The Waiting Father: Thoughts on the Prodigal Son

Actually, this morning we come to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, probably one of the more famous parables that Jesus told.  It’s a fairly straightforward parable that concludes a trilogy of teachings about the heart of the Father towards his wayward and sinful children.  To refresh your memory from last week, we’ve been looking at Luke chapter 15.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus responded to their grumbling by telling three stories.  First was the Parable of the Lost Sheep in which a man goes looking for his lost sheep, illustrating God’s intentional seeking out those of his people who are lost.   Then the Parable of the Lost Coin in which a woman lost one of her 10 silver coins, likely part of her inheritance, and she seeks diligently until she finds it.

In these parables, Jesus seems to place the emphasis on the rejoicing that accompanies finding that which was lost.  The man and the woman both call together friends and neighbors to share in their joy.  Also notice here that the lost things are objects of considerable value and how Jesus is subtly saying that these sinners whom he’s receiving are valuable in the sight of God.  A point that the Pharisees, and by extension those of us who have a tendency to be judgemental (are there any of us who aren’t?), need to be reminded of.

Also notice the juxtaposition of the grumbling of the Pharisees with the earnest and intentional effort of the people of the parables in searching and restoring their lost treasure.  Are not the people of God his treasure?

The story prodigal is the third parable emphasizing this and in it Jesus takes a deeper look at the the seeker, the sinner, and the self righteous.  And here Jesus brings home the trilogy with a gentle, yet powerful force

Let’s work through this familiar parable with a series of observations and applications for the purpose of instruction and encouragement.

2 Timothy 3:16 – 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

The Parable

Luke 15:11-32 11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”

It seems to me a more difficult thing to teach a familiar passage than something new because it is the case with people that when we hear something often enough, we can tend to gloss over it, thinking I’ve got this.  And while the lesson in the parable of the prodigal son are fairly straightforward, there are aspects to this parable that we are apt to miss.

First, I’d like to go back to the beginning of this episode where the pharisees & scribes are grumbling about Jesus receiving sinners & eating with them and consider a few questions.

  • Why were they so indignant?
  • Why was Jesus’ kindness so repulsive to the Jewish leaders?

I think it’s important to understand culturally what’s going on in the mind of the Pharisees and scribes.

Luke 20:46-47 – 46“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 47who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Matthew 23:2-6 – 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.

We as westerners might look at this and say, “yea, sure, everyone loves some recognition and positions of authority.” But I want to suggest to you that in an eastern culture like the middle east of Jesus’ time, the entire society revolved around this concepts of honor.  Another way of describing this is through the concept of face.  I would also suggest to you that this is the fundamental dynamic underlying these three parables.  

The Pharisees very identity was tied up in their honor, much like in our society someone’s identity may be tied up in their wealth and position.  Their honor derived from their status as God’s chosen people and they were at the pinnacle of that class because they were meticulous observers of God’s law. So not only did they look down upon non-Jews, they looked down on ordinary Jews since they were all the more righteous.

When Jesus – this man who claimed to be a prophet of God and actually God in the flesh – associated with the tax collectors and sinners, he was engaging in a shameful act and by implication he was dishonoring them as the religious leaders, something they reacted violently against.  This is an Idea is hard for westerners to understand.  Our culture is dominated by a guilt/innocence worldview, so we don’t feel the weight of this that people in an honor/shame culture would.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the cast of characters in this parable. We have a Father and 2 sons.  The father is, of course, representative of God.  Then there are the 2 Sons.  Who do you think they are?

Teachers of this passage may be inclined to draw a Jew/Gentile distinction from the 2 sons, I believe that the context of this passage yields a better interpretation that they are both of the Jews.  Jesus is using this parable to illustrate why he’s associating with “publicans and sinners” but there’s no indication that these sinners are Gentiles.  In fact, it is unlikely that they are because the focus of Jesus’ ministry was to the Jews and when he is interacting with Gentiles, the writes of the gospels typically make a point to say that.

Part the First…

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.

Let’s consider the impertinence of the first son’s request: “Give me the share of the property that is coming to me.”  

What do you think is wrong with that request?

We might observe easily enough that he is presuming upon his inheritance or demanding what he feels is his right.  Perhaps we’re struck by his assuming that he can appropriately handle his inheritance without the protection and wisdom of his father.  And these are all insightful and applicable observations.  If the father is God, he’s indicating an attitude of discontent with his father’s treatment of him.  Don’t we also complain that we’re not getting the things we want in life on our timeframe and according to our desires.

He certainly exhibits a lack of trust in his father, both in terms of his father’s management of his inheritance and his father’s provision for him, but I would suggest to you that the answer to that question might be very different between cultures.  Americans might consider it arrogant at worst, but at best, they might say, well, it’s his right, but he’s probably not ready for it.

Jesus’ listeners on the other hand would have interpreted this very differently.  He is certainly self centered and arrogant, but more fundamentally he is dishonoring his father with shameful arrogance.  Now we don’t tend to think a lot about dishonoring our father, but that’s because we live in a culture that idolizes the individual and preaches a message of self sufficiency and self indulgence.  We generally don’t defer to our elders or respect the customs of our ancestors, rather we are obsessed with self-actualization and exaltation.  The culture of Jesus’ day was (and is) not like that.  It is a culture built on honor and respect, and the kind of behavior that the younger son was exhibiting would not generally be tolerated, especially by a father of any means or social standing.

But notice the response of the father.  He divides the property between them.  Interestingly, there’s no indication that the elder brother, though he was entitled to a double portion, was as eager to do as his younger sibling and the implication of the rest of the parable is that he took the path of honor, deferring to his father to manage the estate.

What do you think this did to the father’s reputation, having a disrespectful son?

What do you think was the effect on the older son’s reputation?

To the extent that the father represents God, don’t miss the kindness displayed here.  He is willing to give resources when he is asked and does not withhold.  There’s no indication that the father is excessive or indulgent with the son – we don’t want to read too much into the parable – but it’s noteworthy that the father does return the son’s impertinence with a favorable response.

Is the father’s refusal to rebuke his son a sign of weakness?

Now let’s consider how wise the son was with his inheritance.  The parable says he “squandered his property in reckless living.”  And isn’t this a story that we’ve all probably seen or heard or possibly even experienced.  We’re not told the specific nature of the “reckless living,” but we certainly see the effect.

The implication here is that we, when driven by our rebellion against the wisdom of God and inflames by selfish passions, we ruin & waste the good gifts the father gives to us.  We are unstable creatures and prone to self indulgence.

There’s a lot to think about here as far as what we’re doing with the resources that have been entrusted to us.  To whom much is given, much will be required, Jesus teaches us in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30).  That certainly begs the question of how we’re employing the gifts and resources that the father has granted us!

Note the way Jesus is building suspense in this parable.  So far, the pharisees can be right with Jesus, but where they’re going is to judgement and Jesus has something else in mind.

14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

This is an object lesson in the effects of sin.  Let’s talk through the progression:

  • Departure & dissatisfactionGive me the share of the property that is coming to me
  • Self Gratification (Spending and wasteful vs. investing and building) – and there he squandered his property in reckless living.
  • Wanthe began to be in need
  • EnslavementSo he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.  

What strikes you about this?  What does this say about the shame of sin?  Let’s take a brief look at sin and it’s effect in Genesis 3:8-10  And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”  Sin yields Guilt, Fear & Shame

  • Perpetual dissatisfactionAnd he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate
  • Hopelessnessno one gave him anything
  • Madness

The Prodigal Son 1888 John Macallan Swan 1847-1910 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1889 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01569

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘

Let’s consider the younger son’s change of heart…

  • The occasion of his return – Brought about by affliction.  I perish here with hunger!
  • The condition of his return – Consideration (of how be he has it and how much better it might be) – How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread
    • In his father’s house there is plenty of bread, both for his family and to spare
    • Even the servants are well provided for
    • He takes stock of where he is and now in his right mind, sees his plight and the solution
  • The purpose of his return – his intentions are to go, to say and to do and the actions, to go back to his father.  I will arise and go to my father
  • Repent of his sin involves confessionI will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.  He rightly understands that he has first sinned against heaven and secondarily against his father
  • Humble acknowledgement of God’s right judgement – I am no longer worthy to be called your son
    • The wages of sin is death – what we rightly deserve
    • Begging humble submission to his father

20A And he arose and came to his father.

Repentance:  In the New Testament, the most common verb is metanoeo and the noun metanoia.  It has two usual senses: a “change of mind” and “regret/remorse” and indicates the actions of turning from evil, and to good.  

For the son, it’s literally a 180 degree change from how he started. From pride to penitence. And note that this is not just a mental exercise.  He must put his resolve into action.  Repentance is not just being sorry for one’s sin, but taking action to turn away from it and toward the father.

So first he must humble himself before God, acknowledge his shameful position and then humble himself before his father whom he dishonored.

So what was the response of the father?

Before we go there, let’s consider what the response of the pharisees might have been:

  • Judgement and condemnation.
  • You made your bed, now sleep in it.
  • The son had dishonored the father and brought shame on himself.
  • Shouldn’t he be cut off?  Shouldn’t he be the example of why people should follow the religious laws?  So they don’t end up like this young man?
  • Does not his miserable end highlight the righteousness of the obedient?
  • Isn’t this just a good object lesson?
  • If God is holy, is he not perfectly right to reject this younger son who first rejected him?

Do you have this attitude toward anyone who has offended you?

20B But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

What strikes you about the way his father saw him and ran to him?  Keep in mind that he had been dishonored by this son.

The father expressed kindness before his son expressed repentance.  As a reflection of God, the father teaches us that God the father is kindly disposed to welcome and embrace those who are repentant

Let’s reflect on the condition of the son…

He was in rags

“The first robe” – allusion to the robe he wore before he went astray. Remember how we talked about garments in the parable of the wedding feast?  This garment speaks to the first works

Revelation 2:5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

  • Robe = Righteousness of Christ
  • Ring = position and authority – Baptism
  • Shoes = Ephesians 6:15 – allusion to the gospel of peace.  “When God receives true penitents into his favor, makes use of them for the convincing of and converting of others by their instruction, at least by their examples

He was hungry

Discuss the feast & the joy in heaven of a sinner’s repentance

  • Calf = sacrifice
  • Feast = communion

Part 2 – The Elder Brother

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”

The particulars:

  • He was angry
  • He would not go in to the celebration
  • He boasted of his superiority to his brother – but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command
  • He complainedyou never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends
  • He wouldn’t associate with him as a brother – But when this son of yours came
  • He exaggerated his brother’s sinswho has devoured your property with prostitutes

How does this treatment of his father differ from his brother’s treatment at the beginning of the parable?

He refuses to see the abundant provision and blessing that the father has given him.

The response of the Father

  • As he went out to the younger brother, he went out to the older brother; personally entreated
    • Cain – Genesis 4:9 9Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
    • Elijah –  (1 Kings 19:9-18)
    • Jonah – (Jonah 4:5-11)
  • He reminded the Elder Brother of his inheritance – that he lacks nothing and that he is provided for richly and abundantly.  Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
  • Father gives a reason – it is fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive.  He likens sin to death and repentance and returning to the father as life.

It seems to me a gentle rebuke, yet one with great force.  There are times where Jesus is aggressively hostile toward the Pharisees and scribes, but here he emphasizes the kindness of the Father as he woos his elder son back to him.

Again, we see that the father willingly endures the dishonor of the other son and reach out to him, yes, he pursues him.  And this is an illustration of how the Father pursues us and in the person of Jesus takes our sin away.

Jesus assumed unto himself the shame and dishonor that we deserve by our sin and became a substitute for us.  

Galatians 3:13 13A Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.

Then the Father honors us by bestowing his name family lineage on us and make us heirs of his kingdom.  He gave us a robe – the righteousness of Christ – and a ring – the covenant sign of baptism – and then invites us to feast with him in the Lord’s Supper.

Questions to Consider

  • Who do you most tend to be like, the younger or the older brother?
  • When has Jesus’ kindness to sinners become offensive to you?
  • In what way(s) did the father act shamefully?  In what way(s) did Jesus act shamefully?
  • How has Jesus’ kindness led to repentance in your life?
  • Are there any prodigals in your life that you need to forgive and embrace?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *