I had my first go at leading a Bible study at Bradford-on-Avon Baptist church last Sunday.
We looked at Luke 15, the well known “Prodigal Son” passage. Below is a write-up of my observations.
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: …
The Parable of the Prodigal Son
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. 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[a] 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,[c] ‘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.’”
Although this is a very familiar passage, when I read Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God last year, I discovered meaning in the passage that I’d never noticed before. I’m not sure whether that’s because all the sermons I’d ever heard on the passage finished at v. 24, or whether I just stopped listening when any preacher started talking about the older brother, but I decided to do a study on this passage, bearing in mind that in v.11 Jesus starts by saying “There was a man who had two sons”. Also noting from v.1-3 that Jesus is telling this parable in response to the scribes and Pharisees, gives some indication that the older brother’s role in the story is important, and, as suggested by the title of Tim Keller’s book, the father in the story tells us something about what God is like.
However, although I have been influenced by Tim Keller, I deliberately didn’t re-read The Prodigal God while preparing this study because, unlike the book reviews I’ve done in the past, this was intended to be a Bible Study. We’re not here to study what Tim Keller or anyone else says about this passage, but rather what Jesus himself said, which is a more daunting prospect for me than a book review; if I say something wrong here I can’t blame the author of the book I’m talking about, but I trust God will help us understand what he was saying here.
In my analysis of this passage, I eventually settled on 3 points to look at: The Goat, The Grace & The God.
1) The first point, The Goat, is an introductory point. The main point is The Grace, but The Grace is the solution to a problem, so before we get to the solution I think it makes sense to have a quick look at the problem first, and the problem is The Goat.
How does the younger brother get into the mess that he gets into? The problem is he wants his father’s stuff more than he wants his father.
He makes this obvious in v.12-13 when he just comes right out and asks his father for his inheritance early: “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” He’s effectively saying: “I don’t want you, I just want your stuff. I wish you were dead.” And then he “gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” And we know how he ends up.
But the older brother has the same problem.
He makes it less obvious. Outwardly he still respects his father, but in v.29, when the older brother complains “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.” he shows that he’s not satisfied with his relationship with his father. On the outside, he looks like a much better son than his younger brother, but inwardly his attitude to his father is not much different, he still wants his father’s stuff more than he wants his father himself. He acts as you’d expect a good son to act, but he doesn’t serve and obey his father because he loves him; he acts that way to earn some other reward. His father’s love is not enough for him; he wants a goat!
So the question to ask ourselves is: What’s my equivalent of a young goat? What is it that makes me think “ok, I’m in God’s family, but so-and-so’s got such-and-such a gift, why don’t I have that? After all I’ve done for you, God, don’t I deserve that gift?” The Bible has a name for people who live outwardly as if they love God just for who He is, but in reality just act that way because they want something from him; those people are called hypocrites.
Now those of us who’ve been at a church like this for years know our Bibles, we know full well that God is supposed to be more important than our family, job, house, car, or a young goat to celebrate with friends or whatever, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not idolising anything. More likely it just means that our idols are more subtle, so that maybe we don’t even recognise them ourselves most of the time.
I don’t want to talk about myself too much, but to give an example, my own equivalent of a young goat used to be the knowledge that my sins were forgiven. I wanted the guilt for sin to be gone more than I wanted a relationship with God. I thought the whole point of being a Christian was that I wouldn’t be sent to hell when I died. I knew I’d sinned, and Jesus could save me from the hell that I deserved. I also knew that when people become Christians their lives are changed, they read the Bible, they pray, they go to church, they evangelise… so I worked hard at doing those things so God would be pleased with me.
Then at university, I came across people who went to those awful happy-clappy churches I’d heard about, and these people seemed completely unburdened by guilt, while I felt more and more burdened by my own, and I thought feeling the weight of your sin was a sign of a good Christian. I thought the problem must be that their churches didn’t teach about sin properly.
Like the older brother, I thought: “I’m reading my Bible everyday, I’m praying everyday, I go to the right sort of church, I work hard not to sin, so how come I carry this guilt while these other so-called “Christians”, who don’t seem to work as hard as me, sing and clap as if their guilt is completely gone?”
The older brother in the parable wanted a young goat, not his father; I wanted God’s forgiveness, but I didn’t want God himself. Thankfully, God tore down that idol a couple of years ago and put Himself in its place as the main goal of my life, and ironically, once I recognised that knowing God was more important than knowing I was forgiven, God gave me the assurance of forgiveness too.
When God doesn’t give us the things we want more than we want him, he’s not depriving us; he wants us to have the best, which is Himself.
So the 1st point is: don’t pursue God’s stuff, pursue God Himself.
2) The 2nd point is The Grace, although we’re really looking more at the opposite of grace, i.e. the mistakes that both brothers made in thinking they were supposed to earn the father’s favour by serving him.
a) I think the older brother makes two mistakes in v.29-30. Firstly, he compares himself with his younger brother: “I have served you… I never disobeyed… But… this son of yours… has devoured your property with prostitutes…”
i) Why is the older brother wrong to compare himself to his younger brother? Well, we see in the passage that the fact that he behaved outwardly more like a good son than his younger brother didn’t make the father love him more. The father didn’t look at his two sons and think “you’ve served better, you’re more deserving of my love, well done”, he just loved both of his sons despite their behaviour (we saw in the first point that the older son wasn’t really much, if any, better than his brother in his motivations for his actions, and remember God looks at our hearts, not just our outward behaviour).
Why else is it not a good idea to compare ourselves to other people to gauge how pleased God must be with us? Well, when we consider the God who created the universe, and the glory that is due to him, and consider his law, that we should love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and see how far short we fall of honouring him in that way, as he deserves… any difference between me and a man who spends all his money on prostitutes barely registers as a difference when we compare both of our lives to how infinitely holy God is.
I’m reminded of other passages in the Bible like the Pharisee and the tax collector, where, in Luke 18:11, the Pharisee says “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Now, in the UK in 2012, tax collectors are not really considered quite such bad people as the Jews who collected money from their own countrymen to give to the Romans who were occupying their land. I guess we’re more likely to thank God that we’re not like that homosexual, or that atheist, or that 15 year old girl who had an abortion. I notice the Pharisee does thank God that he’s not like that, technically he does give God the credit for making him a better person, but Jesus still says that the Pharisee exalted himself. Do we look at those “real sinners” and start to think we’re actually doing quite well, God must be pleased with us?
Or perhaps we know our Bibles too well to make the mistake of thinking our fasting and tithing makes us better than a tax collector, perhaps we see that Jesus says the humble tax collector will be exalted and think “Ah, so God is pleased with people who humble themselves, ok then, I’ll beat my breast and lament loudly over my sinfulness so everyone will hear how humble I am. Thank God I’m not like those Catholics who rely on their works, I believe in salvation by grace alone. I’ve got my theology right, so God must be pleased with me.”
Both the older brother in Luke 15 and the Pharisee in Luke 18 think God must be pleased with them because of how they compare to other people, but when compared to the infinitely holy God himself, the difference between the most devout Pharisee and the worst of the worst sinners is negligible. Thankfully God doesn’t love us based on how our lives compare with other people; he loves us based on his own grace.
ii) The apostle Paul addresses another problem with comparing ourselves with other people in his 1st letter to the Corinthians. In the church at Corinth, divisions are starting to appear between groups of people who are boasting (1 Cor 1:12) “I follow Paul”, or “I follow Apollos”, or “I follow Cephas”, or “I follow Christ”. They were comparing themselves to each other, boasting about who’s teaching was the best. In Chapter 4, Paul is writing so that none of them may be puffed up in favour of one against another, and in v.7 asks “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”
It’s ridiculous for me to boast that I’m better than anyone else, because if there is any way in which I am better, it’s entirely down to a gift I’ve received from God. I didn’t make myself better.
Does anyone else struggle with that? When I see some awful story on the news, do I really believe that it’s only thanks to God’s grace that that’s not me committing that crime? I so easily forget that, but it’s true, I didn’t make a deal with God to earn the family I was born into, with this type of upbringing where I’ve been relatively sheltered from a lot of the horrible things that happen in the world. There’s no reason apart from God’s grace that I shouldn’t have been born into a family in Manchester involved in gang warfare that might have led to me getting arrested at 15 years old in connection with murder. So I have no right to look down on the people God hasn’t blessed in the same way as he’s blessed me.
b) The 2nd mistake the older brother makes is in thinking that his service puts his father in his debt. Looking again at v.29, “these many years I have served you… yet you never gave me a young goat…” he thinks that, as a result of his years of service, his father owes him at least a young goat.
But what does the father do? He doesn’t seem to think he owes his older son anything, while his younger son, who’s devoured his father’s property with prostitutes, is repaid with the best robe the servants can find, and a big party.
In Romans 4:4, Paul says “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.”
If you’ve done some work for somebody, your employer owes you a debt. I got some money in my bank account this week, but I don’t look on that money as a gift. I had a pre-arranged agreement with my employer that I would work for a month and they would pay me that amount for it. Since I did the work, the company was in my debt until they paid me for it. However, if someone gave me a cheque for the same amount, without me having done anything for them, I would look on that money differently. If my paycheque is bigger than someone else’s, I might be justified in boasting that I’d done some more valuable work than them, but God won’t let us boast.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
We’re not allowed to work for our salvation, because then we would be able to boast that we’d earned it, and the preceding verse (Eph 2:7) tells us why we’re not supposed to boast, it tells us that God saved us, not so that we could show off how hard we’re willing to work, but “so that… he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.” God doesn’t want us to earn wages from him, he wants to show off his own immeasurable riches.
And this applies to sanctification too. In Galatians 3:3, Paul asks “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now perfected by the flesh?”
Any progress we make as Christians, we’re being perfected by the Spirit, not by works of law or flesh, so God still gets all the credit for our growing righteousness.
Although I knew this in theory, I still used to have this confused idea that, having been saved by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, I was supposed to spend the rest of my life trying to pay him back by doing good things and making myself righteous.
But looking back to 1 Corinthians 4:7, “What do you have that you did not receive?” all the good things I did that I thought were earning me favour with God by paying him back for his grace, all of those came from God in the first place. So rather than paying God back for grace by doing righteous deeds, since God gave us those righteous deeds, the more righteous deeds we do the more we’re in God’s debt! And that’s a glorious thing, because the more God gives us, the more he shows of the immeasurable riches of his grace! (See also Luke 7:36-50; the one who is more in God’s debt loves him more)
c) The younger brother also makes the mistake of thinking he’s supposed to earn favour with his father, and because he knows full well that he’s failed miserably to serve his father as he deserves, (v.19: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”), he thinks he’s now excluded from sonship, which turns out to be incorrect.
Despite how appallingly he’s treated his father, his father still welcomes him straight back into the family.
I think all of us here know in theory that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to pay for every sin, no matter how bad we might have been, but do we really believe it in practice?
Does anyone else ever think along the lines “I’m going to have to really repent* hard if God’s going to forgive me this time”? I used to think (and sometimes still find myself thinking like this) after committing some sin, before I could dare feel forgiven for it, that I should burden myself with guilt for a certain period depending on how bad the sin was. But that’s adding my own work to what Jesus has done. It de-values what Jesus did on the cross. It’s acting as if I don’t really believe that what Jesus did was enough to pay for my sin.
We already looked a bit at the older brother’s mistake in looking down on other people who’ve sinned, and thinking “he’ll have to do some serious repenting* if God’s going to forgive him for that” but when we look at other people who, like the younger brother, have clearly got themselves into serious trouble, God’s grace is sufficient for them to be forgiven and welcomed in too.
I was heartbroken by the 1st page of Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? where he re-tells a true story from a friend who works with the down-and-out in Chicago:
A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter – two years old! – to men interested in kinky sex. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story. For one thing, it made me legally liable – I’m required to report cases of child abuse. I had no idea what to say to this woman.
At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
I don’t think I need to add much to what Yancey says about this: “What struck me about my friend’s story is that women much like this prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from him… Has the church lost that gift? Evidently the down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers. What has happened?”
Now Christianity is not about making people feel better about themselves; what the younger brother did was wrong, and it cost the father a lot, but the father welcomed him back anyway.
We talk about how people don’t like to be told they’re sinners, but actually, younger brother types like the woman in the story above, have no trouble accepting that they’ve done plenty wrong. It tends to be older brother types who’ve been going to church for many years, reading our bibles everyday, praying everyday, working hard to obey all the rules, we’re the ones who have trouble accepting that God shows just as much love to those who’ve devoured his property with prostitutes.
* This is incorrect use of the word “repent”. To repent means to turn away from our sin and back to God, which of course we should do whenever we’ve sinned. The type of thinking I’m talking about above turns “repentance” into a performance of a work so that God will accept us, and what is really meant by this incorrect usage is to load oneself with guilt. This point was queried during the study on Sunday; someone asked the valid question whether there’s a danger of interpreting this lack of guilt in such a way that sin is no longer thought of as a serious problem. Thankfully, Robert Oliver was present and made the distinction between guilt and contrition. It is right to feel contrition (sorrow) for our sin, but we should not load ourselves with guilt as we are no longer guilty in God’s sight.
3) I said the 3rd point is The God, so what do we learn about God from this passage?
a) When this parable has been read to people from a Middle Eastern culture like the one in which Jesus lived, the thing that stands out most to those people is that the father runs! The father of the family in that culture never runs; it’s not dignified. Running is for young people. For the father to run like this would be humiliating.
So the first thing we learn about God is that he humbles himself. You all know that.
The God who created the universe, the Milky Way galaxy, Mount Everest, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, whatever majestic part of creation that makes you go “Wow!” … the God who created that. We’ve all turned away from that magnificent God to our little idols, and said I don’t want you, God, I’d rather just have my music, books, sport, movies, or whatever… That God came to Earth to live as a man, born in a stable to an unmarried woman, so most people probably thought he was an illegitimate child, and grew up, living amongst sinners, ultimately to die a humiliating death on the cross. If God humbles himself like that – the father runs to greet the prodigal son, and Jesus eternal Holy Son of God comes to Earth to live amongst sinners and die for us – why do we worry about our reputations?
I came across a memorable quote from C.H. Spurgeon, via Jeremy Walker’s blog:
“Many of you, good people, try to get as far away as you can from the erring and the fallen. They might infect your innocence! Society claims that we should not be familiar with people who have offended against its laws. We must not be seen associating with them, for it might discredit us. Infamous bosh! Can anything discredit sinners such as we are by nature and by practice? If we know ourselves before God we are degraded enough in and of ourselves. Is there anybody, after all, in the world, who is worse than we are when we see ourselves in the faithful glass of the Word?”
We tend to avoid spending time with sinners in case their sinfulness rubs off on us (as if we’re not sinners ourselves!) but holy God runs to embrace them!
Going back to the woman described on the first page of What’s So Amazing About Grace? who didn’t think she belonged in church because of how bad she was; compare that notion with what we see happening in verse 1 of the chapter we’re looking at: “all the tax collectors and sinners drew near to him”. Jesus was infinitely more righteous than any of us, yet he humbled himself to associate with sinners, and somehow he didn’t make them feel like they couldn’t draw near to him because of how bad they were.
b) Finally, not only does the father humiliate himself, he runs to embrace sinners, and celebrates their return as we also see in the first two parables in this chapter: “Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep which was lost!” “’Rejoice with me for I have found the piece which I lost!’ Likewise, I say to you, there is much joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
On this note, I felt it was appropriate to quote part of what Matt Chandler says here:
Of course, Jesus doesn’t allow us to stay in the same broken state as when we first come to him, but “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” we don’t do anything to make ourselves better so that he’ll accept us, he’s already done it all.
So to summarise, don’t pursue a goat, pursue God himself, don’t try to earn your forgiveness, because you can’t and God doesn’t want you to. The God who humbles himself to embrace sinners saves us so that he might show the exceeding riches of his grace.
Next month, the plan is to look at the following passage, Luke 16:1-13.