Two Lost Sons Ė Luke 15.11-32
A certain man had two sons . . .
Thus begins one of the greatest of all parables delivered by Jesus. I donít keep track of the "greatest" parables, but if you asked most Christians to tell of a parable of Jesus, Iím sure that many would mention this one.
It all really begins back in Luke chapter 14. Jesus was at the house of a Pharisee. He healed a man on the Sabbath, much to the Phariseeís dismay. He told them to take the lowly not the highest places. He shared the parable of the Great Supper. The people who were invited to this supper did not come. Others, the outcasts etc, had to be invited and even compelled to come. He urged the multitudes to be His disciples leaving all and following Him. The Pharisees complained that He ate with sinners, and so Jesus told them three great parables to illustrate Godís plan of salvation. The shepherd goes after the one lost sheep. The woman searches everywhere to find the one lost coin. Then comes the parable of the two lost sons.
In this parable Jesus addresses two forms of rebellion. First of all there are those like the sinners and tax collectors who are openly rebelling against God. Then there are others who are quietly rebelling against God. Jesus shows us in this parable Godís desire to save both kinds of people.
Luke 15.11-12 Then He said: "A certain man had two sons. "And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.' So he divided to them his livelihood."
The "portion" of goods sought by the younger son was probably one third of the estate. Normally the oldest son received two thirds and the rest of the children divided the remaining one third. No matter what the amount, this was an astonishing request! There is no doubt that this son couldnít have showed more disrespect to his father. First of all no parent is obligated to give their children anything. An inheritance is a gift not a right. Secondly, by asking for it before his father had died or was near death, he was telling his father that he might as well be dead.
But what about this father who divides up his estate and gives it to an obviously rebellious son? To be sure it sounds a little fantastic, and some might think of it as a literary device to set up the story. God, however, does give away a great inheritance of life to all people even though He knows they are rebellious. "He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (1). All of us start out in life with a great estate from our heavenly Father. God loves us and gives this to us even though He knows that by nature we will squander it. The father in this parable is not so odd when compared to the Heavenly Father.
Luke 15.13 "And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living."
The young man departs for a "far country." Can we not hear the inspired words of John warning us from the "far country" of worldly pleasures? "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world; the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life; is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever" (2).
Jesus tells us that he wasted his possessions with "prodigal living." Thatís an interesting word in Greek. It comes from the word "to save." However to express "prodigal living" the Greeks just reversed the word 180 degrees. He lived in an "unsaving" way scattering all the gifts he had received. The biggest difference between people is in their orientation toward God. Are they facing Him in faith and receiving His blessings. Or do they have their backs turned to Him and at the same time squandering all that God provides?
Luke 15.14-16 "But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything."
When Jesus says that he "joined himself to a citizen," He literally means that the young man "glued himself" to the citizen. He was in desperate straits. This is what people often do when they are turned away from the Lord. They will attach themselves to whatever can sustain them and give them a reason to live. People might attach themselves to their careers, healthy lifestyles, their family and children, sports or hobbies. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things, none of them can be a "father substitute." Our attachment to them is only a temporary situation to stave off the inevitable destruction weíve chosen. These things cannot ultimately satisfy us just as the pods of the Carob tree, barely edible for humans, could stave off the starvation of the young man.
Luke 15.17-19 "But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 'I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants."'
The young man "came to himself." Thatís one of the great keys to success in life. He looked to the inmost cause of his sad predicament and said, "I have sinned." Can you honestly say those words? There is nothing that will hold you back more than anything than the inability to utter those words and mean them. He got to the bottom of this splinter in his soul.
Just as an aside . . . you can tell that this is a very dysfunctional family. But you know there are very few if any truly functional families recorded in the Bible. Think of Noahís, Abrahamís, Isaacís, Jacobís, and Davidís families. They all had problems. We all have problems. One of the greatest hindrances to true spiritual renewal and conversion is the way we blame our present choices on our earthly situations. "I wouldnít be in this situation if I had had a loving family." The myth of perfect families and perfect people has to be destroyed. All of us fall short of the glory of God. All of us have to take personal responsibility for our choices in life.
Now consider just how deep is his repentance. "I am not worthy . . ." What a contrast from "Give me the portion of goods that falls to me." Notice that he wants to come back to the family, but with a different status. He thinks he canít be a son. After all he has no inheritance at this point. A lot of people who are repentant will do this kind of thing. Itís said out of weakness of faith, and it is understandable.
Luke 15.20-24 "And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' And they began to be merry."
Now all this time that father has not forgotten his lost son. Daily he must have been scanning the horizon watching for him. I often work with people who suffer broken relationships. I always urge them to maintain openness and a love for the person who has abandoned them. But it is so hard. That love can only be maintained for a while by human beings. Sooner or later life has to go on. We are not capable or maintaining this kind of love. But God can, and this is precisely what makes Him God. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us over and over that His love and mercy endure forever.
Even before the son arrives on the property, the father goes to him. He runs. This is unheard of among Jewish fathers. It was undignified to draw up those skirts and expose those untanned legs in a foot race. He fell on his neck and kissed him! A few years ago I took a youth group on a float trip down the Elkhorn River in Nebraska. After three days my wife didnít want me in the car, let alone allow me to kiss her! But the father throws off all modesty. Jesus uses the deep Greek word "splagnizomai" to describe the feelings of the father.
Now the son begins his pre-rehearsed confession. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son." But do you notice that somethingís missing? There was one more part in the original, "Make me like one of your hired servants." But he couldnít get these words out. The father cut him off. Overwhelming grace accepts no bargains. The father calls for the robe, the ring, and the sandals. These are all important. The robe covers the dirty past. The ring makes his membership in the family official. The sandals point to the comforts granted by status in this family.
If you were to open a Bible dictionary looking for the word "grace," you couldnít ask for a better illustration than this parable. God requires no conditions or repayment. In fact to bring Him any kind of repayment of the past would be not only useless, it would be insulting. The beautiful hymn, "Rock of Ages," contains this stanza:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace (3)
This is the way God saves us. Not by what we have done or must do, but by His overwhelming grace.
Luke 15.25-32 "Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.' But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, 'Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. 'But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.' "And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 'It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.'"
Now we come to the other "lost" son. The younger son was openly rebellious. The older son was a quiet rebel. He didnít operate by grace, and that fact came out when this real demonstration of grace was given. He obeyed his father, not because he loved him, but because this was workable for him. Whether youíre feeding pigs or feathering your own nest, a wrong relationship with God is just wrong. Hopefully hearts like this can be exposed to the light of reality.
One son was lost and found. Now another son has become lost, and the father is eager to reclaim him in grace. "Therefore His father came out and pleaded with him." What can we say about this father? He is a super dad. He is patient and persistent. This is the picture Jesus would have us take of God the Father. This older son in some ways commits the greater sin. He tries to put a stumbling block before this joyous reunion. Recall what Jesus said about those who cause "the little ones to stumble." He said,"It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea" (4). Yet the father approaches him with the same concern and compassion. "All I have is yours." Jesus didnít tell us whether the older son joined the celebration. I would like to think that he did. This parable was directed to the Pharisees. One Pharisee we know came back to the celebration. His name was Nicodemus. He met with Jesus in the shadows of darkness. Nicodemus was much like this older brother. He was experienced and knowledgeable. He appeared to be obedient and disciplined in his faith. But Jesus showed him that the Kingdom operates by grace. "You must be born again" (5). Try doing that on your own! Even Nicodemus had to come into the kingdom like the younger son, like anybodyóby grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Grace can be a little disconcerting to those caught up in the system of self-improvement and achievement. But we pray that Godís grace would eventually also overwhelm them.
Grace, mercy, and peace be with you all in Christ. Amen.
(1) Matthew 5.45 (2) 1 John 2.15-17 (3) The Lutheran Hymnal 376 (4) Mark 9.42 (5) John 3.3
Pastor Michael Walther
The Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 25, 2001
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Collinsville, Illinois
Michael P. Walther; Copyright, 2001
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