Today we’re looking at the story of the Prodigal Son. However, I think we can consider this passage freshly because of the 1st verse of Luke 15:11 which says “There was a man who had two sons”. There are three people who have to be considered in this story. It begins verse 11 with the words Jesus continued because He’s teaching the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law who have no heart for the lost. They do not like sinners and the question is, “how is Jesus going to get through to people who don’t like sinners, who don’t like outsiders”? and the answer is that in Luke 15 He gives a triple lesson in what God is like. He gives three stories of celebration where lost things are found and He shows anybody who is careless about the lost that they are not like God.
Last week we saw that the shepherd goes after the missing sheep, finds it and rejoices with his neighbours and friends. The woman goes looking for the lost coin, finds it and rejoices with her neighbour and her friends. And today a father waits for his wayward son and when he returns he rejoices with all his household.
Incidentally, some people think the Trinity is there in the three stories of Luke 15. You’ve got the Son in the shepherd going out looking for the sheep, you’ve got the Spirit in the woman who searches the house, lights up the house and you’ve got the Father of course waiting. You need the three stories of Luke 15 to make sense of salvation.
The first two teach the initiative of God who goes seeking and searching and the third story with the father teaches the welcome. So by the time you get to the end of Luke 15 we’ve discovered that God is a God who initiates salvation and welcomes the returnee. He is the Alpha, He is the Omega, He is the start, He is the finish of the process.
The third story that we come to today of the Prodigal Son is the climax of the three because we actually arrive at a person. We’ve looked at a sheep, we’ve looked at a coin and now we come to a person and we know even from the memorials which are conducted every now and again for those who have died in tragedy or war that the world is still interested in reading out the names of each person or recording the names of each person because a person has a name and a significance beyond of course anything or animal.
Now with that introduction, we’re going to look at first of all the son who returns and then we’re going to look at the son who refuses and then we’re going to look at the father who rejoices. Those are our three quick points this morning in a packed morning.
The Son Who Returns
The story of the Prodigal Son is the story of the world, the whole human race. The story of the human race is the story of men and women in every land, in every generation as it was turning their back on God and walking away. And what the Prodigal Son does in grabbing his inheritance, his future for his immediate indulgence is the story of the human race. And if you can get a big lump of money, that’s just about everybody’s dream, isn’t it? Just about everybody’s dream to get a big lump of money.
Hope 103.2 is proudly supported by
I’ve concluded in my life that when you’ve got a big lump of money, the best thing to do is to spend it on your senses. And so we have people who indulge their taste, their touch, their sight, their hearing or their smell. And that’s about it really isn’t it when you’ve got a big bunch of money, you have to really put it into the service of your senses. And that’s what this young man does. It’s very important to know that God is not against the senses, nor is he against money because He’s the maker of both.
The problem that people make and we make this as well, is that we think we would be doing well if we could get just a bit of distance between us and God. We’re very happy for Him to stay in the background, especially supporting and providing but we would like a bit of distance so that we can really indulge and enjoy ourselves and we then find that as we make our distance with God and we substitute something or someone else for God, they turn out to be a terrible God.
So this experiment was tried for example with Communism, the ultimate distance from God and one historian has written about Communism;
“Dethroning God they found it impossible to leave the sanctuary empty. They put man in his place which had the effect not of elevating human nature but of demeaning it to depths of cruelty, depravity and stupidity unparalleled in human history”.
And so slowly but surely you have to learn the lesson, we have to learn the lesson that to replace God is to ruin us.
And exactly the same under Capitalism. We use our cunning to exploit other people in our own interests so that we can then spend the profits on things which have a tendency to either demean us or control us or dissatisfy us. What we need is to is learn the first lesson of Luke 15 which is the importance of fellowship with God, close fellowship with God so that every other thing which He has generously given us from the surf to the football, to the flowers, to the music is that we can enjoy it in an ordered way because He is the God of order, He enables us to enjoy His gifts without imbalance.
But of course, we know this young man and the rest of the human race has walked out on God and many of us who belong to Jesus Christ in this building this morning, know that we also wander away for short or long periods and it is deep in our system strangely to do it. That’s why this story is so valuable for the non-Christian as well as the Christian. If you are not a believer, this morning, we’re delighted that you are here and this story is really for you. God is a God who welcomes the outsider.
But it’s also a story for the believer because God is a God who welcomes His children when the drift back. And the return is very wonderful as we know and the two Parables of the Sheep and the Coin remind us that God is at work in the process of bringing people back but He’s also there to welcome.
What is it that brought this young man home? Well, there’s a number of things that helped him to come home. One is that stored up in his brain he had the information about God that God was a good option. I imagine that all the world considers God to be a fairly good option, up the sleeve, if everything else goes wrong. I image that’s why a lot more praying goes on in hospitals and in airports than in other places. But why go back to God when you’ve got your health and your wealth and everything else to enjoy and you think you can do without Him. This of course is the insane view of God which operates in all of our brains unfortunately which is that we think that God is not so good and if we get close to Him He’ll wreck things and we also have the insane view of the substitutes that they can do the job but of course they never do.
One Puritan writer 300 years ago, Thomas Merton wrote these words;
“To try to be happy by being admired by men or loved by women or warm with liquor or full of lust or getting possessions and treasures that turns you away from the love of God and then the men, the women, the drink, the lust, the greed take precedence over God and they darken His light. And then we’re unhappy and afraid and angry and fierce and impatient and cannot pray and cannot sit still. That is the bitter yolk of sin and for this, we leave the mild and easy yoke of Christ”.
Well I’m sure you understand that old faithful paragraph.
So the information about the Father is there in the mind of the Prodigal Son but never appeals to him of course until his resources run out and the famine sets in and suddenly he’s got no human answers and all his friends seem to have deserted him and we come to this terrific line in verse 17 – “that he came to his senses”. That of course is the phrase that describes Christian conversion. I know the world thinks that when you become a Christian you lose your senses but the fact of the matter is that when you become a Christian you come to your senses – you suddenly realise that God is good and that you are not and that He has all the resources and you do not and He’s welcoming and you’re set apart from Him and you come to your senses and that’s the first thing that happens.
So when you become a Christian, one of the first things you say is: “I see my need of God” and not only do you see your need of God but you also say at that point “I see that I am a person in very great trouble and the only solution to get back to God is the Cross which is the bridge back to Him and I’m going to trust Christ and what He has done”
Of course that information is not in Luke 15 but it’s in the rest of the Bible and the boy returns home and to his credit he makes no excuses, he blames no one but himself and he turns his story into a prayer of confession and he says: “Father I’ve sinned, Father I’ve sinned” and he hopes that he might get a slave’s welcome and of course he gets a welcome much greater than anything he could have asked or imagined. So that’s the story of the boy, the son who returns.
Don’t miss the second half of the story which is the son who refuses. Remember the whole story is told to Pharisees and Teachers of the Law who have no interest in unworthy returnees. These Pharisees and Law Teachers, they’re like the older son. And Jesus gives more than one third of the story to them. It’s a very clever story because if you turn with me to the text to verse 28, what the older brother says has a great deal of sense. Let me read verse 28;
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in so his father went out and pleaded with him 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 but when this son of yours who squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him'”
I think that’s very clever because we identify with his complaint to a certain degree. This older son had been a loyal hardworking boy, there’s no party for him. Why is it that the father is willing to reward waste and disobedience with a celebration but faithfulness and service seems to get nothing. And you can see on the surface how this older son who refuses to celebrate has a case and the more we identify with him the more I suggest we are in trouble because this older son does not seem to have the capacity to think outside himself.
He has been enjoying for a long time a kind father and the benefits of home but he is thankless. He can only talk about verse 29 “slaving” when in actual fact he’s probably been “enjoying”. He’s been treated like a son all this time and he calls it “being treated like a slave”. He is the sort of person who is impossible to please. He has no sense of compassion for the lost, he would only have blame for the boy who has come home and he wishes that his father would punish him for re-appearing.
So here is a man, a son, an older son who measures everything in terms of his performance, not in terms of what he has received. He might have said: “I have been very privileged to have the father all the time and now this son who’s been in a hopeless mess has come back and that’s wonderful” but he doesn’t. He doesn’t have any joy. He doesn’t love his younger brother. He’s ungrateful for his father. He is totally unlike God. He is totally unlike the joy of heaven when outsiders and lost people return.
Even more seriously he refuses, you see in verse 28, to go in even when the father comes out and pleads with him to come in. And so this older brother excludes himself from the banquet which has been the theme of the last series of sermons. You remember God is all about a banquet. And here is a man who doesn’t want to be in it. He does want a banquet of course but he wants a banquet on his terms for his performance. He does not want to be part of a banquet which is celebrating grace to sinners. So here is a guy who is known as “Mr Respectable”. He thinks of himself as being very “up and aloof” looking down on everybody else assuming that God rewards for performance whereas God waits for people to come and confess their sin and then celebrates by grace. That’s what the problem is with Pharisees. And there are Pharisees in the 1st Century and there are Pharisees in every century. And you can see how the older son is in need of a transformation.
It would be good, wouldn’t it, if he had a brand new view of himself. It would be good if he had a brand new view of his brother. It would be good if he had a brand new view of his father, but he doesn’t. I suggest that as we read this Luke 15, and we need to not only first learn the lesson of the younger son which is “come home” but we also need to learn the lesson of the older son which is “want people to come home”.
I suspect that we are meant all of us to see ourselves fairly clearly in one of these two brothers. There are people who need to return and there are people who need to rejoice about people returning. And one of the great problems of course with the outside church people is that they don’t really hear the message of return or don’t listen to it and one of the problems of many of us who are inside the church is that we don’t really care about those who are outside. It’s just part of our nature and we are very good at indulging ourselves and having sort of celebrations and worships and all sorts of things which are good for us. But we’re really not very good at making the sort of sacrifices which help others to believe. There is a great deal of self indulgence isn’t there in the church which we need to recognize and repent of.
We need in a word to be like the father who rejoices. Here’s the third person and the last in this story. The portrait Jesus gives of the father is very wonderful. I don’t know where we get our views of God that He’s cruel, difficult and stingy and dangerous to get close to, but part of our sin is that we distort the view of God. And we need to go back to what Jesus says because here is a father who’s provided everything.
He watches his son walk away, although we know from the rest of the Bible that he controls all circumstances. He welcomes the son home. He doesn’t give him any lectures or conditions. He’s more interested in the safety of his son than he is in all the losses that he has incurred.
He goes out to the older son who is a “pain in the neck” and he pleads with him to come into the banquet and he explains as carefully as he can, the cause for rejoicing. And by the time we get to the end of Luke 15, we do not know whether the older son ever went in. It’s left in the open.
Ian Powell came and preached a series of sermons in the evening congregation many years ago. It was an excellent series and one of them was on Luke 15. And he finished with a story which you may have heard before, but it’s always good to hear it again and I want to finish with it as well.
It concerns a lady apparently in Brazil whose daughter ran away from home to the big city of Rio. The mother had pleaded with her not to go, but the daughter ran away anyway and ended up with the mother’s worst fears as a prostitute.
The mother sold almost everything she had and paid for fares to go into the city and to go around looking for her daughter. She took hundreds of photos of herself in the photo booths and she stuck them up on the walls and the posts and the bathroom mirrors and every sleazy part of town.
The girl of course had been too ashamed to return, but one day when she was coming down the stairs of her flat, she saw one of the photos on the noticeboard. She took the photo off and she saw that her mother had written on the back, and probably on the back of every photo, “whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it does not matter – Please come home!”
That’s really the message of Luke 15. God the Father says to the world in a sense – “whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t really matter – Please come home”. And that’s the message which God sends to you today if you are outside His family and that’s the message which God sends through us if we are inside His family.
Let’s pray: Our heavenly Father, we thank you for this wonderful and famous story. We thank you for your great love, generosity, welcome, forgiveness and especially we thank you for a great gospel and we pray that you would give grace to everybody here this morning to hear it and to receive it and to respond to it and to rejoice in it. We pray that you would give to us so many here today who are your people the heart and the sacrifices and the willingness to see it go out. We pray this in Jesus’ Name – Amen