This is the third sermon on the three parables in Luke 15, largely as it was preached this morning at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York. Next Sunday I’m planning to preach again on the third parable, which is the longest and most complicated of the three. It is the parable commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but it actually begins, “There was a man who had two sons,” and the context leads me to stress the elder of those two sons, the Pharisee, rather than the prodigal son. Next Sunday we will shift our focus more to the father in the parable. But by focusing on the elder of the two sons today, we are able to really focus on a third son in the passage.
Our passage today is usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but the parable begins, “There was a man who had two sons.” No doubt we call it the parable of the prodigal son because the first parable in Luke 15 told us about one lost sheep and the second parable told us about one lost coin and now we expect the focus of this parable to be on one lost son. Indeed, note how each parable raises the stakes from one of a hundred, to one of ten, to one of two, plus it was sheep and silver and now sons—sons are clearly more valuable than things. Moreover, each parable has a party – the shepherd throws a party when he finds his sheep, the woman throws a party when she finds her silver coin, and the father throws a party when he finds his son. Yet it is only when we get to the third parable that we see someone refuse to attend a party celebrating that the lost has been found. It was a party for the man who had squandered his father’s possessions on prostitutes. It was a party for the prodigal son. But the righteous elder brother was angry and refused to go into the house. The righteous elder brother grumbled that his father received sinners and eats with them just as the Pharisees and scribes grumbled that Jesus received sinners and eats with them. This is a parable about a man who had two sons and both were lost. The rebellious second child wandered away from the father to a far country but within the parable we see this lost son found. The elder brother stayed close but like Asaph tells us he almost did the elder brother slipped – he fell away from his father. The elder brother was just as lost and at the end of the parable he remains lost although the father had gone out to find him and bring him home. This parable wasn’t written primarily for the prodigals – it was written for righteous elder brothers like me (the firstborn of three brothers) and many of you. You all know the stereotypes of the righteous firstborn and the rebellious second child so I won’t belabor that point. I would simply note that the context of these parables reminds us Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees whose personalities and priorities are not like prodigals but like the righteous elder brother. Let’s listen afresh to Jesus telling this familiar story:
- Pharisees don’t make good elder brothers.
- A good elder brother would go looking for his lost brother and would be rejoicing with his father when his lost brother was safely back home. The shepherd went looking for the sheep, the woman went looking for the silver coin, the elder son was to go looking for the younger son. The elder brother in the parable, on the other hand, never went searching for his lost brother and then refused to come into the house for the party when his brother was found. Try to see it from the elder brother’s point of view. The elder brother would have needed to take time off of work to go search for his lost brother, such a search for his lost brother might be rather expensive, and the party when his lost brother was found also came out of the elder brother’s share of the inheritance. Searching for his little brother would be a costly sacrifice! Of course, the elder brother would have not hesitated to make such a sacrifice willingly if his little brother had been kidnapped from home or in any number of other circumstances but as far as he was concerned this kid had wished his father dead by asking for the inheritance early, left home for a foreign land of his own free will, and chose to squander away his inheritance on parties with prostitutes. Meanwhile, the elder brother thinks of himself as a good son who has been working hard serving his father all these years without even a young goat to party with his friends and then this kid comes back home and his father kills the fattened calf to celebrate. The elder brother is thinking, “This isn’t fair!” He thinks, “This son of yours isn’t worthy to be called your son, but I am.”
- Jesus tell this parable to the Pharisees to lead them to repentance. The Pharisees believed they had kept God’s commandments and thus were worthy of God’s grace. The elder brother tells his father, “I never disobeyed your command.” It is no surprise then that he judges his lost brother for living in sin. He judges himself innocent and his brother guilty. Yet he says all this in the very act of disobeying his father who has asked him to come in and join the party. The parallel to the Pharisees and the prostitutes is unmistakable. The prodigal son was like those awful sinners who were being found and God was asking the Pharisees to party with Him but they were pouting about how unfair it was. Others might agree that the Pharisee was a pretty good person, but he wasn’t a good elder brother. The Pharisee was like Cain asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He needed to repent of his attitude toward his lost brother, to repent for failing to search for his lost brother, and to repent from his grouchy grumbling when his brother was found. If he was going to be a good elder brother, then he needed a change of heart so that he might love his brother who was lost and even lovingly seek out others who are lost. There was still time for the Pharisee to repent – the Father pleads with the Pharisee to come back into the house of God like the man in the parable pleads with his eldest son to come inside. (But there is a third son of the Father in this passage of Scripture – He is the Son of God telling this parable to the Pharisees.)
- Jesus is the good elder brother.
- Seeing you dead and lost, your Father in Heaven had compassion upon you and sent Jesus to be your good elder brother. The firstborn of many brothers, Jesus is the shepherd who went looking for the lost sheep of Israel – even those working for Gentiles in an unclean business. He went to the pig trough of society to find prostitutes and tax collectors. (It isn’t that pigs are messy but that pigs were unclean – the prodigal was working for unclean Gentiles in an unclean business like the tax collectors and prostitutes.) He has sought out the lost among His kinsmen according to the flesh, He has sought out the lost among the Greeks and Romans, He has sought out the lost among the ungodly barbarians in nations like Spain, He has sought out you. Jesus joins in the Father’s party every time one lost person is found. He did this at great personal expense – a costly sacrifice – His own life. For He died for your sins. For you willingly wander away from God and His people and you sometimes squander away His inheritance or you try to justify yourself as a righteous doer of the law, make excuses for failing to seek the lost, and get grouchy and grumble about the lost who have been found rather than giving them encouraging praise. Jesus says, “You are forgiven, come join the party.” (Jesus never tells us if the elder brother believed the father and came in and joined the party.)
- Jesus leaves the parable open-ended because you are invited to finish the story. The Pharisee was just as lost as his brother who lived recklessly. The only difference between the brothers at the end of the parable was that the younger brother came to his senses while the elder brother still thought himself righteous. The Pharisee could continue to think that he was better than his brother and trust in his own righteousness or he could come to his senses and see that he needs the righteousness of God that is by faith in Jesus. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, some Pharisees finished this story by repenting of their sins and joining the party. After many others rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul, who himself had been a Pharisee, went about seeking out prodigals among the Gentiles in order to make his fellow kinsmen jealous and want what those prodigals received. Today you are invited to finish the story by seeking out lost prostitutes and lost Pharisees. You are invited to go into a far country, to find the lost younger brother who is longing for the pig slop and who has hit bottom after using up everything on prostitutes or gambling, to find that coin that rolled away in that room of your house that is a disaster area, and to say, “I am a fellow sinner. Jesus says, ‘You are forgiven.’” You are also invited to love the Pharisee and hold up the mirror of God’s law so that the Pharisee will see that what’s fair is death and then speak the word that brings life to the dead and lost, “You are forgiven in Jesus’ name.” You are invited to join Jesus in reaching out this week to find that one person who is lost and then to see others want what they receive. Jesus is a good elder brother for He has sacrificed to bring you home. He forgives your failure to look for the lost, He forgives your lack of love for the lost, He forgives you for getting lost. He isn’t inviting you to try harder. He’s inviting you to believe. He’s sending you to find the lost for the Father wants to welcome the unworthy sinner into His house.