God’s family has a gracious Father
Series: God's Family
This week, Pastor Paul uses the Parable of the Prodigal Son to reveal how God’s family has a gracious Father by beckoning both older and younger sons to “come home.”
The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller
ESV Study Bible
The Capital of the World by Ernest Hemingway (1936)
In the opening lines of his short story, “The Capital of the World,” Ernest Hemingway shares an anecdotal story:
MADRID IS FULL OF BOYS NAMED PACO, which is the diminutive of the name Francisco, and there is a Madrid joke about a father who came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal which said: PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN PAPA and how a squadron of Guardia Civil had to be called out to disperse the eight hundred young men who answered the advertisement.
Can you relate? All of us have a deep longing for a father who loves us. And no matter who your dad is, he falls short of those longings. Maybe you’ve always had a great relationship with your father, but for one reason or another there have been challenges that have lasting effects. Or maybe your father has hurt you in very deep and detrimental ways. But we can all relate to unmet longings for a father who loves us without condition and goes to great lengths to show us that love.
We’ve spent the last several weeks pressing into our identity as God’s family, which will be our thematic focus for us over this ministry year. This morning we come to our final sermon in this series, and the big idea is, God’s family has a gracious Father.
Our passage this morning may be familiar to you – it’s a story Jesus tells about a family, namely a father and his two sons. It’s typically referenced as a story of a wayward son who returns home, to be welcomed by his father. But – and I’m indebted to Tim Keller and his book The Prodigal God for much of what follows – it’s really a story of two wayward sons, and their gracious father’s invitation to each. It’s a story we can all relate to – either identifying with the younger brother, or the older, or possibly both – yet we’ll see the call to each is the same: come home. We’re going to look first at the younger brother’s story, and then the older brother’s, and we’ll see that each represents a way of living alienated from God – but, more importantly, we’ll see our gracious heavenly Father who invites us home.
We’re going to start where Jesus starts, with the younger brother.
1. Younger brother, come home
Even if you’ve never stepped foot in a church before today, my guess is you’re familiar with some variation of the younger brother’s story. He asks his father for his inheritance, receives it, and promptly leaves for the far country – far from home – where he then squanders it on sensual pleasures and reckless living. Once everything is gone, and he’s at his lowest point – starving and longing for the pig’s food – he comes to his senses and decides to return home and beg for mercy, with the hope that his father might have pity on him and help him find a job. Yet, to his surprise, his father sees him from a distance, runs out to meet him, embraces him, and throws him the biggest party their family has had in years to welcome him home and back into the family.
It’s hard not to get choked up by this story – especially if we’re reading Jesus’ intention into it. This is amazing grace! Even when we’ve run as far and as hard as we can away from our gracious, heavenly Father, He is ready to welcome us back into his family with open arms.
As we take a closer look at the story, it only becomes more powerful! Put yourself in the father’s shoes here. An inheritance is essentially the estate that is shared among heirs when someone passes away. In the culture of Jesus and his original audience, the oldest son would be entitled to a double portion of the rest of the heirs, so in this case the older brother would be entitled to ⅔ of the inheritance, while the younger brother would be entitled to ⅓. But the father’s still living! When the younger brother asks his father for his share of the inheritance, he’s essentially wishing his father dead. It’s absolutely awful what he’s asking!
Yet, the father’s response is even more startling! While it would be expected that the father would disown the son, driving him out of the family with nothing, he instead gives him what he asks for – ⅓ of his estate. Now remember, this is an ancient agrarian culture – this isn’t just a matter of writing a check. To get ⅓ of his father’s wealth would have meant selling off a great deal of property – land, livestock – the father is giving out of his livelihood. To lose part of your land was to lose part of yourself, as well as your standing in the community. The father tears his life apart for the sake of his son, enduring loss of honor and property, in addition to the pain of rejected love from his son. Imagine his broken heart!
And what does this young man do with his fortune? He runs off and spends it all in wild-living. Jesus doesn’t tell us exactly what he gets into, but I’m sure you can imagine. He gives himself fully to a self-centered and self-absorbed lifestyle, seeking materialistic pleasures wherever he can find them, until he finds himself with nothing, dead broke, and starving.
Like Hemingway’s story from Madrid earlier, we have our own proverbial tale around here: the church kid from Lancaster who departs to the “far country” of Manayunk, spending late nights bar-hopping along Main St and living the hedonistic lifestyle they dreamed of as a teen. Maybe that one hits a little too close to home for someone out there. While some come to their senses sooner, or others land on their feet, there are those who tragically end up in the badlands of Kensington.
There are also plenty of other stories like that of those on the run, looking for happiness anywhere other than in your gracious, heavenly Father. Giving yourself fully to worldly pleasures – whether that’s through reckless living, addiction, or chasing a career, or even putting your family above the Lord. As a pastor, I’ve unfortunately seen a lot of folks wander off into the far country over the past couple of years in particular – for some they’ve hit a low point, while others are simply finding themselves content to live a life apart from their Father and his family. It’s heartbreaking!
For others of us, though, we go off to the far country in our hearts on a daily basis. We doubt God’s goodness to us and look elsewhere for satisfaction and life. We go to the far country when we live in shame and guilt. We go to the far country when we entertain lustful temptations, overindulge on entertainment, harbor bitter thoughts about loved ones, or look to work to complete us. The far country doesn’t have to be literal – it’s wherever temptation and sin rule in our hearts and we look to something or someone other than the Lord to satisfy us.
But the story doesn’t end there. Now I want you to put yourself in the son’s shoes. At his lowest point, he comes to his senses and returns home – not imagining he has any shot at being restored to the family, or that his father owes him anything, but simply hoping that his father will have pity on him and help him learn a trade and make a living. As he comes over the horizon, and his father’s estate is in view, he sees his father running out to him with his arms open wide. Following his father’s embrace, the son begins to make his case for his father’s pity, but the father stops him, calls for his robe to be thrown around his shoulders, and a ring put on his finger – clear signs that he is being welcomed back into the family with all that signifies – and he throws him a grand party. The father says, “you are my son, and I’m glad you’re home – all is forgiven.”
This past Sunday, we baptized 5 people over at Gorgas Park, and the stories of transformed lives by the power of Jesus always stick with me. But there’s one in particular that has especially stuck with me. A young man named Ben shared his story of growing up in a Christian family – the son of a missionary. Despite coming to understand and believe the gospel at a young age, he ran away across the country and lived as a prodigal for a few years until he hit a low point, barely having enough money to return. He got connected to Citylight for a few months, but then the pandemic shut down our world. This affected him in a number of ways, among which were disconnecting completely from the church. In his words, “I started living however I wanted with the mentality that God was in my back pocket and I could decide to come back to him later.” But within a year, this caught up with him, and he found himself at a new low, experiencing a new level of consequences from running from the Lord. In his desperation, he returned to church, ridden with anxiety, but found hope in the gospel and community with other believers. He’s been walking with Christ for the past 6 months now, confidently knowing that even as he continues to experience the consequences of his wayward lifestyle, he’s never experienced so much joy.
What would it look like for you to “come to your senses” and return home?
If you’ve gone to the literal far country – openly running from the Lord and his people – come home! Recognize that the way you’ve been living will not satisfy you, and you have a heavenly Father who is eager to celebrate your return. Confess your prodigal lifestyle to the Lord, and talk to me or someone else before you leave this morning. Not only do you have a gracious heavenly Father, but there’s a family here who will celebrate your repentance and walk with you in the process of restoration.
For the rest of us – those of us who daily go off into the “far country” in our hearts – the Christian life involves daily coming home to dwell in your Father’s house. As Martin Luther famously wrote, “the entire life of believers should be repentance” – turning away from our sin and temptation, and turning in faith to the Lord. When you’re feeling tempted to distrust your Father’s love, stuck in shame and guilt over your sin, remember who your Father really is. “…While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Come home! Confess your sin freely to the Lord because there is no sin that is any match for his lavish grace. Find hope in the Fatherly promises of God’s Word that are yours in Christ. Invite other brothers and sisters in Christ into your struggle, to share your burden with you and point you continually to the amazing grace of our Lord. This is a daily fight, but you have a gracious Father and a family of fellow believers who are in this with you.
2. Older brother, come home
Now that the younger brother has returned home, Jesus turns our attention to the older brother. When the older brother sees that his younger brother has not only returned home, but their father has thrown him a lavish party, he becomes angry and refuses to join in the celebration. And even when the father comes out and pleads with him to come inside, the older brother lays into his father. Starting in verse 29, the older brother says to the father,
“Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30)
You can imagine the older brother’s finger in his father’s face and the spit shooting from his mouth as he tells off his father. He’s furious with his father not only for welcoming his younger brother home so graciously, but for the great cost with which he did so. Beyond the party and the fattened calf – which was reserved only for the rarest of special occasions – the father welcomed him back as a son, which comes with an inheritance. Keep in mind, this inheritance is not what it once was – the younger brother had already squandered a third of it – and now he’s entitled once again to a third of what’s left. And you know where that comes from – the prodigal younger brother is now taking a cut out of the older brother’s inheritance.
The older brother is essentially saying, “I’ve done everything right. I stood by you when he ran off. I’ve worked hard my whole life and not once been rewarded with a party like you’re throwing now. You owe me!”
What’s he really after? Is he more interested in bringing joy to his father, or simply in his father’s inheritance? The father’s happiness was never his goal. The older son’s self-righteous response demonstrates that he’s not all that different from his brother. All of his hard work and commitment wasn’t for his father, but for himself and his inheritance.
But the father, despite once again being publicly dishonored, now by his other son, invites him into the party. Just as he did with the younger brother, now with the older, he invites him to come inside and celebrate, to come home….
For a little more insight into what’s going on here, let’s look back at Jesus’ original audience… You may recall reading verses 1-3 earlier:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable….
Do you see it? The self-righteous older brother represents the Pharisees and scribes – the religious leaders – who are passing judgement not only on the tax collectors and sinners – obviously represented by the younger brother – but Jesus himself for welcoming them. It’s obvious to everyone that the younger brother was lost, but Jesus is showing that the older brother is also lost – and even worse, he doesn’t recognize it. That’s the big problem with being an older brother – we don’t realize that we’re lost too.
Older brother lostness is more subtle, and it’s easier to blend in among Christians because, in all likelihood, you look like a good Christian, and you probably feel like a good Christian. But in your heart, you’re a Pharisee.
Many of you are familiar with our story of coming to terms with infertility and eventually adopting our beautiful twin daughters, Evie and Jo. Some of you have walked closely with us over the last 8 years of that journey. Prior to moving down here to Philly, I was a youth pastor in Connecticut for several years. As we struggled to come to terms with the apparent fact that we’d never have children biologically, one of the high school students in our youth ministry got pregnant. When I learned of her pregnancy, I wasn’t just sorrowful – thinking of her and all the ways this would affect her life, and her child’s life – I was angry. On the outside, I cared for her and her family as best I could, and we even threw her a baby shower. But on the inside I was really struggling. For years, we’d been longing for a child of our own, and now this kid gets pregnant? Seriously, Lord!? I’ve dedicated my life to serving you, and this is how you repay me?
I’m sure you see how off that is, but I also wonder if you can relate.
- Maybe something in your life hasn’t gone how you’d hoped, and instead of Godly grief, you’ve come to resent others who have what you want, and more significantly, you’ve grown bitter toward the Lord.
- Maybe you feel a sense of superiority over others because of how hard you work, how well-behaved your kids are, your intelligence, your mastery of good theology, your self-discipline, your compassion for others, your wealth, or your politics.
These are all indications that you’ve forgotten the beauty of the gospel, and you’ve forgotten your continual need for it. It can be so easy to find confidence in your own self-righteousness and forget that Jesus died for you too.
For some of us, we pretend like we’re better than we are, while inside we feel like a total impostor. For others of us, our Christian walk is a constant performance to prove to the Lord that we’re good enough. Either way, it leaves you exhausted, and if you’re honest, your walk with Christ is more duty than delight.
The bad news is that we are imposters, and we’re not good enough. But that leads us to the good news – the great news – that we have a Father in heaven who invites us in anyway. He calls us his child, and he’s pleased with us not because of what we’ve done, but because of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us.
It’s Jesus who delightfully served the Father on our behalf. He lived perfectly, doing everything right, not for his own gain but for the glory and joy of the Father. And he laid his life down for us on the cross, taking God’s eternal justice upon himself, that we might be graciously welcomed into his family by faith and experience true and lasting joy.
Stop pretending and performing, and find rest in the righteousness that is yours in Christ. Everything the Father has is already your’s in Christ. If there is any sense of entitlement or superiority in your heart, recognize it for what it is – a rejection of the gospel of grace – and turn to the Lord for forgiveness. When we despair of ourselves and trust completely in Jesus’ righteousness alone, we will gladly join the party and celebrate with the rest of our family.