Today we are continuing our summer series studying the Parables of Jesus, by looking at what may be the most popular of all the parables.  This parable will center around three characters all of whom we will be able to relate to in some ways, while getting such a clear image of how our Heavenly Father treats and feels about us!  Today we are studying The Parable of The Prodigal Son, which is such a powerful story of all of us, and how we mess up, make poor choices at times, of how we turn from God, and how He welcomes us home, while also showing us how the religious can view and treat those who mess up and turn their backs on God…so this is such a powerful moment, and one of the clearest and most vivid illustrations we will find of the true love, grace, and forgiveness we need that our Heavenly Father extends to us all.  It’s interesting, as I was putting this talk together, I found many who study the scriptures mentioning the fact that this story shouldn’t be called the Prodigal Son but should have the title “The Parable of The Loving Father” and I agree with that.  This is a very powerful story, and a special teaching because it’s the story of all of us and just so clearly shows God’s love for us.  But before we dive into that, I want us to take a moment and prepare our hearts for this teaching from Jesus.  Remember, Jesus told a lot of stories, and told us that He tells stories to create ready hearts, so that we can understand, receive, and live out the very life we should be living.

Matthew 13:12 Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. 13 That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. MSG

Before we dive into our parable of the day, let’s pray for ready hearts so we can be open to this teaching.

So, as we get started here today, I want to ask you something.  Have you ever messed up?  Have you ever made a selfish decision in your life?  When you look over your past are there some or many things that you regret, and just wish you wouldn’t have done?    Maybe you look back over those moments and feel ashamed.  When you think about the life you have chosen to live, you know the parts that maybe only you and God know about…do you feel worthy of God’s love?  If you were honest today, if today was your last day on this planet and you would be meeting Jesus tomorrow, would you be confident in the fact that you are going to Heaven?  You may be thinking, good grief Sam, this is a heavy or intense way to start a sermon…and I know, it is…but it’s reality for so many, if not all of us.  You know, whether we have a super intense testimony, with a painful, and terrible back story, or whether you have done your best to grow up the right way…we all sin.  Paul says it this way in Romans 3.

Romans 3:23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. NLT

We have all sinned, we have all fallen short of God’s glorious standard, and today we will be looking at a character in Jesus’ parable who really turns hard from his father, and lives for himself…partying, living for today, making many selfish decisions, that by earthly standards would earn him nothing but punishment…like I said, a character we can all relate to regardless of how intense our pasts, or stories truly are…because we have all sinned and fallen short.  We all need Jesus in our lives because we have all earned the same thing…as Paul says here in Romans…

Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. NIV

For the wages, what we have ALL earned because of our selfishness, and our sin is death, but the God through His love, and mercy, has given us the free gift of eternal life through Jesus and this will be on display in today’s story, of The Parable of The Prodigal Son, or maybe more aptly named The Parable of The Loving Father.  We can read this parable in Luke 15:11-32 but as always, we should not just start there with our specific story, especially with this one.  Remember, as we study these parables it is important that we see what the context is of these stories.  It just helps the stories to really come to life as we understand what or who Jesus is responding to.  We want to see, is this a confrontation with the religious leaders of that time, as most of these stories seem to be, is it in a teaching to people around him, or just responding to a question from someone…and today’s context is really holding to the pattern of Jesus responding to yet another confrontational moment with the religious leaders of that time.

So if we go to the start of Luke 15, we see our context and not surprisingly at all, Jesus is once again in another fascinating moment with the religious leaders of that time…

Luke 15:1 Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” NIV

I love this in the Message version, and think it really paints the picture for us.

Luke 15:1 By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. 2 The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” 3 Their grumbling triggered this story.  MSG

What do we keep seeing, time and time again?  The big tension point between the religious leaders and Jesus is love.  These religious leaders completely agree with Jesus that the two most important commands are to love God and love others and that everything else would hang from them…but they just can’t grasp that Jesus would actually live out this life of love.  They are judgmental, hard-hearted towards those in need, and so proud of their ability to follow the rules and so proud of who they are spiritually that they feel better than those around them who need God as much as they do.  In all that pride of their incredible spirituality they are missing the concept of actually living out their faith, and Jesus pushes in on that, a lot.  Jesus drives them crazy because He hangs out with and loves on people who need God…it’s amazing to see, but it is a continuous theme of their tension with Jesus…how dare He love others the way He does!  Another interesting note would be that just last week as we studied The Parable of the Invited Guest Jesus just encouraged the Pharisee who hosted the banquet to invite outsiders to his next party…and they can’t, won’t, and get so frustrated as Jesus continues to extend God’s love to those who need it.  So this is the backdrop to this Parable, and what is really interesting, that after they complain and grumble about him hanging out with sinners…Jesus doesn’t just respond with one parable, but three, all on different things that were lost.  The first is the parable of the lost sheep which we will study in greater detail later this summer.

Luke 15:3 So Jesus told them this story: 4 “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away! NLT

What a picture of Go that Jesus is painting here.  He searches for us and is overjoyed when one sinner is found and makes their way home.  God searching for us is a powerful image and  would be so different than these religious leaders would have thought about God. Then Jesus goes right into a second illustration, The Parable of the Lost Coin…

Luke 15:8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.”  NLT

Jesus says again that God is full of joy when one sinner is found and comes home.  This time stating that the joy God feels is like this woman who lost her most valuable possession, which literally could mean life or death for her and finds it again.  These religious leaders just couldn’t have ever pictured or dreamt of God this way.  Jesus teaches that God searches for us, He seeks us out.  This would have been hard to process for the religious leaders of that time, the fact that God is love, and loved us so much that He seeks us out, to save us all, all of us…because we all sin and fall short of God’s glorious standard but this is the amazing reality of who God is, and Jesus just keeps pointing out God’s incredible love all through his time on this earth.

John 3:16 “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” NLT

So Jesus started with the parable of the lost sheep, who really went lost just by being a sheep.  It wasn’t intentional, or something deliberately done, it’s just a sheep who got lost.  The coin was lost through no real fault of its own…I mean it’s an inanimate object and frankly this represents the many people who are led astray in a world that may lead them to sin…so they were lost for somewhat different reasons.  One was lost just on their own foolishness the other thing lost through no fault of its own and Jesus is saying God’s love is bigger than and redeems regardless…and then we see it.  The Prodigal Son, who very deliberately went lost, choosing to intentionally do the selfish thing and turn his back on his father…and we see how God responds and also how religious people respond and how opposite those responses truly are…what an awesome teaching here and for our purposes today we will walk through this story and stop and talk along the way.

Luke 15:11 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 men 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 men.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.  NIV

I started today by telling you that we could all relate to the Prodigal Son, because we all sin and I want you to see this.  This young man asks for his inheritance from his dad, which for the younger son would have been one third of his father’s wealth.  He takes that money and heads off to do whatever he feels like doing, whenever he feels like doing it.  He has made the choice to live for the day, without a care in the world about his future, or how selfish he is being…he is just partying and living the good life.  Just enjoying and living in the moment.  You know, we may not be taking our father’s wealth and blowing it quickly, but this describes humanity so well.  We are so focused on ourselves, and make choices to live for ‘the now’, enjoying the pleasures of today…with no worry of the ramifications of those actions…until we feel it.  Until there is pain, and it often takes pain to remind us of how much we need Our Heavenly Father…just like this younger son does with His dad.  Did you notice when life was singing like a song, and he had money and was having a good time he really saw no reason to go to his father…but then things changed for him.  He felt it.

Luke 15:13 “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 men 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 men.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father. NIV

So, this young man hits rock bottom, and can’t find work, or food.  He is feeling it, and it hurts.  He is starving and is trying to survive and ends up tending to a farmer’s pigs just wanting to eat their food.  Now this is nasty, and smelly, and muddy, and gross work for us today…but you need to remember to a Jew pigs were considered unclean and you were cursed if you ate or touched one, so this would be something he would have been forbidden to do, work with or tend to or eat pigs…so this is the lowest possible thing a Jew could be doing…it’s sinful, dark, and is yet another curse on his life and it actually is yet another religious law this young man is breaking…so he is piling up a long and painful list of broken laws and sins.  This is rock bottom, and it says it’s at this moment that he comes to his senses and knows he needs his father.  How many of you can relate to this, living life as you want to live it…enjoying the momentary pleasures of this world…living far from God and it just isn’t working, and all of those momentary pleasures lead to more pain, then hitting that rock bottom moment in your life where the pain is so great that we start to realize just how much we need God in our lives.

So he decides to change his life, and return home, but knowing how awful he has been and how long the list of sins are in his life he starts to rehearse a speech he will give just to ask for his dad to make him like one of the hired hands where he can at least live, eat, and have a roof over his head.  This signifies so much of the guilt and shame we all feel from all the mistakes we have made in our lives.  We can’t fathom just how much God loves us.  We can’t wrap our minds and hearts around love, and mercy, and forgiveness at this level…but this young man is about to experience it.

Luke 15:20 “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.  NIV

This is so powerful and such a vivid and clear example of God’s love and forgiveness for our lives.  The father runs to the lost son, seeing him from a long way off…so this means he was looking for him, waiting, and watching…and when the father sees him he is overjoyed!   He runs to his son.  He is forgiven with no strings attached…this is so pure and beautiful and something that we humans really struggle to totally understand and wrap our minds around because we tend to forgive and not forget and struggle to move forward with this pure and true form of forgiveness. Have you ever been forgiven by someone for something you did, but it tends to come back up…every time you talk to them?  Yeah, that is more human forgiveness, this isn’t.  This is truly how God treats us…how much He loves us, and how amazing His grace truly is…remember He doesn’t hold our sin over us, even as we struggle to let go of our sin and issues and deal with regret and guilt…God doesn’t hold that stuff over us.  We truly are set free by Jesus.  Remember when Jesus is part of our lives, God doesn’t see our sin anymore, Jesus took care of that for us, so when Jesus lives in us, and all God sees in us, is Jesus!

2 Corinthians 5:21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  NIV

So, through repentance and acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior all God sees in us, is Jesus…which is amazing and just so awesome…and frankly something so hard for us humans to see in ourselves because we remember our mistakes and know who we really are deep down on the inside.  It would have been really hard for the religious leaders to hear that this young man who made his choices, and very intentionally dove into a life of sin and immorality was accepted back in with no strings attached, because he needed to pay for what he had done.  Jesus knew that and continues the story looking at one more character, the older brother, who really represents the religious people watching this scene unfold.  So, after this beautiful and pure illustration of love and grace, Jesus addressed what would have been the elephant in the room, this guy needs to pay, which is how religious people see and process this same moment…and it’s really eye opening.

Luke 15:25 “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.'” NIV

Do you see the picture Jesus is painting here? The older brother comes in after doing the right thing, every day, working hard, being responsible, taking care of his dad’s property and family, to see a celebration going on for his sinful, selfish, irresponsible younger brother and he can’t believe it.  This really is Jesus showing a religious heart, that would rather see a person punished over their sin, rather than being saved…after all they were not willing to do all the hard work of following all the religious rules and law of God.  Resenting all the good but hard work they have done personally, while seeing someone else get celebrated while earning nothing!  But there are a few things we really need to see here, that I think come out clearly in this older brother.  First, he has done all the right things, and has absolutely worked hard for his dad, but what was the heart or motivation for all of that?  It seems to be more out of duty or obligation than him serving his father out of love and adoration for his father…and this happens so often spiritually speaking, doesn’t it?  We serve, we work, we will do things but all the while asking what is in it for me…maybe even while telling people how generous and loving we are!  He also has no love or compassion for his brother, just resentment and judgement and we see so much of this in religion, don’t we?  He doesn’t see that by walking close with his father every day, he has had the blessing, it has always been there…and he can’t see the personal hell that his younger brother has gone through and feel joy or celebrate his redemption or return because you need to earn this type of reward or love…do you see it?

This is an amazing parable that shows us so much about our lives.  The story of the Prodigal Son is the story of all of us, because we have all sinned, and all need the love, forgiveness, grace, and mercy of our father.  The story of the loving father is the story of God’s unfathomable love for us all, his grace, patience, and unconditional love for us.  The story of the older son is a story that unfolds all too often in religious settings, where there is such a struggle to love as we work so hard to earn something from God, that simply cannot be earned from God because it has been freely given to us all…all while judging others who aren’t doing as much to earn God’s love, which we can’t earn because it is freely given to us…almost resenting the very work we keep telling others and ourselves we are doing…for the joy of the Lord!  This is such a powerful moment that unfolds in the teachings of Jesus here…which was triggered from the religious leaders grumbling about who Jesus hangs out with and the fact that Jesus would hang out with “sinners.”  Jesus response was beautiful and clear, three stories about three lost things, one lost out of foolishness, one lost with no real control over being lost, and one lost by intentionally turning their back and running away from God…all of whom God loves beyond their issues, and rejoices when all our found…welcoming all three home with open arms,  God rejoices when all three our found!  That is why we call it amazing grace…it’s just so beyond our understanding.

So, a couple of questions as we close today.

When you read or hear the story of the Prodigal Son, which character really hits your heart today?

Can you relate to the youngest son, who willingly chose a life of selfishness, and living for the day, who messed up…a lot…and then filled with pain and regret and guilt and shame turns back to God?

Can you relate to the father who loves his son regardless of what his son has done?  Who runs to him and throws his arms around him, welcoming him home with no questions asked?

Can you relate to and feel a little convicted by the story of the older brother who is resentful of the younger brother who is doing everything wrong and getting celebrated while he does everything right, works hard, and isn’t seeing the big party thrown for him?

What does it say to your heart today to think how frustrated the religious leaders were with Jesus for hanging out with people who were far from God?  Remember that tension point they felt with Jesus over loving others?  Fascinating isn’t it?

What does it mean to you to know that while you have earned death, because of Jesus you can have eternal life?

Who do you know who needs Jesus today?  Who do you know that is walking through their own personal hell, who needs God’s love in their lives?

It was a powerful thought today to picture God searching for us.  The God of The Universe is searching for you, searching for us all, and maybe, just maybe the way he is searching for those in need of Him around you, is by placing them on your heart so you can extend God’s love and share Jesus with them today.  So who do you know who needs God’s love as much as you do today?

Have you ever asked Jesus into your life as your Lord and Savior?  We have a loving Heavenly Father who is seeking you out and is ready to run and throw His arms around you today!  What stops you from coming home?  Do you think you made too many mistakes?  Do you think you have sinned too greatly?  God is waiting to welcome you home.

Remember when it comes to God’s love for us, it is unconditional, that means there are no strings attached.  God loves you, searches you out, and when He finds you, He rejoices and welcomes you home.

This is love, this is truly amazing grace, this is the love of our Father in Heaven.