Certainty In Uncertain Times: Luke 15:11-32 – A Church that Receives Sinners

Grace For The Journey

This morning we are looking at chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel.  We have been making our way, verse-by-verse, through the Gospel of Luke, believing that verse-by-verse expository teaching and preaching is the best way to learn the Bible.  We are looking this morning at what is usually called the parable of the prodigal son.  It is the third of three parables Jesus tells in chapter 15.  We looked last time at the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  Today we’ll look at the parable of the lost son. 

If we ask, “Why does Jesus tell these three parables?” the answer is given us as we look at the context.  Context is always king and the context of these three parables is located in the first three verses of chapter 15.  Luke writes in verse 1 that, “all the tax collectors and sinners drew near to Jesus to hear Him and the Pharisees and the scribes complained.”  What was their complaint?  Verse 2 tells us they said, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”  The religious people complained that Jesus was hanging out with the riff raff.  What does Jesus do?  Verse 3 tells us, “So He spoke this parable to them” – and technically you have here one parable with three illustrations – the parable of the lost sheep (verses 4-7), the parable of the lost coin (verses 8-10), and the parable of the lost son (verses 11-32).  Parables are short stories that drive home one major point.  The parables here in chapter 15 drive home the one major point that . . .

Jesus’ gracious love and mercy is extended

To the outcast and the most despised sinner.

Jesus came for sinners.  Jesus tells these three stories to illustrate His love for lost people; a love illustrated in a shepherd’s embracing a lost sheep, a woman embracing a lost coin, and today a father embracing a lost son.

One of the challenges in teaching or preaching a passage full of so much great teaching is not being able to say everything you would really like to say.  There is so much here in this parable that anyone who preachers and teachers on it cannot bring everything from out of their study (unless they fill up several volumes of material).  There is an old saying in preaching that if one is studying as he should, he will have far more in his storehouse than he has in his showroom window.  A retailer does not have everything out on his showroom floor, but the best of all the stuff from the storehouse.  Preachers and teachers cannot not bring everything into the sermon or study, but the essence of their study.  But of course, most of us preachers find ourselves trying to bring out as much truths as possible.  We are a bit like the poet from Japan who could not resist the urge to provide far more information than was necessary . . .

There once was a poet from Japan

Whose long poetry no one could scan.

When told it was so

He said, “Yes, yes I know,

But I try to get as many words

Into the last line as I can!”

When we preach or teach a passage like the parable of the prodigal son, there is so much we just wish we could say that it requires great discipline to hold back.  I want to treat this passage a little differently than we have before.  I want to apply the passage to the way we think of ourselves as a church.  Drawing from the context of the first few verses, I want us to think about what it means to be a church that receives sinners.  But first, let’s make our way, verse-by-verse, through this delightful parable, the parable of the prodigal son – and we see from the very beginning that it is actually a parable of two sons – look at verses 11 through 13, “Then He said: ‘A certain man had two sons.  And the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.  And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.”  The word “prodigal” here means “wasteful.”  The idea is that this son wasted his father’s inheritance with wine, women, and wrong living.  He literally blew it all. 

The son asked for his inheritance early.  The book of Deuteronomy and Jewish tradition tell how sons are to receive family inheritances.  In this case the older son would receive two thirds of the estate and the younger son one third.  If there had been sisters, the younger son would have received slightly less than one third so that there would be monies for the dowries of the daughters. The dividing up of monies usually took place at the death of the father, but this younger son – so eager to get his share – insults his father by asking for what is coming to him before his father dies.  In one sense his actions could be regarded as wishing his father were dead.

Verses 14 to 16 tell us, “But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want.  Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.  And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.”  The younger son has really hit rock bottom.  The Jewish people listening to Jesus tell this story really got the fact that this younger son hit rock bottom when Jesus said that the younger son got a job feeding swine.  Pigs were considered ritually unclean animals so to get a job hanging out with pigs meant that a person had nowhere else to turn.  Maybe his former friends saw him feeding pigs and whispered to themselves, “Oh, the shame of it!  Pigs!”  This younger son wasted his father’s inheritance, spent it all.  He has nothing to eat.  He’s got a job probably making less than minimum wage, looking after pigs.  He is so hungry that as he is feeding these pigs he feels he could eat the pig food.  This is really hitting bottom. 

Verses 17 to 19 tells us, “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!  I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’”  I love the first part of verse 17!  It says, “But when he came to himself.”  It is like he shakes his head and suddenly realizes how low he has fallen.  Verses 17 through 19 are about as good a picture of biblical repentance as one can find among the parables.  The younger son “came to himself.”  We’ve got to “Come to ourselves before we can come to God.”  We have got to come to be honest about our condition – lost, spiritually poor, blind, and maimed.  We have got to come to ourselves before we come to God.  In essence he says, “I need to repent – to turn from my ways and turn to my father.  I will be honest.  I will go to my father and admit that I have sinned against heaven and I have sinned against him, too.  I know I do not even deserve to be called a son.  I will ask my father for mercy and let me just live as a slave in his house.” 

Verse 20 says. “And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.”  This is a perfectly beautiful picture of the love of Jesus Christ for outcasts.  The father in the parable is looking for his son to return.  The father sees his son walking home and runs to his son and nearly knocks his son over in love, falling on his neck and kissing him.  The Greek verb tense describes a continual, repeated action.  The father repeatedly kisses his son.  And the son is so penitent, so full of shame and guilt.  He goes on with his prepared speech in verses 21 through24, “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet.’  And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.”

Here is a son full of shame and guilt for having dishonored his father.  He had run off and spent everything he had and only when he was out of food and money does he think about returning home.  He hopes his father will let him return even if it is just as a slave in his father’s house, but his father will not hear of it.  His father – so full of joy at the sight of his son – throws a party.  He dresses him in a royal robe.  The son has not even bathed yet and his father is draping over him a regal robe and putting a ring on his finger – a ring indicated special status as a son.  The father will not have his son walking around barefoot any longer.  Slaves walk around barefoot.  He puts shoes on his feet.  And then it is party time!  He calls for the killing of the fatted calf.  Meat was seldom eaten for dinner.  Jewish families had meat only on special occasions.  This was a special occasion!

Here are these three themes in the three parables of the sheep, the coin, and the son.   You have the three themes of lost, found, and rejoicing.  A lost sheep, lost coin, lost son.  Found sheep, found coin, found son.  Rejoicing over the found sheep, rejoicing over the found coin, rejoicing over the found son.  But the parable continues.  It is not over.   Remember, verse 11 told us, “a certain man had two sons” – A younger son and an older son.  Verses 25 through 32 tell us, “Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.  And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’  But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.  So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.  But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’  And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.  It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’”  The parable ends with this older son in anger standing outside of the house, refusing to go in and share in the celebration of the return of his younger brother.  The father has gone out to him and the father entreats his son, pleading with him to come inside and celebrate, the older son angrily refusing to enter.

Remember why Jesus told this parable.  He told this parable because the scribes and Pharisees complained about Jesus’ welcoming and receiving sinners.  We are able to put the pieces together here . . . 

  • The younger son in the parable is one of these sinners. 
  • The father in the parable is Jesus who lovingly extend His love and mercy upon sinners. 
  • The older son in the parable is none other than the self-righteous scribe and Pharisee.

Jesus is a masterful story-teller.  He is telling this story and then gets to the end and drops a smart bomb that obliterates the self-righteous hypocrisy of every scribe and Pharisee standing within earshot.  This is the clincher, the climax of the story.  The self-righteous scribes and Pharisees who had complained back in verses 1 and 2 have been given a mirror by Jesus.  Jesus says, “You guys see yourself in this story?  You guys relate to the older brother?  Angry?  Refusing to celebrate the fact that the Son of Man has come to seek and save those who are lost?  Refusing to celebrate the fact that I have come as a doctor not to those who think they are well, but to those who know they are sick?  Are you guys the elder brother in this story?”

This passage is not so much about evangelism as it is about self-righteousness.  This passage is not even so much about a lost person getting saved as it is about exposing the hypocrisy of those who fail to see Jesus as One whose love extends to the lowliest of the lowly.  The truth is this: the mirror that Jesus holds up to the scribes and Pharisees – we have got to look inside that mirror, too.  We have got to ask ourselves what we see.  Are we the church of the elder brother or are we the church of the gracious father?  Are we a church that receives sinners?

John Piper notes, “This is passage for long-time churchgoers … people who don’t struggle as much with running from God as they struggle with condemning those who do.  This is a passage for people who tend to think of other people who need this passage.”  We ALL need this passage!  Remember the context here as we consider two marks of a biblical church, a church that receives sinners. 

A Church that Receives Sinners Understands two things . . . ,

1) EVERYONE Is Welcome Because EVERYONE’S A Sinner.

There is no one unwelcome in the church.  The church is for sinners.  I recently saw a church sign that read, “Church for All.”  That was the actual name of the church.  Admittedly, my initial thought was that this was probably some liberal church where it does not matter what you believe and it may be, I do not know.  But the phrase is right: Church is for all.  Everyone is welcome because everyone is a sinner.  The problem with the scribes and Pharisees was that they believed some people were simply not welcome to be around Jesus until they “cleaned up” first.  Here was Jesus going around, hanging out with sinners.

Now, some today have taken this too far by suggesting that, since Jesus hung out with sinners then it is okay for them to go to the bar and have a beer with a sinner; it is okay to go to the racetrack and gamble next to sinners, and so forth.  All of this is supposedly an effort to hang out with sinners as Jesus hung out with sinners.  But Jesus “hung out” with people with a view toward evangelism.  He did not condone the worldly behavior of the people he shared a meal with, but rather he took the opportunity to reveal Himself as the One who has come to fulfill the prophecy He read in the synagogue back in chapter 4 at the beginning of His ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).

Jesus goes among all people, revealing Himself as the promised Messiah – the promised Savior – of all people, the good people and the bad people, too.  As Robert Stein puts it, “For Luke there was a distinct difference between those who go out and minister in Jesus’ name and the ONE who goes out and ministers in his OWN name.”  Jesus comes to save sinners.  We must examine whether we are ever like the elder brother, smugly looking down our noses upon those whom we think are less worthy of the Gospel.  We are all sinners, every one of us.

A church that receives sinners understands that everyone is welcome because everyone’s a sinner. 

Secondly, a church that receives sinners understands . . .

2) NO ONE Deserves Forgiveness Because NO ONE Is Righteous.

This is perhaps the most important take-away point in this passage.  No one DESERVES forgiveness because NO ONE is righteous.  You see the self-righteousness in the older brother.  He was angry and he would not go in the house to celebrate the fact that his younger brother – that no good, dirty sinner – had come home.  He was angry.  His father comes outside to plead with him to come in.  What does he say?  Listen for the self-righteous tone in verses 29 to 30, “So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.  But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’” 

Do you hear the self-righteousness in that?  “Hey, father.  Don’t you realize how good I’ve been?  This other son of yours squandered your wealth and was gone for a very long time, gone in the far country, wasting everything on prostitutes and who knows what else!  And where have I been, father–hmm?!  I have been right here doing what is right every single day without exception.”  And the son adds, “This whole time you never once gave me even a small goat to eat.  You never threw a party for me rewarding me for my righteousness.  But as soon as this son of yours returns, well!  You kill the fatted calf for him.”  Do you hear the self-righteousness in this?  The older son is saying, “I DESERVE better.  I have been good.  I deserve better.”

Here is perhaps the greatest challenge in our churches today: self-righteousness and a sense of entitlement to God’s privileges and blessings.  Listen for it this week: “She really didn’t DESERVE to have that happen to her.”  “He really didn’t DESERVE what God allowed to happen to him.”

Who of us deserves anything?

A church that welcomes sinners understands that no one deserves forgiveness because no one is righteous.  The reason the scribes and Pharisees could not rejoice in Jesus’ love for outcasts is because THEY DID NOT SEE THEMSELVES AS SINNERS AND OUTCASTS!!

We will never be able to love

Others as God loves others

Until we understand

How God loves us. 

We will never be able

To forgive others

As God forgives others

Until we understand

How God forgives us.

We have got to see ourselves as sinners and outcasts before we can love other sinners and outcasts.

As long as you think of yourself as somehow better than others because of your giftedness, natural ability, wealth, or talent you will know nothing of the love of God.  You will feel that God OWES you.  You will feel DESERVING of His love.

There are many Christians who think of their relationship with God the same way this elder brother thought of his relationship with his father.  God is viewed by them as a master, slave owner, as one who dishes out laws to be kept.  If you keep the laws you earn his favor.  You hear that in the elder brother in verse 29, “Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.”  See it there?  “I’ve served you faithfully, I’ve kept the commandments, I DESERVE better!”  Somehow the older brother had gotten it into his mind that his acceptance or position was based upon his performance.  He wore his own robe of righteousness.  This is legalism pure and simple – performance-based religion.  The scribes and Pharisees are angry that outcasts are receiving salvation without having to bear the burden of obedient keeping of the law.

Some of you have come from churches like that.  “Keep these commands if you want God to love you more.  Fail in keeping these commands and He’s gonna get you!”  You have been taught the wrong theology of the older brother.  You have sought approval from God the way the older brother sought approval form his father.  “Look what I have done!  Look how good I have been!  THAT guy over there is not being as good as I! Bless me, reward me for my performance.  I DESERVE it!!”

But rather than wearing our own robe of righteousness, we should allow Jesus to clothe us in His righteousness.  Then we would sing joyfully with the hymn-writer:

My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness…

…Dressed in His righteousness alone,

Faultless to stand before the throne.

Are we the church of the elder brother or the church of the loving Father?

This is God’s Word …

This is Grace for your Journey …

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

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