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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Behold the fatherly heart of God!
Text:Luke 15:11-32 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Amazing Grace

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 97:1-4

Psalm 97:5 (after the law)

Psalm 23

Hymn 72

Psalm 147:1,4,6

Scripture reading: Luke 15:1-10

Text:  Luke 15:11-32

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus,

In our text for this morning we encounter a dysfunctional family.  It vividly displays the messiness of a world vandalized by sin.  At the same time, it also points us to the gracious God who provides a way out and a way forward. 

It’s probably the most well-known parable.  You probably know it as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Contrary to what many think,“prodigal” does not mean “lost.”  Rather it means extravagant or wasteful.  So it’s the parable of the son who blew his inheritance on wasteful living.   That son was lost, so that element is there.  But we need to recognize that there’s actually more than one lost son in this parable.  And we also need to account for the fact that this parable is also here to teach us something about God.  There’s something here about us, about the two brothers, but the most important element in this parable is the father. 

Therefore this morning, I’ve summarized our text with this theme:

Behold the fatherly heart of God!

We’ll consider how Jesus reveals it in:

  1. The request of the younger lost son
  2. The riotous living of the younger lost son
  3. The return of the younger lost son
  4. The reaction of the older lost son

After telling two parables about things that had been lost (a sheep and a coin), our Lord Jesus proceeded to tell one more and this was the one to bring it all home.  He began by saying, “There was a man with two sons.”  Perhaps a Jewish audience would hear that and immediately think of a well-known man from the Old Testament who had two sons.  There was Isaac with Jacob and Esau.  But what follows departs from that story in some significant ways.  For instance, Jacob tricked Isaac into giving him the birthright, the share due to Esau.  The younger son of Jesus’ story comes and demands his share of the estate from his father.    At any rate, the father in Jesus’ story acquiesces and divides his property between his two sons. 

This is the first scene in the parable and we need to pause here for a moment and reflect on it.  It was unusual for a son to request the inheritance before his father even died.  In fact, it would be insulting to make such a request.  It’d be like saying, “Dad, you’ve lived too long and I don’t know how much longer you’re going to live.  I wish you would die more quickly, but if you plan on sticking around, please give me my inheritance right now.”  Obviously, the son valued his father’s wealth more than he valued his father.  When children value their parents’ goods and money more than they value their parents, that’s a disturbing reflection of the sinfulness of a dysfunctional and broken world.

But loved ones, then look at what the father does in this parable.  The father could have said, “Sorry, son, you’re going to have to wait for my funeral.  And right now you’re going to start loving me for me.”  Instead, the father lets the son have his way.  He realizes that he can’t force his son to love him.  The best thing to do is to grant his request and see what happens.  We have to be careful that we don’t read too much into all the details of this parable.  But what we do see here is a picture of God in his wisdom.  We may desire things that aren’t good for us.  In his wisdom, God may give them to us and let us go our way.  He does that so that in due time we’ll lose our taste for sin and return to him.

This younger son gets his share of the inheritance and not long after he severs the relationship with his father completely by going off to a far country.  “Enough of living with Dad!  I’m going to go off and do my own thing and live life by my terms and do what’s right in my own eyes!”  That’s exactly what he did.  In that far away country, he blew it all.  He spent his money on wild, riotous living.  Later on in the parable, the older brother mentions spending all the money on prostitutes.  It’s quite likely that this riotous, debauched lifestyle included sexual immorality.  Here was this child of the covenant living among the Gentiles like a Gentile.  God had said, “Be holy, as I am holy.”  And yet he says, “Whatever.  Forget that!” 

He spent everything on this immoral lifestyle and then suddenly a famine hit.  From a biblical perspective, it’s important to understand that famines just don’t happen by chance.  In the Old Testament, in the end of Deuteronomy, God promised that famines would be his rod to chastise and discipline his covenant people.  Famines come to wake people up.  This famine in Jesus’ parable comes only after everything has been spent on an immoral life.  Nothing is left.  The famine causes this formerly wealthy young man to plunge into desperate poverty.  He thought he was rich and nobody could stop him.

His next step was to force himself on a local farmer.  The farmer gave him one of the least desirable jobs, tending the pigs.  A Jewish audience would be revolted.  Pigs are unclean animals according to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament.  Jews couldn’t have anything to do with them.  But now here’s this younger son in the pig sty, with the pigs.  And he sees the pods the pigs are eating and he craves them.  Those pods would likely have been the seed cases of carob or locust trees.  There’s not a lot of nutrition in them.  It was food for the animals, and food for desperately poor people.  In fact there was an old rabbinic saying that “When the Israelites are reduced to eating carob pods, then they repent.”  That’s the food that the younger son wanted at that moment, but there was nothing.  There was no one to feed him.

That line at the end of verse 16 makes us think.  The younger son is all by himself.  Totally lost, starving, possibly on the road to death.  He has no one.  His father isn’t there.  His father didn’t come looking for him, but let him go down this road to find out for himself that the proverb is true:  “the way of the unfaithful is hard” (Prov. 13:15).  And that “harsh discipline is for him who forsakes the way, and he who hates correction will die” (Prov. 15:10).   His father has abandoned him so he’d learn by hard experience, that he’d learn from his foolishness. 

And from what we read and hear in verse 17, it works.  He’s brought to his senses and he’s thinking straight again.  He thinks about his father’s hired day labourers.  They’re the lowest of the men who’d be working for his father.  They only work on a day-by-day basis, but yet his father would still provide adequate food for them.  Meanwhile, he thinks, “Here I am in this far off country in the pig sty, starving to death!  What am I doing?”  Then he comes up with a plan.  He’s going to go back and humble himself before his father.  He’ll acknowledge his sin against his father and against God.  He’ll make it clear that he realizes that he’s not worthy to be a son in that family.  He’ll just ask to be made like one of the day labourers.  At least that way he’ll have enough food and won’t starve to death.  He knows what he needs and knows where to get it.  He knows something of his father’s generosity – the thought doesn’t enter his mind that likely his father will send him away in anger.  He knows his father isn’t like that.  If he comes in confession and humility, making no excuses, his father will probably accept him.  That’s the way his father is.  Loved ones, that’s the way our God is.  It’s not just a probability, but a certainty that when we approach God in humility and with an acknowledgement of our sins and weaknesses, he’ll never turn us away.  When we come depending on his mercy in Christ alone, we can be sure God’s fatherly heart will be turned towards us.

The younger son made his plan and then he began to carry through on it.  He got up out of the pigsty and travelled the long distance to his father, believing his father would at least receive him as a hired servant.  The lost younger son is returning.  His father sees him from a distance and his heart melts with joy for his son.  This joy can’t be restrained by proper decency and cultural expectations.  No one expects a man of this stature to run for anything, but for his son he runs.  Why does he run?  Because he loves his son.  He runs all the way out to meet his dearly loved son and gives him a big hug and kisses him.  This is the day he’s been waiting for.  This is the day all his hopes and expectations for that younger son have come to fruition.

Before a word can be spoken, the son begins to say what he had planned, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son...”  He doesn’t blame anybody but himself.  But before he can continue, his father is already giving directions to the servants.  “The confession is appropriate, but forget about not being my son!   I won’t hear anything about that.  Servants:  get to work!  We have a party to start.  Bring my robe, you know, the best one, and get out the ring and put sandals on this man’s feet.  Get the fatted calf, you know the one that we save for the most special occasions and kill it and get the barbeque going.  It’s time to celebrate!  I thought my son was dead and now he’s here, alive!  He was lost, but now he’s found!”  And so the celebration started, an unparalleled celebration. 

What does this picture?  To answer that we have to go back to the beginning of chapter 15.  Jesus was associating with the tax collectors.  They were the lowest of the low in that culture.  You know how people often regard the people who give out parking tickets.  Now imagine such a person employed by an oppressive foreign regime.  That’s how tax collectors were regarded in the Palestine of Jesus’ day.  Then there were the “sinners,” people who didn’t rigorously follow the Old Testament ceremonial laws and all the extras that had been added by the Pharisees and other rabbis.  They were the “non-religious” Jews.  They didn’t measure up to the expectations of the Jewish religious leaders.  Jesus was hanging out with the losers.  He welcomed them and then even went one step further.  He took the radical step of eating with them.  You just don’t do that when you’re a respectable rabbi.  Respectable rabbis associate with respectable religious people who are measuring up and doing everything according to the book. 

Jesus was feasting with the sinners.  When they come to him, he welcomes them and celebrates.  With this parable, he’s saying that this is the way of the Father in heaven.  Jesus portrays it to them not only with his actions, but also with his teaching.  It doesn’t matter what they’ve done, it doesn’t matter how long they’ve been gone, it doesn’t matter how much of the pig sty is still sticking to them, the Father rejoices when sinners come to him in repentance and humility.  When sinners come looking for his mercy, begging for just some small scraps, he goes all out and gives them everything and celebrates.  Loved ones, this parable powerfully portrays to us how God receives the penitent and broken-hearted.  He doesn’t turn them away, but receives them in grace.  His fatherly heart turns towards them and welcomes them with joy.  He gives them the best robe, the ring, the sandals, the fatted calf and everything.

You see, God is always gracious and merciful to the repentant.  Repenting means turning from our sin and turning to God, throwing ourselves on his mercy.  It means sorrow for our sin, sorrow for what our sin has done to our relationship with God and with others.  Repentance means humility and calling out to God, “I am not worthy to be your son.”  Taking full responsibility for our sin, making no excuses, blaming no one but ourselves.  Loved ones, that constantly needs to be our attitude before God.  And God’s fatherly heart will always welcome those who have that attitude.  Whatever it is that we’ve done, we can be forgiven and find grace.  More than that, through Christ and what he’s done for us, we’re received in God’s family with rejoicing.  Your sins are never too much, it’s never too late.  God’s grace is wide enough to include you.  You don’t deserve the fatted calf and the big party, you deserve the opposite.  That’s true.  But this is about grace, about receiving the opposite of what you deserve.  In his grace, God celebrates over us now and gives us the promise of a feast that will never wane or lose any of its joy.          

Jesus could’ve left the parable at this point.  He could’ve stopped right there and a good point would’ve been made.  But there was still that second son, the older one.  He was introduced at the beginning but we haven’t heard anything about him yet.  He was out in the field.  In other words, he was about his father’s business with diligence.  He came in and heard the music and the dancing.  There was a band playing and it sounded like a big party taking place at his dad’s house.  There was no party planned.  But something must have caused it.  So he asked one of the young servants about it.  He gets told about the return of his younger brother and his father’s reaction to the safe return. 

His father reacted with joy, overwhelming joy.  It was the best day of his life.  But then notice how the older son reacts:  he fumed.  He refused to go in to the party, preferring to stay outside and pout.  Notice the reversal here.  The younger son severed the relationship with his father, and went to a far country.  He was the outsider.  Now he’s come back in repentance and humility and he’s on the inside with the celebration.  The older son had been there all along on the inside, enjoying life in his father’s house.  But now that the younger son has returned, the older son is on the outside.  You could even say that he’s the one who’s lost at this point.  Outside the family home, outside the family almost.  He angrily refuses to participate in the celebration of joy over his younger brother.

He wouldn’t go in.  When word of that reaches the father, the father goes after this lost son.  The father takes the initiative to try and persuade him.  Now if this older son were really the obedient son he thinks himself to be, what would he do at this moment?  He’d say, “Yes dad, you’re right.  I’m way out in left field on this one.  I repent of my anger and jealousy.”  But that’s not what we hear from him. 

Instead, we hear a pouty, whiny, resentful answer.  He calls attention to his years of serving for his father.  He was a good, solid, law-keeping son.  He didn’t do that law-keeping with joy or out of love -- serving has the connotation of begrudging obedience.  But the important thing for him is that he did it.  He was the obedient son, not like his loser brother.  And what did he get for all his years of keeping it together, trying to measure up for his father?  Squat.  Nothing.  His father didn’t even give him a goat for a party with his friends.  And then his brother gets the fatted calf?  A goat compared to a fatted calf is something like hamburgers versus filet mignon.  The goat is worth far less.  The fatted calf was the crème de la crème of banquet food.  But the older brother didn’t even get the goat.  And then there’s the younger brother.  He speaks of him with contempt, “This son of yours...”  “When he comes after living a wild life with prostitutes, then you reward him with a fatted calf.”  His words are dripping with disdain.

The older son’s problem is that it just isn’t fair.  It’s not right.  There’s no justice in this.  If you even take him back, this younger son should be sent to his room and grounded forever.  He doesn’t deserve a party – I’m the one who deserves the party.  Look at all my obedience and law-keeping, looking at all the ways I’ve always had my ducks in a row for you.  For what!?  I want justice.  I want what is right.  I want that son of yours out.  He doesn’t deserve any of this.

Who does the older son picture?  In the first place it’s obviously the Pharisees and other religious leaders who begrudge Jesus for eating with the sinners and tax collectors.  In their thinking, God would never eat with those losers.  Jesus eats with them, therefore obviously he isn’t God.  Jesus rebukes their false understanding of what God is like, their degodding of God.  They’ve remade God to fit their own ideas.  Their God is a God who never shows mercy and who only gives parties for the deserving.  Their God only has grace for the people who meet him half way or further. 

But loved ones, the older brother still lives today.  Sometimes he lives among us too.  He lives among us when we begin to think our obedience to God is the hinge on which our salvation turns.  The older brother lives among us when we begin to think our law-keeping is the key to unlocking salvation and eternal life.  He lives among us when we begin to think salvation is found in any other way than by humbly coming to God through Jesus Christ.  The older brother lives when we look down our noses at the people who don’t measure up with their behaviour, especially with the extra expectations that we’ve created and impose on other people.  The older brother lives when we are impatient with other believers whom we may perceive to be less mature than ourselves.  In short, the older brother lives when whenever we get up on our self-righteous high horse.  We can easily see it in the Pharisees, but the older brother syndrome is an ever-present danger in our lives too.  The key to combating it is to realize that everything in our salvation from first to last is of grace.  The very definition of grace excludes our works.  We’re rich in Christ and through the gospel, despite what we’ve done, not because of what we’ve done.  That’s what grace is about. 

Grace is also what we see with the father in the concluding scene of this parable.  The father’s response is gentle and patient.  He doesn’t give the elder son what he deserves either.  He deserved a firm rebuke and a swift kick in the pants.  But he gets loving words meant to point him in the right direction.  He calls him, “My son,” he doesn’t cast him off.  And he says he has a place in his house and a right to the family inheritance.  Even though in his attitude he has sinned, he still belongs.  But when it comes to the younger brother, it was necessary to celebrate and to throw a party.  That was the right thing to do.  This brother had been dead and had come back to life.  He was lost and is found.  The right thing to do is to have joy and to celebrate at that!

The elder brother’s failure points us to another elder brother.  Christ is everything the older brother in the parable should be.  He’s the elder brother who does go into the Father’s house and who rejoices over that which is lost.  Jesus has faithfully followed God’s will in this regard too, and his righteousness in this is credited to all who believe in him.    

Loved ones, notice how the parable doesn’t have a conclusion.  Jesus doesn’t tell us whether or not the elder brother repented and went into the party.  There’s a missing conclusion.  The conclusion is to be supplied by the listeners.  Ending like this, the Lord Jesus is putting the question to the Pharisees and religious leaders:  are you going to join the party and rejoice over that which was dead and lost?  Are you going to be like your Father in heaven and celebrate grace and mercy?  Are you going to follow me? 

Those same questions are posed to us as well.  Will we abandon all our insistence on divine justice even for repentant law breakers?  Will we see the log in our own eyes, our own ugly disobedience, and keep on returning to the Father?  If you were in the elder brother’s shoes, would you go inside?  Would you join the Father and go inside?  And when you consider our Jesus as the faithful elder brother, and as you think about your union with him through the Spirit, what does that do to how you answer these questions? 

Someone once described this parable as the gospel inside the gospel.  It’s a powerful portrayal of the grace of God for younger brothers and older brothers.  In relation to our perfect, holy Father, we all have dysfunction.  We’ve sinned.  We’re not worthy to be called his sons, those destined to receive his inheritance.  But the gospel promises we have a Father who’ll lavish us with the greatest riches imaginable, despite our journeys to the far country.  The gospel promises we have a Father who invites us to celebrate with him, despite our flirtations with the elder brother syndrome.  The gospel promises a Saviour who is a faithful Son – and his faithfulness is ours.  Truly, we have a God with a kind, fatherly heart who is rich and extravagant with all his children.  He is our God, your God and his fatherly heart is inclined towards you too.  The gospel promises that.  AMEN.          


Our heavenly Father,

We have sinned against you.  We are not worthy to be called your sons.  More than we care to admit, we have journeyed to a far country and have wasted our lives, wasted your gifts, ending up in the pig sty.  We’ve had the spirit of the elder brother too, being consumed in self-righteousness, looking down our noses at the sinners and tax collectors.  Father, we repent of all our sins and turn to you in humility.  We lay ourselves at your mercy.  We trust your promises that you will receive us in grace in Christ.  We trust that even though we do not deserve even to be the least of your servants, that you will throw a lavish feast for us.  Please help us with your grace to constantly embrace these promises.  Help us also, Father, to have your fatherly heart of love and patience for those around us.  Please help us with your Spirit so that we would be as forgiving and kind as you are.  Father, we thank you for the gospel and we pray that it would shape and mould our lives.  We pray that for your glory, so that you would be made much of by us and others.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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