The Scope of Grace

Luke 15:11-32

October 17, 1999 | Brian Bill

Since most of you are familiar with the story of the Prodigal Son, I thought I would read a different version of it – it’s called the “Prodigal Son in the Key of F.”

Feeling footloose and frisky, a feather-brained fellow forced his father to fork over his farthings.  Fast he flew to foreign fields and frittered his family’s fortune.  

Fleeced by his fellows in folly, facing famine, and feeling faintly fuzzy, he found himself a feed-flinger in a filthy foreign farmyard.  Feeling frail and fairly famished, he filled his frame with foraged food from the fodder fragments.

“Fooey,” he figured, “my father’s flunkies fare far fancier,” the frazzled fugitive fumed feverishly, facing the facts.  Finally, frustrated from failure and filled with foreboding, he fled.

Faraway, the father focused on the fretful familiar form in the field and flew to him and fondly flung his forearms around the fatigued fugitive.  Falling at his father’s feet, the fugitive floundered forlornly, “Father, I have flunked and fruitlessly forfeited family favor.”

Finally, the faithful Father, forbidding and forestalling further flinching, frantically flagged the flunkies to fetch forth the finest fatling and fix a feast.

Faithfully, the father’s first-born was in a fertile field fixing fences while father and fugitive were feeling festive.  Frowning and finding fault, he found father and fumed, “He frittered family funds and you fix a feast for the fugitive?”

Frankly, the father felt the frigid first-born’s frugality of forgiveness was formidable and frightful. But, the father’s former faithful fortitude and fearless forbearance to forgive both fugitive and first-born flourished – unfurl the flags and finery, let fun and frolic freely flow.  Former failure is forgotten, folly is forsaken.

Jesus told a story about a young man who made a wrong decision and what happened to him as a result.  We call it the parable of the prodigal son.  

Please turn in your Bibles to Luke 15.  This is a classic chapter.  If our text last week was one of the most unfamiliar in the New Testament, our passage today is perhaps the most recognizable.  Many people consider it the greatest short story ever written because it speaks so truthfully to the human condition. It’s really the story of a father with two sons.  One sinned when he left  – the other sinned while staying home.  We’re going to look at both of the sons this morning.  

In order to understand the parable, we need to start with verses 1-2“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear him.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!’”

You can almost feel the tension here, can’t you?  Jesus likes to spend time with the worst kind of people – and it bothered the self-righteous religious people.  They wanted Him to spend his time with good people.  Jesus then tells three parables that are directed to these grumpy old saints.

In the first one, a farmer has 100 sheep and one gets lost.  Jesus shows how the farmer leaves the 99 and goes on a search and rescue mission for the one that is lost.  In the second story, a widow loses one of her 10 coins and searches intently until she finds it.  These coins represented her Social Security savings – just as she lost hers, we’re probably going to lose ours as well!  In the third story, a son is lost and eventually returns home.

There are many things that could be said about these three parables but I want to just point out one common thread.  Whenever the lost is found, there is great rejoicing!   In verse 6, the farmer calls his buddies together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.”  In verse 9, the widow says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.”  And when the lost son returns home, the father throws a big party filled with rejoicing.

Whenever guilt is kissed away by God’s grace, the angels go wild!

Jesus is making the point that when the lost are found, heaven throws a big celebration!  Whenever a lost person repents, spontaneous partying breaks out in heaven.  Whenever guilt is kissed away by God’s grace, the angels go wild!

The Younger Son

Now, let’s begin with the younger son in verse 11-12“There was a man who had two sons.  The younger one said to his father, ‘Father give me my share of the estate.’ so he divided his property between them.”

The younger son chafes under his father’s rule and perhaps feels put down by his obedient older brother.  So he demands his inheritance while his father is still alive and in good health.  In traditional Middle Eastern culture, this was the equivalent of saying, “Father, I’m eager for you to die!”  Normally, a father in this situation would kick his kid out of the house for making such an unthinkable request.  In fact, the father is expected to refuse a request like this.

As the younger son, he was entitled to 1/3 of everything his father had.  Legally, this was his.  But, in order for the father to give him this amount, some of his property had to be liquidated and sold.  

Taking the money, he leaves home and journeys to a place the Bible calls “a distant country.”   There he spends every dime he has on riotous living.  When a famine comes, not having any cash and being too far away from home, he attaches himself to a farmer who says, “The only work I have is feeding my pigs.”  He who had eaten prime rib just a few weeks earlier now dines with the swine.

Before going any further with the story, let’s stop and analyze what happened to this young man.  How did he end up in such a mess?  

Five Steps to the Pigpen

1. He was selfish

His fall began with a selfish act, a disregard for his father.  He said, “I want my money and I want it now.”  All he could see were the dollar signs.  “Dad, give me my money.  Forget you and forget my family.  Show me the money.  I want out of here.” 

2. He acted hastily

The Bible says that when he got his money he took off to a distant country.  When you hear that phrase, you shouldn’t think of somewhere thousands of miles away.  Do you know where the distant country is?  It’s one step outside of God’s will.  It’s not a matter of geography, but a broken relationship with God.

3. He wasted everything he had

The word prodigal means, “to waste.”  When he left, he never intended to come back home.  After all, he took all the money with him.  If he had planned to return, he would have left some assets behind.

4. He separated himself from every relationship that was important to him

By leaving, he broke his relationship with his father and his brother.  He also left his family and his friends.  He rejected everything that was good and right and holy.  All of that went out the window.  

5. He made a long string of bad decisions

Sin always works that way.  One bad decision leads to another.  First you tell a lie, and then you have to tell another one to cover up the first one.  Sin always leads to more sin.  Once you start making bad decisions, it’s easier to make them as you go along.  But pretty soon you are about 15 bad decisions down the road.  At that point it seems easier to keep on going in the wrong direction

Notice what happened next in verse 14.  There was a famine in the distant country.  Whenever you leave God, there will always be a famine.  It looks so good, like a land flowing with milk and honey.  In the distant country you enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.  But after a while the money runs out, the music stops, the beautiful people get bored with you, and you are broke and penniless.  

In the end he lost everything.  He who had it all lost it all.  He who came from a good family now sleeps with the pigs.  The prodigal son has hit rock bottom.  God often lets that happen because many of us won’t look up until we start to eat with the pigs.  When we finally reach the end of our rope, then and only then do we begin to think about returning home again.

The Way Back Home

While he’s face-to-face with the pigs he begins to change.  Five words tell the story.

First, there was an awakeningVerse 17 says that, “…he came to his senses.”  Sin is senseless – it’s a form of temporary spiritual insanity.  It’s turning away from living water in order to drink out of a sewer.  

What was it that brought him to his senses?  He was hungry.  His stomach made him come back to his father.  That’s not a very exalted motive.  Nothing suggests he turned back because he realized what a terrible thing he had done.  He hasn’t repented yet or come to grips with the enormity of his sin.  That’s still in the future.

Here is a startling truth: People often turn to the Lord simply because they have nowhere else to go.  Their motives may be no more exalted than the need to find a hot meal and a place to stay on a cold night in December.  What that means is this: When you are praying for a straying believer, ask God to make them hungry.  Pray for the famine to come.  Pray for their money to run out.  “Lord, make him so miserable that sin no longer looks inviting.”  “Lord, make her hungry for the love she used to know.”  “Lord make him so restless that he can’t sleep at night.”

Second, there was repentance.  He said to himself in verse 18, “I will go back to my father.”  Repentance is what happens when you’ve been going the wrong direction and finally you say, “I’ve gone this way long enough.  I’m going to turn around, and I’m going to go back in the other direction.”  Repentance is a change of mind that leads to a change of life. 

If the first step back home stemmed from personal need, he now begins to grapple with the root problem.  He realizes that his fundamental need is not for food, but for a restored relationship with his father.  He’s hungry tonight because many months ago he got greedy and left home.  He’s sleeping with the pigs because in his pig-headedness, he demanded his own way.  He’s living alone because he chose to go his own way.  Repentance means admitting that you are solely responsible for the mess you are in.  You can’t go back home until you admit that you were the one who left in the first place.

We have to get down wind of ourselves in order to smell how smelly we really are.

Third, there was honesty.  Notice what he says in verse 18, “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.”  You will know that you are really serious about changing your life when you stop making excuses for your behavior.  Think about what the prodigal son could have said.  “It was really my older brother’s fault.  He always picked on me, and Daddy always liked him best.”  Or he might say, “If my old man had given me more money I wouldn’t be in this fix.”  Or, “That farmer never gave me a good job.”  

He could have found a thousand excuses.  But he didn’t.  He simply said, “I have sinned.”  These words marked the beginning of a new life for this young man.  When you stop making excuses for your failures, you are not far from a brand-new life.

Fourth, there was humility.  While he is still in the pigpen, he mentally rehearses what he will say to his father in verse 19: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.”  What a tremendous statement that is.   He came back home with no pre-conditions.  

He didn’t say, “Dad, before I’ll come back, we’ve got to make a deal.”  That’s not real repentance.  This man was so deeply hurt over the way he had lived that he said, “Father, I’m not worthy to be called your son. I’ve disgraced you.  If you will take me back, I will work like a hired hand.”  Real repentance doesn’t make deals with God.

Fifth, there was resolution.  Look at the first part of verse 20: “So he got up and went to his father.”  It’s certainly easy to criticize the prodigal son.  But, when the time came to move, he moved.  So many people say, “Give me some time to think about it.”   Not this guy.   He didn’t delay, but simply started out on the journey home. 

The Father’s Welcome

As he shuffled along the road, a couple questions went through his mind:  “What is my father going to say?  Will he take me back?”  With his head down, he walked along that dirt road, embarrassed and humiliated. 

Certainly his fears were well founded.  We don’t often think about the father’s pain when we read this story.  But it couldn’t have been easy for him.  First of all, he lost part of the fortune he had worked so long to amass.  Second, he lost his reputation in the community.  When a son leaves home in such anger, there’s no way to keep it hidden.  

But the worst pain was the simple fact that the father had lost his son.  After all these years, after all those prayers, after holding him in his arms, after teaching him how to hunt and fish, after pouring out an ocean of love, suddenly the dream is shattered, and the father is left with a huge hole in his heart.  Words cannot express the pain, the sadness, the loss the father feels.  His son has left home, and no one can console him.  After all that, could anyone blame the father if he refused to take his son back?  No wonder the son worries as he slowly plods toward home.  He has no idea what awaits him.  

Verse 20 says that while he was still a long way off, his father saw him.  This is a great moment.  His father saw him and was moved with compassion.  Have you ever wondered how long the son was gone?  It was probably at least a couple months, if not longer.  Day after day the father watched for his son.  Night after night he waited for his return.  Nothing deterred him, not the weather, not the jeers and jokes of the skeptics, not the doubting looks of his friends.  Deep in his heart, he knew his son would someday come back home.  

Then it happened.  One day, late in the afternoon, when the sun was beating down and sweat covered his face, he saw a figure walking hesitantly toward him.

Throwing all dignity aside, he ran to meet his son, embraced him without saying a word, threw his arms around him and kissed him.  The word Jesus used means he smothered him with kisses.

The father knew full well how his son would be welcomed in the village when he returned in failure.  So he prepared a plan – he would run to meet his boy before he reaches the city limits.  If he is able to reconcile with his boy in public, no one will be able to treat his son badly.  Interestingly, in that culture, men who wore robes never ran in public – to do so was deeply humiliating.

In that one moment all questions were answered.  The son’s fear melted away in the tears and hugs.  No words passed between them but one broken heart spoke to another. 

Then the sobbed confession – he was so overwhelmed that he could only utter the first part of his prepared speech in verse 21“I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  

It would be impossible to predict what would happen next.  This “Grace Encounter” gives each of us the hope of tasting grace ourselves.  

Notice the five signs of the father’s welcome:

  1. The kiss – represented forgiveness.
  2. The best robe – a status symbol.
  3. The ring – a sign of authority.
  4. The sandals – a sign of freedom.  Only slaves went barefoot.
  5. The feast, the sign of a joyful welcome – reserved for special occasions.

Verse 24 brings the first part of the story to a close with these wonderful words of hope:  “So they began to celebrate.” At the father’s command, a party begins that lasts for hours.

The Older son

Perhaps you also know about the older brother who refused to join in the celebration.  He represents all those right-thinking, right-living, rule-keepers who want to see repentant sinners publicly punished to teach them a lesson.  Just as the prodigal son still lives today, so does his unhappy older brother.   Before we get too hard on this guy, have you ever thought that he’s got a point?  I mean, how come the Father didn’t do anything cool for him?

The older son is working in the field when the younger son returns and does not get home until after the party had started.  You know, there is something about hard work that seems to awaken a self-righteous attitude within us.  There is something about putting forth effort that makes us look down on those who do not.

One of the servants tells him that his brother has come home and his father is exceedingly happy about it.  This news is met by an immediate expression of jealousy and anger.  He begins to sulk and pout like a little boy, and refuses to go into the house.  When the father comes out to urge him to come in all the pent-up inward rage comes boiling out. The father’s request is met with a flood of bitterness.

Notice the emphasis on self in what the boy says.  He was angry and answered his father in verse 29: “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.” 

 Verse 30: “But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him.”  Can you hear the resentment and bitterness?  

Some of us this morning stand in the shoes of this elder brother.  Perhaps it would help to analyze this a bit so that we can see how closely we match up with his 3 self-righteous tendencies.

3 Marks of Self-Righteousness

1. The first mark is a sense of being treated unfairly

“You never gave me a goat so I could have a party with my friends.”  He felt like he was ignored or forgotten.  This feeling of unfair treatment is always the initial mark of a self-centered attitude.  It is the sign of crushed pride, of wounded ego, revealing the centrality of self.  Its most common expression — as this story brings out is that of anger and a “won’t play” attitude. “I’m gonna take my marbles and go home!” 

2. The second mark is an over-inflated view of self

Notice how the older brother describes his own superiorities and advantages.  Self-righteousness is always full of self-praise: “Look!  All these years I’ve been slaving for you.”  From the older son’s perspective, he’s just been contributing to his father.  He makes no recognition of how much his father has helped him, of how much his father has taught him over the years.   

“And I never disobeyed your orders.”  I doubt that this is a true statement.  No one has ever lived up to that kind of a standard.  It is remarkable how easily he can conveniently forget the many times the Father had forgiven him over the years.  His view of himself is that of being completely and totally in the right.  That is always a mark of self-righteousness. 

3. The third mark is his blame of his father and his contempt for his brother

“This son of yours…” You can hear the cutting edge of contempt in that.  He does not call him his brother and there is no gladness at his return. He rather views him as something vile, as something despicable.  Also, there is no love or respect for his father.  Did you notice how the father ends up with all the blame?   It is all his fault. “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…you kill the fattened calf for him.” 

Self-righteousness is one of the world’s most deadly sins.   Jesus dealt with it more severely and more sharply than any other sin.  He could be tender, gracious, and accepting toward those who were involved in adultery or drunkenness, but when he faces self-righteous Pharisees in their smug complacency His words burn and sear and scorch.  

This sin is deadly because it is so easily disguised as something justifiable.  This is what is wrong with a self-righteous spirit.  It can always be proved by the book to be right.  There is a sense in which this son can be justified for his attitude.  But that is always the mark of self-righteousness.  

Joseph Stowell has said that the American Church is “long on mad, and short on grace.”  We’re mad at politicians, we’re mad at the media, we’re mad at the President.  We’re also mad at those who live their lives differently than we do.  Friends, let’s stop being so angry with people who sin.  Lost people are going to sin because they’re lost.  Christians are going to sin because they’re not perfect.  I’ve said it before but it bears repeating – let’s refuse to be angry with people who sin differently than we do.

The church of Jesus Christ is to be what Christ longs for it to be — a gathering place for forgiven sinners. 

Maybe there’s not much joy in your life because it’s been a long time since you’ve come to the party of grace

Friends, when we’re self-righteous, when we think we’re better than others, it’s impossible to be gracious.  We can’t be grace-givers if we constantly believe that we are superior to others.  We need to remember what we learned last week – we’re equal to each other.  We need to remember that there’s a much bigger party going on than we think – are we going to join it, or just stay outside and criticize?  Maybe there’s not much joy in your life because it’s been a long time since you’ve come to the party of grace.

Notice the contrast with the Father in the story.  He said to him in verse 31-32: “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.”  Let me just point out two characteristics of true fatherhood.

Two Characteristics of the Father

First, this father comes out to meet the angry boy.  Just as he went out to meet the returning rebel, so he goes out to seek this sulking son.  God the Father loves the self-righteous, the smug, and the self-centered legalist even as he loves the rebellious and defiant.   When the father finds his oldest son, he does not scold, berate, or rebuke him harshly, but rather pleads with him.  The tense of this word indicates that the father invited his son again and again to come in to the party.

The father tells the son that everything he had was available to him – all he had to do was ask.  A self-righteous attitude frequently occurs in those who are sitting in the midst of great possibility, but never claim it.  They get upset when they see others, whom they feel do not deserve anything, coming in and getting what they could have had, but never asked for, never claimed.  

This reveals that the older son is actually more lost than the other was.  He, too, is in a distant country — a far country of the spirit — far removed from the father’s heart.

Second, the father offers grace to the boy, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. Now don’t be angry because I have shown love and grace to your brother.” 

Jesus ends the story with this boy standing outside the house.  We do not know what happened next.  He is nursing his wounded ego and whether he repents, goes in, and joins the party or not, we do not know.

The story was addressed, obviously, to the Pharisees and scribes who had the same spirit as the elder brother.  

Jesus does not tell us what became of these two sons.  He just leaves the ending hanging.  I think he does so because he wants us to see ourselves in the story.  Which one of the brothers most closely describes you today?  

Last Sunday I went along with the guys from church who lead a service in the prison.  I had two thoughts as I drove up and the guards began to search my car.  First of all, I was afraid.  I had asked my buddy if I should take my tie off before I go in.  He told me I should.  I then asked him, “You don’t wear ties because you don’t want them to use it to hang themselves, right?”  Paul smiled and said, “No, it’s so they don’t hang us!”

But, I had a second thought as well.  One I’m not very proud to admit.  As we were ushered into a room for the service, I began to feel self-righteous.  I looked at the guys and inside I knew I was better than they were.

But then, something happened.  Once again, God used the song, “Amazing Grace” to get my attention.  As the 20 prisoners and our team of 4 stood to sing, I was convicted and saddened by own smugness.  After verse one, one of the inmates standing next to me shouted out, “I’m a new man.”

And then it hit me.  I was the older brother who had come face-to-face with a group of prodigals who had returned to the Father.  As they continued to sing from their hearts, I was invited to the party.  God’s grace touched me that day and I went in and joined the celebration.

Friend, where are you today?  Which brother most represents you?  Do you need to turn around and head back home?  Are you already home and need to come into the party?  

The Father has enough grace for both of us.  He’s looking for prodigals and He’s looking for the proud.  He welcomes sorry sinners and smug saints.  

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?