Synopsis: In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus showcases three mistaken viewpoints that we can hold about our Heavenly Father and how these bad attitudes cause trouble for us and the entire Family of God.
Scripture: Luke 15: 11-32
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In writing sermons lately, I noticed that the Parable of the Prodigal Son kept coming to mind. I remembered that I once preached a sermon about this parable called “the Father’s Heart,” so I looked into my sermon archives, and I found it in a folder labeled April 3, 2016. That was a long time ago. I figured Spirit was calling me to revisit this parable.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is my favorite parable. I love it because the three characters in the parable, the father, the prodigal son, and the older son, are so rich. You can focus an entire sermon on either of them.
In my sermon back in 2016, I focused on the father and how through his character, Jesus revealed to his audience what our Heavenly Father is truly like. Our Father’s heart is filled with nothing but compassion and unconditional love for his children.
For today’s sermon, I’d like to focus on the two sons, how they view their father, and how these viewpoints caused trouble for them and the rest of the family. But first, let’s review the context of this parable.
Jesus told parables for a specific reason: to make a point. If we ignore the context in which they are told, we can easily miss the point. In the context of this parable, Jesus tells three parables in response to the grumblings of the Pharisees that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Who are these “sinners” coming to listen to Jesus? They are identified in verse 1 as “tax collectors and other sinners.” It’s interesting how tax collectors are grouped with sinners. We don’t like paying taxes in today’s world either, but most of us don’t consider tax collectors “sinners” for simply doing their jobs. In Jesus’ time, however, it was a bit more complicated.
The Jews despised tax collectors. There were several reasons for this. Tax collectors were fellow Jews collecting taxes for the Roman oppressors, so they were considered traitors. Even worse, they often collected more taxes than was owed and pocketed the extra. That scheme made them very wealthy, which the lower-class Jews resented since it was their stolen hard-earned money that made the tax collectors so wealthy.
The Pharisees’ term “other sinners” referred to ordinary non-religious Jews. Religious Jews called them “am h’aretz,” which can be translated as “the people of the land.” Because these non-religious Jews didn’t observe Torah Law, pious Jews like the Pharisees considered them unclean and therefore unworthy of their company.
The Pharisees were people who studied and dutifully observed Torah law, and while the am h’aretz were not “pious” in their observance of Torah Law, they were obviously spiritual people. They wanted to know more about their Heavenly Father; otherwise, they would not have come to listen to Jesus speak.
The parable begins with the younger son asking his father to give him his share of the estate. Many people don’t realize the audacity of this request. In essence, he’s saying, “You’re not dying fast enough for me dad, so give me my inheritance … now.” Imagine the pain you’d feel if the child you nurtured from birth and dearly love said this to you.
To Jesus’ audience, this would have been a shocking offense – so appalling that many listeners would probably have considered it unforgivable. But the father grants his son’s request, making himself completely vulnerable. His future security is now divided in half. Three days later, half of his security says, “See ya!”
We read that the younger son “gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country.” He probably sold anything he couldn’t take with him – all his fixed assets. The son is making it clear that he intends to sever all ties to his father.
Jesus’ audience would have interpreted the “distant country” as the land of the gentiles. So, the son was not only leaving his father – but also his father’s god – to dwell in a land of pagan values and morals. There, we read that he “squandered his property in dissolute living.”
Bad choices lead to bad consequences, and the ones the young man suffers are pretty rough. Eventually, he runs out of money, and to make matters worse, a famine begins. A local man hires him to feed pigs, a totally degrading job especially for a proud Jew.
Food was so scarce that his employer wouldn’t even let him to eat the pig’s food. I know that seems cruel, but in a famine, a pig is more valuable because it is a source of food.
The Pharisees would have loved for Jesus’ story to end leaving the disobedient son in the pigpen, but Jesus, our great redeemer, couldn’t just leave him there, unredeemed.
So, the young man comes to his senses. He realizes that even his father’s hired men have food to spare, and here he is, starving to death. He probably thought, “How can I go back to my father after what I have done?”
Visions of an angry father danced around in his head: a father angry over his son’s insolence, angry over having to sell all he owned while he still lived, angry over half of his security walking away with his son, angry over the shame of having a son who chose a life of debauchery.
If he were his father, he’d sure feel that way, he figures. He concludes that his father will never accept him back as a son because he has broken the father-son relationship beyond repair. He believes there is no way that his father could ever forgive him for what he has done, so he assumes that his father will accept him back but as nothing more than a hired hand.
He finds out that he doesn’t know his father at all.
Instead of a father repulsed by the sight of him, he discovers a father running toward him, as if he had been searching for him a long time. Instead of an angry and judgmental father, he discovers a father full of compassion and forgiveness.
Unable to comprehend such unconditional love and forgiveness, the son begins his well-rehearsed speech. He doesn’t get to finish his speech because his father interrupts him by ordering his servants to dress him with garments and jewelry that reflect his status – not as a hired hand, but as a son.
To celebrate the return of his son, the father throws a party. The older son hears all the commotion and finds out what’s going on from one of the servants. He then becomes angry and refuses to join the celebration.
So, we have these two sons in this parable: the prodigal son and the older son.
We can probably figure out who they symbolize. The prodigal son is the am h’aretz, the people of the land. They haven’t followed Torah law as meticulously as the Pharisees. Some may have been trying their best to follow as many of them as they could. Others may have not tried at all. Like the prodigal son, they were living lives of debauchery. I’m sure all of them felt not worthy enough to be called children of God.
But there they are, gathered around to hear Jesus. Like the prodigal son, they had come to their senses. They want to return home, but they don’t expect much. They are humble and contrite, and they are warmly received by the Messiah, the Son of God. And through his parable, they learn that they didn’t know their father at all.
The older son is the Pharisees. The older son expected his father to impose some form of punishment on his younger brother. And he felt entitled to some kind of reward for his allegiance to his own father. What did he expect? A longevity payment?
The father, instead of becoming enraged by the older son’s selfishness and disrespect, tries to reason with him: “My son, how can I give you more than everything, and how can I not rejoice and be glad that my son has returned?”
The older son refers to his prodigal brother as “this son of yours” instead of as “my brother.” Obviously, he hates his brother. Why would he hate his brother for coming home? Well, the father welcomed his prodigal brother back with open arms, restored his status as a son, and threw a party for him. What does that say about the older son’s perceived superior status?
What does this parable have to say to us today? I think it says, “Beware of how we view our Heavenly Father.” There are a few different viewpoints revealed in this parable.
At first, the prodigal son viewed his father as someone he could use to satisfy his selfish desires. He knew his father owed him an inheritance, so he demanded it. Then, he walked away with half of the family’s assets, assets that were supposed to be used to support the entire family. He wasted them on pleasures and treasures for himself.
Many Christians view God this way. They believe, “God owes me, so I’m going to demand whatever I want and expect to get it whether it’s His Will or not, and I don’t care who it hurts.” It doesn’t matter if this attitude is preached from a pulpit in a church. It is an attempt to spiritualize greed, and greed hurts the entire family of God.
Like the prodigal son, they will learn that their pursuit of pleasures and treasures does nothing for them but to leave them in a state of spiritual bankruptcy.
After the prodigal son realized he had sinned, he viewed his father as angry and vengeful. Many view God this way also. Like the am h’aretz, some fall away from God because they can’t follow the rules well enough to feel worthy. And some fall away because they’ve done some really bad things – things for which they think they can never be forgiven.
Hopefully, like the prodigal son, they will come to their senses, find the courage to return home, and find out the truth about our Heavenly Father’s compassion and unconditional love.
The older son viewed his father like an employer. Listen to what he said, “‘…For all these years, I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command. He resents his father so much that he feels like nothing more than a slave who follows orders. It’s obvious that he doesn’t really love his father. He just wants to get paid.
He’s the son who is more like a hired hand – but by his own choice because of his bad attitude.
Many Christians with a legalistic faith view God in this way. To them, God is just the CEO of a major corporation, and we’re all just jockeying for positions on the corporate ladder. They don’t know God any better than the prodigals. In fact, their attitude might just be landing them in a place even farther away from God.
Notice that in the parable, the older son never comes to his senses. In the story, Jesus just leaves him there sulking, standing outside looking in, just as the Pharisees were on that day – sulking, because Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
We can say that there is a fourth view of the father that isn’t really portrayed in the parable. But imagine how the prodigal son felt after his father so warmly welcomed him home? Can you imagine the enormity of gratitude the prodigal son felt, and the sincere desire to serve his father because the prodigal son loved him with a pure heart, and he loved his father with a pure heart because his father loved him that way first. As we read in the apostle John’s first epistle, chapter 4, verses 19-21: “We love because he first loved us.”
The prodigal son’s father taught him to feel worthy not because of anything he has done but because of who he is: his beloved child.
How we view our Heavenly Father matters a great deal. When Jesus prayed to God, he used the word “Abba,” which is Aramaic for “father,” but it’s a more intimate term – like our English word, “daddy.”
So, in this parable, Jesus taught us that it is a mistake to view God like a genie in a bottle. God doesn’t give us everything we want. He does give us everything we need to grow in the direction He wants us to grow. If He doesn’t give us something we want, then receiving it will somehow interfere with our soul’s plan.
It is a mistake to view God like an angry, vengeful judge. God is does not judge us or condemn us. He gave us Free Will, so why would he condemn us for using it? We are free to make our own choices and experience their consequences. That is how we learn to master life, and that’s how God designed it.
It is a mistake to view God like an employer. If we have truly accepted Christ into our hearts, then we have Christ to define sin for us. Only those who haven’t accepted the Christ need sin defined because apart from Him, we can’t figure out what sin really is. So, the mind of me deals with that like it deals with everything else it doesn’t know. It pretends to know.
So just like the Pharisees and their “traditions of the elders,” the mind of me makes up sins and ignores real sin. Then it resents God when it doesn’t get the reward it thinks it deserves for “following orders” while violators go unpunished. They stand outside sulking, while their brothers and sisters enjoy the peace, love, and joy that is our inheritance.
The correct perception of God is like a doting daddy. Our Heavenly Father has unlimited compassion and love for us. No matter what we do, God will never stop loving us. In fact, all he wants to do is shower us with presents – with unlimited blessings. That’s why he gave us everything – this entire Creation – to enjoy and share with our brothers and sisters.
God wants us to enjoy life like we would a grand party. In order to do that, we must learn what we need to learn. What is it that we need to learn? We need to learn to love God above all else, to cherish all of life, and to love our brothers and sisters the same way God loves us.
So let us be mindful of how we view our Father so that we can experience the love, peace, and joy God wants for us and set an example for those who are standing outside so that they may choose to view God correctly and join the party.
Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to embrace a proper view of Our Heavenly Father. Reveal to us any ways in which our perspective is in error so that we can experience the love, peace, and joy that is our inheritance and help our lost brothers and sisters. AMEN.