Luke: A Father’s Prodigal Love for a Prodigal

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on December 19, 2010

Luke 15:11-32

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The Lord’s Day Morning

December 19, 2010

Luke 15:11-32

“A Father’s Prodigal
Love for a Prodigal”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

O come let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker, for
He is our God and we are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care.
We will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the people.
We will sing to You among the nations, for Your great mercy reaches to
the clouds and Your truth to the heavens.
Let us worship God!

Our Lord and our God, we come to
adore You through Christ Jesus our Lord.
And we adore the Lord Jesus Christ whom You, the Father, gave for our
salvation and who willingly took our place, stood under Your wrath, bore it all
on the cross, so that all those throughout this world who trust on Him alone for
salvation as He is offered in the Gospel, might be forgiven and accepted and
welcomed back into the family of God for eternal fellowship.

Heavenly Father, we ask that as
we sing today that our songs would not be rote or merely sentimental, but that
they would be filled with praise and gratitude to You for what You have done in
Your Son. We ask that You would come
and meet with us and speak to us today by Your Word, and that You would open our
ears by Your Holy Spirit to truly hear and understand and to receive and act
upon the truth that You speak to us by that same Word.
We ask that You would be exalted in this and glorified and that we would
give our whole selves to You in praise.
Hear our prayers, Lord.
Forgive our sins. Meet with us now.
Bless this worship to Your own glory and our good.
All in Jesus’ name. Amen.

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 15.
We’re going to be looking at verses 11 to 32.
This is one of the most familiar stories that Jesus ever told.
It’s one of the greatest of the parables.
And we are all perhaps in this room familiar with it.
Even if you’re not a regular Bible reader, you know the story of the
prodigal son. And so I want your
eyes and your ears to be sharpened in your seeing and reading and hearing of
this passage by looking out for a few things.

First of all, I want you to be on the lookout for each of the three main
characters in this story and I want you to be asking yourself the question —
“What would Jesus’ original hearers have thought about the descriptions of the
prodigal son, of the loving father, and of the elder brother?”

When they hear the sins of the prodigal son, would they have been warmed up to
him to identify with him and to like him?
When they saw the leniency and the generosity in the face of scorn shown
by the loving father, would they have esteemed him for that kind of generosity
or would they have suspected him of a serious lack of judgment and a failure in
paternal discipline? And would their
attitude towards the sinners of their own time, even as the attitude of the
elder brother to the prodigal, have been the same outlook as those of the
Pharisees against the sinners with whom Jesus was associating?

So as we hear these familiar words read, let’s be on the lookout for what we
learn from each of these three characters.
The first two characters are especially, in Jesus’ story, going to teach
us surprising things about God our Heavenly Father.
The third character, the elder brother, is there to raise a question
about our own heart attitude towards repentant sinners, towards those who have
done things grievously wrong and yet who have repented of those sins and thrown
themselves on the Lord’s mercy. So
be on the lookout for these things as we read God’s Word together.

And before we do let’s pray and ask for His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, this is Your
Word and this story is so familiar and well loved, that precisely because we
know it and love it we might miss some of the rich store that You have in it for
us. So we pray that by the Holy
Spirit today You would open our eyes not to miss the truth that You have store
for us in Your Word and that we would understand it and that we would be both
convicted and encouraged and instructed and built up in grace, even as we read,
mark, learn, and inwardly digest Your holy Word.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Hear the Word of God:

“And He said, ‘There
was a man who had two sons. And the
younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that
is coming to me.’ And he divided his
property between them. Not many days
later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far
country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.
And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country,
and he began to be in need. So he
went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him
into his fields to feed pigs. And he
was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him

But when he came to
himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough
bread, but I perish here with hunger!
I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have
sinned against heaven and before you.
I am no longer worthy to be called your son.
Treat me as one of your hired servants.’
And he arose and came to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt
compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
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.

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.’”

Amen and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.
May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

You couldn’t have found a better passage to study the Sunday before Christmas
because this story that Jesus tells so beautifully highlights important aspects
of the Gospel message that we’ll celebrate come Christmas Day.
This story comes in the wake of two other stories about things that are
lost. You’ll remember them.
Last week and this we’ve seen three things lost.
First, we saw a lost sheep; then a lost coin; now a lost son.

But the dynamics of this story are fascinating, and as familiar as they may be
to you, there is truth yet in store for you if you’ll pay close attention to
God’s Word, because Jesus’ words to His hearers would have been shocking.
He does not paint a picture of the main character of focus in this story
that is designed to make you immediately identify with and pull for him.
In the first story, the key figure was the shepherd who went looking for
the lost sheep and you can identify with that good shepherd out searching for
that straying sheep in the middle of the night in all of its dangers.
And then in the second story, the key figure was the woman who had lost
the coin that may have been a part of her small dowry that she brought into
marriage and she cleans her whole house looking through every crack and crevice
until she finds that coin and you can identify with that woman who’s lost
something important and found it again.

But when Jesus begins to describe this prodigal, the very last thing that people
in His own time would have done would have been to start rooting for him and
pulling for him. In fact, the more
Jesus tells you about this young man, the more reason you have to have contempt
for him. And of course Jesus does
that for a reason. In this story and
in the next story, Jesus has unlikely protagonists planted right in the middle
of an important lesson — a lesson about God, about the Gospel, and about our own
hearts that are sometimes so hard to our need and so slow to repent of sin.

Now, there’s so much in this passage that we could spend a series of sermons on
it. So to focus our study, let’s
look at each of the three characters.
I want us to look and see what we learn from the prodigal son, the
younger brother, who goes off and lives a life which is reckless and riotous.
Then, let’s look at this loving father and let’s learn both from the son,
the prodigal, and from the father, truths about our Heavenly Father that Jesus
intends us to learn. And then let’s
look at the elder brother. The elder
brother, who often — has a — who has a heart that often looks like our hearts
towards those who have repented of great sin, especially if that sin is against

I. The prodigal son.

Well, let’s begin with the younger son.
What do we learn from him?
Jesus tells us that a young son goes to his father and he asks his father to
divide the property with his elder brother and to give him what is coming to
him. Now you understand that when
Jesus said this, the people who were originally hearing Him would have been
utterly shocked because they live in a culture where fathers were deeply
respected and regarded and for that younger son to go and say to his father,
“Father, go ahead and give me the inheritance that is coming to me,” is in
effect saying, “Father, I wish you were dead and I wish that I could get the
material resources that are going to come to me when you are dead.”

And so immediately, the people who are listening to Jesus are not going to like
this young man. Furthermore, what
the young man is asking the father to do is against all custom and perhaps even
legal practices in his day. A father
could not give his property to his sons prior to his death.
He always remained the manager of his property until he died and then
that managerial authority was passed on to his sons.
And so the son is not only showing deep disrespect for the father, but
he’s also asking the father to do something that is certainly not customary and
maybe even illegal.

Then, the next thing we see the son do is after a matter of a few days, after
doing this offensive act towards his father, which would have very rightly in
Jesus’ day brought about a punishment like beating or worse, he could have very
well been disowned by a father had he done such a thing in Jesus’ culture, the
next thing we see is that he gathers up his possessions and he goes far away
from his father into another country and he spends his money recklessly.
This is where he gets the name, “the prodigal,” from.
He is prodigal. He is
wasteful. He is lavish.
He is riotous. He is
unrestrained. He is irresponsible in
his living. The elder brother, at
the end of the story, will tell us that some of the spending that he did was on
prostitutes. And so once again, the
people who are hearing this story are not going to be drawn to have a high
regard for this young man. They’re
not going to identify with him.
They’re going to think, “Ah-ha, this is a moral, cautionary tale.
We’re going to be told in this story what happens when people do bad
things — they’re going to get what’s coming to them.”

And sure enough, just as they expect, in the next phrase of the story, the bad
things start happening to this young man.
A famine comes and when that famine comes he spent all of his money and
he has to hire himself out as a servant to a stranger and that stranger puts him
to work feeding pigs.

The Jewish people of Jesus’ day would have had the same attitude towards pigs as
modern day Muslims. That was not a
good job for a good Jewish boy to do.
And this boy is not only feeding pigs, but he’s obviously so ill cared
for by this master that he’s serving that he longs to eat the same food that the
pigs are eating.

Now all of Jesus’ hearers are waiting for Him to say, “And therein lies the
message of My story.” The moralists
of Jesus’ day are waiting for Jesus to say, “This is why you should never
disrespect your father. This is why
you should never ever squander your wealth.
This is why you should not associate yourself with the unclean. This is
why you should not spend your money on prostitutes in riotous living.
This is what happens when you do.”

But then comes verse 17. The story
doesn’t end with the situation of the prodigal in complete disarray and at the
total behest of a master who is abusing him.
We read in verse 17, look with me there — “he came to himself.”
This story has a surprising turn.
This is the beginning of the prodigal repenting.
He realizes what he’s come to.
He realizes where he’s fallen from.
He realizes what he’s become and he begins to reason and wrestle within
himself and he begins to realize who he’s offended.
You see, even as he speaks to himself in verse 18, he says that he’s
going to go to his father and say, “I have sinned against heaven” — that’s a
polite Jewish way of saying, “I’ve sinned against God.”
I’m going to go to my father and say, “Father, I understand that by doing
what I have done, I’ve not just sinned against you, I’ve sinned against God.
God is displeased with the way I’ve lived.
But I’ve also dishonored you, father, a loving and generous father.
I have dishonored you as a son and I no longer deserve to be called your
son. So I want to ask you if you’d
just take me back as one of your servants.”
And he begins to rehearse this plan in his mind.

Now why is Jesus saying this? Jesus
is saying this, and He’s telling this
because He wants to
emphasize to you how ready the Heavenly Father is to receive repentant sinners
This sinner has come to his senses.
He’s realized what he’s done.
He’s felt the sharp consequences of his sin and he’s throwing himself on his
Father’s mercy. And Jesus is showing
you this sinner because you will think a person like this is beyond hope of
forgiveness and beyond hope of turning from the life of debauchery and
destruction which he has been pursuing with such great delight.
And yet he comes to himself and when he comes to himself and goes back to
his father, his father receives him.

Now, there’re many messages in that for us friends.
One message is this — if you are a child of grace and you chose to go the
way of the prodigal, following your own sin, the Father will track you down.
The question will be, “Are you going to repent the easy way or the hard
way?” That’s what my father used to
say. He’d say, “Son, you want to do
this the easy way or the hard way?”
And I knew what the hard way was and most of the time I was wise enough to
choose the easy way rather than the hard way.
This prodigal had found out the hard way what doing things your own way
will bring you to. And the Lord had
brought him to nothing before he came to his senses.

If you’re a child of
grace, the Heavenly Father will pursue you and if necessary He will bring you to
nothing, in order to bring you back to Himself
So here’s the question for you — Are you going to do it the easy way or
the hard way? Are you going to make
Him pursue you into the far country and bring you to naught and break you before
you see how much you need Him and before you turn to Him again in repentance?
But the encouraging thing you see about this passage is this man came to
his senses. He realized what he was and what he had done and who he had offended
— God and his Heavenly Father — and he repented.
And Jesus is encouraging us that the Father
will receive those who repent.

II. The father.

And that leads us to the second person in the story that we want to give
attention to — the father. And we
meet him in a couple of places, first of all, when the son goes to him in verse
12 to ask him to split up the property.
And all we’re told is this — “The father divided his property between

Now again, this would not have made Jesus’ hearers admire this father because
this son is insulting his father by asking the property to be divided up.
They would have thought, “If this were a just man, he would beat the son
and then disown him, if he were a just man.”
But the father just divides up the property.
And then at the end of the story when the son has come back, the father,
we’re told looks out at a distance and sees him — look at verse 20 — and he
“feels compassion and he runs and he embraces him and he kisses him.”
Now in this culture, the culture of Jesus’ day, it was not considered
dignified for an older man to run.
It would have required him to lift up his long robe and sprint and that was not
thought to be a dignified thing for an older man to do.
And so here’s this father who’s been mortally offended by this evil son,
sprinting towards him in compassion and love to receive him.

And then the next thing you see him doing is this — look at verse 22 — “Bring
quickly the best robe.” Whose robe
in the house would that have been?
The father’s robe would have been the best robe in the house.
Somebody pointed out to me after the early service there’s no indication
that the son had been bathed yet.
Can you imagine putting your best coat on a boy who had been eating and feeding,
eating with and feeding the pigs?
But, “Go get my best robe!” And he
puts it on his son and then he says, “Give him a ring.”
What’s that? It’s again, it’s
a sign of his sonship. He’s given a
signet ring and he’s a son again in the family.
“And give him sandals.” The
servants wouldn’t have worn shoes, though they would have fetched the sandals
and they would have latched or tied the sandals of their masters.
And so he’s told, “Here, have the best robe, have a signet ring, have
shoes.” He’s being welcomed back
into the household not as a servant but as a son.
And the people listening to this story would have thought, “How prodigal
is that! How wasteful is that!
How way too generous!” Nobody
would have been saying to that father that he was doing what was just.
They would have been saying, “You’re going way too far in the kindness
that you are showing this ingrate of a son.”

And of course, that’s exactly what Jesus wants us to understand.
You know, there are people in the world who have fallen under conviction
of sin and they are so deep in their conviction of sin that they cannot believe
that God would receive them in the light of what they’ve done.
And Jesus is showing you this father to show you precisely this.
He will
never turn away a sinner who has repented of his sins.

He will welcome him home.

But you know the Gospel is even better than this because the Father doesn’t just
wait with open arms for us to come home to Him, He sends His own Son into the
far country to die for us, to receive the punishment that we deserve, and then
He sends His Holy Spirit to draw us to faith in His Son and to bring him back
into fellowship with us. And so the
Gospel is even better than this story of this loving father.

III. The elder brother.

But then there’s the reaction of the elder brother.
Uou notice that it picks up in verses 25 and following.
And the elder brother is not happy at all.
When he comes back to the house and he hears the party going on, he asks
one of the servants what’s going on, and he finds out that his younger brother
has come back home and he is furious.
And he shows disrespect to his father, too.
Notice how he does it. First
of all, in verse 28, we’re told that he was “angry and he refused to go in.”
Now a fattened calf would have been enough food to feed the whole
village, so the whole village is there.
The elder son is outside, the party’s going on inside, everybody in town
is there, the father wants his elder brother to come in — his son to come in —
and the son refuses to come in. Now
what does that mean? It means that
everybody in town knows that there’s a domestic dispute going on between dad and
his firstborn and his firstborn is showing him great dishonor.
He’s shaming him in front of the whole community.

Then, this kind father goes outside to talk with his son.
And do you get a polite address, a polite paternal address, “Oh, my
father”? No.
Take a look and see what the son says in verse 29. “He answered his
father, ‘Look, all these years I’ve served you and I’ve never disobeyed your
command and you’ve never given me so much as a young goat to have a party with
my friends and yet this son of yours’” — notice, not “my brother” — ‘”this son
of yours who’s wasted your property on riotous living and prostitutes, he comes
back home and you’ve killed the fattened calf for him!’”

What’s going on here? You’re hearing the voice of someone who thinks they
haven’t gotten what they’ve deserved.
You’re hearing the voice of someone who thinks they’re entitled to God’s
favor and therefore you’re hearing the voice of someone who has no idea how to
rejoice when those who do not deserve the love of God and the grace of God and
the forgiveness of God receive it.
This elder son thinks that he deserves what’s coming to him from this father.
He does not think that he stands in need of grace and therefore he cannot
rejoice. By the way, just from a
legal standpoint, he has absolutely nothing to lose by the younger brother
coming home. He’s still going to get
two-thirds of the estate. The
younger brother coming home has no legal consequences for the elder brother but
it reveals that his heart has not understood how much in need of grace he is.

Justin Pillsbury was talking to some of our parents today saying that every once
in a while he runs into young people who have an attitude of, “You know, I’m a
pretty good person. I’m smart, I’m
athletic, I’m good looking — Jesus should have died for me.”
That attitude of entitlement kills the possibility of grace.
When you think God owes you, you will
think Him to be a stingy God. But
when you know that God only owes you His condemnation, and yet has shown you His
mercy in Jesus Christ, you know that He is in fact prodigal and lavish and
overgenerous in His love.

You see what Jesus is doing in this passage?
Jesus is confronting the Pharisees who have criticized Him for
fellowshipping with sinners. And
He’s saying to the Pharisees, “You understand that My receiving of these sinners
is a picture of the Heavenly Father’s attitude towards those who have strayed
and yet have come to their senses and have repented and trusted in God again.”
And the attitude of the Pharisees is an attitude which reflects that
their hearts are strangers to grace, that they themselves do not understand the
need that they stand in before God.
But my friends, Jesus’ message isn’t just for the Pharisees.
It’s for you and me.

I’ve told you this story before but it’s so apropos I’ll say it again.
My boyhood pastor was Gordon Reed, and in one of his congregations he’d
worked with a woman who had an unfaithful and unbelieving husband.
He was unfaithful to her and he did not believe in Christ and he did not
trust in God’s Gospel. She endured
him for many, many years. I’m
thinking for some twenty years they were married in this kind of condition.
And as you might imagine, she was highly regarded in the church because
every time the doors were open, she was there and she was serving.
And despite the fact that she was being dealt with wrongly by her
husband, she stayed faithful to him.
And then after twenty years, something amazing happened.
He was convicted of his sin, he was broken, and he trusted in Christ.
He became a Christian. And
the whole congregation responded with rejoicing because there was a man who was
lost and found, who was dead and made alive again by God’s Holy Spirit.
And something very interesting happened in the heart of that woman – she
could not forgive him and she left him and then she left the faith.

I wonder if all those years when she was the victim and when she was the
recipient of the esteem of the congregation who appreciated her longsuffering
staying with a husband, it built in her heart a sense that she had earned God’s
love and it seemed to her fundamentally unfair that a person like her husband
should be forgiven and welcomed home like a prodigal and it was too much for
her? I don’t know.
I don’t know her heart, but I do know this — when someone has wronged you
deeply, it can be very difficult to see them repent and be restored and to
rejoice with them because in those moments we ourselves feel like they don’t
deserve the grace that God has shown them, and we feel like, because of the
pains that we have borne, that we deserve to be dealt differently than this by

And that is precisely what Jesus is getting at in this passage about us.
None of
us stand deserving God’s grace. No
one deserves God’s grace
And when we are begrudging in our attitudes towards those who receive it,
we betray that perhaps we think we do deserve that grace.
And when we think that way we show that we do not understand the nature
of our need. You know, there were
two prodigal sons in this story, it’s just that one of them, as far as we know,
didn’t know that he was a prodigal.
He was in a household of a loving father, he was obeying him in all that he
commanded, but he thought he deserved his father’s favor and he didn’t see his

You know, it’s very interesting. Jesus doesn’t tell us the end of the story, and
it’s one of the ways that you know that Jesus really cares about the hearts and
the lives of the Pharisees. Why does
He not tell the end of the story?
Because He’s leaving a door of repentance open to the Pharisees. And you know
what? He’s leaving the door of repentance open to you and to me.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank You
that You receive sinners and that Jesus came to seek and to save that which was
lost. And so we thank You for the
story of a lost son who was found.
We pray that we too would repent and that we too would rejoice when others
repent, even if their wounds were wounds inflicted upon us.
We ask these things in Jesus’ name.

In response to this story about the Father’s lavish love, let’s sing the first
and the last stanzas of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”

Receive now from your Heavenly Father’s prodigal hand of love these blessings —
grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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