A Sermon preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton, March 7, 2021
Our Scripture lesson this morning is usually called “the parable of the prodigal son,” but in my mind, a better title would be “the parable of the lost son.” It is one of three parables that Jesus tells in Luke chapter 15—the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. Each parable has a similar plot. Something is lost, something is found, and then there is a party.
In the first parable a fairly well-to-do shepherd who loses one sheep. We know he is wealthy because he owns 100 sheep. Typically, a family might own 15 to 20 sheep but this man owns a hundred. Presumably he could afford to lose one sheep, but he leaves the 99 and goes to find the one. And when he finds her, he throws a party.
The second parable is about a poor woman who has 10 coins and loses one. We know she is poor because the coin is actually called a drachma (Greek, δραχμὰς), a small silver coin that would purchase just enough food to feed a family for one day. These 10 coins represent her life savings. Since most people lived hand to mouth, you have to wonder how hard she had scrimped and saved to accumulate such a meager nest egg. To lose one coin would be disastrous and so she turned the house upside down, and shown a light into every dark corner until she found it. When she finds it, she throws a party with all her friends.
(Interestingly the word our scripture translated as friends is actually a feminine noun, so it would be better to say she called her girlfriends. After all who would better understand her precarious position and her joy than other women who shared her poverty and also lived hand to mouth.)
The third parable is about a father who has had a falling out with one of his two sons. But this time instead of going and searching for the lost son, the Father waits anxiously at home for the son to return. But when he does return, the father he throws a lavish party. Someone is lost, someone is found, and then there is a party. Joel B. Green says,
[In the telling of these stories there is] an escalation from one parable to the next. A shepherd loses one sheep out of hundred, the woman loses one coin out of ten, the father loses one son out of two. With each story the stakes get higher and the story becomes more compelling. These parables are fundamentally about God. Their aim is to lay bare the nature of the God’s response to the recovery of the lost. (Joe B. Green, NICNT: The Gospel of Luke, Eerdmans, 1997, p. 573)
This morning we want to focus on the parable of the lost son and see what it can teach us about God’s character. As we do so I want you to see three things.
- God is a God of compassion
- God is a God who loves to party
- God is a God of grace
God Is a God of Compassion
In this parable, the father had every reason to be angry with his son. I have never before thought of this in conjunction with this story, but the 5th Commandment says, “Honor your father and mother that your days may be long in the land.” The culture of Jesus’ day was built upon a system of honor and shame. By demanding his share of the inheritance, the son broke the 5th Commandment and shamed his father. It was as though he was telling his father to drop dead. The son’s demands would have been the talk of the village. Where honor means everything, the father had suffered a great diminishment.
Given the shame this son brought on his father, what Jesus says in verse 20 would have surprised and shocked his audience. “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” This is not the way father’s acted in Jesus’ day. Truth be told it’s also not the way most fathers act today.
Now I want you to notice several things about what the father did. First, the father saw his son at a distance. Although the father could not leave home to seek out his son, knowing that his son would just reject him, yet his heart was still searching. The shepherd searched for his lost sheep and the women for her lost coin, but as every wise parent if you pressure a child who is running away from you, you will only drive her further away. So although the father sat at home, his heart still travelled to the distant country with his son. He kept a lookout longing for him to return and saw him at a distance.
Second, the father ran to his son. Can you picture how this might look? Being past his prime it would have been difficult and unseemly for the father to run. Because he was older he may have suffered from arthritis, diminished strength and a lower lung capacity. Because he was wearing a robe, he would have had to hitch it up, holding it in his hands. Not a very dignified posture for an old man. But he didn’t care; that’s how eager he was to embrace his son.
Third, the father embraced his son and kissed him. Actually the verb tense here means that the father kissed him over and over again. He kissed him on the lips, both cheeks, the forehead, the neck and then he circled back to do it all over again. The son rightly expected a cold response with the father giving him “the look”, but instead the father gave him a warm welcome. Joe B. Green says
In the Roman world where the father is pictured as the paterfamilias with all the authority and legal control that goes with it, the picture Luke paints is remarkable for its counter emphasis on care and compassion. (Green, p. 559)
And that is good news for us. When we return to the Father, God does not hold us at arm’s length and give us “the look.” Rather he embraces us and welcomes us home.
God Is a God Who Loves to Party
Second, God is a God who loves to party. According to William Barclay, there was a popular saying in Jesus’ day that celebrated the destruction of sinners—“There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who is obliterated before God.” Even today there are some people who believe that God takes great pleasure in casting people into hell.
Jesus has a different take. At the end of the parable of the lost sheep, he says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.” Likewise, in the parable of the lost coin, he says “I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The parable of the lost son, illustrates the joy that God has in welcoming us home. In verses 21 and 22 the father says to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.” The father restored the son to a place of honor. The son went home expecting to be a hired hand. He had forfeited the right to be called a son. But the father restores him to his proper place. The robe, the sandals, the ring are all symbols of honor and his status as the father’s son. The son came home wrapped in shame. The father wraps him in love and honor.
Then, to top it all off, they have party. And not just any party, but a feast. And not just for the family but for the whole village, and even the slaves. They killed the fatted calf. In Biblical times you didn’t get to meat eat every day so when you had a party you wanted to serve the most tender meat you could find. Furthermore, since there was no refrigeration, if you slaughtered an animal you had to eat it right away. So everyone is invited to the party, not just the family.
The Christian life is not about beating yourself up; it’s about joy. Isaiah 62:5 says, “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” God loves a good party. Parties are about joy and when God looks at you he rejoices.
God Is a God of Grace
Finally, God is a God of grace. Did you notice that the older son treats his father just as shamefully as the younger? When he learns that his father is throwing a party, he goes into a sulk and refuses to go into the house. The father is forced to come outside and plead with him.
In response, the older son addresses his father in a very disrespectful manner. “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” Notice that this speech is laden with disrespect. First of all, he accuses his father of being a slave driver. Secondly, he accuses the father of being stingy. Third, he accuses the father of being unfair. Most importantly, he doesn’t address him as “sir”, nor does he address him as “father.” All of this goes to show that he has disowned his whole family, not just the brother, but also the father. Without ever leaving home, he has made a long journey to the foreign country of bitterness, jealousy and disrespect. The older son is as far away and estranged as the younger son once was.
But just as the father showed grace to the prodigal, now he shows grace to the older brother. He doesn’t say “How dare you speak to me that way?!” He doesn’t give him the look. Instead he speaks to him, gently and tenderly. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
The word “son” here is actually a term of endearment. It literally means, “child.” “My child, my beloved child.” The son who sees himself as a slave, the father sees as a child. The man who has disowned his whole family, is invited to once again take his place as a son. The question is Will the son recognize this grace and join the party?
Jesus leaves the story hanging. How will the older son respond? He doesn’t say.
Jesus, the masterful story-teller, leaves the story unresolved so we will have to decide how we will respond to the father’s invitation. The story forces us to ask, “How would I respond, if I were that older brother?”
In conclusion. Audrey West, Professor of New Testament at Moravian Theological Seminary provides a nice synopsis of this story.
Number Two Son asks Dad for a handout, skips town, squanders his inheritance, and decides to come home only when he runs out of options.
Number One Son never shirks his responsibilities and does everything his father asks of him, but he resents his father’s gifts being showered upon his younger brother.
Which son needs to repent? Both.
Which one deserves to feast on the fatted calf? Neither.
And yet, both are invited to join in the celebration. That’s grace. (Commentary on Luke 15:1-32 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary)
This morning we’re going to have a party; we’re going to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Do any of us deserve to be here. No! Are we invited anyway? Yes! For Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Come for all things are now ready.