Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, have you ever lost something important? A few years ago I had performed a wedding for a friend of mine in California and as a thank you, his new father-in-law gave me a generous $200 Visa gift card. It was very thoughtful and generous and unexpected. I had taken it out of my luggage and I thought, I thought I had given it to my wife for safe keeping, maybe in her desk or purse or the safe. Well, one evening I began to think about that gift card and I asked my wife what she did with it. However, she said she had never seen the card. So after an hour or two of frantic searching everywhere, after trying to convince my wife that she was the one had lost it, we started giving up. Then poor Lucas my son, who was only a toddler at the time, maybe it was him, maybe he found it and it managed to end up in the recycling bin which I had just taken to the recycling dumpster that day! So, as a last ditch effort I drove to the dumpster and arrived just when the truck was driving away with the dumpster. Uggh! I came back home sad, stressed, upset and by chance happened to open my briefcase and lo and behold, there it was! I found it!! It was amazing! Have you ever lost something important and searched for it?
Today we’re looking at one of the most famous parables that Jesus ever spoke. If you’ve heard of this parable before you probably remember hearing it called the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” or the “Parable of the Lost Son” or even better, the “Parable of the Lost Sons” or ever better, “The Parable of the Searching Father.”
In the first couple of verses here, we’re given the context of this story. Jesus is speaking to an audience of tax collectors and sinners and an audience of Pharisees and teachers of the law who were muttering, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And so Jesus tells a series of three parables. One about a shepherd who loses a sheep and leaves the 99 sheep to find his one lost sheep. Then a parable about a woman who has 10 coins and loses one of them and searches until she finds her lost coin. And then this one about two sons – a younger one and an older one. These two sons are meant to be compared and contrasted. Act 1 is the lost younger brother, Act 2 is the lost older brother.
The younger son comes to his father and says, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” Now, Jesus’ original hearers would have been astounded by this request. If a father had two sons the inheritance would have worked like this: the older son would get a double portion of the inheritance, so 2/3, and the younger son would get 1/3, but, when does that happen? It’s supposed to happen AFTER the father died! But the younger son says, “I want it NOW!” In essence what the younger son is saying is, “I want your stuff, I want your money, I want your goods, but I don’t want you. My relationship with you has just been a means to an end, and now I’m out, I want your stuff, you’re better off to me dead than alive.” Wow! Unheard of!
Then, even more astounding, the father gives it to him! We would have expected the father to verbally and physically drive his son out of the house and family for making such a request. What’s also interesting here is that the word translated “property” is the word “Bios” and it literally means “life.” He divided his life between them. Back then, a person’s life was tied up with their land. In order to give his son his inheritance he would have had to sell off a third of his land! It meant losing part of yourself, part of your standing in the community. What the father experiences here is the worst thing that a human can experience and that is rejected love. Normally, when we experience rejected love, what do we do? We react negatively to lessen the pain. What does the girlfriend do when she gets dumped by her boyfriend? She gathers her friends or goes on Facebook to mutilate the 8th commandment, “That jerk, that good-for-nothing, worthless person.” Why? To lessen the pain. But the father doesn’t.
The son goes off, squanders everything he has, loses everything, has to go and hire himself out to feed pigs, has nothing, people treat him worse than a pig, they won’t even give him pig slop to eat. He realizes how stupid he is and comes up with a restitution plan. He’ll go back to his father and ask to be made a hired hand – not a servant who lives on the estate- but a hired hand, who lives in town and commutes, learns a trade so he can make some money to begin to pay his father back for what he’s done to him. He’s going back and… the father sees him! The father is waiting for him, looking for him, searching for him – then the father does what no middle eastern patriarch would do, he hikes up his robe and runs to his son, throws his arms around him, kisses him, the son begins to roll out his compensation plan, but the father interrupts him, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him.” That’s the father’s robe, I’m not going to wait for you to clean up and wash the pig manure off, you’re not going to earn your way back into this family – I’m bringing you in! He throws a huge party and even slaughters the fattened calf!
Now we move on to Act 2. The older brother comes in from…doing what? Dutifully working hard out in the field. He hears the music – literally the “symphony” and the dancing. He inquires about what is going on and finds out that his brother has come home. He stays outside. The Father comes out to him and the older brother is upset. He’s particularly upset about the cost. The calf. The Father gave him the calf, he never gave me even a goat! They hardly ever ate meat at this time and the fattened calf was the greatest delicacy. Essentially he says, “How dare you use our wealth like this, I obeyed, I slaved, I deserve the right to determine how things are used!” Then he even insults his father, never addresses him as “father’ but says, “Look, look you.” And then publicly humiliates his father by not going to this grand feast. But what does the father do? “My son, my child, I still want you in the feast, while every other father would have probably disowned you by now, I still want you in.” Then Jesus ends the parable. What?? What happened? Did the son go in? We don’t know. Why not? Because God wants us to consider and think about this.
You see, to some degree or another, everyone relates to God in either of these two ways: younger son or older son. You, me, everyone tends toward either of these, both of these, but probably more so to one of these. You see, in Act 1, we have a very traditional view of sin: insulting the father, wasting his gifts, prostitutes, reckless, drugs, alcohol, etc. But Act 2 turns the table. Two sons, one very good, one very bad, but it turns out that both are lost! Both are alienated from the father. Each son used the father to get what they really wanted: the wealth, the money, the stuff! One did it by being very bad, one did it by being very good, but they’re both lost! The bad one is lost because of his badness, but the good son is lost because of his goodness, his pride, his righteousness! Then in the end, the bad one is in, the good one is out!
Two kinds of people. Younger brothers and older brothers. Which are you? Which am I? Younger brothers seek to find happiness through self-discovery, living wildly, without restraint, enjoying the Father’s stuff without the Father. But I would say that most of us here, including myself, tend toward older brotherish. Older brothers are dutiful, moral, hard-working, compliant, but they use their goodness to control the father. If I obey, if I live this way or that way, if I follow the rules, if I’m good, God HAS to bless me! God HAS to make my life go the way that I want. If I do this, if I do that, if I go to church, if I live morally, I can control God by my good behavior.
How do you know if you are struggling with older brother tendencies? One sign is anger. Notice that the older son is angry. He thinks the father owes him, thinks things should happen the way he wants because he’s so good, but life rarely goes the way we plan it. Tim Keller, a Christian pastor and author, wrote a phenomenal book on this parable and he says, “Elder brothers have an undercurrent of anger toward life circumstances, hold grudges long and bitterly, look down at people of other races, religions, and lifestyles, experience life as a joyless, crushing drudgery, have little intimacy and joy in their prayer lives, and have a deep insecurity that makes them overly sensitive to criticism and rejection yet fierce and merciless in condemning others…and yet the rebellious path of the younger brother is obviously not a better alternative.” (Keller, 80).
It all comes down to the heart, to motivation. Yes, a Christian is going to obey God, but why? To get stuff from him? You see, sometimes we think that it’s enough to repent of the wrong things that we did. But a Pharisee would even do that. God wants us to not only repent of what we do that is wrong, but he also wants us to repent for the reasons we do what is right. You see, a Christian also repents for doing the right things for the wrong reasons, a Christian repents for doing the right things in order to get things from God.
And the only way we’re going to come to that point is when we are melted and moved by the love of the Father. Notice the initiating love here, the Father runs and kisses the son before he even repents, the Father goes in search of the older son inviting him in, Jesus welcomes the lost sons back in and pleads with the self-righteous Pharisees whom he knows are going to kill him to come back in! Incredible!
But notice one other thing. In verse 31 the father tells the older son, “Everything I have is yours.” That’s very true, isn’t it? Everything the father owned belonged to the older brother, the younger son being brought in meant an enormous cost to the older brother and the older brother is furious.
But what would the true older brother have done? The true older brother would have looked at his heartbroken father and said, “I’m going to go in search of my younger brother, I’m going to find him no matter where he is and bring him home to the father.” There’s a third son in this parable, He’s the one telling it. We have a true older brother. He didn’t go to a different city to find us, but he came all the way from heaven to earth, and it cost him, it didn’t cost him money or inheritance, but his life, his dignity, stripped and dying on a cross, shedding his blood to pay our debt.
This is where our attitude about God changes, it’s no longer about wanting the father’s stuff and not the father or being so good to force God to bless me, its about living in response to the love of the Father. Do you have an older brother heart? This parable was written for Pharisees. Are you upset because your life isn’t going the way you want? Do you look down on others? Are you more interested in the church serving you than in seeking the lost? Are you proud of your goodness? Lay your deadly goodness down at Jesus’ feet. Have a heart melted by the grace of Jesus. Amen.