Lost and Found - Luke 15

  1. The lostness of the younger brother
  2. The father's kiss
  3. The lostness of the elder brother
  4. The father's plea
  5. Our true elder brother
These are the detailed and edited notes for a sermon that I preached at Trinity Baptist Church in June 2009. The audio file is available here. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Tim Keller, from whom came many of the ideas used in this sermon and whose treatment of this parable can be fonud in his short book The Prodigal God.

I. The lostness of the younger brother

The first verse of John Newton’s famous hymn Amazing Grace is:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me I once was lost, but now am found was blind but now I see.

What does it mean to be “lost”? What does it mean to be “found”? Tonight we’re going to look at how Jesus redefines our understanding of lostness, foundness, and God’s grace. If you were here last week, you know that we’ve just started a series in the parables of Jesus. Parables are short stories about ordinary life that Jesus used to illustrate spiritual truths. Tonight, we come to what may be the most famous of Jesus’ parables, and may perhaps be one of the most famous stories in the Bible, the parable of the Prodigal Son. We’ll actually be looking at the entire chapter of Luke 15 which contains three parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the two sons.

The first thing I’d like to say to you is that I will not have enough time to mine the riches of these parables. There is treasure here, and I won’t be able to do it justice. I hope people will go home tonight or tomorrow night and open up the gospel of Luke for themselves and start thinking. If you say “I didn’t think Christianity was like this,” Or “Is this really what Jesus is saying?” then go home. Not right now, after the sermon. But go home and open the Bible and ask: What do these things mean? Why did Jesus tell these stories? If God is like this, how should that affect my life? If God is like this, how should I be living? If God is like this, it changes everything! Think. Reflect. Let God speak to you through his Word.

I think the key to understanding all these parables is seeing to whom they are addressed. In these parables, Jesus is responding to the accusations of the religious leaders, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who are complaining that ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Who were these people? The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were religious leaders. They were pious Jewish people who believed in strictly keeping all of God’s commands. On the other hand the tax collectors were Jews who had collaborated with the Roman authorities to collect taxes from their own countrymen. They were known for their dishonesty and greed and were viewed as traitors to their people. If there were a modern day counterpart, it might be a loan shark or perhaps a crack dealer, someone who makes their living by hurting others and thrives on their misery. Prostitutes, tax collectors, and outcasts were constantly coming to hear Jesus. That’s why the religious leaders grumbled, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Not only did he show love and concern for these sinners, he broke bread with them, a sign of friendship and fellowship. The religious leaders were shocked and appalled. It is in response to their grumbling that Jesus tells these three stories; these parables are Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ complaints.

For the sake of time, we’re going to look primarily at the parable of the prodigal son, although we’ll look back at the previous parables since they are an important part of the context. I’d like to look at the parable of the Prodigal Son under five headings: first, the lostness of the younger brother, second, the father’s kiss, third, the lostness of the elder brother, fourth, the father’s plea, and finally, our true elder brother.

I. The lostness of the younger brother

First, the lostness of the younger brother. How does his story begin? Starting in verse 11,
A man had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’
The first thing we need to recognize is that the original hearers would have recognized that this request was a terrible insult. Jewish law specified that the younger son did indeed inherit a portion of his father’s estate, but he inherited it only upon the father’s death. In other words, the younger son was essentially saying to his father: “Father, I wish you were dead so that I could have your money”. This kind of request would be offensive enough today, but in Palestianian society in which the ties between father and son were much more important, this request would have been utterly disgraceful. It would have publicly humiliated the father. The expectation of the hearers is that the father would in turn publicly reject and disown the son. But what does the father do? Does he reject the son? No, it says that "he divided his property between them." At that time, family wealth was primarily derived from land, so the father would have to sell his ancestral land to honor this outrageous request. So this is an incredibly gentle and gracious response to a terribly insulting request.
"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

As soon as he leaves, he travels to a distant country, putting as much distance between himself and his father as he can. But when he gets there, he squanders his money with prostitutes, and finds himself starving to death. He finds work feeding pigs, which were unclean animals to Jews. He’s reduced to the most humiliating and demeaning of jobs and yet he is still so hungry and so poor that he would gladly eat the pigs’ food. And yet no one gave him anything. This young man is utterly desperate, he has come to the end of himself, and he is miserable.

Who is this younger brother? It seems clear that Jesus wants us to associate him with the people we usually think of as “sinners”. Yes, this is a sinner, this person has disgraced his family, he’s humiliated his father who loves him, he’s breaking God’s commandments, he’s sleeping with prostitutes, he’s living an immoral life. This is exactly the people that Jesus was associating with, those whom society viewed as the bad people. So I think many of us are like this, we look at all the things that God has created and we say “Boy, I could have a really good time here, but God and all this religion stuff sounds like a real drag. Money and sex and power and fame are all so attractive, and I don’t want God breathing down my neck… So I’m going leave God and live my own life and have a good time. I don’t want to have to answer to God and to spend my life trying to please him. I want to spend my time trying to please myself.”

If we’re thinking this way or living this way, then we’re experiencing younger-brother lostness. Maybe you’re still young and you’re thinking: “the first thing I’m going to do when I get to college is to throw off all this religious stuff and all these rules that my parents are into and have a good time. It’s great if religion works for you, but it doesn’t work for me.” We all recognize this. Fine upstanding citizens like us: “Yeah, yeah, we recognize that. That’s sin. That’s terrible. That’s bad. Living an immoral life apart from God is evil.”

And the first thing I want to point out is that Jesus agrees with this statement! We don’t get to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong; God decides. When God says “you shall not commit adultery”, it means that adultery is wrong. When God says “you shall not commit murder”, it means that murder is wrong. These are God rules and they are good; they are right and just. When the Pharisees complain that Jesus is eating with sinners, Jesus does not say “you judgmental Pharisees, let’s stop talking about sin and holiness and God’s law. That’s not what I’m about. I’m all about people having a positive self-image and accepting themselves for who they are and discovering what’s right and wrong for them.” No, Jesus affirms the reality of lostness. He says that you can be lost and alienated from God and living apart from God. Look at the images Jesus uses in his parables. He says “a man had a hundred sheep and lost one”. Why not horses or cattle? Because if sheep wanders off it dies. Sheep are not smart. Sheep are not strong. There are not herds of wild sheep running around in the wilderness. If a sheep gets separated from its shepherd, it dies. So A lost sheep is a sobering image. Jesus is saying that we are sheep. We can be lost. We can be lost now and we can be lost eternally.

“But,” we say, “perhaps it’s not that bad; maybe the sheep can find its way back. Maybe if the sheep recognizes that it is lost, it can find its way back.” But the second parable that Jesus gives us is even more sobering. He doesn’t talk about a lost sheep, but about a lost coin. And everyone recognizes that if a coin is lost, it is utterly out of the power of the coin to find its way back to its owner. It can’t cry out. It can’t shout “you dropped me! Here I am!” There is no way for coin to find its own way back. In fact, a coin doesn’t even know that it is lost. A coin will stay lost unless someone seeks for it.

So Jesus affirms the reality of lostness. He arrirms that it’s possible to be alienated from God. And he also says that if you are lost, you are in danger. What happens next in the younger brother’s story? He eventually discovers the misery of living apart from God. Emptiness. We were made for God, to serve him with joy and gladness and to live apart from him is like trying to live apart from food, or water, or air. As St. Augustine said “God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you.”

If you tonight are feeling like that younger brother, if you say “I’ve made choices in my life that have led me into misery”, if you’ve come to the end of yourself, what hope is there for you? I’ll tell you our typical human answer is: we tend to say, “if your life is miserable, if you’ve hit rock bottom, if you’re feeding pigs in a distant country, you just need to get your life together, set a goal, commit your will to it, try really hard, buy a self-help book. Look within: you can do it!” That’s our answer: look within for your salvation, look within and you’ll find the strength to climb your way back and to fix your life. That is not the Biblical answer, and Jesus doesn’t say that. The hope for the sheep is not inside, but outside. “I lift my eyes up to the heavens, where does my help come from? My help comes from you, maker of heaven, creator of the Earth.” The only hope for the sheep is that there is a shepherd who is seeking it. The hope for the coin is that there is a woman who is seeking it. So if you feel like your life is an utter wreck, if you say, “There’s no hope for me; every choice I’ve made has just dug me deeper,” I want to offer you this hope. God is still seeking sinners. God is seeking those who are miserable and lost. God is able to rescue. You have no hope in yourselves, but God is your hope.

So that being said, what happens to this young man? He reaches the end of his rope, and what happens next? It says “he came to his senses” and here we see Jesus’ picture of repentance, that is, turning back to God. "When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 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.' So he got up and went to his father. <\quote>

We tend to think that repentance is “fixing your life, setting your will to do what is right and good, getting your life together” Well, that’s the fruit of repentance. If we truly repent, we will start to make changes in our life. But what is the root? What is the essence of repentance? Jesus says “he came to his senses.” In fact, the Greek work for “repentance” literally means a “change of mind”. The essence of repentance is a change of attitude towards sin and towards God. It’s recognizing that sin is horrible and that Jesus Christ is glorious. Repentance is saying “I thought that sin was making me happy and that God was making me miserable, but now I see that sin has given me nothing but misery and God is the only one who can give me true happiness. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The younger brother says: “I thought leaving my father would bring me freedom and happiness, but it’s only brought me misery. I will return to him; who knows, perhaps he will receive me.”

II. The father’s kiss

So what is God’s response to sinners? In these parables, we certainly see that Jesus does acknowledges reality of lostness, but main point of these parables is not actually how miserable it is to be lost. Rather, the emphasis of these parables is God’s joy in saving sinners. Let’s turn again to the story.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. "The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' "But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.

What is God’s forgiveness like? How does God forgive sin? Is it grudging? Is it neutral? Jesus says that God rejoices over repenting sinners. God does not remain angry, or even neutral. He rejoices over one single human being who repents from sin and turns to Christ. We find it hard to forgive someone who has wronged me. But God is not like us. In a famous statement in the book of Isaiah, God says: “My thoughts are higher than your thoughts, my ways are higher than your ways.” But when he says this, God is referring to his forgiveness. It is in his forgiveness and mercy towards the undeserving that God is so unlike human beings.

You see, God forgives us not because we are good, but because he is good. Not because we don’t deserve punishment, but because Jesus Christ has borne our punishment. You say “He won’t receive me, he won’t rejoice over me, I’m not worthy” – but the prodigal son wasn’t worthy! In fact he knew he wasn’t worthy. He said “I am not worthy to be called your son!” So don’t go back to God saying “I’m not so bad, there are people worse than me.” Instead, imitate the prodigal son. He comes back and says: “Don’t even call me your son. Make me your hired man. You don’t even have to talk to me, you don’t even have to see me. Stick me in the barn.” So when you go back to God, go in humility. You see, the prodigal son is right. Disgrace and rejection and hard labor are what the he deserves. But is that what God gives him? No. God’s grace is greater than our sin. God’s love through Jesus Christ is greater than all the punishment we justly deserve. It’s not enough to simply realize that God will forgive us. We need to see that God will not only forgive you, but that he will rejoice over us.

At this point, you may say: “Ok, I’ve heard all this stuff before. This is the typical religious stuff. Bad people live in sin, and they should repent and turn back to God. But I’m not a bad person. I believe in God, and I live a moral life. Repentence is for the lost.”

Here’s where Jesus and the Bible completely overturn our understanding of sin and lostness. Look at the first two parables: a man has a lost sheep and he rescues it, and rejoices. A woman has a lost coin, and she finds it and rejoices. So we’d expect in this third parable to read that a man has a lost son, and the son is found, and the father rejoices. The end. But the parable doesn’t end here. In fact, I would argue that the literary climax of the parable is actually the father’s interaction with the elder brother at the very end. This is the unexpected twist in the parable. Jesus is saying: “No, no, you need to see that lostness goes far deeper than you understand. Your understanding of sin and lostness and what it means to be a good or bad person needs to be totally revised”. Jesus shows us that it is not just the bad people who are lost and need a savior, but it’s the good people as well. In fact, the good people are in a sense even more lost than the bad people. So let’s look next at the lostness of the elder brother.

III. The lostness of the elder brother

Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' "The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'

Who is the elder brother? This is the good son. This is the obedient son. This is the son who stayed at home, who obeyed his father, who worked in the fields, who was dutiful and respectful and obedient. Who would never have gone off and slept with prostitutes or squandered his money in wild living. But this is the shocking point of the parable. The younger son, the bad son, who wanders off in sin, who lived in a distant country, is brought back into the family with great rejoicing. But at the end of the parable, it is the good son, the dutiful son who stands outside of the house and who refuses to go in and be with the father. The outsider is brought in, and the insider goes out. What on earth is going on?

Jesus began the parable saying that a man had two sons. What Jesus is saying here is absolutely astounding. Who is the lost son? Well, it’s the younger son, right? The younger son was the bad son who disgraced the father and wandered off to live an immoral life. At the root of the younger son’s lostness was a desire to have the father’s possessions without the father.

But what about the elder brother? He didn’t leave. He stayed at home and was a dutiful, obedient son. But why? Why did he stay? What were his motives? Look at what he says: “I slaved for you, yet you never gave me even a young goat to celebrate with my friends”. In other words, he didn’t stay at home out of love for the father. He stayed because he also wanted the father’s possessions, but not the father. And this is the shocking twist in the parable. The elder son is just as lost as the younger son. How is that possible? The root of sin is not loving God with all our heart. We give our hearts and our lives to things other than God. But that sin can show itself in two different ways. The irreligious way to reject God is to turn your back on him, to go out and break all of his commandments and live apart from him. But the religious way to reject God is to be very obedient, to follow all the rules because you think that you then have control over God and that he will have to give you the things you really want. Irreligious people reject God to pursue the things they want. But religious people use God to get the things they want. Jesus is saying that we can be good and obedient and moral, but we can do it out of pride and superiority and self-righteousness, not out of a true love for God.

Look at the elder brother. The reason he is so bitter, so utterly alienated from the father’s heart, so utterly opposed to the father’s grace, is that he thinks he has earned the father’s blessing and his younger brother has not. He says, “I hate church; I hate religion; I hate obeying your commands; it’s slavery to me.” The difference is that the younger brother knows he is alienated from God and needs forgiveness. But the elder brother says, “I don’t need grace. I don’t need mercy. I don’t need forgiveness. Those are for sinners. I’ve earned my blessing and acceptance; they’re mine by right.”

Jesus challenges us to redefine what it means to be lost. The irreligious people, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, they’re lost in one way. But the religious people are all lost in a different way. All of us are ultimately seeking things other than God, and all of us need radical forgiveness. Even the best of us, deep down inside, are naturally opposed to God’s lordship over us and want to be free from him. We all like sheep have gone astray; there is no one who truly loves God with all his heart, mind, soul and strength, which is the core of all of God’s commandments. The reason that the religious leaders opposed Jesus so violently was that he exposed the fact that they were not as “found” as they thought they were. In fact, they were actually just as lost as the sinners and prostitutes whom they despised.

So at this point, we might be tempted to say: “Ah… I understand. In this parable, the sinner wanders away from God, but he repents, he turns back to God, and God welcomes him back with this huge celebration and feasting and dancing. But the elder son, this self-righteous hypocritical elder brother is lost and he doesn’t even know he’s lost because he is moral and righteous. So now I understand. God rejects the hypocritical, self-righteous elder brothers and embraces the sinful, younger brothers, right?” Wrong. We just don’t get God. We just don’t understand God’s grace. It’s beyond our comprehension. Let’s look at the father’s plea.

IV. The father’s plea

At the beginning of the parable, we saw how the younger brother publicly disgraced his father by demanding his inheritance and leaving. But when he returned, the father went out to him, and threw his arms around him and kissed him, and brought him back in. But now, we see the elder brother, standing outside, publicly disgracing the father saying “What kind of father are you? What are you doing? You’re acting shamefully.” But what does the father do. He goes out. He leaves the feast to bring the elder brother in. Look what he says:

'My son ... you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'

God is not calling only younger brothers to repentance. God is calling all men to repentance. It doesn’t matter if you’re a younger brother. It doesn’t matter if you’ve lived your life at the edge of hell. It doesn’t matter if you’re an elder brother. It doesn’t matter if you’ve lived your life glued to a church pew. You are lost. You are lost without God. But listen to God’s plea: “My son, my son, come back.” If you’re a younger brother tonight, God is pleading with you, through the Scripture, through Jesus’ teaching, saying “come back. You’re miserable, and you’ll never find real joy until you turn to Christ.” And if you’re an elder brother and you think “I’ve lived a good life, I’ve kept all of God’s commandments, I deserve to be a son” God is saying “My son, my son, don’t you see that you’re alienated from me. Look at your heart. Don’t you see how self-righteous and bitter you are? Don’t you understand that you really haven’t kept my law. Don’t you understand that all your righteous deeds are filthy rags. But I am offering you free forgiveness and mercy through Jesus Christ. Accept it.” God is pleading with all of, no matter who we are, “Come in. Come in”

V. Our true elder brother

But how do we come in? You might be saying, “I see what Jesus is saying about God’s love and grace, but I still can’t believe that he could accept me. The things I’ve done, the sinfulness of my heart, my lust, my greed, my pride, my self-righteousness, my hypocrisy. How can a holy and good God ever love someone like me? If I turn to him, I know that he’ll punish me because I deserve it. How can his forgiveness and mercy possibly be free to someone like me?”

I’ll tell you how. Look at the father’s last statement. When he says to the elder brother “You are my son, and everything I have is yours”, he wasn’t just speaking figuratively. When the younger son took his inheritance and left, it meant that the father’s entire estate, everything he had, now passed to the elder son. Now do you see why the elder brother was so angry at the father’s forgiveness? If the younger son is welcomed back into the family, then the elder brother will have to absorb the cost of the younger brother’s restoration. But the elder brother doesn’t want to do it. “It’s his fault” says the elder brother, “he squandered his wealth. Let him starve.” Ah, if only we had a true elder brother who shared the father’s love!

Or look at first two parables. Did you notice the difference between the first two parables and the third? A sheep was lost, but the shepherd went out and found it and rejoiced. A coin was lost, but the woman lit a lamp and searched and found it and rejoiced. But the younger brother was lost, and no one went out. Well, who should have gone out? Maybe the father? But look carefully, the father did go out; he went out and embraced his son and kissed him. It was the elder brother who didn’t go out. The elder brother didn’t go seeking his younger brother. The elder brother didn’t search him out, and didn’t find him, and didn’t come home rejoicing.

This elder brother didn’t, but there is an elder brother who did.

Jesus Christ is our true elder brother who goes out to rescue prodigals. A few chapters later in the gospel of Luke, Jesus says: “the son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” Jesus Christ did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The shepherd went out to find the sheep at the risk of his life, but Jesus went out to find his sheep knowing it would cost him his life. He said to his disciples: I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Or as it says in Isaiah: “We all like sheep have gone astray, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

How can God accept sinners, no matter how guilty? Because on the cross, Jesus Christ, the true son of the true father lost his sonship so that we, who are rebels and traitors, could become sons. Jesus Christ who was rich, became poor, so that we by his poverty might become rich. The younger son can wear a robe, because Jesus Christ was stripped naked. The younger son can wear a ring, because Jesus wore a crown of thorns. The younger son goes in to music and dancing and the love of the father, because on the cross Jesus cries out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why did he do all this? The author of the letter to the Hebrews writes : “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.” Don’t you see? Jesus took the punishment that we deserve, so that we could have the blessing that he deserved. He acted as our true elder brother, even unto death. God has done all these things for you. Turn to him. He will receive you.

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