It is with some trepidation that I tread into the midst of ch.15 of Luke. The reason for this is that this text (v.11-24) has been so often preached, taught, commented on, and written about that I believe there is little to say or add to the bulk of scholarship available to us. Nevertheless, we press on in our study of Luke. Remember, this is spoken in a context of people seeking to hear Jesus (v.1). Jesus is critiqued by the religious elites of his day and so he speaks parables to them, one about a lost sheep, another about a lost coin, and still another concerning a lost son.
The Son’s Sin
We pick up in v.11 where Jesus explains very simply “a man had two sons.” Probably both good boys who always listened to their father. But one day his younger son, perhaps more naive and thoughtless, begins to wonder about the outside world, the world outside the father’s house. He asks his father for his share of the inheritance. Note this, first, that the son’s sin does not begin when he is in the pig pen. It doesn’t even begin when he is in the big city living it up with all kinds of sinful activities. The son’s sin begins with this daft discontent. It begins with discontent to dwell in the father’s house. It begins with a desire to leave the father’s house. And this kind of discontent does not make sense; why would you want to leave when you have all the blessings of the father’s house. How terrible that too many of God’s children grow weary of living with the Father. They are no longer content to be under the care and control of God and therefore seek their independance from him. Indeed, like this young man, they wish their Father were dead. No that is what this son and those who leave the Father wish! By asking for his share of his inheritance, the son is really seeking his father dead. But the father is willing to oblige even so ridiculous a request as this. And though it breaks the heavenly Father’s heart, he knows his children too have their free will.
And so the daft discontent of the son leads to a deliberate departure from the father’s house. He gathered up all his goods and monies and leaves the father’s house. The first step outside the father’s house was sin and a departure from the house of blessing. And note this, the father does not go with him. No the father can have no part with the things of the world and sin city. He remains in house with all his blessings but with one less son to shower them on. Once in the big city, the son “squanders” his livlihood in prodigal or reckless living. This is nothing short of decadent dissipation. He blew his dough on junk, trash, sin. The older brother points out that it was harlots he spent his money on (v.30). And he spent everything! Every dime. No longer is he driven by the will of his father, but he is lost in the alluring sound of sin. And then trouble came….
The Son’s Shame
One cannot live in sin for long before they begin to feel pressure and brokenness sin brings with it. Eventually sin catches up with them. And this young man was not exempt from it. A severe famine broke loose over the land. The son found himself in profound poverty. The young man who had needed nothing for all his wealth now foud himself in the lowest of circumstances. The “friends” and harlots who had been there to spend the money up and vanished at the sign that the flow of cash had dried up. Only the lowest of work could be found during this recession period: feeding pigs. Here is the son’s deep degradation, even working among the unclean animals. Here is the unimaginable: a Jew in the pig pen. It is the most distasteful and despicable activities any Jew could partake in. But even the basest of work is performed by the poorest of men. He hires himself out, or literally glues himself to this pig farmer. And note the woeful want found in v.16: he desired even to eat the pig’s food. How deep is this young man’s shame all because he sought to leave the house of blessing! How many of God’s children can avoid the pig pen of sin simply by turning back to the Father’s house of blessing! Turn back! Repent!
The Son’s Repentance
Jesus does not leave us to wallow in the pig pen for long. He paints the picture of a young man who has a rude awakening. “And he came to his senses…” (NIV, v.17). That is, he woke up, he roused himself from his sinful slumber. It is as if he had been as far away from himself as he was from home. He snaps back to reality and truly feels the gravity of his situation. He is poor, smelly, bedraggled, starving (to death?). He has probably lost some weight. Awake thou that sleepest and rise from the dead. And here is the first of the slumbering soul sunk in sin: wake up. Look around you and realize you are hopelessly lost. God is calling, as he was in the Garden of Eden, “Where are you?” He knows where you are, he is seeking your response, you acknowledgement of your predicament.
Immediately this son has a remoseful attitude. He knows the score and knows where he can find victory: only back home with dear old dad. His servants eat better than this son. So this young man devises his earnest plea for the father. “I have sinned against heaven and against you” (v.18). In fact, because of his terrible attitude before and because of his deep decent into darkness, he believes he is no longer worthy to be called a son. If nothing else, he would be glad to be servant. But here is thing: the best of intentions mean nothing with resolved actions that go along wih them. In order for the son’s situation to improve, he has to get out of the pig pen of sin. Too often, those in the pig pen want to change and even devise the best of speeches for the father but there is no follow through action. Jesus shows us, if we want entrance back into the house of blessing, we actually have to go to the Father’s house. This son got up and left.
The Son’s Restoration
How many times on that long journey home did this son repeat that same speech in his head? Were there any changes as he ran over it again and again? Were there moments of doubt and fear where he almost didn’t go through with it? You ever been in those shoes? Unsure of whether or not your prayer for forgiveness was heard, whether the Father truly accepted you back. And so we identify with this son. But what a picture of our Father! Verse 20 paints a picture of our God watching the horizon for us to return. Even while he was a long way off, the father saw his son. I picture a rut formed on the porch of the home. I picture a father who, out in the fields with his workers, would lift his eyes to the horizon and sigh with longing. And then one day…could it be? He knows that gait. And even in the distance he knows that figure. I believe the father had been waiting for this day. The day his son came back. Not only was he waiting and watching, but not we see a loving father, filled to the brim and overflowing with compassion for this lost son. But it had always there; he never stopped loving his son. But also we see a running father. Here is an undignified gesture for a man his age; older men do not run! They stroll, each step calculated and dignified. But here is aged father, runnning to meet his son. And finally, here is the kissing father. He is all over the smelly bedraggled boy. He throws his arms around his son and kisses him again and again. I picture eyes filled with tears, even as his heart is filled with compassion.
Imagine a primarily Jewish audience listening to this account and knowing Jesus is speaking of Jehovah. How radical! We are talking about the same God who descended upon Mt. Sinai with thunder and lightning so terrible the earth shook and so terrifying the people asked Moses to intercede lest they die. Can it be that he is waiting, watching, loving, running, and (dare we say it) kissing sinners when they return? Yes, says Jesus. Here is your God, your heavenly Father face to face with his returning child. It must be this way, because all of our meager efforts to try and rectify the situation will not work. Indeed, when the son trys to explain to his father the situation, the father will have none of it. Here is grace: our explanations will not work, only God giving us what we do not deserve is the explanation.
What is to be done for the found son? First, put on him the best robe. Slaves do not wear robes, but sons do. Indeed, we wear a robe of righteousness not our own in order to cover our spiritual nakedness. Second, put a ring on his finger. It carried the family sign. Hence, this is symbolic of family relationship. Third, put sandals on his feet. Slaves do not wear shoes and indeed the slavery to sin for us has ended just as the son’s did. Finally, let us feast at the banquet table of the father. In chapter 14 Jesus described a great banquet which is spread for those who will come to eat from. Here the father brings out the best calf to be slaughtered and eat in a feast to acknowledge the lost son is found, yes more than that, he was dead and is alive.
A couple of application points to wrap up this section: first, what’s wrong with this picture? The answer is…well, everything. The son gets exactly what he does not deserve. But therein is grace. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve especially when we don’t deserve it. Second, what is God like? Well, he is a God who regrets when we rebel. He is a God who runs when we return. And he is a God who restores when we repent. Thank you, Jesus for showing us the Father! Finally, what is missing from this picture? Jesus. But truly he is present every sentence of the story. You see the one telling the story is the key to how the story ends. His whole existence is to ensure this story has the happy ending that it has.