If you listen to music on the radio or you stream either Pandora or Spotify or iTunes Radio while “studying,” there’s definitely been a time when a certain song gets stuck in your head, cemented in your subconscious. I’m not really sure what causes this phenomenon, but somehow it always happens (always) when the most annoying song is playing or your least-liked-song-ever queues up in the stream. Then, for the next few hours, or days even, that one track plays on endless repeat in your brain. Or even worse, it’s not even the whole song, it’s just fragment or a phrase from the chorus, and you can’t even remember the entire lyric, so you just go about life singing that one phrase, over and over and over. You can relate with this, right? It’s extremely frustrating, speaking from experience, for you and those around you.
I say all this to say, that sometimes, by no real fault or conscious decision of your own, certain things — songs, stories, ideas, etc. — can get stuck in your head, and no matter what you do, you can’t escape thinking about them. For me, lately, this has been the Parable of the Two Sons. I’m not referring to the Matthew 21:28–32 passage; I’m, instead, alluding to the story we commonly call, “The Prodigal Son,” or “The Lost Son,” found in Luke 15. My personal preference is to consider this story the “Parable of the Two Sons,” because to focus only on the rebellious son is to ignore the entire point of Jesus’s illustration. Too often, that’s the case — we treat this story as primarily about rebellion and repentance and coming home, which are true themes, don’t get me wrong. But this parable isn’t principally concerned with a lost son returning home — no, it’s primarily here to point us to the unilateral love of our heavenly Father. Each time I read this passage, I fall more and more in love with its meaning and purpose and themes. I can’t elude the incredible message of Jesus’s grace throughout.
And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:11–32)
The Prodigal Son
First, you have a young, haughty, arrogant, selfish son who goes to his dad and says, “I want my inheritance now!” We often fail to realize the full gravity of this statement. Essentially, this son was saying, “Dad, you’re basically dead to me, so why don’t you just give me what you’re going to leave me when you’re gone, right now. I don’t care about you or your rules or your legacy — I’m going my own way.” And remarkably, the father acquiesces to this wayward son’s demands, gives him his inheritance, and let’s him go.
The prodigal, then, goes out, chases pleasure, buys friends, buys women, buys happiness, spends his money, squanders his inheritance — wastes his life. Then, a famine hits his country and now that he’s spent everything in “reckless living” (Luke 15:13), he’s down to nothing. So he goes and starts working at a farm and it’s here that he realizes what he’s done with his life. It’s here, in the midst of the muck and filth of swine, that he recognizes his own filth and foolishness; it’s here that he wakes up, that he comes to his senses. (Luke 15:17) “Here I am, starving, barely surviving on the food of pigs,” he cries, “and yet the servant’s in my dad’s house have plenty of food and are treated far better than this.” He determines to return home, to come back remorsefully, and plead for the smallest measure of mercy from his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” (Luke 15:19) And this is where we come to the greatest part of this parable: the reaction of the father.
The Merciful Father
In that culture, this father would have been justified to do, basically, whatever he desired to this wayward son. He could’ve made him a slave; he could’ve turned him away completely, alienating and severing him from the family; or he even could’ve stoned him to death. The prodigal is returning home, hoping to catch his dad in a good mood — hoping for mercy — and, if it all works out, he’d be a hired servant on his dad’s land. But what does this father do? Does the father excoriate his son and lecture him on all he’s done wrong? Does he berate him and tell him how stupid and sinful and disrespectful he’s been to he and his family? Does he rebuke him and scold him and tell him everything he needs to get right before he’s accepted back into the family? No, the father doesn’t do any of those things. In fact, the father demonstrates a love so strong that he’s willing to set aside his own dignity and reputation for his lost, now found, son. Look at the reaction of the father: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)
In those days, as the patriarch and ruler of the household, for a father to run was considered highly undignified and disgraceful. Thus, you can only imagine the reaction of those listening to Jesus relate this parable that day. A father runs to his son? His wayward son? How uncivilized! But that’s exactly what happens. The father meets the prodigal and stops him mid-sentence — he doesn’t even let him finish his “repentance speech.” The Scriptures say the father “ran and embraced him and kissed him,” saying to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:20–24) The merciful father never once demands anything from this son; instead, he gives him the very opposite of what he deserves: restoration of his status before he can even say or do anything.
This is a prime picture of the type of grace Jesus bestows on us — a vulgar, indiscriminate grace that works without asking anything of us. Instead of rejection and punishment, the prodigal son is met with miraculous one-way love; a love that knows no boundaries or borders and has no regulations or expectations to be met before it’s given. The prodigal son returned home and was greeted with a kiss (a sign of forgiveness), a robe (a mark of distinction and importance), a ring (a sign of authority), and shoes (a sign of a free man). What’s more, this affectionate father rejoices over his son’s return by throwing him a celebration — a party — to honor and recognize the jubilation at his return. It’d be great and quite “Disney-esque” if the story were to end there . . . but it doesn’t.
The Pious Brother
We often forget this part of the story — the part about the pious brother’s reaction. But make no mistake, this is the story. The elder brother comes in from working and finds his family and friends partying with his long, lost younger brother, and immediately he’s enraged; “he was angry and refused to go in.” (Luke 15:28) This is where the older brother reveals his deep self-righteousness. The other son, the elder brother, displays outwardly and inwardly an attitude and posture that’s just as rebellious as that of the prodigal.
He contends with his father in verses 29–30, basically saying, “Here’s how good I am; here’s how bad he is. He threw it all away, and I’ve been here with you. I’ve done everything you’ve wanted, even things you didn’t ask, hoping you’d be proud of me, that you’d celebrate me. Do you see why you shouldn’t be doing this? I’ve obeyed the rules better than he has. You’ve never been good to me like this. Why would you celebrate a rule-breaker when I’ve been the rule-follower? I’ve done all that you’ve asked me to do, and you’re celebrating him?” This is what happens when we put all of our hope and energy and identity and value in our performance: we get frustrated by grace. “The Gospel only sounds good to a heart that knows it is bad,” writes Tullian Tchividjian. “For people who think they’re good, grace is frustrating. For people who know they’re not, grace is freeing.” (47)
To perform your Christianity is to lie to yourself, to say that God’s expectations and demands are attainable and within reach. To rest in your performance is to cheapen and monetize grace, buying into the idea that it all falls on you; that doing more, working harder, performing better will get you in a better standing with God — get you more grace. But it doesn’t work this way; grace “isn’t expensive. It’s not even cheap. It’s free.” (Capon, 10) And such is what frustrates the older son. How could you, father, show such compassion on my rebellious brother? And believers are still baffled by this compassion. How could the God of the Universe show such reckless, radical, infinite grace on deplorable sinners? How could the Messiah, the Prophesied Christ, fellowship and commune with the outcasts, the defiled, and the corrupt? How is Jesus, the Son of the Holy God, a friend of sinners? (Matt. 11:19) But Jesus is all those things, declaring quite vehemently that it’s for the guilty and condemned that he came to save. (Matt. 9:10–13; Mark 2:13–17)
The Point of the Story
Understand, dear reader, that the Parable of the Two Sons, as we’ve seen here, is not really about the prodigal son or the pious son at all. No, as Matt Chandler points out, it’s fundamentally about “a father’s delight in his stubborn, foolish children . . . [a father] who loved both his idiot boys: the one who wasted his inheritance on prostitutes and devoured his father’s land in barhopping and the one who thought he could be good enough by following all of the rules and stayed outside of the party and pouted.”
This story is about our heavenly Father, who loves us unconditionally and lavishes grace on us indiscriminately. It’s a story that shines a bright beacon of light and hope on the inexhaustible grace of Jesus Christ. It discloses to us the very nature of our Creator, the One who is “slow to anger,” and quick to forgive, “filled with unfailing love.” (Ps. 86:15 NLT) God desires and entreats all to come to him and experience his grace, those that know they don’t deserve it and those that presume they deserve more. He waits for us to return to him, just like the prodigal’s father, waiting on the balcony of heaven — of home — looking for us, seeking us out, desiring that fellowship and harmony be restored. God waits with abundant and immediate mercy. “The compassion of God is followed by swift movements,” says Charles Spurgeon. “God comes flying in the greatness of his compassion to help every poor [and] penitent soul.”
You see, we are these two sons, either rebelling or relaxing, we’re depraved and desperate — in dire need of the overwhelming grace and love that can only be found in Jesus — at the foot of the cross! We rebel and reject God and go our own way. (Isa. 53:6) We spit in his face and refuse his grace and deliverance — both by resisting his goodness to us and by insisting on our own goodness to him. Both sons were relying on themselves for value and significance, doubting and questioning the good nature of their father. Both of them, and us as well, are unaware that their father, our Father, loves them in spite of the crap what they bring — or despite what they don’t bring — to the table.
At every turn, we must see, recognize and witness the unfathomable and mysterious goodness and grace of God. Our God, who is our Father, runs to us, bears our shame, relieves our guilt, and restores us to himself. Grace comes to us in the form of the Savior who carried our sorrows, who was “pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins . . . beaten so we could be whole . . . [and] whipped so we could be healed.” (Isa. 53:4–5 NLT) Who are we to reprimand his displays of grace? Who are we to “begrudge [his] generosity?” (Matt. 20:15)
The Two-Fold Charge
First, we must never suppose that the things we’re doing are the cause for grace. Sometimes, we become more like the chided, self-righteous Pharisees of the New Testament than we ever would hope or imagine, often without realizing it. These boys wrongfully supposed that they could earn God’s favor with their performance; that by behaving better, God somehow owed them. This is why the Pharisees were always aghast at the actions of Christ and why Christ was always reprimanding them because of their incessant piety. When we feel responsible for our own righteousness and grace, as the Pharisees did, up springs a tremendous and unrelenting torrent of pressure to be “good,” which only enhances our problems, it doesn’t erase them.
When we base everything on our performance, on what we do, we ignore the staggering importance of our relationship with God. Moreover, we’ll endlessly seesaw and fluctuate between feelings of religiosity and guilt — feeling self-righteous when we succeed and self-abasement when we fail. By relying on our performance, we cast lofty expectations on ourselves that only lead to degrading and debasing results. What’s more, these expectations are often cast higher for others. We’re repeatedly much stricter with others than we are ourselves. This expectation of perfection, this ingrained notion of performancism controls us; it binds us up and enslaves us to ourselves.
It’s only when we realize that the responsibility for perfection and restoration are solely in the hands of God that we can experience the freedom of grace. True, cognizant freedom only comes when we apprehend the full nature of the father of the prodigal, of our Father and his gospel — that is, the freedom and rest in knowing that the demand for perfection has already been perfect met in Jesus. The prodigal son recognized and admitted his own guilt; the pious brother insisted upon his own righteousness and innocence. One experienced freedom and grace, the other rejected it. We must come to the realization that even in our religious performance for God, all our piety isn’t worthy of him, it doesn’t measure up. We must understand that we’re just as depraved and just as desperate for grace as degenerate sinners.
Second, never consider yourself too reprobate for the remedy of Jesus’s gospel of grace. Sinner, come to Jesus, for you can never out-sin God’s grace! The refrain I hope to cement in your brain is, Where sin abounds, grace is more! To be in desperation is to be in the precise spot where God desires that we see him; for when we have nowhere else to turn, Jesus is there. God’s gospel of grace finds us at the limits of our endurance. It’s when we are at our weakest that the glory of God’s grace shines all the brighter, and when we find refuge in him despite our weakness, we can all the more boldly declare with the apostle Paul, that we will glory in our “weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon [us] . . . For when [we are] weak, then [we are] strong.” (2 Cor. 12:9–10) Where sin abounds, grace is more. Memorize it, repeat it, declare it, live it. It’s the calling card of the Christian, the banner of the gospel. (Rom. 5:20) As far as you may go in sin, God’s grace goes further still!
Sin might widen its circle age after age, but grace widened its circle and still went far beyond man’s transgression. Age after age sin ascended a higher pinnacle of rebellious ungodliness; but grace ascended along with it, and took its station far above it, like a bright canopy of heavenly azure. Age after age descended to lower and lower depths of hateful pollution; grace went down along with it, and when the soul found itself at the very bottom of the horrible pit, and expected to meet nothing there but hell itself, it found the hand of grace still beneath it, as mighty to save, as willing to bless as ever. Just as sin abounded, so grace did much more abound. (Bonar, 280)
This “Parable of the Two Sons” is really the “Parable of Grace,” announcing the infinite affection and compassion of our Father. There’s grace enough for all the wretches and wrecks of the world! There’s grace enough for you! Where sin abounds, grace is more!
Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954).
Robert Capon, The Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair with Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).
Tullian Tchividjian, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2013).