Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 7/16/95
Luke 15:1 Now all the tax gatherers and sinners were coming near him to listen to him, 2 And both the Pharisees and the Scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 And he told them this parable, saying, 4 “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’ 10 In the same way, I tell you there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”11 And he said, “A certain man had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ And he divided his wealth between them. 13 And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. 14 Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 And he went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he was longing to fill his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. 17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.’ 20 And he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But that father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, 23 and bring the fatted calf, kill it, and let us eat and be merry. 24 For this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and he has been found.’ And they began to be merry. 25 Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things might be. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in. And his father came out and began entreating him. 29 But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you, and I have never neglected a command of yours, and yet you have never given me a kid that I might be merry with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ 31 And he said to him, ‘My child, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to be merry and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”
The main body of this chapter is one of the Lord’s most familiar stories, perhaps his greatest masterpiece of parabolic art; unfortunately it is also one that we are accustomed to read out of context. So well did our Lord tell this story that many of the ideas we derive from it are true anyway—but they are subordinate to the one we miss. One way we can tell how we have missed the main point is to see how we have messed up the title. You see, we call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but in context it is clearly meant to be the Parable of the Older Brother. For it is the climax of a series of three parables, all of which are Christ’s response to the Pharisees’ complaints about Jesus’ habit of hanging out with sinners. It is addressed to the Scribes and the Pharisees, who appear in the parable as the older brother. And while it does indeed tell us much about the Prodigal’s folly and need of repentance, and about God’s mercy and forgiveness, its main point is directed against the self righteous attitudes of the older brother—the Pharisees. All three parables are here primarily to condemn Pharisaic self righteousness and invite such older brothers to rejoice with Christ in the salvation of sinners.
The mercy and forgiveness of God the Father is not the main focus of these parables, but it is certainly illustrated by them. The first, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, shows us his tender compassion. It is not in Scripture, but it may well have been in the mind of the original audience, for Jewish tradition tells a story of Moses when he was caring for Jethro’s flock. He had lost a lamb in just such a fashion, went on a long search for it, and when he found it he carried it back to the fold draped over his shoulders, just like the shepherd in the parable. When he did this, God appeared to him and said, “You have had compassion on man’s sheep; I will put you in charge of mine, Israel.” So Jesus uses a traditional picture of compassion to make his point. God’s compassion for sinners is something we desperately need, so it is quite natural that we focus on it. But we must not forget that the main reason for portraying it here is to contrast it with the lack of any such compassion on the part of the Pharisees. We may well be encouraged to seek God’s forgiveness by these stories, and rightly so. But the main point of them is how we are going to treat those who are still mired in their sins, especially if those sins have a certain social stigma attached to them. Let us not forget how God treated us when we were lost!
The second story, the Parable of the Lost Coin, emphasizes the God’s tireless initiative in pursuing the lost. The emphasis here is on the carefulness of the search. Many religious people will tell you that God is prepared to accept you if you clean up your act and make yourself presentable and come to him. But Scripture says that he commends his love for us in this, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. And it is also while we are yet sinners that his Holy Spirit woos us and calls us. Jesus was eating with these sinners not because they had repented—they were still tax gatherers at the moment—but in hopes that they would repent. We are not saved because we have cleaned up our act; we clean up our act because Christ has saved us. This is not a trivial distinction. By the first method, the method of works, there can be no flesh justified. By the second method, the method of grace, salvation is possible even for you and me. And if once we have been saved by grace, then we can never again afford to despise those who are still lost, or whose act is still (like ours, were we completely honest) still in the process of being cleaned up in response to God’s gracious forgiveness.
The third parable is the climax, showing us not only the Father’s tender compassion and his tireless initiative, but also his totally incomprehensible grace. A lost sheep is just silly and foolish; a lost coin has no responsibility at all for its condition. But the Prodigal Son has been inexcusably wicked and gotten only what he deserves. His father had every right to disown him. Yet he not only accepts him back—to do so as a hired man would have been unmerited favor—but he runs to meet him half way, interrupts the son’s very proper speech about being unworthy, and loads him with robe, ring, and sandals. Instead of taking him out to the woodshed he gives him honor which even his responsible older brother had never earned. Well, if that is our Father’s attitude, and we pride ourselves on being his true sons, then how should we relate to our long lost brothers? Hmmm.
There is joy in heaven over every sinner who repents. Every one of these three parables ends with a party, and the three parties are climactic in their own way. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous who need no repentance. Well, it wouldn’t take very much joy to be more joy than that! Who are these supposedly righteous people who allegedly need no repentance? I think we must hear the biting sarcasm in our Lord’s words here. We don’t need the Apostle Paul’s careful theological analysis in Romans—where there is none righteous, no, not one, but all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God—to realize how ironic the statement is. For the “righteous” are obviously the Pharisees (the very word Pharisee means “righteous one”). And while they are ironically given their own chosen title, it can hardly be applied to them with a straight face. For the whole point of the trio of parables is that they do very much have something to repent of—the bad attitude of the Older Brother! Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven! For that, you had better forget about your own righteousness and be clothed with the righteousness of Christ.
Well, then, heaven is happier about a sinner who repents than about unrepentantly self righteous Pharisees. Lest in the irony of that statement we miss how really happy that is, we have the other two parables. In the Parable of the Lost Coin, the comparison with the so-called righteous drops away and there is just joy in heaven over repentant sinners, period, a joy that is absolute and in need of no comparison. And then in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (er, excuse me, Older Brother), we have a detailed description of the celebration. Fatted calf was not normal fare. This veal was reserved only for very special occasions. And this occasion was so special that the Older Brother could hear the music and dancing before he even got back to the house. Not bad for a consort of acoustic zithers and lyres with no amplification! Well, if the angels throw a big party when a sinner repents, should we be sticking our snooty noses in the air and making ominous comments about the kind of people who are being attracted to the church? Hmmm.
The point that was called forth by the Pharisees’ complaint, and which is made by implication in the first two parables, is rubbed in when we get to the Parable of the Elder Brother. The Pharisees must have been livid at the unflattering portrait being painted of them. It gives us a veritable anatomy of self righteousness.
In the first place, self righteousness involves a false view of one’s own merit. It is not just that the Pharisees lacked compassion for sinners, but otherwise their claim to be righteous had credibility or validity. No, their claim to righteousness is false through and through, from beginning to end. The Elder Brother claims in vs. 29 that he has never neglected the Father’s commands. Well, that is how the Pharisees saw themselves, but the parable undermines their claim radically. For in the very act of making his claim to perfect obedience, the Older Brother is resisting the Father’s will, in fact, refusing his entreaty to come in and join the party, to help welcome his brother home! His claim to perfect obedience is patently fraudulent, absurdly and even comically so. And that is just the beginning.
Self righteousness is not only delusional and deceptive, it is also joyless. The joylessness of the Older Brother is profound; it goes far beyond missing the party going on in the house. For he is missing the celebration of his brother’s homecoming because he has an essentially joyless relationship with his father. He has turned their relationship into a business relationship, turned it into a job. Fatted calf? I’ve served you all these years and you never gave me even a kid! So the kid is compensation for service, now? The father’s reply is poignant. You’ve missed the point! All I have is yours. All you had to do was ask. Ironically, the Older Brother is actually asking to be treated as a hired hand, to be compensated for superior service rendered rather than loved freely as a son. The Father’s love has always been there for him, but he is too self-centered to receive it. Meanwhile, the Prodigal, who knows he is unworthy to be treated as a son and would think it a great favor to be treated as an employee, is given all the honor the Father can bestow. The feast is often used as an image of salvation, from the wedding feast of chapter 14 to the Lord’s Supper to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The self righteousness of the Older Brother has not only kept him outside of the feast, the joylessness inherent in that self-centered orientation would have kept him from enjoying it even if he had come in.
Here’s a sobering thought. What if instead of the Father it had been the Older Brother who first met the Prodigal on his way back to the house? Do you think he would have been encouraged to pursue reconciliation with the Father? Or would he not rather have been driven to despair? I’m afraid I just summarized an awful lot of church history. I hope that pattern is not repeating itself among us! What am I saying? Do not think that because you are not an Older Brother this parable has nothing to say to you. For once we have come in and joined the party, or once we have been working in the field for some time while some of our younger brothers still delay to come back home, the tendency to adopt his attitude to those who are still outside is most insidious. Let us beware of his attitude and nip it in the bud whenever it rears its ugly head.
I suspect there may be three kinds of people here today. First, there may be some Prodigal Sons who are still in the Far Country. Maybe you aren’t yet eating pig slop—but why wait until you get that low? Come back home today! The Heavenly Father will not reject you if you truly repent.
It is not unlikely that we have some Older Brothers in our midst. You are outwardly righteous, upright, religious—but it is ultimately self righteousness. You would never spend your inheritance on harlots or eat pig slop, but you are not by that any closer to the heart of the Father who ran to welcome his returning son. You think you are worthy to be called his son; but that very thought is proof that you are not. You must humble yourself just like the Prodigal whose sins are less respectable but not by that more sinful if you want to be saved.
Most of us, I take it, are Prodigals who know it and have already returned. We can praise God for his indescribable love with a whole heart that knows whereof it speaks. But we must beware of coming to take our acceptance by the Father for granted so that we subtly begin to turn into Older Brothers. The holier than thou are the most damaging people to the cause of Christ on this earth. Let us never forget who we are: people not worthy to be called sons (or even servants) who are being treated to the fatted calf; beggars telling other beggars where we found bread.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams