How easy do we find it to forgive others when they wrong us? Imagine you’ve let a friend down by betraying a confidence. They told you something personal in the strictest of confidence, and you passed that information on to someone else. You had no good reason – it was just gossip. However, you’re really convicted and confess this to your friend and apologise. Your friend reacts by saying: ‘I can’t forgive you for that. You’ve hurt me so deeply. I can no longer trust you or be your friend.’ Suddenly, you’ve lost one of your best friends because they will not accept your heartfelt and sincere apology.
This kind of thing happens all the time. People find it hard to forgive others, even when they repent. We can be so reluctant to forgive. That’s why Jesus has to challenge his disciples about this area: ‘If your brother sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.’ The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ (Luke 17:3-5)
When you realise you have made mistakes and hurt people, and when you truly turn from this behaviour and ask for forgiveness, it’s a horrible feeling when the person refuses to forgive you. Perhaps you know what that feels like. However, one of the most magnificent aspects of God’s character is that far from being reluctant to forgive us, he is actually eager to forgive us! Terry Johnson: “When we wander away from him and his ways, and make mistake after mistake, his primary outlook on us is not anger but compassion.”
This is the God of the Bible. ‘So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms round him and kissed him.’ (Luke 15:20)
Some people believe that God is some kind of a tyrant, treating us harshly and coldly. If that’s what you think then you have a false image of God, an idol. God is revealing his true character to us in this parable. ‘Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.’ ( Proverbs 28:13) Friends, this is wonderful news for us. God loves it when sinners turn from the wrong path, and come to him for mercy. It warms his heart. It delights him. This is the truth about God.
Terry Johnson: “God is eager to forgive. This is the outlook that we sinners face. True, God requires repentance. We must leave the far country. We must confess and forsake our sin. But he looks upon us with compassion, eager for repentance, forgiveness and restoration.”
If you’re not a Christian yet, think about the father in this parable, and the way in which he throws his arms around the lost son. God is promising here to do the exact same for you, if you will only turn away from living to please yourself, take ownership of your own sin without making excuses or blaming others, and come to God in prayer asking for mercy. Do you want to feel the embrace of your loving Creator? Do you want to know him as your Father? Then come to him asking for mercy. Confess your wrongdoings to him.
Last time, we thought about how this parable is a picture both of conversion and of the Christian life. We are like the lost son, believing that running away from God and his ways and living to please ourselves is what will bring happiness and satisfaction. This is a lie. As we see in the lost son, sin might taste good at the time, but always has bitter consequences. When God’s Spirit works, we come to see our sin for what it is, coming to our senses, and stop making excuses for it. We turn from it, and go back to God (who is the father in the parable) seeking his grace and pardon.
1. Restored to God’s family
I love the way that the father seems to interrupt his son, before he has time to say, ‘Make me like one of your hired servants’. He isn’t even able to get those words out because the father has something else in mind – total restoration. It’s helpful to think about the different ways the father could have reacted. He could have rejected his son for bringing disgrace to the family and being so wasteful. He could have reacted in anger. But he doesn’t give his son the justice and punishment he deserves. Nor does he make his son a slave, or bring him back with a heavy sigh and say ‘Things can never be the same again’.
We know straight away that the father’s love and mercy for his son is going to come gushing out, because of the fact that he runs to him. In Jesus’ culture, men did not run in that way. It was undignified. In other words, he can’t wait for his son to return. How beautiful. How do we know that the son is fully forgiven and restored? We know because of what he is given. A robe – this was far more than a fresh change of clothes, but a marker of his status as a true son. How must the prodigal have felt putting on such a garment? It would now be sinking in: ‘My father really is taking me back to the very heart of the family’. Remember how Pharoah dresses Joseph in robes of fine linen when he promotes him to a place of honour. He is given a ring, which is a sign of his authority. Think of how a signet ring would enable you to act in the name of your father. And he’s given shoes on his feet. Slaves would go around barefooted, but not a son of the father. If that were not enough (verse 23), the fattened calf is killed for a massive feast. This would have been kept for a very special occasion.
The father’s love is overflowing, and the thing is, it’s not just a sentimental story, but a picture of how God treats us. And so, we must go beyond the robe, ring and sandals to consider what they represent for us. What a great thing to be able to do at a communion service! We are the ones who were away in the far country, living to please ourselves. We rebelled against God, choosing to indulge all kinds of sinful desires. We know all about pride, and lust, and greed and selfishness and lying and stealing and lacking self-control. And yet, when God worked in our hearts by his Spirit, and we came to our senses, he welcomed us with open arms.
We are adopted into the family of God forever: ‘But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.’ (Galatians 4:4-5) This means God becomes our heavenly Father and promises to provide for us, protect us and bless us for all eternity. We are given power to change and power to persevere in the Christian life, as God’s Spirit comes and makes his home within us. We are given a world-wide Christian family who become our brothers and sisters. Not only are our sins forgiven, but we are clothed with the robe of Jesus goodness. We’re promised that one day we’ll be made perfect both in body and soul and live on the new earth forever. We forget how staggering this all is, and how this is the opposite of what we actually deserve.
When you can have all of this, why would you want to remain starving and dirty in the far country? Pray that God would bring you to your senses to see that true and lasting happiness is not to be found by living as we please as if we were God, but by receiving Jesus as our King, and trusting in his death on cross as the only basis for our forgiveness.
2. The older brother
If we want to understand this parable properly, we must not focus solely on the younger brother. Often children’s Bibles miss him out completely. The NIV heading for this parable is: ‘The parable of the lost son’. But that is wrong. It should read the parable of the lost sons, because both sons are totally lost and equally in need of the father’s forgiveness and restoration.
Always remember the context into which these parables are given (verses 1-2). The Pharisees and teachers of the law are raging with Jesus because he welcomes sinners, the kind of people they think ought to be avoided and shunned. So, the chapter begins with 3 main groups: Jesus, the sinners who are obviously lost, and the self-righteous Pharisees who are also lost but do not realise it. In the parable, the father stands for God, the younger brother stands for the sinners, the older brother the Pharisees. So, when we read about the older brother, we need to see that Jesus is holding up a mirror before the Pharisees and scribes and is saying to them, this is what you are like!
What are the main things we notice about the older brother?
He doesn’t understand his father’s grace. In fact, it makes him angry and resentful. This is an indicator that he is not a Christian, because if we have truly received God’s mercy ourselves the we ought to be delighted when others do too. But there is no delight in his heart. As far as he is concerned, there is nothing to celebrate. This is the opposite of God’s heart.
We also notice that the elder brother is oblivious to his own sin. Listen to what he says: ‘I have never disobeyed your orders.’ (Luke 15:29) Sure, he might not have sinned as obviously and overtly as his wee brother, but he was far from perfect, as his attitude betrays. Remember the proverb: ‘Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper…’ (Proverbs 28:13)
Outwardly, the older brother might seem so dutiful and loyal and hardworking, always out in the field, but when we read the parable closely, we see that his motivation is not that of love for his father, but a legalistic obedience trying to earn a reward for himself. ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.’ (Luke 15:29) Clearly, he hasn’t enjoyed working for his father, but describes it as a kind of slavery. And he does it for what he can get out of it. He never uses the word ‘Father’ when speaking to him, which speaks of the lack of an intimate relationship. He doesn’t want to celebrate with his father, but away with his friends.
What is the foundation of the relationship of the older brother with his father? As far as he is concerned, it is his own good works. He’s a typical Pharisee, thinking he can curry favour with God by living according to the rules, even though his heart is so cold towards God. He is just as lost as his brother had been.
We can safely say that the older brother is in the far country in his attitude, even though he seems like a model son. How can we apply this passage to our own lives? It is an important reminder that there are many like the older brother, who come to church most weeks, give money to the church, outwardly look like morally upright people, but in their hearts there is no love and intimacy with God the Father. They are lost. Maybe that describes you today. Deep down, you know you don’t really love God as your heavenly Father. You’re not relying on Jesus and his death for your place in heaven, but are trusting instead in that false hope of your own efforts.
3 A depressing ending?
You might think, why do we have to end the parable like this, especially at a communion service! Can’t we just end with the younger son being hugged by his father? I don’t think the ending is depressing. In fact, it ends on a cliff-hanger. In verse 28 we read: ‘So his father went out and pleaded with him.’ We’re not told what the older brother does. What we do know is that again and again the Father calls him to come in too. Yes, we ought to be gobsmacked by the way the father welcomes the prodigal. But we should be equally gobsmacked at his offer of grace to the legalistic, bitter, self-righteous son. I love the comment, ‘Some sinners smell of the pigsty and some of the pew, but Jesus calls them both to place their trust in him’.
I think this has huge implications for how we think about mission as a church. There are those who might come to church or might seem to be outwardly moral, but they are every bit as lost as those who live lives of obvious chaos, addiction and godlessness. We must pray for and try to reach both groups.