What comes to mind when I say the word “lost”? Perhaps you think of a time when you were driving in an unfamiliar area and no longer were certain where you were or whether you were headed in the right direction. You had to pull over, look at a map, or ask a gas station attendant for directions. Or perhaps you think of missing children, who are “lost” because they have been abducted or have run away from home. Scripture uses the word “lost” to describe the spiritual condition of all of us by nature. By our sins, we have wandered away from God and cannot lead ourselves back to Him.
In the parable today, we see two lost sons. Does it surprise you to hear that? Usually, this parable is called the “Lost Son” or the “Prodigal Son.” In this parable, however, we see that both sons became “lost” spiritually. The younger son became lost in prodigal living after he ran away from home. The older son, however, was lost in his own home, in his own self-righteousness. In both cases, and this is the main point of the parable, we see “the Father’s Grace Toward His Two Lost Sons.”
The first part of the story focuses on the younger son, lost in prodigal living. According to Jewish law,and younger son the remaining 1/3 at the time of their father’s death. In this story, the younger son demands with impatience: “I want my share NOW.” He reaches an age when he says, “I’m going to make it on my own. Give me what I’ve got coming Dad, because I’m leaving. I want to be rid of this place and all its restrictions. I want to be out on my own.” In Middle Eastern culture, to ask for an inheritance while the Father is alive, is to wish him dead. He desired to live as he pleased, to “sow his wild oats,” with no father to warn and restrain him. He despised his father’s watchful eye. The father released his boy without a fight. We don’t even read of a going away lecture. A few days later, the younger son gathers his belongings and splits. He journeys into a distant country, probably thinking that he would never return.
“There” he “wasted his possessions with prodigal living” (v. 13). He threw all his money away on “wild living.” Eating and drinking to excess, he squandered his whole inheritance on “luxurious” or “extravagant” living. When it was all gone, hard times hit. “And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need” (v. 14).” His feeling of freedom is replaced by a growing panic. His money was gone, his pleasures gone, his “fair-weather” friends were gone. Desperate to stay alive, and with no family to turn to, he hired himself out to a citizen of that distant country, who sent him to tend his pigs. This showed true desperation, since pigs are considered unclean by Jews. He was so hungry he wanted to steal the pigs’ food, but the bitter carob berries they ate would only make him sick, and no one else would give him anything to eat.
As times got hard the boy sank lower and lower. Finally, he “came to himself” (v. 17). In other words, “he came to his senses.” He realized he was in need and that no one else cared for him like his dad once did back home. As he reflected on the unfailing kindness of his father, he said to himself: “’How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!’’ (vv. 17-18). Extreme need brings the prodigal son to his senses, but what draws him homeward is his father’s love. How well he was treated at home by a loving father! How shamefully he had acted! His conscience awoke. He saw the error of his ways. He now realized how dreadfully he had sinned. Such repentance is the work of the Holy Spirit, who uses the law to pierce our conscience. As we read in Romans 3(:20), “By the law is the knowledge of sin.”
How much do you see yourself in the younger son? In a sense we are all younger sons, spoiled and bratty children, who’ve told our Father, “I want things my way! I’m on my own now!” Wandering away from home and estranged from our Father by our sin, we foolishly assume we could do some good work to reinstate ourselves into God’s good graces.
To “repent” literally means “to change one’s mind.” In the parable, the younger son decided to turn from his evil ways and go back to his father, against whom he had sinned so grievously. Laying no claim to his standing as a son, he rested his confidence solely on the truth that his father was merciful. He would forgive his reckless and rebellious disobedience, and take him back as a hired day laborer earning enough to stay alive. He practiced his speech, “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’” (v. 19).
But he never got to say it. His father saw him when he was still on the edge of the city. The father went running down the narrow crowded city streets, eager to reach his son before his son reached the village, to shield him publicly from townspeople who hadn’t forgotten what he’d done. The father hugged him and kissed him for everyone to see. No talk now about becoming a hired man. There was nothing the son could do to earn his father’s love. He didn’t need to try. Though the son had put his father out of mind for a long time before turning to his senses, his father hadn’t forgotten him. The father’s tender actions show he never stopped looking for his prodigal son, just as God always longs for the return of every sinner to His forgiving embrace.
The father didn’t come running toward him with his index finger pointing at him, blaming him and reprimanding him, “I told you so!” No, he came with his arms outstretched, his heart full of compassion. This shows us how our heavenly Father forgives us. He does not put the repentant sinner through the mill or cross- examination. He does not require the repentant sinner to enumerate our sins one by one. God receives the sinner with open heart and open arms, forgives us and rejoices with all the host of heaven over the salvation of the child that was “lost.” While you are still far away, He sees you. He has long been waiting and watching for you from above. He has compassion on you and eagerly runs to meet you. His desire to be gracious to you is infinitely greater than your desire to come and receive His grace. Even before you speak and confess, He has forgiven you.
In Christ, God has been prodigal- wild, luxurious and extravagant- with His grace. God gave us His riches at Christ’s expense, His holy life lived for us and His life freely given on the cross on our behalf. Jesus became the chief of sinners, taking our sins on Himself that we might become the beloved children of God. In the parable, the father gave the younger son gifts to show he was restored to the full rights of a son. He brings him the “best robe” to put on. This pictures the robe of Christ’s righteousness that covers up all our sins. This spotless garment becomes ours in holy baptism, where we are “clothed with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). In the book of Revelation, this white garment is worn by those who have overcome and whose names are written in the Book of Life. The younger son was also given a signet ring, engraved with the family crest. This displayed his status as “son.” He is also given shoes to wear. Slaves and servants were forbidden by law to wear shoes and so they went barefoot. These shoes show he is restored as a son. As his father says, “’For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’ And they began to celebrate” (v. 24).
Just as we’re about to put “The End” on the story, however, we’re reminded that Jesus began, “There was a man who had two sons” (v. 12). This story isn’t only about the “prodigal” son; it’s about both sons. The climax comes on the tale of the older brother. Both are lost, both must return. Secondly, we see the grace of the father toward his older son, lost in self-righteousness.
While the party is going on, the older brother is out in field. When the older son realized the dancing, music and the fattened calf were for his younger brother, he went ballistic. He refused to join the party. “You always loved him best,” he charged his father, as the music and dancing died. “He may be your son, but he’s no brother of mine.” He vividly describes his brother’s sins while he sees none of his own. After his brother’s departure, the burden of responsibility for keeping up the homestead had fallen entirely on his shoulders. He bitterly defended his flawless performance as the firstborn, and accused his brother of blowing the family fortune on hookers. This truant deserved no one’s forgiveness in view of his riotous life. With such an attitude, the older brother fell into a far deadlier ditch of sin. His sin of pride would not forgive others as the heavenly Father forgives. He falsely believes he is superior to the crass sinner whom he sees in his brother.
Now the truth became clear: this man had two lost sons. Though the older brother had remained physically within his father’s house, emotionally he was as much in a distant country as his younger brother had ever been. He viewed life with his father as slavery and assumed his share of the inheritance was awarded him for good behavior.
How much do you see yourself in the older brother? Do you see your service in
God’s kingdom as enslavement, a gloomy but obligatory bargain you’ve struck with God? You agree to do this and give up that, and in return He promises to reward you after you die?
In a rerun of the TV show “Home Improvement,” Tim was having a religious discussion with his wife. He said that when he was a child, his parents made him go to church. He had put in his time, and so he had earned a reward from God. He pictured a point system, where he gained points for attending church, but points were taken away from falling asleep during the service. But if he accumulated enough points, he would get to go to heaven. Is that how you picture serving God? Like the older brother, have you ever grumbled that forgiveness flows too freely? Does it irk you that after you’ve “borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day” (to borrow a phrase from another of Jesus’ parables), some loafer gets to slink in right before quitting time? There may be more of the older brother in a lot of us than we’re comfortable admitting.
How does the father deal with the resentful older son? He does so with the same gentle kindness shown to the younger. He went out to his older son and kept pleading with him to share his joy. “You’ve never stopped being my son. Everything I have is yours.” The father forgave both of his sons. The older brother’s self-righteousness had not annulled his sonship any more than the younger brother’s excesses. “You’ve always been alive to me,” his father assured him. “But now your younger brother is alive again too.” Jesus told this story because the Pharisees and the teachers of the law complained that he welcomed “sinners.” Jesus’ answer to them is in the story of the older brother: “If I do not welcome sinners, how can I welcome you?”
That’s where the story stops. The younger son is safe in his father’s love. But what becomes of the older brother? This much is certain: the father has grace enough for both his sons. If the older brother is lost, it is because he resisted his father’s love. This parable vividly pictures the grace of our heavenly Father toward us, His wayward children. Not only that, but we see the self-sacrificing love of Jesus, who came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). “Firmly in these words believe- Jesus sinners doth receive” (ELH 426:4). Amen. Soli Deo Gloria