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The Prodigal God - Pt. 1

Most people know the parable of The Prodigal Son. Or at least they think they know it. Parables were stories that Jesus taught to illustrate what was real about God. Perhaps you have actually read the words that Jesus taught in the story of the Prodigal Son. Perhaps it has been a long time since you read them. Or perhaps you have never actually read the parable and have just picked up bits and pieces from other people. Maybe someone told you about it as a child in Sunday School and that is as far as your understanding goes. Maybe you are totally unfamiliar with it.

This parable has drawn a great deal of attention for centuries. It has been preached on perhaps hundreds of thousands of times. Many books have been written about it. It has been the subject of artists, writers, musicians, poets, and painters. The painting you see here is by the great painter Rembrandt, and is very famous for people who know the parable and know art.

The parable of The Prodigal Son is a beautiful story. It is a challenging story. It is a surprising story.

I want to do something a little different this morning. I want us all to hear the parable of The Prodigal Son. You may want to read along in your pew bibles. And then I am going ask for some interaction. I am going to ask what you noticed in this parable. It might be something you never noticed before.

Before we read it I want to ask what is the parable of The Prodigal Son about?

As I said most people think they know this parable. We call it The Prodigal Son. Jesus didn’t call it this. In fact, Jesus didn’t name any of his parables. Any names of parables were done by people and usually years later. Jesus never called it “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” He never called it “The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.” But maybe this parable was named “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” because the focus has most always been on one son.

Yes, there is a younger son in this story. But aren’t there two sons?

And there is a father.

Yet, most of us think it is about just the younger son. And I think perhaps more than either of the two sons, the parable is really about the father. The father in Jesus’ story represents our heavenly Father. This is why I am calling this The Prodigal God. I think Jesus was really telling us about God.

The second reason I am calling this The Prodigal God is that Pastor Timothy Keller wrote a book on this parable and called it The Prodigal God. I learned so much from his teaching and I am drawing from it for these sermons.

Why would we ever call God “prodigal”? Do we know what “prodigal” means? Many people assume it means “wayward” or “rebellious.”

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary the definition of prodigal is “wasteful expenditure,” “lavish,” “recklessly spendthrift (free with money),” “luxuriant.” A prodigal God? Is God wasteful? Lavish? Does he spend luxuriantly? Depends what we are talking about.

Why did Jesus tell this parable? It is actually the third of three parables Jesus told to a group of people he was with. The first thing to note is to whom Jesus tells this parable. Listen:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable…

When the Pharisees and the scribes saw people far from God coming near to listen to Jesus, they began to mutter and grumble. Some of the worst in the neighborhood wanted to hear Jesus and get near him. And Jesus welcomed them. And the religious leaders whispered back and forth about Jesus welcoming such people and eating with them.

In Middle Eastern cultures, to eat with people is to accept them and establish a deep bond of friendship. Our culture tends to eat casually, but to eat with someone in Middle Easters cultures is a statement and even a high compliment.

Why were the Pharisees and scribes so worked up about this? Because as religious leaders they saw it as their job to protect the image and reputation of the Holy God of Israel.[1] They believed that Jesus was shaming this reputation by suggesting that the Holy and Righteous God of Israel would have anything to do with tax collectors and sinners. At times Jesus was criticized as being a glutton and drunkard because he was a friend of tax collectors and sinners.[2]

The Pharisees and scribes complain and whine. When he gets wind of this, Jesus tells three parables. Here are the first two that he tells before the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

A parable about a shepherd finding a lost sheep. A parable about a woman finding a lost coin. And then a parable about a lost son who is found. And the titles of these parables have become the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal or lost son. But are those really the appropriate titles?

Is the emphasis in Jesus’ teaching on the lost sheep or the searching shepherd? Does Jesus emphasize the lost coin or the searching, finding woman? Darrell Johnson, one of my favorite preachers, says the emphasis is not on who was lost but whose was lost. So with the parable of the prodigal, is the emphasis on the son or on the father?

I think these parables are about God. These parables are about the restless shepherd who is restless until he holds his lost sheep safely in his arms. And the hunting woman who will not stop searching until she finds her lost coin.

Jesus tells these parables to tell people about the Father. He is revealing what the Father is like. These parables show us the Father’s heart. And the parable of the Prodigal Son, or maybe better the Prodigal God, is the one that really caps it off.

Jesus begins that first parable this way: “Suppose one of you…”. Jesus is talking to these religious leaders who are upset that sinners are hanging around Jesus. He wants the Pharisees and scribes to identify with the shepherd. Jesus is trying to get those who hear him to understand how God sees people. Jesus doesn’t put down the religious leaders even as they grumble. He tries to draw them into a vision of helping the lost.

In the first parable there are one-hundred sheep and only ninety-nine can be accounted for meaning that one was lost and in danger somewhere. In the next parable there are ten silver coins and one is lost. (Actually, the coin Jesus was speaking of is a drachma, which was worth about a day’s wage. If you only have ten, and lost one, that’s significant in your monthly budget.)

Ninety-nine are accounted for, but one is lost. “Well, what’s one? You do the best you can.” But the heavenly Father is not satisfied that most are safe and only one lost. God’s love doesn’t stop with favorable percentages. He will search for the one.[3]

In the case of the lost sheep Jesus asks the Pharisees and scribes, the very shepherds of Israel, would you go after that one lost sheep until it is found? Wouldn’t you? Or wouldn’t you be like that woman searching for that one coin?

Or, wouldn’t you be like that father when he sees his lost son coming home?

The good shepherd keeps searching until the sheep is found. When he finds it he lays it on his shoulders.[4] And he rejoices. The woman rejoices when she finds her coin. Both call their friends and neighbors. They want everyone to know what has happened. Both ask others to rejoice with them for what they had lost has been found. There is great joy in the finding.

Jesus says, “…there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (v. 7) And, “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (v.10)

These parables are also about the joy of the one who is searching and finds the one, just one!

Brothers and sisters this is the gospel! At the heart of the gospel is a God whose heart yearns and aches until he finds his lost ones. Who will stop at nothing, even to the life of his own Son, to reclaim what was lost. Who rejoices and who throws a party, when the lost are found. We sometimes forget that joy is at the heart of the gospel.

These parables speak to us of God’s concern for those who can’t find him and who aren’t finding him. Sometimes we in the church view certain people with such contempt that we separate ourselves from those who need the gospel most. There is “us” and there is “them”. The Pharisees and the scribes, for whom these parables were told, saw it as their priority to keep away from such people. That is why they mutter when these people come around Jesus and Jesus welcomes them.

We are to live close to God and walk in his ways. But is there a danger in the church of withdrawing from people and the world because we fear we will compromise our devotion to Christ? Let’s not get to a place where there is no one around us with whom to share the gospel.[5] We are to be in the world, but not of it.

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”[6] What a message to carry! That God isn’t made at anyone but wants everyone to come home!

Back in 1941 a man named Thomas Kelly, a Christian in the Quaker tradition, wrote a powerful book called A Testament of Devotion. Kelly said there is a huge drama going on in our world. This drama is God, who he calls the Hound of Heaven, on the search for people. He is relentless in his search for the lost sheep wandering in the wilderness, restless and lonely. And over the hills comes the wise Shepherd. For His is a shepherd’s heart, and He is restless until He holds His sheep in His arms. It is the drama of the Eternal Father drawing the prodigal home unto Himself, where there is bread enough and to spare. In this drama the main character is the Eternal God of Love.”[7]

This is the truth that Jesus taught in the parables of Luke 15: there is a search going on in this world. It is God’s search for the lost. God’s search, perhaps, for you. We often speak about our search for God. True, every human being whether he or she knows it or not is searching for God. Our phases, addictions, rebellions, and longings are all part of that search. But how often we forget how the Father is searching for us.

In the story of the prodigal son, we hear of a son returning in disgrace. “But in a moment of earth-shaking grace, the father goes out to meet his son and restores him to his undeserved place in the family.”[8] It is the father who is the true prodigal, lavishing grace and mercy on, actually, both of his sons. The father runs out to his son to welcome him home.

He is a prodigal God because he is extravagant and even wasteful with the extent he will go to find us. He is luxuriant with love, grace, and welcome to a son who didn’t deserve it. And that is how he is with us.

I am going to preach four sermons from the parable of the Prodigal God, and I hope by the time we are finished that we will know God is not just some respectable, religious idea, but is living and active. Jesus is alive. The Holy Spirit is moving right now. Jesus is after you. He is after me. The Prodigal God is on the hunt.[9]

These two parables Jesus told before he told the parable of the prodigal speak of this very thing. And these first two parables set up the third. We will return to it next Sunday.

Prayer: God, thank you for being prodigal. Teach us in these next weeks as we come again and again to this parable. But also bring us to you. Thank you. Amen.

[1]Darrell Johnson, sermon on “The Prodigal Father”, CD, “The God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Regent College [2] Luke 7:34 [3] Buttrick, Parable of Jesus, p. 181 [4] See Isaiah 49:22 [5] Bock, p.409 [6] 2 Corinthians 5:19 [7] P. 51, Chapter on Holy Obedience [8] Jesus Is After You, Connor Gwin,, April 1, 2022. [9] ibid

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