The Invitation - Luke 15:11-32

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 17th February 2008.

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It is said, ‘You should never judge a book by its cover.’ And I think that we have to admit that we are sometimes hoodwinked in our assessment of a person’s character by taking what they say and do at face value. This particularly shows itself in the West when it comes to making right judgements about political candidates. And so a lot of time, energy and money are spent in grooming such folk with makeovers, interview techniques and elocution lessons to increase their chances of getting elected thus making sure that the image compensates for any defects in the reality. So whether it is Watergate and doctored tapes or Iraqgate and doctored documents the lesson remains the same, we are only too quick to judge a book by its cover.

And that is the difficulty we face as we come to the climax of Jesus story of the compassionate father and his dealings with the elder son. What are we to make of him? It is a difficult one in that he looked so good. This is the kind of fellow who would always keep his room tidy and nose clean. He played by the rules and paid his dues. So on the outside a father could not have wanted a better son. But that is only the cover. What about the inside? Outside he may be sweet but inside he is sour. This is an individual overcome by jealousy, consumed by anger and blinded by bitterness. But this is not just an individual character found in a story; this is a type of person found in the world. This son may not to be caught wining and dining with the ‘in crowd’ but he will be spotted singing and praying in church.

Over the last few weeks we have witnessed the unfolding drama of a family divided. It all began with the younger son who broke his father’s heart by taking his inheritance and taking off. His new found freedom was rather short lived as things took a turn for the worse- bankruptcy, famine, pig farming and begging. Then the son decided to return home, not as a son but as a hired hand. He expects to find ridicule and rejection but instead finds a father who has kept his absent son’s place at the table and a porch light on every night. And rather than throwing the boy out, he throws a party. And that is when trouble really begins- v25 "Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.’

Notice he is the ‘elder’ son, the same word used to describe the elders of the people, so there is no mistaking who this son represents- the religious leaders who are busy sniping at Jesus because of his generosity to religious prodigals. And as he approaches the homestead he is at first bemused by the sound of music and dancing. The word for music is ‘symphonias’ probably means a band playing. The word for dancing (choron) carries the idea of a circular dance. So we can imagine the scene easily enough can’t we? The main guests have arrived because the music and the dancing have already begun. A large crowd is mingling, there is laughing and clapping to the rhythm of the drum. The doors and windows are wide open and a great time is being had by all.

There would also be a crowd of boys in the courtyard. They would have been part of the gang which would have greeted the younger son in the village to make fun of him, but now they are outside allowing the fun to wash over them, maybe joining in with some dancing of their own, gyrating away as only young boys now how.

And so as he approaches, the older son’s natural reaction would be that of a delightful anticipation of a good night- everyone likes a party, and who knows, maybe he will be able to do a bit of business with some of the leading men of the village. It all looks like fun. But the puzzling question which would be in his mind would be this: why is there a party at all? You don’t hold a bash as big as this for no reason- v2, ‘So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on’. Now that may not be the best translation. The word rendered ‘servant’ in the NIV could be translated ‘boy’ (pais). That is the way it is often translated in the New Testament- a young boy. Jesus himself is described by this word when he stayed behind in the temple when he was twelve years old. What is more it is not that likely that a servant would be outside, he would be busy working away in the house making sure that the guests are being catered for. So this is probably one of the boys in the street gang hanging around in the courtyard.

And so the boy explains what is going on- v27 ‘Your brother has come,' he replied, `and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' You see, if it had been a servant he would have said, ‘My master has killed the fatted calf’, instead he says, ‘your father’. And what the boy has to say is nothing less than a kick in the stomach for the elder son. He is in effect telling him that his father has received a sinner and is eating with him. Now let me ask where have we heard that before? Why back in v2 of course, ‘The Pharisees and the teachers of the law murmured "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’. This was precisely the bitter complain the Pharisees were making of Jesus. Can you see the implication? In the story the Father represents God; Jesus by his actions represents the Father- so Jesus is God.

Note too that the boy doesn’t say, ‘Your brother has returned’, but simply ‘your brother has come.’ What is significant about that? Well this; in the Old Testament the word ‘return’ was used interchangeably with the word ‘repent’. This is associated with a real heartfelt change of attitude and direction. But as we have seen the younger son just turned up and it was not until he came face to face with his father that things really began to happen and an inner change took place. So there is no question of the father accepting the younger son because he had mended his ways, he accepted him out of compassion and grace- that is the kind of father he is and that is the kind of God we have. In other words you don’t have to be good before you become a Christian, you have to be forgiven.

What is more, the father accepted the loser back ‘safe and sound’. There is only one word in the original (hygiaino) from which we get our word ‘hygene’ It could mean ‘well’ or ‘in good health’ but it was a word often used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to render the word ‘shalom’- ‘peace’. This is more than good health then; this is a word which speaks of reconciliation, harmony and wholeness. You see, if it had merely been that the son had arrived home ‘safe and sound’ then the elder son would have rushed into the banquet like a shot because it would have meant that the father had not yet decided what to do with the boy and he would have argued the case for making sure the boy paid dearly for his pathetic behaviour, maybe insisting he worked of his debt and the shame he had brought upon the family. But by saying that he had been received with ‘shalom’- ‘peace’- that meant that the decision had already been made to ‘bury the hatchet’, to take the boy as he was and reinstate him as a son. And that is when the elder son completely ‘lost it’-v 28 "The older brother became angry and refused to go in.’

Who do you think was paying for this banquet? In one sense, the father. But in another sense it was also the elder brother, for this was coming out of the profits of the estate of which he had a share. Why, he wasn’t even consulted about this party and he was having to fork out for it and so adding insult to injury.

But there were probably several other reasons why he refused to go in and stay outside to pout. At this kind of banquet the father sits with the guests. The older son stands and serves the meal as ‘head waiter.’ The crucial difference between him and the other waiters of course, was that he joined in with the conversation amongst the seated company. So by placing the older son as kind of hovering head waiter, the family is in effect saying, ‘You, our guests, are so important that our son is your servant.’ Now tell me, which of those sitting there would the older son have to serve, the thought of which would have stuck firmly in his crawl? Why the younger son of course! You can imagine the older brother thinking, ‘There is no way on earth that I am going to wait on him? I would rather die first. He has lost my money, brought shame upon my family and now he expects me to pat him on the back as if nothing had happened and offer him some of the best wine to boot? Forget it!’ There is not only amazing grace, there is infuriating grace. That is what we see here.

However, there was a more sinister reason why the elder son stayed outside refusing to go in- he wanted to put the knife into his father and twist it. Let me explain.

In any social occasion in the Middle East the male members of the family must come and shake hands even if they don’t stay. What they cannot do is stay aloof if they are anywhere in the vicinity of the house. Failure to do this was a personal insult to the guests and a gross insult to the father. If the elder son had spat in his father’s face he could not have done anything as demeaning as this. Word would have got around the banqueting hall and probably the entire village by now of what was happening. The music stops as does the dancing. An embarrassed silence falls over the whole proceedings as everyone’s eyes turns to the father as he receives word whispered into his ear by a servant that his older son is outside refusing to come in. And do you know what the people would have expected the father to do? I will tell you; they would have expected him to have gone outside and beaten and dismissed the son. You do not treat a father and his guests in this way! This behaviour is disgraceful beyond measure and has to be dealt with straight away if the father is going to save face.

And for the second time in one day the father defies all expectations by doing the unthinkable-v 28 ‘So his father went out and pleaded with him.’ He didn’t confront him. He didn’t rebuke him as was his right. Instead he begged him. The word is literally ‘stood beside him to ask’, not in front of him to belittle. Again we are given an insight into the character of God, just in case we hadn’t got it the first time, namely, that he is a humble God, a suffering God, a God who does not stand on his dignity but is willing to lose it if it means that petulant rebels will be embraced by his love. God does not confront us in his overwhelming might demanding ‘You shall honour me.’ Rather, he stoops down to plead, to woo us like a lover, attempting to draw us with the cords of his love. That is the way the Christian message comes to us doesn’t it? He condescends towards us by coming into the world in human form, enduring life as a drooling baby, a stumbling toddler, an adolescent teenager and finally as a working man- a carpenter. This is God we area talking about! He gets our attention by living a life which in our best moments we really would like to live, a considerate life, a self-giving life. He expands our minds as well as enlarges our hearts by uttering some of the most beautiful and profound words ever spoken, telling human interest stories like this one with which we can so readily connect- we know families like this, we know in our hearts that we can be like this- casting someone’s kindness back in their faces for we have all done it. That cutting put down to our wife, husband or child. That stinging resentful insult to our parents. But most of all, our casual, ‘who cares?’ attitude towards our Maker- even as Christians. We worship a God whose glory is his shame-the shame of the cross.

Now if the father has suffered already, he is going to suffer some more as he receives what amounts to a tongue lashing from his elder boy- vv 29-30 ‘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. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'’ Ouch- that really hurt. Now the cover is off and the book is revealed for what it is; now everyone knows what has been going on in the son’s thought life and it is plain ugly.

This little speech is more than an Elton John like tantrum; it is a declaration of independence, the defiant speech of a rebel without a pause. First, notice how he addresses his Dad- it is equivalent to ‘Oi, you’. The essential term of respect, ‘O father’ is missing and that is deliberate. He is wanting to be rude. At least the younger son was a rebel and he knew it, the older son is a rebel and he hasn’t a clue. In his self- righteousness he sees himself not as breaking a law- ‘never disobeying your orders’ but what he doesn’t see is that he is breaking a relationship and his father’s heart. And who is put in the dock, but the father who is being accused of favouritism ‘You never gave me a young goat so that I could celebrate with my friends’ and yet he kills a calf for his brother? And did you notice how he cuts himself off from his family- the father wants the elder son to join in his celebration, but the elder son had no intention of inviting the father or his brother to his celebrations, that was just going to be between him and his ‘friends.’ He obviously despises his brother, and won’t even use the term, no, it is ‘this son of yours’. Do you think that there is an implied criticism of the father in that- ‘this profligate is your offspring so you are in part to blame’? And how does he see himself in relation to the father? Not as a son, but as a servant. It is interesting isn’t it that the younger son in coming back wanted his father to treat him like a servant and not a son, but that is the way the older son has been seeing his relationship all the time- ‘all these years I have been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders’. It is all a matter of deserts as far as he is concerned. I have worked hard and so I deserve to be rewarded. He is sitting on his moral high horse demanding that the father apologise to him, when in fact he should be apologising to the father. And then he twists the meaning of the banquet. The young boy tells him that the feat is a celebration of the father’s triumph in creating peace and reconciliation with the younger son. The elder son rails, ‘You have killed the fatted calf for him.’-the brother. No, the father is the one doing the celebrating; it is being held in his honour- celebrating his generosity and the victory of grace.

And this long tirade would have been taken place in full view of a crowd and the older brother is playing to the gallery. That is when the father gets this verbal lashing from the ‘oh so good’ son, knowing that it would be repeated word for word in every home in the village. ‘They want to know what my Dad is like’ he thinks, ‘fine- I will tell them!’ And so the father is trampled on with words filled with vitriol and venom.

Now, what would you have expected the father to do next? Slap the son across the face to bring him to his senses? But look at what the father actually does and be prepared to be amazed-v 31-32 " `My son,' the father said, `you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'" Throughout this story the word ‘son’ (huios) appears seven times, v11,13,19,21,24,25 and 30. But the father uses a different word here (teknon) meaning ‘dear son’. It is a term of affection and gentleness. And as with the first son, the father makes the move of going out to seek and save this other ‘lost’ son, who while being close in terms of physical proximity is as far from embracing the father’s love as the younger son had been when he was in the far country. And so very gently he corrects the elder son’s speech at only one point, did you notice? By reminding him that the prodigal is ‘your brother.’ That mattered to the father, the older brother can think what he likes of him. The rest of what the father has to say is simply a defence of the necessity of joy.

Don’t you not think that it is interesting that the shepherd had to give no reason why he was happy to have found his sheep or the woman why she is over the moon at having found her coin, but the father is forced to explain why he is delirious with joy at having found a son? It shows how incredibly sad and unnatural both the elder son’, and those he represents-the Pharisees’, complaint is in verse 2 that Jesus welcomes sinners and eat with them. That is what they should have expected him to do, if, that is, they really knew God as they claimed to. But there is the problem. The boy did not really know his father or the true basis of their relationship, as sadly many religious people in the church today don’t know. The elder son is just as lost, if not more so than the younger son. The one was lost in the pig pen of rebellion, the other the pig pen of pride. When you are like this father, relating to your sons as loved ones, then there has to be a celebration when one who was lost is found and in effect dead but now alive.

Now notice how Jesus leaves the story unfinished. Did the elder son go back with the father into the party and join the younger son or did he walk away never to return? We don’t know. And that is deliberate, because by leaving the parable with an open ending, Jesus leaves the door open for the Pharisees to change their minds. Will they join Jesus to celebrate, to be his partners in seeking and saving the lost or will they continue to carp and criticise and so seal their own fate, excluding themselves for ever from God’s saving love? In other words, the listener has to finish the story for themselves, by their action-accepting Jesus or rejecting him, they decide whether the story has a happy ending or a sad one- for them!

You know, some think of judgement as God sorting out the human race between those who are going to heaven and those who are going to hell. The one’s he likes he sends to heaven and the one’s he doesn’t like he sends to hell. That is not the picture of God Jesus gives here. He moves towards the stuck up religious prig with as much compassion as he does the materialistic godless pleasure seeker because he wants both to be saved. His is overwhelming in his generosity opening his arms wide to all- sinner and saint. God makes no distinctions. It is all of grace. The older son could no more buy his relationship with his father than the younger son could and we cannot buy our way into heaven either. It comes as a free, unmerited gift to be humbly received by faith.

So could I ask; where are you this morning? Perhaps you are the younger brother and you have had a flaming row with God. You feel he has failed you in some way. But you have tasted the pigsty and you want to be back home. Or you are the elder brother. For years now you have been involved in church. You know the hymns, the bible verses and you have kept your nose clean, but what you have, if the truth be known, is the empty formality of a cold religion, not the joyful friendship of a warm relationship. Yours is the religion of a slave not a son. You see other new Christians around who seem to be receiving the type of attention you feel you should receive and like the elder brother you are beginning to resent it, blaming the Vicar and God. Well, that way is the way of bitterness and death. In both cases, God in Christ comes running out towards us, arms outstretched with words of forgiveness on his lips. The question is, will you join the party and celebrate or will you remain outside and carp? Jesus makes it very clear what God wants you to do.

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