This is the fourth sermon in the series on parables in Luke 15 — the second sermon on the third parable often known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Our focus last Sunday was on the parable’s “righteous” elder brother, but today’s focus is on the Father and the Father’s sorrow but especially the Father’s joy. Sermon audio is available here.
I mentioned last Sunday that we would be revisiting the parable often known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As you know it is the third of three parables that Jesus told to the Pharisees because of their complaint that Jesus received sinners and ate with them. Jesus put Himself in the first parable as the good shepherd who went to find the one lost sheep and then had a party when He found that sheep. Then Jesus put Himself in the second parable as the woman who cleaned the house to find her lost silver coin and then had a party when she found that silver coin. But the third parable is different—and not just because it is much longer. It is different because Jesus didn’t put Himself into the parable. Instead of Himself, Jesus put the Pharisees in the parable as the righteous elder son. That’s why this parable doesn’t work the same as the other two: the good shepherd searched for the lost sheep, the woman searched for the lost silver coin, but the elder son did not go looking for his little brother. The third parable is also different because Jesus put His Heavenly Father into it as the father of two sons – the Pharisee and the prodigal. The good shepherd is like God for we can say of Jesus – like Father, like Son. The woman who cleaned the house is like God for we can say of Jesus – like Father, like Son. In both parables there is joy in heaven when the lost are found. But the righteous elder son isn’t like God. The righteous elder son does not share His Father’s joy that His prodigal son was dead and is alive—was lost and is found. Notice the order of these phrases: worse than being dead is being lost and better than being alive is being found. Thus I noted last Sunday that there is another son of the Father in this Scripture passage – this Son is the one telling the story, who would die on the cross and rise on the third day, and who finds the lost. Jesus is the Son who shares His Father’s joy that the tax collectors and prostitutes heard and believed the gospel. So listen again to this familiar story as the Son of God tells it and pay careful attention to the heart of the Father for His other two sons:
- This is a parable of the Father’s heart for both his prodigal and Pharisee sons.
- The Father’s great joy is that His prodigal son was dead and is alive—lost and is found! Think of how Abraham must have felt when God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen 22:2). The New Testament book of Hebrews tells us, “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb 11:19). Now imagine Abraham’s joy when he had the knife to slaughter his son in his hand and the angel of YHWH called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And [Abraham] said, “Here I am.” And the angel said that he didn’t have to kill his beloved Isaac. The joy Abraham had when he offered up the ram caught by its horns in a thicket on that mountain and he offered the ram as a burnt offering instead of his son. Abraham knew the Father’s joy of a son who was dead and is alive. Or consider Jacob who had seen his beloved son Joseph’s coat of many colors dipped in blood and believed that Joseph had been devoured by a fierce animal that had torn him to pieces (Gen 37:33). Now imagine Jacob’s joy when he sees Joseph in Egypt saying, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive” (Gen 46:30). Jacob knew the Father’s joy of a son who was dead and is alive. Just so, I imagine that the father in the parable wore his heart for his prodigal son on his sleeve—that is, He openly displayed his feelings about his lost son—everyone knew that He longed to see His son back from the dead. Now picture him watching for his dead son to return alive and seeing him still a long way off he feels compassion and runs and embraces this unclean son and smothers him with kisses and cut off his prodigal son in the middle of his son’s prepared speech to call for the servants to bring the best robe and put it on him and to put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet (shoes were somewhat of a luxury reserved for sons), and bring the fattened calf and kill it and says let us eat and celebrate. It is the Father’s joy of a son who was dead and is alive—who was lost and is found. (It was a joy that the Father wanted his elder son the Pharisee to share.)
- The Father’s great sorrow was that his son the Pharisee was standing just outside the door but was so far away. Think of how David felt when the Cushite came to deliver what he thought was good news that the rebellion of David’s son Absalom had been squashed and David asked him if Absalom was alive and the Cushite said, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up against you for evil be like that young man,” and David knowing that this means his son Absalom is dead, wept and cried out, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 18:32-33). David knew the Father’s sorrow that his unrepentant rebellious son was dead. It was the sorrow that the Father in the parable has for his lost son the Pharisee. This great sorrow led him to leave the house looking for his dead son who was missing from the party—that is, looking for his other lost son the Pharisee. The Father’s great sorrow led him to entreat this son, to repeat to this son the promise of the gospel that all that is mine is yours, and to plead with this son to come in and enjoy the Father’s party. That’s right, as another pastor pointed out to me this week, it isn’t a party for the prodigal—it is a party for the Father. The Father’s great sorrow is that this son the Pharisee doesn’t know Him. The Pharisee thinks he has been serving his Father all this time but he has no relationship with his Father and no love for his Father. The Pharisee thinks of his Father as a hard and unfair man, thus he says, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command [he says, while disobeying his Father], yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” It was pointed out to me last Sunday that all this son had to do was to ask for the goat to celebrate with his friends. The Pharisee didn’t think to ask because he didn’t have that kind of relationship with his Father. The Pharisee also couldn’t wait for his Father to be dead so that he would get all that was coming to him. He just wanted the money too, but he was working for it. But the Father’s heart lamented for His lost son the Pharisee, ‘Would that I had died instead of you, my son.’ (Thus the Father sent Jesus, His only begotten Son, to die in the place of prodigals and Pharisees and to rise from the dead on the third day so that we who were dead in our sins would live.)
- It is the Father’s great joy to give grace and mercy to His sons sentenced to death by the law.
- A young man left his father and ran away. He lived in other countries for fifty years. The older he grew, the more needy he became. Wandering about to find clothing and food, he unexpectedly came to his native country. The father had been searching for his son for all those years in vain and settled in a certain city where he became very wealthy. He didn’t speak of it to anyone in this city, though he always thought of his lost son. He lamented that he had amassed this great amount of wealth but had no son to whom he could give it. Meanwhile, the poor son hired himself out for wages here and there and unexpectedly came to his father’s house. As he stood by the gate, he saw his father from a distance. He might not have recognized his father for the man was sitting on a lion-couch, feet on a jeweled footstool, expensive strings of pearls adorning his body, surrounded by priests and warriors and many others—including slaves who were waiting on his every wish. The poor son was suddenly seized with fear because he saw how much power this man had and he thought that he would never be hired there and should instead find a poor village where he could more easily get food and clothes and he rushed away. The father on his lion-seat recognized his son immediately and with joy in his heart and sent servants to pursue his son and bring him back. The son objected that he had done them no harm – there was no reason for his arrest. He thought himself innocent but expected imprisonment and death. The father seeing this sent word to the servants to tell them not to bring the man by force and leave him alone. He didn’t tell anyone that this was his son. The son was delighted that he had been freed and went on his way. The father then secretly sent two men, sorrowful and poor in appearance, telling them to go find the poor man and tell him that they will hire him to scavenge for them. They gave the son his wages in advance and they began removing a trash heap (I’ll leave it to your imagination to think of what was in this pile he was shoveling). His father, seeing the son, was struck with compassion for him and one day humbled himself to go visit him – getting dirty and wearing rough clothing – and when he came to his son he let him know that he knew that he was his son and that he didn’t need to worry about anything and told him not to leave. He had observed that his son had never been deceitful, lazy, angry or grumbling as he worked—unlike his other servants. He told his son this and told him that he would be as his own begotten son – giving him a new name and calling him his son. But the poor son, happy that this was happening, still thought of himself as a humble hireling and so for twenty years more he continued in the employ of scavenging. After this, the father became ill and knew that he would soon die and after some time he called relatives, kings, priests, warriors and citizens to come assemble before him and he told them, this is my son and I am his father and he told them the story. He then explained that all of his wealth now belongs entirely to his son. When the poor son heard this, he rejoiced at such unexpected news and he thought, “Without any mind for, or effort on my part, these treasures now come to me.” I left out some details but the gist and interpretation of those is that the son in this parable should not have been satisfied with his low social status but should aspire to a higher position, even to becoming a Buddha himself. After a long time of learning and acquiring merits, he would attain this higher status. This is the story of the prodigal son told in Buddhism. It reminds me of some modern millionaires who have told their children that they have to work lowly jobs in their company for many years before they can receive the great riches of their father. In any case, the Buddhist parable is a story of works – not grace.
- By contrast, Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son is a parable about the grace of God given to sinners. The prodigal was unworthy. He squandered his inheritance on prostitutes until it was all gone. While he had money to spend he probably had plenty of friends but he didn’t have any real friends who would help him so when he ran out of money he attached himself to a man in that country working for an unclean Gentile in an unclean business. And while he is feeding the pigs he begins thinking of home where he always had plenty of food. His repentance, Edmund Clowney suggests, started in his stomach but as he is practicing his speech his repentance is now in his heart. And we have seen how the Father in Jesus’ parable welcomed His son with grace and mercy and readopted His son with the robe, the ring and the shoes and then He invited the neighbors to come to a party to welcome home His son. This should strike us as a wonderful surprise. Edmund Clowney notes that the Buddhist father appears to be more prudent or practical because the young man messed up once already. He says that many fathers would have said, “Oh, it’s you, you’re back, come on in and get yourself cleaned up and start looking for a job.” And the neighbor says, “I heard your son is home—the one who was away.” And the Father says, “Oh, yes, he’s staying with us for a few days.” Many fathers would be too ashamed to have a party with the neighbors to welcome back his son. Maybe twenty years later after proving himself a good servant the father might call the neighbors in and reveal that this is his son. (Clowney’s sermon, which I heard in chapel during seminary, is still available on their website here…for what it is worth, he is the inspiration for Tim Keller’s Prodigal God series). Now we’re describing a father that the Pharisee might like, but we’re not describing God the Father. It is the Father’s great joy to give grace and mercy to His sons sentenced to death by the law. And unlike the righteous elder brother, the Son of God is not ashamed to call us His brothers and sisters (Heb 2:11). In making this point, Hebrews quotes Psalm 22 as the words of Christ to the Father: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise” (Heb 2:12). Thus we join Jesus at the Father’s party and all the glory goes to God. That’s grace. Amen.