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We call God our Father. By virtue of creation, we are all his children, and he is concerned about each and every person living on the earth. Jesus reminds us that he even knows how many hairs are on every person’s head. He loves every one of us and desperately wants us to live with him in his kingdom forever. But if our kids sometimes do things that exasperate us, imagine what it must be like for God? If we were God we would have thrown in the towel and given everyone the condemnation they deserved a long time ago. Thankfully, God is not like us. God is our merciful Father whose grace crushed our condemnation. That’s what Jesus wants us to learn from this familiar parable.
The Father in Jesus’ parable had two sons. Remember that. We usually tend to focus on the first son, the rebellious prodigal son, but he had two sons. And, both were rebellious. They represent two kinds of rebellion against God, and at one time or another in our lives, we are likely guilty of both kinds of rebellion. Jesus’ parable shows us how God in his mercy deals with our rebellion and crushes the condemnation we rightly deserve with his amazing grace.
The first son mentioned in the parable is the younger son. He is obviously a rebellious son. He doesn’t like living in his Father’s house, being subject to his Father’s rules. He feels they are cramping his style and spoiling his fun. In order to secure the freedom he wants, he needs money, so he demands that his Father give him his inheritance. He’s the younger son so that would amount to 1/3 of the estate because the oldest always received double. He couldn’t wait until his dad died, he wanted it now. And, as soon as he got what he wanted he went as far away from home as he could and broke every rule he thought was restricting his freedom.
This son might remind you of yourself, going off to college on your parent’s dime. Maybe you chose a college as far away from home as you could. Maybe you were excited to get out from under your parents’ rules and try everything your parents told you was bad to see for yourself if what they said was true, or if they were just old-fashioned and trying to spoil your fun.
This son pictures anyone who was raised to know God and his word, and then decided they would be much better off without God or his word.
You might wonder why the Father gave him the inheritance early? Why did he let him go? Surely he knew what he would do with it!
Obviously, the Father in the parable represents God. As you study the Bible you learn that God doesn’t force you to stay with him or live under his rules. If someone is determined to live apart from him and the guidance of his word, he will let them. Humanly speaking, we might say that God realizes that there are those who have to learn the hard way that he knows best. Look at how he dealt with Israel. We learn from the book of Judges that Israel kept forsaking God and worshiping idols. God let them do it, but he also let them reap what they sowed. He stopped protecting them from their enemies. When they cried out to him for help, he said, Go cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you. That sounds harsh, but it was tough love. They wouldn’t listen when he told them that idols couldn’t save them so he allowed them to learn from experience that idols are powerless; worthless. When they learned that lesson, got rid of their idols, and humbled themselves before him, he stepped in and delivered them. We are told, He could bear their misery no longer. He had mercy.
When the younger son came to his senses, when he learned the hard way that his father’s rules were not intended to spoil his fun but to protect him from harm, he humbled himself. He confessed the truth. He had sinned against heaven, against God, and against his father. Before he had demanded his portion of the inheritance. Now he realized that he deserved nothing. He didn’t deserve to be called his father’s son. He didn’t deserve to even be a servant in his father’s house, but he would confess his unworthiness, throw himself on his father’s mercy, and ask to be allowed to live in his father’s house as a servant.
That’s the attitude we all need to have before God. We have all sinned in many ways. We have been rebellious sons and daughters. We need to come before our heavenly father daily and confess our sins, and admit that we deserve nothing from him but his anger and just condemnation. We need to humble ourselves before him and throw ourselves on his mercy, praying that we might be allowed to live in his house and be happy with whatever crumbs might fall from his table.
What did the father do? He had mercy! He saw his son coming a long way off. He saw this boy who had been healthy and strong and well-dressed when he left, now looking gaunt from hunger, wearing tattered clothing that smelled like pigs, and bare feet. His heart broke. He was moved to tears over the fact that his son whom he loved had to experience such trouble in his life. But he was also moved to tears of joy that his son was still alive and that he realized that he could return to his father. He accepted his son’s confession and ordered a celebration.
What a gracious and merciful Father we have! When we recognize our rebellion against him and humble ourselves before him, confessing our complete unworthiness to be his children, he lifts us up and receives us back as his dear children. Scripture tells us that he can do that, not because of his love- love cannot prevent justice. He can receive us back as his children because Jesus lived a life without rebellion in our place. As God’s only perfect son, he went to the cross and took upon himself our wickedness, rebellion, and sin. He was condemned in our place. Because Jesus is our substitute, God can be just, and at the same time our merciful and forgiving Father. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Now, what about the “good son,” at least that’s what he considered himself to be? In his mind he had not been rebellious. He was a hard worker. He had always done what his father had asked, never disobeyed his father’s commands– probably an exaggeration. He was so filled with pride that he could only see himself. Everything he says is about himself. He couldn’t understand how his father could show mercy to his wicked, rebellious brother. He was like Jonah who sat on a hill above Nineveh hoping that God would not be merciful and would destroy the city. Jonah didn’t want God to have mercy on Nineveh and the older son didn’t want his father to have mercy on his younger brother.
This son is probably more like most of us than the younger son. Most of us aren’t openly rebellious like that younger son. But, the older son is just as rebellious, just in a different way. He makes a big scene and refuses to enter the house where people are celebrating his brother’s return. He even refuses to acknowledge him as his brother – he calls him that son of yours. He is like people who say, “I don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites.” Or, “If those people are going to be in heaven I don’t want to be there!” Really?! You would give up heaven because you think you are better than someone else?
This kind of secret rebellion covered up by outward goodness is just as dangerous as open rebellion against God. It’s an attitude that fails to recognize that just one sin condemns you and disqualifies you from entering heaven. It’s an attitude that fails to acknowledge that salvation is by grace alone. It’s a rejection of mercy and without mercy there is no salvation.
Again, the father shows mercy. He doesn’t let his older son remain outside alone. He goes out to him. He seeks the lost. He shows him his error. He reminds him that the return of his brother doesn’t hurt his standing; he doesn’t lose anything. He still has his double inheritance as the oldest son. But, his inability to show mercy reveals the sin in his heart. He too has something to confess, the sin of pride and lovelessness. He too needs to humble himself before the Lord, for the Lord humbles the proud and lifts up the lowly.
If we find ourselves being hesitant to forgive, wondering how someone who has broken every commandment can be received into our fellowship and even commune with us at the Lord’s table, or share the joys of heaven with us even though they did not confess Jesus until they were on their death bed, we need to see our rebellion. We are objecting to God’s mercy, the only thing that can save us.
Jesus’ parable reminds us, whether we are outwardly rebellious like the younger son, or inwardly rebellious like the older son, we are still rebellious children. We have all sinned and deserve God’s condemnation. We need to humble ourselves before God and throw ourselves on his mercy. When we have done that, and have experienced the mercy, grace, and forgiveness that is ours because of Jesus, then we will come in and join the party. Then we will rejoice when anyone who was lost is found; when anyone who was dead in sin is made alive again through faith in Jesus. We will see and rejoice that God is our merciful father who has crushed our condemnation by condemning Jesus in our place.