“The Lost Boys” (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)
Gather round, and today I’ll tell you the story of “The Lost Boys.” No, not the Lost Boys from Peter Pan. This is a different story. It’s a story that Jesus tells, actually. It’s the tale of two boys that get lost. They get separated from their father, through their own stupidity and pig-headedness, and yet their father is very gracious and kind toward them, patient beyond all measure, and he wants to welcome them back with open arms.
“Oh, wait a minute, Pastor! Aren’t you talking about the parable of the Prodigal Son? That’s a very famous story that Jesus told. You know, the one about the son who took his inheritance money and left home and wasted it all in a far country, and so on. But in that story, Pastor, I’m afraid there’s only one lost son, not two. So shouldn’t you call it ‘The Lost Boy,’ singular, instead of ‘The Lost Boys,’ plural?”
Well, we’ll see, dear listener, we’ll see. In any case, let’s start the story: “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.” Well, that’s kind of a shocking start to the story. Imagine a son saying that to his father! “Give me my inheritance money, and give it to me now!” What brash impudence that is! It’s as good as saying, “I wish you were dead!” How disrespectful! What a dishonorable thing to do. The father would have every right to strike this son down. But, amazingly, he doesn’t. In fact, he lets the young man have his way and gives him his share of the inheritance ahead of time.
“Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” The boy leaves home. He thinks he’ll have more fun if he goes off somewhere far away and uses all his wealth on having a good time, living it up. And here’s where the “prodigal” part comes in. That old-timey word “prodigal” means “wasteful.” And that’s what this boy does with all the wealth his father gave him–he wastes it. This son is not wise, but foolish. All that this reckless living does is to make a wreck of his life, and he ends up in a place he didn’t reckon on.
“And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.” He’s wasted all his resources, so now he has nothing to fall back on. This boy, so recently flush with cash, now is in serious need. He hires himself out to do any sort of menial job he can find, and, for a Jewish boy, it’s work about as demeaning and low as you can go. He ends up feeding pigs, unclean animals according to Jewish law.
“And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.” If you look up “bottoming out” in the dictionary, this verse could be listed as a cross-reference. The young man wishes he could eat pig food, that’s how hungry he was. “And no one gave him anything.” That’s hard. But he deserves it, you might say. And you would be right. He brought all this on himself, through his own impudence and foolishness and, no pun intended, his pig-headedness.
So now, what to do? With only pigs to talk to, the young man has some time to think it over. “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!’” The light bulb has just turned on. The memory of his father’s generosity and kindheartedness is turning his heart toward home.
“I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘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.”’ A plan is born. The boy figures even being hired help on his father’s place is better than starving in a pig sty. And so he’s concocted this plan, sort of a ‘working it off’ scheme. He figures there’s no way he can go back home in anything else but shame, but at least he might be able to get on as a servant, and pay off some of the money he’s wasted, and at least have enough food to eat. So that’s it. It’s the best option he can come up with. “And he arose and came to his father.”
So, what do you think? This boy certainly deserves to suffer. He got a taste of it in the pig sty. And now he will be reduced to the status of a servant. Serves him right. And if that’s what happened, we’d all have to say, it’s more than fair.
But here the story takes an unexpected twist. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Whoa! Didn’t see that coming! But the father saw his son coming! That must mean he was waiting for him, looking for him. Even when the boy was still a long way off, the father was waiting and watching. But instead of waiting to lay down the hammer, the father is moved with compassion. He runs out to greet this boy who had dishonored him so. Quite unexpected! He runs out to greet him and “falls on his neck,” the Greek says. He embraces his lost son and kisses him warmly on the cheek. This is a remarkable father, full of forgiveness!
“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” No, wait, far enough. The son’s rehearsed speech breaks off before he can get to the “working it off” part. No payback scheme necessary.
The father interrupts, his joy is so great. “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.” With robe, ring, and shoes, the father restores this lost boy back to full sonship. He doesn’t want another servant, he wants his son back! And that is what he has. This loving and patient father has his son back, solely through his own forgiveness and compassion.
“And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.” From famine to feast, from the pig sty to the banqueting hall, the lost boy is now back home. The father’s joy is overflowing: “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
And that, dear listener, is the story of “The Lost Boy,” the prodi–
“Hey, wait a minute, Pastor, I thought you said this story was about ‘The Lost Boys,’ plural! You said there were two of them. So what about the other one? Let’s hear about him.”
OK, thanks for reminding me. Can’t stop with just the one. Jesus doesn’t stop there, does he? He goes on:
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’” Well, if this older son shares any of the character of his father, I bet he’s happy the runaway, his brother, is back home now. Right?
Wrong. “But he was angry and refused to go in.” No, this doesn’t sound like the character of the forgiving father. No joy here. Hey, older son, this is not a very polite thing to do, to stay outside, when your father is having a big party to welcome your brother back. It’s actually kind of insulting.
But what does the father do? “His father came out and entreated him.” My goodness, the lengths to which this father will go! First he runs out to meet the younger son, who had wasted all his money. And now he goes out, leaves the party, goes outside to entreat this older son, who is acting so disrespectfully and coldly.
But the older son reveals his true character now as he speaks to his father. “Look,” he begins. Notice, he doesn’t even start with a respectful “Father.” Just a rude “Look.” “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” The older son is thinking like a servant, not a son. To him, it’s all about what he deserves, what he ought to get for “slaving away” all these years.
He continues his angry, jealous rant: “But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” Notice, too, that the older son won’t even refer to his brother as “my brother.” He calls him “this son of yours.” The older son begrudges his father’s generosity. He truly does not share his father’s character, which is to have mercy and to forgive.
The father responds: “Son”–notice, he calls him “son,” even though this son couldn’t even come up with a respectful “Father.” “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” The older son had referred to his brother as “this son of yours.” The father turns it around and calls him “this your brother.” He wants the older son to recognize the family connection and to come in and join the party.
I think now you can see why I called this parable the story of “The Lost Boys,” plural. The first lost boy was the prodigal son, who ran away from home and lost everything he had. But this other son, the older one–he is a lost boy, too. Lost, even while staying at home. He has lost the mercy and the compassion, the forgiveness and the joy of the father.
The father wants the older son to come in and join the party. But will he? We’re not told. This is where the story stops. The parable is left open-ended. Jesus leaves it open-ended, because he wanted the Pharisees and the scribes to see themselves in this story as the older son–to see themselves and to repent. For they had been grumbling against Jesus, just like the older son grumbled against the father. Jesus had been welcoming and compassionate toward more public outward sinners–people who had acted like the prodigal son and made a wreck of their lives, but who now were being brought back home through the mercy and the forgiveness of Jesus. And Jesus wants the older sons among us to rejoice with him when this happens. If God is rejoicing over the restoration of sinners, then why aren’t you? Come in and join the party!
Yes, see the family resemblance with your brothers. For all of us, both the stay-at-home “golden child” and the runaway “black sheep” of the family–we are all “Lost Boys,” in one way or another. Maybe we’ve played both parts at different times in our lives. But we all have shown impudence and insolence toward our heavenly Father, who is so gracious and kind toward us. God wants you back, he wants you back home, whether you’ve strayed off to a far country or have been lost at home all these years.
And he doesn’t want you back as servants, either. He wants you here as his dearly loved children. There’s no working your way into his favor. You are already in his favor. The reason? Because of Christ.
You see, God’s love is sacrificial, his compassion is costly–to him. In the story, when the father ran out to greet his younger son, when the father came out to entreat his older son–both times the God-figure in the story was humbling himself, lowering himself, in order to bring his children in. His love was costly. Likewise, God’s love toward us is costly.
It is a costly love with which God welcomes us. The father in the story even sacrificed the fattened calf, a rich feast indeed. And so God so loved us, that he gave his only Son, Jesus Christ, as the sacrifice for our sin, for all our rebellion and foolishness and pig-headedness. All of that is forgiven, because of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Christ’s death on the cross opens the door of heaven to all believers. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
So which of “The Lost Boys” are you? The younger one or the older one? Maybe some of both? In any case, the Father today is welcoming you home. Come in and join the party!