William Barclay called the parable of the Lost Son ‘the greatest short story in the world’ and I’m inclined to agree with him. My favourite part is when the Father, who stands for God, runs toward his son, and throws his arms around him, even though his son has messed up so badly. This is one of my favourite images of God in all the Bible, the God who welcomes sinners when they repent and come to him. It is, of course, a fabulous description of what it means to become a Christian. When you become a Christian, you realise that your behaviour towards God has been wicked, you leave that life behind, and come to God in prayer asking only for his mercy. And when you do that, he not only grants us mercy and forgiveness, but adopts us into his own family. How wonderful.
However, I don’t want us to see this parable as only about conversion. It continues to speak to those of us who are already Christians. Because the whole life of a Christian life is one of coming to our senses again and again, turning from sin, and coming back to our Father for grace and forgiveness. The Christian life is one of daily repentance.
Last week, we looked at the parables of the lost sheep and of the lost coin. The first parable deals with something which is lost as it wanders away from home (a sheep) and the next deals with something which is lost at home (a coin). These two parables prepare us for the third one, because in the parable of the Lost Son, the younger brothers wanders away from home and is lost, but the older brother who stays at home is also lost. It’s a mistake to look at this parable focusing solely on the younger brother, because really it is a parable about two lost sons! There are those who grow up in Christian families and rebel against it, moving out and moving out and wanting nothing to do with the Lord and they are obviously lost. Equally, there are those who continue coming to church, and living an outwardly moral life, but they are totally lost, in that they have never realised their need of forgiveness and grace. We often forget that.
As we saw last time, the context of these parables is given in verses 1-2. Jesus welcomes tax collectors and ‘sinners’ and eats with them and the Pharisees and teachers of the law are livid about this. They think such people should be avoided at all costs. But they couldn’t be more wrong, because God is a God who welcomes all kinds of sinners back to himself, the obviously immoral and wayward ones with transparent misdeeds in their lives, but he also welcomes those who are full of the sin of self-righteousness and self-reliance. These parables are told in order to justify the attitude of God in the way he welcomes sinners. And in turn, they also justify the attitude of Jesus, as he mingles with and loves such people all the time. As we read these stories we must keep this beautiful fact in the foreground – God welcomes sinners who turn from sin and come to him.
I want us to consider this parable over two weeks, as there is so much here to unpack, and so I feel that it is prudent to slow down. In the parable, the tax collectors and sinners are represented by the lost son, the Pharisees and teachers of the law are represented by the older brother, and the father stands for God.
1. The illusion of freedom
The parable begins with the shocking request from the younger brother to receive his share of the estate which he would normally be given at his father’s death. The older brother would receive much more than the younger one, probably about two thirds of the estate. We’re not told why the younger son is so keen to depart, but the fact that he takes ‘everything he has’ suggests that he does not intend to return. Also, we’re told he doesn’t just head to a far away town, but a far away country. It’s as if he wants to get as far away as possible from the restrictions of living at home. This really is a shocking request, as it’s like wishing your own father was dead, just so you can get your hands on the inheritance. Clearly, there is no positive relationship between the son and his father.
It is likely that he finds his father’s home restrictive and suffocating. Rules, rules and more rules. Perhaps he thinks no one understands him. He’s bored of having to go to worship each week. What’s the point? In a nutshell, he wants to be able to do anything he wants with no one to question him. He wants to be his own boss. That, so he thinks, is what freedom is all about. But it is the illusion of freedom only. He wants to get far away from God, church, the Bible, Christians, and genuinely seems to think he will be so much happier if he can only do what he wants when he wants with whoever he wants. And that’s exactly what he does. He squanders his wealth in wild living. We aren’t given the details, but I imagine a lot of alcohol is consumed, too much in fact, and possibly several relationships with women which seemed enjoyable at the time, even deep, but in actual fact would leave their own scars on him. Life was about buying the best clothes, going from one party to the next, and indulging any kind of desire he had.
This is indeed a picture of those who aren’t Christians yet. They want to keep far away from God, and even keep Christians at arm’s length at times. Let’s focus on food and cars and holidays and sex and most of all, if you feel like doing something then you should just do it. There’s no moral compass and no or little thought of God. We do as we like and think to ourselves: ‘this is really what life is all about!’
However, this kind of behaviour also describes every single one of us when we sin, and we do that every day. Each time we sin, we are in effect saying to God, ‘I want to go my way and not yours’. We start to find the Christian path a restrictive one, and even imagine it would be much more satisfying being like most of our other friends who aren’t Christians. They don’t need to keep the Lord’s Day hold, or give money to the church, or have this pressure to evangelise, or all these church rotas and church attendance tying us down so much, restricting us from just chilling, sleeping in, watching the game, or going shopping. To our shame, we can start to long for the far country. To our shame, we no longer appreciate the blessings of the father’s house. If some of that describes you today, then like the lost son, you need to turn away from the things of the far country and come back to God.
This so-called freedom is an illusion. The fun was good while it lasted but it did not last. His money runs out, and when his money goes so do his friends, because they are not real friends. As T Johnson puts it: “Life apart from the father, apart from responsibility and accountability, his life in sin, turns out to be not so wonderful after all. It looked like fun. It looked exciting. But it took its toll. Sin is a hard master.”
This parable graphically illustrates the consequences of a life of sin, of running from the father into the far country. T Johnson: ‘Sin promises so much but cannot deliver. It promises freedom and fun but delivers bondage and pain’.
Young people, you will be tempted, especially when you leave home, to head off into the ‘far country’ and to experiment just living any way you please. Jesus is speaking to you through this parable, telling you that sin always has brutal consequences, consequences which we don’t see at the time. One puritan put it this way: ‘Satan holds out the bait but hides the hook’. That’s puts it well. Sin can seem so attractive. Indulging our desires when it comes to spending money, relationships, alcohol, drugs, living for pleasure, and so on. But life without God doesn’t work and eventually discontent will enter our hearts.
Our culture, and our films and our celebrities all glamourise sin, as if we can live like this with no consequences. The truth is, drugs and alcohol can lead to addiction and often do, sex can be addictive in a negative way, and shopping can be addictive, as we always want more clothes and more gadgets and we are satisfied by them less and less as time goes on. Is it really the case that the way of God is restrictive and damaging whereas doing as we please will bring pleasure? Of course not.
Imagine driving a car whilst ignoring all the rules of the Highway Code. You drive on any side of the road you want, as fast as you want, and think that is freedom? It leads to death and pain. True freedom in driving comes from following the rules which are there not to spoil the driving experience to enhance it. The same is true of all of God’s rules. He is no kill-joy but rather the Designer of the earth, and his rules and principles are the way of true freedom. Freedom does not men doing whatever you want. That’s slavery.
The lost son learns the hard way. The humiliating job the lost son has is Jesus’ way of underlining just where running away from God leads to. As if a job feeding unclean animals wasn’t bad enough, the son even wants to eat their slops. This would be like us opening up the brown bins of our neighbours in order to scavenge for food. He really has reached rock bottom, not only through his own wastefulness but also through the tough circumstances of life – there is a famine in the land. ‘Good sense wins favour, but the way of the treacherous is their ruin.’ (Proverbs 13:5) T Johnson: ‘Yet, the lost son is not so bad that he cannot be rescued. At the bottom he looks up. At the point of utter deprivation, degradation and futility, he begins to turn around.’
2. The steps of true repentance
This parable wonderfully outlines the steps involved in doing a U-turn from sin, to God. Again, it is really important to see this both as a description of what happens at conversion, but also what we need to keep on doing every day of our Christian lives.
– Realising our need
Verse 17 ‘When he came to his senses…’ I love this phrase. It reminds us that before this point, the son wasn’t thinking straight. Thinking that life without the father and living as he pleased would be better was a huge error. Suddenly he sees himself as he really is. He has been selfish and wasteful and knows he is in a predicament which he cannot get out of himself. He needs help and the only one who can help him is his father. He is worse off that the pigs he is feeding, and the experience of living as he pleased has reaped bitter fruits in his life. Yes, sin can bring us pleasure for a time, but in the end, it will cause havoc in our lives. This is the first step of conversion- we see how much we have messed up, and we realise that we cannot sort out the mess ourselves. Only God can.
As a Christian, are there areas of your life which are messed up just now, and you are coming to your senses about them? Are there things you are doing you need to stop doing? Are there people you need to stop seeing? Are there thoughts you need to stop thinking? There are!
– True sorrow for offending God
When we mess up, there’s a huge difference between feeling sorry for ourselves, and true sorrow before God. Imagine you mistreat someone and as a result you are in danger of losing that friendship. You feel terrible about it. That is not the sorrow of repentance; that is just feeling sorry for yourself. True repentance is when we realise that when we mistreated the person, we weren’t just sinning against them, but against God, and are full of remorse for offending him.
‘Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…’ (Psalm 51:4)
‘Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.’ (2 Corinthians 7:10)
How much do you know about being sorry before God for your sin? When we find ourselves feeling sorry for our wrong thoughts and actions, it is essential to ask ourselves why we are sorry. Is it just because we’ve let ourselves down or hurt others? Or is it because we are aware that we have let God down? Godly sorrow always contains an awareness that we have let God down.
– Returning to the Father
This parable is a fantastic picture of what true repentance involves as the son must leave the far country, and go off in a different direction. This is the concrete change which repentance involves. We must leave the sins which we have been enticed by. We must make a break with them and resolve to pursue the ways of God. We must do things his way, not our own. Are there things you know are wrong, but you are unwilling to walk away from them? Then you must turn from these things to the Father.
– Confessing our sin (verses 18-20)
‘I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.’
We live in a day when very few people say, ‘I’m sorry.’ to one another, far less to God. We live in a day when we are professional blame-shifters. We blame others for our mistakes – they made me angry! We blame circumstances and we even blame God. We make excuses for ourselves. But the lost son takes ownership of his own mistakes and confesses them before God. That is what we must do.
T Johnson: “When we are gripped by the spirit of repentance, we will confess our sins without excuses, without qualifications or explanations, and with a full accepting of consequences.”