The Best Sermon on The Prodigal Son That I Have Ever Heard

If you like good preaching and want to hear the best sermon on the Parable of the Prodigal Son(s) that I have ever heard go to the Tulsa Workshop order page and purchase Rick Atchley’s sermon from the Tulsa Workshop 2010. It is phenomenal. The first few minutes made me think this was going to be just another sermon on Luke 15 pointing out many of the things you have heard in sermons in the past. But about 10 minutes in Atchley really starts pulling it together to make a dynamite, hard hitting and eye opening sermon that is worth hearing.

Pitfalls in Bible Study #4 – Reading Ourselves into the Text

There are some texts where there can be little doubt we are meant to find ourselves. It might be a particular story that falls so perfectly in line with our present experiences that there can be little doubt God wants us to find ourselves in the story. Or maybe it is a particular psalm that reflects the raw emotion you are facing. I think God means for us to find ourselves in those texts. But taken to an extreme we can misinterpret many texts by digging too hard in order to find ourselves there.

This is particularly true of the book of Revelation. There are two extremes some people go to when they study Revelation. Both lead to major problems in interpretation. The first is “Everything was back then.” This view basically says that 99% of the events in the book are in the past, so beside the last chapter or two there is nothing in there for us today.The second has more to do with this post, “Everything is yet to take place.” This view says that 99% of the events of the book have not yet happened and so it is perfectly fine to read into the text modern events wherever you please. When people do this they start finding tanks, helicopters, nuclear war, and who might the “antichrist” be of those alive today (even though that word is never even used in Revelation!).

The point is, there are texts that we so desperately want to find ourselves in that were not meant to be read that way. We want so badly to find ourselves there that we start reading ourselves into every detail and miss the original intention of the author completely! This is not just true of the apocalyptic books but many other places in scripture as well. It is just easier to spot in the apocalyptic books because of their use of symbol and metaphorical images.

Take the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. That is one of those stories that you read and quickly identify with one of the characters over the others. Once you do that, the filters through which you read the rest of the story changes the meaning you find in the parable. You read this parable in a different light if you are the parent of a child who is not a Christian versus reading this parable as someone who has fallen away from God because you immediately relate with one character over another. That is not a bad thing in and of itself. But in doing so it is very easy to miss the immediate context of Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees and some of the broader principles of love and forgiveness that may be missed because we find ourselves too close to one character or another.

I do think God wants us to find ourselves in that story but I also think he wants us to understand the meaning of the story in light of the broader context found in Luke 15:1-3, that Jesus was teaching the Pharisees a lesson about God. And so, we might find ourselves relating most closely with the Father due to an unfaithful child, but maybe there is a bigger point God wants us to hear of finding ourselves as either one of the children and how they relate to their Father.

How to avoid this pitfall:
It is important that we first try to understand the text for what it was intended to mean. This is nothing new, just basic exegesis. The best way to find out what scripture has to say to us is to find out what it had to say to them. Once we understand that we can start unpacking the text, in light of its original meaning, context, and culture, into our culture today.

The Prodigal Son – Servants or Sons?

Yesterday Northwest celebrated our 52nd anniversary with a Homecoming Sunday. It was a really uplifting day with those leading the worship being ministers who grew up at Northwest as children and later went on into ministry. Our theme focused on Luke 15 and the prodigal son. As Donny Dillon preached to us from that passage he mentioned something that had never dawned on me before. He mentioned the difference between how the two sons addressed their father. The younger, despite all his failures, addressed him as “father”, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). A few verses earlier the young man mentioned his plan (15:17-20). His self-dialog revealed a lot about his view of his father. He realized that his father treated his own servants better than his current living situations. He planned to go back, renounce his role as son due to his unworthiness, and become like the hired help or slaves.

Then there was the older son. The older son addressed him disrespectfully, more like an angry servant than a son, “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…” (15:29). He goes on to disown his brother calling him, “this son of yours…” His view of himself was more a servant than a son. If he understood his relationship with his father he would have addressed him as such and not talked of his brother that way (you can only understand who your brother is by understanding who your father is). He served his father out of obligation and expected his hard work to be rewarded with a wage. Yet, the father responded to him with love and still as a son, “My son…you are always with me and everything I have is yours [because son #2 already got his]. 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.”

Remember the context, Jesus is telling this in the presence of both tax collectors and sinners as well as the Pharisees and teachers of the law. We often give the Pharisees the shaft in our preaching and teaching. But Jesus is saying here that ultimately both the “sinner” and the Pharisee are still considered children of God. The difference Jesus is pointing out is not how the Father views the sons but how they view themselves. The difference is due to attitude. Do we serve God out of love or out of obligation. God wants all of his children to treat each other like brothers no matter how far we have come from or how close we have stayed and no matter how rotten our attitudes were or how rotten they are. He has room, gracefully, for all. And the only way we can really view each other as brothers is to have the proper view of the father and to see ourselves as sons rather than servants.

There are several things this story does not teach:

  1. That if you run from God, lose it all, and return that God has no place for you.
  2. That if you have a rotten attitude God will no longer call you “my son”
  3. That you have to have it all together to be in relationship with the father
  4. That fattened calves are only for the prodigal., He said to his older son,  “All I have is yours”…all he had to do was ask a favor. The older brother should have realized if the father was gracious enough to give the younger his share, certainly he could have had a calf if he just asked.
  5. That the goof ups get relegated to servant status or second class sons
  6. That it is cooler or receiving of more love and attention of the father if you run off, come back and have some awesome, moving conversion/repentance story that sounds more like bragging than remorse.

God wants everyone to be home where there is no place for treating sons as servants or arguing over who did what. We are all just glad to be with the father and be accepting and welcoming to those he is accepting and welcoming too. Far be it from us to have stricter standards of sonship than the standards set by our Father.

A Servant or A Son? The Story of the Prodigal (Luke 15)

In order to understand this parable you have to understand who is present when Jesus tells the story.

“Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable…”

Luke 15:1-3

Jesus gives one of his only three point sermons: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In each of these stories there are three movements of the narrative. Yancey points it out better than I can, “Each underscores the loser’s sense of loss, tells the thrill of rediscovery, and ends with a scene of jubilation.” – What’s So Amazing About Grace, 52. It is clear that Jesus’ implication to the Pharisees is that if they really understood that what was happening in their midst that they would share in their Father’s thrill of rediscovery and participate in the heavenly jubilation. Instead they could only see those with Jesus as a ragtag bunch of tax collectors and sinners. Jesus saw them as the lost being found and as dead men who were being brought back to life. And so Jesus begins his story…


The Story

In the ancient world it was considered a tremendous blessing to have a son. This story starts with a blessed father because he has not one son but two! One day he gets the shock of his life. His youngest son asks his father to cash out his inheritance so he can head for the big city and live “the life.” There is just one problem. His father is not on his death bed. In fact he isn’t even sick! Under the Old Testament law a child could be stoned for less. Rather than scold or pick up stones, he divides the estate between his two sons and the youngest goes on his way. In vs. 14 Jesus says, “[He] got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.” At this point in the story a new character arrives. Murphy shows up in the form of a famine and his life goes from bad to worse. His grumbling stomach leads him to do something he would have never before considered – feeding pigs.


Jesus is letting us in on the fact that he had lost his identity. The patriarchal family structure was the source of their identity. He had lost that by cursing his father. Now he had lost his religious identity as well by laboring among these unclean animals. After all, an observant Jew would rather starve than feed these pigs. This is a clue that gives us insight into the speech that this young man will later recite for his father – that he had sinned against his father and against his God – the two fundamental components of his identity. He was utterly lost. Until you comprehend the depth of his feeling of being lost in the world, lost from his family, lost from God you really cannot fully get your mind or your heart around what is happening in this story. That is the first thing Jesus hoped these Pharisees would clue in on – that they could find compassion instead of contempt for these tax collectors and sinners. (They wouldn’t have differentiated the two quite as clearly as I have – the two built on each other and were inseparable. Jesus is painting a picture of a downward spiral for this man’s existence. He is LOST.)


The second trip the young man makes does not involve a change of location. It involved a change of heart. In vs. 17 Jesus tells us, “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! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.” Jesus points out that this lost son had done something that the religious authorities had still not done – he had come to his senses due to his profound sense of dependence upon his father. He would rather be a servant in his father’s house than be lost and without hope. Jesus is about to use the difference between being a son and being a servant to discombobulate the Pharisees.

As he makes his return home, his father sees him from a long way off. Being filled with compassion his father runs to greet him. This is one of Jesus’ key points to the Pharisees. If only they understood the compassion God had for those present with Jesus, maybe they would treat them with more compassion themselves. The son begins his speech, “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (15:21). Notice the father’s reaction to his son’s return – running, compassion, a hug, a kiss, a ring, a robe, a feast…He treats him like a son rather than as a servant. Then notice who the father gives orders to. He doesn’t now treat his son like the servant he was going to request to be. He orders his servant to take care of this young man who was now more his son than he had been when the story began. “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. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate” (15:22-24).

Those the Pharisees treated so harshly who had turned to Jesus should have been treated as equal sons and daughters of God. In the next verses the one who thought he was the true son turns out to be more like a servant. The older brother hears the celebration. Instead of joining it he becomes very angry. Jesus said, “So his father went out and pleaded with him. 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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’” (15:28b-30). He was the one who had been acting like a servant rather than a son. His obedience and faithfulness are to be commended but having done these things with the attitude of a servant shows that his understanding of what it means to be in his father’s house is totally skewed.

The father responds by still calling him a son but he also reminds him of the bigger picture, “My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 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.” (15:31-32). Jesus is saying that whether the Pharisees accept it or not the destitute and morally bankrupt of the world stand in the same relationship with God as they do as “brothers of theirs” because they were dead and are now alive. They were lost and have now been found.

We normally apply this verse to talk about prodigals and that is all well and good. Jesus did say this for those tax collectors and sinners in the room to hear. But let’s not forget that Jesus also said this for the other ears in the room – the Pharisees. He said it in hopes that those who were acting as the older brother would stop acting like servants and start acting more like sons. He said it so they would start seeing these outcasts as the fellow brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God that they were. It all stems from a compassion that can only be motivated by understanding just how lost people really are and by seeing how important it is to the father. Let’s treat sons of God like sons of God, daughters of God like daughters of God, our brothers in Christ like brothers in Christ, and our sisters in Christ like sisters in Christ. And when the lost are found and the dead are brought to life let’s be the first ones to attend the celebration!