Hope Personified


The Point:  God welcomes us because of His deep love for us.

A Father and Two Sons:  Luke 15:11-12.

[11]  And he said, "There was a man who had two sons. [12]  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.  [ESV]

[11-12]  “If ever there was a father who loved a son, it was the prodigal father. Usually the son is the one they call the prodigal, and with good reason. In the dictionary, the first definition for the word ‘prodigal’ is ‘recklessly wasteful’. That was the prodigal son – so recklessly wasteful that he squandered everything he had: his money, his reputation, his dignity, his family, and his community. But there is another definition for the word ‘prodigal’. It also means ‘lavish’, and since the story is really about the love a father lavishes on his undeserving son, we can also call it the parable of the prodigal father. This father loved his son when they were both still living at home. How costly it was for him to be a father to this lost son. Imagine how expensive it would be to give up, on demand, one full third of everything you have worked so hard to gain. In those days, the most that a father ever gave his son was the right to have his inheritance, never the right to sell it. In this case, however, the son demanded both the right to own and the right to sell. Speaking purely in financial terms, this was a costly demand. The father responded to his son’s unreasonable request with unimaginable generosity. Rather than disowning his son and driving him out of the house, as many fathers would have done, he gave him what he asked.”  [Ryken, pp. 140-142]

The Prodigal Son:  Luke 15:13-21.

[13]  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. [14]  And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. [15]  So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. [16]  And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. [17]  "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! [18]  I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. [19]  I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants."’ [20]  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. [21]  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.’ [ESV]

[13-21]  “The phrase gathered all he had [13] indicates that he sold his third of the father’s estate, turning it into cash. The parable specifically states that the prodigal settled his affairs not many days later. This means that he liquidated his assets in a hurry which in turn indicates a sale at any price. The accumulated economic gains of generations would be lost in a few days. The whole family suffered for this selfishness, but no one suffered more than the father. The real loss to him in all of this was not financial, but relational. When his son started to sell his property, the man was exposed to the insult of public humiliation. There were no secrets in a town like this. People would talk, and soon everyone would hear what his son was doing. This would reflect very badly on the family name. The prodigal son was putting them all to shame. Even that is not the worst of it, however. No, what cost the father most was the heartless rebellion of his own beloved son. When the boy demanded his share of the inheritance, he was really saying that he wished his father would go ahead and die. It was a total rejection. All the son wanted was the money and nothing else, with complete control to live the way that he wanted to live. It must have cut his father to the very heart. As costly as it was for this father to let go of his son, it was just as costly to go on loving his son the whole time that he was lost. The father thought about the boy every day that he was gone, as any parent who has ever lost a child can testify. His son may have been lost, but he was never forgotten. Every day his father wondered where he was and what he was doing. He was always hoping for the best, but fearing the worst, because anyone could see that the boy would end up losing everything he had. Knowing there was nothing he could do to stop him, the father virtually gave his son up for dead. But this did not mean he ever stopped loving his son, or longing that he might return. Although the son was far away from his father’s house, he was never away from his father’s heart. So the old man watched and waited for his return in suffering silence. As much as it cost the father to wait for his son, it was even more costly to welcome him home. The boy did not return in triumph, but in disgrace. It would have been customary for someone in his situation to return bearing gifts, especially if he wanted to be reconciled with his family. But to his shame, the lost son was coming back empty handed. Having lost everything, he looked more like a slave than a son. The real humiliation was not the way the young man looked, however, but the way people would treat him when he returned. In those days Jewish people had a deep revulsion for anyone who squandered his inheritance among the Gentiles. This is exactly what the prodigal son had done: rather than guarding his father’s inheritance, he had given it away to the Gentiles. Now he would have to face the withering scorn of his old friends and neighbors. The people in his hometown would certainly despise him, but they might well do something even worse. They might cut him off from their community entirely. But the father did not wait for the village to reject his son. Instead, while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. What is perhaps most surprising about this costly demonstration of unexpected love is the way the father ran. Even today it is uncommon to see an old man run, but this was especially true in the ancient Near East, where it was considered very undignified for a man of age and position to run. The Greek word used here for run was usually reserved for competitive footraces. But men who wear long robes do not sprint. If an older man did want to run, he would have to gather up his robes and his undergarments would probably show. So in all likelihood, a traditional man like the father had not run anywhere to meet anyone for decades. It simply was not done, as anyone who heard this parable would have understood. So why did the old man run? Why did he make such a spectacle of himself? He did it because he could not wait to see his son, of course. But he may also have done it so that he could be reconciled to his son before anyone in the community could even think about cutting him off. The father realizes that if he is able to achieve reconciliation with his son in public, no one in the village will treat the prodigal badly. Understand that when the father ran to meet his son, he was deliberately exposing himself to public humiliation. Rather than looking at the lost son and seeing what a mess he had made of his life, people would look instead at the extraordinary spectacle of a distinguished, landed gentleman hitching up his robes and racing down the street, bare legs and all. By the time anyone realized what was happening, the father and son would already be reconciled. The prodigal father was so lavishly compassionate in his love that he was willing to suffer any humiliation to restore his long-lost son. The costly expression of the father’s love comes first. It is a preemptive reconciliation, offered without any reproach, and before any words of repentance are uttered. What great hope this gives to lost sinners! Even after we have wandered in the far country of sin, even after we have wasted everything we have, and even after we have wallowed in the foul pigpen of our rebellion against God, we have a good and loving Father who is running to welcome us home. What a homecoming this was for the long-lost son. When he left home he gave his father an unqualified rejection, but when he came back he received unqualified acceptance. Almost before the prodigal son knew what was happening, he found himself in his father’s arms. He must have been as surprised as anyone to see his father running toward him on the open road – surprised, and maybe a little scared. But there could be no doubt about the old man’s intentions when he took his son in his arms and started to kiss him. The son must have been overwhelmed by his father’s welcome, but not so overwhelmed that he forgot to make his apologies. Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. The boy was right: his sins were so great that he was no longer worthy to be called his father’s son. But worthy or not, his father was there to receive him as a son.”  [Ryken, pp. 142-147]

Celebration for the Return of the Prodigal:  Luke 15:22-24.

[22]  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. [23]  And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. [24]  For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.  [ESV]

[22-24]  “Empty-handed, the son returns with nothing for anyone. He has nothing to give his father except his need – his need for food, his need for clothing, and his need to be forgiven. What a picture this is of our own spiritual need! What do we have to offer to God? Nothing – absolutely nothing. We owe God an infinite debt for all our sin against His perfect holiness, but we have nothing to pay Him, nothing to offer Him, nothing to give Him. All we can bring is our spiritual need. No one has ever been more completely saved by grace than the prodigal son. His father gave him free forgiveness and unconditional acceptance, with the full right to be his son. He gave him back everything that he had lost. Notice the significance of the gifts that the father lavished on his son, each of which signified sonship. When the father called for the best robe in the house, he was placing his mantle on his son. If anything, the ring was even more significant. In all likelihood, it was the signet ring: whoever wore it controlled the estate. Thus the ring was an emblem of authority and the restoration of his inheritance. Even his shoes were a sign of sonship. Servants did not wear shoes in those days, but sons did wear shoes, as free men who belonged to a wealthy house. The boy was not received as a servant, but as a son. His last gift was the fattened calf which the family had been saving for a special occasion. With the celebration of this rare feast, the prodigal son was welcomed back into table fellowship at his father’s house, and their relationship was fully restored. This was another costly demonstration of unexpected love. The prodigal father spared no expense in welcoming home his long-lost son. He gave him the best of everything, expecting nothing in return: the robe of honor, the ring of inheritance, the footwear of freedom, and the feast of fellowship. He did all this because he wanted everyone to know that his son was still his son. Jesus told this story so we would know for sure of our own acceptance in the extravagant love and exuberant joy of our prodigal God. We too have been welcomed as sons and daughters in the Father’s house. We too have been blessed with a costly and freely offered love that seeks and suffers in order to save. The same God who suffers because of His immense love for His children is the God who is rich in goodness and mercy and who desires to reveal to His children the richness of His glory. In this parable we see the compassion of God the Father, who loves us even more than we ever dared to hope. What great joy the Father has in welcoming His children home, forgiving all their sins, and granting them all the gifts of salvation! What great joy the Son has in suffering the humiliation they deserve, and then seeking to find them! What great joy God has in declaring that the dead are alive, that the lost are found, and that His children are His children!”  [Ryken, pp. 147-152]

The Older Son:  Luke 15:25-32.

[25]  "Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. [26]  And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. [27]  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.’ [28]  But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, [29]  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 [30]  But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ [31]  And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. [32]  It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’"  [ESV]

[25-32]  “Many people know the parable of the prodigal son, but what people sometimes forget is how the story ends: with his jealous, judgmental older brother apparently refusing to share his father’s welcome. This is unfortunate, because the ending is really the most important part of the story. Remember the context: Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees and the scribes who had criticized Him for receiving sinners and eating with them. In response, Jesus told them a three-part story about three things that were lost: a lost sheep [3-7], a lost coin [8-10], and a lost son [11-24]. In each case, the seeker rejoiced in finding what was lost and then celebrated that joy by sharing it with friends. Jesus told this triple parable to show what joy God has in seeking and saving lost sinners. Yet the scribes and the Pharisees refused to welcome that joy into their own hearts. Rather than receiving people who were lost, they rejected them, and therefore they were unwilling and unable to rejoice. To show them what was wrong with their attitude, and why, Jesus put them into His story. If the father is God Himself, and if the prodigal son represents ordinary Jewish people who turn back to God in repentance, then the elder brother must represent the proud Pharisees who refused to share the joy of Jesus in the salvation of sinners. It is easy to see how lost the prodigal son was, but do you see how lost the elder brother was? He was as lost as his little brother – maybe even more lost, because he was lost on the inside, not the outside, so nobody could tell how lost he really was. We know the younger son by what he asks, the father by what he does, and the other son by what he does not do. The elder brother failed to do what he ought to do: he refused to share his father’s joy. The elder brother was expected to join the party. This was the obvious thing for him to do, especially in the context of the larger parable. When the sheep and the coin were found, everyone shared in the celebration. This time a son had been found, so the party would be even bigger. But, the Scripture says, against all expectation, he was angry and refused to go in. The elder brother was infuriated by his father’s freely offered forgiveness. He wanted his brother to pay for his sins. Thus he refused to share his father’s joy in his brother’s salvation. The lostness of the elder brother is shown is his resentment over the grace that his father lavished on that unworthy sinner, his second-born son. And maybe the elder brother had a good point. Look how faithful he had been in working on the family farm, and look how irresponsible his brother was. What kind of world would this be if people were rewarded for squandering their inheritance, while hardworking people got nothing in return for doing the right thing. Was the elder brother really as righteous, however, as he thought he was. No, he was completely lost: lost in his refusal to reconcile, lost in his rejection of his father’s joy, lost in his striving for self-salvation, lost in resentment for his brother’s reward, and lost in the unrighteous desires of his own sinful heart. The elder brother was the paragon of traditional morality, but in this moment of unguarded anger, he inadvertently revealed the true attitude of his heart. His relationship with his father had always been performance-based. His service had become a kind of slavery to him; he had never served in love, but only out of obligation. See how lost the elder brother was, and how far away he was from his father’s heart. Even though he had kept the letter of the law (at least to his own satisfaction), he was still estranged from his father’s love. Thus the prodigal son’s elder brother is one of the most spiritually unattractive people in the entire Bible. He is stingy, self-pitying, resentful, proud, bitter, unrepentant, unforgiving, and unwilling to show grace to other sinners. The only thing he knew how to celebrate was his own accomplishments. In other words, he was a lot like the Pharisees. The scribes and the Pharisees thought of themselves as model children who did as they were told. Certainly they never disobeyed their Father in heaven, or did anything that demanded costly repentance. Yet for that very reason their joyless hearts were estranged from the love of God. Because they did not see their own need for grace, they had no grace to give to anyone else. This suggests an excellent standard for evaluating our own heart for the lost. Are we running to meet the wandering sinners? When we find them, are they drawn to us the way sinners and tax collectors were drawn to Jesus? This is one of the noteworthy features of the ministry of our Lord: whereas moral people were sometimes put off by the company He kept, outcasts and reprobates were almost always drawn to Him. When we live with the love of Christ, they will be drawn to us the same way.”  [Ryken, pp. 153-167] 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Knowing the context is essential for understanding the meaning of Jesus’ parable about the lost son. This parable is the third in a series of parables concerning finding what was lost. What is the main point Jesus is teaching in these three parables?

2.         Describe the three main characters in this third parable. What are their characteristics? Who do they represent? As you look back at your life, who do you identify more with: the second son of the elder brother?

3.         How is 15:17-21 a picture of any person’s repentance?

4.         What did Jesus intend for the Pharisees to learn from 15:25-32? Do you need to learn the same lesson?


Luke, volume 2, Darrell Bock, BENT, Baker.

Luke, volume 2, Philip Ryken, P & R Publishing.

The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller, Dutton.

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