There is an old story about a father who had two sons, it is a familiar family scene in many households across the land. One son was a good, he had gone to University, achieved excellence in his degree then came back to run the family business – faithfully serving and never straying far from what he perceived was his father’s will. Then, there was the younger brother, the rebel, the outlier, the black sheep. You know the phrases that would be used in a discussion of his ‘failings’ when compared to the greatness of his older sibling: “He has a lot of maturing to do still,” or “He is still trying to find his direction in life.” All he needed was some good discipline, some firm love from his father, and, eventually, he fit what was expected of him. It’s not only a story that we have maybe heard before – especially if we have grown up in Church – it is a reality many draw from in terms of our own experiences and upbringings. What we are reading is a parable – an earthly story with a heavenly focus – that Jesus tells at the end of a three-part series in Luke’s Gospel. He has talked about the farmer who went out to find his missing sheep, the women who has lost one of her 10 silver coins and now the two lost brothers: One who is lost and gets found, the other who is so close yet so far.
This parable presents a profound picture of the heart of God and the joyful invitation given through the cross of Jesus Christ and is the essence of what is proclaimed in the Gospel. In each, there is rejoicing over the discovery of what was lost: a sheep and a coin. It is a picture that is further expanded at the end expect this time what is lost is not an item or an animal it is something of infinite worth – a person; made in the image of God, hence, the celebration at the end.
You’re Dead to Me (11-16)
IT iS MINE (11-12)
To fully grasp the picture of the parable presented by Christ, we need to first understand the something of the culture in which he told the story. In the modern west, the family unit is no longer the dominant social narrative – while it is important it’s not how we define ourselves, we are an individualistic society. However, back in 1st Century occupied Israel family was everything. Your bloodline was what defined you. The father was the most important figure in the family unit, the head of the household and the source of wisdom. When a son was identified in public he would have been known as “the Son of…” So we see a ridiculous conversation in verse 11, one that would have been unhearable to the audience that was listening even an audience full of tax-collectors and sinners. The disobedient son approaches his father and says to him “Give me my shares of the estate that is coming to me. What the crowd would have heard is: “Father, you are dead to me so give me what is mine right now.” Imagine yourself as a parent in the same situation and your rebellious son comes to you and says “I have been looking at the family assets and I want the 40% of the estate that will be left to me” How would you have reacted? What would you have felt? The Father did what not one of us would have done – he split his assets and gave to his son that which he asked for.
I KNOW BETTER THAT YOU (13-16)
The younger son has received his share, packed his bags and heads off. He knows what is the best direction for his life. He is a picture of the modern person; independent, strong and confident. It is with this self-confidence he sets out on his journey of self-discovery to find himself and seems to live as we expect in pursuit of his idols. As the debauchery in his life increases his material resources decrease. In one verse, Jesus paints a picture of the younger brother’s sin: He shows utter disregard to his identity by sinning against his father through the squandering of his wealth fornicating with gentiles – under the Jewish law such living would have been grounds for execution. As soon as his resources run low he needs them as the picture changes, and he can no longer live as he pleases in pursuit of his own agenda jointly because his wealth has run out, and, the equivalent of an economic depression to an agrarian society has struck – drought.
Imagine someone you know buying a one-way ticket to Las Vegas, every time you go onto a social network, it’s in your face, a new picture declaring to the world how much they are enjoying life – reminding you how pathetic your own steady existence is. Declaring to you that your experiences are nothing compared to the things he has enjoyed. Every week he seems to be living the life, travelling up and down the country, making new friends, trying out things you never knew existed. However, the frequency of the photos and self-promotion decrease and you wonder why? has he lost his phone? Is he so busy that he can’t even rub it in our face? The reality is, he is not too busy nor is he dead; he is in financial ruin and the equivalent of an economic collapse has hit him in a land where his friends – as loyal as a stray dog eating the scraps at the back door – have abandoned him. Picture the scene, a young man in a foreign land, with no skillset, no friends and no place to lay his head at night in the middle of an economic collapse, what can he do? From verse 15 we see the folly of his wisdom again as he hires himself out to feed pigs, animals that to the Jewish people where unclean and a job that would have been seen as cursed within certain Jewish groups. Not only is he feeding them, but such is the travesty of his situation, the folly of his wisdom and an emptiness in his stomach that is so rampant and consuming he is even considering eating the food of an animal he would never eat. The picture is simply, the younger son has literally reached rock bottom, Things cannot get any worse.
THERE IS A BETTER MEAL (17-21)
In verse 16, Jesus begins to paint a picture of opposites: Laying the foundations for a lightbulb moment for the man with the empty stomach. In his new reality as he ruminates eating food he has never seen before, perchance, to distract the mind from the veracities of his current predicament he starts to dream of better days. Conceivably, he remembers the parties and all the fun he had with beautiful girls; the alcohol induced never-ending nights that blurred one-to-another. Furthermore, he remembers all the friends he made and the memories they shared, yet, they lack detail. The more he remembers the quicker the colours fade and the romance dies. Desperate for some relief, he looks further back and he remembers perhaps with a fondness like never-before his childhood, time with his brother and father. Suddenly, the hunger overpowers him and he remembers with fondness those family meals where there was always food and joy and in the corner of that memory there a blurry picture of the joyful servants because too – their table was always full because they were in his father’s house. The penny that had been rolling closer and closer to the edge drops and “he eventually comes to his senses.”
ITS TIME TO TURN AROUND
It is a beautiful moment as this young man who for the majority of his existence thought he knew better, that he was capable of living without the direction or provision of his father lying in the filth and squalor of a pigsty out of boredom looks back over his life; decisions; passions; messes and slowly his entire world begins to collapse. That up until that point; while lying in muck he still held onto some sense of control, of knowing better. Then like an axe descending on a waiting log it hit him, there was a superior option- it was time to turn around. The man who had abandoned his family and nation and then been abandoned by everyone around him in conversation with himself convinces himself that there is someone who might yet have him:
“at home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you,19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’
Just as he began, so he returns. We see something of the father’s heart through the reasoning of the younger brother. In the moment, as he comes to his senses knowing the gravitas of all that he had done, of the shame that he had brought to his father and community, knowing that he had been living in sin and that he had declared his father’s death to his own face, even with all of that he knows that he still chooses to head back. With all that, he still knew that his father would forgive him. Yet, his picture of his dad’s capacity of forgiveness, compassion and love is too small – to limited: Basically, it’s to human. His view of how his father might respond when he see’s him is the same as everyone here – but this is no ordinary Father.
“I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.”
– Henry Nouwen
WHEN WE TURN BACK(REPENT) THE FATHER COMES RUNNING (20-24)
Once he comes to his sense, he starts to act on it – he gets up out of the filth he has been lying in. He decides in his head and then he acts on it – how often do we as people decide something and never follow it through – if we want to fully know the love of the father we have to make a decision and act upon it. Imagine the experience of such a journey, the thought’s that would have filled your head, as you walked back down the road you came this time without the wealth or security that was previously yours to squander. Visualise the doubts that would have filled his minds as he grew ever closer to home and the fear that would have consumed him. He knew with ever step he took there was no other place to go, there was nothing that could grant him the security he would have in the house of his father. So much tension is held in a few words: “So he got up and went to his father.” Abruptly, there is a dramatic shift in the narrative: Our minds are drawn to the Image of the father standing at some vantage point able to recognise in the distant the walk of a son he has not seen for a significant period of time. The scene that Jesus paints is so radical and shocking it would have brought gasps from the listening crowd, they were expecting judgement, anger or vengeance – how wrong they were. Firstly, we are given an insight into the heart of the father, who upon seeing a merging figure from the distant horizon he recognised to be his son the immediate all-consuming emotion Christs describes is compassion – a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering – The father looked upon the coming figure that was his son and was overcome with sympathy for him. Secondly, the father did something that was alien to his culture, something that men of standing would never do, he ran to his son. Eugene Peterson would put it ‘his heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him’ the father wanted to see his son and in one swift movement the entire focus of the parable has changed. No longer are we focused on the sins of the son, we are focused on the action of the Father, that defied every expectation of the crowd listening and the son he was running to.
“It was his home now. But it could not be his home till he had gone from it and returned to it. Now he was the Prodigal Son.”
– GK Chesteron
“The difference between mercy and grace? Mercy gave the prodigal son a second chance. Grace gave him a feast.”
– Max Lucardo
Image being the Son, who had come to his sense and started to make the journey back to the family home: The son who with every step would doubt the next and every minute try to figure out another way; the son who knew there was no other way but to head back to the loving arms of his father; the son who had preplanned his statement and would rehearse what he was going to say. Picture, as you start to pass the most recognisable of landmarks when with each step you draw closer to home and the sense of unease and fear abounds all the more. You might slow down just a little bit, more comfortable living with the tension than knowing the truth. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you sense someone coming, then you hear someone running – your mind thinks it is one of the servants or perhaps even the older brother; “what will I tell them?” Then you look up from the ground, from the safety of the unknown and you immediately recognise the hazy figure moving from the dusty horizon towards you. It takes your brain a while to trust the truth that your eyes have seen. Nonetheless, before he could say come to terms with the reality of the situation; before the dust kicked up by the father’s frantic run had settled the son was being fully embraced by the compassionate arms of the father and he felt the lips of acceptance arrive as a kiss upon him. A kiss and embrace that symbolised the complete forgiveness of everything up until that moment. Then, almost instinctively the son utters out his prepared statement and it is as if he is talking to his father’s back. The father commands the servant to: clothe him with the finest robes; put a ring on his finger; sandals on his feet; Kill the fattest calf and through a celebration. Imagery to show one thing; the son had been forgiven and accepted fully back into the family, the ring would more than likely have had a family seal on it. Showing to all that the son who had come seeking Servanthood had received Sonship. The son who had wanted to slip into the shadows of service in the house, who had declared the death of his father and was probably himself assumed dead, was now being declared alive by his father to the whole of the community. What we have is a picture of heaven, Yet, someone was missing.
For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
WHAT ABOUT ME (25-32)
As the house and the community celebrate the new life given to the younger, the older brother – who has been something of a shadow throughout the whole story – becomes the central focus and the ending. Verse 25 tells us he is out in the field seemingly unaware of all the commotion as he finishes whatever work his is doing and draws near the house he can hear the rising sounds of laughter, joy and music; he can feel the buzz and excitement in the air and probably smell the taste of the meat roasting on the fire. You can almost see his picture his disgruntled face as he wonders what all the fuss is about and why no one has informed him. Disgusted, he calls one of the servants and wants to know what all the hullabaloo is for. When he is informed that they are celebrating the return of his long-lost brother and that his father had ordered the killing of the fat calf – kept for special occasions – you can his disdain for his brother and his father. In verse 28 The elder brother’s anger boils over, he throws a huff refuses to enter the party. The compassionate father makes the same movements towards the older son heading out to meet him where he is at. He entreats him to come in, but to no avail, the older brother is having none of it and can only see his own entitlement; his own frustration; and, his own righteous. He can only compare his earned reward to the unmerited and undeserved rewards twice received by his brother– perhaps even reflecting that his brother would again be entitled to a share in the family estate. He responds to 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.”
The son says, “I have served you with no reward; I have given you everything and you have given me nothing, but him you give the world and the world over even when he makes such a fool of himself and you”. The son’s selfishness sees the fathers loving forgiveness of the lost son as an insult to the commitment he has shown. The father responds: “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.’” It is not about you, it’s about me and what I choose to do. So it ends, with the one who was lost now found, and the one who was the insider now the outsider – by his own choice – and us knowing a fuller picture of the Love God has for all.
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”
CS LEWIS – THE GREAT DIVORCE
One of the hardest things in the world is to stop being the prodigal son without turning into the elder brother.
Jesus was communicating with a crowd of people; he was drawing them to the truth that is central to the heart of God and the mission of the Church. God is passionate about that which is lost and wants to find it by whatever means necessary. In this parable, we have two main characters: the younger brother, representing the sinner and the older brother representing the Pharisees – the religious people of their day. The younger son tells his father he wants to live life his way, he squandered everything he had and when he hits rock bottom he comes to his senses and comes back seeking his father’s forgiveness – he repented. The son represents everyone whether we have grown up in the church or never set foot in it before, at one point we have all said to God “I want to do it my way” the question is: are we willing to come to our sense, get up and make the journey back into the loving arms of God and tell him to have it his way? Or are we going to keep on doing it our way? The older brother, represent a warning to all of us who think we know the father, we do not serve to be saved or to receive our reward because if we are truly with the father we will grasp ‘you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.’ If you have never accepted your offence against God and the sin in your life, then allow the Holy Spirit to work in you as you admit your sin before God and receive not just his forgiveness but his love, allow him to clothe you in robes of eternal majesty, to put sandals on your feet and a ring on your finger and allow heaven to kill the father calf as another prodigal comes home. If we think we are in a relationship with the father through the cross of Christ, then do as commanded and examine yourself. What if someone who didn’t quite fit your profile entered your church or community seeking to know more about Jesus. Would you like the father, embrace them, love them and celebrate when the entered relationship with him, or would you like the older brother to stand in the field looking it frustrated with the grace the father gives to all? The reality is the father comes to all and offers all that he has and the truth is it is up to us to decide.
 See Deut 21:18-21
 Lev. 11:7 or Deut 14:8
 Picture of repentance, heading back along the road you came
 1 Corinthians 11:28a