A Picture Worth a Thousand Words [No Audio]


Luke 15:11-32

The chapter began with two short parables: the lost sheep and the lost coin. We come now to the third parable in this set, the parable of the lost son.  However your ESV editors didn’t dare call it that because it has been beloved throughout the ages as the parable of the prodigal son. But its theme is the theme of the first two parables of the chapter and that is an important point. Some terminology simply can’t be changed. You’ll notice in Genesis 6 that the translators of the ESV continued to refer to Noah’s boat as an ark, though no one refers to such a thing as an ark nowadays. People do not want to read of Noah’s barge or Noah’s boat. So here. Everyone knows this as the parable of the prodigal son and so it remains. But as we will read in v. 24 and again in the last verse of the chapter, the father says the same thing about his younger son that the man said about his sheep and the woman about her coin: he was lost and now is found. When John Newton described his salvation in Amazing Grace by saying “I once was lost, but now am found…” he was using the language of Luke 15. When we speak of unbelievers as lost we are using the language of this chapter. And that is right. This is all about salvation: who needs it, how it comes to pass, and why.

This is the best known and best loved of all the Lord’s parables. It has been called the pearl and the crown of all biblical parables. It so beautifully expresses the central truth of the gospel that throughout the ages it has been known as evangelium in evangelio, “the gospel in the gospel.”

Text Comment

v.11     It is important to note that the father had two sons. The parable is about both sons, not just the prodigal, as we shall see. The first two parables featured only two principal characters, though they were prompted by the grumbling of the Pharisees and the scribes as we read in v. 1. Here the older brother represents the mindset of the Pharisees who complained because the Lord was welcoming and having fellowship with people they judged unworthy.

v.13     Kenneth Bailey is a missionary and biblical scholar who spent most of his adult life in the middle east. He has written some fascinating studies of the Lord’s parables, interpreting them according to the way a Middle Eastern person and, especially a Middle Eastern peasant, would hear them and understand them. Bailey points out that there is a whole set of assumptions hidden in these opening verses and that every Middle Easterner would read the story accordingly. The young man has shown appalling disrespect for his father, for the honor of his family, and for his community. The family and the village would have been aghast at behavior that amounted to saying that he wished his father were dead, the kind of thing that is simply not said in the Middle East. What the younger son did, in other words, was unthinkable and repugnant. He had not simply violated the standards of behavior expected of a son; he had broken his relationship with his father. He had proved himself radically selfish; a man without honor.

            What the Middle Easterner also notices, however, is that the father granted the son his request. He certainly didn’t have to. He could simply have said that his son would have to wait until the father’s death to inherit. Most fathers would have said exactly that. Here the father, in effect, lets the sinner go his own way. You begin to see how perfectly the parable is describing the rebellion of God’s creatures in God’s world.

            What is more, in a culture that measured wealth by land, the young man proved himself as well a fool by turning it all into cash quickly, taking a great loss as he would have had to do to take the money and run. Everyone in the village would have heard of what he had said and done by sundown!

            Most Middle Easterners who hear the story also are already wondering about the older son. Why did he not intervene? Why did he not seek to mediate between father and son and so restore the relationship? The older son is already complicit in the disaster that has overtaken the family. [The Cross and the Prodigal, 44-45]

            They also expect that the father, at some point, would have disowned his son; it is what he would have been expected to do. What they would not expect was for the son ever to return. Not only the family but the entire village would refuse to receive him. [52-53]

v.15     As so often in life, the realization of one’s real need does not come quickly. Being broke during a famine was still not enough to bring this fellow to his senses. He still thought he could solve his problem. Verse 15 is a timeless picture of what is happening in our modern culture: we are always sure that the solution to our problem is that next thing we are going to try! And very often that next thing has about as much chance of delivering to us the peace and pleasure we seek as did this man’s work in the pigsty!

Feeding pigs was a job no Jew and no middle easterner would have ever wanted to do. As Bailey notes, “The Middle East still detests the pig: the Muslim and the Jew by the dictates of religion, the Christian, for the most part, by choice.” [57] It is a measure of the man’s desperation that he was willing to do even this. Nothing could be more degrading for a Jew than to care for a Gentile’s pigs! This is the bottom of the bottom of the barrel.

v.16     His desperate circumstances had finally brought him to the realization that there was only one place where he was likely to find help and that was with his father, the very father he had so terribly betrayed. He knew he had forfeited all his rights, but he could appeal to his father’s mercy. He would ask to be made simply a day-laborer, the lowest of the three classes of farm laborers. [Bock, ii, 1313] The fact that he imagined that he could do so after all he has done is some indication that the son knew his father, knew what he was like, knew his character. He could count on him to be a merciful man!

v.22     The son had returned in rags, but he was now to be dressed in the best of the best, given sandals when servants typically went barefoot, given a ring, which in all likelihood further indicates that he had been restored to the family, and was to be the guest of honor at a feast thrown for the whole town. The killing of a fattened calf was reserved only for the most important occasions. Meat was rarely consumed at meals in first century Palestine. [Bock, ii, 1315]

v.24     The banquet restores the son not only to the immediate family but to the village, the larger community that would have been acutely aware of his treason and disgusted by it.

v.25     To a middle eastern ear that the son was “in the field” means that he was supervising his workers. No head of a family with servants, a family wealthy enough to have a fattened calf to kill for special occasions, with festive robes for celebrations, and a home large enough for a village festivity would do manual labor in the field. [Bailey, Cross and Prodigal, 78] This was a man with a lot. As the elder brother he would have received a significantly larger inheritance than his younger brother.

v.28     His refusal to enter the banquet in the Middle East was an insult to his father and his guests. He was furious about what his father had done. But in a very significant and ironic twist the insider has become the outsider. The older brother contrived, without leaving home, to be further away from his father than his brother had been in the heathen pigsty! [Caird, 182; Bock, ii, 1317] The son who remained at home was now outside, not enjoying the feast with his family. He is the Pharisee, the scribe, the unbelieving Jew! As one great scholar of the parables remarked, “What a mournful commentary is the Book of Acts throughout on the words, “he would not go in.” [Trench, Parables, 422] He was speaking of the Jews who refused to go in! Very clearly here the point is made: it is the Pharisees who are standing outside while God is rejoicing in the repentance and the coming home of the tax collectors and the sinners.

v.29     The sinful spirit always manufactures a slight and finds its excuses. It is also essentially hypocritical. This man had condemned his brother for demanding his rights but now demands them for himself. The obedience which he was so proud of he now unwittingly reveals to have been motivated by self-interest, not by love or gratitude. What is more he seems to care nothing for the fact that his refusal to enter the feast amounts to a public insult to his father as any Middle-Eastern reader immediately recognizes. The point is that the elder brother wants the younger brother disowned, not welcomed. We are back to the Pharisees and scribes in v. 1.

v.30     As is always the case with the self-righteous, he imagined the worst about his brother. The older brother didn’t know that his younger brother consorted with prostitutes. How could he? He was imagining the worst!  [Caird, 183]

v.32     The parable is left unfinished. We don’t know how the older brother responded to his father’s appeal. The Lord was addressing a group of religious, self-satisfied, self-righteous sinners who had opposed his message and his ministry to the so-called “sinners” of the culture. He was telling them in no uncertain terms that this was why he received and ate with tax collectors and sinners. He was motivated by mercy; by loving concern for needy people. It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick and he did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. Did they now understand? Did they now realize that until they learned to welcome repentant sinners and until they learned why they must do this and rejoice to do this they would remain forever estranged from their heavenly Father? [Caird, 184] The question is left unanswered because the Lord’s hearers, or readers, must answer it for themselves.

Ian Tait, the English pastor that some of you know, had a clever three part outline of the parable of the prodigal son. He called the first section:  “Sick of home”; the second: “Homesick”; and the third: “Home.” But, of course, that is the story of only one of the brothers. There are two in the parable and both are essential to the point. However, to call the parable “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” mistakes its meaning in more than just that one way.

The fact that this parable described in advance the story of the life and experience of so many people is a testament to the genius of our Lord. We have here a picture of man in sin: both kinds of sin. There is first the timeless picture of the prodigal young man or woman who leaves the stuffy confines of home for the exciting world of freedom, sensual pleasure, and the pursuit of worldly experience and success, only to discover that the paradise they imagined proved instead to be a pig sty. Nowadays, because no matter how destitute they become they always have a cell phone, they can call to ask if they might come home. They don’t have to show up unannounced as did this young man. And then there are the self-righteous, secure in their own morality, shaking their heads at all the others: the homosexuals or the homophobes, the promiscuous or the sexually repressed, the tax and spend liberals or the heartless conservatives, the advocates of abortion or those who would refuse a woman her right to choose. To the self-righteous it doesn’t make any difference which side one is on; the important thing is that one look down one’s nose at others.

And, for everyone who at last “comes to himself” the amazing thing about this parable and its depiction of the human condition is that one sees himself or herself not in one brother or the other but in both at the same time! The one who comes to himself realizes that he is both a profligate — whose conduct has been immoral, corrupt, lawless, and disgraceful — and a self-righteous prig — whose conduct has been hypocritical, insolent, supercilious, disdainful, and arrogant. This masterpiece is proof, if proof were needed, of how penetrating was the Lord’s delineation of human character, attitude, and outlook. The fact is the father lost both his sons: “one in a foreign country, the other behind a barricade of self-righteousness.” [Caird, 182] Only one son that we know of was ever found: the one who came to himself and threw himself upon the mercy of his father.

The fact is, this is where everyone is, in the one place or the other, in the pig sty or looking down on those in the pig sty, until he or she comes home hoping against hope that the father will welcome and forgive. And how many have there been who have come to themselves in that way and in their own words have come to God and said:

Take me, O my Father, take me;
Take me, save me, through thy Son;
That which thou wouldst have me, make me,
Let thy will in me be done.
Long from thee my footsteps straying,
Thorny proved the way I trod;
Weary come I now, and praying,
Take me to thy love, my God.
            (Ray Palmer)

In what is still the greatest work ever written on the parables of the Lord, that of Richard Trench, the Anglican archbishop of Dublin in the 19th century, we find this reflection on the sinful choices that men make and their consequence in life:

“The father…did not refuse his [younger son’s] demand. And such, too, is the dealing of God; He has constituted man a spiritual being with a will; and when his service no longer appears a perfect freedom, and man promises himself something better elsewhere, he is allowed to make the trial. He shall discover, and, if need be, by most painful proof, that the only true freedom is a freedom in God; that to depart from Him is not to throw of the yoke, but to exchange a light yoke for a heavy one, and one gracious master for a thousand imperious tyrants and lords.”  [393]

And so it was as well with the older son. His sin made a miserable slave of him as well as we can see as we observe him standing outside, unable to rejoice in the blessing bestowed on his brother, unable to enjoy the harmony of his family, unable to bask in the great blessing it was to be the son of such a father; instead in churlish selfishness gnashing his teeth because he wanted to be first, first always and first in every way, and the only way he could be first was to have his brother sent away.

I entitled this sermon “A Picture Worth a Thousand Words.” But what is the picture? Every great artistic representation of this parable that I know features, understandably, the prodigal son. But is he really the central character? Not if there are really two sons in the story; not if the second son is the real interest of the Lord, speaking as he is to the Pharisees and the scribes. Not if the only character who deals with both sons is the father! No, the picture worth the thousand words is of the father, but there is not one but two pictures of him in the parable and they are the heart of the story and of the history of human life. The first is that of the Father welcoming his son home.

Every convention of Middle Eastern life is violated by the father in that scene. Watch Kenneth Bailey paint the picture of this father for you.

“In the Middle East a man of his age and position always walks in a slow, dignified fashion. It is safe to assume that he has not run anywhere for any purpose for forty years. No villager over the age of twenty-five ever runs. But now the father races down the road. [The word Luke uses for “run” in v. 20 is the word used elsewhere in the New Testament for the racing done in the arena.] To do so, he must take the front edge of his robes in his hand like a teenager. When he does this his legs show in what is considered a humiliating posture. All of this [according to convention should be] painfully shameful for him.” [Cross and Prodigal, 67]

But such is the father’s love, such is his joy at seeing his son returning, such is his readiness to assure his son of his welcome and that he has nothing to fear, that the father forsakes all interest in his reputation and races to greet his son. Indeed, we might have expected even a loving father to be severe at first, either to test his son’s repentance or to ensure that he fully appreciated the enormity of his crimes. But this father races to his son and hugs and kisses him. The welcome is immediate and unqualified!

It is important that we appreciate this as those who first heard the parable would have. It is the behavior of the father in the story that is the center of the story. It is his behavior that makes the great point, it is his behavior that is unexpected, even shocking. We are inclined to take what the father did as a matter of course not only because we are so used to the parable, but because we all call it and think about it as the parable of the prodigal son!

A medieval commentator, writing in an age when people advertised themselves publicly as penitents and gloried in outward demonstrations of their repentance, faulted the younger son for not insisting that his father place him among the servants and not yet receive him as a son. But there is nothing of this in the Bible. It is the father’s right to welcome whom he will, how he will! Plenty of people have come to God thinking that however hard it may prove to be to work as one of God’s servants, it has to be better than the miserable slavery to the world that they have endured. But what they discovered was that what God promises and what God gives is not a job, but a place in the family; not an income or mere sustenance, but a share in everything that belongs to the family, not a solution to a problem but the perfection of life forever! The son doesn’t come back to a diminished place in the family circle; he comes back to the family circle, period.

To be sure, many have misunderstood this picture of the father’s welcome. They have argued that this is the whole gospel, right here. God forgave his son because the son had repented of his sin. “Where is the cross in any of this?” they ask. Muslims understand the story in this way. The boy was saved; he didn’t need a savior. There was no need for atonement, for a death on the cross. The sinner needed only the father’s merciful heart.

But that is not only to misunderstand the nature of parables — which can hardly be expected to make every point at once — but to miss the fact that no Middle-Eastern reader misses: viz. that the father has in fact subjected himself to shame and ignominy for the sake of his son. It is the father who is made to look ridiculous before his fellow villagers. It is the father whose conduct raises eyebrows. The cross is not the teaching of this parable, but it is very much the implication of it. The father has suffered the loss of his son, the public humiliation of his son’s indifference to him, and then he suffers again by exposing himself to ridicule to secure the reentrance of his son into his family. Is that not the cross? Is that not what our heavenly Father and his Son endured for us: public humiliation and ridicule for our reconciliation?

That is the first picture: a father racing down the road like a schoolboy to welcome his son. And the second is like it.

Here we see the same father standing outside his home pleading with his older son to join the party.  For the father to leave the banquet would be highly unusual and embarrassing. The guests might well feel insulted at the suggestion that the father has something better to do than entertain them. Most fathers of that time and place, were they likewise informed that their eldest son was standing outside and refusing to come in — an insult to the guests in itself; he should have been greeting the guests as well — would be angry. Think of another Middle-Eastern scene painted for us in the Bible: that when Queen Vashti refused to appear at the king’s banquet. The king was enraged! If the father learned what was happening, everyone else would have as well and just as quickly. Nothing remains a secret in village life. The father was now being humiliated by his older son as he had been earlier by his younger son.

And once again the father does the unexpected. He endures the shame and the humiliation in order to reconcile with his other son. As Bailey imagines the scene:

“It is almost impossible to convey the shock that must have reverberated through the banquet…when the father deliberately left his guests, humiliated himself before all, and went out to courtyard to try to reconcile his older son.” [83]

And once there he gently plead with his son to rejoice with him in the prodigal’s return, to believe him when he assures him of his love, and to remember all that the father rejoices to share with him.

Many years ago one of my sisters became engaged to be married. The engagement was eventually broken to the great relief of our family, but at the time my parents threw a grand party to celebrate the engagement. Family friends and folk from church were invited. It was to be a festive celebration. But for some reason that I can no longer remember, her fiancé got his nose out of joint and my sister had to step outside and plead with him to come into his own engagement party! There is something profoundly pathetic about that scene. A woman pleading with her fiancé to come to his own engagement party. What will people think? How humiliating? Well, something like that was what was happening here. But in this immortal parable it is God himself in that pathetic and humiliating position, pleading when he should not have to plead, others looking on who must think him a sad figure.

Two pictures, brilliantly conceived and beautifully painted. Both are of the father, both show him utterly forgetful of himself in order to seek and find his lost sons. See him racing down the road holding his robes up so that he doesn’t stumble over them, hurrying to assure a no-account brat of his undying love. See him outside his house patiently pleading with his prig of an older son to remember how much he is loved. Two pictures which between them contain the hope of the world; its only hope. A loving, seeking, welcoming God whose love for lost sons is so much greater than his love for his own reputation, his own dignity, and his own self-respect. The parable of the lost sons, as it ought to be called, is in fact the parable of the father who seeks and finds.

Luther’s artist friend, Albert Durer, in a noble act of penitence, put his own head and his own face on his famous portrait of the prodigal son. But I am unaware of any painter who has ever put his head or his face on the figure of the older son? Can you imagine doing so? Were you a great painter, would you?

Can you see, have you seen the Father lumbering down the road, panting from his unaccustomed exercise, robes held up, white hairy legs uncovered for all to see, and all to welcome you? Has the father ever stood before you pleading with you to remember his love? Do you understand this parable?

You can understand it if you know you are lost and either desperate to be found or have already been found.

Sick of home; homesick, home!

Beautiful indeed. But the older brother’s problem is perhaps the more difficult to solve. His viewpoint after all is what the Lord was addressing in these three parables. What freedom and what happiness if only the older brother would say what we all hope he did say:

“Father forgive me; I have sinned against heaven and against you. I have behaved worse than my younger brother. Of course I will come into the banquet, hug and kiss my brother as you did, and tell all the guests how happy we all are to have him home. And I will tell them something else: what an astonishing privilege it is to have a father like mine!”