Life is full of surprises. There are the fun surprises like birthday parties and Christmas gifts. And then there are the surprises that you experience that reveal something about who you are and who your God is. Those are the kinds of surprises that Jesus gave to people in His parables. When he told a parable, it was to answer a question or to deal with an attitude, and most of the parables had surprise endings that drove right to the heart of the issue and to the heart of the individuals listening.
Jesus is dealing with a question and an attitude in the three parables we are going to study today. So turn in your Bibles to Luke 15.
The Talmud said, “All the prophets prophesied only for repentant sinners, but as for the perfectly righteous, who had never sinned at all, the eye has not seen, what God has prepared for him.”
The Talmud taught that a person could live a sinless life. The Pharisees believed that they were perfectly righteous, that they had not sinned. Therefore, they really despised the sinners and the tax-gatherers. What was wrong with being a tax-gatherer? A tax-gatherer was a Jew working for Gentiles and that was bad. In that culture, the word tax-gatherer was synonymous with sinner because tax-gatherers were Jews who had sold out to the Romans and collected taxes for them. In the eyes of the community, a tax-gatherer was a thief.
Jesus habitually ministered to the sinners, and it bothered the Pharisees. They concluded that Jesus could not be from God because God did not like sinners. The unspoken question is this: “What is God’s attitude towards sinners?”2
So Jesus tells three parables to show why He eats with outcasts. In them He will answer the question about God’s attitude towards sinners. And he will deal with the Pharisees self-righteous attitude and their condemnation of others.
These two parables deal with the question of God’s attitude towards sinners. God’s attitude towards the sinners and tax gatherers is that they are very valuable to Him and He is searching diligently to find those who are lost.
Now Jesus tells another parable that is directed right at the Pharisees self-righteous attitude. Let me read this parable from a different translation:
The Rebellious Son In The Key Of F
Feeling footloose and frisky, a foolish fellow forced his father to fork over his fourth of the family farthings and flew far to a foreign field where he fast frittered his fathers fortune feasting foolishly with faithless friends. Fleeced by his fellows and folly, and facing famine he found himself a feed flinger in a filthy farm. Flushed and fairly famished he fain would have filled his frame with foraged food from farm fodder.
“My father’s flunkies fair far finer.” The frazzled fugitive forlornly fumbled. Frustrated and filled with forboding, he fled forthwith to his father. Falling to his father’s feet he forlornly fumbled, “Father, I have flunked and frugalessly forfeited family favor.” The fugitive’s, faultfinding brother frowned on fickle forgiveness, but the faithful father figure filled with fidelity, cried, “The fugitive is found. What forbids further festivities. Let the flags unfurl and the fanfares flare.” Father flagged a flunky who fetched a fatling from the flock and fixed a feast.
The moral of the story is: The father’s forgiveness formed a foundation for the fugitive’s future fortitude.
Vs 12 - We probably don’t appreciate the gravity of the request that this son makes when he asks his father to divide the inheritance. He as much as tells his father that he wishes he were dead. What does the father do? He divides his possessions between his two sons giving 1/3 to the younger and 2/3 to the older son. The younger son leaves.
Why does the son do this? Because he doubts the capability and goodness of his father. He thinks he can do a better job of managing his own life than the father can. This is a perfect picture of our natural heart which resists the rule of God in our life. We want to be independent. The questions we need to ask ourselves are:
Vs 13 - The son squandered his father’s possessions. He couldn’t manage his life better than his father. This is a good picture of the fact that life lived outside of God’s will is a wasted life.
Vs 15 - The son ended up working for a Gentile and feeding some pigs. Remember that this parable is dealing with the Pharisees attitude about tax-gatherers (Jews working for Gentiles). So Jesus brings details into the story which show us that he is still dealing with the issue in 15:1-2. This is also a good picture of how we end up serving other things when we refuse to serve God. We can never be independent. We will always serve something - either God or money (Jesus says in the Sermon on the mount).
Vs 17 - The son comes to his senses and realizes that he was wrong. He will go back home and see if his father will at least let him work as a servant.
Vs 12 - The father let him go - knowing he would fail and hoping that he would come back. This shows the graciousness and patience of the father.
I’ve heard that if he did come back, in that culture the father would have been expected to do one of three things: (1) stone the son, (2) turn him away or (3) make him a slave. This was a bad Jewish boy and he needed to be made an example of. If this is true, then the son is hoping for the last option - make him a slave.
Vs 20 - Instead, this father diligently watches for and anticipates the return of his lost son. When he sees his son coming, he runs to meet him. In this culture it was undignified for a man to run. But this father was not concerned with losing face.
Jesus came to earth to find us and was willing to lose face. He suffered the most humiliating death known to man.
When the son is found, he rejoices. Notice there is no comparison with heaven because this is the Father that he is talking about.
Notice in verse 22 that the father interrupts the son before the son can pledge his service. All that is required is repentance and return, not works. Lordship Salvation focuses on verse 19.
The younger son may not have had full repentance when he was in the pig farm. He wanted to come back and work for his father - maybe with the hopes that he might be able to earn enough money to buy back his part of the land. But when
Then he recognizes his father’s goodness and realizes that he could never “earn” his father’s favor or inheritance. It was already his. He just needed to accept it.
Let me read a Song by Michael Kelly Blanchard. It is a good, modern day picture of a prodigal daughter
By Michael Kelly Blanchard (The Maze)
Now I’ve been a problem since Momma died, angry and restless and sad.
She was instantly killed on the passenger’s side, with barely a scratch for Dad.
We’d yell and yell till he’d hit me good,
And the lights would go on in the neighborhood.
It got so bad I wished that I could . . . but then Daddy did. . .
Now Gramma was a lot like Mom, heart of gold in a tiny frame.
She took me in when there weren’t no one, and when I got in trouble she shared the blame.
Never cared much for my looks...
The kind of girl for bums and crooks...
Fish around till I’d get hooked ... what a life to live.
There’s a picture of Jesus on my wall.
It’s been there since I was very small.
He looks like He just saw a little girl fall.
And you know He don’t look angry at all.
I work swing shift in a bearing plant, got my friends and I got my foes.
I’d like to leave but I know I can’t, and that’s just the way it goes.
Got pregnant by a married man...
Broke my heart and trashed my plans...
But when I hold that tiny hand ... it don’t seem so bad.
Gramma watched for the first three years, till she got a killing flu.
He got real close so she could hear, “Gramma I love you”
Maybe ‘cause we missed her so...
Maybe ‘cause . . . I don’t know...
I let another baby grow ... never told his Dad.
There’s this man at work I see every night, says God gonna judge me for my sins.
And I believe he’s probably right. Yes I know that I’ve disappointed Him.
But every now and then I’ll stare...
At that picture of Jesus hanging there...
And a kind of hope fills up the air,...like He loves me anyway.
When I was little I used to play down by a meadow pond.
A big blue heron would fly away, whenever I would come.
Kind of thought that’s like God and I...
I Show up He starts to fly...
But now when I look in Jesus’ eyes ... almost think that He would stay ...
I almost feel like I could pray.
Those of us who are in trouble can approach the Father.
This parable of the Lost Son not only shows what kind of repentance the Father responds to, but it also shows the way the Father responds to repentance.
A writer named Kenneth Bailey pointed out that this parable is told on two giant chiasms. The first one deals with the younger son and the second deals with the older son.
The Younger Son
12 A Son is Lost
13 A Wild Party
14 Desperate Need
16 Total Rejection
17 Recognition of Need
20 Total Acceptance
22 Total Provision
23 A Planned Party
24 A Son is Found
In a chiasm the emphasis is in the center. Notice what is in the center of this one. The repentance of the son. He first recognizes his sin and then returns to the father. In the first two parables, Jesus talked about the repentance of sinners, and there was no repentance. Now we see the repentance.
Heb 6:1-2 Repentance from dead works and Faith toward God. It is the attitude that I can’t, but He can. Repentance and Faith are two sides of the same coin.
Now we come to the last half of the parable:
We talked about the chiasm in the section dealing with the younger son. Let’s go ahead and study the dialog between the father and older son with the help of the chiasm:
The Older Son
27 Safe and Sound
28 The Father’s Effort
29 Self-righteous (Me)
30 Judgmental (Him)
31 The Father’s Effort
32 Alive and Found
In verse 26 we see the older son comes home and asks what is going on. A servant tells him that his brother has returned and everyone is celebrating. The older son is angry so the father goes out to him to plead with him to come inside.
Let’s look at the older son’s response in detail:
Vs 29He says, “Look!” which is disrespectful of his father.
His attitude was that he was “slaving.” This is not just the word for work. It is the term doulos which means to slave. He didn’t understand what it meant to be a son. He didn’t understand grace. He was trying to earn his inheritance or something.
He claims to have never disobeyed a command of the father’s. This was undoubtedly not true. He did not recognize his own sin. It is also very indicative of the Pharisees’ self-righteous attitude that they were above reproach. And this ties us back to the 99 righteous in 15:7.
He claims that the father never gave him anything. In essence, the older son is saying the same thing that the younger son said. He wishes the father were dead so he could have his stuff. But remember that the father had already divided the inheritance between the two sons. This son actually had a double portion.
He says “that I might be merry” - this shows that he wants to have joy without repentance.
And who does he want to be merry with? With his “friends,” not his father or family.
Vs 30He is resentful of the good treatment that the father is giving the younger son.
The center of the chiasm points us to the most important point of the parable. The center of each focuses on the responses of the sons.
Vs 31The father reminds him that he had already given him everything.
Vs 32The father explains why he is celebrating and then there is no response from the older brother. The absent response of older son leaves you hanging. God is waiting to bring the religious leader in.
The last chiasm is incomplete you are left hanging with a question in your mind. “What is the older son going to do?” It is part of the surprise ending.
Jesus uses several other devices to bring in the element of surprise.
A pattern is developed and then changed in the end:
The older son resents his father’s acceptance of the prodigal son. He does not rejoice like the shepherds in the first parable, nor the woman and her neighbors in the second parable, nor does he rejoice with the father and the rest of the family in the end. The parallelism breaks down. And we are surprised.
Christ receives sinners because
He knows the perspective of heaven
He joins the chorus of the angels
He shares the Father’s heart and rejoices when one sinner repents,
In the first parable the ratio is 99:1. Only one is lost.
In the second parable the ratio is 9:1. Only one is lost.
In the last parable, you think the ratio is 1:1 until you get to the end and find out that it is 0:2. Both sons were actually lost. What does that say about the 99 righteous? And we are surprised again.
What is your attitude towards the older brother? If this were a play, what would your reaction be? I think there are three responses that a person might have:
God actively seeks to bring all into His kingdom, but only those who recognize they are lost will enter the kingdom of God. And we need to remember that the kingdom will be composed of a community of repentant sinners.
Paul says, “In the same way you received Christ, so walk in Him.” The Christian life is a series of “salvation-like” experiences. I don’t mean you lose your salvation and get saved again. I mean that the growth process involves repeated recognition of need, recognition of our independent spirit and returning to the Father in faith that He is good and will provide for us.
Sometimes we are like the prodigal son. We doubt the goodness of God and take our gifts and leave God and go out to try to find life and happiness through some other means -- it could be our work, our family, legitimate or illegitimate relationships, substance abuse, etc. We need to come to our senses, recognize that it is not working, that we are in need and turn back to God. When we do, he will accept us with open arms. He will take us back. Remember this: I am a prodigal son every time I search for love and happiness apart from the Father.
Sometimes we are like the older son. Maybe our sins are not as obvious as the younger son’s. Ours are on the inside. They are sins of attitude. We think that we are doing a good job, but we are comparing ourselves to really bad people. We can always find someone else whom we think is worse than us, and we think we are ok. But the conversation between the older son and the father revealed that the older son had the exact same attitude as the younger son. He just didn’t carry out his innermost desires. But just having the attitude left him on the outside. We need to evaluate our attitudes. Maybe there are some we need to repent of. There is a danger in becoming proud and self righteousness which blinds one to the need of repentance.
The point of the first two parables in which a lost sheep was found and a lost coin was found emphasized the effort of God in finding the lost. In the third parable, the Father finds the prodigal son, who repents, but the father also goes outside to find the older son and the question we are left with is Will the older son repent? Repentance is not just about being found. It is only the context in which the heart can move. The Pharisees needed to examine their own hearts. We need to examine our hearts. And that is the surprise ending.
The banquet imagery as the father celebrates the return of the younger son parallels the banquet imagery of the messianic kingdom. Link to previous parable about the great banquet and refusal of the invitation.
THE YOUNGER SON
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons.
He sets us up when he only deals with the younger son first.
12 The younger one said to his father, `Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
A son is lost
14 After he had spent everything,
A wild party
there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. (Josephus records 19 famines between 169 BC and 70 AD.)
15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.
Sin - gentile subservience, uncleanness of pigs.
16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, `How many of my father’s hired men 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: (1)Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 (2)I am no longer worthy to be called your son; (3) make me like one of your hired men.’
Decides to get help
Note the three things he wants to say.
20 So he got up and went to his father. “But while he 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.
His father has been looking for 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 (father interrupts him before #3) 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. (Note that the father interrupts before the son can add the part about working. The father is not going to treat him like a servant. Does God treat us like servants? No. The ring on finger was a signet ring showing family membership. Sandals - only a servant put on sandals for someone else. Remember John the Baptist said he was not even worthy to put on Jesus’ sandals.)
A Planned Party
24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. (When he says the son was lost - in that culture, what the son did would result in a declaration by the family that the son was “dead” but now he is back and “alive.”)
A son is found
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.
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. (notice the effort expended by the father to go find the older son)
The father’s effort
29 But he answered his father, `Look! (disrespectful) All these years I’ve been slaving (not joyful obedience) for you and never disobeyed (oblivious to own sin) your orders. Yet you never gave me (self-centered) even a young goat so I could celebrate (enjoyment w/o repentance) with my friends (not with family).
30 But when this son of yours (distancing himself) who has squandered your property with prostitutes (how did he know?) comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “`My son,’ the father said, `you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. (covenant status of Israel - remember that the father divided the inheritance earlier in the parable)
The father’s effort
What is the older brother’s response going to be?