On this joyous homecoming day I’d like to talk with you about perhaps the greatest homecoming in all of scripture. The reading from Luke is probably one of most famous stories in the Bible, and it’s frequently called the parable of the prodigal son.
But the story comes from a context that we should remember before we dive into it. Jesus tells three parables about things lost and found in this chapter. A sheep, a coin, and a son, but the same things initiates them all.
It says in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 15:
“All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
There is so much going on in the parable, but the reason Jesus starts telling it to begin with is to respond to the critics of his ministry.
The religious folks at the time were so focused on how bad the sinners were, and how bad it was for Jesus to associate with them, that they couldn’t see the beauty of what God was doing. There were people whose lives were being transformed– people being healed, set free from the evil that held them down, people finding joy, peace, and welcome. Yet the Pharisees and the legal experts, the religious folks who should have known better, were missing it.
The parable is about a homecoming, to be sure. But even more than that, it’s about two responses to the homecoming of the so-called prodigal son. The older son responds selfishly and without showing mercy. The father, who obviously represents God, responds with extravagant love. Jesus is saying that the Pharisees and other religious folks were responding like the older brother, and that they didn’t have the heart of God. The older brother was home already, but he was missing the point of what being home was all about.
I believe that is because he didn’t understand his identity as a son of his father. And I believe that that misunderstanding came from a warped view of who is father was.
A lot of people then and now, inside and outside of the church, have a view of God that is warped, if not flat-out wrong. And that reality keeps them from living out their identity as beloved sons and daughters of God.
Santa Claus God
One of the most popular misconceptions is to act like God is Santa Claus.
“He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good.” And then the religious people say, “so be good for goodness sake.”
But of course, since we all know that we haven’t been particularly good, we’re pretty sure God is mad most, if not all the time. And so we just hope that when the time comes, we won’t find a lump of coal in life’s Christmas stocking because we made God too mad.
That is not the God of the Bible. In John’s Gospel, Philip, one of the disciples, says to Jesus ”show us the Father; that will be enough for us.” And check out Jesus’ response: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
Too many people today have an image of God that does not look like Jesus. And as we read this story, perhaps your image of God will need to shift a little. You will not find a God who is mad. You will not find a God who is seething. You’ll find a God that looks like Jesus.
11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’
These days it’s common enough for children to leave home, but that was not the case in biblical times. The son would have been expected to care for his father in his old age, and so leaving home in and of itself would have been shameful.
But things are even worse than that. An inheritance back then worked more or less like the do now. You don’t get your father’s inheritance before your father dies. To ask for that, is essentially saying to him “I wish you were dead.”
Imagine, as a parent, if one of your children came to you and said, “give me my inheritance!” You’d probably tell him, “take a hike, I’m not selling my property while I’m still alive so you can have my cash.”
But that’s not what the Father in Jesus’ parable does. He figures how how much each of his sons will get, and he goes ahead and gives the younger son his portion.
What the father does seems wrong almost if we think about it. The son is clearly about to make some dumb decisions at the Father’s expense. But this what our heavenly father is actually like. When we decide to go our own way, to deny our God, he lets us go. Does he know we’re going to mess things up? Sure. But what the father really desires is our love, and you can’t truly love unless you have free will to abandon and not love. And so the Father honors that.
C.S. Lewis, in his book, the Great Divorce, says “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.”
God honors us enough to let us make our own decisions about whether we stay in his household or not.
The son was home, but he missed who his father really was. And so the son decided that he wanted to be his own master. His own boss.
It says that soon after he gets his fortune,
“the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.”
In the culture at the time, this wouldn’t just have been seen as unwise and frivolous. It would have been seen by onlookers as shameful to the father (because children reflect on their parents).
The son uses up all his resources, and then a famine hits. It’s at this point where the son begins to recognize that he’s not doing all that well. It says “he began to be in need.”
He doesn’t think of his father right away, though. (Incidentally, people far away from God rare think of their heavenly father.)
Ironically, the son who wants to be his own master finds himself submitting to another master. He hired himself out to do what would have been among the most unclean of all jobs to a jewish audience: he feeds the pigs. And it says, “He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything.” His new master can’t even pay him enough to meet his basic needs, and the world is much more cruel away from home.
You know, spiritually, there’s always a famine, of sorts, in that far away country– the land that’s far from the presence of the heavenly father. And there will always be a point where your spiritual reserves have run out. That land will not be able to provide you with the spiritual food that you need.
We know how this goes. We act as if that spiritual hunger can be satisfied by anyone but God. We try so hard to have it satisfied. We think, maybe I need more love, more things, more power. That starts off innocently enough, but then we find that they don’t satisfy. Something more is always needed to be content. And so instead of satisfying the spiritual hunger, those things turn into new masters– promiscuity, drugs, extravagant living. Those masters promise good pay, but they lie.
So the son hits rock bottom. Everything in the world has left him empty and he’s literally starving. Then, he has a moment of God-given insight. “Even the lowest rank employees my father has have plenty of food.”
And so he makes a wonderful decision. He decides to turn back and go to his father. He prepares his statement to bargain with his father: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.”
What does this son deserve when he returns to his father? He’s disgraced his father. He’s said, “you’re dead to me.” He’s squandered somewhere between a ⅓ and ½ of his estate. He’s probably wreaking of pig. Will the father answer the door when he knocks? Will he even stoop so low as to have a servant speak with him?
You see, the Father God that most people have in their minds is still seething. He’s pacing back and forth, looking forward to the time he can get even, or at least give a big, fat “i told you so!”
But this is the image that Jesus gives us.
“While [the son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion.”
The son isn’t close to home. He’s on the horizon. But his father sees him. Why? I think it’s because he never stopped watching for him to come home.
And then it says these wonderful words: “His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him.”
The father abandons all decorum to publicly display affection for his son. Some scholars believe that running itself was a disgraceful action for a wealthy man, as the father clearly was.
But that fits, doesn’t it? We don’t have a God who stands far off– gray bearded grandfather aloof in the sky. We have a God who disgraced himself so that his children could be glorified.
Don’t you know that God disgraced himself by taking on flesh in the person of Jesus?
Don’t you know that he disgraced himself by associating with sinners like you and me?
Don’t you know he disgraced himself by making himself a servant, washing the feet of his disciples?
Don’t you know that he disgraced himself when he submitted to a disgraceful public execution on a cross?
But he did it all to show us how much he loves us. That’s the extravagant love of our Father in heaven. When we’ve been far away, and we just have to cross over God’s far horizon, and BAM, he’s running to us with compassion. He’s running to show us how he loves us and missed us.
Sometimes I can be a little dense about how much I’m loved. The son in the story is no different, and so he launches into his prepared speech. “*Ahem* Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.”
But before he can get to the piece about becoming a hired hand, the Father cuts him off as he shouts to his servants, “‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine [he won’t disown him! he] was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’”
The father doesn’t make him part of the hired help. He welcomes him as a son. He gives him a robe, a ring, and sandals, to stop any chatter about not being a son.
This image of restoring the father and the son is the work that Jesus was doing then and continues to do today. Through Jesus come into a reconciled relationship with their Heavenly Father.
Sometimes, we have a confused view of what that heavenly father is like. Maybe that’s because we’ve learned about who God is more from culture than from Christ. Or maybe for some of us it’s because we can’t think of a “father” figure without thinking about a negative relationship.
But Jesus is saying, “whatever you think your father is like, this is what my father is like.” He’s extravagantly gracious and compassionate. He’s slow to anger. He’s overflowing with faithful love. And it’s that faithful love that causes him to longs for all his children to come home.
So often our misconceptions of who the father is prevent us from receiving the blessings of his house. And this is exactly what happens with the older son, who represent the Pharisees, the folks who were religious and wanted you to know it.
The older son finds out what has transpired with his younger brother when he hears the pumping bass at the dance party and asks a servant what’s going on.
It says, “the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter, but his father came out and begged him”
The older son’s heart for the father is revealed, and it’s not pretty. [ragefully] ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’
The older son claims perfect obedience. But notice how when the son is pressed, it’s revealed that he doesn’t just resent the younger brother. He really resents his father. He resents the extravagant love and mercy of his father towards someone who is undeserving.
The Pharisees prided themselves on perfect obedience to God, just as the older son did to his father. But Jesus was always battling against the Pharisees because their hearts were far from God. Sure, they did a good job at not trespassing a boundary God had pointed out, but they their hearts were full of all type of bitterness.
The Pharisees were grumbling at Jesus and his entourage of tax collectors and sinners. But what Jesus seems to be saying is that they’re not really grumbling at him, they’re grumbling at God. They’re the selfish older brothers who are saying “what about me? Don’t you care about me?”
But listen to the response of the father. It, too, is more gracious than we’d expect. This is what he says to his ungrateful and bitter son, who shames him in front of his guests:
“Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”
The older son actually needed a sort of homecoming himself. Sure, he was in the house, but it wasn’t his home. His heart wasn’t there. His father would have happily embraced him any time, but he wasn’t willing.
I wonder if there is anyone here who, whether they’re happy about it or not, sees themselves in one of these sons. [We’re going to open up the altar rail for prayer…]
Maybe you’re “not a church person,” but you know that the world away from God has not delivered on its promises of satisfaction. The Father wants you to come home to the home you didn’t know you had. He wants you to know that you’re so valuable to him. You know Jesus didn’t die on the cross to make you valuable; he died on the cross because you are valuable. Saying to him, “I want to come home to you,” will be the best decision you’ve ever made.
Maybe you’ve always been in the Father’s house, but somehow, you wonder if you’ve missed the father’s heart. He wants to reveal his love for you today. When we ask Jesus to help us come home, he sends his Holy Spirit into our hearts. The Holy Spirit is like the loving embrace of the father. And the Holy Spirit is the inheritance over every believer.
Maybe you’ve been in the Father’s house, but you haven’t felt his embrace for a long time, or maybe even ever. The Father wants to say to you not only “everything I have is yours,” but “everything I AM is yours.” He wants to come and fill you with his love and power. Why don’t you ask the father to give you what already belongs to you?