2020-12-27 The Father’s Heart

The Father’s Heart
Luke 15:1-2, 11-32
December 27, 2020

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

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. 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.’ 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.

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.’ ” [1]

I am a through-and-through Buckeye. I grew up just outside of Columbus in the suburbs. But I’m not a Buckeye because I grew up there.  I’m a Buckeye because of my dad. My dad loves the Ohio State Buckeyes. Every Saturday during football season, our TV was tuned into the OSU game. My dad loves the Ohio State Buckeyes. And because I love my dad, I learned to love them. My dad’s heart is for OSU; my heart is for OSU.

The Younger Son

This is one of the most well-known and well loved passages of Scripture. We love the parables Jesus tells and we especially love this parable. This parable shows us just how much God has loved his people; this passage clearly shows God’s heart.

Jesus has been teaching the people through parables and he begins this third parable telling us that a father had two sons. The younger son comes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance. Today, someone who is really entrepreneurial might ask for his or her inheritance to start a business, and the parents might not take offense at that. But in that culture, the younger son is telling his father that his father is worth more dead than alive to him. He has no love for his father; he only loves what he can get from him.

And yet, this father does the unthinkable; he divides his property between his sons. According to Mosaic Law, the oldest son received a double portion of the inheritance. So this younger son is looking at 1/3 of the land, 1/3 of the animals, and 1/3 of the rest of the property. That probably took a couple of days, maybe a couple of weeks for the father to divide it all up and find someone to buy the land, the animals, and the property. Think of the pain the father must have felt.

And not long after receiving his inheritance, the younger son leaves home. He goes to a far country where he begins to spend his inheritance on “reckless living”.

But soon enough it’s not a question of where to party; it’s a question of can he eat. This young man has spent his entire inheritance and not long after that, a severe famine hits the country he is in. The price of bread skyrockets; he once was able to have the best of everything, now he can’t even have the crust of someone’s bread. He eventually is able to find work for one of the local citizens, but the job is slopping for pigs. Jesus doesn’t say this because feeding pigs is hard work; he mentions it because pigs are the epitome of unclean in the Old Testament law. This son has broken the last link to his father’s world. He has completed the journey of disassociating himself with his father’s world; a journey he started when he asked for his inheritance.

As he pours bucket after bucket into the trough for the pigs to eat, he longs to eat the pods he is feeding to the pigs. His stomach growls. He starts to think about how his father treated his servants; that they always had enough to eat. He decides to go back home and beg his father for forgiveness. He plans to confess to his father that he sinned against heaven and against him; that he is no longer worthy to be called son; and that he would be willing to work for his father as an apprentice. He is going home to cast himself on his father’s mercy. This son is going to admit his sin, admit the wrong he committed, and beg that his father show him mercy by letting him become an apprentice to a hired hand.

This son has really been humbled and he has repented of his sin. In our culture it has become commonplace for someone to admit that he has messed up, that she has made a mistake; but to say we have sinned against heaven and against someone else and then ask for mercy, that’s just not part of our cultural mindset any more. We might admit our mistake but to call it sin is something we would never do, which means we almost never see our need to ask for mercy.

This thinking has saturated our culture. We see it in political leaders who never apologize but say they regret the consequences of their actions or regret that people might be offended by something they did or said. We even have a president who has said, “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t”.[2]  We see this in spiritual leaders who say, “Do better next time. Yes you made a mistake but it doesn’t rise to the level of sin”.

And because they’re mistakes and not sin, we don’t repent. We don’t need to confess our sin and repent of it. Instead, we try harder; we try to be better next time. That is our culture. We don’t admit sin and because we don’t admit sin we don’t repent of our sin.

But the only way to come to the Father is to see our sin, to see that we cannot work off our sin, and that we need God’s mercy.

True repentance always recognizes our sin. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines repentance as this. It says, “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience[3]. Have you truly repented? Have you confessed your sin as sin? Or have you simply said you’ve made a mistake and will try harder next time? One is biblical repentance; the other is something else.

As the younger son is walking home, is probably rehearsing his speech and wondering if his father will accept his plea. “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” (v20b). Men in that day did not run. Running was something children and women did; men didn’t do that. It would require picking up the hem of his robe and showing his legs. How unthinkable! But this father does just that. He sees his son and runs out to him, wrapping his arms around him and kissing him.

The son begins his speech but his father cuts him off. He tells one of the servants to get the best robe, a ring for his finger, and sandals for his feet. The best robe was the father’s robe, it was a sign of honor; the ring bore the father’s seal; the sandals, even the sandals, signify something – servants were barefoot. The father is restoring his son to the position he once refused. Then turning to another servant, the father has him slaughter the fattened calf so they can feast because his son who was lost is found; he was dead and is alive.

The father welcomes this prodigal son with open arms. After all this time, after all the pain and hurt that came as a result of him leaving, he is still near and dear to the father’s heart. The question remains: is he near and dear to his brother’s heart; will his brother receive him like his father has?

The Older Son

This is the son who stayed and obeyed everything the father had asked of him. As the preparations for the feast are getting under way, he is out in the field. He was working hard. When he makes his way back to the house, he can see the lanterns, he can hear the music and dancing, and he can smell the sweet succulent calf roasted with spices and herbs. He knows a party is going on. Maybe he thinks the party is for him. He calls over one of the servants and asks, “What’s going on?” The servant replies, “Your brother has come and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound”.

The older brother is furious. His blood boils and his face turns red as he hears that his father has slaughtered the fattened calf for this son. We have the answer to our answer if the older brother will receive his brother back; his brother is not near and dear to his heart. He has stayed all these years; he has been the good son obeying everything has father has asked of him. The father can celebrate and rejoice that this son of his, who wasted everything on parties and reckless living, has come home but he can’t make him celebrate. He doesn’t want to go in and see his brother now enjoying what should be his inheritance. His anger at his brother contrasts sharply with the parables Jesus is telling here. In the previous two parables, when what is lost is found again the friends rejoice; here the older brother is angered and refuses to celebrate.

I can only imagine how the audience Jesus first told this parable to responded. They couldn’t have missed that he was directing this at the Pharisees and teachers of the law who muttered that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. They’re being called out for how they have treated the repentant tax collectors and sinners; how they have failed to rejoice when those who were once lost are now found.

But just like before, the father comes out to his son. He pleads with him, “Come in and celebrate. Have some of the fattened calf, be reconciled to your brother”. But he won’t have any of it. The son responds, “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 you, you kill the fattened calf for him!” He is farther away than his brother ever was even though he is standing in the back yard. He doesn’t enjoy the father; he only enjoys what he can get from the father. He didn’t stay because he loved his father; he stayed out of obligation, because it was the right thing to do. Serving the father was slavery. What is near and dear to the father’s heart is far from his heart. He cannot even call his brother “brother”; he can only refer to him as “this son of yours”. We call this the parable of the prodigal son; we really should call it the parable of the prodigal sons. Both are lost to the father.

But his father responds, “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, he was lost and is found”. The older son was legally entitled to everything the father owned. The father had already given the younger son his share of the inheritance; all that was left was his. Did it mean nothing that the father loved him; was serving him really slavery? Did he really not care if his brother was dead or alive?

The rebuke is gentle but clear. The father is saying that if he is a true son then he will come in and celebrate; that he will love what, or more precisely whom, the father loves.

And Jesus ends the parable without telling us if the older brother joins the party and welcomes his brother or if he leaves home. Jesus doesn’t tell us if he is reconciled to his father and brother, loving whom the father loves or he stays embittered. Why?

The Better Older Brother

Jesus is telling us we need to be a better older brother. We often identify as the younger brother but the truth is that after being a Christian for three or four or five years, we start to act more like the older brother. We stop enjoying the Father and start thinking of serving him as slavery, never realizing that we are always with him. We lose the joy of his grace. We start to think that we were the ones who earned our salvation and that we deserve a fattened calf. We start judging people, upset that they are here. We start to think, “Why is he here? Did she really just walk in? We can’t let those people in”. We don’t always rejoice when sinners come to faith. Jesus is calling us to be a better older brother.

But first, we need a brother who knows the Father’s heart and loves what is near and dear to him; a brother who goes out to a far country to bring us from the pigpen so we can feast; a brother who goes out to the back yard and calls us in to celebrate and rejoice with those who have come home. We need a brother like Jesus, one who willingly goes looking for the lost. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, we see him doing just that. At the beginning of his ministry, he calls Levi, a tax collector, to follow him. So often we don’t realize how hated tax collectors were in this time. They were people who allied themselves with Rome over and against Israel. They were viewed as worse than sinners; they were traitors. And yet Jesus called Levi to follow him. A few chapters later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will show grace to Zacchaeus, another tax collector, and eat with him, causing him to repay those he had defrauded. We see Jesus speaking grace to a Samaritan woman at a well instead of condemning her for her sins.

Jesus is the true heir. He is the only one the father can rightly say, “Son, all I have is yours”. And yet, he became a servant so that those who believe might become sons of God; that we might share in his inheritance. It is because of Jesus we can feast. We can come to the table of his body and blood and get a taste of the heavenly feast that awaits us when he returns. On that day, the brother we needed will be glorified as those who were in a far country will have been brought home and those who were in the back yard will have come in.

Come to the feast. Are you in a far country? Let Jesus bring you home. Trust that the grace of God found in Jesus is enough to make you a son, an heir of the living God. You won’t need to work off your debt because he has paid it for you on the cross. Just humbly admit that you have sinned and need God’s mercy. Receive Christ as he is offered to you in the gospel.

Are you in the back yard, upset that sinners have come to the party; mad that your good deeds haven’t gotten you a fattened calf? Come in and enjoy the Father; enjoy the grace found in Christ. Let the grace of God as found in Christ overwhelm you. See how he has loved you even when you didn’t love him.

Are you one who knows what it’s like to be reconciled to God as one who was dead but is now alive, lost but now found? If you know the grace of God, you know what is near and dear to his heart – seeing the lost come home. Then go; go to the end of the street, go to the end of the world and call your brother home; go to the pigpen, go to the back yard and tell of the grace found in Christ. Share the good news with your friends and family. Share it over meals and on walks. Seeing his elect come home is near and dear to the heart of God. It should be near and dear to our heart.

At the end of World War II, a chaplain named Henry Gerecke was given an assignment no one wanted. He was assigned to chaplain the prison at Nuremberg where twenty-one of Hitler’s right hand men stood, awaiting trail for war crimes. These men included Herman Goering, Wilhelm Keitel, Hans Frank, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and many others. These were men who committed heinous crimes, gassing innocent people, planning Kristallnacht, and running the death camps. Chaplain Gerecke accepted the assignment and went about ministering to this group of inmates.

Why? Why would he waste his time with men who committed some of the most heinous acts the world has ever seen; men who had no regard for others? Because he knew the Father’s heart. And as he went around ministering to this group of prisoners, thirteen of these men regularly attended chapel where Chaplain Gerecke proclaimed God’s grace in Jesus Christ; eight became communing members. One, von Ribbentrop, came to faith and asked that his wife raise their children as Christians. When asked if he had any last words before his execution, he said that he placed his hope in Christ who made atonement for his sins and asked God for mercy. Gerecke, that faithful chaplain, knew the Father’s heart; he knew what was near and dear to the Father and he let that be near and dear to him. And by understanding how Christ had brought him home into the feast, he was able to call others home as well.

Let us pray.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Lk 15:1, 2, 11–32). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[2] https://www.cnn.com/2015/07/18/politics/trump-has-never-sought-forgiveness/index.html

[3] Westminster Shorter Catechism Answer 87.