The Prodigal and His Father
Passage: Luke 15:11–15:32
The Prodigal and His Father
Charles Spurgeon once remarked on Luke 15, “[Here] is a chapter that needs no explanation.” If you know Mr. Spurgeon, then you know he was not typically a man of few words. But in this instance, his brief statement is spot on. Luke 15 is a chapter that almost needs no explanation. Our passage in particular – the parable of the prodigal son – nearly preaches itself. Simply reading this text out aloud is enough to stir our hearts at the thought that there is a love so deep not even the filth of a pig sty can overcome it. It is a remarkably powerful passage.
At the same time, there is some depth to this parable that is sometimes overlooked. Spurgeon himself preached nine sermons on this text, so perhaps some explanation is needed after all. We know the story so well, we sometimes miss the full extent of Jesus’ point. Let me explain what I mean.
At times, we approach the parable of the prodigal son as if it stands on its own, a story without connection to any other part of Jesus’ ministry. But that misses the big picture of Luke 15. Far from standing on its own, the parable of the prodigal son is the culmination of a controversy that began all the way back in v2. Look there again with me.
Jesus is receiving tax collectors and sinners – the lowest of the low in Jewish society – and the Pharisees, v2, begin to grumble. They can’t believe Jesus would associate with such people. They can’t believe Jesus would be so gracious toward those who deserve condemnation.
So, in response, Jesus tells a series of parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In each parable, the point is the same – heaven rejoices in the salvation of the lost. Three times in three parables, Jesus makes this one point.
But this final parable is also a bit different, isn’t it? There’s a new element in this parable that take us back to v2. It’s the older brother who stands outside and grumbles. He’s angry that his father would associate with such people. He’s furious that his father would be so gracious to someone who only deserves condemnation.
And that is the crisis point of this parable. Here is that depth we can sometimes overlook. The older brother embodies the question that Jesus demands we answer – will you share in the father’s joy? Will you come inside and celebrate that the lost are found? Or will you grumble that such filthy people don’t deserve to be restored? That’s the question.
Now, in terms of details, the parable is easy enough to break down. There are three characters – two sons and their father. The action of the sons carries the story along, while the father’s response to each is the hinge of the story. So, three characters, and that gives us the framework for our time together. From each figure, we want to meditate on a particular truth from Jesus. I’ll give them to you in advance. From vv11-16, we’ll consider the Wages of Sin. From vv17-24, we’ll focus on the Character of the Father. And then from vv25-32, we’ll address the Responsibility of Joy. Three truths, that I pray, will help us better embrace the heart of God for sinners.
The Wages of Sin
We begin, then, in vv11-16 with the Wages of Sin. We’ve already noted the setting for the parable in v11 – there was a man who had two sons. That’s not unusual, but what happens in v12 is. The younger son makes an astonishing request, v12 – “And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them.” That is a staggering request. Essentially, this younger son says to his father, “I would prefer that you were dead because then I would have all my stuff. In fact, just give me my stuff now.” It’s disrespectful, it’s petulant, and it’s cold hearted. The younger son doesn’t want to wait. He wants his share now.
But as disrespectful as that request is, the situation gets worse in v13. Here we see why the son wants his money. He wants to pursue his own desires, v13 – “Not many days later, the younger son gathered all that he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” Note that phrase a far country. If the word home communicates warmth and connection and acceptance, a far country is the place you go to get away from those things. You don’t go to a far country to strengthen your family connections, in other words. You go to a far country to forget them, to disconnect yourself from anything that might keep you from what you most want.
And that is precisely what the younger son does. He goes to the far country in order to pursue his desires with abandon. Jesus says the son squandered his property. He’s throwing his money at whatever strikes his eye. He doesn’t hold back from anything that is even remotely attractive. If wants it, he gets it, no matter the cost. It’s a wild, dissolute way to live.
And for this brief moment, we might think the son has found true freedom. I bet that’s what he thought. No responsibilities, no connections, no inhibitions – just get yours and get it now. That is how the world defines freedom, isn’t it? Doing what you want, no inhibition. Left to ourselves, this is how we might even define the good life – pursuing pleasure without thinking of the cost.
But as the parable continues, the son finds that this kind of life is anything but good. There is always a cost to sin, and the prodigal learns that the hard way beginning in v14. Notice what happens – “And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.” How quickly things change. The son runs out of money right as a famine hits. And now that far country is a place of suffering rather than pleasure. He has no connections here, no one to care for him. He’s alone, and his pursuit of pleasure, which seemed so free and easy, now proves to be incredibly costly.
But it gets worse. The prodigal is starving, so he takes drastic measures just to survive. Notice v15 – “So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.” Now remember, Jesus tells this parable to Jews, so the fact that the prodigal ends up keeping pigs means he’s working for a Gentile. Jewish law considered pigs unclean, but that’s where the prodigal finds himself – forced to depend on something unclean just to survive. In fact, that’s part of the tragedy of this verse – the son’s very identity is being swallowed up. He’s gone from being a son of the promise to being a servant of pigs.
Still, it gets worse. The prodigal even begins to live like the animals he serves, v16 – “And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.” The prodigal barely appears human, doesn’t he? He’s so hungry, he’ll eat pig slop. First his identity and now even his humanity are being consumed by his sinful desires. Sin is destroying him.
And that, brothers and sisters, is the crucial connection we ought to make. Sin, which promise freedom, always enslaves us. Is that not what has happened to this young man? With money in his pocket, he thought his desires would be bring freedom. But in reality, he was running headlong into slavery with every step toward that far country. Please don’t miss the picture Jesus has painted for us. Sin enslaves. Sin humiliates. Sin destroys.
Listen, the life of the prodigal pictures one of Satan’s most sinister schemes, and our sinful natures often go right along. The Evil One regularly paints God as some kind of demeaning overlord who cruelly wants to keep us from freedom. “God’s commandments are so restrictive,” sin whispers. “God’s Word is so close-minded. Give in to your desires, and you’ll be free. Pursue what you want, and you’ll find life.” That is a sinister lie of Satan, and our flesh easily goes right along.
But this part of the parable unmasks that lie. Sin never leads to freedom. Sin always leads to slavery. Sure, there may be a brief season where you think you’re living the high life, but the bill always comes due, just as the prodigal learned. And so, the takeaway at this point is very straightforward – do not fool around with sin. It’s not a game – it’s life and death. Do not fall for the lie that sin will bring freedom. It doesn’t, it can’t, and it never will. At the first inkling of sinful desire, take ruthless action to root it out.
In fact, fact, I’ll just ask you this morning – is there some area of your life where you are keeping sin hidden, believing that it holds some promise of freedom? Perhaps it’s a habit that you indulge, maybe in secret. Perhaps it is an attitude or an impulse that you know dishonors the Lord but that feels so right to give in to at the moment. Sin takes many forms, but the one common ingredient is that it thrives on darkness, where its false promise of freedom can continue to enslave us. So, be honest this morning, at least in your own heart before God – is there some area of your life where you are keeping sin hidden?
If so, then listen to warning from the prodigal in these opening verses. These are the wages of sin – it leads to desperation and misery. It always enslaves, and therefore, we ought to bring it into the light.
The Character of the Father
Now, listening to this first point, we might think, “What a hopeless situation! If sin always enslaves, then what hope is there for prodigals?” If the parable ended here, then there would no hope. But praise God, the parable does not end here. There is something more powerful than sin, and that is the Character of the Father. This is our second truth, from vv17-24 – the Character of the Father.
Beginning in v17, everything changes. This is the starting point of the road home for the prodigal. But what we need to note is how the father’s character is the driving reality at each step of the prodigal’s return. In fact, let’s note some specific aspects of the father’s character that stand out.
First and foundational, we ought to note the kindness that leads to repentance. Listen again to v17, and catch the truth that brings the prodigal to his senses. V17 – “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!’” I love that phrase ‘came to his senses.’ The prodigal finally wakes up from the stupor of his sin. One of my pastors in seminary used to say that sin was insanity. Sin always makes promises that it cannot fulfill, and sin always leads us to live in ways that defy the God-ordained order of the world. Sin is insanity.
So, when the prodigal comes to his senses, as Jesus says, it means that he turns away from the insane, harmful way of life. The road of repentance, in other words, is beginning to unfold. But this is key, brothers and sisters. What, exactly, brings the prodigal to his senses? The answer is his father’s kindness. Look at what the son remembers in v17 – that his father is kind even to servants. Do you see it? The prodigal remembers what his father is like; he remembers that his father is kind.
And that is the truth that starts the prodigal on the repentant road to home. And make no mistake – the prodigal is repentant at this point. He plans an honest confession, v18, acknowledging that he has sinned against God and his father. He appears willing to submit to the consequences of his sin, v19 – he’ll gladly be a servant in his father’s house. And he makes a clean break with his sin, v20 – he leaves the far country. So, there’s a lot we could say there about repentance, but where does it all begin? In v17 with the father’s kindness that leads his son to repentance.
This is why Scripture so regularly describes God as slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. In fact, that is how God describes himself! He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Those are not simply the correct theological affirmations of who God is. Those are the signposts leading sinners like us on the road of repentance.
So, this may seem upside down to some people, but the one thing sinners need to hear the most about is God. This is how we encourage repentance, both in our lives and in the lives of others – by consistently declaring what God is like. It is his kindness that leads to repentance.
The second aspect of the father’s character is arguably the most powerful part of the parable. Not only do we see kindness that leads to repentance, but in v20 we see mercy that receives the lowly. Remember, the prodigal has planned out his confession, v18, and it is an honest acknowledgement of what he has done. But before the son ever speaks a word, mercy intervenes. Look at v20 – “And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” How did the father see his son while he was a long way off? Because he was watching for him. Mercy compelled the father to keep a lookout for his son.
And when his foolish son appeared there on the horizon, the father ran to meet him. Understand, men of wealth and means in Jesus’ day didn’t run. And yet, this father ran. He didn’t wait to hear his son’s confession. He mercifully ran and embraced the prodigal as his son.
And that’s the point of v20. Jesus piles up those emotional descriptions as a way of saying, “The prodigal has been received as a son. He’s been welcomed. He’s accepted by the father.” No servant would ever be greeted with a hug and tears and a kiss. Only a son would receive such things, and that is exactly what the father is saying here. “You are my son. I love you. Welcome home.”
Brothers and Sisters, this is the mercy of our God depicted in the prodigal’s father. When a sinner repents and returns to God, there is no chiding, no finger wagging, no litmus test to see if you deserve to be welcomed again. None of those things. In his mercy, God receives the lowly. He receives the repentant sinner who understands that his only hope is the kindness of God.
We talked earlier about not fooling around with sin. And I just want to come back to that same application here. If there is something you need to bring into the light, be encouraged by v20. The Father of all mercies – as Paul calls him in 2 Corinthians 1 – the Father of all mercies is ready and willing to receive you. Indeed, that is the sweetest point of all in this parable – the prodigal simply casts himself on his father. The prodigal can’t clean himself up. He can’t make himself better than what he is. He just comes to the father. And the father mercifully receives him. So, I don’t know who needs to be reminded of this today, but you can come to God as you are. Come, each and every one of us. Come. God in his mercy receives the lowly.
The third aspect of the father’s character completes the prodigal’s return. Beginning in v21, we see grace that restores the wayward. The prodigal starts into his confession, v21, but the father doesn’t even let him finish. The prodigal says he is not worthy to be called the father’s son, but the father’s grace says otherwise. V22, the father calls the servants, telling them to clothe the boy as a son. The father even calls for a ring to be put on the son’s hand, which may have been a ring bearing the family seal. All of this pictures the son’s restoration. It’s true, on some level, that the prodigal does not deserve to be a son. He defied and disrespected his father in heinous ways. And yet, grace triumphs, doesn’t it? Grace restores sinners to what they do not deserve.
And so, the only fitting end is to celebrate. That’s what the father does, v23. He calls for the fattened calf, which was saved for the highest of celebrations, and in his grace, the father says, “Let’s feast!” V24 gives the reason – “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to celebrate.”
This is the outcome of the gospel, brothers and sisters. The outcome of the gospel is a family of restored sinners, rejoicing and celebrating in the light of the father’s grace. This is why we make it our practice to regularly confess our sin and pursue repentance. This is why I preach to you about the danger of sin and call you to live in the light. It’s because grace beckons us with the promise of restoration and wholeness.
Kindness that leads to repentance, mercy that receives the lowly, and grace that restores the wayward – praise God, the character of the father is greater than the wages of sin.
The Responsibility of Joy
I love the gospel. Don’t you? And that is not a side comment. That’s the transition to our third and final truth from this parable. In vv25-32, we see the Responsibility of Joy. As we noted at the outset, the older brother is the unique element when compared to the earlier parables. And his response is sad. Notice what happens.
In v25, the older brother comes in from working his father’s fields. Compared to his younger brother, this son is quite responsible, it seems. He hears the celebration and asks, v26, what is going on. A servant answers, v27, with a brief but accurate summary. Look there, v27 – “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.” Notice that the servant emphasizes the father’s joy. It was the father who called for this celebration, and it was the father who set the tone, you might say, for everyone else. So, the older brother clearly understands that his father is overjoyed at this turn of events.
But despite that knowledge, the older brother is angry, v28. He refuses to enter the house. He’s not going to celebrate that this vagrant sinner has come back. His father pleads with him, but still the older brother is unmoved. Instead, he launches what can only be described as an attack on his father. Look again, v29, “he answered his 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.’”
There you have it. “This is unfair,” the older brother says. “I have been faithful to you, but I never got to celebrate with my friends. This is unjust. I won’t go in.” What’s the problem at this point? In short, the older brother’s self-righteousness has blinded him to the beauty of grace. He says he has never disobeyed his father, but he’s disobeying him right now. The father clearly wants him to join the celebration, but the son refuses. He won’t do it. He’s so hung up on what is fair that he misses the beauty of grace. What’s more, he misses the character of his father. Notice in v30 that the older brother impugns his father’s generosity. He questions his father’s judgment. That’s presumptuous, isn’t it? But that’s what self-righteousness does to the human heart. It causes us to see everything in relation to ourselves, where our character is the standard.
But when we live that way we miss the beauty of who God is. We miss the kindness, the mercy, and the grace that he shows to sinners. In fact, we miss how his kindness, mercy, and grace have been shown to us. For the heart gripped by self-righteousness, everything becomes a threat to our position. Everything becomes an assault on our standing. And in that kind of world, what’s the first thing to go? Joy. Gratitude for the grace of God. Thankfulness for mercy that receives and welcomes the wayward. The older brother is so busy defending his high and mighty position that he misses the most beautiful thing he will ever see. He misses the grace of the father.
It’s a sad irony, really. The younger brother was stuck outside in sin but is now brought in by the father’s grace. Who’s stuck outside now? The older brother – not because he’s mired in debauchery, but because he’s enslaved to self-righteousness.
And yet, the older brother doesn’t have the final word in this parable. The father does. And with the same merciful, gracious heart, the father now appeals to his older prodigal son. Look at v31 – “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It is fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” Essentially, the father says, “Son, everything that is mine is yours already. All the possessions are yours. All the livestock are yours. Come in and celebrate.”
And that’s where the parable ends, brothers and sisters. Jesus intentionally leaves the parable open-ended. We don’t know how the older brother responds because, ultimately, that’s not Jesus’ final concern. In the context of Luke 15, Jesus is concerned for how the Pharisees and scribes will respond. Remember they were grumbling back in v2, but now that they’ve seen themselves in the older brother, what will they do?
The same question comes to us – will we share in the Father’s joy when the lost are saved? When we will celebrate with God when sinners are welcomed and restored? Self-righteousness is a sinister problem. It causes us to miss the beauty of the gospel, and it leads us to minimize the character of God. The antidote to self-righteousness, then, is to recognize that we were all prodigals at one point, and it was only the grace of God that saved us.
Will we share in the Father’s joy? More practically, will we be the kind of church that is quick to share the gospel, even with those who might appear to be the worst of sinners? Will we welcome those who come in to hear the gospel, praying that God will grant to them what he gave to us? Will we labor in the fields of our homes and neighborhoods and workplaces to see the mercy and grace of God magnified in the salvation of the lost?
That is the final takeaway of this parable. It’s really a two-fold parable, if you think about it. It reminds us that we too were prodigals, saved only by the kindness, mercy, and grace of God. And then it calls us to join with the Father in celebrating when the lost are found. In that sense, the way we respond to Jesus in this parable is by putting the gospel front and center each and every Lord’s Day, indeed each and every day.
So, may God make us that kind of people, that kind of church – one that never tires of celebrating our gracious God, and one that is quick to say to sinners, “Come, for our Father is gracious and merciful, beyond what you can imagine.” May it be so.