For Father’s Day, I began a two-part series on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, otherwise known as the Parable of the Loving Father. This sermon focuses on the more popular part of the parable: the story of the younger son, from Luke 15:11-24. Even six or seven years ago, I thought the younger son’s story was for new converts to the faith—that it didn’t “apply” to those of us who have been Christians for a while. Of course, now I see how foolish that is. In this sermon, I challenge us to think about ways in which we’re a lot like the younger son.
Sermon Text: Luke 15:1-2, 11-24
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A couple of weeks ago, this headline appeared on The Babylon Bee, that satirical Christian news website: “Father of 3 Wonders When He’ll Get Chance to Influence Others for Christ.” This fake news article continues:
Stating that he had been feeling a sense of purposelessness and melancholy for some months now, local father of three Andrew Harbaugh recently began wondering when he would ever get a chance to impact anyone for the sake of Christ, sources close to him confirmed Thursday.
Harbaugh reportedly spends his days working ten hours at a desk job and his nights talking and playing with his three children.
“I just wish God would place a few people in my life for whom I could make an eternal difference,” Harbaugh told reporters, his head in his hands. “I just don’t have time to do anything for the Kingdom of God while I provide for my family and spend time with my three boys.”
“Surely the Lord will have something important for me to do someday,” he added sadly.
You see the irony, I hope. Like Mr. Harbaugh in this article, each one of us who is a father has a God-given opportunity—a God-given responsibility—to do the most important work for God’s kingdom possible, which is this: sharing with our children the love, grace, and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ through our words and through our actions. We are to live out what it means to be a Christian.
Now, I’m not saying that these words don’t apply to equally to mothers, but since it’s Father’s Day, I’m aiming them at us fathers. Or grandfathers—because this still applies to you: The most important mission that God has given us in life right now is to do everything we can to “go and make disciples” of our children and our grandchildren. And we don’t get to outsource this holy work of discipleship to our wives alone. Being a disciple of Jesus, being involved in church, praying and reading the Bible with our children, is not women’s work! Please, fathers, for the sake of our children’s souls, let’s not shirk our responsibility! If we are to be “imitators of God,” as the apostle Paul says—and we can learn a lot about God our Father from this today’s scripture—then we ought to imitate God in his passion for bringing his children—our children—into a saving relationship with him through Christ!
Please notice that Jesus tells this parable of the Prodigal Son because of his and his Father’s passion for saving sinners. That’s why I began today’s scripture with verses 1 and 2: the context for this parable is the response of Pharisees and the scribes to the fact that Jesus is “receiving” sinners—that means receiving them into God’s kingdom; offering them God’s mercy and grace; saving sinners. And the Pharisees and scribes dislike that Jesus is “eating with” these sinners. For Jesus, sharing a meal with “sinners” symbolizes his love for them, his forgiveness of them, his acceptance of them.
More than anything, the Parable of the Prodigal Son describes the extraordinary lengths to which God our Father will go to save us sinners.
In fact, we see this in the first two verses of the parable: “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them.”
In this ancient Jewish culture, the younger son’s request is completely out of line—it’s disrespectful in the extreme; and it’s callous in its disregard for his father and his older brother. For one thing, you don’t ask for your share of the inheritance before your father is dead; it’s as if the younger son were saying, “You’re worth more to me dead than alive. I wish you were dead.”
But not only that: The father was likely middle-aged, with many years of life ahead of him. But now, because he was dividing his estate before his death, he would have a lot less wealth to live off of for the rest of his life. One-third less. Because according to Jewish law, the older son was entitled to two-thirds of the estate, and the younger son was entitled to one-third. So think about the potential harm the younger son is causing: Instead of having 100 percent of his wealth and estate to live off of for the rest of his life, the father will only have about 67 percent to live off of. What if the father and older son become victims of famine or recession or bad investments or theft? That missing 33 percent could mean the difference between life and death, health and sickness, prosperity and destitution.
And then there’s the shame, the dishonor, the disgrace that the father will have to endure because of the younger son. Everyone in the community will know what the younger son did!
This is terrible! Why on earth does the father agree to the younger son’s terms? The father could have told him no—and had his servants give him the beating that he deserves for even suggesting such a thing! That’s what most fathers would have done back then. But not this one. Why?
Because of love. Because this father loves his child—and wants to save his child—more than anything else. He loves his child more than money, or comfort, or security—or his own pride. Sure, the father could lay down the law, and punish his son, and force him to stay home—but then he would risk losing him forever. The most loving thing this father can do—as costly and personally painful as it will undoubtedly be to the father—is to give his younger son what he wants. Even though it will cause the son great suffering.
Let me make an important theological point here: I’ve read and heard more than a few preachers say that God never wants his children—or anyone else—to suffer. And when I heart that, I want to say, “What Bible are you reading? God often causes or allows his children to suffer.” Not because he’s cruel or vindictive, but because he loves us and wants to save us! We see it in this parable, right? On the other side of the disasters that befell the younger son, after he returned home and found love and mercy, I’m sure that the younger son would say, “Thank God those disasters happened to me! While I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy, I can see now how God used them for my good!” And God does the sort of thing literally all the time. He is in control!
If you are his child, there is nothing you’re going through that he isn’t using for your good and the world’s good! Even your suffering is part of God’s plan for you—and it is good!
Just yesterday, a clergy friend of mine posted the following on Facebook: “It’s always better to go to your knees in prayer before you are driven there.” To which I replied, “That’s true, but what mercy on God’s part that he’s happy to have us either way!” I find that I often fail to go to my knees when life is smooth sailing. I’m lulled into a false sense of security. I start to believe this demonic idea that I’m in control of my life; that I’m the captain of my destiny. And then God sends something my way that shows me that I’m not in charge. It’s a severe mercy for God to drive me to my knees! God loves me enough to discipline me! As the author of Hebrews says, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?”
I like the way C.S. Lewis describes God’s discipline. In the following quote, he calls it “punishment,” but we can substitute the word “discipline.” He writes:
I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments.” But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.
Maybe every one of us in here has someone we love who is currently lost—lost to God, lost to Jesus Christ, lost to us. Maybe even our own child or children… We love them and want so badly to be reconciled with them—we want so badly for them to be reconciled with God—but it’s as if they’ve rejected us and our values and run away to “a far country.” This parable reminds us that even if they’ve run away from us, they can’t run away from God. God’s not done with them! So don’t give up on them! Keep praying!
I confess that many years ago, I believed that the story of the younger son in this parable really wasn’t a story for me—not anymore. After all, I thought, I’m already a Christian. I’ve already repented and placed my faith in Christ. I’ve already been converted. I’ve already been saved. That’s what the younger son’s story is all about. Maybe the older son has something to teach us Christians—and we’ll look at his story next week—but not the younger son.
But now that I’m older, and life has beaten me up a little bit more, and I’ve even become a little wiser… I now think, “Who am I kidding? The longer I’m a Christian, the more I see how much I have in common with the younger son!”
In last week’s sermon, I talked about Roger Moore, one of my childhood heroes, who died a couple of weeks ago. Well, last week, another one of my childhood heroes died: Adam West—who was and will always be Batman to me. On Friday night, the city of Los Angeles projected the famous “bat signal” onto city hall in his honor. By all accounts, West was gracious to his fans, he was “comfortable in his own skin,” and he didn’t take his fame too seriously. But one of the crushing disappointments in his life occurred in 1989, when Tim Burton made the first of a series of new Batman movies. Adam West wanted the role of Batman—he practically defined the character; he thought he was entitled to it. But Burton didn’t even consider giving him the part.
Why? West was 60 at the time. That was considered too old. Washed up in the eyes of Hollywood. Besides, the way West played Batman—as an unambiguously good hero, un-conflicted, without a dark side—by 1989, that was considered hopelessly old-fashioned, out of date, obsolete.
Over the course of just 20 years, West had gone from being one of the biggest stars around to a nobody.
The same thing happened to the younger son. Remember that song by Styx, “Too Much Time on My Hands”: “I’ve got dozens of friends and the fun never ends/ That is as long as I’m buying.” As long as the younger son had money, he was incredibly popular. He had friends. He had women. He had glory. I’m sure he even thought he had love.
It’s an old cliché, but it’s absolutely true that we all have a God-shaped hole in our hearts. We were created to live perfect, loving relationship with God, and until we find God—or I should say, God finds us—we will desperately find things other than God to fill it up. Things that won’t last. Things that won’t satisfy us. Things that will ultimately destroy us. The world promises to give us what our heart desires, but its promises always come with strings attached. The world says—or perhaps I should say, the devil says—“I will love you if…” If you’re young; if you’re thin; if you’re physically fit; if you have a good job; if you make a lot of money; if you make good grades; if you make the team; if you’re in good health; if you have well-behaved children; if you live in the right neighborhood.
Too often—too often—I listen to that voice.
Last week, I was at Annual Conference in Athens. Our new bishop, Sue Haupert-Johnson, made her debut—and her sermons were electrifying. During the ordination service, she preached to those clergy who were about to be ordained, commissioned, or licensed. Her text was Luke 10:1-12, where Jesus commissions 72 disciples to proclaim the gospel and heal the sick in the towns around Galilee. The bishop related Jesus’ instructions to these disciples to our role as clergy.
She reflected on a verse, verse 7, which I’ve never given much thought to: “And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house.”
Do not go from house to house.
In other words, Jesus says, when the disciples come into a town, and someone offers them a place stay, they should avoid the temptation to seek more comfortable, more spacious lodging in someone else’s home, even if it’s offered to them. Stay where you are and be content, Jesus says. Don’t look for something better.
Don’t look for something better? Are you kidding me? I’m constantly looking for something better! Achieving something better is how I know I’m a valuable person. That’s how I’ll know that I’m worthy of love and acceptance. If I don’t have these objective measures of success, who’s going to be “well-pleased” with me? I mean, I can hardly enjoy Annual Conference without looking over my shoulder at what my fellow clergy have—how prestigious their appointment is; how high their church’s steeple is; what awards and recognition they’ve received. And I compare myself to them, and I’m miserable because I worry that I’m falling behind.
But do you see what I’m doing when I have those thoughts? Even though my Father has given me everything I need in his household, I long instead for that “far country.” I’m like the younger son.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
I need the gospel to heal me. And what is the gospel? It is giving us his no-strings-attached kind of love through his Son Jesus Christ.
But we can be like the younger son in another way: we can go home!
The younger son isn’t expecting this kind of love. Notice the speech he’s prepared for his father in verses 18 and 19: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” But notice after his father ran to him and embraced him and kissed him, in verse 21, the younger son doesn’t even get to say that last part about being a servant. Instead, his father cuts him off before he gets to the last part about being a hired servant and says, “Bring my best robe and put it on him. Bring me my ring and put it on him. Put sandals on his feet.” That can’t be a coincidence! God wants to remind us that our status as his beloved sons and daughters doesn’t depend on us and what we do!
See, the younger son thought that he could pay back his father—work for a while as his servant, get back in his father’s good graces. But the father won’t even hear of it! Before the younger son does anything for his father, the father says, “Bring the best robe and put it on him! Kill the fattened calf. Bring my signet ring”—which was a symbol of his father’s status and authority—“and put it on my son.” Before the younger son does anything he is completely loved and accepted by his father!
And that’s you and me! When we’ve accepted this gift of eternal life, when we’ve been adopted by God into his family as his beloved sons and daughters because of what Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection, when we’ve received that gift through faith, it’s as if we’ve never sinned at all. It’s as if we are perfect in our Father’s eyes. Our Father looks at each one of us, who are his adopted children, the same way he looks at his Son Jesus.
Remember that! God is no longer angry at you. God is no longer holding anything over your head because of your sins. Your sins are forgiven! You are God’s beloved sons and daughters. Don’t let the devil tell you anything else!
Let us pray…
1. Ephesians 5:1
2. Hebrews 12:7 NIV
3. C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.