Text: Luke 15:11-32
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He spoke this parable to them, saying…
This morning we come to the end of our mini-series on the parable of the Prodigal Son. We have discussed both the older brother and the younger brother, and this week we come to the central character, the father. In the character of the father, Jesus shows us about the love of God which secures our own salvation. In order to better explain this, I would like to make three points: First, the father corrects the false ideas of both sons. He is right, and they are wrong. Secondly, the love of the father reflects the love of our Father in heaven. We are supposed to connect the two. And then thirdly, the father’s love was right. In all of this we see the love of the Father which extends to us free grace, and we see that this is good.
The Father Corrects Both Sons
First we see that the father corrects both the prodigal son and the older brother. Now we have devoted a sermon to each of these two, and so we won’t have to dwell on this point. However, we should not underestimate or forget that both sons are incorrect in their assumptions about the father. The Prodigal assumes that his father will not take him back freely, and so he attempts to come back as a hired servant, a sort of indentured laborer who might be allowed to live on the father’s estate, but not freely and no longer as a son. The older brother perhaps had this same assumption, or something very close to it, and so when he sees the father’s love and grace, he becomes outraged and says that the father is not being fair.
Both brothers are wrong. The father is not interested in a worldly sort of fairness where love and forgiveness are viewed as weak or undesirable. The awe of a lost son being found or of a dead son being resurrected overshadows all else. The father’s love—understood precisely as fatherly love— takes top priority in this story. The father had “compassion” (vs. 20), and this drove the rest of his actions. He did not need to first be satisfied or paid back in order to have this love and compassion. Instead, his love disposed him towards being satisfied. In fact, his love and compassion is why he was able to receive the son back and rejoice.
This Reflects our Father in Heaven
We must always take care in fixing human emotions on to God, since we know that God is distinct and “other” in a philosophical sense. God is infinite and perfect, and none of His divine attributes war against one another, as they might in a mere human. We ought not to say that one attribute “wins” out over the others or takes priority. Yet, at the same time, we cannot deny the Jesus tells this parable for the precise reason of illustrating God’s love, and the father in this parable is meant to correspond to our Father in heaven.
In each of the two preceding parables, Jesus tells us that He is speaking of the way things are in heaven. In Luke 15:7, after talking about the lost sheep, Jesus says, “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.” Then again in verse 10, after the parable of the Lost Coin, Jesus states, “Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” And so with the third parable the message has been driven home. This father receiving sons is parallel to God in heaven, receiving His sons. True enough, we cannot press the analogy to a total equation, but the main points remain true. Our Father in Heaven loves us, and He loves us like a father. This is why He saves us, and this is why He was willing to undergo such a great sacrifice to make it happen.
This message is taught all over the Bible. It was God’s love which motivated Him, which guided His intentions, and that lead Him to save us. In fact, God loved us so much that He was willing to sacrifice His Son that we might be saved:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:16-17)
The Father sacrificed His natural Son for His created and estranged sons. We were all prodigals, because of our sin, and yet God decided to redeem us at His expense, by sending the true and faithful Son. This is the central message of our religion. God loved us, and that is why we can be saved. Now, because of that, we must love one another:
In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:9-11)
This was Right
So far we have said important but also very typical things, typical for Christians at least. This is all basic stuff. But the astounding thing which also comes out in this parable is the fact that this was all good and right. It wasn’t just good and right, as viewed from the prodigal son’s perspective. It was also right in general. It was the right thing for the father to do. Listen to how the father answers the complaint put forth by the older brother:
Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found. (Luke 15:31-32)
Notice that line, “it was right.” The Greek term that is used there is edei, and in context it means “this is what duty calls for.” What sort of duty? A father’s duty to his son. It is right and necessary for fathers to love their sons and to take them back into fellowship when they return. That’s what fathers are supposed to do. The immediate implication is that it would be wrong for the father to do anything other than receive the prodigal son back and celebrate.
Now, this parable doesn’t answer everything. It doesn’t explain how this is fair. It just states that it is. As we mentioned in previous weeks, the father doesn’t go to the foreign country and force the lost son back. The father doesn’t subsidize the sin, nor does the father endorse or approve of the wrongdoing. Yet the father still maintained his love the whole time. He never “disowned” the son. The Prodigal was always his son, and the Father always had compassion for him. As soon as the son made the move to come back, the father bolted out to meet him, “But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him (vs. 20).”
But the question does stick out, how is this fair? Shouldn’t the father have been angry? Wouldn’t a sentence of servitude have been just and right? Let’s look back at one of those explanations of the father’s love in 1 John. 1 John 4:10 states, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” That word, propitiation, is the answer to this final question. The reason that God’s love is fair and just is that God also makes a propitiation for the sin done, thus preserving both the truth of His justice and the fullness of His love.
Romans 3 puts it this way:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21-26)
In that magisterial statement we see that God maintained His righteousness not apart from but by the same act by which He saved us, through the death of Christ. He did this because He loved us, and He found a way to do what it took to save us and maintain cosmic justice. How is grace fair? Through the Cross. Because Jesus is our propitiation, our salvation (which was so dear to God’s love) is also just and proper. And it is precisely because God has made it all “even” in His own eyes that we are free to forgive generously and without trying to tidy up and preserve justice by our own means. We do what we can, and we leave the rest to God. And in this instance we are told to celebrate the restoration of sinners because that’s what God loves
We know that God does whatsoever He wills. He does what He pleases. What the parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us is that God is pleased in the salvation of sinners. Amazingly, mysteriously, counter-intuitively—God loves to save sinners. He celebrates over it. And so we have to have that same mindset. There are just a few basic points which follow from this, and while they are simple to understand, they require a lifetime of Christian discipline to actually achieve.
First, we must want to see sinners saved. In the abstract this sounds obvious, but we must want to see specific sinners saved. We must want to see sinners who have done us wrong saved. And this means we have to love them and desire more than their destruction. We must desire for God to show them grace. In order to truly feel this way about sinners, you must have a soft heart which understands that you were once that same kind of sinner. You were once the kind of person that you would not have liked. But God desired your salvation. Remember the cross, and then imitate God.
Secondly, we must have a loving compassion for sinners, even while they are still living as prodigals. We should desire their repentance, this is true, but that should not conflict with our familial compassion for them. The Christian ought not have an angry heart towards sinners. He should have a broken heart. That’s a very different thing. Don’t make the same mistake that Jonah made, only wanting to see God smite evildoers. Instead, you must love those evil-doers and desire their salvation, even while they are evil. And again, to do this you must take your thoughts back to the cross.
And thirdly, we must desire to ourselves forgive others. We must be willing to forgive even before it is asked of us, and when it is asked of us, then we must forgive. The father was watching and waiting for the son to return. As soon as he saw the first indication that the son was coming back, he ran out to meet him. Forgiveness was not a burden. He was bursting at the seams to do it!
Forgiveness can feel like a burden to us sometimes. We should admit this. Because of both our sin and the sins done against us, our hearts can grow hard. But we must fight this every day, and we must fight to bring our desires in line with God’s. After all, how can we ask God to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” if we are unwilling or reluctant to forgive those debtors? God’s love is the paradigm for our love, and the way He acts around sinful people is the way that we ought to act. His character is our standard, both its holiness and its compassion.
Finally, learn to rejoice over saved people. Learn to rejoice over your fellow Christians. Look around at one another. You are all saved sinners, and God rejoices over you. Think also of other forgiven sinners that you know. God rejoices over them. And so you should rejoice in them too. You can even rejoice in yourself. Of course, you shouldn’t merely in yourself, but you can and should rejoice in yourself as being an object of God’s grace. Rejoice in others in that they were saved by God. Their salvation was good, and the salvation of every sinner is a cause for celebration. It shows us the greatness of our God, and in that way it leads us to worship and adore Him as well. This is who He is, and He is good.
Let us pray.