to me,” is in effect saying, “Father, I wish you were dead and I wish that I could get the material resources that are going to come to me when you are dead.”

And so immediately, the people who are listening to Jesus are not going to like this young man. Furthermore, what the young man is asking the father to do is against all custom and perhaps even legal practices in his day. A father could not give his property to his sons prior to his death. He always remained the manager of his property until he died and then that managerial authority was passed on to his sons. And so the son is not only showing deep disrespect for the father, but he's also asking the father to do something that is certainly not customary and maybe even illegal.

Then, the next thing we see the son do is after a matter of a few days, after doing this offensive act towards his father, which would have very rightly in Jesus’ day brought about a punishment like beating or worse, he could have very well been disowned by a father had he done such a thing in Jesus’ culture, the next thing we see is that he gathers up his possessions and he goes far away from his father into another country and he spends his money recklessly. This is where he gets the name, “the prodigal,” from. He is prodigal. He is wasteful. He is lavish. He is riotous. He is unrestrained. He is irresponsible in his living. The elder brother, at the end of the story, will tell us that some of the spending that he did was on prostitutes. And so once again, the people who are hearing this story are not going to be drawn to have a high regard for this young man. They’re not going to identify with him. They’re going to think, “Ah-ha, this is a moral, cautionary tale. We’re going to be told in this story what happens when people do bad things — they’re going to get what's coming to them.”

And sure enough, just as they expect, in the next phrase of the story, the bad things start happening to this young man. A famine comes and when that famine comes he spent all of his money and he has to hire himself out as a servant to a stranger and that stranger puts him to work feeding pigs.

The Jewish people of Jesus’ day would have had the same attitude towards pigs as modern day Muslims. That was not a good job for a good Jewish boy to do. And this boy is not only feeding pigs, but he's obviously so ill cared for by this master that he's serving that he longs to eat the same food that the pigs are eating.

Now all of Jesus’ hearers are waiting for Him to say, “And therein lies the message of My story.” The moralists of Jesus’ day are waiting for Jesus to say, “This is why you should never disrespect your father. This is why you should never ever squander your wealth. This is why you should not associate yourself with the unclean. This is why you should not spend your money on prostitutes in riotous living. This is what happens when you do.”

But then comes verse 17. The story doesn't end with the situation of the prodigal in complete disarray and at the total behest of a master who is abusing him. We read in verse 17, look with me there — “he came to himself.” This story has a surprising turn. This is the beginning of the prodigal repenting. He realizes what he's come to. He realizes where he's fallen from. He realizes what he's become and he begins to reason and wrestle within himself and he begins to realize who he's offended. You see, even as he speaks to himself in verse 18, he says that he's going to go to his father and say, “I have sinned against heaven” — that's a polite Jewish way of saying, “I've sinned against God.” I'm going to go to my father and say, “Father, I understand that by doing what I have done, I've not just sinned against you, I've sinned against God. God is displeased with the way I've lived. But I've also dishonored you, father, a loving and generous father. I have dishonored you as a son and I no longer deserve to be called your son. So I want to ask you if you’d just take me back as one of your servants.” And he begins to rehearse this plan in his mind.

Now why is Jesus saying this? Jesus is saying this, and He's telling this story because He wants to emphasize to you how ready the Heavenly Father is to receive repentant sinners. This sinner has come to his senses. He's realized what he's done. He's felt the sharp consequences of his sin and he's throwing himself on his Father's mercy. And Jesus is showing you this sinner because you will think a person like this is beyond hope of forgiveness and beyond hope of turning from the life of debauchery and destruction which he has been pursuing with such great delight. And yet he comes to himself and when he comes to himself and goes back to his father, his father receives him.

Now, there’re many messages in that for us friends. One message is this — if you are a child of grace and you chose to go the way of the prodigal, following your own sin, the Father will track you down. The question will be, “Are you going to repent the easy way or the hard way?” That's what my father used to say. He’d say, “Son, you want to do this the easy way or the hard way?” And I knew what the hard way was and most of the time I was wise enough to choose the easy way rather than the hard way. This prodigal had found out the hard way what doing things your own way will bring you to. And the Lord had brought him to nothing before he came to his senses.

If you’re a child of grace, the Heavenly Father will pursue you and if necessary He will bring you to nothing, in order to bring you back to Himself. So here's the question for you — Are you going to do it the easy way or the hard way? Are you going to make Him pursue you into the far country and bring you to naught and break you before you see how much you need Him and before you turn to Him again in repentance? But the encouraging thing you see about this passage is this man came to his senses. He realized what he was and what he had done and who he had offended — God and his Heavenly Father — and he repented. And Jesus is encouraging us that the Father will receive those who repent.

II. The father.

And that leads us to the second person in the story that we want to give attention to — the father. And we meet him in a couple of places, first of all, when the son goes to him in verse 12 to ask him to split up the property. And all we're told is this — “The father divided his property between them.”

Now again, this would not have made Jesus’ hearers admire this father because this son is insulting his father by asking the property to be divided up. They would have thought, “If this were a just man, he would beat the son and then disown him, if he were a just man.” But the father just divides up the property. And then at the end of the story when the son has come back, the father, we're told looks out at a distance and sees him — look at verse 20 — and he “feels compassion and he runs and he embraces him and he kisses him.” Now in this culture, the culture of Jesus’ day, it was not considered dignified for an older man to run. It would have required him to lift up his long robe and sprint and that was not thought to be a dignified thing for an older man to do. And so here's this father who's been mortally offended by this evil son, sprinting towards him in compassion and love to receive him.

And then the next thing you see him doing is this — look at verse 22 — “Bring quickly the best robe.” Whose robe in the house would that have been? The father's robe would have been the best robe in the house. Somebody pointed out to me after the early service there's no indication that the son had been bathed yet. Can you imagine putting your best coat on a boy who had been eating and feeding, eating with and feeding the pigs? But, “Go get my best robe!” And he puts it on his son and then he says, “Give him a ring.” What's that? It's again, it's a sign of his sonship. He's given a signet ring and he's a son again in the family. “And give him sandals.” The servants wouldn't have worn shoes, though they would have fetched the sandals and they would have latched or tied the sandals of their masters. And so he's told, “Here, have the best robe, have a signet ring, have shoes.” He's being welcomed back into the household not as a servant but as a son. And the people listening to this story would have thought, “How prodigal is that! How wasteful is that! How way too generous!” Nobody would have been saying to that father that he was doing what was just. They would have been saying, “You’re going way too far in the kindness that you are showing this ingrate of a son.”

And of course, that's exactly what Jesus wants us to understand. You know, there are people in the world who have fallen under conviction of sin and they are so deep in their conviction of sin that they cannot believe that God would receive them in the light of what they've done. And Jesus is showing you this father to show you precisely this. He will never turn away a sinner who has repented of his sins. He will welcome him home.

But you know the Gospel is even better than this because the Father doesn't just wait with open arms for us to come home to Him, He sends His own Son into the far country to die for us, to receive the punishment that we deserve, and then He sends His Holy Spirit to draw us to faith in His Son and to bring him back into fellowship with us. And so the Gospel is even better than this story of this loving father.

III. The elder brother.

But then there's the reaction of the elder brother. Uou notice that it picks up in verses 25 and following. And the elder brother is not happy at all. When he comes back to the house and he hears the party going on, he asks one of the servants what's going on, and he finds out that his younger brother has come back home and he is furious. And he shows disrespect to his father, too. Notice how he does it. First of all, in verse 28, we're told that he was “angry and he refused to go in.” Now a fattened calf would have been enough food to feed the whole village, so the whole village is there. The elder son is outside, the party's going on inside, everybody in town is there, the father wants his elder brother to come in — his son to come in — and the son refuses to come in. Now what does that mean? It means that everybody in town knows that there's a domestic dispute going on between dad and his firstborn and his firstborn is showing him great dishonor. He's shaming him in front of the whole community.

Then, this kind father goes outside to talk with his son. And do you get a polite address, a polite paternal address, “Oh, my father”? No. Take a look and see what the son says in verse 29. “He answered his father, ‘Look, all these years I've served you and I've never disobeyed your command and you've never given me so much as a young goat to have a party with my friends and yet this son of yours’” — notice, not “my brother” — ‘”this son of yours who's wasted your property on riotous living and prostitutes, he comes back home and you've killed the fattened calf for him!’”

What's going on here? You’re hearing the voice of someone who thinks they haven't gotten what they've deserved. You’re hearing the voice of someone who thinks they’re entitled to God's favor and therefore you’re hearing the voice of someone who has no idea how to rejoice when those who do not deserve the love of God and the grace of God and the forgiveness of God receive it. This elder son thinks that he deserves what's coming to him from this father. He does not think that he stands in need of grace and therefore he cannot rejoice. By the way, just from a legal standpoint, he has absolutely nothing to lose by the younger brother coming home. He's still going to get two-thirds of the estate. The younger brother coming home has no legal consequences for the elder brother but it reveals that his heart has not understood how much in need of grace he is.

Justin Pillsbury was talking to some of our parents today saying that every once in a while he runs into young people who have an attitude of, “You know, I'm a pretty good person. I'm smart, I'm athletic, I'm good looking — Jesus should have died for me.” That attitude of entitlement kills the possibility of grace. When you think God owes you, you will think Him to be a stingy God. But when you know that God only owes you His condemnation, and yet has shown you His mercy in Jesus Christ, you know that He is in fact prodigal and lavish and overgenerous in His love.

You see what Jesus is doing in this passage? Jesus is confronting the Pharisees who have criticized Him for fellowshipping with sinners. And He's saying to the Pharisees, “You understand that My receiving of these sinners is a picture of the Heavenly Father's attitude towards those who have strayed and yet have come to their senses and have repented and trusted in God again.” And the attitude of the Pharisees is an attitude which reflects that their hearts are strangers to grace, that they themselves do not understand the need that they stand in before God. But my friends, Jesus’ message isn't just for the Pharisees. It's for you and me.

I've told you this story before but it's so apropos I’ll say it again. My boyhood pastor was Gordon Reed, and in one of his congregations he’d worked with a woman who had an unfaithful and unbelieving husband. He was unfaithful to her and he did not believe in Christ and he did not trust in God's Gospel. She endured him for many, many years. I'm thinking for some twenty years they were married in this kind of condition. And as you might imagine, she was highly regarded in the church because every time the doors were open, she was there and she was serving. And despite the fact that she was being dealt with wrongly by her husband, she stayed faithful to him. And then after twenty years, something amazing happened. He was convicted of his sin, he was broken, and he trusted in Christ. He became a Christian. And the whole congregation responded with rejoicing because there was a man who was lost and found, who was dead and made alive again by God's Holy Spirit. And something very interesting happened in the heart of that woman – she could not forgive him and she left him and then she left the faith.

I wonder if all those years when she was the victim and when she was the recipient of the esteem of the congregation who appreciated her longsuffering staying with a husband, it built in her heart a sense that she had earned God's love and it seemed to her fundamentally unfair that a person like her husband should be forgiven and welcomed home like a prodigal and it was too much for her? I don't know. I don't know her heart, but I do know this — when someone has wronged you deeply, it can be very difficult to see them repent and be restored and to rejoice with them because in those moments we ourselves feel like they don't deserve the grace that God has shown them, and we feel like, because of the pains that we have borne, that we deserve to be dealt differently than this by God.

And that is precisely what Jesus is getting at in this passage about us. None of us stand deserving God's grace. No one deserves God's grace. And when we are begrudging in our attitudes towards those who receive it, we betray that perhaps we think we do deserve that grace. And when we think that way we show that we do not understand the nature of our need. You know, there were two prodigal sons in this story, it's just that one of them, as far as we know, didn't know that he was a prodigal. He was in a household of a loving father, he was obeying him in all that he commanded, but he thought he deserved his father's favor and he didn't see his sin.

You know, it's very interesting. Jesus doesn't tell us the end of the story, and it's one of the ways that you know that Jesus really cares about the hearts and the lives of the Pharisees. Why does He not tell the end of the story? Because He's leaving a door of repentance open to the Pharisees. And you know what? He's leaving the door of repentance open to you and to me.

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank You that You receive sinners and that Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost. And so we thank You for the story of a lost son who was found. We pray that we too would repent and that we too would rejoice when others repent, even if their wounds were wounds inflicted upon us. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

In response to this story about the Father's lavish love, let's sing the first and the last stanzas of “Of the Father's Love Begotten.”

Receive now from your Heavenly Father's prodigal hand of love these blessings — grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.