It’s a famous story. But it’s famous for a reason – it’s dynamite. Never let familiarity with a bible story breed contempt. Every time I have preached this passage I’ve been shocked by the explosion.
Last year I preached it twice within 24 hours. Both times, speaking for about 5 minutes and the passage went off in two very different ways. First I preached it at a little communion service in a nursing home. It’s the sort of place where everyone comes up to me and asks “Do you know how old I am??” I say “26?” They say, “No, I’m 107.” No matter how much I protest, all the women call me ‘Father’ (which is disturbing). And all the men call me ‘Padre’ (which I secretly quite like). 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 at this old persons communion service except that God wanted her there. And I spoke on this chapter and how the sinful younger son got lost in the distant country but comes home to the forgiveness and love and welcome of the father.
And she could not stop crying. This passage is dynamite.
The next day I spoke on this parable at a lunchtime concert. People came for the music but I gave 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 Family Feast, the good boy stays 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.
How do you think the audience were responding? These 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.
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 make you sad, we love to make you mad. This story is dynamite. And it polarizes people – either it’s tears of grateful joy, or it’s angry scoffing.
This story has always has had those two kinds of responses. Look down at how Luke 15 begins. Here we’ll see two kinds of people who will have two different responses to Jesus’ story, verse 1:
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."
Do you see the two groups surrounding Jesus? Verse 1 we have the tax collectors and sinners. They are the rule-breakers. Let’s call them the sinners.
Then in verse 2, do you see the other group? The Pharisees and the teachers of the law. They are the rule-makers. Let’s call them the slaves.
Jesus is surrounded by sinners and slaves. Rule-breakers and rule-makers.
And actually the whole world divides into sinners and slaves.
The sinners love freedom. The slaves love respect. The sinners opt out of the system to discover themselves. The slaves opt in to prove themselves.
Which are you more like? We’re usually a combination – but we’re a combination of these two options. Which do you lean towards? Sinner or slave? Opt out or opt in? Freedom or respect? Rule-breaker or rule-maker?
Well Jesus comes into a world full of sinners and slaves and He says: you are BOTH wrong. That’s what Luke 15 is all about. Sinners are wrong. Dead wrong. But slaves are also wrong. Dead wrong. The irreligious are wrong. But so are the religious. The immoral are wrong, but so are the moral. Everything the world has ever thought about coming to God and being accepted in the world: it’s wrong.
Jesus comes down into a world full of sinners and slaves, but He doesn’t play by the rules of either. He has come to create a third kind of person. Not a sinner, not a slave, not halfway in between, something else. Jesus is neither a sinner, nor a slave. He’s a Son. He is THE Son. And He’s come to call sinners and slaves into HIS kind of life. He invites people into the Ultimate Family and the Ultimate Feast.
The Ultimate Family is God. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And Jesus the Son comes into the world to invite sinners and slaves out of their sinner-ness and out of their slave-ness and into the Ultimate Family. And when we come home to the Ultimate Family, we enjoy the Ultimate Feast. Life in this Family is a life of Feasting. It’s a life of celebration and friendship and overflowing joy. Jesus invites us into the Family, into the Feast.
But will we come? Will the sinners come? Will the slaves come?
Well look at the response of the sinners and the slaves: Verses 1 – The sinners flock to eat with Jesus. But, verse 2, how do the slaves feel about it?
So what does Jesus do? Verse 3, He tells a story. In fact He tells three stories, but the one we’re studying is the climax of the three. And in our story from verse 11 there’s a man who has two sons – a sinner and a slave. And He welcomes the sinner and eats with him. And there’s a slave who is angry and stays outside the Family Feast.
Do you understand what’s going on in the story now?
Well then, help me out: Who does the younger son represent? The sinners.
And in this story, who does the older son represent? The slaves.
And, in this story, who does the father represent? Jesus.
Remember verses 1 and 2. Jesus. Sinners and Slaves. Then Jesus tells a story about a man with a sinner and a slave for a son. So who’s the man? Jesus! Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them.
So Jesus actually tells three stories to ram home the point. From verse 3 He’s like a shepherd finding a lost sheep. From verse 8 He’s like a woman finding a lost coin. From verse 11 He’s like a father finding a lost son. He’s not actually a shepherd, He’s the Son of God. He’s not actually a woman, He’s the Son of God. He’s not actually a dad, He’s the Son of God. But He’s making the same point three different ways: I’m for the lost, I’m for the lost, I’m for the lost.
So our story from verse 11 is about this truth that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. So He tells a story about a man with two sons. Let’s dive in and see how these two sons represent sinners and slaves:
Verse 12 – here’s the sinner...
The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’
“Dear Dad, You know all that money I’m getting when you die. You seem to be taking your time. Frankly I can’t stand it any longer. I can’t handle another day where I have to put up with the presence of YOU and the absence of my inheritance. I’d like it the other way around. I wish you were dead. Give me the fruits of your death now. I want your stuff so I can get as far away from YOU as I possibly can.”
That’s what this younger son says, essentially. He is not a rough diamond, he is not a loveable rogue. He is scum. Especially when you realize how great this father is. This sinner is appalling. But let’s hold up the mirror to ourselves for a second.
Isn’t this exactly what you and I have said to the Lord of heaven? Dear Lord, I quite enjoy your stuff, I don’t want you. I’ll take your blessings, I don’t want your presence. Give me your things – but I don’t want a relationship.” This is the default mode of the human heart.
And it’s what I said to that woman at the lunchtime concert. Remember the heckler? I said it’s easier to get a bad person into heaven. She said “I suppose we should all become bad then!” I said to her “Well it’s not a case of becoming bad is it? We just need to realize that we are bad. We’ve all said to the Lord “I want your things, I don’t want you.” We’ve all done to Jesus what this son did to his dad.”
We all have this sinner streak right through our hearts. This boy is just bold enough to voice it.
But what’s even more shocking is the father’s response: v12
So he divided his property between them.
Isn’t that stunning? He gives this sinner what he wants. He hands him over to his wicked and foolish desires.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country 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.
It’s a familiar story isn’t it? This sinner tries to throw off the shackles but gets mired even deeper. He goes for riches, ends up broke. He goes for freedom, ends up enslaved. He goes for feasting, ends up starving. He goes for wild times, ends up in a pig sty.
But then he has a bright idea. Hungry and desperate he figures out a plan to squeeze some more out of his old man:
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants 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 servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
Careful here. Be very careful. Some people think this is the turning point of the story. I’m not so sure. You see verse 17, “came to his senses” is more literally translated “came to himself.” It’s himself he’s thinking about. And his apology in v18 is actually a famous apology from the Old Testament. And many of Jesus’ hearers would have remembered it. Do you know who from the Old Testament famously said “I’ve sinned against heaven and against you”? Pharaoh. When Pharaoh was in deep trouble with plagues crashing down on his head, he also came to himself and said to Moses, “I’ve sinned against heaven and against you.” But it wasn’t genuine repentance. It lasted a matter of hours.
But this is what the younger son plans to do. He’ll go back to his dad with some Pharaoh-repentance and make a job application. This sinner resolves to become a slave. That’s the only change that happens in the pigsty, the sinner resolves to become a slave.
But the father has other ideas. Because halfway through verse 20 we see the real turning point of the story.
But while [the younger son] 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.
Before he’s heard a word from this sinner... Before he’s heard a word from this sinner, the dad’s bolted out the door, up the front drive and smothered his wretched boy in kisses. Before he’s heard a word.
And did you notice how the father cut his son off at the end of verse 21. The son was about to make his job application: “Make me like one of your hired servants.” The father’s having none of that. Verse 22: “Quick! Bring the best robe.”
You know what brings the sinner home? Not his pigsty plan. Not his Pharaoh sorry-speech. Not his dutiful job application. You know what brings him home? The father. The father! Just as the shepherd hoists the lost sheep onto his shoulders and strides home. Just as the woman finds the lost coin and celebrates, so the father reconciles his son still stinking of pig.
Filled with compassion he runs to his son. Middle-eastern men did not run. There they are in their long flowing robes. Now ladies, if you wear a long dress down to your ankles and you want to run, what do you have to do? Hitch it up. It looks ridiculous for me to do it – this is a respectable middle eastern patriarch doing what no men did in his day. Hitches up his robes, run, throws his arms around this rotten sinner stinking of pig and he falls on his neck and kisses him.
He’d look very motherly wouldn’t he?
And he robes him in the best robe – which would be his robe. Put’s a ring on his finger – a sign of authority. Sandals on his feet – which would set him apart from the servants. Kills the fattened calf – which would feed hundreds. And the father publicly, expensively and joyfully invites this sinner right back into the heart of the family.
This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.
How do you react to that?
If you’re a sinner, you might just be moved to tears. Like that German girl. It’s this wonderful realization: no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, now matter how far you’ve gone from Jesus, He’ll have you back. Not back as a slave, not back to earn and pay off your debts, not back as some household servant, on the fringes. Right back as a child at the heart of the Family, to be celebrated at the Feast. Wonderful news.
But how will you react if you’re a slave. If you’re a good person, if you’re a hard-working, upright, respectable person... how do you react to this story?
Well the older brother is chief spokesmen for the slaves of the world. Read with me from v25:
25 "Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 `Your brother has come,' he replied,`and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' 28 "The older brother became angry and refused to go in.
And right about now, the older son throws what is known in ancient near eastern cultures as a hissy fit. I think that’s the technical term.
Here is a very public, very embarrassing, tantrum. There are hundreds of guests at this party. And they’re all watching as the older son shames his father on the greatest day of the father’s life.
The guests would be thinking, this father has the two worst sons in Israel. One shames the family in the pigsty, the other shames the family in the back yard.
But this father will again bear the shame of his sinful children. He’d gone out to his younger son and now in v28 he goes out to the older son. He doesn’t play favourites. He hasn’t got a soft spot for the younger son’s rebellious streak. He loves them both equally. So he pleads with the older brother. You could even translate v28, he begged him. BEGGED him.
That’s extraordinary to me. Because really, “Who wants the older brother at this feast?? Would this feast go better with or without this party pooper? Who would want him at the feast? The father does. He wants him there.
And Jesus wants slaves in heaven. He really does, He wants the Pharisees, He wants the holier-than-thou religious types. His heart is for the sinners and the slaves He would have them all if only they’d come. So he begs him.
But the older son’s having none of it, v29:
29 But he answered his father,`Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
The older son has gone nuclear here. Look! Dad! Not even ‘Dad’, just ‘Look!’
Look at the record books, look at the time sheets. Study the accounts and you’ll see I have slaved for you. Check out my performance – the figures don’t lie.
Question: How does he relate to his dad? As a slave, a good slave, an obedient slave, but a slave.
And all that stuff about a young goat... it’s interesting. At the end of v12 we learn that when the younger brother asked for his share of the inheritance, the older brother got his share too. Verse 12: “The father divided his property between THEM.” The older son had everything available to him. It was all on tap for the older brother too. Which is what the father reminds him of in verse 31, “Everything I have is yours.” Not just a young goat, not just a fatted calf. Everything has ALWAYS been the older son’s for the asking.
But there’s nothing that makes us think he ever asked for a young goat. If he had, he’d have heard verse 31 from his dad, “Everything I have is yours.” But this older son is not the celebrating type and he’s certainly not the asking type. He’d rather scrimp and save and earn.
The madness of this older son is that he would rather be a good slave than a beloved son.
How far is this son from his father’s heart? The older son is also lost. Isn’t he?
It’s not just the younger son in the pigsty. Of course the younger son in the pigsty was lost. But this older son is lost too. Lost in the back yard. And he’s so lost he’s refusing to come in.
And so the father makes one more appeal in verse 31. And just feel the father’s heart here in verse 31:
31 "`My son,'
“My son!” If the older brother could grasp those two little words his life would change forever. “My son!” Dear boy stop slaving, you are MY SON. Sons don’t slave. And slaves aren’t sons. Dear child don’t tell me you’re slaving. You are my son.
31 "`My son,' the father said,`you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'"
Think of the father’s heart here. He HAS to celebrate. The sinner comes home and he can’t help celebrating. Now think of the older brother’s heart. The sinner comes home and he can’t help seething.
Do you see how different their hearts are? You know the older son is very different to his brother, that’s true. But he’s nothing like his dad either. The older son is SO FAR from the father’s heart. He is lost. And it’s his goodness, his obedience, his hard work, his moral record that’s keeping him out! He’s not out of the feast because of his badness. He’s out of the feast because of his goodness.
And the story ends. Cliffhanger. What happens next?
We all want to know: Will the older son repent and come in? And you might say “Repent? V29, He hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s never disobeyed his father. What does he need to repent of?” Well I hope you see, he has to repent of everything. His whole life has been built on an appalling lie. He has related to his dear father like a slave to a slave-driver. And the more you learn about this father, the more appalling this appears.
This father: this running father, this compassionate father, this hugging, kissing, robing, rejoicing father, this pleading father, this reconciling father, this cannot-help-but-celebrate-and-be-glad father – how should you relate to such a father?? As a slave? By angrily holding up your faultless moral record? If this father were a slave-driver you could understand it. But think about this father, think about his nature.
We’ve said that this father is representing Jesus. So reading on in Luke we get an even deeper picture of His compassion and grace.
At the end of Luke’s gospel, we see the cross. And there Jesus didn’t just give over His best robe, He was stripped naked. He didn’t just associate with sinners, He became sin for us. He didn’t just sacrifice the fattened calf, He sacrificed Himself. He didn’t just come out of his house to plead with sinners, He was shut out of heaven as the darkness fell.
And He did it ALL for me – wretched person that I am. He was stripped, so that I can be robed. He was made sin on that cross, so that I am made righteous. He was torn apart like bread, so that I can have the feast.
That’s the heart of Jesus for you. How do you relate to such a person?
“All these years I’ve slaved and never disobeyed you!” Is that how you relate to Jesus? Don’t think so.
This son needs to see his father in a very different light. He needs to repent. But will he? Will he change his mind and come in?
Well the parable ends here. But the story in Luke continues. So in a sense we know what this older brother does, because we know what the slaves – the Pharisees and teachers of the law – did. It’s not a happy ending, is it?
Let me give you my ending to the parable according to how the events of Luke unfold.
The father pleads with the older son. The older son in blind fury picks up his shovel and bashes his dad to death.
That’s what happens in the Gospel. You see the Pharisees and teachers of the law hated the grace of Jesus so much they conspired to kill Him.
That’s where older brother living takes you. Jesus wasn’t killed by a mob, he was killed by moralists. Like this older brother.
This story is dynamite isn’t it?
Jesus comes saying there’s two kinds of people – sinners and slaves. And they are BOTH lost, they are BOTH sinful, they are BOTH equally far from the Feast. Sinners are far away in the pigsty. But slaves are just as far away in the field. BOTH types need Jesus. BOTH types need to come home to the ultimate Family and the ultimate Feast.
Do we have younger brother types here? I’m sure we must. Let me speak to you. You thought you’d find freedom and life in the far country. But no, when you cut loose from Jesus, you don’t find freedom and life. You fall flat on your face. You know where you’ll find freedom don’t you? In the arms of Jesus. That younger son was never more truly himself than when he was loved, robed and celebrated by his dad. Freedom isn’t found in the far country. It’s found in the arms of Jesus.
And you say, Yeah but I could never do the whole Christian thing. I’m not a good person, I’m not religious. And praise God you’re not a good, religious person. Praise God. Jesus doesn’t want to turn you into a slave. He’s inviting you home to a relationship.
And listen, it doesn’t matter what you got up to in the far country. It doesn’t matter how wild your living has been, it doesn’t matter how low you have sunk in that pigsty. Those things are not the issue, none of them bar you from Jesus. The arms of Jesus are open to you – they were nailed open for YOU. Come home to the Family, come home to the Feast.
Do we have any older brother types here? Undoubtedly. Where do you think slaves go on a Sunday? Church. Older brothers work in the field. And slaves are found in church. And like the older brother, they are full of anger, full of superiority, full of judgementalism, full of bitterness. Everything’s unfair, they’re not getting the credit they deserve as a good slave. Is that you?
You thought you’d find honour and righteousness in slaving away didn’t you? But no. You’ll find it in the arms of Jesus.
And here’s what he says to you. “My son!” “My daughter!