This is a teaching I did on August 1, 2007 at Foundations, a unique youth gathering we’ve been doing since 1998. For more and better teaching on the parable of the two sons, read Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God and check out the web site for the book.
Read: Luke 15:1-2
And so Jesus tells a couple stories to help the smug, self-righteous, grew up in church religious leaders understand the new reality of his kingdom. We’re not going to deal with the first two stories. They’re good ones, so take the time to read them later. We want to talk about the one we usually call the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Read: Luke 15: 11-32
There were two sons. We should get that straight right now. There were two sons, and when Jesus told what we call the story of the Prodigal Son, he knew there were two sons. He wasn’t just looking at the relationship between the father and the son who ran away and came home again. He was also talking about the son who never left. We’ll call him STILL HERE, and he is as much a part of what Jesus was trying to say as was the runaway. Remember that. There were two sons.
So Runaway goes to his father and demands his share of the inheritance. Just so we understand what he was really saying, he was telling his father, “I wish you were dead.” He goes to his father who loves him deeply and tells him, “I’m better off without you. You are dead to me. Give me my share and I’m gone.”
We know what happens next. It’s the same thing that happens to too many big lottery winners. Without a plan or care for the future, Runaway starts to take a full drink of the here and now. And so it’s not long before the here and now becomes the then and gone. The money is spent. His new pals are off to chase the next party, and all he’s got left is his hunger.
And we know what happens after that. A famine comes and now completely disgraced, Runaway resorts to slopping pigs, who turn out to be better fed than he is. Then his pride finally runs out, and he reaches a decision. He heads off for his father’s house to beg a place among the servants. He is ashamed and broken, and he’ll do anything. He’ll be satisfied with whatever little favor his father might allow him because he certainly doesn’t deserve to be loved or even called a son.
But Runaway doesn’t know his father. He never really got him. All those years living with his father and he didn’t really know him or the depth of his love.
And as Runaway heads for home, his father sees him. The text says that he saw him from along way off. Can you see the father? He’s in the city taking care of business. He is in the gates with the other well-respected men of the town. Everyone knows his story. “Ungrateful Runaway. Treat a father like that. How could he abandon his father who loves him? The disrespect. Why if he were here right now, I’d…”
Then the father looks up. He sees a dirty, broken, disheveled man coming down the road with his head hung low. He’s clothed in filthy rags, but the father knows him. He knows his son. You can’t hide the son of my love from me. Paint him green and cover his head with a feed bag and I will know the son of my love.
And he doesn’t wait in his seat either. He has every right to stay right there and let ungrateful Runaway crawl to his feet and beg his forgiveness. He has every right to bitterness and scorn, every right to demand recompense. But he doesn’t care about rights. All he cares about is that bum making his way along the road. And he leaps from his seat and runs to meet Runaway.
He reaches him at last and he grabs him and pulls him close. He wraps him in his arms so you cannot tell father from son, and he’s crying. He’s been crying ever since the light of recognition hit him. He cried every agonizingly joyous step of the way as he covered the distance between Runaway and himself. His tears are streaming down his beard, streaking the dirt from his son’s back. “My son. My son. My son.”
There are some scholars who wonder if a part of his response wasn’t really an act of protection. I mean, the story is well known around town, right. The father is a very respected man. There would be indignation towards the son. Maybe a desire to heap scorn and retribution on this son who treated his father so shabbily. But the father gets there first, and he grabs his son so that anyone who would want to strike Runaway must strike the father as well.
And he loudly, with tears, declares, “This is my son and nothing he has done can change that or steal my love for him. Bring my robe. Put my mantle and my name on him. My son who was dead to me is alive. We will feast and celebrate his rebirth. Runaway is Beloved again.”
But there were two sons. Remember that?
There was another son, and while Runaway was off in the big city having a blast and blowing his inheritance, STILL HERE was in his father’s home, working the job of two sons, and he was mad. He was bitter at Runaway for leaving him to tend the flocks and mend the fence, for shaming his father. He was mad because Runaway had reduced the capitol his father had which in turn reduced the growth potential of STILL HERE’s own inheritance.
So STILL HERE’s been working in the field all day and is heading in for dinner when he hears music coming from the house, He’s wondering what’s going on. Then a servant arrives with the news. “Great news! Your brother has returned, and your father is celebrating. He’s sent for all his friends. He’s killed the prized calf. The one reserved for an honored guest. Come on, get happy!”
Oh, yeah, STILL HERE is happy all right. He’s very happy. He’s happy to stay right where he is. There is no way he’s going to celebrate the return of that backstabber who ran off and blew through his father’s hard earned money.
Now, the servant returns to tell the father what STILL HERE said, and of course, the father hurries out to the field. “My son, why are you sulking by the portajohn? This is a day for celebration. Your brother was dead to us but now he’s alive. Can’t you see how much this means to me?”
“Father, all these years I have served you. I’ve worked hard. I’ve never given you a headache or disobeyed you. I’ve done everything expected of me, but you’ve never even given me a lamb to have a party with my friends. And now you want me to come celebrate the return of the son who rejected his own father, abandoned his family and wasted your money!”
And now the father’s eyes are open wide. “My son, everything I have is yours. It always has been. This is a wonderful day. Let’s celebrate because your brother has returned.”
There were two sons. Jesus actually begins his story with, “There was a man who had two sons,” and in Jewish storytelling there are no wasted characters. If someone made it into the story, he was there for a reason. The older son wasn’t there for comedic relief or dramatic effect. That last bit wasn’t a freebie. So there must be a reason why Jesus makes sure we know there are two sons.
See, we focus so much attention on the runaway and forget about the still here. We read the story, and we talk about the prodigals. We have prayer meetings for them. We hold out hope for our runaways, but what about the ones who haven’t gone anywhere? What about the ones who are absent without leaving? It’s not wrong to concern ourselves with the prodigals, unless in so doing we forget to focus on the still here.
Look at the start of Luke 15 for a minute. Who is Jesus talking to? And who are they grumbling about? Now who is Jesus talking about in the three stories he tells? The first two are almost solely about the lost, the tax collectors and sinners. The third, the story of the two sons is about both the tax collectors and the Pharisees. Get it, the tax collectors are the younger son and the Pharisees are the older son. And Jesus is telling them, “Look, you’re religious and keep all the law. You grew up in synagogue. You memorized the Talmud. But you don’t get it, do you? You don’t understand the real nature of God’s love for you.”
Back to the story. There were two sons. Obviously, the father is a picture of God, and the story centers around the father’s love for his…..children. Not his love for the prodigal, but his love for both sons. But neither son understood his father’s love.
The younger son goes off to explore and experience, and, ashamed at his behavior, he figures he’s not worth the father’s love. The older son thinks he has to earn his father’s love. He’s got to work hard, do everything expected to prove that he is worth his father’s love. But they both miss the true nature of their father’s love.
There are three things we need to realize about God’s love.
It is unconditional.
It is freely given and cannot be earned.
It is without repentance.
God’s love for you is unconditional.
The younger son thought he was unworthy of his father’s love. He thought he’d jacked up his life so bad that he no longer deserved to be loved. But the father loved him. It had nothing to do with what he’d done or even who he was. The father’s love was based solely on the fact that his son was. In Romans 5:8 Paul says, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We didn’t have to clean up our act to get God’s love. It was there when we were knee deep in mud and covered with pig dung.
God’s love for you is freely given.
The older son tried to earn his father’s love and approval, but he didn’t need to earn it. He couldn’t earn it. Love that’s earned isn’t love. After his temper tantrum, the father says, “All I have is yours.” Now there’s a secret hidden here. The father is trying to get this subtle point through to his son. He’s trying to tell him, “All I have is yours.”
No catch. No conditions. No qualifications. All I have is yours. You can’t earn it. You all ready have it.
That’s the thing about the older son. Everything the father had was already his. He didn’t need to earn it. All he had to do was embrace the reality of his sonship. If he wanted a lamb (or the fatted calf for that matter) to have a party with his friends, all he had to do was ask and it would be given. It wasn’t recognition of his sonship. It was a benefit, a reality of his sonship, but he never understood that. He never really got that he was born a son.
That’s what makes the older son’s story so much more tragic. The younger son walked away from his sonship, and then he realized he’d screwed up. The older son never even walked in it. He was there the whole time, in his father’s house, but he never really entered into being a son. He thought he had to become a son when he really already was one.
Deuteronomy 7:6-9 says:
For you are a people holy to the LORD you God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.
You cannot earn God’s love. He gives it freely.
God’s love for you is without repentance.
The younger son did everything he could to unearn his father’s love. He wished his father dead. He dishonored his good name. He wasted his father’s hard earned money on brothels, beds and bars. But he was still loved and longed for.
The older son did everything he could think of to earn his father’s love. He did his duty, what he thought a good son should do, but he didn’t have to do that to be loved. He was loved no matter what. Succeed or fail, his father loved him.
God does not stop loving you when you sin any more than he starts loving you when you don’t sin. God does not stop loving you when you sin. He doesn’t like the sin, but he loves you. The worst sinner cannot stop God from loving him or her. The most quoted verse in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world that he gave he gave his only son.” Not “God loved the really good people” or “God loved the people who finally got their act together.” That’s what the Pharisees thought. No. While we were yet sinners…and when we stumble and fall again and again and again, God loves us.
God’s love for you is without repentance. No matter what you’ve done or haven’t done. No matter what uglies you think keep you from being loved by God. God loves you because you are a precious child bearing his image.
This is what Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest and author, said about this story.
In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), there are two sons: the younger son, who runs away from home to an alien country, and the older son, who stays home to do his duty. The younger son dissipates himself with alcohol and sex; the older son alienates himself by working hard and dutifully fulfilling all his obligations. Both are lost. Their father grieves over both, because with neither of them does he experience the intimacy he desires.
Both lust and cold obedience can prevent us from being true children of God. Whether we are like the younger son or the older son, we have to come home to the place where we can rest in the embrace of God’s unconditional love.
When we talk about God’s love, we’re not talking about a sense or a feeling or an emotion. We’re talking about an intense desire for intimacy with us, with you. That’s why the Scripture is filled with marriage imagery and why Jesus first miracle is at a wedding feast. Jews didn’t have receptions, by the way. They had feasts. This was a really big celebration. What day did they run out of wine? On the third day. That’s a party. How many fathers today would want to pay for a three-day wedding reception?
For a first century Jew, a marriage was an image of God’s restoration. It was a symbol of God reclaiming and restoring his precious creations to the shalom, the balance of his original plan for the world.
God desires to do more than love you. He wants to love you intimately, to know you and to heal you. That what the father was really after with his sons, and that’s what God is after with you. He longs for a relationship with you that is intensely intimate, and that desire doesn’t change based on a whim or what you do or don’t do.
You need to embrace God’s unconditional love for you and let Him love you. Chris Taylor, a great songwriter, says “You want the secret of the universe in a sentence or less? Let God love you.”
No we often talk about feeling loved. The prophet Bono even sings, “Do you feel love? Do you feel loved?” Let me tell you something. It ain’t about how you feel. You say, I don’t feel loved, so I must not be loved. That’s a lie. I’ll name it. It’s as dangerous as “Did God really say…?” Let the truth sink in. Let it reach into the depths of your soul. You are loved. You are deeply loved.
There were two sons, and Jesus had a message for both. Whether you’re the older son or the younger, God loves you, unconditionally, freely and without repentance.
Maybe you’ve grown up in church. You self identify as a Christian because you grew up in it. You’ve tried to prove it, to earn it, but you just don’t feel it. Something’s not right.
Maybe you’ve been wounded, and those wounds keep you from really experiencing God’s love. They stunt your growth or make you feel unworthy. You’ve been hurt by family, friends, supposed lovers. Your heart‘s been broken and you don’t think you can ever be happy again.
Maybe you struggle with depression, emotional issues, addiction, numbness, body image, self-injury, sexuality. Sometimes the struggle is so intense you just want to end it all. Take the knife. Take the pills.
Or maybe it’s not that dramatic or desperate. Maybe you feel mediocre, blah, plain. Other people are really doing great or they’re totally jacked up. You’re just somewhere in the middle, right. You think you’re destined to be a wallflower, run of the mill, everyday average Joe or Jane.
God is here to love you, to give you a new understanding of the wonder and power of his love. He is here to begin the healing, to restore your heart and soul. That’s the promise of Malachi 4:2. “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings.” In Matthew 11, Jesus says, “Come all who are burdened, crushed by life, and I will give you rest. I will restore you..” In John 7 he says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
Jesus is here tonight to bind up the brokenhearted, release the captive, to restore you. Jesus is here to heal you, and he’s here to make you healers right along with him.
©2007 David A. Peck and G.L. Baldman Media, Ltd. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to print and share this writing with others with proper citation of authorship. Use in any publication requires written permission prior to use.