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Author:Rev. C. Bouwman
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Congregation:Smithville Canadian Reformed Church
 Smithville, ON
Preached At:Yarrow Canadian Reformed Church
 Yarrow, BC
Title:Jesus Teaches what True Religion Is
Text:Luke 15:11-32 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 27:1,2               

Ps 97:6

Ps 116:1,7,8,9,10

Ps 31:15

Ps 103:4,5,6

Luke 15:1-32

Luke 15:32

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!


The parable recorded in Luke 15:11-32 one of the best known and most loved of all Jesus’ parables.  At the same time it’s perhaps also one of the least understood.  We understand this parable to be about the ‘prodigal son’, the younger of two who squandered his father’s wealth in loose living.  Just how common that understanding is becomes evident from the fact that our Bibles entitle this story as “the Parable of the Lost Son.”  The problem with that understanding, though, is that in point of fact there are two sons in the story.  If the parable is about the lostness of the younger son, how does the older fit in?  So there are those who say that the parable is actually about the lostness of two sons.  And that’s indeed an improvement.  Yet trying to do justice to what the parable says about the second son raises another question, and that’s this: are the two boys in fact the main characters of this parable?  How central is the father to this story?  It turns out that the father is indeed the central, unifying character of this parable.  And that in turn, of course, affects the interpretation….  For: who is the father?  For that matter, who are the sons? 

It turns out that Jesus Christ is instructing the teachers of Israel about the essentials of the Christian faith.  These teachers claim to know God, but in point of fact they don’t.

I summarize the sermon with this theme:


1.       Jesus corrects their understanding of who God is,

2.       Jesus corrects their understanding of what sin is,

3.       Jesus corrects their understanding of what repentance is.

1.  Jesus corrects their understanding of who God is,

The parable Jesus tells of the father and his two lost sons concludes with the father’s words in our text to the older brother, “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”  The phrase ‘we had to celebrate’ reflects a specific Greek term that catches the notion of necessity, and then specifically the necessity of God’s decree.  That raises the question: what was there about God’s decree that demanded a celebration at the return of the younger son?  And why is this told to the older son?

Our Lord Jesus Christ was travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem (see 9:51; 14:25) to be crucified and killed.  Yet Jesus knew that death would not be the end of His journey, for He would arise from the dead (9:22), be taken into heaven (9:31), and one day return in glory (9:26).  As Jesus travelled the road to the cross with its suffering and its eventual glory, He told the people He met about His life’s task and so about the work of God through Him to restore sinners to Himself.  His words reverberated among His hearers so that –says Luke 15:1– “the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear Him.”  It’s something we appreciate: people lost in sin wanted to hear the Saviour’s words of redemption.

It turns out that there was another part of God’s people Israel who were not impressed.  That’s Luke 15:2: “But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”  Their thinking was: our God told us to stay clear of sin and anything to do with sin.  These tax collectors are sinners (for they collect taxes for the unclean Romans) and the ‘sinners’ are obviously sinners too (in all likelihood they were promiscuous in their lifestyle, eg, prostitutes), and so it’s not fitting for a child of God to rub shoulders with them, let alone eat with them.  Such distance, they were convinced, was the will of God, for God Himself will have nothing to do with the unclean….  Yet Jesus would “eat with” tax collectors and ‘sinners’, and that’s to say that He shows solidarity with them – no, that cannot be pleasing to holy God.  Hence the “muttering” on their part.  And the muttering, we understand, was more than simply muttering, for these Pharisees and teachers will have used their position to tell others that the Teacher of Nazareth fell short of God’s standards.

In reply, says vs 3, Jesus told a parable.  We recognize three parables in the Lord’s words that follow, that of the Lost Sheep, of the Lost Coin, and of the father with the Lost Sons.  But the three are all of one piece, and all respond to the Pharisees’ muttering about Jesus’ relation with the lost of Israel’s society; hence the singular word ‘parable’ in vs 3.  All three end with a celebration, be it because the lost sheep was found (15:6), be it because a lost coin was found (vs 9), be it because a lost son was found (vs 23).  With the first two Jesus explains why the celebration was in place, for He says in vs 7 that there’s rejoicing in heaven –and don’t forget that Jesus was en route to heaven!– over one sinner who repents, and He repeats the point in vs 10: “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  Notice how Jesus lays a link between behaviour in heaven (where He’s going) and events in His story.  The inference is clear: if heaven rejoices at a particular event, how fitting it is that people on earth rejoice at the same event!

Well now, there’s the force of the necessity of our text.  Jesus has the father of the parable say that “we had to celebrate and be glad,” and the reason for the have to is that this is the pattern of heaven.  And precisely this is what the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were denying.  They could not fathom that God might rejoice that sinners come to Jesus.  That didn’t fit their understanding of what true religion was all about.


What, then, was Jesus’ parable about the Father with the two Sons about?  Jesus relates that the younger son approached his father with the request for his inheritance.  As the older son traditionally received a double portion, this would amount to one third of his father’s possessions.  Some commentators tell us that sons did not receive their inheritance until the father had died, and so this younger son was actually wishing his father dead.  Be that as it may, it’s clear that this younger brother was more interested in his father’s things than he was in his father himself.

For reasons Jesus does not explain, the father of the story granted the lad’s request.  That’s vs 12: “So he divided his property between them.”  To be clear: according to the Greek the father did not divide “his property” but “his life”, and then the point is that the father gave up his own security to satisfy the demands of his son.  Though older age appreciates the padding of a nest egg, this father gave up this safety net to satisfy the selfish demands of his younger boy.  It’s not a nice picture.  We recognize in the demands of the younger son the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19).

With his portion of his father’s livelihood in his pocket, the younger son went off to live it up in a distant land.  We see it before our eyes: the lad pursued his own road to happiness as he set off on his self-chosen road of self-discovery.  Do your own thing, as long as it makes you happy: here was youth at its best – or perhaps at its worst.  Life is about me.

But in time the lad was confronted with the bankruptcy of selfishness.  “He began to be in need,” and so took on a job of feeding pigs.  Pigs, we need to know, was an unclean animal to the people of Israel and so to find employment with feeding pigs was to be absolutely at the bottom of the barrel.  Yet even there this young lad couldn’t satisfy his hunger.

A rumbling stomach has a way of focusing the mind.  “He came to his senses,” says vs 17, recognized the poverty and foolishness of his selfish manner of living, and decided to return to his father’s home.  He prepared a speech to recite to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.”  Having thought it all out, he set off home.

It turns out that his father spotted him while he was still a long way off.  “Filled with compassion for him,” Jesus relates, “he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (vs 20).  Commentators tell us that men of those days did not run in public; it would involve hoisting up a long robe and holding it up while you ran – awkward and embarrassing.  What’s clear to us is that this father is more than anxious to receive his son back.  And that comes out starkly in what happens next.  The son, we need to remember, has a speech rehearsed in his mind for his Dad; “Father,” he’s going to say, “I have sinned against…,” but he doesn’t get a chance to make amends until after the father has embraced him and kissed him – and those actions, we need to understand, signify that the Father accepts the lad back unconditionally.  He is, after all, his son.  It’s a detail we need to come back to momentarily.

Then, yes, the lad gets a chance to say his speech.  “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  Then we’d expect Jesus to have the father pause, look his son in the eye, and weigh up whether his son’s words of remorse are sincere or actually selfishly motivated by the rumbling of his stomach.  But that doesn’t happen either.  Instead, Jesus has the father turn to some servants over yonder, and issue this instruction: “Quick!  Bring the best robe and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the fattened calf and kill it.  Let’s have a feast and celebrate.”  There’s no room for dilly-dallying, no need now to speak about motive; it’s enough that the young lad is back, for “he was lost and is found,” and so it’s time to celebrate – just as in the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin.

Meanwhile, as the party is being prepared, the older son, heir to everything the father still has, is in the field (just as the younger son used to be in the field, vs 15).  The older son asked what the music was about, and was told, “Your brother has come, and your father his killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound” (vs 27).  The older brother’s reaction was anger, so that he refused to go in to join the celebration.  That celebration, we should note, involved not just the father and younger son, but the father’s servants and (undoubtedly) the locals.  The point: the older son’s pouting was a public rebuke of his father’s behaviour, and so embarrassing for the father.  And this wasn’t the first time the father was embarrassed; the request of the younger son to divide the inheritance and then his marching off with his father’s livelihood in his pocket was already embarrassing for the father – he lost a son.  But now there’s a second son that disowns him!

But here’s now the thing: observe how the father responds.  Vs 28: “so his father went out and pleaded with him.”  Though he’s father and so allowed to demand obedience, he’ll be the least and do the pleading.  The answer of the son?  “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”  And we say: he’s got a point….  Isn’t the father too fast in partying?  Shouldn’t the son at a minimum earn his spurs at home again??

The father won’t take this reply.  Why not?  Everything I have left is yours…, so I don’t have to give you a goat to party; it’s yours already.  But more: “we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother so yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”  Son, in the circumstances there is divine necessity for this celebration!


Now then, back to our question: Why is there divine necessity in celebrating at the younger son’s return?  Simple: that is the pattern of heaven!  That’s the force of Jesus’ words in vs 7, “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent,” and in vs 10, “there is more rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  That the “lost” are “found” prompts celebration in heaven.

Question: why might the finding of the lost on earth prompt celebration among the angels of God in heaven?  That, congregation, can only be because God Himself delights in the return of any of His erring children.  Recall the words of Ezekiel to the people of Israel in exile: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord.  Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (18:23).  That they would turn, that they come back: it gives the Lord God delight!  (See also Hosea 11:8; Zephaniah 3:17)

If the angels of heaven, now, follow the example of God at the return of a sinner, shall Jesus on earth do any less?  Recall, He’s en route to heaven!  And what is God putting on His path as He travels to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the resurrection, to His ascension?  Why, God puts on His path “tax collectors and ‘sinners’” who want “to hear Him”!  No wonder Jesus eats with them; His eating with them is a reflection of the celebration happening in heaven as these sinners seek the Saviour.

But why, then, shall the Pharisees and the teachers of the law mutter at Jesus’ eating with the sinners?  Their muttering does not conform to what’s happening in heaven, and it doesn’t conform because the Pharisees and teachers of the law do not know God!  They say: the tax collectors and sinners aren’t acting the way we act, and so God can’t be happy with them.  With His parable Jesus corrects their understanding of who God is, and makes clear that holy God is delighted at the fact that these tax collectors and ‘sinners’ want to hear Jesus’ words.  Let it be true that the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ are like the younger son and squandered their inheritance in the covenant through their loose living (see vs 30).  But now they’re coming home, they’re seeking out the Father as He has revealed Himself through the Son, and the very fact that they’ve found the Son gives joy in heaven; God delights and the angels with Him do too.  Hence the words of our text to the older brother, and in him to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who muttered against Jesus, “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours” –those tax collectors and ‘sinners’ who want to hear Jesus– “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

So there’s the question for you, beloved: who do you think God is?  Is He really happy with a sinner who returns, so much so that He’ll embrace sinners even when they’re not as good Christians as the Pharisees would like, so much that He’ll have His angels break out into celebration?  Or would you have all returning sinners become like the Pharisees before God could be happy with them – straight and stolid in the faith, knowing their Bibles, up on religion?

It brings us to our second point:

2.  Jesus corrects their understanding of what sin is

For: what did the Pharisees and the teachers of the law think sin was?  Why, that’s easy: sin was doing things like prostitution, loose living – as some of the people of vs 1 were doing.  Sin was to be a tax collector for the Romans, and so help the enemy oppress God’s elect; how dare they!  Sin: that’s the attitude of the younger brother, wanting his father’s goods more than he wanted his father, spending it all in carefree living for the here and now, living it up today without a care for tomorrow, heading off to the far-off land of the heathens to satisfy the lusts of the flesh – that’s sin. 

The Pharisees and teachers of the law, of course, were correct that what the younger brother did was sin – which is why the younger brother was lost, lost in his badness.  But these same Pharisees and teachers had it fixed in their minds that they were themselves above such behaviour and such sinfulness; that’s why they muttered when Jesus ate with the tax collectors and the sinners instead of eating with such upright and outstanding people as themselves….

Here, brothers and sisters, the Lord Jesus Christ set out to correct their understanding of what sin is.  It is true that the younger brother lived in sin, and was lost without repentance.  But Jesus doesn’t stop the parable after telling about the younger son; He continues to relate also about the older son, a son who was equally lost in sin.  This older brother had for years done all the right things, working hard for his father, keeping his nose clean of disreputable reputation, being reliable and trustworthy, etc.  Sin with him?  Anything to repent of?  As easy as we find it to make a list of sins for which the younger brother must repent, so hard we find it to make a list for which the older brother must repent of.  He was son to be proud of, one the Father in heaven must be pleased to call His own….  Like the Pharisees and the teachers of the law: above reproach….

But consider this, congregation.  The younger brother comes home, the father welcomes him eagerly…, and the older pouts, refuses to be grateful for the return of the lost….  Why is that?  It’s because, congregation, there is no love with the older brother, no love for the neighbour.  This chap goes through the motions of being son (for he works hard for his father and looks well after the property he will inherit), but he is untouched by the grief of the father’s heart at his brother’s lostness and untouched too by the joy of the father’s heart when the lost brother returns.  This older brother was as selfish as the younger, but he expressed his selfishness in a totally different way.  The selfishness of the younger brother expressed itself through his living it up for the here and now, while the selfishness of the older brother expressed itself through his hard work to build up the estate he’d inherit.  Israel’s established society in Jesus’ day condemned being a tax collector and a ‘sinner’ (and that’s a prostitute), but condoned being a Pharisee and a teacher of the law – people with the reputation of obeying all God’s commands.  But Jesus, beloved, condemns both brothers –and so both groups whom they represent, tax collectors and sinners as well as Pharisees and teachers of the law– as lost in sin.  One can be lost in badness, but one can equally be lost in goodness – if you assume that your goodness will get you points with God.  And that was the case with the Pharisees and the teachers.

In heaven there’s rejoicing when a sinner repents, and that’s to say that God delights in the return of a child of His, even if there is still so much need and room for growth.  The father in the parable represents this mindset from God, longing for repentance with His children, eager to see the first signs of repentance, ready to celebrate when repentance appears.  The younger brother in the parable represents the tax collectors and sinners who were hungry to hear the words of the man travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem, from earth to heaven – and that hunger to hear indicated the beginnings of repentance from sin; here were covenant children of Israel returning to their God as He appeared in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  And heaven rejoiced to see this return!  The older brother in the parable represents the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, self-righteous Israelites who thought they were serving their God just right through their careful obedience to the law – but their heart was out of step with the heart of the Father.  They did not share the joy in the Father’s heart that sinners were returning, and so could not feel His pain when His children departed from His ways.  They did not know what sin actually was; they defined it simply as an absence of outward disobedience – and so it was easy for them to condemn the tax collectors and their friends as obvious sinners-who-needed-to-repent.  But that sin was a question of the heart, and involved being out of step with the heavenly Father’s feelings toward the lost sheep of Israel, that it involved love for God and neighbour, never crossed their minds. 

Here’s a lesson for us.  Who of us is a sinner?  Is it just yonder person who spends his Friday night in the bar, visits the night clubs, comes home too drunk to recall where he’d been?  Or might it be that I, who give of my time and energy to build up the kingdom of God, am just as lost as he – because I rely on my goodness to impress God?  Remember: in the parable it’s the son lost in his badness that ends up being found and saved, while the son lost in his goodness … remains lost….

That leaves our last point:

3.  Jesus corrects their understanding of what repentance is

In the misery of his lostness, the younger brother decided to come home.  He had a speech prepared for his father in an effort to at least find a place on a forgotten corner of his father’s estate; maybe he could become a servant and slowly earn his way back into his father’s favour.  But his father, you recall, didn’t wait to hear the speech.  He saw the lad coming, ran to meet him, embraced him spontaneously, ordered new clothes and a party.  We realize: this welcome from the father prompted the repentance of the lost son to bud into full flower.  That kind of reception on the father’s part leaves no appetite for loose living, but brings the son happily back into the old rules of the family home.

Here was a lesson for the Pharisees and the teachers of the law to learn.  They weren’t about to receive tax collectors and sinners unless they became what the Pharisees and the scribes already were, and that’s to say that they weren’t going to receive them unless and until those sinners became as righteous and as pious and as up on religion as they themselves were.  But Jesus taught them the better way; they should encourage further repentance on the part of the tax collectors and sinners who gathered around Jesus by receiving them instead of condemning them – rejoicing, if you will, as heaven rejoices.

There’s more.  It was obvious that the younger son had particular sins from which he had to repent.  And it will be true that the tax collectors and sinners had particular sins from which they had to repent.  But what about the older brother?  What about the Pharisees and the teachers?  Was there place and need for them to repent?  The answer, of course, is Yes.  For it is necessary, brothers and sisters, to repent of more than a long list of obvious wrongs as per the younger brother.  It is necessary for good people also to repent, to repent on their reliance on their goodness.  That is: one can do the right thing for the wrong reason, that is, one can obey the law of God in order to obtain or to maintain the favour of God or people.  But that is as selfish as living it up for personal pleasure in the here and now.  In the both cases the motive is wrong; in both cases the motive is selfish.

This is what repentance looks like, for Pharisees and tax collectors, for the older son and the younger son alike: both need to get themselves out of the centre of their existence, and put the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the centre.  He emptied Himself for the redemption of the unworthy, to the point of sending His only Son out of the glory of heaven to the shame of the cross.  This Son obediently left the Father’s heavenly house, not to live it up on earth, nor to obey for the sake of His own skin – both of which would make His sacrifice futile because of a faulty motive.  Rather, He willingly went to the cross, in total self-denial, so that unworthy sinners might receive forgiveness of sins.  Here is the perfect expression of self-emptying and so of service to the neighbour – and He did so because He was in step with the heart of the heavenly Father for His lost children on earth.  En route to the cross He told His parable of the Father and his two Lost Sons in the hearing of Pharisees and teachers as well as tax collectors and sinners, in the hearing of people lost because of their badness as well as people lost because of their goodness.  Then He continued on His way to Calvary, fully in step with the desires of His Father’s heart.  On the cross He paid for sin, reconciled sinners to God, triumphed – then died, arose, and ascended to the presence of God, where heaven received Him with great joy.  And there He rejoices with the angels of heaven when on earth a sinner repents….


What, then, shall we do?  We don’t tend to associate ourselves with the prodigal son, because we don’t live it up the way he did; we’re more like the son who stayed at home, for we go faithfully to church and in our daily lives we strive to further the Father’s kingdom we’re looking to inherit. 

Tell me, then: did the older brother in the parable join the party his father threw at the return of the younger son?  Jesus doesn’t tell us, because it’s a question each of us has to answer for ourselves.  And we can’t answer unless we repent from our sins, sins not just of loose living but also sin of self-righteousness.

You see, the lost can be saved only by laying their damning badness at Jesus’ feet.  And by laying their deadly goodness at His feet also.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2009, Rev. C. Bouwman

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