“Luke 15 informs us in verses 1-3 that Jesus told not one but three parables to the Pharisees who were complaining about his fraternization with sinners. The first parable is called the Parable of the Lost Sheep. A man is tending a flock of one hundred sheep, but one goes astray. Instead of accepting this loss, the shepherd goes out searching until he has found his lost sheep. Then he calls all around to “Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep” (verse 6).
The second parable is called the Parable of the Lost Coin. In this story a woman has ten silver coins in the house but loses one. She does not write it off as a loss, but instead “lights a lamp, sweeps the whole house, and searches diligently until she finds it” (verse 8). And when she does, she calls her friends and neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost coin.” The third parable is the story we have been studying, the Parable of the Two Lost Sons.
The similarities among the three stories are obvious. In each parable something is lost—sheep, coin, and son. In each parable something is lost—sheep, coin, and son. In each the one who loses something gets it back. And each of the narratives ends on a note of festive rejoicing and celebration when the lost one is returned.
There is, though, one striking difference between the third parable and the first two. In the first two someone “goes out” and searches diligently for that which is lost. The searchers let nothing distract them or stand in their way. By the time we get to the third story, and we hear about the plight of the lost son, we are fully prepared to expect that someone will set out to search for him. No one does. It is startling, and Jesus meant it to be so. By placing the three parables so closely together, he is inviting thoughtful listeners to ask: “Well, who should have gone out and searched for the lost son?” Jesus knew the Bible thoroughly, and he knew that at its very beginning it tells another story of an elder and younger brother—Cain and Abel. In that story, God tells the resentful and proud older brother: “You are your brother’s keeper.”
Edmund Clowney recounts the true story of a young man who was a U.S. soldier missing in action during the Vietnam War. When the family could get no word of him through any official channel, the older son flew to Vietnam and, risking his life, searched the jungles and the battlefields for his lost brother. It’s said that despite the danger, he was never hurt, because those on both sides had heard of his dedication and respected his quest. Some of them called him, simply, “the brother.”“This is what the elder brother in the parable should have done; this is what a true elder brother would have done. He would 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.”
Indeed, it is only at the elder brother’s expense that the younger brother can be brought back in. Because, as Jesus said, the father had divided his property between them before the younger son had left. Everything had been assigned. The younger brother had gotten his one-third portion and it was completely gone. Now, when the father says to the older brother, “My son, everything I have is yours,” he is telling the literal truth. Every penny that remained of the family estate belongs to the elder brother. Every robe, every ring, every fatted calf is his by right.”“Over the years many readers have drawn the superficial conclusion that the restoration of the younger brother involved no atonement, no cost. They point out that the younger son wanted to make restitution but the father wouldn’t let him—his acceptance back into the family was simply free. This, they say, shows“that forgiveness and love should always be free and unconditional.
That is an oversimplification. If someone breaks your lamp, you could demand that she pay for it. The alternative is that you could forgive her and pay for it yourself (or go about bumping into furniture in the dark). Imagine a more grave situation, namely that someone has seriously damaged your reputation. Again, you have two options. You could make him pay for this by going to others, criticizing and ruining his good name as a way to restore your own. Or you could forgive him, taking on the more difficult task of setting the record straight without vilifying him. The forgiveness is free and unconditional to the perpetrator, but it is costly to you.”“Mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer. If the wrongdoer has to do something to merit it, then it isn’t mercy, but forgiveness always comes at a cost to the one granting the forgiveness.
While Act 1 of the parable showed us how free the father’s forgiveness is, Act 2 gives us insight into its costliness. The younger brother’s restoration was free to him, but it came at enormous cost to the elder brother. The father could not just forgive the younger son, somebody had to pay! The father could not reinstate him except at the expense of the elder brother. There was no other way. But Jesus does not put a true elder brother in the story, one who is willing to pay any cost to seek and save that which is lost. It is heartbreaking. The younger son gets a Pharisee for a brother instead.“But we do not.
By putting a flawed elder brother in the story, Jesus is inviting us to imagine and yearn for a true one.
And we have him. Think of the kind of brother we need. We need one who does not just go to the next country to find us but who will come all the way from heaven to earth. We need one who is willing to pay not just a finite amount of money, but, at the infinite cost of his own life to bring us into God’s family, for our debt is so much greater. Either as elder brothers or as younger brothers we have rebelled against the father. We deserve alienation, isolation, and rejection. The point of the parable is that forgiveness always involves a price—someone has to pay. There was no way for the younger brother to return to the family unless the older brother bore the cost himself. Our true elder brother paid our debt, on the cross, in our place.
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.
How can the inner workings of the heart be changed from a dynamic of fear and anger to that of love, joy, and gratitude? Here is how. You need to be moved by the sight of what it cost to bring you home. The key difference between a Pharisee and a believer in Jesus is inner-heart motivation. Pharisees are being good but out of a fear-fueled need to control God. They don’t really trust him or love him. To them God is an exacting boss, not a loving father. Christians have seen something that has transformed their hearts toward God so they can finally love and rest in the Father. The acclaimed foreign film Three Seasons is a series of vignettes about life in postwar Vietnam. One of the stories is about a Hai, a cyclo driver (a bicycle rickshaw), and Lan, a beautiful prostitute. Both have deep, unfulfilled desires. Hai is in love with Lan, but she is out of his price range. Lan lives in grinding poverty and longs to live in the beautiful world of the elegant hotels where she works, but in which she never spends the night. She hopes that the money she makes by prostitution will be her means of escape, but instead the work brutalizes and enslaves her.
Then Hai enters a cyclo race and wins the top prize. With the money he brings Lan to the hotel. He pays for the night and pays her fee. Then, to everyone’s shock, he tells her he just wants to watch her fall asleep. Instead of using the power of his wealth to have sex with her, he spends it to purchase a place for her for one night in the normal world, to fulfill her desire to belong. Lan finds such grace deeply troubling at first, thinking Hai has done this to control her. When it becomes apparent that he is using his power to serve rather than use her, it begins to transform her, making it impossible to return to a life of prostitution.
Jesus Christ, who had all the power in the world, saw us enslaved by the very things we thought would free us. So he emptied himself of his glory and became a servant (Philippians 2). He laid aside the infinities and immensities of his being and, at the cost of his life, paid the debt for our sins, purchasing us the only place our hearts can rest, in his Father’s house.
Knowing he did this will transform us from the inside out, as Hai’s selfless love did for Lan. Why wouldn’t you want to offer yourself to someone like this? Selfless love destroys the mistrust in our hearts toward God that makes us either younger brothers or elder brothers.
John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” wrote another hymn that puts this perfectly:
Our pleasure and our duty,
though opposite before,
since we have seen his beauty
are joined to part no more.
In a few short words Newton outlines our dilemma. The choice before us seems to be to either turn from God and pursue the desires of our hearts, like the younger brother, or repress desire and do our moral duty, like the older brother. But the sacrificial, costly love of Jesus on the cross changes that. When we see the beauty of what he has done for us, it attracts our hearts to him. We realize that the love, the greatness, the consolation, and the honor we have been seeking in other things is here. The beauty also eliminates our fear. If the Lord of the Universe loves us enough to experience this for us, what are we afraid of? To the degree we “see his beauty” we will be free from the fear and neediness that creates either younger brothers or elder brothers.
John Newton’s friend, the poet William Cowper, treats this idea in another hymn:
To see the Law by Christ fulfilled,
and hear his pardoning voice,
changes a slave into a child
and duty into choice.
We will never stop being younger brothers or elder brothers until we acknowledge our need, rest by faith, and gaze in wonder at the work of our true elder brother, Jesus Christ.”
Excerpt From: KELLER, TIMOTHY. “The Prodigal God.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/C7wvv.l