The Prodigal Son

Derek Wells, Speaker

Luke 15:11-32 | April 9 - Holy Week|Sunday Evening,

Holy Week|Sunday Evening,
April 9
The Prodigal Son | Luke 15:11-32
Derek Wells, Speaker

So Lord Jesus, we come to You as our risen Savior, as our risen Lord. We come to You with hearts that are full on this Resurrection Sunday. We thank You for all that You have done for us and we come before Your Word. We ask, O Lord, now that You would speak to Your people. Lord, we pray that You would open our ears, open our eyes and our hearts, that we might hear, that we might see, that we might believe, that our faith might be increased. As Kevin prayed this morning, Lord, I pray that You would preach a better sermon to Your people than what is in front of me tonight. We pray that You would bless Your Word to our hearts. In Christ’s name. Amen.

Well, we’re continuing our series on the parables of Christ, so I will invite you to turn in your Bibles to Luke 15. You’ll have to forgive my voice. Like many of you, and I can hear you coughing right now, the pollen’s gotten the better of me, but I have plenty of water up here, so hopefully we’ll be okay, as we look at the parable of the prodigal son.

I joked with Kevin a few days ago that this is going to be one that’s hard to preach without plagiarizing because so much has been written on this parable, and no doubt you’ve heard many sermons on this, and certainly I’m not going to be reinventing the wheel tonight. I’m leaning on men like Sinclair Ferguson, Tim Keller, William Hendriksen, all people who you’ve probably read and heard before.

But as Tom prayed, even though we are covering a familiar text of Scripture tonight, I want to encourage you with this thought as we start, that God can always take something that’s familiar to us and show us something new. So we want to pray for that, that God would take what is familiar to us and show us something new. Or maybe it’s not just showing us something new, perhaps it’s something that we need to remember.

So often we will have something that will dawn on us and the impression of it, the truth of it, will begin to fade as time goes by. So many times in God’s Word He brings it back to our remembrance, impresses it in on us again, so as we look at this parable we look to the Lord for that work.

Kevin spoke last week on the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin and those being about the God who seeks and saves sinners. We’ll continue that them tonight. You’ll recall as you look at Luke 15 there are three parables here and they’re really taken as woven into one. They’re one answer, they’re a singular response of Jesus to the question of the Pharisees.

You’ll remember in verses 1 and 2, it’s not so much questioning but it’s grumbling. What were they grumbling about? They were grumbling that Christ is eating with sinners, that He is welcoming sinners, and that He’s receiving them. So they were indignant over this. It’s as if they’re saying, “Jesus, why are You, a supposed righteous man, why are you receiving sinners? Why do we find You here eating with sinners? Why are You welcoming them?”

And that context and that question really serves as the interpretive key for all three of these parables as we look at it. Kevin noted the big idea behind this is not only that God receives sinners, but even more so that God rejoices over repentant sinners. You see that in several verses in Luke 15.

Look down at verse 10. And here’s what Jesus says, it hovers as the big idea over all three of these parables. So we want to think about this tonight. Jesus says, “I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Now if I were to ask each of you do you believe that, obvious, it’s a Sunday night crowd, the answer would be most definitely yes. But the question for us, Christ Covenant, is how deeply do we believe that? That God receives and rejoices over repentant sinners, and the parable of the prodigal son is a great exclamation point of verse 10. It’s a climatic illustration of verse 10, of the God who seeks and the God who saves and the God who rejoices over repentant sinners.

You and I need to come to a greater knowledge of that so that we might better understand the Gospel, listen, in relation to ourselves and in relation to others as well. So as we read, we’ll take this just a few verses at a time, make commentary as we go.

We’ll frame the sermon in this way. We see first a revealing request, next we see a rebellious journey, and then finally we see a rejoicing father.

So I’ll pick up in verse 11 as we read about the parable of the prodigal son.

Hear the Word of the Lord.

“And He,” that is Jesus, “said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided the property between them.”

So we have two sons who live on the estate of their father. By all accounts, there is some wealth in this family, they’re well-to-do, they’re well taken care of. But the younger son comes to his father with this request. He says, “Father, give me the share of property that’s coming to me.”

Now this request, as you’ve read it before, it probably strikes you as presumptuous, maybe it strikes you as demanding, and kids can certainly be that way when we promise them something. I remember when we moved here five or six years ago I promised the kids a dog. It’s one of those desperate parenting acts that you do when you feel like your kids are melting down. You’ve got to give them something. I’ll tell you what, we’re going to give you a dog. It was one of those sort of kind of half-hearted parenting promises that I secretly hoped would fade in memory from the children. But guess what? It didn’t fade. They remembered that promise. In fact, it got even stronger. Hey, remember, you promised a dog.

And I got so desperate that I thought, okay, here’s what I’ll do. I got them a cat thinking that would assuage the dog demand in the house. But that didn’t work either. The kids reminded me over and over again, “You promised us a dog,” and now six years later we have little Carson, who is at one time a very sweet dog but also the bane of my existence as well. She’s probably home right now digging a hole in the backyard as we speak.

So the kids kept reminding me of that. They were digging in on this promise. You can think about this, kids forget a lot, but I’ll tell you what they won’t forget. They won’t forget whatever your words you repeat after “I promise.” That will be like a steel trap in their memory. So they remember what you promise them.
Now think about your kids coming to you: “Mom, dad, give me what you’ve promised me. Give me what you owe me. I know what I’ve been promised. The car, the phone, the allowance, that vacation you said we were going to have. Give me that.”

But what if this, what if this. What if your kids came to you and said, “Mom, Dad, you know, I was on the computer the other day and I stumbled across your 401k. It was rather sizeable. I was impressed, I must say. I stumbled over some documents of estate planning and here’s the thing. I’d like my share of that and I would like it now.” Well, you’d probably banish them somewhere, if not to another room, maybe completely off the premises of your home for being so demanding and presumptuous.

It’s a greedy and offensive request the son makes. But more than that, it’s appalling. It certainly would have been appalling to this original audience because as an inheritance it was not something that he was to receive until his father died. It’s as if he says, “Dad, I see you’re taking the multi-vitamins and you’re just a little bit too healthy in your older age, you’re a little too spry. Let’s get rid of those and let’s introduce some extreme sports into your life. Right? I wish you would just go ahead and die now so I can have your things.”

It should stop us in our tracks. And what’s so appalling about this request is it reveals the posture of the son toward his father.

Tim Keller highlights is so well. He says this request reveals that the younger son wants the father’s things but not the father. He wants the gifts but not the giver. What we see is that this young man is at home but he’s not really at home. His affections are elsewhere. His heart has been captured by other things, by temporal things that have become more important to him than his relationship to his father, so much so that his father’s very existence becomes an impediment to what he desires. So he wishes him dead.

You see the posture of the son to the father. But well also see the father’s posture toward his son. It’s almost equally as shocking. The father knows that this request is tantamount to wishing him dead. An ordinary response we would think would be deep hurt, maybe frustration, maybe anger, and maybe even to disavow this son of all his privileges, maybe to relegate him to servitude. But not so with this father. He actually grants the request.

Keller also points out that typically wealth was tied up during this time in land. Okay, so you have the older son, who would have gotten two-thirds of the share of the inheritance of the land. The younger son would have gotten one-third of the share. But here’s would need to happen – the father would have to actually liquidate the land in order to give it to his son. So this is not just, “Hey, Dad, I notice you got a few mill in the bank. Can you skim off the top and can you give me my share?” No, this is, “Dad, would you cash out a third of your business, that source of income, that revenue. Would you cash that out and would you give it to me now?”

What’s the point? The point is that this comes at tremendous sacrifice and loss to the father. But he does it willingly.

You might say to yourself, “Well, why does he do it willingly? It seems like foolish permissiveness.” But actually it shows the contrast in the character between the son and the father. You see the son’s selfishness and greed and you see the father’s liberality and generosity. It’s a revealing request.

But we also see a rebellious journey. Look at verse 13. It says, “Not many days later, the younger son gathered all that he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.”

So this son, he gets the money and he’s got his plans. He’s going to go out and he’s going to grab life by the tail. He this the party scene. He indulges every appetite and he squanders his father’s wealth. But notice that the text tells us he doesn’t just leave. What does it say? Rather he took a journey into a far country. The proximity here is telling, because it gives away the fact that this son wants to be as far away from his father as he can. He wants to be uninhibited by his father. He wants to be independent from his father. Why? So he can pursue his sinful desires. What is driving the son is the desire for autonomy.

So he strikes out into this far country, separating himself from his father. And we begin to see, if we read this with a bit of a larger scriptural lens, that this is not just a story about a sinful act and rebellion. No, this is a story about sin and separation itself. It’s a story about you and about me.

It’s reminiscent of Genesis 3. Just as Adam and Eve were in the garden with God, they were walking with God in the cool of the evening, they were at home with God, and yet they were tempted to choose a life of independence, to determine good and evil for themselves, and so they struck out on their own. Why did they do that? Because they listened to the serpent who was casting seeds of suspicion about the character of God. You recall the serpent saying, “God knows, God knows that when you eat of the fruit you will be like Him, knowing good and evil.”

He’s planting these hard thoughts about God. God is just trying to keep you under His thumb. He’s keeping you from the good life. Planting seeds of suspicion about the goodness and the character of God. Something Sinclair Ferguson calls serpentine theology, it’s theology of the serpent that doubts God’s goodness and God’s graciousness, and those seeds are in the heart of every single fallen person.

So what happens with Adam and Eve, they rebel. And what? They find themselves separated from God. One wonders if this son had similar thoughts about his father. Well, I think dad loves me but maybe he’s just trying to keep me from the good life. Maybe dad is just trying to keep me under his thumb, and I look over there and I see all this freedom and all this promise and all these material possessions and everything that it can bring me. I wonder if my father’s just trying to hold me back from that.

So he journeys into this far country. The Greek here, the word is choran makran. It means this vast empty space, this wide open space, this unnamed, undefinable space. That’s the far country that he goes in. The modern day meaning might be to find yourself in the middle of nowhere.

So he journeys out into this nameless space. What’s the implication? This son is lost. The son is lost. Like the lost sheep, like the lost coin, except there’s one difference. Sheep get lost because they’re stupid. Coins get lost all the time. But this son, this son is lost by his own choice. This son is lost because of his rebellion.

The son has intentionally and willfully walked away. He’s chosen a path or lifestyle that is absolutely contrary to what he knows is good and surely we can resonate with this because many of us have been the prodigal.

That might be you here this evening. Maybe you’ve chosen a path, or living in a way that is absolutely contrary to God’s will, and knowingly or unknowingly, if you boil down all of your decisions in your life, the sum of them is to get as far away from God as you can because you have supposed that the good life exists outside of knowing him.

Or maybe that’s someone you know or love. They are in the choran makran. They are lost, they’re in the middle of nowhere spiritually. Perhaps we’re tempted in a self-righteous way to write them off. How dare they thumb their nose at God? Or, how dare they thumb their nose at me? Or maybe we’re tempted to write them off out of deep despair, well, they are never coming back. Or maybe if it’s you, “I can’t come back.”

Well, this story, it serves as a wonderful corrective to us, because not only do we see ourselves in the story, we see others as well. It reminds us that we serve a God who seeks and saves the lost. We serve a God who came not to call the righteous but sinners. We serve a God who came to help the sick, not the well.

So Jesus here gives us a picture of sin and separation. He gives us a picture of a lost condition that we might better see the God who saves.

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

So this son has now become a wretch. He’s not only lost, he’s hungry, he’s helpless. Notice the Scripture tells us there’s no one to help him. He’s seemingly hopeless.

The question is, how is he going to get out of this situation? The question is, has he gone too far? Has he sinned too greatly? No one has compassion on him. He’s in the choran makran. What’s going to bring him back? What’s going to bring him back?

We see a starting point at verse 17. The Bible says “he comes to himself.” What a beautiful phrase of the Holy Spirit working in someone’s heart.

Verse 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 with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.””

So he comes to his senses. He sees where he is, in the hopeless, helpless situation. He sees what he’s done. He’s squandered his father’s wealth. He’s been selfish. He’s been greedy. But more importantly, he’s forsaken his father. He sees that.

And no one has compassion on him. The only hope is to go to the very one whom he has forsaken. Scripture tells us that he remembers his father. That’s a good starting point. He remembers there is provision with his father.

He goes on to confession. Another good step. He says, “I will arise and I will go to my father and I will say to him, ‘I’ve sinned against heaven and before you.'” So he’s not hiding his sin, he’s not attempting to avoid what he’s done. He’s coming before his father, he’s going to acknowledge his sin. So we see his confession.

This young man is financially bankrupt. Here’s the picture. This young man is financially bankrupt, but more important, he’s morally and spiritually bankrupt. His greatest need is not for his father’s food, it’s for his father’s forgiveness. That’s the drama of the story.

We see a change in his posture. That’s crucial, that’s important for us to know that. His first approach to the father, he was demanding, he was greedy, he was selfish. And now what? He’s humbled. He’s helpless. He’s weak. He’s hungry. He’s crying out for mercy.

So these are all good and wonderful things, but we’ll process this a little bit more. He’s probably thinking, “You know, I’ve got to come up with something.” He’s like the kid who took his father’s credit card and he ran up the bill and he can’t pay it anymore. He knows he’s in big trouble. He’s thinking to himself, “Now what can I say?”

You imaging him journeying on that road and just thinking to himself, “Okay, all right. Here. If he says this, I’ll say that. And if he responds this way, I’ll respond that way.” He says, “Treat me as a hired servant. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”

Now taken at face value, it’s simply a humble confession. Just make me a hired servant. I see what I’ve done. But note, he’s thinking, he’s planning, he’s processing, and one wonders, one wonders does he feel like he has to bargain with his father for forgiveness? Perhaps he’s thinking, as you and I are prone to think, that somehow, some way, he must offer something. He must do something to draw out the love and mercy of his father, thinking, “I know the rules of society. I should be ostracized. At the very least I should have to earn it back. I mean, surely my father would not discard all of those rules, much less the personal offense against him, and brush them aside. I mean, who does that?”

Who just receives wretched, helpless, sinful people? Who does that? You see Jesus’ point. God does.

We see a contrast here in a story emerging between the rules of the culture of the day and what is true of the kingdom of Christ. Christ puts his finger on the point of the parable right here as the focus begins to shift from the sinful character of the son to the gracious character of the father.

We see finally a rejoicing father. Look at verse 20: “And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and he felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and he kissed him. 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.’ 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. Bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.”

What is Jesus doing here? He’s displaying the gracious character of the father by focusing on the father’s actions toward his son. While he was still a long way off… So we see that the father is looking for him, he’s seeking him, he’s not sitting back and waiting for him to come to him. He’s not sitting back and waiting for him to make up that ground of separation. No, what we see is the father is actually making up the ground of separation by running to him. In this scene, Jesus brings us right back to the God who seeks and saves and the God who rejoices. The Scriptures tell us they began to celebrate.

Now what’s on display here? Is it just extravagant material wealth? Surely not. No, what’s on display is the riches of God’s forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation.

That’s what this son experiences. He barely gets the confession out. You know? He’s on the road, he’s thinking, “I’ve got to come up with something. I’ve got to say something.” He barely gets it out before there’s already rejoicing and dancing and celebration. The father says, “No, no, no. Go, quickly. Clothe him. Put a ring on his finger, shoes on his feet.”

Now notice this. When the son tried to throw his own banquet by chasing the world’s possessions, he ended up impoverished. But when he allows the father to throw a banquet of mercy and grace and forgiveness, he ends up with a robe on his back, with shoes on his feet, and a ring on his finger. It’s the father’s banquet.

And the contrast in this scene, in this story, of this younger son is between the poverty of sin and the riches of God’s mercy.

Jesus could have ended there. He could have ended there but it would be incomplete. You see, the story is not just about how we understand the Gospel in relation to ourselves, but it’s also about how we understand the Gospel in relation to others as well.

So quickly in closing, let’s look at the posture of the older brother. He doesn’t get it.

Verse 25: “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 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. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

Now note the complaint of the older brother and remember the interpretive key here, about welcoming sinners. He refused to go in. Why? “You’re welcoming him? He devoured your property. He blew all of your money on prostitutes. He’s thumbed his nose at you. How could you welcome him?” In the older son’s grumbling, we hear the echo of the Pharisees in verses 1 and 2. He perceives the father’s mercy to be an injustice and he doesn’t understand.

So we see a self-righteous posture toward his brother. Notice he doesn’t even call him his brother, he says this “son of yours.” But what’s interesting is his self-righteous posture toward his brother is actually rooted in his self-righteous posture toward his father.

Look at what he says: “I’ve served you. I have served you all these years.” Essentially, “I’ve been slaving for you. Give me what you owe me.” Rather than a gracious father, he sees a slave master.

Serpentine theology. Do you see what Satan would do with us? He’s planted hard thoughts once again about his father. He is not just.

So we see the posture of this older son, but that’s not the posture of the father toward him. Look at what it says – he entreats him to come in, “My son, you’ve always been with me. All that I have is yours.” The father extends him mercy. You see, the tragedy here is all that this older brother needs is present in the loving and gracious care of his father, but he won’t believe it.

We are left with something of a cliffhanger. We can presume that he doesn’t come it, we don’t know that for certain. But in the story of the older brother we see the contrast, as Kevin said last week, between the gladness of God and the grumbling of the Pharisees. But I want us to notice something here. In the gladness of God, he wants the older brother to come in, too.

Here again we see the father’s great mercy and compassion for both sons. He wants them both at the banquet.

This should help us, not only with ourselves, but with others. Because you see, if you’re a younger brother type, you look at the older brother and you think that they’re so self-righteous and hypocritical, they don’t deserve to be in. And if you’re an older brother type, you look at the younger brother and you think they’re so rebellious, they don’t deserve to be in.

But that’s not the heart of the father. Nor is it the way of the kingdom of Christ.

There are some scholars who make a case that the parables in Luke 15 actually represent the Jews and the Gentiles. You have the parable of the lost sheep where the shepherd goes far and wide to gather that sheep in, reporting the Gentiles. You have the parable of the lost coin, that’s in the house but it’s lost, representing the Jews. And here the parable of the prodigal, you have the younger son who wanders far off, representing the Gentiles; you have the older brother who’s home but he’s lost, reporting the Jews.

I want to be careful not to press that too far, but what’s the message? What’s the overarching message from a kingdom perspective? It is God wants both at the feast. He wants both at the banquet.

In Christ, God is looking for both the prodigal and the older brother. He’s calling both to repentance and to come in, which means that in Christ God is looking for both you and me.

I daresay, Christ Covenant, if we were really honest with ourselves, we would admit that we have a little bit of the younger brother in us and we all have a little bit of the older brother in us, all at the same time.

This should encourage us as we think about this, on this Resurrection Day, that Christ stands before us and He’s inviting you and me in.

Now how can He extend such a gracious and abundant invitation? Does He just brush away our sins? No. It brings us back to Easter. It comes through the death and resurrection of His Son. That’s how the Father extends the invitation to you and to me. At the cross we see God running to us. At the cross we see God embracing us. At the cross we see the cost of our forgiveness. He was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification. At the cross we see God’s welcome of repentant sinners.

What a display of mercy.

So the message is simply this, as we close. To the one who is far off, maybe you’re the prodigal, and you’re about as far away from God as you can be, and you think you’re beyond His mercy, well, this story is for you, and the message is, “Come home.” Come home. You may think you’ve sinned too greatly, rejected God, but you are the very one, you are the very one that is welcome. You need no speeches, you need no servitude, you need no merits to draw the Father’s love and mercy. The Father’s love and mercy has already been poured out for you in Christ in abundance. It’s all there.

In Christ, there is a robe of righteousness for you. It’s given for you. In Christ, there’s a ring of royal sonship to be placed on you. There are shoes for your feet. There’s food for your soul. There’s wine to make your heart merry. There is a banquet in Christ for you. Prodigal, come home.

Or maybe you see yourself as the older brother. The message to the older brother is, come in, come in. Why stand on the outside looking at the banquet, cold and calculating, despising the mercy and grace that God gives to others when it’s that very same mercy and grace that He longs to give to you? You, too, are the very one that He came to seek and to save. So realize that you need His love and mercy as much, if not more, than the younger son. The message is come in to the banquet.

And to all others, the message is to see how God is working through the preaching of the Gospel in His kingdom and to welcome others in. Those we would not expect, those who are not like us, those who are far and wide, and those who are nearby who are in our midst but don’t yet get it. The message is to welcome them in, to preach the Gospel freely to them, that all who are repentant, all who turn from their sins, all who hear the call and begin the journey, they can come home to their Father because of His abundant provision and mercy. They are welcome.

So church of Christ, on this Resurrection Day, let us rejoice just as those we see in this banquet, because of our Father’s great mercy for us.

Let’s pray. So Lord Jesus, we thank You for these wonderful parables. They teach us not merely about how to live, but they teach us about the Gospel, the Gospel that we celebrated this morning, the Gospel of Your death and resurrection for us, the Gospel that we celebrate tonight, the Gospel that gives us hope in our own journey, to live lives of repentance because of Your mercy and grace for us, the Gospel that inspires us to communicate that love and grace and mercy to others, to call them. So Lord we pray that You would strengthen us, that You would correct us, that You would increase our faith. We thank You for Your presence with us. In Christ’s name. Amen.