The Lost Sons

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The following is excerpted from John Phillips’ commentary on Luke 15
And he said, A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.

And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.

And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.

And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:11-32).

This parable involves two sons. First, it includes the story of the scandalous son (15:11-24). Men are lost like sons are lost -- through rebellion, pride, self-will, and deliberate choice. The parable of the prodigal focuses on the publicans and sinners; the story of the elder brother depicts the scribes and Pharisees. We can be sure that both groups easily recognized themselves in the story. 

First, there were the far horizons. "A certain man had two sons," Jesus said, "and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living" (15:11-12). In the parable of the lost sheep, it is the Son who is the active member of the Godhead. In the story of the lost coin, it is the Holy Spirit who is at work. In the parable of the two sons, it is the Father who predominates. Indeed, in this twin parable, the Father is mentioned by name no less than twelve times. 

The lure of faraway places took hold of the younger son's soul. Doubtless, he was fed up with the rules, religion, and righteousness of his father. He longed to get away from it all. He approached his father with his heartless demand. In effect, he said, "Let's pretend that you are dead so that I can receive here and now my share of the inheritance." The father, far from indignantly refusing the son's outrageous request, gave him his share. No amount of pleading and reasoning was going to do any good; the father gave in. The young fellow would have to find out the hard way what it was like to be cast adrift in a cold, cruel world. 

First, we have the prodigal's going-away prayer -- "Father, give me." It was the prayer of a heartless young fool. 

"Not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country" (15:13). The expression "took his journey" implies that he went abroad. He wanted to see the world -- the great wide, wonderful world -- far from the narrow confines of Jerusalem, Judea, and Judaism. If he had headed north to Caesarea, about sixty-five miles away, he could have taken ship to Myra on the coast of the Roman province of Lycia - a giant step of another nine hundred miles. From there, he could have sailed on to Rome, landing at Puteoli. From there, he could have anticipated Paul's route to Rome, heading up the Appian Way another five hundred miles or so. Or he might have journeyed to Rome, marching along the great Roman highways and stopping here and there along the way to sample the world's wicked wares. Or perhaps he headed for Egypt and then on to Carthage or even Tarshish -- a far country indeed. One way or another, the distance could have been measured in miles. 

But that is not how they measure distance going to or coming from the beckoning shore of "the far country." Corinth? Carthage? Crete? The distance as measured by God was expressed in terms of morals, not miles. 

He "wasted his substance with riotous living." He abandoned himself to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. We see a man throwing his money away, living in debauchery, and surrounded by fast-living companions. "Come on, you fellows, the drinks are on me," he would say. The party girls would add to the fun and frolics of that faraway land. 

Then all of his money was gone -- and so were his fair-weather friends. God stepped in, doubtless in answer to a living father's heartbroken prayers. "And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want" (15:14). That was God at work. The far country is no place to be when your funds run out, your friends take off, and famine moves in. 

"He went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine." He was so hungry that he even fished in the hogs' slop bucket and stuffed the muck into his mouth. Working around hogs was an unclean business for a Jew. It would seem that even to get such a vile job he virtually had to force himself on the man who employed him. So much for the far horizons. 

At last, he began to think of the father's house (15:17-19). "When he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!" It was not long after he came to himself that he came to his father. 

"I will arise and go to my father," he decided. He would make a full confession: "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants" (15:18-19). David had prayed a similar sinner's prayer a thousand years earlier (Psa. 51:4 ). It would have done no good for this young man to have returned home as rebellious and as riotous as he was when he went away. 

So now we note his coming home prayer: "Father, make me!" 

"I will arise and go to my father!" That was the moment when the will took over. The gospel invitation first reaches the conscience, then the heart, then the mind, and finally the will ( Gen. 24:58; Josh. 24:15; Mat. 23:37; John 5:6 ). 

We can picture the young man as he picks himself up, and, pig pail in hand, bangs on the door of the big house. The owner appears. "Here, Mister, here's your bucket. I'm going home." 

The man looks at him in disgust. "Going home are you?" we can hear him say. "By the sight and smell of you, if I were your father, I'd turn the dogs loose on you." 

"Mister," we can hear the prodigal say, "you don't know my father." 

So off he went, heading for home with a heavy heart but with hope burning brightly in his soul -- until at last he topped the last rise, and there it was on the horizon -- his father's house. And hope died within him as he looked at himself and thought of the bright lights of home. His footsteps faltered. He sat down on the ground and buried his head in his hands. 

"But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him" (15:20). "But"! Note the marvelous buts of the Bible; they always herald a change. "He ran"! God is always swift to forgive and in a hurry to save (Isa. 65:24). He ran! There he goes. Down from his watchtower, out onto the street, and down the road, arms outstretched and garments flapping all about him. He calls! The poor prodigal looks up. Suddenly he is wrapped in his father's arms! "He kissed him"! The text suggests that he kissed him fervently. 

"Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son..." (15:21). That's as far as the father would let him go. A robe! The best robe! A ring for his hand! Shoes for his feet! Received not as a servant but as a son. The great Pauline parallel is recorded in the story of Philemon and Onesimus, his runaway slave. 

So they brought forth the fatted calf! Music! Dancing! The old house had never known such happy, holy, heavenly merriment in all of its days. "This my son was dead," the father exclaimed, "and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." Dead! Alive! Lost! Found! There is the story of the Prodigal Son, the whole story of the ruin and redemption of poor, wayward sinners of Adam's race. 

We might well pause here and look at the publicans and the sinners -- how they must have smiled! And the scribes and the Pharisees -- how they must have scowled! But the Lord did not stop. The story was not yet over. The half had not been told. There was another son, a sanctimonious older son. The Lord would have us look at him (15:25-32). 

"Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant." 

This elder brother was one of those pious frauds who never run away and never do anything of a criminal nature, but they do all of the things that their beliefs demand and manage to shed their own sanctimonious gloom over everyone else around them. Their sins arise from their disposition; they are spiteful, moody, touchy, self-righteous, niggardly, and bad tempered. 

This particular elder brother was on his way home from the field. Doubtless, he was thinking about his supper to be followed by a restful evening. Then his ear caught an unfamiliar sound. Someone was throwing a party. His brother had come home from the ends of the earth and was thoroughly repentant! Hence, the feasting and the merrymaking. Suddenly, the elder brother realized how much he hated his younger brother. He hated him most not for running away with a large slice of the family fortune and not for the wild excesses in the far country (possibly rumors of his excesses had filtered back home) but for coming back home. More extravagance! More partying! A robe no less! And a ring! New shoes and a banquet fit for a king! He should be banished to the servants' hall, given cast-off clothes, and put to work mucking out the barns! 

"He was angry," Jesus said, "and would not go in" (15:28). So his father came out and pleaded with him. Go in? Not him! Let them send a few scraps over to the barn. We are not told all of their conversation, but we are reminded of Dr. Bland, who had the reputation of being the most wicked man in the most wicked town in England. The doctor was dying and knew that he had but a short time to live. Someone sent for the minister, but he was a liberal who had only bits and pieces of a Bible and knew nothing of God's redeeming grace. The dying doctor soon saw through that fellow and had him chased out of his room. Another minister came and led the doctor to Christ. When the liberal minister heard of what had happened, he was indignant. He couldn't see why the doctor should escape the punishment he deserved. "Do you think," he asked a friend, "that a deathbed conversion atones for a whole life of sin?" The friend replied, "No, but Calvary does!" 

This was the elder brother's very problem. He could not see why the repentant prodigal should be instantly ransomed and restored. He knew nothing of Calvary love. 

He aired his anger to his father: "Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment." Maybe so, but his robe of righteousness was full of holes. It was all I, me, and my. His self-righteousness was deadly. If he had to share the father's house with that young scapegrace of a brother, he would rather stay outside -- exactly what the scribes and the Pharisees were doing. 

"Thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends," he complained, showing that he had in his heart all along the far country and a repressed lust for the things that had so ruled the young prodigal's heart. "But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf" (15:30). "This thy son!" the elder brother jibed. "He's no brother of mine." He was as far away from the father's heart in spirit as his younger brother had been in fact when he was hundreds of miles from home. 

Despite his son's sneers, the father loved that mean-spirited, hypocritical elder brother just as much as he loved the prodigal. So he continued, "Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine" (15:31). This part of the parable was clearly pointed at the scribes and the Pharisees. Israel was the elder brother. The nation occupied a special place in the purposes of God (Rom. 9:4-5 ), and no reason existed why these special blessings should not continue. But Israel was about to shut itself out by sheer meanness of spirit, just as the elder brother was about to do. 

All that the elder brother had to do was come on in and take his rightful place, but not even the father would force him; the decision had to be his. Still pleading, the father continued, "It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found" (15:32). 

The Lord left the story unfinished. The last we see is the father still pleading and the elder brother still pouting. The die was not yet cast when Jesus told the tale. The Jews had not yet finally and irrevocably rejected Christ. The door was not yet shut, but it soon would be. Paul expounded the end of the story later in Romans 9-11.
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