Sermon audio - Luke 15 LINK NOW WORKING
"Here we have a son devising a speech and a repayment plan to get his life back. And what he is proposing is self-redemption. He wants to stop being a younger brother type and to start being an older brother type. He’s given up on the freedom lark, now he’ll try slaving. But this is NOT the way back to Jesus. The pigsty is NOT the turning point.
So often I hear evangelistic talks and they go something like this: “You’ve made a mess of your life haven’t you? You realize you can’t do life on your own don’t you? Well then come to your senses. Pick yourself up out of the pigsty, make some resolutions to try really hard for God. And return to Him using this prayer that is guaranteed to win God’s favour. You’ll have to promise to behave, and you’ll have to make this speech word perfect which is why I’m going to feed it to you line by line and you can parrot it back.”
Does that sound vaguely familiar as the way the gospel gets taught? But what’s the problem here? Well that would make the younger son into his own Saviour.
But think about those other stories Jesus tells. The lost sheep doesn’t come to its senses and decide to come home and make good! Can you imagine the film "Flossy comes home"? Can you imagine the lost sheep trotting back up the front drive in slow motion, the music swelling, the shepherd on the porch, tears in his eyes??? No! It needs the shepherd to go out and save it IN its lostness. And when the shepherd finds the sheep he can't even trust the sheep to follow him home. He's got to hoist the stupid thing onto his shoulders, so wayward is the sheep. Jesus says we're like sheep. We go astray, we each turn to our own way (Isaiah 53:5). We DON'T come home. That's not our nature. We're like lost sheep who need saving. This younger son is like a sheep, he's not returning to the fold under his own steam. This is not him saving himself. Not even close. The pigsty is not the turning point.
But so much of Christianity is pigsty Christianity. So much is about coming to your senses, resolving to do better, and impressing God with how sorry you are. Pigsty Christianity. It’s filth. That’s not the gospel! The gospel is a running father who embraces, kisses, clothes, honours, celebrates and eats with an evil conniving son, still stinking of pig. That's the gospel."
Read the whole sermon below...
Over the next two weeks we’re going to think about the most famous story Jesus ever told. And it’s rightly famous because it is dynamite. Don’t ever let familiarity with a bible passage dull you. This story has shocked me deeply again in the last couple of weeks as I’ve prepared.
In fact in the last week or so, I’ve spoken about this story a couple of times, and each time I was shocked by the explosion it caused.
Last week I was leading a little communion service in a nursing home. It’s the sort of place where everyone comes up to me and asks how old I think they are. 26! No, I’m 99. All the women call me ‘Father’ and all the men call me ‘Padre’. For some reason there was a young girl – 19 or 20 – with a German accent. She wasn’t related to anyone there, I don’t know why she was there except that God wanted her there. And I spoke on this chapter and how the sinful lost son comes home to the forgiveness and love and welcome of the father. I spoke for a couple of minutes only and just read out from verse 20:
While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him…. And said `Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'
And she was crying uncontrollably. And you’re all thinking, “Yeah yeah, preachers love it when they cry.” And, yes we do. It’s not a sadistic thing, it’s just vanity really. And it would encourage me greatly if you cried. Sobbing would make my year. But this girl was so moved and really it was nothing I said. This was just a short little communion service I didn’t say very much (I know you’re all shocked to hear that, but I said very little) except to read out these verses, and this young girl was moved to tears. This is a powerful story.
The other time I spoke on this parable recently was last week at our lunchtime concert. People come for the music but we give a little 5 minute talk at the interval. And I just opened up Luke 15 and I asked them the question: “Who is easier to get into heaven, a good person or a bad person?” And I gave the obvious biblical answer: a bad person. A bad person is easier to get into heaven than a good person. And I said, if you want proof, well here is the most famous story Jesus ever told and it’s all about this. There’s a good boy and a bad boy and what’s the punchline of the story? The bad boy gets into the father’s banquet, the good boy is left outside bitter and angry. And it’s his goodness and self-righteousness that keeps him out. So who is easier to get into heaven, a good person or a bad person? Clearly it’s a bad person.
The audience were bristling. I was as though the pews suddenly sprouted splinters and everyone was shifting around and looking shocked and horrified. They were nice respectable people listening to a lovely soprano sing lovely songs, and they’re expecting a lovely little word from the young curate and I come on, Luke 15 in hand and the bomb goes off. I just tell them the simple message of this simple story: heaven’s not for good respectable people but for sinners. Well one woman was so offended she said to her neighbour in a loud voice – and I mean she bellowed so the whole church could hear – “Well then, I suppose we should all become BAD people then!?”
And I thought – Brilliant!! If preachers can’t get tears out of you, we love to get heckling. If we can’t make you sad, we love to make you mad. I’ve got a friend who says the preaching of the apostles in the bible produced either revivals or riots, very little in between.
Well I think there’s something to that. Certainly this story polarizes people. It’s either tears of grateful joy, or angry scoffing. And really if it’s not one or the other you maybe haven’t got it.
This story makes for immeasurable comfort for sinners and violent opposition from the righteous. This story produces that because JESUS produces that. HE brings immeasurable comfort for sinners and provokes deadly opposition from the righteous.
Look with me at verses 1 and 2:
Luke 15:1 Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering round to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them."
Sinners FLOCK to Jesus and the so-called righteous HATE that. Verse 2, they actually use these words as an insult: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” That’s not an insult, that’s about the most beautiful thing you can say “Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The Pharisees were brilliant at these insults. Back in Luke 7:34 they make another slanderous accusation. They say “Jesus is the friend of sinners.” Again, that was meant to be an insult.
But Jesus owns these accusations, Yes He loves sinners, Yes He befriends sinners, Yes He welcomes sinners, Yes He eats with sinners. That is His very nature. And if the so-called righteous can’t handle that, then they cannot handle Jesus.
And so from v3, Jesus tells three stories where He underlines His deep compassion and commitment to sinners. From v4 He says I’m like a shepherd who leaves the 99 ok sheep and goes after the lost sheep. From v8 He says I’m like a woman who searches high and low for the lost coin. And from v11 He says ‘I’m like a father who welcomes a lost son and eats with him.’
That’s how the chapter fits together. Do you see, in verses 1 and 2, Jesus is surrounded by these two types of people. The baddies and the goodies. And the goodies say “This man welcomes baddies and eats with them.”
So Jesus tells three stories and the third is the pinnacle of the three. And in that story, what happens? A father has two sons - a baddy and a goody and the father welcomes the baddy and eats with him and the goody hates it and won’t go in.
So now that we’ve seen the context let me ask you: Who does the younger son in the story represent? Sinners and tax collectors. Who does the older son represent? The Pharisees and teachers of the law. And who does the father represent? Jesus.
Verse 4, we know that Jesus is the good shepherd searching for the lost sheep. Verse 8, it takes a stretch of our imagination but we understand that He’s the woman searching for the lost coin. And v11 He’s the father who ends up ‘welcoming a sinner and eating with him.’ Jesus is the central character of all three of these stories.
Now I know that people are usually very lazy in their interpretation of this story and say ‘Oo, there’s a father, that must be God because God is called ‘Father.’ Well no look at the context. Clearly it’s Jesus. But of course Jesus perfectly reveals God the Father to us.
I think this can really help us with a common problem people have. It’s the problem of relating to God as Father when our own fathers might have been terrible dads.
I know people who just can’t pray to God as Father at all. And I know someone who says they prefer to pray to Jesus, because their own father has turned them off the Heavenly Father. What can we say to that?
If you are trying to see your heavenly Father in the face of your earthly father you will get a VERY imperfect image. That’s true no matter how good your human father has been. Even the best human father will give you a VERY distorted picture of God the Father. If you want a true Image of your heavenly Father there’s one place the bible tells you to look again and again. Look into the face of Jesus. He is the One who perfectly reveals His heavenly Father. In everything Christ does He says “I’m only doing what I see my Father doing.” (John 5:19)
As He’s patient with His sinful and foolish disciples – He’s only doing what He sees His Father doing. As He has compassion on the crowds and pours Himself out in love – He’s only doing what He sees His Father doing. As He stoops down to wash His disciple’s feet – He’s only doing what He sees His Father doing. As He opens His arms wide open on the cross to receive sinners – He’s only doing what He sees His Father doing.
JESUS reveals the Father. And we’ve got to let HIS Image of the Father shape and reshape our thinking. So maybe this story could help with that. Because this story shows us Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them AS the perfect father. In Jesus we see the Father none of us have ever experienced in our earthly dads. But He is the Father all of us have if we come home to Jesus.
But that’s the context of this story. Jesus surrounded by goodies and baddies and from v11 tells this story about a man welcoming a baddy and eating with him.
Let’s dive into the story:
11 Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons.
This week we’ll look at the younger son, next week the older.
12 The younger one said to his father,`Father, give me my share of the estate.'
Wow! This kid is not just a young rapscallion, he’s not a bit of a cad, he’s not just a rough diamond, he is deeply wicked. He goes to his father and says ‘You know all that money that’s mine when you’re dead, you seem to be taking your time, and frankly I’m bored of waiting.’ ‘Son, you’ll have it when I’m dead.’ ‘But dad, seriously, what’s keeping you. Maybe you could take up smoking or Bunjee jumping. Really it feels like you’ve been alive holding onto my money forever.’ ‘It’s my money son and it’ll be yours when I die.’ ‘Yeah but dad, I just can’t wait for you to die. I don’t think I can bear another day of you continuing to be alive and of me not having your stuff. Dad I really wish you were dead.’
It’s hard to overplay how disgusting this younger son is being here. Remember this is a middle-eastern, patriarchal, shame based society in which family honour is massive. This son fronts up to his dad and says ‘Could you either hurry up and die, or just show me the money.’
But if that weren’t shocking enough, v12 continues:
So he divided his property between them.
The father is from some other planet. That’s unearthly. Everyone listening to Jesus would expect v12 to say, “The father beat his child for being so insolent and drove him out into the street for shaming the family so terribly.” But no, this father gives his son what he wants. He divides his property. Literally it says he divides his life. It tears the father apart but he tears his own life apart to give the son his desire.
Verse 12 also says he divided his property between them. The older son got his share too. Which is interesting – maybe we’ll return to that next week. But v13 continues
13 "Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had [and], set off for a distant country
So the son shows his true colours – He’s not going to hang around. He wants the father’s stuff, but he doesn’t want the father. As soon as he gets his hands on the stuff, he doesn’t want his dad. And as wicked as that is, who can’t relate to that? Isn’t that how we all treat our Maker?
In fact that’s exactly what I said to my heckler at the lunchtime concert. She said “If it’s easier for bad people to get into heaven then I suppose we should all become bad!”
I said to her, “The trouble is we don’t need to BECOME bad, do we? We already are. We just need to admit it.”
You see, as horrendous as this sons sins are, who here hasn’t done what he’s done? Who hasn’t said to God “I want your stuff, I don’t want you. I’ll take your gifts, I’ll ignore the Giver. I want your cash, your blessings, your prosperity, I’m not interested in your heart, your face, your company.”
I’m a Christian and I blank my Maker all the time. I get paid to think about Jesus and I ignore Him. We all do what this guy has done. It’s treasonous, and it’s universal.
And who here doesn’t resonate with v13 – setting off for a distant country, money in your pocket, leaving the old man behind, wind in your hair, anything’s possible. That son must have felt invincible as he stepped out into this new adventure.
But it’s fascinating to see where this bid for freedom takes him. V13
and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no-one gave him anything.
The father gives him what he wants. But you know the most dangerous thing in the world is to be given what your sinful self wants. There’s a madness to our natural desires – they will kill us if they are let loose. This passion to throw off the shackles sends the younger son down into a spiral that ends in the pig sty. This son has sought a certain kind of freedom, but the end of that kind of freedom is isolation, degradation, destruction. And he ends up as far from his father as it’s possible to be.
Now v17 is often thought to be the turning point of this story. Verse 17:
17 "When he came to his senses, he said,`How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.'
I think this is some kind of turning point sure. It’s a new scheme. It’s a new plan. But it’s not a new man. In fact v17 if you read it in the ESV translation it puts it more literally. It just says “When he came to himself…” The younger son is not coming to God at this point, or coming to his dad. He’s coming to himself. And he wonders whether the old man might give him a job.
And you say, that sounds very cynical Glen, what about this little repentance speech: “I’ve sinned against heaven and against you.” Doesn’t that show that he is a humbled, contrite repentant man?
Interestingly, back in Exodus, Pharaoh uses that same phrase in the middle of the plagues as the locusts are devouring Egypt. He says to Moses, I’m sorry, please stop. I realize the error of my ways, “I’ve sinned against the LORD your God and against you.” (Exodus 10:17) And when you realize that Jews when speaking often substituted ‘heaven’ for God – you see that this younger son is repenting exactly like Pharaoh repented. And Pharaoh was not truly repenting, he was just bargaining, desperate to get out of suffering.
So here we have a son devising a speech and a repayment plan to get his life back. And in fact what he is proposing is to basically go from being a younger brother type to being an older brother type. He’s given up on the freedom lark, now he’ll try slaving. But friends, that is NOT the way back to Jesus. The pigsty is NOT the turning point.
So often I hear evangelistic talks and they go something like this: “You’ve made a mess of your life haven’t you? You realize you can’t do life on your own don’t you? Well then come to your senses. Pick yourself up out of the pigsty, make some resolutions to try really hard for God and return to Him using this prayer that is guaranteed to win God’s favour and get you back into His household. You’ll have to promise to behave, and you’ll have to make this speech word perfect which is why I’m going to feed it to you line by line and you can parrot it back.”
Does that sound vaguely familiar as the way the gospel gets taught? But what’s the problem here? Well that would make the younger son into his own Saviour.
But think about those other stories Jesus tells. The lost sheep doesn’t come to its senses and decide to come home and make good. Can you imagine the sheep coming back up the front drive in slow motion, the music plays. No! It needs the shepherd to go and save it IN its lostness. The lost coin doesn’t come to its senses and realize its needs to be back in the woman’s purse. It needs the woman to come and save it in the midst of its lostness. The younger son is not like a sheep or a coin returning to the fold. The pigsty is not the turning point.
But so much of Christianity is pigsty Christianity. It’s all about coming to your senses, resolving to do better, and impressing God with how sorry you are. Pigsty Christianity. It’s filth. That’s not the gospel! Here’s the gospel, v20 – here comes this stinking evil son with yet another plan to exploit his dad:
"BUT while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21 "The son said to him,`Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 "But the father said to his servants,`Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
THAT’S the turning point. The turning point doesn’t happen in the pigsty. The pigsty only changes the younger brother into an older brother type. That’s all that happens in the pigsty. And that’s all that happens in pigsty Christianity. But going from a younger brother type to an older brother type might impress people in the world, it doesn’t bring you an inch closer to Christ.
No, the turning point is the running father. The running father here – like the good shepherd who searches out the lost sheep, like the woman who searches out the lost coin – the running father is the Saviour. Change happens not in the pigsty but in the arms of the father.
Remember what they said of Jesus – this man welcomes sinners and eats with them. Well look at Him do that. Look at His heart, look at His joy, look at His compassion.
He ran. Middle eastern men don’t run. You’d have to hitch up your robes, you’d look ridiculous. Dignified people don’t run – have you ever seen the Queen run? This father runs. Throws his arms around him and falls on his sons neck with kisses.
The son, robot like, trots out his sorry speech, but the father doesn’t even let him finish. Do you notice at the end of v19, he planned on saying “Make me like one of your hired men.” He was going to propose becoming a household servant and perhaps a life-long repayment scheme. The father will not allow his son to become a slave.
`Quick! Bring the best robe (a sign of honour) and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger (a sign of authority) and sandals on his feet (a sign of blessing).
This evil son, still stinking of pig. And He is clothed in kisses and robes and honours and blessings. And he is celebrated.
More than this – a whole status change is pronounced. He was dead and NOW is alive. He was lost and NOW is found. A new state of affairs has come about and it’s come about instantly. Instantly he’s adopted and has the full rights of sonship. He does NOT earn his way back into the father’s good books. Instantly he is brought into the very centre of the household, the head of the table, the heart of the father. Instantly. No slaving. No earning. All by grace.
What are we learning? We are learning how Jesus treats sinners. He welcomes them, eats with them and celebrates them.
Jesus has already said in v10: “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
You know a friend of mine pointed out the other day, that verse doesn’t say the angels rejoice when sinners repent. Though I’m sure they do. There is rejoicing before the angels of God. And in Luke angels tell us that they stand BEFORE God. So who is rejoicing over these repenting sinners. GOD. It’s not like the angels are partying and God sits serenely saying ‘we’re very pleased.’ No. What’s God like? Look at Jesus. When sinners come home, it’s party time – and He leads the dancing. That’s the heart of God. And it’s perfectly reflected in Jesus.
What’s God like? He’s exactly like Jesus. What’s Jesus like? He welcomes sinners and eats with them. He runs, hugs, kisses, robes and celebrates.
If your view of God is not like this, you are wrong. You have the wrong god in mind. THIS is the true God, who welcomes sinners and eats with them.
What are we like? Well some of us slave away and make rules and opt into the system, we’ll see more of that next week. Some of us cut loose and opt out and break the rules. But none of us naturally want heart-to-heart, face-to-face relationship with Jesus. But when He brings us into it – that is our liberation. The younger son wasn’t free as he walked down the front drive and off to the far country. He was free when He was back in the father’s arms. That’s freedom.
And it’s there in the father’s arms that you and I will find the power to change.
The world loves to tell you how to change. Declutter your life. Reboot your wardrobe. Get control of your finances. All the world can do is turn younger brothers into older brothers or older brothers into younger brothers. But Jesus changes us into new kinds of human being. People like himself – people of grace and truth. Who love sinners but themselves live renewed lives. Who tear up the rule book, but cling to relationship with God. Alien people, different people, new creations. We are being changed into that. But change doesn’t happen in the pigsty, it happens in the father’s arms.
Let me tell you what I mean. When I sin I naturally think of myself as having left the father’s house and somehow ended up in the pigsty. And so change involves coming to my senses, resolving to do much better, coming up with a repayment plan, and selling God a really good sorry speech. And so the power of change lies within me and my own resolutions and will-power.
But change doesn’t happen there. Change happens in the father’s arms. We know that because four chapters later Jesus shows us exactly what happens when he acts like the prodigal father towards Zaccheaus. Zaccheaus was a nasty little white collar criminal, the most hated man in town and Jesus points at him and says ‘I’m coming to your place for dinner.’ This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. And out of this incredible grace is birthed incredible change in Zaccheaus. He gives away half his wealth and repays all the money he’s stolen four times over. IN the grace of Jesus, Zaccheaus changes. Jesus doesn’t say “Now Zaccheaus, what’s all this I hear about stealing money. Now IF you come to your senses, and IF you make a repayment plan and IF you say you’re really sorry, I’ll come and eat with you.” No. He eats with the wicked sinner and change happens within the grace of Jesus.
You and I will change – truly change not just swap from younger to older brothers – we will truly change when we understand the unconditional love of Jesus:
"BUT while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21 "The son said to him,`Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 "But the father said to his servants,`Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate."