Two Sons of a father
If you remember, we had to change up the order of our series just a bit because I had a family emergency a while back; so today we’re following up on the text Paul preached two weeks ago.
If you remember, two weeks ago Paul preached out of Luke 15.1-10, in which Jesus gives two parables at the same time: the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost coin. In both parables, we see something which is lost, and which the owner goes to great lengths to find again, and then rejoices when he (or she) manages to find it. The point, of course, is that God rejoices in the same way when one of his children comes to faith in Christ: when those who are “lost” are “found.”
Essentially (spoiler alert) that’s the same thing we’ll see today: this is another version of those same stories.
But as you may already know, it’s a much fuller version of those stories. It’s a story which is very famous (even for unbelievers) and which has come to be known as the story of the Prodigal Son.
But even that title, which you’ll find as a header in most modern Bibles, is deceptive—because there are two brothers here. Jesus even starts his story that way: in v. 11, we read,
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons.”
If you don’t know the story well, it won’t be hard to follow (its simplicity is part of why it’s so well-known); but often we focus so much on one thing that we miss what the story is actually about. So let’s read it together.
The Younger Brother (v. 11-24)
Jesus continues his story with no break from the previous two, and he summarizes the main point of both just before—so let’s begin reading, not at v. 11, but at v. 10.
10 “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
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.
Every son back then had a right to an inheritance from their father when he died. This guy is asking his dad to give him his inheritance right away, before his death. He wants to get out of there. It would have been a shocking blow—essentially he’s telling his dad, “I wish you were dead now—but since you’re not, give me my money.”
The father does what his son asked: he gives him his inheritance.
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.
I did this a lot when I was a teenager. I had a job working in a movie theater, and I’d spend my weekly paycheck in a day, on junk food, on movies, on books, on music (because when I was a teenager we didn’t have the Internet in our homes, and we had to buy our music on these brand new inventions, these round, shiny things called CDs). I’d spend all my money, and then have to ask my dad to lend me money to pay for things I actually needed (like gas for my car), then when I got my paycheck on Friday I’d have to pay him back, and I’d have nothing left.
That’s this guy’s situation, except now he can’t go home—he’s taken everything he could from his father, he’s spent it all on reckless living, and now there’s no more food and he’s starving. So what does he do?
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.
This would have been particularly disturbing for the Jewish people Jesus was speaking to, because pigs were unclean animals, according to the Law of Moses. And not only does he find work feeding pigs—it gets worse:
16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
Everything here is meant to ram that point home to us: this kid has ruined himself. And now, finally, he knows it.
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.” ’
It’s a good plan as far as it goes. He knows how his father’s servants were treated. He can’t expect to be treated like his father’s son anymore—that ship has sailed—but his dad may hire him on as a servant, and his life will still be vastly improved if that happens. So he goes home, hoping against hope that his father will not spit in his face, but hire him on as a servant.
But the kid, like most young people, didn’t understand what it’s like to be a father.
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.’
Here’s the thing: HE’S RIGHT. The son is absolutely right. How his father must have been devastated at his son’s insult when he left. At this point, this young man deserves nothing from his father.
But he’s his father.
And a good father never gives his kids what they deserve. Kids are like little vampires (not all the time, but often), sucking up all your energy, and all your money, and all your time, and you’re lucky if you get a sincere “Thank you” out of it all.
But that doesn’t change how we treat our kids, if we’re good parents. Our kids can be awful to us—but we still provide for their needs, and take care of them, and love them—because they’re our kids.
And that’s why the father reacts the way he does.
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.
Now let’s be clear. This father doesn’t react this way because his son is a great person. He’s not happy to see his son return because his son is so fantastic. He’s this happy at his return, and spares no expense to celebrate, because he is his SON. If it were any other kid, this would be a sad story for him to hear, and not much more.
But this is his boy. He celebrates, not because his son has accomplished great things. He loves the boy because he’s HIS boy, and he celebrates because the boy he loves has come back to him.
We’ve heard this story, and we understand its meaning, but how seldom do we live like this were true!
Without even meaning to, far too often we think about our relationship with God in terms of merit. When we do well, we feel secure in God’s love for us, because we are doing what God wants us to do. When we fail, we feel as though God must want to get as far away from us as possible, because we haven’t lived up to his call.
Brothers and sisters, that’s not how it works. I’ve often said this in the past, and here—hopefully—you can see why: God does not regret saving you. He doesn’t grit his teeth when we come back to him, as if he’s only forgiving us because he promised he would.
We are his SONS. We are his DAUGHTERS. We were lost, and now he’s found us. We were dead, and now we’re alive.
Of course, it makes God happy when we obey him. But (as we saw a few weeks ago) even our righteous acts are as filthy rags before him. Fundamentally, if we belong to God, he doesn’t rejoice in us because we’re obedient, he rejoices in us because we’re his.
Nothing can suffocate God’s joy in saving us, or in bringing us to repentance after we have failed. NOTHING. He delights in his children because they are his children, not because they’re good.
This is the beautiful news of the gospel: Jesus was good for us, so that God could love us as good, even though we’re sinners.
Jesus took our sins on himself, so that God could punish our sin without punishing us.
Jesus did what we couldn’t do, so that God could make us his children, and delight in us as his children.
Jesus lived and died and was raised so that God could delight in us, not because we’re good, but because we’re his.
Often, when we think about this story, our thoughts stop there: at the return of the prodigal son. But Jesus goes on, because the prodigal son had an older brother.
The Older Brother (v. 25-32)
Now before we get into what he says: Why do you think Jesus keep going with the story?
If we take this parable as part of a larger picture he’s painting in all of chapter 15 (which it is), it would seem as if the last part of the story—the part about the older brother—is out of place. The point of the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost coin, is that God rejoices over the repentance of every sinner who comes to him in their need. And we see that same thing in the first part of this parable, the part about the younger brother.
So why does he add on this last section? Why talk about the older brother at all?
Jesus knows to whom he is speaking. He knows that in the crowd, there are those so-called “sinners”. Remember: in v. 1-2 of this chapter, we read,
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
These tax collectors—just about the most hated people in all of Israel—and other sinners of various sorts, people of ill repute, are there in the crowd: Jesus welcomes them, and spends time with them. These people, listening to the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and the story of the prodigal son, would have been understood the point: that God not only doesn’t reject them for their sin, but invites them to come to him in their need.
But these so-called “sinners” are not the only ones there. In the crowd there are also the religious ones, those who follow the law scrupulously, the Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling that Jesus would lower himself to spend time with such wretched people.
And Jesus doesn’t want to leave them out.
He’s not satisfied with merely encouraging sinners; he wants to address those who feel they don’t need to repent.Jesus describes the prodigal son’s older brother. The older brother is angry about the fact that he has not gotten what his younger brother has—. V. 25:
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!’
Whether we like to admit it or not, we (like the Pharisees and scribes) do the same thing. We may come to God not believing he’ll love us, because we don’t deserve it; but far too often we find ourselves expecting God’s love because we think we do deserve it. We’d never say that out loud, but we can see it (for example) when we suffer—we look at the situation in which we find ourselves, and we think, I don’t understand—I’ve done everything I was supposed to! Why is this happening to me?
Without ever articulating it in this way, we think that because we’ve obeyed God, we deserve better.
What’s the problem with that? The problem is that that’s not the way relationships between fathers and sons are supposed to work.
Look at the way the older brother speaks to his father. What he says is very revealing.
He says (v. 29), “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command…”
So right there the older brother reveals the way he sees his relationship with his father: he sees himself as a servant, who deserves a reward for a job well done; and he sees his father as the master, the one who gives the commands. You’d expect exactly the same reaction from a good employee who works hard, and who sees the bonus he’s been working for go instead to a lazy colleague who cheats to get to the top.
Earlier we asked why Jesus adds on this last section—why he talks about the older brother in the first place? Jesus adds on this last part of the story to show the religious people in the crowd—the Pharisees and the scribes, those who follow the Law to the letter—that they have fundamentally misunderstood what their relationship with God is supposed to be.
In the older brother’s mind, his relationship with his father is that of a servant working to receive a reward from his master.
But the father isn’t looking at the work; he’s focused on something entirely different. He says (v. 31):
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.’ ”
In celebrating the return of the prodigal son, the father isn’t giving an undeserved reward to an undeserving servant; it has nothing to do with what the young man has done or not done.
He’s celebrating the return of the son he loves. He’s not looking at what the son did, or didn’t do; he’s looking at who he is.
The prodigal son, who was lost and who comes back, knows he has done nothing to deserve his love; he knows that he could never possibly work enough to earn back the grace his father has shown him. But he now knows that despite all of that, he is loved—not because he’s deserving, but because he is his father’s son.
How this must have burned the Pharisees. Their entire identity was dependent on the things they did. They looked at their lives, and they saw how well they obeyed the letter of the law, and consequently, they assumed that they were the ones whom God applauded; they were the ones who stood in God’s good favor.
So they don’t understand why Jesus comes, claiming to come from God, and receives these people who did none of the good things they were supposed to do! Why would a teacher sent from God be gracious and kind to those who did everything wrong, all the while scolding those who did everything right?
Because he’s looking not at what they did, or didn’t do; he’s looking at who they are. They may have done everything wrong; that’s beside the point. They are God’s children, and they need him. They were dead, and now they are coming alive. They were lost, and now they are found.
Parables like this can make things complicated for us, because we like rules.
Well, we don’t like rules, but they’re comforting in that they play to our understanding of cause and effect. Do good things, and good things will happen. Do bad things, and bad things will happen. Rules make it clear what’s expected of us. Our understanding of the world depends in large part on this understanding of cause and effect—follow the rules, and you’ll be rewarded. Don’t follow the rules, and you’ll be punished.
So we assume that because that’s the way the world works, God must work the same way. We assume that God operates by giving us rules, expecting us to live by them, and punishing us if we don’t. We assume that if our morality holds to a certain standard, the rest will fall into place—if we are good people, we will receive good from God.
But this parable shows us very clearly that that’s not how it works.
It all boils down to two simple facts. Your bad behavior does not exclude you from being a son or a daughter of God; and your good behavior does not make you a son or a daughter of God.
Our morality (our obedience to God’s commands, our good behavior) contributes NOTHING to our status as God’s children. The only thing our morality does in terms of our salvation is that it serves as a marker: as evidence that we truly are children of God.
We can look at the change in our lives, in our obedience to God’s commands, and see in that obedience visible evidence that God has changed us. Because if we are his children, we will obey his commands; if we are his children, we will be holy, because he will make us holy.
The question is, how does he do that?
He does it through stories like this. He gives us such a view of his goodness and mercy and greatness that we want to come back to him.
We assume this story is about the younger brother, who ruined his life, then realized his sin and repented of it. Or we assume it’s about the older brother, who expected reward for good behavior and didn’t get it. But in reality, this parable isn’t about either brother.
This story is about the father.
Jesus tells this story to let the Pharisees see that the Father is so good, he welcomes the utterly sinful on the basis of who they are, not what they do.
And he tells this story to let the utterly sinful see that the Father is so good, he bestows his love on them despite how much they deserve the opposite. Because even before they come to him, he already knows his children, and he is drawing them to himself, and getting ready to celebrate their return.
Jesus tells this story to help us see how insanely, wonderfully good the Father is.
So the call of this text, to all of us, is very simple: see the goodness of your Father, and come home to him.
If you are counting on your behavior to receive God’s approval—if you see yourself as a servant trying to earn payment from the Master who has given you commands—this parable calls you to realize you have misunderstood your relationship with your Father; and it calls you to repent of that.
We might look down on the older son, thinking if we were in his position we’d react differently. But this misunderstanding of our relationship with God can show up in very subtle ways.
Do you have a tendency to think that if you don’t obey God’s commandments, he may not answer your prayers?
Do you tend to think that your suffering might somehow be punishment for things you have done?
Are you frustrated with other Christians who just can’t quite seem to get their act together?
Do you obey the Bible’s commands says because you’re afraid God will punish you if you don’t?
Are you hesitant to pray after you’ve sinned?
All of these are signs that we see our heavenly Father the same way the elder son saw his father.
So if that is us, this parable calls us to repent. To see that God is not a Master who is simply working toward behavior modification in his servants, merely seeking adherence to rules; he is a Father who celebrates his children who trust in his love. This parable calls us to see how good our Father is, and to respond to his goodness by obeying him—not because we’re afraid he’ll punish us if we don’t, but because we know our Father and want to be like him.
And the same is true on the other side. You may not be a Christian this morning, or you may be a Christian who has wandered far from God. You may be living in rebellion against him, in rejection of the life he created all of us to live.
If that is you, this parable is calling you to the same thing: in this parable, Jesus is calling you to see the goodness of your Father, and come home to him. Repent of your sin—not because you’re afraid of punishment if you don’t, but because God wants you to be where he is. Because he created you to glorify him by finding your fullest joy in him. Because he loves seeing lost children found, loves seeing dead children come to life.
Think what the younger son must have realized when he saw how his father celebrated him. Before, he was returning with the simple hope that he might find food, and a roof over his head. But when he saw how emotionally his father reacted to his return, how profoundly happy he was to see his son come home, he would have finally understood that all this time his father wasn’t waiting for him to “grow up and act better”; he was waiting for him to come home and be his son.
Parents, you’ll understand this: don’t we act like this with our kids?
We don’t feed and clothe our children…if they obey us.
We feed and clothe our kids because they’re our kids, and we love them, and they need us.
In Jesus Christ, God has done everything you couldn’t do. He provides the righteousness he requires of you; he provides freedom from his wrath; and he gives us such a view of his goodness and mercy that once we see him as he is, we want to live like him.
So see how good your Father is, brothers and sisters. Know your Father’s love for you, and respond to his love by becoming like him, and living joyfully as his children.