Teaching Sermons For Pastors and Laymen

                           12-7-04                    

Unconditional Love

                                                                                   

 Luke 15:1-15:32  
 
Jesus tells the story of a young man who repents of his sin, apologizes to his father, and is joyfully accepted back into his family, despite the objections of his older brother who resents his father’s mercy.


This is a parable in story form, sometimes called an “example parable.”

 

It is set in the same context as the two preceding parables, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin that expresses the joy that comes to one who finds something that was lost.

 

While it has been called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” it is really a story about a father who had two sons.

 

The spotlight is on the father.

 

It is told by Jesus for a reason; He wants to answer the Pharisees’ complaint about His association with sinners.

 

The Pharisees are shown to be like the elder son in the story, that is, resentful of God for being merciful.

 

Jesus is showing that his love is like that of God.

 

The story illustrates God’s attitude toward a sinner not only after repentance, but even before.


Verses one to three set the stage for three parables about the joy of finding what was lost.

 

The Pharisees took offense at the way Jesus related to sinners who were supposed to be shunned.

 

They felt their sin disqualified them from not only associating with God, but with them, the righteous, as well.

 

They were quite sure they were right.


In verse eleven it says, “There was a man who had two sons.”

 

This parable is similar to others that Jesus told.

 

For example, there was the parable of the two debtors, and the parable of the Pharisee and the toll-collector, and there was the one about the two sons, and then there was the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.

 

In each parable, Jesus contrasted two types of people with each other.

 

Even though it is about two sons, it is the father’s attitude and behavior that is the key to the story.

 

The father, who is clearly symbolic of God’s unconditional love, is, in the story, a well-to-do Palestinian farmer.


In verse twelve we’re told, “The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.”

 

The younger son seems to be unmarried and about twenty years old or so.

 

By law the eldest son was entitled to two-thirds of his father’s estate with the remaining third to be divided among the other sons.

 

In this case, there is only one younger son who would get the entire remaining one-third.

 

The property would be given during the father’s lifetime, and that would be a rare case in which the son would have no further legal claim on the father’s goods.

 

If the son sold the property, the buyer could not take possession until the father died.


In verse thirteen it says, “A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.”

 

Bible commentators say this phrase means he converted everything into cash.


In verse fifteen Jesus said, “So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.”

 

To a Jew, the pig was unclean and an animal to be avoided.

 

To land a job as a swineherd was the lowest of the low and an immoral occupation to boot.


In verse sixteen Jesus said that, “He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.”

 

The pods on which the swine fed were the fruit of the carob tree, and today it is often called St. John’s bread.

 

The tree is found all over the Mediterranean area; its fruit was used for animal feed, though humans could and did eat it as well.


In verse seventeen were told, “But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!”

 

Coming to his senses means he repented, and changed his attitude, he admitted he was wrong and he determined to set things right.


In verses eighteen and nineteen, he is facing the facts, and he rehearses his apology to his father.

 

He is sorry for what he has lost, but more than that he is sorry for what he has done, for sinning against God and his earthly father.


In verses twenty and twenty-one, the father, who is always on the lookout for his son, drops all of his pride and runs to kiss his son.

 

The son does not get a chance to finish the speech he rehearsed, since his father so eager is to get on with the next step: a feast.


In verse twenty-two, the son is treated like an honored guest, like a son returned from war, not like a servant, not punished or demoted.

 

He is treated better than he deserves and better than he expects or asks.


In verse twenty-four, his father declares his son was dead…but now he’s alive…lost…but now he is found.

 

The changed situation causes joy on the father’s part.

 

What the son did is now lost and dead.

 

The son is alive and found and that’s all that matters.

 

“He’s alive” would mean alive in the family or spiritually alive.


In verse twenty-eight we are told about the older son’s reaction; “he became angry at his father and he pleaded with him.

 

But the father is good to both sons.

 

He does not reject the older one because of his resentment over his generosity and mercy.


In verses twenty nine to thirty, the elder son reveals his true feelings; that he was no more a son than his younger brother.

 

He describes his faithfulness to his father’s wishes as “slavery.”

 

He resents his father’s treatment of the younger and expresses his feelings of being taken for granted.

 

After all, all he ever received from his father was a goat, and it would have been of far less value than the fatted calf.


He said, “When your son returns”: the older son was so angry that he could not call him “my brother;” instead, he says, “that son of yours.”

 

In verses thirty to thirty-one, the father reminds the elder son that he loses nothing by his younger brother gaining forgiveness and re-instatement as a son.

 

He has no real basis for resentment, since he is not affected by his brother’s return.

 

His good fortune remains intact.


In verse thirty-two, we never learn about the elder son’s response to his father’s point of view.

 

Did he go and greet his brother?

 

Did he join in the celebration?

 

Or did he become the one who was really “far away,” instead of his brother?

 

The question is left open as a challenge to all of us.


This is really a parable about “the forgiving father” as much as it is about “two sons.”


The parable teaches that God is waiting and willing to forgive any and all who repent.

 

In fact, he is in the “forgiving mode” all the time.

 

It is the sinner who postpones and prevents the moment of coming together and the loving embrace of the Father by staying “far away.”

 

The two sons represent two different ways of drifting apart from the love of God.

 

Neither of them knew what being a son meant.

 

One son physically moved away, and the other stayed at home, never straying, yet never really being at ease with his father.

 

One feels like he is a “hired hand,” while the other will accept being a “slave.”

 

Both saw their father in terms of work, deeds, jobs, tasks.

 

Yet, the father’s mercy exceeded all expectations--theirs and ours--as he treated them both better than they deserved.


The younger son took the approach that the grass was greener in other pastures.

 

He had the wanderlust for life, wanted to “see the world,” experience everything firsthand, especially the pleasures of the world.

 

Only when he was completely disillusioned by the unfulfilled expectations of life did he come to his senses, and express repentance, and a change of attitude.

 

Did he realize that in going astray he had lost more than he had gained, ending up in extreme poverty and shameful servant hood.


His repentance was real and his apology was a classic example for all of us.

 

He did not regret so much what he had lost as what he had done--to God and to his earthly father.

 

The emphasis was not on him but on them.

 

He apologized without excuses.

 

He did not claim childhood abuse; neglect, deprivation or worse treatment than his elder brother, even though the elder brother did.

 

He accepted responsibility for his actions.


The elder son appears at the end of the story, to be, where the younger one was at the beginning: far away from home, and at odds with his father.

 

Actually, he always was on bad terms.

 

He stayed home, was a good boy and did his chores religiously.

 

Yet, he did them grudgingly, without love, more out of a sense of measuring up to his own, inflated, self-image than love for his father.

 

And his self-image was not so great when his feelings were hurt.

 

He lets it slip that he feels more like a slave than a son.

 

While he did nothing wrong, neither did he do anything joyfully.

 

Therefore, when the father showed mercy to the “bad” one, he would have none of it.


The younger was now “in the home” celebrating, finding at home what he had foolishly sought among the bogus pleasures of a far away country, and the elder was “outside” brooding.

 

He was as far away from home and father as the younger had ever been.

 

He could not join in the celebrating or music or joy.

 

It did not seem fair to him.

 

The younger should be punished, demoted, even rejected, but not forgiven unconditionally.

 

He represented the Pharisee’s reaction to Jesus’ message of forgiveness and he could not stomach it.

 

He felt that all the time and effort he spent proving himself was unappreciated by his father and certainly un-rewarded.

 

He was angry because he felt he was treated less than fairly and he was jealous that his brother had been treated more than fairly.


The father could have scolded him for his selfishness.

 

Instead, he speaks to him with the same compassion as with his other son.

 

He went out to greet the one and to plead with the other.

 

He points out to the elder that his generosity to the younger one takes nothing away from him.

 

He still has two-thirds of his estate; he has all his father has left.

 

This older child is like a baby born into a royal family.

 

He is unaware of how richly blessed he is, and so he can only pout, complain, resent and scold his father.

 

The years of pent-up negative emotions now come pouring out during a family feast.

 

There is never a good time for bad news, but his timing was as bad as his attitude.

 

What family has not known this or a similar scene during a happy occasion?

 

The son has no sense of or appreciation for his father’s joy, even while accusing his father of the same sort of thing and causing his sadness.


No one knows love until one has been loved unconditionally, loved for “being” and not just for “doing.”

 

Forgiveness means treating others better than they have treated you, even better than they “deserve.”


To love unconditionally and to forgive requires loving like God loves and it requires his power, the power that comes from the indwelling Holy Spirit.


Sincere apology requires no excuses or blaming; it only requires a willingness to take personal responsibility for what you have done.


God forgives us even before we know it, but knowing we’re forgiven gives us power to us to love again and to love better.


The father stood his ground.

 

So did Jesus.

 

He did not let the disapproval of the religious people interfere with his ministry.

 

The father was so different from his sons that I have to wonder if they learned anything from him.

 

He loved them enough that he could rise above the rejection of the one and the resentment of the other.

 

He knew he could not force his sons to love him.

 

They were free to hurt him and themselves.

 

He tolerated it and continued loving them anyway, unconditionally.

 

It was they who placed the conditions for loving their father.

 

He had faith that his wayward son would one day choose good, once he had experienced the effects of evil.

 

He must have had the same faith, though the story ends without telling us, to believe that his older son, who never really rejected him but never really accepted him either, would one day do as the younger son.

 

Perhaps, the question is left unanswered because more of us resemble the elder than the younger.

 

If the younger son’s example raises questions like- Do I constantly dream of being somewhere other than where I am?

 

Do I equate “seeing the world” with merely traveling?

 

Do I apologize without excuses?

 

Then the elder’s example leaves us with these questions.

 

Do I resent the good fortune of others?

 

Do I interpret forgiveness as weakness?

 

Do I resent the way God forgives others and the way He is?

 

But mainly, there is the question raised by the example of the father- Can I love like this father who loves me like this?


God’s love is unconditional.

 

He stands ready to forgive.

 

Indeed, according to this story God may well forgive us long before we know it.

 

The father in the story was not so much estranged from the son as was the son from the father.

 

However, the son needed to formally apologize and to hear the words and feel the relief accompanying his father’s forgiveness.

 

It is not enough for us to believe or hope that God forgives us, especially in serious matters.

 

We need to be assured that God, in fact, has forgiven us.


And we can be, because one of God’s promises found in His word is that “If we will confess our sins, He will be faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

 

And isn’t that what we want; to be forgiven and restored to the position of son or daughter to our heavenly Father.

 

He waits for us to return to Him just like the prodigal’s father patiently waited for Him.

 

He will always embrace you and welcome you back into His family.

 

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