Sermon 1: The Prodigal Son Leaves - Rev. J. L. van Popta
Scripture Reading: Luke 15 Text: Luke 15:11-13
Psalm 90:1,3,7 Psalm 6:1,2 Hymn 48:1,2
Psalm 107:1,2 Hymn 48:3,4
Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ
This parable, of the father and his two sons, is one of the best known stories that the Lord ever told. It is a story about coming home. Of repentance and reformation. Of return and forgiveness. Of acceptance and restoration. Of finding what was lost. We think of the father welcoming home his lost son. His joy at receiving back alive that which was dead. For finding, of receiving back, that which had been lost. We think of his elation. Of his celebration.
But there is much more here to explore and discover. This is not just the parable of the prodigal son, for the first line of the parable says that there was a man with two sons. It is a parable about two sons: an elder and a younger, and about a father.
As well, it is a parable that is tied to the loss of one of 100 sheep. And to the loss of one of ten coins. It is tied to the murmuring of the Pharisees. They were murmuring about the Lord Jesus. The Lord Jesus, at the beginning of this chapter, is seen to be accepting sinners and tax collectors and dining with them. The Pharisees grumble, just like the people of Israel did in the wilderness. They murmured in the crowd. It was not loud complaining. They were not challenging the Lord, or heckling from the crowd. They just did not like this upstart preacher from the countryside; he was just a carpenter after all. And so in the midst of the crowd of listeners, in the midst of the congregation, amidst those who would hear and follow Jesus, these Pharisees began to complain and mutter to others. "He’s no good. How can he be? He receives sinners and tax collectors and eats with them!" With their complaints, they tried to poison the atmosphere. With their murmuring, they undermined the preaching of the gospel. With their complaints, they interfered with the ability of others to hear and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Their murmuring and complaining was a serious offence. In response, the Lord Jesus tells parables— first a parable about some sheep and a shepherd; then about some coins and a woman; and then about two sons and a father; a parable about return, finding, and coming to life. However, with return, leaving is implied. With finding, first there is loosing. With coming back to life, first there must be dying.
Long before turning and returning the son had left. He engaged in radical rejection. He rejected his father’s home, his hearth. He rejected his father’s heart, his father’s love.
The father’s joy is rooted in sorrow. His celebration has mourning in the background. The father’s experience of the tender joy of return is accented by the bitterness of loss and leaving: of sorrow. To understand compassion we must understand brokenness.
To understand this story well, we must understand that younger son. Long before turning, and restoration, and joy, and celebration, the younger son had left. He abandoned his father’s love. Today we will hear about how he left.
The Lord willing, in the near future we will return to this parable a number of times and examine his return, his brother’s response, and his father’s love.
This morning I would proclaim the Word of God as it is presented to us in the loss of the younger son. We will do so under this theme.
The younger son rejects his father’s love.
- 1. Radical rejection
- 2. Defiant deafness
- 3. Selfish searching
- 4. Licentious living
1. Radical Rejection
These three parables (of sheep, of coins and of sons… perhaps they should be seen as just one parable) are about being lost and being found. Of sorrow, of anxiety at loss, and of joy and celebration at finding. The Lord Jesus told these parables because his opponents were complaining that he was eating and drinking with sinners. They thought that it was scandalous to entertain "sinners." The Pharisees were separatists. They muttered about the Lord that he "welcomes sinners and eats with them." And so the Lord tells about finding the lost sheep and the celebration it caused. About finding the lost coin and the rejoicing it prompted. And about the man with his two sons and the feast that they had when the one who departed, returned.
The story begins with the younger son requesting the family assets that would eventually be his so that he might go on his way. He said to his father, "Let me have the share of the estate that falls to me." In the Middle East, the eldest son would get a double portion. So in this story the man has two sons. The eldest would get two-thirds; the younger one third. The father complies. From the parable, we understand that this father was not poor. He has servants; he can have a feast; he has fine robes and signet rings. He is a prince of some sort, or a very wealthy businessman. Amazingly, he complies without question. He gives the young man his share of the estate. The young man gathers together all he received, turns it into cash, and leaves. The story is so short and pointed that we hardly think that much is happening.
But it is hard to imagine the significance of this unheard of event. Those who heard this parable from the mouth of the Lord might have gasped or held their breath. What is happening here is hurtful, offensive, and selfish. It is a radical rejection of the father’s love and position. No son in Jesus’ day would ask such a thing. The request means that he wants his father to die and he no longer has the patience to wait till his death. He wants the money coming to him, and he wants it now. "Show me the money!"
Not only does he want his part, he wants to be able to do with it as he wills. The father should have been able to continue to live off the wealth of the estate. If both sons did as the younger did, the father would have been put out on the street. The younger son demands that to which he had no right until after the death of his father. We can show that this young man is impertinent to the extreme. Who among us with a successful family farming operation would grant this request? Imagine that a young son would want to leave the farm to seek his fame and fortune in the big city. How many would request, receive and sell their portion of the family farm before they go?
Moreover, the son’s request and leaving is more radical and much more offensive than it first seems. It is heartless rejection of the home in which he was born and nurtured. He leaves for a distant country. This is not just the desire to do some traveling, but it is the desire to get out from the restraints and constraints of living within the family home. This is about a drastic cutting loose from the way of thinking and living, and being, and acting, that has been handed to him by his father. This is not just disrespect, but betrayal of family values and community. The distant country is the world, where what home considers holy is disregarded.
How can we say all this? Well, the son does not ask for his inheritance. For with the inheritance would come responsibility. With the inheritance would come customs, and honour, and tradition. No, he just asks for the wealth, the substance of the estate; he cares not for the moral obligations that come with the estate. He takes his wealth for granted. He just assumes that since he is the son of his father, child of the household, that he has rights to the wealth and privilege. He not only asks for the division of the estate, but also for the right to dispose of his part as he sees fit. This young man rejects responsibility. He wants benefits, without obligation.
And when we look into the mirror then we must say, "That’s me!" This parable, perhaps more than any other, is about the relationship between the Father and those of his household. It is about the Father in the covenant of grace and his people. It is about his boundless mercy and compassionate love. It is about grace unlimited. Of love unconditional. This is the center: unconditional love. It is about love for sinners who are not worthy of Father’s love and yet he loves them completely.
When we place ourselves in the light of this story then we are exposed as young men. When that divine love is shone upon me, upon you, then we are exposed and uncovered. Leaving home is much closer to our spiritual experience than we might have thought. There is that radical separation that we so often engage in. That taking for granted that the covenant inheritance is ours to do with as we please. As if we had a right to the covenant inheritance and its riches! As if the promise of Father’s providential care, of the Son’s riches, forgiveness of sin and everlasting righteousness, of the Holy Spirit’s presence — as if these were ours by right and privilege! As if they belonged to us because of us!
But back to the young man: The young man receives that for which he has no right until his father dies. The implication is that "Father, I can’t wait for you to die. I want to get on with my life and you are in my way. I want to leave this place."
2. Defiant Deafness
And so with defiant deafness the young man leaves. He receives his share and disposes of his third of the estate. He liquidates it. He turns it into cash. He does it soon. Gold and silver in his purse, he sets out to a far country, a distant land. He leaves home. However, leaving home is much more than being bound and released from some historical place. Leaving home is the denial of the spiritual reality that I belong to God with every part of my being. My life, my soul, my heart, my inner being. Leaving home is a denial that my name is engraved into the palm of God hands (Isaiah 49:16). Leaving home is living as if I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one. Leaving home to the far country is this: not hearing the voice of the good shepherd. It is not following him. Leaving home, going into the world is ignoring, not hearing, the Lord’s prayer that his own are not of the world, yet in it (John 17).
And of course there is a great difference in this part of the parable—the part about the father and his sons—a great difference from what came before. The one sheep in 100 did not want to be lost. It would be bleating on the hillside, alone, frightened, and sick unto death. It would be overjoyed at being found. The one coin in ten did not leave. It could not, it was misplaced, dropped, lost by the owner. But the lad, the young man, he was lost by choice. He wants to be his own boss. He stops his ears to father’s wisdom. He wants his own way.
He seems to think that his father is in his way. "It is always, ‘Don’t do this and don’t do that!’ It is always ‘Mind your responsibilities!’ Always it comes around to those infernal, ‘You shall nots!’ You and your commandments, rules, curfews and family laws! Let me out of here! My father is always yanking on my chain."
It has been like this since Adam and Eve. They too were in Father’s house, so to say. And they would not obey. There too was that sign, "You shall not!" with all its alluring dark secrets. And Adam, at the instigation of the Devil, and in wilful disobedience robbed himself and his posterity of God’s good gifts. Ever since, mankind refuses to hear and instead mutters: "Those annoying limitations! You call this freedom! Ha! Always barriers, forbidden pleasures, warnings, dangers: how is a person to develop and live his own life with father always spoiling everything?" And so the young man does not hear a thing any more. He will not listen. Why won’t he listen?
Home, in this parable, is where we can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. It is where we hear the Word and teaching of our Lord. It is where we hear the voice of the Son of God to set us free to live in this dark world while yet remaining in the light. But this young man is deaf. He will not hear. He will not listen.
What does that voice say, that this young man refuses to hear in his defiant deafness? Whose voice is it? It is the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ that says, "My disciples, my children, do not belong to the world, any more than I belong to the world. Consecrate them in your truth, Father. As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world, but not to be part of it but to bring my glory into it."
When we hear the voice of the Lord, seeking the lost, calling out to us, "Where are you? Where are you?" then we should be like that lost sheep, alone and lost in the wilderness, overjoyed to be found. Then I can walk through the valley of the shadow of death: no evil would I fear. Here with the good shepherd there is security. Here with the father is sanctuary and safety. Here with the father is purpose and direction. Here with the father is blessing and grace. But yet, over and over, we with the younger son, leave home.
How many of us have not left home with him. This is the great tragedy of the lives of God’s people. Time and again we reject the Father’s love and go off into sin, seeking the pleasures of this world. We want to find our own way.
It is the sorrow of fathers’ hearts from generation to generation. That sons and daughters leave home. Not that they grow up and find a girl friend or boy friend and get married. Not that they grow up and move out to live on their own. But rather, that they leave the spiritual home of God’s grace. That they leave the spiritual household of God’s covenant. That they leave the household where God has called them his beloved.
So many have become deaf to the voice that calls them, "beloved." So many have left the only place where they can hear that voice, and gone off desperately hoping to find somewhere else that which they thought they needed and could not find at home. And we need not even leave the church. There are so many times that we do not hear. We murmur and grumble. We plug our ears. We engage in defiant deafness, thinking that we can find what we need by listening to the message of the far away country. And this is unbelievable! Why should we leave the place where all we need to hear can be heard? Why should we stop our ears defiantly?
But there are so many voices. Voices that are loud, seductive, mysterious, engaging, inviting. Voices that say, "Come on now: Prove yourself." Even as the Lord Jesus, immediately after his baptism and having heard the voice from heaven was brought into the wilderness to be tempted. He was tempted by the voices of the world, by the voice of the devil himself, that he would be loved if he were successful, popular and powerful.
There in the far country the voices call that we should be the best we can be. That we must be achievers. That we must be top dogs for anybody to care for us. That I must first of all watch out for number one because there are none to watch for me. "Be sure to make it through school and do it on your own. Those trophies show how good you are. Your grades, how successful you will be. Your friends determine how much power you will have. Your beauty will define your popularity. Oh, don’t show your weakness to any one because they’ll destroy in a moment!" These are the voices of the far country.
When we hear the voice of the Son of God and listen to him then there is no need to fear: the Siren call of the world is harmless. But when we forget unconditional love and begin to think that love is earned, then all those things become the call of the distant country.
Anger, resentment, jealousy, lust, greed, desire for revenge, rivalries: these are the obvious expression that we have left home for that distant land. And then we fall into the trap of bitterness: "Why did so and so hurt me, reject me, not pay attention to me?" We brood about others’ successes, our own loneliness, our failures. And then we dream about becoming rich, famous and powerful. And so we leave home in search of fulfillment. In search of that which we think we cannot find at home with the Father. And so we go on a journey of selfish searching.
3. Selfish Searching
And this then is the question: To whom do we belong? To the Father or to the world? Surely the father and the son in this parable must have spoken many times. The son might have said, "Father I want to be independent. You must give me my freedom. I can’t go on living like this with all the restrictions you place on me. I’m big and grown up know; quit treating me like a child. I want my liberty. I feel as if I am chained like galley slaves to oars. I long for air; I need my space, I want my freedom."
And the father would have replied something like this. "Do you really think that you’re not free? After all, you are a child of the house. You can come to me whenever you wish and tell me of all and any troubles you might have. You share in all the benefits of the family. All that I have I share with you. There are many who would be happy to have such a son’s privilege. Isn’t that freedom? My whole kingdom belongs to you. I love you, and give you daily bread. I forgive your trespasses with joy when you bring to me the burdens of your heart, your guilt, your conscience. You are bound to no one: you are free: subject to no one, but me. And yet you say you are not free?"
And the son says: "Father I am sick and tired of all this stuff. This training, these rules, this restraint. You will not let me do what I want. Freedom means doing what I want when I want." But the father replies: "Freedom is not becoming a servant of your desires; a slave to lust and passion. It is not being chained to your ambition; your need for recognition; your love for money, wealth and riches. Why do I forbid you these? To limit your freedom? No, never! But to secure your freedom. That you might remain free. That you might live worthy of son ship because you are my son. Not to take your freedom. Not even to make you free. But because you are already free. Free because of my love for you and my grace to you." But the son leaves in search of freedom, freedom to do as he pleases. What sorrow! What grief!
And so he heads out in selfish searching. Denying his father’s love he goes out in search of self-fulfillment. In search of love. Of fun. Of passion. He takes his share of the estate and searches for friends in a far off land. He needs to spend his money to make friends. He spends prodigiously. That is where this word comes from. Prodigal does not mean he who returns. It means spendthrift. It describes this son at his worst. The prodigal son is the son at his worst. One who in wild generosity consumes his livelihood in riotous living.
4. Licentious Living
He is the one who just for once wants to cut loose. "Is that so bad? I’m just a young fellow." That is often the attitude of young people. Also some seated here today. "Is it so bad to just let loose. Go party. Go to the bar. Do some drugs. Play some VLTs. Buy some beer and throw the friends a party. Why not? My friends and I will have a blast. I mean, if I don’t, then I’ll not taste life to the full. I might miss something. I’ll show mom and dad what I can do. They can’t stop me. I’ll go out and live in the world. Where neither mom nor dad—not even God—can make a difference. Then when I’ve had my fun, I’ll return and find my place back in the inheritance and the communion of the church. I don’t intend to be a rascal, or a crook, or even a bad guy. I just want to cut loose and have some fun."
And so the youngest son asks his father; he demands of his father that he get his portion of the estate. The elder brothers balks, I’m sure. "You think that that is a good thing. To go hanging around in the sinks and the dives of the world. This is the worst mistake that you can make. You have to be obedient to your father. Then when the time is right you will get what you’ve got coming."
And what does father do? The very unexpected. He does not scold his youngest son. He does not deny him. He does not discipline him. He goes and gets the money. The younger sons says: "Show me the money," and the father simply does. The son can do as he wants. The father’s action demonstrates remarkable love. Neither the shepherd in search of the sheep, nor the woman in search for the coin, do anything out of the ordinary beyond what anyone in their place would do. But the actions the father takes are unique, marvellous, divine actions that have not been done by any father in the past. Father grants the right of possession and disposition to his lost son. For he was lost, not in that far away land. But he was lost already before he left.
Note, however, that the father’s actions are not rejection. For we know the father watches, watches, watches for the return of his son. He will wait and never stop watching. Even as the good shepherd did not stop calling until he found the one of a hundred. Just as the woman did not stop seeking until she found the one of ten. So also the father did not stop waiting and watching till the one of two returned.
Some have said that leaving 99 on the hillside in search of one was irresponsible. That it endangered the 99. But the 99 were afforded security. They knew that the good shepherd cared. That he watched over them; he counted them; he loved them as his own. The 99 know that they are loved. And so also the sons, they could know that father loved them. That he watched for them. That he waited for his wastrel son with unconditional love.
And that young son—he lives in grand style. He goes far away so that none might send him home or find him. He is not lost on some local hillside like a sheep. He is not lost on the kitchen floor like a coin. He runs away! Far away! Where none can find or even reach him.
And there he begins to party. He has friends; of both sexes. He opens up his bank account and begins to spend. He buys fancy clothes. His house is first class; better than most. He is making an impression. He hears the voice of the world. "Impress those around you; then they’ll be your friends." And friends come like flies to honey. But his money runs through his fingers.
And yet, he cannot escape that all that he has, has come from his father. But he uses and abuses everything without really taking into account his father. His body which he adores, his clothes which he loves, his lifestyle which he needs, his possessions, his food and drink, they came from the capital his father gave him. And in themselves they are good blessings. When the father in heaven gives us good things they are blessings. The harvest is good. The economy is good. Life is good. For the most part, we enjoy peace and security, and unprecedented wealth. But when we use them without reference to the father, they are simply wasted.
And so we come to the conclusion of the matter. In all of this we see God’s covenant love. Though the relationship is severed between son and father. Between son and family. Between son and community and congregation. Even so the father remains father. Son remains son.
There is a striking relationship between this parable, between this request of the younger son and Lord’s Day 46. There the catechism deals with the Lord’s Prayer and the way we address our Father. There we read and confess that God has become our Father through Christ and will much less deny us what we ask of him in faith than our fathers would deny us earthly things.
This is what the Lord Jesus teaches in Matt 7:9 and Luke 11:11. Our Father, when we ask in faith will grant us good things. He will also, however, often grant us things we want and demand even when we seize them in rebellion. But he always remains the Father. His Word continues to come to us. His Holy Spirit continues to seek us out. Hear then the voice of the good shepherd calling! See with the eye of faith your Father waiting for you.