Summary: We don’t want to take God’s forgiveness for granted. Rather, we should be blown away by God’s grace, overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude that permeates all that we are, all that we do. And we should give this grace freely to others in forgiveness.
The Prodigal God
When people make mistakes, they should be punished for them! After all, they’ve brought it on themselves! And if we don’t look out after ourselves, who will? It’s a cutthroat world out there. Every person for themselves. And truth be told, it feels good to nurse that grudge. It makes me feel superior, better than that other person.
The only problem is, Jesus calls me to a better way. The first couple of verses of Luke chapter 15 set up today’s story: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” You can hear the disdain dripping from their words. “How good can he be? After all, he hangs out with sinners!”
So to show a better way, Jesus shares a parable—an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Actually he tells three parables, one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and today’s story about a lost son.
This is hands down my favorite parable in the Bible, so much so that I used it in my dissertation. You know that one dangerous question, right? “What was your dissertation on?” You could be there for hours, maybe even days! So please forgive the three-hour sermon today!
The Parable of the Lost Son is like a play. It takes place in three acts and features three major characters: a father and his two sons. In the first act, the younger of the two boys comes to his father and says, “Dad, I’d like my share of the inheritance now, before you die.” Now back in Jesus’ time, this would be just as rude as it would be today. It’s basically saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.”
When my mother came to live with us for a year, she used to say things like, “You would be better off without me. You could have your inheritance now.” And I would patiently say, “Mom, we don’t want your money. We want you, for as long as we can have you. You are worth more to us than your money.” Well, the younger son in today’s story is saying the opposite: “Your money is worth more to me than you.”
The father gives him the money. We don’t know why. Maybe the father realizes the boy will only learn through the school of hard knocks. Anyway, the son takes the money and runs off to the far country where verse 13 says he squanders his wealth in wild living. Afterwards, there is a severe famine, and of course he has no savings to live on, so he goes to work in the most unclean place for a Jew: a pig farm. He gets so hungry that he starts daydreaming of eating the pigs’ food. In AA language he has hit rock bottom.
Verse 17 is the pivotal point for the son as he “comes to his senses.” He realizes his father’s hired hands live better than him. So he prepares a speech to humble himself before his father and request employment, knowing he is no longer worthy to be considered his father’s son.
Act Two begins with the father scanning the horizon for his lost son. The scripture doesn’t actually say this, but it implies it. In verse 20 the father sees his son when he is “still a long way off.” The father, full of compassion, runs to his son. Let me tell you, this is unheard of for an ancient Jewish patriarch! Jewish fathers never run to anyone; everyone runs to them! I can just picture the townspeople marveling at the scene, not only because the father is running to his son, but because he’s running to a worthless son, a son who has made a spectacle of himself, embarrassing his father and wasting a lot of money. What a strange father this is, who puts his own reputation on the line for a worthless son!
And then even more surprising: the father doesn’t reprimand his son at all. No dressing down, no chewing out; instead, the father bear-hugs and kisses his son. The literal Greek translation says the father “throws himself on his son’s neck.”
But wait, it gets stranger! In verse 21 the son starts in on his rehearsed speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But that’s as far as he gets. The father won’t allow him to finish. Instead, Dad grabs a nearby servant and demands a robe, a ring, and sandals for his long-lost son, thus publicly restoring him to the family. Then Dad announces a huge brisket barbeque for the whole village (that’s a Texas translation). Why the fuss? He explains in verse 24, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”