The Feast of the Father

Original Date: 
Sunday, March 27, 2016

Luke 15:11-32 AHA: The Feast of the Father

What is God Like?
What comes to mind when you think about God?

That is perhaps the most important question you can be asked: what do you think God is like?

Not, “do you believe in God?” Obviously it is important whether you believe in God or not; but it is possible for you to believe God exists and yet to believe wrong things about him. In that case, you might even be worse off than an atheist: if you believe in God but you have a wrong picture of Him, then you may be even farther from God than those who deny His existence.

A preacher named A. W. Tozer once wrote: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

Think about that: What we think about God is the thing that says more about us than anything else.

If you want to get to know me—really get to know me—then the most important thing you could do is figure out what my picture of God is like. And vice versa. If I want to really get to know you, then I should ask you what comes to mind when you think about God.

Jesus came to earth so that we could know what God is like. And in Luke 15 He tells a story—the most famous of all the stories He told, possibly the most famous short story ever told—that is intended to give us a picture of God.

We’ve been looking at this story for the past 6 weeks, and we’ve been focusing mostly on the sons. But, I’ll be honest with you, as long as we focus on the sons we are missing the bigger point, and the most important character. Because in this story, God is represented by the father. And Jesus tells the story because He wants us to know what God is like.

You just heard this story in Philip Yancey’s masterful, modern re-telling. Now I’d like to invite you to turn with me to Luke 15 and we’ll hear it in Jesus’ own words. Luke 15:11-32. As I read, I want to encourage you to focus on the actions of the father.

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

This story has been called the “Parable of the Lost Son.” Last week, I said it would be more proper to call it the “Parable of the Two Lost Sons.” But the title most of us know it by is the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.”

I mentioned this the first week, but it bears repeating today. Most of us think of that word, “prodigal,” as a synonym for rebellion or waywardness. We talk about runaways and criminals as “prodigals.” But that isn’t what the word originally meant. The true definition of prodigal is to “spend until you have nothing left.” As an adjective, it means “recklessly extravagant.” So we call this story “the prodigal son” because the younger son “squandered his wealth in wild living.”

The younger son is not the only one who is recklessly extravagant in this story, however. It could also be said that the father is recklessly extravagant. He gives his son the inheritance he asks for, and then he doubles down by welcoming the rebellious son back home and throwing an exuberant party.

And if I’m right, and the main reason Jesus tells this story is so that we will get a better picture of God, then perhaps the best title for this story would be the “Parable of the Prodigal Father.” Because that’s what Jesus wants us to see above all: that God loves us with a recklessly extravagant love.

What do you think God is like? What comes to mind when you think about God? Jesus wants us to picture Him as the father in this story. A father who loves us without limit and without reserve.

And so, as we look at the father’s actions in this story, there are three snapshots of God’s love displayed for us. Let’s look at them one at a time.

First, we see that God loves us enough to long for our return. Even when we tell God we would rather have his stuff than Him, even when we turn our backs on Him and travel off to the distant country, even when we squander his good gifts and hurt ourselves in the process; God never stops watching and waiting for us to come back home.

The younger son experiences AH:
• He comes to his senses in the pig pen. That’s his awakening.
• He tells the truth about how bad things have gotten, and about how much he has left behind. That’s his honesty.
• And then he gets up and heads back home. That’s his action.

Then, the middle of verse 20, Jesus says:

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.”

Now, ask yourself: how did the father see the boy “while he was still a long way off?” Was it just a coincidence? Did he just happen to look up at the right moment, and notice a solitary figure walking down the road? Or was he waiting? Was he watching that road, scanning it 10, 20, 30 times a day?

I think Jesus means to tell us that this father was anxiously scanning the horizon, that he never gave up hope that the boy would return.

John Piper writes:

God is not so busy with other things that he is not concerned about his alienated children. All his affairs are in order, and well taken care of. He is free to be concerned about his children. Before anyone else sees, God sees. He sees every twitch of your soul.

Kyle Idleman tells this story:

A friend of mine told me about an elderly man he knew who could no longer take care of himself and whose family made the difficult decision to put him in a nursing home. Every Sunday afternoon the man’s daughter and her husband and their children would go see him. Every Sunday this elderly man would wait for his daughter and her family to come visit. He looked forward to it all week and was always out waiting for them. As the years passed, his mind grew weaker, and he soon had a hard time remembering his children’s names. He would sometimes have a hard time getting back to his room.

But no matter what happened, on Sunday afternoon, he was always there waiting for his daughter and her family.

One day the daughter asked her father, “Daddy, do you know what day of the week it is?” The father couldn’t tell her what day of the week it was. So the daughter said to her dad, “Well, Daddy, how did you know to wait for us today?”

The father replied, “Oh, honey, I wait for you ever day.”

God is a loving father who longs for his children to come home. On the day you finally come home, you will find him waiting for you. You might wonder, How did He know to wait for me on this day? How did He know I was coming today?

He has been waiting for you every day. (AHA, p. 206-207)

God longs for a relationship with his children. He wants to have a relationship with you.

Today is Easter. Traditionally, this is the largest Sunday morning crowd of the year for us. Some of you are here for the first time. Some of you are here because you are visiting family, and they said that this was what you were going to do today. Some of you haven’t been here since last Easter. And some of you just don’t have much to do with God outside of this one church service a year.

But understand this, even if you are far from God, He still longs for you to return to Him. He’s watching and waiting, scanning the horizon, and his heart is filled with compassion for you. He loves you, even if you are still trying to stay away from Him. He loves you, and He can’t wait for you to come home.

So, get this picture of the prodigal father. First, he loves us enough to long for our return. Second, he loves us enough to leap at our approach. When we do come to our senses and turn back to God; we will find that He is not a stern disciplinarian looking to punish us, but a lovesick father eager to wrap us in His arms. The last part of verse 20:

He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

Now, picture this: Here is this father, heartbroken and worried about his boy. Every day, before calling it quits, he wonders down to the edge of his property and he stares down the road. Every day, he leans on his stone fence and searches, in the hope that his son will return.

And then, one day, he sees a figure, stooped over and stumbling down the road. His heart leaps.

But then he thinks, “That can’t be my son.” His son was always dressed in the finest fashions, this man is dressed in rags. So he looks harder…and sure enough…it is his son! And then, all of sudden, the father is leaping the stone wall and he is running—RUNNING—to meet his long lost boy.

Now, you need to understand that in that culture—where men wore robes and you had to hike them up in order to run—running was highly undignified. This is the owner of a significant estate, with servants at his beck and call. There is a certain decorum to maintain. But this father throws decorum to the wind. He grabs the hem of his robe and he flies down the road. He loves his son enough to leap at his return. When his son turns around, he’s prepared to be right there.

Dr. Kenneth Bailey is a theology professor and expert on the ancient middle east. He gives an interesting perspective on why the father may have run. In that culture, there was a ceremony called the kezazah, which translates to “cutting off.” If a Jewish son shamed his family—by doing something like insulting his father, or living among the gentiles, or blowing the family’s wealth—the people of his village would confront him, break a large pot at his feet, and then yell: “Your are now cut off from your people!” The community would totally reject him.

So, why did the father run? He probably ran in order to get to his son before he entered the village. The father runs — and shames himself — in an effort to get to his son before the community gets to him, so that his son does not experience the shame and humiliation of their taunting and rejection. The village would have followed the running father, would have witnessed what took place at the edge of the village between father and son. After this emotional reuniting of the prodigal son with his father, it was clear that there would be no kezazah ceremony; there would be no rejecting this son — despite what he has done. The son had repented and returned to the father. The father had taken the full shame that should have fallen upon his son and clearly shown to the entire community that his son was welcome back home.

This is the way God is. God loves us enough to leap at our approach.

Some of us are drifting out of fellowship with God right now. Some here in this room may have been running from God for quite a while. And you might be afraid to turn back to Him, because you expect Him to reject you. You expect kezazah. The picture you have of God is that of a stern disciplinarian who meets His rebellious children with blows and punishment.

But that’s not the picture Jesus is painting. Our heavenly Father is eager to close the gap between us and Him. He is willing to take our shame so that we don’t have to. As a result, we can be forgiven, restored—welcomed with hugs and kisses.

Our God loves us with a recklessly extravagant love. He is a lovesick father who loves us enough to long for our return. He loves us enough to leap at our approach. And now, third, he loves us enough to lavishly restore us. It is not enough for the Father to forgive us our debts, He actually celebrates and rejoices as He confers on us all the blessings of being His children.

When the younger son made his decision to come back, he composed a speech of repentance in his head. He knew he didn’t deserve to come back as a son; so he was going to plead to be allowed to earn his way back as a servant.

But his father doesn’t let him get the words out. Verses 22-24:

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

Even as the boy struggles to get the speech started the father is summoning servants to dress the boy properly, he’s making plans for a calf to be slaughtered and a celebration to start. Even as the boy says, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son” the father is telling anyone who will listen: “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” He makes it absolutely clear, this is his son.

The prodigal has it right: he is not worthy to be called son. He does not deserve it. But the father is not operating from deserve or don’t deserve, he’s operating from love. He’s operating from grace. And so he lavishly restores his son.

The symbols of the father’s love are abundant. The “best robe” in the house would have been the father’s own robe. The sandals on his feet reflect that he is being restored to sonship—servants went barefoot. And the ring on his finger was more than a piece of jewelry, it was probably a signet ring that gave him the authority to do business on his family’s behalf.

As Timothy Keller writes:

The father is saying, “I’m not going to wait until you’ve paid off your debt; I’m not going to wait until you’ve duly groveled. You are not going to earn your way back into the family, I am going to simply take you back. I will cover your nakedness, poverty and rags with the robes of my office and honor.” (The Prodigal God, vs 22-23)

And then there’s the feast. Oh what a feast! In that society, most meals did not include meat. It was an expensive delicacy, usually reserved for sacrifices and special occasions. The fattened calf, in particular, was saved for only the biggest parties.

But now, the father is pulling out all the stops. The whole village would have been invited, and there would have been music and dancing and laughter. No expense is to be spared in celebrating the return and restoration of his lost son.

God, too, wants to lavishly restore us. He’s not interested in bringing us back as hired hands. He’s not looking for servants He can order around. He wants children; children He can adopt and love and who can love Him in return. He is lavish with His love, and abundant with His grace.

So when we do turn to Him, and find Him running to greet us, He puts on us the best robe and the finest sandals and rings. He throws a party. He rejoices. For God is very glad when you come home.

The True Elder Brother
Finally, I should say a word about Easter. No, I haven’t forgotten that today is the day that we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. So what does this story have to do with Easter?

Everything, really. You see, this story is about what God is like. He’s a God who is full of love. A God who loves us enough to long for our return and who stands ready to welcome us back. A God who loves us so much that when we approach, He leaps to our side and lavishly restores us as His children.

And that’s what the story of Easter is about. The story of Jesus. It’s a story of Jesus coming to earth so that we can know God. A story of Jesus seeking out the lost and the downtrodden. A story of Jesus carrying God’s love all the way to the cross, and then defeating death and walking out of an empty grave so that we would know just how much he loves us.

Here’s one more interesting thing about this parable. Many of you know that Jesus tells this story as the third in a series of stories about lost things. First, there is the lost sheep. Then the lost coin. And then the two lost sons.

The interesting thing is that in the first two stories, there is someone who searches. The shepherd leaves the 99 and goes looking for the lost sheep. The woman lights a lamp and looks in every corner for the lost coin. But in the third story, nobody goes searching. The father watches and waits, to be sure, but he does not actually go looking for the lost boy. Why not?

Edmund Clowney suggests that there is someone who should have searched for the boy. It should have been the elder brother.

Clowney tells a true story from the Vietnam war:

During the war in Vietnam, Army Lieutenant Daniel Dawson’s reconnaissance plane went down over the Vietcong jungle. When his brother Donald heard the report, he sold everything he had, left his wife with $20, and bought passage to Vietnam. There he equipped himself with a soldier’s gear and wandered through the guerilla-controlled jungle, looking for his brother. He carried leaflets picturing the plane and describing in Vietnamese the reward for news of the missing pilot. He became known as Anh toi phi-cong—the brother of the pilot. A Life magazine reporter described his perilous search.

This is what the older brother in the story should have done. He should have said, “Father, my younger brother has been a fool, and now his life is in ruins. But I will go look for him and bring him home. And if the inheritance is gone—as I expect—I’ll bring him back into the family at my expense.”

Because, in fact, it was at the brother’s expense that the younger son was brought back home. If there were only two sons, and the younger brother had already been given his share and he had squandered it in wild living—then that means all that remained was what was destined for the older brother. To restore the younger son to sonship would mean slicing the older brother’s inheritance once again.

So, you can understand why the older brother didn’t go looking for the younger one. And you can also understand why the older brother wasn’t so thrilled when the younger one stumbled back home.

But I think Jesus left any searching out of this story for another reason. I think we are supposed to notice that the older brother failed to go searching so that we would see that what the older brother in the story failed to do, Jesus was more than willing to do. Jesus, you see, is the true elder brother. Jesus did what the character in his story refused to do.

We needed an older brother who would go—not just to the next country over—but all the way from heaven to earth. We needed one who was willing to pay not just a finite bit of money, but the infinite cost of his own life to bring us back into the family. Because we owe a debt to God. Not a debt of dollars and cents, but the debt incurred by our sin and rebellion. A debt that requires our death. And Jesus, our true elder brother, paid that debt at the cross.

Tim Keller writes:

There Jesus was stripped naked of his robe and dignity so that we could be clothed with a dignity and standing we don’t deserve. On the cross Jesus was treated as an outcast so that we could be brought into God’s family freely by grace. There Jesus drank the cup of eternal justice so that we might have the cup of the Father’s joy. There was no other way for the heavenly father to bring us in, except at the expense of our true elder brother. (85)

The Good News of Easter is that Jesus paid the price for us to come home again. And now He is alive, and He is by the Father’s side, ready to welcome us home with recklessly extravagant love.