The following is a lightly edited transcript.
Now, the tax collectors and the sinners were all drawing near to him.
Tax collectors are these turncoats, these Jewish expedient compromisers. Nobody likes them. They cheat. They’re bad. Everybody knew they were bad. Then sinners,, that term doesn’t mean there are people who are and people who aren’t. This name is used for flagrant, open sinners. Everybody knows them that way.
Now, they’re gathering and drawing near to Jesus. The Pharisees and the scribes are on the other end of the religious pole. These are the experts in law and commandments, and the most religious — the most rigorous, religious — folks around. That’s where I’m seeing myself here. I’m a professional religious guy. They’re grumbling, and they’re saying, Jesus “receives sinners and eats with them.” That’s the setup of the chapter.
A Chapter of Parables
Now, Jesus’s response to that is the whole chapter in three parables. There’s the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son. We usually call it the prodigal son. Those three parables are an answer to their question, “What are you doing?” Because in their mind, all he could be doing, in eating with tax collectors and sinners, is compromising — treating sin lightly, not really getting what’s going on here, not rigorous in holiness. That’s what they see. That’s what they hear.
Jesus responds by telling three parables about what’s really going on. Now, this happened once before, back in chapter 5, where they said to Him point blank, “Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?” He answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” In other words, in that text, what’s going on here is he’s a doctor. When a doctor meets with a patient, he’s not loving sickness.
For One Sheep
But here, that’s not the answer. Here, the answer is three parables. Number one: A parable where a man lost one sheep out of a hundred, and he goes out and he looks, and he looks, and he finds it. Then, look what happens in verse 6. When he comes home, he calls together the friends and neighbors, and they rejoice with me. Then he says in verse 7, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous.”
He applies this party that he just threw, the celebration of finding his sheep, and he says, “Then that’s what happens in heaven when one of these tax collectors and sinners repents. That’s what I’m about. I’m about looking for people to join the party in heaven, who have repented.”
For One Coin
Then the second parable: let me give it to you again, in case you missed it that time, Mr. Pharisee. A woman loses a coin. It’s just a little coin. She sweeps and sweeps. “I want my coin back.” She finds it, and so she calls all her friends together. Luke 15:9:
She calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
Then Jesus says, again, “There will be more joy in the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Do you get it, Pharisee? Do you get it, scribe? This is what’s going on here. I’m recruiting people to repent and come to the party in heaven, where the angels are already making merry over their repentance.
For One Sinner
Then comes the most famous parable of all, the parable of the prodigal son. It’s long, and there’s this son, who says, “Give me my inheritance. I want to live on my own. I’m tired of the father. I don’t want to be in his house anymore.” He goes away, and he spends all the money and squanders it, and lives riotously, and winds up eating pig food in the sty. He wakes up by grace, and he says, “Goodness, it’s better to be a servant in my father’s house than this. I’m going to go home and just see if he’ll take me.” He comes home.
“The gospel is not a help wanted sign. It’s a help available sign.”
This is the lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. Now here, you don’t get exactly the same description. It’s a lot fuller. Verse 20, “While he was a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him.” This is what’s happening at the party. This is what’s happening in verse one and two. Are you listening, Pharisee? Are you listening to me, Pharisee and scribe? Do you see what’s happening when I’m eating with these tax collectors and sinners? I’m running. I am the Father. I am the Father, running. I’m God, running to these people.
And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
You have a third party. Do you understand this, Mr. Pharisee? Do you understand? You got it wrong. You’re grumbling about me eating with the tax collectors and sinners. You grumble, thinking this is a compromiser. This is a man who doesn’t love holiness, doesn’t care about the law and keeping it. He says, “That’s not what’s going on here.” Three parables to show what’s going on in seeking lost sinners.
Where Did Compassion Hide?
Now, that’s not what I’m going to talk about. I’m now asking a second question, which Jesus asks. The first question was: What’s going on with the tax collectors and sinners, and my eating with them? The second question is: Why are you grumbling? Why are you so bent out of shape? Why don’t you have categories in your mind and in your heart to process properly what’s going on here? What’s wrong with you? That’s what the last half of the parable is about, starting in verse 25. That’s what I’m preaching on. Luke 15:24:
For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
Now, you have to understand that the older brother is the Pharisee. The tax collectors and the sinners are the younger brother. The Pharisees and the Scribes are the older brother. Now, Jesus has been explaining how he’s relating to the sinners and the tax collectors, and now he’s looking over the harlots and the mafia, the drug dealers. He’s looking over their heads to the critics, and he’s talking to them, with this part of the parable. Have that in your mind.
Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 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 was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
God Saves Hypocrites
This is a message for churchgoers and people who grew up in the Bible belt. I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. This is me. This is a message for the older brothers among us. I hope it encourages the younger brothers too. It’s sure meant to.
This is about God’s coming into the world to save hypocrites, not just sinners. Jesus is really hard on the Pharisees. He gets really angry. There are not many tender words for the Pharisees in the Bible. There are dozens of hard words: whitewashed tombs, brood of vipers, blind leaders of the blind, fools making disciples and turning them into sons of hell worse than yourself. Jesus knows how to talk tough. Jesus knows how to talk tough, and he knows how to talk tender, and this is it. If you have never been spoken to tenderly, as a Pharisee, this is it.
What’s wrong here is that this son has a relationship with his father that is just totally distorted and on the wrong footing. It’s all dysfunctional and distorted and corrupted. The relationship is broken. Let’s see this.
Elder Brother Blues
Verse 29 is the key to let you begin to see into what’s wrong. The older brother says, “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.” Now, there’s clues here about what’s wrong with this relationship.
Clue number one is the word serving. This is the language of slave and master. “I have served you. I’ve served you, master.” Imagine what his father is feeling at this moment, like, “Why are you even using that language? Why are you talking that way? Why are you looking at me like that? I’m not that way! Why do you put me in that category? What’s wrong here? I didn’t do anything to do that, did I? Why have you turned this relationship into a slave/master relationship? I’m your father.”
The next clue is, “I’ve never neglected one of your commandments.” It’s as if the older brother is saying, “You’re just a command giver. You’re a command giver, and I measured up, and he didn’t.” Acts 17:25 says, “God is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, but he himself gives life and breath to everyone.” You’ve got a slave, and you’ve got commandments, and you’ve got a master. That’s all wrong.
You’re supposed to have a son and love and faith. “I’m so glad I can be with my Father. I love being at the table with him every night. He’s so wise, so strong, so generous, so kind.” That’s not going on here at all. Instead it’s, “You give commands, and I have kept them.”
Only One Son Truly Serves
Mark 10:45: “The Son of Man came not to be served.” This is a son who’s got all service. I work. I work. I work. That’s what I’ve done. Why aren’t you paying? That’s not what sons and fathers are about — work and payment. It’s not about that. This is just so deeply broken. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” “I’m coming into the world to give my life as a ransom. I’m after people. I’m serving you. You don’t serve me. I don’t recruit.”
The gospel is not a help wanted sign. It’s a help available sign. God is not coming into the world to get helpers. He is the help. He is the help. We’re the needy ones. He’s the helpful One. This son doesn’t get that at all. He doesn’t get that at all.
“I’m recruiting people to repent and come to the party in heaven.”
You need to test yourself here about whether you’re the older brother or not. When I was a teenager, this was where I failed the test. When I was a teenager and read this, there rose up in me, as I got to the end and heard him say, “I served you all my life, and I kept all your commandments, and you never gave me a kid,” my heart said, “Well, that’s a legitimate beef.” If you feel that way, you’re in trouble. You are. I was in trouble. I didn’t know me. I didn’t know what was wrong with that. I probably had the same beef over in Matthew 20:1–16, where they paid the guy the same who worked one hour as the guy who worked all day. I said, “He’s got a beef.”
Jesus said, “Can’t I be gracious? Is your eye evil because mine is good?” What makes you tick, Piper? What makes you tick? Work makes you tick. Keeping the commandments makes you tick. Looking at whether you’ve measured up. And that crummy brother of mine didn’t measure up, and he’s getting a party, and I didn’t get the party. That’s a broken view of a relationship with the Father and with God.
There are so many people, in the church and outside, who don’t get grace at their gut level, which is why they’re saying, “He’s got a beef. He’s got a legitimate beef here.” He doesn’t. We’ll see shortly. What happens when you relate to God this way? When you relate to God the way the older brother relates to the father, it disunites you with sinners, and you feel intuitively, “I worked hard. They didn’t. I should get. They shouldn’t.” It’s just a gut feeling.
A good way to test yourself, the one that indicts me the most, is when you watch sin happen — ugly sin, serious sin. Do you feel mainly disgust or mainly compassion? Pretty indicting question for a lot of us.
The second thing it does is make you blame — not just feel disgust, but start blaming. Listen to these words in verse 30: “But when this son of yours came . . .” What is that? Not, “when my brother came home, but “this, your son.” That’s almost like Adam saying to God, “The woman you gave me told me to eat it.” What are you saying? “This is God’s fault that I ate this because he gave me her.”
In other words, when you are guilty and functioning in terms of work and merit and pay, you become a blamer to the core. I can read off of John Piper’s soul whether I am living in the enjoyment of mercy or not by how quickly I blame my wife and my daughter for things, emotionally, whether I say anything or not. A life of blame is interwoven with this older brother’s way of relating to God. It really ruins a lot of things.
The Father’s Deep Mercy
What does the father say to all this? That’s what we want to hear mainly in the time that’s left. I want to linger over this with you. He does five things. If you’re younger brother, and you’re here, and you were glad to hear that God is out after you to hug you and run down the road to get you, and that’s good news, well, you just sit and enjoy right now mercy going to the older brother, because this is mercy. This is amazing, what happens here.
If you’re in the older brother category with me, then prepare to be loved by Jesus, who is representing the Father. That’s the point of the parable. He’s not just eating with tax collectors and sinners. He’s talking to the Pharisees who are grumbling. He does five things.
1. The father goes to the son.
Luke 15:28: “His father came out to him.” The son is angry, really angry. Now, when I’m around people who get angry, I get angry at their anger. That’s not good. That’s not helpful. His father didn’t do that. The son is angry. He won’t come in. Boy, we’ve all done this, right? It’s Thanksgiving dinner, three families are coming together, and somebody just got really bent out of shape half an hour ago. They’re up in the bedroom and will not come down. They’re about to ruin the whole day. That’s what’s going on here. “I’m not going in there. He’s a jerk!”
Now, at the table, everybody’s totally tense. Dads, you’ve got to do this. You go on up to the bedroom. What are you going to say? “Get down there. You’re going to ruin the whole day, you idiot. This is not worth . . .”
That’s not what the father in the parable did. He comes out. This is the same thing he did with the younger brother, right? He got on the road. He ran and hugged him. Here, the kid’s on the porch. He will not come in. He’s got his arms folded. He’s angry. The father comes out. You can tell by that what he’s going to say. He’s not coming down with fists. He’s not. He’s coming out beseeching.
2. The father entreats the son.
That’s the second thing. Luke 15:28, near the end: “His father came out and began entreating him.” I cannot help but believe that in Jesus’s mouth in this parable, that word is chosen precisely in distinction to commanding, because the older brother said, “I’ve kept all your commandments.” At a point where he has every right to command him, “You get in there, and show some respect for your brother. He’s saying he’s sorry. We forgive in this family. Get in there.” He doesn’t command. It says he entreats.
“You can stay there and get paid the wages of your sin. Or you can come in.”
Now, just to let you feel the force of that, Paul wrote in Philemon 8: “Though I have confidence in Christ to command you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake, I rather entreat you.” It’s exactly the same word. “For love’s sake, I will not command at this moment. I will entreat. I will woo. I will invite. I will exhort. I will long and ache and yearn and plead. I will not command at this moment.” Why? “Performance is not what I’m after.”
Parents, get this. Of course, we want kids who behave. Whether they’re five or twenty-five, we want them to behave. But if our whole mindset is: I have a right; I have authority; I have a command; there should be conformity to the commandment in response to the authority — that whole structure is master/slave. The father in the parable didn’t do it because he’s not after performance here. He’s not after right external behavior. He is after a new relationship with his son. “I want it to be fixed. God, if there’s any way this could be fixed, use the tone of my entreaty rather than my commandment.”
3. The father speaks tenderly to the son.
Number three: The father calls him child. In the ESV and the NIV, it simply says “son.” Luke 15:31: “He said to him, ‘Son.’” Now, that’s sweet, but the word in the Greek is not the same as the word for son in verse 30, where it says, “When this son of yours came home.” This word, teknon, is “little child.” It’s not a belittling thing. He’s not saying, “You’re just a little baby. You act like a baby.” That’s totally not the tone of this moment.
For me, it helps to say something like, “My little boy, I love you so much. I can remember you in diapers. I can remember you at five. I can remember you at fifteen, at all the games. Come on, come on, we want this family whole, right?” Isn’t that the tone? He said to him, “Child . . .” That’s number three.
4. The father says, “You are always with me.”
Number four: He says, “You’re always with me.” Do you see that? The problem is this kid didn’t care about that. The younger son discovered, “God, if I could just be home with my father, if I could just be home with my father — I mean, even as a servant. I mean, even as a servant, if I could be home with my father, not eating pig food, with all these people that don’t give a rip about me, if I could be home with the one who cares more about me than anybody in the world — I’d give anything to be with my father.”
Then the father says to the older son, “You’re always with me. You’re always with me.” The deepest void in the older brother’s heart is that he lived in the house with the father, and he found it quite unsatisfying. He lived with all the privileges of the elder brother, ate with the father every night, was the heir of everything, and he wasn’t happy with that situation. The unhappiness came out when there was a contrast between some privileges for an undeserving brother, and then his blaming and his anger and his resentment and his dissatisfaction with his father came out. He did not love his father. He didn’t. He didn’t love being with him.
The father says, “You’re always with me.” The words of the elder brother here, these are the words of a person who loves partying with his friends, at his father’s expense, rather than being with the father. “You never let me party with my friends. You never provided for what I really want. One of the most striking verses in Luke is 16:14, where it says the Pharisees were lovers of money. You don’t think about the Pharisees loving money. You think about the Pharisees loving the law and being legalists. In other words, deep down, behind all this legal religiosity, was worldliness. Man, they loved to party, except they couldn’t party. They had to go to church.
Are you happy in church, or is this a cloak for business purposes? I don’t know if that works in Dallas anymore. It doesn’t in many places. It used to. It still might work in the Bible Belt. I don’t know. It’s like this is safe, because you look religious here, but you don’t like it here. You might be here, in the house, in the Father’s house, so to speak, and hate it.
This son did not love being with his father. That’s what’s the deepest void. He doesn’t love his father. He doesn’t enjoy sitting at table with his father. He’s thinking about his friends, and the money he might get, and whatever else is out there, but it sure doesn’t meet his needs to be with the father.
5. The father says, “All that’s mine is yours.”
The last thing the father says is, “All that is mine is yours.” Jesus is looking over the heads of the tax collectors and sinners, and staring at me and the other Pharisees, right in the face, and he says to me, “Everything I have is yours.” That’s what God says. “Everything I have is yours.” There’s an inheritance for a son — not a slave.
“One of the greatest tests of whether you love mercy is whether you feel mercy towards sinners.”
Now, one of the most interesting things here is the father doesn’t draw that out. He doesn’t make the horrible implication explicit. Things hang at the end of this parable. They just hang. We are left to wonder, “What did he say? What did he do? Did it work? Did the son come in? Did he hear the implication? Sons get inheritances. Sons live with the father. Slaves don’t. Please, don’t stay on the porch of merit. Don’t boast on the porch of merit, as an obedient servant. Come in to the family. Receive forgiveness from your brother and from me. Yes, you two need it. Come in and celebrate grace, because there you get the inheritance.
He doesn’t mention all the consequences, and they’re pretty horrible. He does mention them elsewhere, and I’ll leave them out, because right here, he’s just wooing. He’s just entreating. Come in from the porch of hard-earned merit and join me. Just like the older brother came in from the far country of misery, you come in from the porch of merit. You can stay there and be miserable. You can stay there and get paid the wages of your sin. Or you can come in.
Do You Love Mercy?
This is Jesus’s tender word for the Pharisees. It’s a remarkably tender word. It’s a rare word, and I want you to hear it. It’s the Father’s word to everybody who’s bitter and hard toward sinners. One of the greatest tests of whether you love mercy is whether you feel mercy towards sinners. You can tell if you’re a Pharisee by whether your heart is moving to woo and rescue sinners — gross sinners — or whether you’re disgusted at their behavior. Sin is indeed disgusting, infinitely more so than you know, but for those who know that they have sinned themselves onto the porch of merit, as well as into the far country of misery, they’ve tasted mercy, and they want to draw people in, not push people away. Four chapters later, Luke 19:41 says,
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.
In another place,
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)
He’s looking on Jerusalem, filled with Pharisees and the people who said, “Crucify him. Crucify him, because he’s wrecking our legal system of merit.” But Jesus, one more time, is weeping. I’m sure the father in the parable was on the brink of tears, if not weeping, when he came out to the older brother. “Everything I have is yours. You’ve been with me forever. Come into the party. My son, your brother, was dead, and now he’s alive.”
If you’ve never felt wept over by Jesus or by the Father, with that kind of wooing, if you never had a father, who you can imagine doing such a thing, you do have one. His name is God. He’s represented by Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. He’s represented by Jesus telling the parable of the father going out on the porch to entreat you now to come in.