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The Parable of the Good Father

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Jesus is pictured in this parable as the Good Father who demonstrates costly love to lost sinners in order to bring them to repentance and salvation.

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Introduction to

What is repentance?

What is repentance?
This is a significant question. Perhaps it is one that you have wondered about yourself. What does it mean to “repent?” How does this repentance come about? Is it something you do? Or something God does? Or some kind of cooperation between you and God?
These are questions that Jesus answers through the parables in . In we have The Parable of the Lost Sheep, in verses 8-10 we have The Parable of the Lost Coin, and in verses 11-32 we have The Parable of the Prodigal Son. Our focus for this morning is on verses 11-32 of .
is probably one of the most well-known texts in all of the Bible. However, we haven’t always understood this parable in the way that we should. It’s almost iconic in our minds, when we hear of the “prodigal son,” we think of a young man who is weary from traveling and wearing tattered clothes arriving home to the open arms of his father.
We often have the idea in our minds that the father’s forgiveness of this young man is a response to the son coming home. However, when we better understand this text and the Middle Eastern culture that stands behind it, we will see that this is, in fact, not the case.
In order for us to rightly understand this text, we should make a note that this parable is of one unit with the two parables that come before it in . These parables, which we call The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin, which would be better titled The Parable of the Good Shepherd and The Parable of the Good Woman, respectively, give us a picture of repentance. And that picture of repentance is that of being found.
The sheep doesn’t do anything except get lost. It doesn’t make any effort to return to the sheepfold. It is simply lost and the Shepherd finds it and brings it back. Likewise, the coin is lost. It doesn’t make any effort to be found. Rather, it remains lost until the woman puts forth the effort to find it. These two parables help us to understand what we call The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which really isn’t a very good title for this parable, in verses 11-32.
So then, it cannot be that the son accomplishes his repentance by returning home to the father. The picture of repentance is the same in this parable as the two that come before it because they are a literary unit. So then, the repentance of the younger son is seen in that he is found. How does this come about? This is one of the things that we will explore in the sermon this morning, so keep that question in mind.

Why not The Parable of the Prodigal Son?

So, why not The Parable of the Prodigal Son? There are a few reasons for this.
It places all of the focus on the younger son
With this title, we tend to forget about the older son, who is a key character in this parable and integral to understanding it correctly. We miss the fact that the older son is just as lost as his younger brother, only he doesn’t know it.
Similar to point one, it misses the fact that the main character and actor in the parable is the Father.
These are important things for us to know in order to understand rightly what Jesus is teaching us through this parable. The main character and actor is the father. Jesus uses this father to give his hearers a picture of what God is like. And he communicates truths about himself through the figure of the father. Keep your eyes on him; listen to and observe what he does and says.
We also need to keep in mind that this father has two sons, and both of his sons are lost. This is important for our understanding of this parable.
Luke 15:1–2 ESV
1 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.”
The tax collectors and sinners were basically the “unholy” people. The Pharisees and the scribes spent their spare time together studying the Law of Moses and discussing and debating amongst themselves as to how best to understand it and keep it. Everyone had a day job that provided their income, but the Pharisees and scribes, called the “Friends,” would spend their spare time discussing the Law of Moses.
If you didn’t do this and you weren’t scrupulous in your attempts to keep the Law, basically, if you were an average Joe, as it were, you were considered a “sinner.” You were unholy. The tax collectors were despised because they worked for the “oppressor,” for Rome. And many of them, like Zacchaeus before Jesus brought him to repentance and faith, were thieves. They charged more than Rome required for the tax and kept the leftovers for themselves.
The way that the Pharisees and scribes came up with to keep themselves separate from the unholy people was that they would tolerate basic interaction with them, but they would not eat with them. Eating with someone in Middle Eastern culture is to have fellowship with them.
Jesus was well known to the Pharisees, and may have even been among them, as we see when he ate in the home of Simon the Pharisee in . Jesus also spent time among the “Friends” when, as a boy, he spent time in the Temple listening to the rabbis and asking them questions, as is recorded in .
And so we can start to see why they were more than a little rankled when Jesus, whom they likely considered one of their own, would receive tax collectors and sinners and ate with them. He “broke the rules.”
So upon seeing the despised tax collectors and sinners coming near to Jesus to hear his teaching, they grumbled about how Jesus received tax collectors and sinners and ate with them instead of distancing himself from them as they did. Jesus tells the three parables in in response to their grumbling.
So then, keeping these things in mind as best we can, let’s begin to look at this parable.

The Father and His Two Sons

2
Luke 15:11–13 ESV
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.

Right at the beginning the father and his two sons show up. Remember that we want to pay attention to all three, not just the younger.
Luke 15:11–12 ESV
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them.
Right at the beginning the father and his two sons show up. Remember that we want to pay attention to all three, not just the younger.

The Younger Son

His relationship with his father and his brother is broken
He is lost
The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. This is an important detail. In Middle Eastern culture, the inheritance is divided among the sons when either the father is near death or has died. A father may choose to divide up his property among his sons legally while he was still alive and healthy, but he still had control of the estate and could use the profits as he pleased.
But he would never relinquish that authority to his sons while he still lived and was in good health. For the younger son to ask for his share of the inheritance while his father was still in good health was basically to say, “Dad, why don’t you drop dead.” This was a great insult to the father. This request illustrates the broken relationship that the younger son has with his father. And not only does the son insult the father, but he brings shame upon his whole family in the eyes of the community in which they lived and breaks his relationship with the whole family and the community–they’ll find out soon enough what has happened.

He is lost
This becomes apparent because he asks his father for his share of the inheritance, along with the authority to dispose of it. He basically is saying, “Dad, I want you to die.”

The Older Son

An offense of this magnitude would certainly have ramifications for the family. There would be no way to maintain a good relationship with his b
His relationship with his father and his brother is broken
He is lost
We can learn something about the older son from this exchange between the younger son and his father. We can learn from the silence of the older son that his relationship with his father is also broken.
The older son says nothing. He does not speak in behalf of his father, nor does he rebuke his brother for the offense and insult to their father. A son who had a good relationship with his father would certainly react in defense of his father’s honor and rebuke his brother for the evil of his offense.
But he says nothing. This indicates that both the relationship with his brother and his father is broken. We also can see the brokenness of his relationships with his father and brother in that he does nothing to mediate between the two.
In Middle Eastern culture, disputes or conflict between two parties are always solved through a third party mediator. In this case, the older brother is supposed to be the mediator and reconciler. But he does nothing.

The Father

He does not act like a typical Middle Eastern father
He grants his son’s request and divides the inheritance among both of his sons
We learn something about the father as well from these verses. We begin to see that this father is not a typical Middle Eastern father. Jesus does this on purpose. When Jesus describes God to us as “father,” he does not mean for us to imagine our own fathers and project that image onto God. Rather, Jesus defines for us what it means that God is our father by having the father in this parable act in ways that no Middle Eastern father would.
We begin to see this in that the father grants his son’s request and divides the inheritance among his sons, not only in a legal manner, but, as we will see, grants the younger son’s request for authority to dispose of his inheritance as he sees fit.
In the minds of Jesus’ hearers, the father is expected to become angry at the insult and strike his son across the face and have nothing more to do with him. Instead, amazingly, he grants the request of his son.
We should also note that the father divides his property between them. Both sons receive their inheritance. So the older son also profits from his brother’s request, and along with his silence demonstrates all the more the fractured relationship between him and his father and his brother. Jesus is intentional with this and he intends us to see a parallel and similarity between both brothers.

The Younger Son Takes off for a Far Country

He sells his property quickly
He loses his wealth in the far country
“Reckless” should be understood as “expensive” or “luxurious” – there are no connotations of sexual immorality or promiscuity in the Greek word translated as “reckless.”
Our understanding of the son having lost his inheritance on prostitutes comes from the older brother at the end of the parable. As we will see, he is not a reliable source–he has no idea what happened there.
Having no food or money, he hires himself out to a citizen of that country. The citizen sends him into the fields that he manages to feed pigs
We can know that the younger son is in a Greek city, among the Gentiles
The word “citizen” speaks of a leader of that city. Only certain people were citizens.
The citizen owned and managed fields and livestock, particularly pigs.
In the midst of his plight, the younger son “comes to himself.” Though often thought of as repentance, the idea is that “he got smart.” He starts to devise a way to get back into his father’s good graces and have food to eat and money to spare. He is not yet repentant.
“Hired servants” are skilled laborers that are paid for their services. The son wants to be one of these so he can eat and have money to save up. He is trying to save himself.
Luke 15:13–19 ESV
13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. 17 “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! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” ’
Luke 15:13–19 ESV
13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. 17 “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! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” ’
Our text tells us that “not many days later” the younger son took all he had and journeyed to a far country. First of all, one cannot take acreage with him on a journey. So this means that the son liquidated his property holdings, turning property into cash.
And he had to do this quickly. He is going around the village trying to find buyers for the land. As he is doing this, the village folk become more and more disgusted with this man and the shame that he is bringing on his family. And so he has to move fast and sell cheaply so he can get out of town.
While he was in the far country, he wasted his wealth in expensive living. We often hear this as he spent money on prostitutes or in sexually immoral living. The word here in Greek carries none of those connotations. This comes, rather, from the older brother at the end of the parable, and he is not a trustworthy source of information. He has no idea what happened there.
While the younger son is there a famine comes along and this man ran out of food. To fix his problem, he hires himself out to a citizen of that country. That the word “citizen” shows up indicates to us that the younger son is among the Greeks, the Gentiles. This citizen would have been a prominent member of the city and he owned some fields that he hired laborers to work for him. He also owns pigs–another indication that this is not a Jewish community. He sends the younger son into the fields to feed the pigs.
A couple of things to notice here: 1) the far country is meant to illustrate the man’s spiritual state. So, not only is he physically, geographically far from home, he is also far away spiritually. 2) He is doubly unclean and defiled. He lost his inheritance among the Gentiles, which means that if he ever dares show his face at home again, he will be cut off from his people. And he also is among the pigs, an unclean animal. These also illustrate the lostness of this man.
And so, in the midst of lacking for food and not making any money, he realizes that his father’s skilled craftsmen make not only enough money to pay for their food and expenses, but also enough to set some aside and save up. And so he devises a plan–a plan to save himself.
Often, this part of the parable has been understood as this man’s repentance. The journey home then becomes his journey of repentance back to the father, who then sees that his son has made his way back home and welcomes him. However, this doesn’t fit with the text.
First, we remember that the first two parables in picture repentance as being found–the shepherd goes after the sheep, the woman seeks the coin, so it doesn’t make sense that in this third parable, which is connected thematically to the other two, Jesus would do an about-face and picture repentance as the son determining to get home and making the journey. To be consistent, the father needs to come and find his son–and he does, as we shall see.
One of the clues we have to understanding this is the phrase that the son works up in his planned speech to his father. He says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you...” Interestingly enough, Dr. Ken Bailey points out that this very phrase is found only on the lips of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, at the time Moses confronted him and called on him to let the children of Israel go.
Pharaoh utters these words after suffering the plagues God sent upon him and his people. And as soon as the plague is lifted, he refuses to let Israel go. Pharaoh wasn’t repentant; he was just trying to manipulate God and Moses to get the plagues lifted. Same with this son. He plans these words to manipulate his father into giving him the backing and support he needs in order to train as a skilled craftsman and start earning the money he needs to pay his father back.
He thinks he can save himself. He thinks that all that is needed is for him to make enough money. We also know that this isn’t really repentance because the son mentions nothing of the hurt and pain that he caused, nor does he show remorse over his actions. There is no language of “return,” the Hebrew word for repentance, but only, “I will arise and go to my father.”
The word “arise” is interesting and is possibly meant by Jesus as a play on words. The word “arise” in Greek can also mean “resurrection” or “to rise from the dead.” This son is attempting to bring about his resurrection by his works. He certainly needs genuine resurrection–he is dead spiritually–but that kind of resurrection cannot be brought about by his own efforts, but only through being brought to repentance, and this man is not yet there. As it is, he heads for him to attempt his own resurrection.

The Father Seeks and Finds His Younger Son

The father is seeking his son. He is out in the streets in the middle of the day looking for him. This is how he sees him while the son was yet a long way off.
The father races to his son, embraces, and kisses his son.
The son, seeing how much his father loves him, is brought to repentance and what was meant as manipulation becomes genuine repentance: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He doesn’t finish the rest of his speech.
The father clothes his son–robe, ring, shoes.
The father calls for a celebration, not of the son, but in honor of his own efforts in seeking and finding and raising his son to life.
When the father says, “This my son was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” he is speaking in what is known as a “divine passive.” What he means is this: “This my son was dead and I made him alive; he was lost and I found him.” The father seeks and finds and raises to life his son. The father is the main actor. He pictures Jesus to us.
Luke 15:20–24 ESV
20 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. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
The father sees the son while he is still a long way off. Again, the father acts in unexpected ways. A typical father in his position would be in the house waiting for his son to come to him. But this father is out in the streets in broad daylight, in public, looking for and seeking his son.
He sees him down the road, not yet to the village, and he runs to his son. In Middle Eastern culture, adult men do not run. They wear robes and in order to run, you would have to hike up your robe and expose your legs. This was considered shameful. Children could run, but adults shame themselves if they do so.
Out of his great compassion for his son, this father runs to him. He displays costly love toward his younger son, bearing the shame and scorn that was surely awaiting this boy. Remember that he lost his inheritance among the Gentiles, a cause for being cut-off from the community and becoming an object of scorn and mockery and shame.
But the father pays the price and bears the shame instead. He greets his son not with wrath but with tenderness, kissing him and embracing him.
The son sees all of this. He witnesses the price his father was willing to pay to seek and find him. He sees just how much his father loves him, even in spite of all that he did against his father. His planned speech is changed into genuine repentance. He now genuinely says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
And that’s it. He stops. It has often been said that the father interrupted him and that is why he didn’t finish. But he could have finished his speech if he wanted to. But seeing the great love and mercy of his father and all that he suffered on his behalf, he abandons his plan to save himself and simply receives his father’s mercy.
The father then clothes his son with the finest robe and puts shoes on his feet and the signet ring on his finger. His standing cannot now be questioned. His father has received him as a son and indicated this by clothing him as a son would be clothed. And then he calls for a celebration–the best kind, where the fattened calf is killed and eaten.
The father then makes a statement concerning his son. He says, “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” Sometimes the passives make us think that the father is passively receiving back his son, who did the work of finding his way home.
But the father is using what we call “divine passives” that speak of the work that God does in a passive way. So, the force of the father’s words is this: “My son was dead, and I, I made him alive; he was lost, and I, I found him.” The father is the main actor. He is the actor, the son is the receiver of his father’s actions. The father seeks and finds and raises the dead to life. The father shows us Jesus and what he does for us sinners.

The Father Seeks the Older Son

The older son shows himself to be not-so-different from his brother
The father seeks the older son also
We don’t know how the older son responded
Luke 15:25–32 ESV
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but 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. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ ”
The older son now shows up again. He is coming back to the house after being in the field–he wasn’t working the fields but overseeing the laborers and work in the field. Sons of fathers who are wealthy enough to own a large estate and hire laborers and skilled craftsmen and have servants don’t work the fields.
As he comes near the house, he hears music and dancing and inquires as to what is going on. The servant mentioned here would actually be one of the village boys who would have been too young to attend the party, but would still hang out outside and enjoy the music and dancing. We are clued in to this by the fact that he addresses the father of the son as “your father.” If he was a servant, he would have said, “my master.”
He says to the older son that his brother has come home and that his father has received him back ­­ὑγιαίνω (hoo-gee-i-no) which our English translations unfortunately render as “safe and sound.” Now, this word can have that connotation, but what is really important for this parable is that this word, ὑγιαίνω, used in the Septuagint (LXX, Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) to translate the Hebrew word שָׁלוֹם (shalom), which means “peace,” “reconciliation,” “end of hostilities.”
This explains the older son’s anger. If it was simply the case that his brother returned home physically well, he would have rushed in to the party because his brother’s standing was unknown and he would have argued against restoring his brother to the status of son in the house, but since he heard that his father had received his brother back in shalom, his argument is already lost; his brother has been restored as a son in the house. And so he is angry.
Moving quickly in summary, the older son refuses to greet his father’s guests. This is an insult to his father. And, what’s more, it’s even more egregious because it’s done in public.
The father, once again, acts out-of-character and instead of bringing his wrath on his older son for his insult, he goes out to him, speaks tenderly to him, and entreats him to join the party. He shoes costly love to his older son as well, since his actions would have been seen as shameful by all those who were watching.
We should note that in the older brother’s response to his father, he insults his father further. He does not address him as “father.” He also writes himself out of the family–he says, “this son of yours,” and not “my brother.” He also wants a party with his friends. He does not want to celebrate with his father. He also slanders his brother by claiming he lost his father’s inheritance with prostitutes, which he has no way of knowing whether or not that is true.
What this highlights is that this son is lost as well. He also insults his father, even to a worse extent than his brother. He claims obedience to his father while at the very same time dishonors his father. He, too, is in a far country spiritually, as his brother was, he just doesn’t know it.
And the father shows costly, unfathomable love to this son, too. We are left not knowing how he responded.

What this Parable Teaches Us

There are two types of sinners, which are shown by the brothers: 1) those who know they are sinners and unrighteous, and 2) those who think they are righteous and are, in fact, sinners and unrighteous.
The “God- or Christ-figure” in this parable is the father. He seeks his sons while they are still sinners, before they repent. He shows each of them costly, self-emptying love as he bears shame and reproach for their sakes. He brings sinners (the younger son) to repentance and faith–he raises the dead and finds the lost. And God rejoices over the work of his Son, Jesus, in his raising the dead and finding the lost.
Jesus also seeks those who think they are righteous and yet are not. He seeks out all people and calls them to repentance and faith, even if they, in their sinful stubbornness and hardness-of-heart, reject him.
We live our Christian lives in light of and from the mercy, love, and grace of God given to us in Jesus Christ. We seek to live in obedience to God’s holy will not out of compulsion or fear of punishment, but out of love that is kindled in us because of the great, costly, self-emptying love that God has poured out on us in Christ while we were still sinners. (Romans 5:6-8)
So what does this parable teach us? There are two types of sinners: 1) those who know they are sinners and make no pretense of righteousness. These are represented by the younger son in the parable and by the tax collectors and sinners that Jesus received. 2) Those who think they are righteous, and therefore need no repentance, and are, in fact, sinners. These are represented by the older son in the parable and by the Pharisees and the scribes who thought they were righteous and not like those sinners and tax collectors that Jesus received.
Again, we often focus so much attention on the younger son in this parable, but the older son is also lost. The father seeks them both. He sacrifices for both of them and demonstrates costly love to them both that he might have them both as true sons. Jesus came not only for the obvious sinner, but for those who are trapped in their own self-righteousness as well.
This is one of the reasons we need to hear the Law of God–it exposes our sin and self-righteousness. Such is the deceitfulness of sin that it blinds us to its presence. We need God’s Law to open our eyes to our sinfulness.
We are tempted to think sometimes that we are better than other sinners. I go to church, read my Bible, pray, avoid this activity or that, I don’t hang around with those obvious sinners. In this attitude we are like the older son, who was lost even though he thought he wasn’t. When we are tempted to think this way, we should remember that Jesus didn’t only die for our worst deeds, but he also died for our best works. Even those are full of sin, as Isaiah teaches us: all our righteous deeds are like filthy garments before God.
And perhaps we think that we are so far from home and so sinful that God doesn’t want anything to do with us. Maybe you think you’ve gone too far away to come back home. The truth is that you cannot make it home, no matter how far you’ve gone, by your strength or effort, or by changing your mind or exercising your will. If you try to get home on your own, you will never make it.
But the great and wonderful news is that Jesus continually seeks after you through his Word and the Sacraments. He comes to you, finds you, picks you up, and carries you home. He bore the shame of the cross for you. He took upon himself your sins and your guilt–all of it–and shed his blood over them, washing them away. And all this he did while you were still a sinner and before you ever repented. Your repentance and faith is his gift to you. As he demonstrates in his parables in , Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the Good Woman, and the Good Father. He is the seeker and the finder of the lost. He is the one who brings the lost home. He is the one who raises the dead to life.
He does this by preaching to you in Word and Sacrament that he has lived a perfect life for you, that he suffered, bled, and died for you, bearing your sins and your guilt, and has given to you his righteousness, clothed you as the father clothed his son in the parable. And he has risen again from the dead so that you may rise to everlasting life.
As those redeemed and forgiven and found by Jesus, we live our lives in accordance with God’s holy will because he loved us enough to suffer and die to forgive our sins. And so we live in thankful, grateful obedience to him, ever trusting in the forgiveness of sins that we are continually given through Word and Sacrament in this Christian church.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.
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