Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things might be. And he said to him, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound." But he became angry, and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began entreating him. But he answered and said to his father, "Look! For so many years I have been serving you, and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a kid, that I might be merry with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with harlots, you killed the fattened calf for him." And he said to him, "My child, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to be merry and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found."
Up till now in Luke 15 Jesus is showing with parables what it means that he "receives sinners and eats with them." This was the accusation of the "Pharisees and scribes" in verse 2. Jesus said, in effect, when I receive sinners and eat with them, it is like a shepherd seeking and finding a lost sheep and rejoicing; it is like a woman seeking and finding a lost coin and rejoicing; and it is like a Father running out to welcome home a rebellious son who was humbled and repentant. Jesus' words and actions toward sinners are the love of God reaching out for sinners. That's what it means when he receives sinners and eats with them.
A Word to the Prodigal's Elder Brother
Now at verse 25 the parable of the prodigal son takes a turn. Instead of answering the question: what does it mean that Jesus is eating with tax-gatherers and sinners, the question now is: what does it mean that the Pharisees and scribes are NOT eating with them? What does it mean that the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling about Jesus' eating with them? That's what this last part of the parable is about. Let's read the end of the first half of the parable, starting with verse 24. The happy father says,
"This son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found." And they began to be merry. Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things might be. And he said to him, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound." But he became angry, and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began entreating him. But he answered and said to his father, "Look! For so many years I have been serving you, and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a kid, that I might be merry with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with harlots, you killed the fattened calf for him." And he said to him, "My child, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to be merry and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found."
As we unpack this, most of us need to listen very carefully. This is passage for long-time churchgoers. This is a passage for 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.
The elder brother represents the Pharisees and scribes who are standing by suspiciously and condemningly, while Jesus is eating with tax-gatherers and sinners. So let's see what Jesus shows us about these people and what he shows us about God's love for them.
These words go straight to the heart of what Christianity is. It's a right relationship to God as our Father through faith. If we get that wrong, all goes wrong. And it seems that the elder brother got it wrong.
Slave or Son?
The key words to show this are the words of the elder brother in verse 29:
Look! [He says to his father] For so many years I have been serving you, and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a kid, that I might be merry with my friends.
There are several clues here that the way he relates to his father is dishonoring to his father and disuniting to his brother and destructive to himself.
- How does he see himself and his father relating? Answer: as master and slave. "Look! For so many years I have been serving you." "Serving." The word is for what a servant or a slave does. This is not the identity of a son, but of a slave. "For so many years I have been serving you."
- Then he says, "And I have never neglected a command of yours." How does he see his father? As an issuer of commands. He sees the father as a master giving commandments, and himself as a slave paying obedience. This is not the way the father wants his children to relate to him. This is a distortion of Christianity. It is not the Christian life
Acts 17:25 says,
God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything, for he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.
It dishonors God to treat him as a master in need of slave labor. What honors God is not slave labor, but childlike faith in his all-sufficiency.
Jesus said in Mark 10:45,
The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus did not come and hang out a help-wanted sign. He came and hung out a help-available sign. Jesus is eating with sinners because he is a doctor with a cure, not because he is an employer with a labor shortage.
The Pharisees and scribes couldn't see that because they themselves had a totally different mindset: "For so many years I have been serving you, and I have never neglected a command of yours."
Test yourself here. I fear that at this point many might say, "It seems to me that the elder brother really has a legitimate complaint." If you say that, you're not getting it. You are still thinking in the old way of master and slave and works. Not the Christian way of Father and child and faith. The question is not whether the son really has kept all the commandments; the question is whether the father wants to be related to as commander to slave.
The Folly of a Slave Mentality
What happens when we relate to God that way? Everything is distorted.
We are disunited and alienated from the needy and sinners. Why? Because we feel intuitively that we have worked hard to stay right with God, and there is no way that those who haven't worked like we have are going to come in here as Johnny-come-latelys and mooch off what is rightfully ours by such long-term, hard, loyal slave labor. Thinking wrongly about our relation to God like this alienates us from the weak and sinners. It makes us angry and resentful of mercy. Instead of rejoicing with the Father, we pout about our superior merit being overlooked.
It makes us into blamers. Notice verse 30: "When this son of yours came . . . " Not: "When my lost brother came home . . . " but: "This son of yours . . . " There is an ominous ring to this. It sounds like Adam saying to God: "This woman whom you gave to me, she made me do it." "This son of yours" is the one that messed up. When we are relating to God as slave to Master on the basis of our hard work, instead of child to Father on the basis of trust and grace, we will be ready even to blame God for the mess-ups in the world. Our whole pattern of thinking and feeling will keep us from grasping the dynamics of grace.
A Father's Tender Love for a Hypocrite
What then does the father have to say about all this? What will Jesus teach us about how God really relates to his children? Here is the positive side of the parable—how the father relates to the elder brother. Keep in mind, now, that this is Jesus reaching out to the Pharisees and the scribes in that very room, looking out over the heads of the harlots and drug dealers and Mafia. This is what Jesus says to those this morning who have been going to church for decades and have grown hard and merciless and excessively separatistic and who feel disgust more often than they feel compassion.
Notice five simple and gracious things that the Father does to the elder brother:
1. The Father Came out to Him
Verse 28b: "And his father came out."
The father heard inside that his older son is angry and won't come in. One of those horrible family moments when the whole dinner is about to be ruined because someone is in a tiff and won't come to the table. Only this is far deeper and far worse. What does the father do? How does he deal with his son? He deals with him the same way he dealt with the younger one. He does not send a servant to get him. He does not holler from a distance and command his son to come into the house. He goes himself. God came into the world to save hypocrites as well as harlots. He is willing to approach them face to face and . . . and what?
2. The Father Entreated Him
Verse 28c: "And his father came out and began entreating him."
I think Jesus means the word here to fly right in the face of what the elder brother would say. The brother would say in verse 29, "I never neglected one of your commandments." And here we have the Father "entreating" not commanding and the son resisting not complying. He has a right to command his son. But even here in a critical moment when he has every right to be angry that the elder brother is so selfish and resentful and rude, he is not first angry. He does not want slavish obedience. He is entreating; exhorting; appealing to the son's heart. In Philemon 1:8 Paul says to his friend, Philemon,
Though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you [or command you] to do that which is proper, yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you [same word].
This is the point: the father is not just trying to get the son to perform the right action; he is trying to awaken him to what a relationship of love is like.
3. The Father Calls Him "My Child"
After the son's bitter complaint, the father responds in verse 31, and his first words are all-important: "And he said to him, 'My child.'"
Not: "My servant." Or: "My slave." But: "My child." In the original it is simply, "Child." With this one word the father exposes all the deep distortion in the son's heart. "I have been serving you and I never passed over one commandment . . . " The father didn't try to argue that point. It would lead nowhere. The whole relationship was built on the wrong footing. With one word he sets it right: "Child." Hear my word: Child. This is the relationship we must have, if you are ever to join the banquet.
And what is the essence of that relationship?
4. The Father Says, "You Are Always with Me"
Verse 31: "My child, you have always been with me." Or, literally: "You are always with me."
With me. You are a child. I am your father. And you are with me. With me. With me. Here is the deepest void in the elder brother's heart. He lived in the house of the father and found no satisfaction from being with the father. Some of the most ominous words in the elder brother's mouth are these: "You have never given me a kid, that I might be merry with my friends." Now this is strange. Here is the heir of the estate. He has at his disposal flocks of goats and herds of cattle. And he has a father who is manifestly kind and gracious. What then do these hard, indicting words mean? They are the words of person for whom the grace and glory of his father have ceased to be his treasure. They are the words of a person whose heart is with his friends outside the family and who is feeling locked in to the father's table, when he would really rather be with others.
O how many people are in the Christian church who want out, and are afraid to leave. When they hear the Father say, "You are always with me—with ME," it means nothing. He is no longer their treasure. He is a means to their treasure. And if they could have their party with their friends, they would take their goat and go.
O how we need to pray that our love would be to God and not to his gifts. But there is a word about gifts. God will even go to this length.
5. The Father Says, "All That Is Mine Is Yours"
The father says in verse 31, "All that is mine is yours."
Jesus is looking over the head of sinners and staring the hardened Pharisee right in the face and saying on behalf of God Almighty, "All that is mine is yours." As an inheritance for a son, not a wage for a slave. "All that is mine is yours"—IF you will come in with the sinners. If you will stop relating to me as a slave. If you will be satisfied with all I am for you as a Father. If you will receive grace and let it flow through you to your brother.
If you stay out here on the porch; if you insist on relating to me as a worthy slave . . .
The Consequences Are Left Unmentioned
Jesus is entreating the Pharisees. He is entreating all of us. Sinners of the worldly kind and sinners of the religious kind. Come in from the foreign country of misery, and come in from the porch of hard-earned merit. Both are deadly. But inside is the banquet of grace, and forgiveness, and fellowship with an all-satisfying Father, and an inheritance unfading, undefiled, incorruptible, kept in heaven for all who live by faith in grace and not by earning merit.