Sermon 4: The Father Receives Sons Home - Rev. J. L. van Popta
Text: Luke 15:20-24; 28-32
Reading: Isaiah 9:6-7; 57:14-21; 61:7-11
Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ
When we read the parable of the man with two sons, because we know the story so well, we often do not see all the difficulties it presents. We think, because we know it so well, that we also understand it so well.
A Muslim has said of this parable, however, that it proves that the cross is unnecessary for forgiveness. The boy comes home. His father welcomes him. There is no cross. No incarnation. Therefore, Islam with no cross, no Saviour, presents the true gospel.
And then hearing this comment we look back at the parable and we say, "Yes, there seems to be no cross, no Saviour." Nevertheless, this is a parable told by the Saviour! How can this be? How can this parable, which many have called Evangelium in Evangelio, the Gospel in the Gospel, how can this parable then not teach us of Christ, if Christ is the one who tells the story?
How can there be no incarnation, no mediator, no Saviour and yet we celebrate the birth of a Saviour at Bethlehem?
This morning then we will try to answer these and some other questions and so close off our treatment of this tale of two sons. (This being the fourth time we have looked at this parable.)
I proclaim the Word of God to you as it comes to us in the person of the father in this parable. I do so with this theme:
The father loves his sons and receives them home
- 1. The father welcomes sons home.
- 2. The father calls for a celebration.
1. The father welcomes sons home.
The mid-eastern landowner lives in a village, not out on his land. Today this is so; it was thus also in the past. This is universally evident from archaeology and from documents of the day. Therefore, when the Lord told this parable, we can confidently say that the people hearing it would have imagined the father living in the village.
Now about that father, living in the village. Perhaps the father imagines that his younger son will fail. He anticipates that his son will return someday. Many others in the village, however, assume that he is dead. Or as good as dead. He has left his father’s home and hearth. He has rejected his father’s heart. And the village would have cast him out of their memory. A failure and maybe dead. He may as well be dead. At least they know him to be lost. Lost in more than one way.
Yet the father longs for his son. He waits for him. The others in the village would have talked about the father, and how he did this impossible thing. He had given one third of his estate to his son who then had left with it in hand. They might have told the father that he should not have done this thing. At least they are talking about the father and his strange lack of wisdom. His foolish act. Yet, the father waits for him. Maybe… maybe… he will return one day. Maybe as a beggar. Maybe as a failure. But yet the father waits.
The father also knows that if his son returns the young man will have to face the citizens of the village. He knows how the crowd will treat him. He will draw great crowds. Think of the return of Naomi in Ruth chapter one. The whole village asks about her. The whole community is abuzz. The prodigal, if he ever returns, will most certainly be met with scorn and mockery. A crowd will assemble spontaneously as word flashes through the town that the father’s son has returned. A proverb of the day (not from the book of Proverbs) says that there are four things that terrify—two of them are, "slander by a whole town, and the gathering of a mob." As soon as the son would return, if he would dare, he would have to face the mob. He will be taunted and scorned for losing his inheritance. He will be verbally and maybe even physically abused.
In the days of the Lord Jesus, there was little worse that a son could do than loose his inheritance to Gentiles. They even had a ceremony to ban and shun such a looser. The community would shout out together, "So and so is cut off from his people!" From that point on, the village would have nothing to do with such a one. He would be excommunicated, cast out, shunned, disciplined. And this, the father knows. He knows his son, if ever he would return, would face the scorn of the village. The father is painfully aware of what a homecoming would be like for one who has rejected the village community. His son would be humiliated.
So the father stands: watching, waiting, looking, anticipating the return of his son. We have heard that the younger son has a plan. A plan that he kept repeating on his way home. "‘Father!’ I will say, ‘Father, I have sinned….’" But the father, he too has his own plan. He knows what he will do if the day should ever come that news arrives that his son is coming home. He waits day after day, gazing down the village street to the roadway in the distance. He looks to the horizon over which his son had left with high hopes and arrogance. The prodigal, on the other hand, that wastrel son, he knows that he will be an outcast. That he cannot come back into the family. He knows the ceremony of excommunication, of shunning, of banning.
The prodigal knows that he should return with generous gifts for his family. Instead all that he can do is practice his confession: "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 men. Do not have me as a son. Make me work to earn my keep. Only take me back. I’ll make it worth your while. I will earn my place within your home. Take me back, lest I die of hunger.’"
He is repentant, but as we saw the other time, he does not know his father well. He thinks that he can earn his keep. That his place within the covenant home is an earned place. However, he will learn something new today as he approaches home. For father also has a plan. And he puts his plan into action. He will reach the son before the son reaches home. He will achieve reconciliation in public and then no one in the village will dare to treat the lost son badly. His son will not be banned, or shunned, or cut off from the people, if only he can reach his son first. And so he waits, watching, looking down the road.
Then the father sees him, he sees him, while he is still far off. He sees his son in the distance. And that great distance is not only a distance of meters or miles, but it is also still a spiritual distance. The son, having come to his senses, returns to his father, but yet he is far off the mark. The prodigal thinks that he can earn money and so solve the problem. Yes, even as he comes near, he is far off; he is at a great distance.
In Isaiah 57:19, we can read that God affirms peace to those who are far off and to those who are near. This, the father sets out to do. Through a great dramatic action, he is going to announce peace to one who is far off. Who has been at a great distance. And then he will proclaim peace to one who is near (the older brother.)
And so the father again breaks the pattern of a mid-eastern patriarch. He takes the bottom of his robes in hand and runs out to meet his pig-herding son in the street. He grabs him in his arms and kisses him. He does this before his long lost son is able to confess his sin. Even as Isaiah 57 says, "I was enraged by his sinful greed… yet he kept on in his wilful ways. I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him." The father does not demonstrate his love to his son in response to his son’s confession. No, but out of his own compassion, he empties himself, assumes the form of a servant and runs to be reconciled to his estranged son.
Mid Easterners do not run in their robes. Dignified men do not run. An ancient proverb says, "A man’s manner of walking tells you what he is." In Eastern eyes, it is so terribly undignified for an elderly man to run. Even Aristotle wrote, "Great men never run in public."
The father had compassion on his son and will heal him, guide him, restore him. He does not wait for his son to make his way into the village. He does not wait even for his son to speak. Rather the father assumes a humiliating posture for his child. He kisses his dirty son; he hugged his son in rags. The father speaks no words there at the edge of the village. He substitutes kisses for words. His hands and arms for speeches.
His son is overwhelmed. He can only offer the first part of his practiced speech. "Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." His practiced speech takes on new meaning. He now understands that he cannot work in order for reconciliation to be achieved. He cannot be a hired hand and so earn his place in father’s household. Reconciliation comes only through the unconditional love of the father. He sees suddenly that the only way home is through his father’s heart. The father does not interrupt his son or cut him off. It is not as if the son began and father spoke. No, now there is genuine repentance. And father escorts his son back into the village.
The younger son sees father’s grace demonstrated in his condescending action of becoming a servant. Of putting off his glory. Of running and hugging and kissing before he can speak. The son thought that reconciliation would come by his acceptance of a position of servant. That reconciliation would come through humbling himself and taking of the role of servant. But it is the father who humbles himself. It is the father who becomes the servant.
The father has come down and out to reconcile his child to himself. And so the we see that the father becomes a symbol of Christ Jesus himself. This is not God the Father of the Trinity, but God who has become our father. He is the son who is born to us. Who was born at Bethlehem. Of whom Isaiah wrote in 9:6, Whose name shall be "Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father."
He proclaims peace to those who are far and who are near. At Christmas we commemorate in a special way that God came down and out to us in the person of the eternal Son, born as Jesus in Bethlehem, that he might meet us on the road and reconcile us to himself. Though he was in the form of God, he made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness (Philippians 2). The father in the parable is God in Christ.
In the Old Testament the shepherd is God the Lord, Yahweh (Psalm 23; Jeremiah 23; Ezekiel 34). The Lord Jesus transforms that Old Testament image to be an image of himself. The Good Shepherd of John 10, the seeking shepherd of Luke 15. The Old Testament Father is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Pharisees had murmured, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." The Lord replies with this story. "Yes, I do eat with sinners, I look for them as a good shepherd would seek for a lost lamb. I seek for the lost, as a woman would her coin. Actually, it is even worse than you thought. I run down the road, when I see lost sons, and shower them with kisses and embrace them, and then escort them home that I might eat with them, for I am the father in the parable." The father in his self-giving love on the road is a symbol of Jesus. The Saviour. The Mediator.
This is reinforced in that he not only goes out to greet his younger son, he also goes out to meet his elder son. The one with a bitter heart: hardened, hurtful, hypocritical. We read how, when the father takes his younger brother home and kills the fattened calf, the elder will not come into the banquet. We heard last time how he would not go in. How bitter he was. How angry and hurt he was. How jealous he was when he thought that the father loved his brother best. "Father always loved you best! I will not come to the banquet." By his refusal, he engages in an unspeakable public insult to the father.
And the father hears that his son is outside, refusing to come in. He hears of the insult of his son. That he will not greet the guests. That he will not serve at table. It is like a son, here in our midst, who would get into a public shouting match with his father in the middle of a banquet after a wedding of the oldest daughter. A disagreement, even shouting at each other, that might happen between a father and a son, but not at sister’s wedding banquet. The guests would not know where to look or what to do. Many would simply get up and go home. Such was the insult of the elder son.
The older son’s rejection of his father’s reconciliation with the younger leads the elder to break his relationship with his father. And what does the father do? Does he throw his hands up in despair? "I have gained one son, at the cost of the other?" No, not at all! Is he angry with his elder son? Does he simply ignore him, leaving him to sulk in the darkness? "I’ll deal with him later." No, not at all! Once again, the father does the unexpected. The radically different. The surprising.
For the second time in a day, he is willing to offer a costly demonstration of love. Only now, his love is shown to the law keeper, not the lawbreaker. Amazing grace is shown to both sons. The father, as patriarch would have been expected to ignore his petulant elder son. He would be expected to ignore this insult and deal with the matter later. But, no, again he goes out. Now, not running down the street to greet his child, but he goes out into the courtyard to plead with his son, within earshot of his guests. In painful public humiliation, the father goes out to seek the lost child, the lost sheep. He goes out with sorrow. This one is so close, yet so far away. He lives in the midst of covenant blessing and yet has no joy. We see the father going out, a grief observed.
God in Christ goes down and out into the darkness to call his law-keeping child into the light. He humbles himself. He invites him in. Nevertheless, angrily, the elder says, "All these years I’ve been slaving for you. I have been your servant. Now I’m angry; I’ve had it!"
But why was that elder son so angry at his father’s actions?
2. The father calls for a celebration.
Because the father had called for a celebration (our second point). He called for the very best for his younger son. He had called for a feast, a banquet. And why did he throw this feast? The reason lies at the heart of the parable.
In this parable, however, there are three interpretations, three reasons given, for the feast. Each is important for us to examine. The father tells us why he wants to have a feast. The boy in the street tells the elder brother why there is a banquet. And the elder brother has his opinion.
The father has gone out to meet his younger son and is escorting him back into the village. Reconciliation has been assured and he says, "Let’s have a feast and celebrate!" Why? "Well, because this son of mine was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found." The father does not say that the son was lost and has come home. He does not say that he had left and now returned. Instead, he says, "He was lost and is found." So who found him? The father did! Where? At the edge of the village. The son was still dead and lost at the edge of the village. Just as the shepherd had to pay a high price to find his lost sheep; even as the woman had to work diligently to find the lost coin; so also the father had to go out with a costly demonstration of unexpected love to find and to resurrect his son from the dead. The banquet is a celebration of the success of finding and resurrecting the dead and lost child. The father is celebrating his own work in his young son.
And what of the boy in the street? What does he say when the elder brother asks? He says to the elder, "Your brother has come and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound." But better, perhaps, would be to translate the that he has his son back in peace. For that is what it says: He has him back in peace. The word used here is a common word used for "peace" through out the Greek Old Testament. The word means good health but it means so much more. It does not just mean safe and sound or in good health. It was a word used in greeting. We might say—as many do in Dutch—we might say to someone who is facing a challenge, sterkte. But we mean much more than strength. We mean, "May you receive all that you need in what ever circumstance you face. May you receive from the Lord, not just physical strength, but also emotional and spiritual peace for the task at hand." Thus this word is used here. The boy says that the father has received his child back in peace.
The father is not just celebrating that his rebellious son has returned safely. No, he rejoices that reconciliation has been achieved, reconciliation between the child and himself, and between the child and the village. The boy confirms the father’s interpretation. The banquet is a celebration for the father’s success at reconciliation and peace, not just that the lost son found his own way home. The father has received his son, a sinner and is eating with him. This was the charge of the Pharisees against Jesus. This is the confirmation of the boy. Both the father and the boy testify that in the story the father is a symbol of Jesus.
And what of this banquet? What does it all mean? What does the father do, when he has received and kissed his son? He calls his servants and commands them; he orders them into action. The servants are there with the father. They have run down the street after him. That must have been quite a scene, don’t you think? The father running, his servants running after him!
The father commands his servants to dress the son as they would a king. The young swine-herder is not told to take a shower and get changed. No. The servants are to dress him. The servants are told to respect this son and to receive him in peace. They are to give him the best robe: the father’s own, undoubtedly. The boy had taken all that he had and squandered it. He has no garments, just rags, filthy rags. Now his rags are exchanged for robes. The best robes.
Those who come to the feast must see that he is dressed in the robes of his father. And in Isaiah 61:10 we hear of robes. "He has clothed me with garments of salvation; he has arrayed me in a robe of righteousness." Think of Matt 22 where a man dared to enter the wedding banquet without the robes supplied by the king. It did not go well with him. But most of all, think of Zechariah’s vision in the third chapter of his prophecy. Zechariah sees Joshua the high priest in dirty clothes. The angels are commanded to remove the dirty clothes and put on clean clothes and so remove his sin. By this, God takes his guilt away.
The father—Jesus then—has servants dress the sinner in his own robes of righteousness. Freely given, unasked for, garments of salvation. Moreover, he gives him shoes for his bare feet. Only slaves go barefoot. Think of the Negro spiritual. All of God’s chillun got shoes. / When I get to heab’n / I’m goin’ to put on my shoes. Shoes are for the wealthy. Even today, new shoes make us walk tall and proud. A magazine article tells of children in Africa who were asked what they wanted. Some simply said, "Shoes."
The father—the Lord Jesus—dresses the sinners with whom he desires to eat with the signs of freedom, the freedom of the children of God. He does not want hired servants, but guests dressed in his robes. He does not want slaves, but guests with shoes. He gives them a ring. A ring was a sign of authority and honour: of royalty. The children of God are to be at the feast, the banquet table, robed in righteousness, wearing a ring of royalty, with the footwear of freedom. And he puts on the great banquet. A banquet for a hundred or more. The boy is to be reconciled to the whole community. The joy is to be shared and celebrated with the grandest banquet imaginable.
What response is there to this from the son? Does the younger son say, "But father, I am not worthy to be your son. I like my plan better. Hear me out. I want to work my way back in"? No, he accepts grace. Pure grace. Grace wins the day. He knows now that he cannot make it up to the father. And now the father and his younger son can really have a celebration. Because grace has triumphed over sin and over works. Peace has come! Ah yes! The lost is found. The dead is made alive. Found by grace. Alive by grace. The lad had hoped to come home to confess and compensate. The lad who had planned to be a servant and a slave is overwhelmed and conquered by grace and so, though yet unworthy, becomes a son again. The two rejoice together, the father with his child!
Nevertheless, there is still a dark side to this parable. For how does that elder son interpret the banquet. What does he think of it all? For we left him outside in the darkness. Outside in the darkness of his bitter hardened heart.
The father hearing that his elder son is outside goes out to meet him. He goes out, not to rebuke him, nor to summon him, nor to challenge him, but to appeal to him. The father goes out to conciliate, to beseech his son. To stand beside his son and entreat him to share in his celebration.
If the father wants a slaving servant, he need not go out, for that is what he has in his son. He could simply scold him, beat him, and carry on. But no, he wants a son, not a rebel without a cause. And what does that elder say when his father invites him in to share in his joy of triumphant grace? When he asks his son to reconsider his hurtful hateful hubris. To set aside his wonton insolence and arrogance because of his excessive pride. What does he say? "You killed the fattened calf for him!" This is the exact opposite of what the father said he did or what the boy in the street told him. It is the opposite of the purpose of the banquet. The father’s banquet is one celebrating his own grace.
But the elder’s heart is full of envy, pride, bitterness, sarcasm, anger, resentment, hate, stinginess, self-centeredness. And in all this he thinks that he is defending honour: his and his father’s. He who is so near is so far. The father answers his son, in love. The father bypasses the omission of a title: his elder son does not address him as father. He ignores the bitterness: "this son of yours…." He passes over the jealousy, the anger. The father comes with grace and speaks to his son with gentleness and love. He speaks to his son, addressing him with a word of love. He does not address his son with a formal word for son, but a loving one. An affectionate one. He begins to speak to him by saying, "My dear child…." He reaches out to the elder as he did the younger. He embraced and kissed the younger, but the elder will not have it. So the father embraces and loves in his way of speaking: "My dear child…." These words come out of a wounded heart, a suffering one. The father desires to have both sons, both children within the house. Thus, in love, that knows not weariness, he was entreating his son. He continued to plead with him, but his son insults him with his bitter accusation. "You love him more than you love me." And the father reminds the elder that it is fitting to make merry and be glad, it is fitting to rejoice when lost sinners are found, when dead children come to life.
Moreover, as for the bitter complaint of slavery coming from that elder son, the father simply says, "You are heir. All of this is yours! You are with me always. What more do you want?" With this, the father removes the possibility that he loves the younger more. The father comes with unreserved, unlimited love for both his sons. No master would come out in love, with words of love and entreaty to a slave, and yet the elder complains of slavery and that he cannot take his inheritance and do what he wants with it. Here he is like his younger brother. He too wants his inheritance to spend it with his friends. "You never so much as gave me a young goat, that I might party with my friends." His desire is to be as his younger brother was. He knows not grace. He knows not love. He knows not joy.
Though the elder sees his father as a master for whom he slaved. Though he does not call him "father" and even though he speaks of the younger as that "son of yours", even so the father speaks gently to his "dear child" about his "brother." The father will not let the family dissolve in bitterness. He seeks the young and old, it matters not.
In this parable, the Lord Jesus is teaching us of two types of people. Those who are lawless without the law and those who are lawless within the law. Both rebel. Both break the father’s heart. Both end up far away: one in a distant land, physically: one distant, spiritually, in father’s house. Both are near: one in the street, one in the court yard. To both, he shows unexpected grace and love. Both think of themselves as slaves, when what the father wants is sons. Moreover, father does not make them to be slaves; he makes them to be sons. In self-humiliation, he seeks the lost. In waiting watchfulness, he finds those distant, and brings them near. In wonderful grace, he brings to life that which was dead. He proclaims peace to those near and to those far. He invites his children to the joy of knowing grace in Christ.
Did the elder hear his voice? Was he found? Did he come to life again? We do not know.
Do you hear his voice entreating you? Do you see in Jesus, the father waiting for you? Do you hear in the preaching of the gospel, the grace of God coming to you? Do you see him seeking you, in love? Have you heard his invitation to joy, when lost sinners are found? One son was saved from death and servant hood. A second insisted on remaining a slave, a hired servant.
The father, however, welcomes sons home. Do you want him to make you a hired servant, working for your keep? Or do you want to be a son, and be seated at his banquet table?