Luke 15:1-2, 11-32
By Luke Stamps
We are all longing for home. For some of you, this longing is quite literal. You’re ready
to get this semester over with and head home to momma. Maybe especially momma’s cooking.
For me it’s roast and potatoes and green beans and macaroni and cheese. I mean the Caf is fine
but it can’t compete with that!
But the notion of home as a metaphor for a deeper and more profound sense of belonging
is a theme that has dominated so much art and literature and music. Everyone from the Beatles
and Simon and Garfunkel to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and the Head and the Heart
has written songs about home. A place of rest and acceptance and peace and belonging and
Even the church’s hymnody has taken up this theme:
Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home. Softly and tenderly, Jesus is
calling. Calling, O sinner, come home.
I must needs go home by the way of the cross, There’s no other way but this; I shall
ne’er get sight of the gates of light, If the way of the cross I miss.
Jesus is tenderly calling thee home, Calling today, calling today; Why from the sunshine
of love wilt thou roam Farther and farther away?
I’ve wandered far away from God, Now I’m coming home; The paths of sin too long I’ve
trod, Lord, I’m coming home.
And that’s really what this parable is all about. It’s about two sons, who as it turns out are
both far from home. One travels into a distant country and indulges all of his sinful desires only
to find himself longing for home. And the other son, although he is relatively nearer to the
father’s house, also finds himself just as distant because he stubbornly refuses to enter into the
So what I want to do this morning is to walk through this text with you and consider what
we might learn from each of these two sons. The parable is often referred to as the Prodigal Son.
Prodigal isn’t a word that we use very often, but it just means wasteful, reckless, self-indulgent.
Yet we often miss that there are two sons here, and we have much to learn from both of their
THE SELF-INDULGENT SON
Look again at vv. 11-12. Many of us have this same sense of entitlement: we want what’s
coming to us. I think of Sally Brown in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Do you remember
what she said about her Christmas list? “All I want is my fair share! All I want is what I have
coming to me!” Many of us see our sins in these terms of entitlement. Our base level assumption
about our lives is that we are owed something from the God or from the universe. And we will
have it, no matter the cost. So the father grants the son his wish, but did you notice that he
actually gives both sons their inheritance. The one squanders it, but the other sits on it. We’ll
come back to that.
Then notice in v. 13 what the younger son does next. “Not many days later.” Hear this,
friends: it doesn’t take a long time to ruin your life. It doesn’t always come through years of
planning and deliberation and a slow slide into ruin. In “not many days” you can make decisions
that forever alter the course of your life. So the younger son takes all that he has and takes a
journey “into a far country.”
Some of you right now are in that far country, and perhaps you know it. But perhaps
others of you are in a far country, and you don’t even realize it yet. You are squandering the gifts
that God has given you on reckless living — on indulging your lusts, mistakenly believing that
self-indulgence is true freedom.
Sin is fun. We Christians have no reason to deny this. It is gratifying to indulge the sins
of the flesh. It gives you a quick hit. But the problem is you have to keep coming back for more.
You see, there is a massive difference between a pleasure that is immediately gratifying and a
pleasure that is satisfying in a lasting sense. And so we see a progression in the younger son’s
experience in vv. 14-16. Reckless living gives way to spiritual bankruptcy which gives way to
famine which gives way to slavery.
And those of you who are far from the father’s house this morning are at some point
along this trajectory. So let me make this personal: where are you in this journey into the far
country? Are you wasting your inheritance as a creature of God on reckless living, perhaps
oblivious to your deep lack of satisfaction? Or are you beginning to see that the funds of sin have
run out, that the promises of self-indulgence turned out to be empty? Or are you already
experiencing the spiritual famine, with the hunger pangs groaning in your belly, so that you are
willing to dehumanize yourself—to eat the pig’s slop!—trying to a fill a void that you just can’t
seem to fill?
But mercifully, the younger son’s journey doesn’t end there, as we see in v. 17. “But
when he came to himself.” The Greek literally says “when he went into himself”; he
rediscovered his true self, his true identity. I am persuaded that there are some of you here this
morning whom God is calling to come to yourself. To come to your senses. To wake up. To see
that the whole project of running from the father’s house into a far country is doomed to fail, is
doomed to end in bankruptcy, famine, and enslavement. And God is calling you to come to your
senses and begin the journey home to God.
Notice what the son says to himself in v. 17-19. To be in the father’s house is to be
satisfied. To experience the lasting pleasures of home. In the Father’s house, even the servants
have enough bread. Some of you need to mark this date on the calendar and say, “Today is the
day that I will arise and go to my father.” To be willing to humble yourself as a servant and
throw yourself on the Father’s mercy. And if you will come, notice the lengths to which the
Father will go to welcome you.
Look again at v. 20. The Father doesn’t wait for the son to come all the way, but sees him
a long way off and runs out to meet him. How can we read this and not be moved to tears? The
father throws off all decorum in order to run out to meet this disgraced son. The father’s love is
superabundant, it is extravagant, it is — dare we say it — reckless.
And notice also that as the son begins his prepared speech, the father cuts him off and
won’t even let him finish it. His love is too extravagant for the son’s pale idea of restoration.
He’s not coming home to be a slave. The father won’t have it! He is coming home to resume his
role as a son in the house! And gives him a robe, a ring, shoes, and a feast! You see, grace
doesn’t just forgive our debts, bringing our account back to zero, as it were. It goes beyond that
and credits us with all the riches of the father. Many in the history of Christianity have
interpreted the robe as the clothing we have in Christ’s obedience. And many of the church
fathers interpreted the fattened calf that was killed as a type of the death of Christ, who is the true
and better sacrifice that covers all of our sins.
Notice in v. 24 that the homecoming of the younger son is interpreted by the father as a
kind of resurrection: he was dead and is alive again. This Easter week is a good time to reflect on
this glorious miracle: when a sinner returns to God, it is nothing less than a resurrection! It is the
power of the resurrection of Christ brought into our own experience.
As Paul puts it in Romans 6, those who are united to Christ by faith are immersed into his
death and are by his resurrection from the dead raised to walk in newness of life. And notice the
end of v. 24: “they began to celebrate.” The call to come home to God is a call to celebrate; it is a
call to feast; it is call to party. Reckless self-indulgence has lost is appeal for this younger son;
true satisfaction comes only by being back in the father’s house.
THE SELF-RIGHTEOUS SON
Now we often think the story ends there. But there is another son in this parable, one that
we sometimes miss. Don’t forget the context of vv. 1-2. There is a sense in which the whole
parable is told in order to highlight the response of the older brother, who refuses to enter into
the celebration of the younger son’s return.
Look again at vv. 25-30. The older son “drew near to the house.” Notice that he, too, is
outside the father’s house. When the father reported the younger son’s return, the older son was
angry and “refused to go in.” The older son is in his own far country: the distance of selfrighteousness. He even tries to distance himself from his brother: “this son of yours.” He won’t even acknowledge his own brother! He has placed himself outside the father’s family. He has
forgotten his family. He has forgotten himself. As the great fourth century father, St. Ambrose of
Milan put it, “What is further away than to depart from oneself, and not from a place?”
Don’t miss this point, especially those of you who may be outwardly religious: Selfrighteousness is as good as self-indulgence at keeping you from the father’s mercy. If the devil can’t get you to waste your inheritance on reckless living, he will get you to trust in your own
righteousness and make you bitter at the scandal of God’s grace.
Notice that the older son points, not the father’s benevolence, but to his own obedience:
“Look these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.” This is a
sober warning, especially in a place like this: a Christian university, with Christian faculty and
staff, and many Christian students, living in a Christian bubble. We can become hardened to
God’s mercy and grace, thinking that our right standing before God is dependent on our church
attendance or our quiet times or our Christian service or the facade of our outward lives.
But God’s word cuts through all that. God sees and God knows. As St. Augustine put it,
God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, which can be a comforting thought, if we are
clinging to the grace of Jesus Christ. But it can be terrifying if we are just putting up a front.
And notice the response of the father in v. 31-32. The father doesn’t consign the older son
to his own far country. He invites him in. Jesus own ministry exemplifies this. He didn’t just
minister to tax collectors and prostitutes; he also reached out in love to the Pharisees and scribes.
Yes, he often rebuked them sharply; but even that is a sign of his grace, his invitation to throw
down their self-righteousness and enter into the kingdom of grace. To come home. To enter the
GOD’S JOURNEY INTO THE FAR COUNTRY
To conclude, I want to show you a visual representation of this parable. This is a
traditional icon portraying the parable of the prodigal. Notice that the icon has two panels: on the
left we see the younger son in the squalor of the pig sty, resting wearily on his staff. And on the
right, the younger son is being embraced. But notice who is embracing him: the icon portrays the
father in the person of Jesus Christ himself. St. Augustine wrote of this parable that the Son of
God is the arm of the father’s embrace. Or to pick up on another church father, St. Irenaeus
spoke about the Son and the Holy Spirit as the Father’s two hands. So, in the embrace of the
father in the parable, it is, as it were, the whole Godhead, the Holy Trinity who welcomes the
And above the lower two panels is a scene in heaven. We see three angels, calling to
mind the previous two parables in Luke 15 — the lost sheep and the lost coin — where Jesus
said that there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents.
Below the angels is the throne of heaven. Notice that it is empty, symbolizing that the
Son of God has left his throne above to come to earth, to become incarnate “for us men and for
our salvation,” as one ancient creed puts it. Jesus is the great father of the parable, who saw us a
long way off and ran out to meet us in his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection.
God didn’t wait for us to come all the way home, with a well-laid plan to reform our
lives. He went the greatest distance imaginable: God himself became a man to redeem us by his
Jesus is the fattened calf, slain for our sins. Jesus is the robe of righteousness that clothes
us. Jesus is the ring of God’s loving promise. Jesus is the shoes that make our feet ready to share
the good news to others. Jesus is the father who runs out to meet his wayward sons. Jesus is
indeed the home to which we come, to receive what none of us deserved: the forgiveness of our
debts and the celebration of heaven itself.
How can we not be moved by such condescending grace? How can we remain, untouched by God’s compassion, in the far country? So, the application for everyone here is really the same: if you are in the far country of self-indulgence or in the far country of self righteousness, come home! Come home! Ye who are weary come home! Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, O sinner, come home!
Luke Stamps is Associate Professor of Theology in Clamp Divinity School of Anderson
University in Anderson, South Carolina. He also serves as an executive director for the Center
for Baptist Renewal.
Link to image: https://iconreader.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/modern1.jpg