The Kingdom of God in the Gospels - 3:
The Prodigal Prospects
for Entrance into the Kingdom
Scripture Reading: Luke 15
Text: Luke 15:11-32
206:1,2,8; 69:3,6,9; 428:1-4; 430:1-4; 169:4,9
Sermon by Rev. Harry Van Dyken
Minister in the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 21, No. 8
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Congregation, beloved of the Lord Jesus Christ:
We know that man, as he came forth from the hand of God, was a noble creature — a creature made in the image of God Himself. He was a creature whom God set over the works of His hands and gave abilities qualifying him to rule over the creation in true harmony with its nature and in true harmony with the King of kings, the Lord of lords. How low that man has fallen. Yes, Church of Christ, it is lower than we often think. We see men around us restrained, held in by what we call God’s common grace. So, we forget. We know that it has been said of one who saw a drunk lying in a gutter, "There, but for the grace of God, am I.", and that is true. It is so true that maybe it is a little too easily said, so that we cannot help but wonder if the statement is really meant. Do we really believe that we are naturally so bad? Am I really prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor?
I believe that most of us would say that by nature we are more respectable than that drunk. I think that as we read time and again of the awful conditions that exist in some of the slums of larger cities, where dope and drink run rife, and as we see man in all his naked sinfulness, that we think that we are more respectable. We think that this picture is not quite a picture of ourselves. We are not quite ready to say, "Here, but for the grace of God, am I." We are not quite ready to say that we too are a part of this awful cesspool of sin and rebellion against God.
That was what the Pharisees had said, and we judge those Pharisees to have been wrong. We do so rightly, for when we do so, we stand with Him who is our Lord and Savior. He too judged them to be wrong. Yet if we judge them to be wrong in pride, then we actually stand just a little bit below them. Then we approach the Pharisees precisely in the same way that the Pharisees approached the publicans when they said, "How does Christ keep company with these? How does the Messiah, the King and Redeemer of Israel, find His work here? Doesn’t He see that there is a better people?" As men we too must say, "I am a worm and no man.", and then feel that we have not said enough. It is of this that Christ speaks in this parable.
We noticed last week that the only entrance into the kingdom was a prodigal’s entrance. Now we consider the prodigal’s entrance into the kingdom. We saw that the only prospects for the kingdom, the only ones for whom the message of the Lord really had meaning were those who were prodigals, and now we see that the prodigal does enter in. I want you to notice with me:
1. Its Assured Impossibility;
2. Its Empty Beginning;
3. Its Grand Reception; and finally,
4. Its Pharisaic Alternative.
In the parable of the prodigal son we see a son that is at home, and in that home was his life. There his life was given him; there he came into being, and home meant life. In that home was his future. In that home was wrapped up all that he could be. He was an heir of his father, and this was true in more ways than one. He was an heir of His father, for his father had given him being; he was an heir of his father for his father had given him life; he was an heir of his father because in the life of the father, as he made God’s creation fruitful, that fruitfulness also belonged to the son. But this was not enough — this was not good enough for the son. He had heard of another land, a place where one could, as it were, jump off the precipice of sin and land in the joyous valley of fleshly and sensual pleasure. He wanted to take that journey and he wanted to go over that precipice. No doubt his father had warned him of the awful consequences of that step; no doubt his father had said to him that that which he was now asking of his father was for life and not for death. He said to his father, "Father, give me my living." This is the way our Lord presents it to us in this parable. In this way He brings home to us the spiritual reality. Man was at home in paradise. He was at home with his Father, his Father whose heir he was; his Father who had given him being; his Father who had given him life; his Father from whom his whole life flowed; his Father who had placed him in His creation and said, "Now as you work it, this is yours, for life. It will produce and multiply and be fruitful. It is living under your hand as king. But the day you refuse it; the day you eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree; the day you try to use this living for anything else than life, you will surely die."
What the Lord shows us in this young son is the act of Adam and Eve in which they said, "Father, give us our living, give us this world, that we may go into a far country and enjoy it." This is the act, beloved, which has been repeated over and over again in the history of man. This is the meaning of sin. It is precisely what sin is. Man says to his Father in heaven, "Give me my living; give me my piece of this creation that I may use it for the pleasure of sin." Man is not satisfied with the label, poison, that God places on the bottle. He must open the bottle and taste of the delicious and appealing drink that is inside. So the warnings of this father in the parable fall on deaf ears.
After all, what do fathers know about such things? Fathers are stiff and old-fashioned. Fathers put limits and lines. Fathers do not really know about the problems of youth. Fathers do not understand the minds of young people. So this father too did not know what was good for this young son, so thought this son, so he says, once more, "Father, give me my living."
By Jewish law he was entitled to one third of his father’s possessions, for he was the youngest son. The double portion would go to the eldest. The father divides the land, divides the riches, and gives to this younger son that which was his. With that the young man gathers up all that he has. He can not wait. He wants to get out of there. He wants to get away from the constraints of home. He wants to get rid of the lines and limits which his father has put there. Home is no place for him. He departs for that far country. He takes his living and he trades it for his life. I repeat that, congregation: he takes his living and he trades it for his life.
That is what Christ meant when He said, "What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" He leaves the one place that means life for him — home. He leaves the source of his life. He leaves the meaning of his life and goes out to seek the company of the world. He is going to use his living for himself. The rest of the story is striking in its brevity. It doesn’t tell us much about this young man. We know from the elder brother later on, the kind of life he lived. We know that Christ, as He tells the story, says that he spent what he had in riotous living. That was only a figure of speech, for it was not riotous living. It was riotous dying. He was not living. He was using his living; he was using the gifts of God; he was using the substance of God’s creation for the things of death. That is what it says. That is the whole story. He wasted his substance in riotous living. It was that which, if he had put it into the commerce of life, would have produced fruit, that which, if he had used it in the ways of life would have multiplied in a short time — that is gone!
That which his father had given him for the building up of life he had wasted. That word, riotous, has the same meaning: that which excites, builds up and makes one feel as if there is a building up and yet leaves one completely empty and wasted, with nothing. It is really a contradiction in terms, for life is not wasteful; life is saving. Life is not that which dissipates; life is that which leads upward. But this life of the younger son led downward. This was death — simple, awful death. His substance was now gone. The resources were dissipated. It was a life wasted, thrown away.
The glorious far country suddenly loses its glamour and appeal. The awful curtain of death drops, and that abyss, that canyon of joy with all its glamour and its pleasures is dark. The son would climb out but it is an utter impossibility; he cannot climb out. There is no way out, for that which he would use to get out is all gone. It did not grow and multiply. It did not even come back at all; it is gone!
Without God and without hope in the world — that is man’s extremity by nature, Church of Christ. That is the utter impossibility of entering the kingdom of heaven. How are you going to do it? How are you going to get out of the abyss of sin? When you have nothing, when you are lost, when you are dead, how can you live?
Look at him: he is jealous of the pigs. The son who had substance and life takes a job tending pigs! This is a job of death according to Jewish law, and he was a Jew. The Jews were to have nothing to do with such work, and he would be cast out of Israel for it. In that job of death, he is jealous of the swine as they eat their husks out of the trough.
When there was a mighty famine in the land he was going to retain a little spark of life by this so-called job of death. Of course he could not. There was no end to the falling, and once again he will say, "How fortunate are these swine."
Now look at the contrast. Here is a son, a person with life. He stands in contrast with the pigs. They are better off then he! He took his life and sold it for death, and the hand of the Father came and reached into that country and brought about a famine that reduced this son to the utter hopeless state to which he had come. He cannot do anything now.
Then he comes to himself! This is a remarkable statement. It seems so strange. Do you know what that says? It says that he was beside himself. It says that he was crazy, a rebel, out of his mind, not in the sense in which a person is called mentally ill, but he was spiritually sick— dead. There we see the amazing grace of God.. This dead young man, this empty young man who had wasted all and died in it, who had nothing, could yet come to himself. That old self was really gone. Yet he could come back to that old self, for the Spirit of God came to work in his heart. That is what Christ spoke of to Nicodemus in His Word as recorded in John 3, when He said that a person can only see the kingdom of heaven if he is born again by the Spirit of God. That is what this means. This is beautiful, Church of Christ.
Therefore we see Its Empty Beginning. He came to himself and he said, "Isn’t it ridiculous? My father’s servants — servants, not sons, not man in the image of God but the angels concerning whom God tells us in the book of Hebrews that they are those who do service for the heirs of salvation — look how rich the servants are in my father’s home. And here I perish for hunger." He came to himself and saw that he had nothing. He saw that he had wasted, that he had prostituted all that he had. He saw that he had been mad and blind. He saw what he really was and it was a horrible sight. He recognized it and fully realized it.
He said, "I’ll go to my father and I will say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against thee. I have wasted my life. I have taken what was meant for life and have prostituted it in the things of death. I am not worthy to be called thy son. Make me as one of thy hired servants."’ That is repentance. I repeat: that is repentance! You see, he did not go back to his father to say, "Father, I have made some mistakes, so my money is gone. Could I have a little more? After all, I am your son, you know. Any one can make mistakes. So if I could have a little more money I think that I can get along. I will be just a little more careful this time as to how I use it. After all, there was a famine in the land. It was not all my fault."
"Father I have sinned, against heaven and in thy sight. That is sorrow, beloved. But it is not sorrow that looks back and says, "I thought that I was going to have a lot of fun and it turned out sour." It is sorrow which says, "I have sinned against heaven and against thee." It is sorrow for sin! That is repentance. That is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. That is the Spirit’s work that issues into repentance and faith. Those two, you know, go hand in hand. When there is true, real sorrow for sin, then faith speaks out. He arose and went to his father. He turned radically away from his sinful past and faced toward home once more and said, "I am coming home." It seems impossible. Except that Christ said, "With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible." It is possible because this young man said to himself, "It is impossible. I do not have anything. I am done, I am dead. I have sinned."
The father was looking and waiting for him. The father was on the road, looking to see if his son was coming — his lost son. He hears his confession, but he does not listen for his proposal— that proposal which the son had all prepared, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and I am no longer worthy to be called thy son. Make me as one of thy servants."
But he never got that far. The father immediately said to his servants, "Go and bring the robe, the son’s robe and put it on him. And go, bring the ring — the mark of sonship — and put it on his finger; and put shoes on his feet. Sons should not walk barefoot. Go, kill the fatted calf. We’re going to have a feast. In this feast he is going to stand above the servants. He is going to stand in distinction. He is my son! I have taken him back again to myself." The marks of the son are restored and renewed by the father. "For this my sin was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found." It is the prodigal’s entrance into the kingdom.
Notice, Church of Christ, that it comes out of utter impossibility, of prodigality, of wasting. It comes out of taking the father’s living, which he gave for life in his presence, and wasting it, destroying it, prostituting it in a far country. It is the utter prostitution of all God’s gifts.
The Father sent the Spirit into that far country. God the Father sent His Spirit into this far country of death to enter into the heart of the young man and show him Himself. Look what you are. Compare yourself to these pigs. Now compare yourself to your Father’s servants. Then he came to himself. There is the heart of it.
Church of Jesus Christ, have we really seen ourselves as God made us and as we made ourselves? Have we really said, "I have sinned against heaven and against Thee? I have to go home!" Then the Lord does not wait for some proposition that we may want to make. He calls to the angels to clothe us in the robes of sonship. He tells them to place on our finger the ring of sonship. He tells them to put the shoes on our feet and, finally, He calls the angels to join in the feast. There is joy among the angels in heaven over one sinner that repents. Rejoice! Kill the fatted calf! Make merry! For this my son was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found!
There is no entrance into the kingdom of heaven apart from this kind of repentance and this kind of faith.
There is an alternative. It is the Pharisaic alternative. Christ puts this into the mouth of the older son. It is the alternative of salvation by works — salvation by law as understood pharisaically. The older brother hears what is going on and asks the servants what it all means. The servants tell him, "There is joy because your brother came back. Your brother was lost and is found. He was dead and is alive. Your Father is rejoicing."
The elder brother is angry. He says to his father, "All these years I’ve served you. All these years I haven’t transgressed any commandment. All these years your younger son has been out having fun and I’ve stayed here."
But he gives himself away. It was a big sacrifice for him not to have gone out and have that same fun. It was a big sacrifice for him to have stayed at home and not to have gone to the prostitutes. If only he had known that he could go out and waste his father’s substance and come back again and even have a big feast.
The elder son did not understand that what he had done was not a sacrifice at all. He did not realize that this was really the fullness of the inheritance. "My son, you have everything. Everything I have is yours — your home and your life. You have your father. You have life."
But he didn’t have life; he had slavery. He had made himself a slave in his own father’s home. And the prodigal son? The prodigal son was in, and the older son was out! He will not come in on such terms. He stays outside. He says, "I won’t come in. If this is home, I don’t want it. If I have to do all this service for my Father in the midst of His Church, and. then somebody comes in from the outside and he gets just as much, if not more than I do, I don’t want it."
But he did not know that he had wasted his Father’s substance. Just as really as the other son. For he had used it, he had served for it, he had only seen it for his own pleasure. That was all. He did not do it because he was home with father. He did not do it because life meant to be home and, to he home meant life. He was dead and did not know it. Christ had driven this home in the parable of the ninety-and-nine that preceded this one. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than for ninety-and-nine that need no repentance — or at least who think they do not need repentance. For there is no one that does not need repentance! Any who think this are deceiving themselves. They are Pharisees.
Where do we stand, Church of Christ? Have we wasted God’s creation? Have we wasted ourselves and the living which God gave to us, in the things of death? Have we thought that we could use these things in the far country and it would be alright? After all, it’s ours, isn’t it? No. It is the inheritance of the Father. It is for life. It is for home as the origin of life.
We have done it. Children of Adam, we have done it! Unless our entrance into the kingdom is the prodigal’s entrance, we are not in! There is no place at the feast for the older brother. He is not in.
We have to come in this way, truly a prodigal’s entrance into the kingdom. Let us really take the things of life, as given by our Father and live in and through and for Him, at home with the Father. Amen.
Dear Lord, our Father in heaven, grant us a true prodigal’s entrance into Thy kingdom. Help us to understand and to know that there is no other way. Grant us, then, to live the full life with Thy substance, which in grace Thou has so freely given us in Thy grand reception. In Jesus’ name, amen.