The Prologue and Context of Luke 15
“10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments [robes] of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth her bud, and as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations” (Isaiah 61:10-11)
I’m a huge Lord of the Rings fan – the books, and the movie. And if you’ve watched the movie, at the very beginning is what they call the prologue – which actually takes you back 4800 years from the main events of the Lord of the Rings. And here’s why it’s doing this, it talks about the forging of the one ring and the nine rings and the rings that were given to the elves, it takes you through this massive history up to this battle for Middle Earth, and the reason it does that is it sets the entirety of the story in context. So if you don’t have the prologue and you just jump right in to Frodo, and Gandalf, and Sam, if you don’t know the prologue then you might as well be watching Mary Poppins. With a few more decapitations, obviously. The prologue is so massively important.
The Prologue for the Parable of the Two Sons is Genesis 3
1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.
This is a description of our fallenness. Our nothingness.There are some things we need to recognize in what happens in this passage:
1) God’s Word was questioned – “hath God said,…”
2) God’s Word was twisted – “Ye shall not surely die:”
3) Man was said to be lifted up to be like God – “ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
4) Adam and Eve exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served a created thing rather than their Creator (Romans 1:25)
5) They are now characterized by worldliness
Life on the outside (of the garden) is dominated by worldliness. Let me repeat that. Life is dominated, on the outside, by worldliness. So, really the question is, how do we define worldliness? There are lots of definitions out there. What I want to do here is to give us a bottom line description of worldliness. And here it is – worldliness is performance based living. Worldliness is performance based living.
20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.(Romans 3:10-20)
23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;6 But we are all as an unclean thing , and all our righteousnesses [righteous deeds] are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.7 And there is none that calls upon thy name, that stirs up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.(Isaiah 64:6-7)
12 Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:(Romans 5:12)
Question: What is all of this saying?
1) Our sin is far worse than we can imagine.
2) Our sin touches every part of our being.
3) Our most righteous deeds are as a polluted garment.
4) Our sinfulness demands punishment by wrath and fury.
Question: What does all of this mean?
1) Your best and most righteous thought this moment is so tainted with sin, it is still enough to condemn you.
2) Your most thoughtful and selfless deed is still so tainted with sin, it is worthless before God.
3) Our worship and praise to God today is worthless because of our sin.
Hang with me! I know there are red flags waving in your head right now! Don’t worry! Stick with me, here! Now THIS is what I want you to get. THIS is what I want you to understand:
There. is. HOPE!
3 For what says the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.(Romans 4:3)
23 Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; 24 But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; 25 Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification. (Romans 4:23-25)
11 And he (Jesus) said, A certain man had two sons:
12 And the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.” And he divided unto them his living.
The younger son outright rejected the Father.
The Father divided his possessions between the sons.
13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.
The younger son squandered his inheritance.
14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.
15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
17 And when he came to himself, he said, “How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.’”
20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
21 And the son said unto him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.”
The licentious / liberal / squanderer / care free [insert descriptions here] type of person is more apt to come to his / her senses and repent.
22 But the father said to his servants, “Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:
23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:
24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to be merry.
25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.
26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.
27 And he said unto him, “Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.”
28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.
The elder son was angry because the Father took a portion of the elder son’s inheritance and gave it to the younger son. In other words, the younger son received more than what was traditionally provided when receiving an inheritance.
29 And he answering said to his father, “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:
30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.”
31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.
32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
Today I want to dive into worldliness. Well, not into worldliness but the subject of worldliness. Back to the Lord of the Rings, some of the most intriguing characters in that story are the Ring Wraiths, these nine human kings, great kings of old I think they’re called, who were given rings from the Dark Lord Sauron. And when they were given these rings they were bewitched by Sauron, they were enslaved by Sauron, and they actually became less than human. So that now they were no longer visible to the human eye. They were kind of in between physical existence and this other world, and they were enslaved to do his will. And you know, if you’ve seen it, they have these suped up monk robes, where the hood comes down and you can’t see the inside and they have these massive arm holes in the robes. And I remember asking the question, why are they wearing these robes? Well, Tolkien actually tells us why they’re wearing these robes. Listen to this, he says, “The black robes are real robes that the Wraiths wear to give shape to their nothingness.” These fallen men have a profound sense of their fallenness. They have a profound sense of their nothingness. And they wear these robes, not because they like robes, but these robes are their way of covering that fallenness, of covering this profound sense of nothingness.
You know the story of the Ring Wraiths is really not a fictional story. Well it is a fictional story, but it’s not because it captures all of our experience this side of the Fall. That we wear robes, we have a profound sense, we can’t articulate it and it takes years in your 20’s and 30’s and 40’s before you can really begin to get a sense of the depth of your own fallenness. But we wear these robes to cover our fallenness. We put on the robe of sex, we put on the robe of money, we put on the robe of power, we put on the robe of vocational achievement, we put on the robe of educational achievement, we put on this robe and that robe and we’re wearing all these different robes in an attempt to cover our fallenness, in an attempt to cover our nothingness. But we do not only put on robes of sex, money and power, we also put on religious robes. This is why James, for instance, talks about pure and undefiled religion, because we are a people, I am a person who will put on religious activity, I will put on social concern as a robe that is my attempt to cover my own sense of fallenness and brokenness. That is worldliness.
There’s a great little book by Sinclair Ferguson entitled, Children of the Living God. Fairly early on in the book he talks about the prodigal son in Luke 15 to help us understand a little more about ourselves and how we Christians often perceive our relationship with God. He notes that when the prodigal son finally decided that it was time to return to his father, his plan was to tell his father that he was no longer worthy to be called his son. The prodigal son’s thinking was, “I really messed up. I dishonored my father profoundly when I asked for my inheritance and left with it. I’ve blatantly squandered and belittled his love. So, when I return, I’ll return as his slave not his son. It’s the right thing for me to do.” The reality is that the prodigal is absolutely blind to the enormity of the father’s love for him. “After all that I have done, he certainly cannot treat me or love me any longer as a son!”Sinclair Ferguson sees something in the prodigal’s thinking that parallels how we as Christians often think of God and His fatherly love for us: “Jesus was underlining the fact that – despite assumptions to the contrary – the reality of the love of God for us is often the last thing in the world to dawn upon us. As we fix our eyes upon ourselves, our past failures, our present guilt, it seems impossible to us that the Father could love us. Many Christians go through much of their life with the prodigal’s suspicion. Their concentration is upon their sin and failure; all their thoughts are introspective” (Children of the Living God, 27).When the prodigal son says, “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’” (Luke 15:18-19), he is thinking in terms of wages earned rather than extravagant love and grace received.The only people who are truly able to turn their eyes outward in mission are those who knowingly live within and enjoy the loving gaze of their heavenly Father. If we are not confident of His love, our eyes will turn inward, and our primary concerns will be our needs, our lack, our disappointment, rather than the needs of those around us. As a result, we’ll be afraid to risk or do the hard thing even if it needs to be done. Or we will do the externals of missional living as an attempt to earn God’s acceptance or to keep him and our fellow-Christians off our back. We will relate to him as if we are wager earners rather than as His dearly beloved children, the ones in whom He delights. Granted, we may not know that this is why we’re doing what we’re doing, but it is what drives us from deep within. At best our hearts will be secretly ruled by thoughts like this, “I will pour myself out for the mission of God. Maybe then, if I do that, God will be pleased with me.” These ways of thinking or living do not flow out of the gospel of grace. The gospel is good news. It’s joy-news because it speaks to us of the Father’s love that has come to us in Jesus Christ.
As Jesus makes clear at the beginning, this parable is about two sons (Luke 15:11), both of whom are estranged from their father. The younger son manifests his estrangement by breaking the rules and the older son by keeping them. Neither son lives his life in loving communion with the father, which is the point of the parable. Both sons are prodigals, not just the younger one. The older son may have been on “mission” with the father externally—doing what he was “supposed” to do—but he certainly wasn’t on mission with him internally. Once it became clear to him that the father deals with his sons according to grace and not according to merit, his emotional capital and commitment evaporated. No longer was he capable of “serving” the father, nor did he have any interest in aligning himself with the father’s agenda: welcoming home lost sons.Deep underneath the different externals of these two sons’ behavior was the fact that in reality they were both “sons of disobedience,” “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:2-3).
Both of them were profoundly “at odds” with the father. But the beauty, the wonder of the Parable of the Prodigal Sons is that it is ultimately about the father’s love. It is the father’s love that is on display in Jesus’ parable—a love that in uninhibited joy embraces the younger son (Luke 15:20) and goes out to entreat the older to come in and enjoy the celebration (Luke 15:28). In both cases, the father comes to these “sons of disobedience” to bring them into his joy, his home.As gripping as the Parable of the Prodigal Sons is, we must not forget that there is a story behind the story of the Prodigal Sons. Ultimately, the story behind the story is why this parable resonates with us so very deeply. The Story behind the story is the eternal love between God the Father and God the Son in the communion of God the Spirit. When the Son of God became man, he came from the Father’s side (John 1:14, 18).
In other words, the Son who became man was eternally “in the closest and most immediate proximity to the Father” (The Holy Trinity, 385-386), and he came that we might “receive the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).We are the prodigals (both younger and elder) and Jesus, the true and eternal Son, came to bring us home. Man was created in the image of God to participate in the communion between the Father and the Son, but we were cut off from that communion because of our sin and rebellion. As C.S. Lewis puts it, as a consequence of the fall, we all now have a “longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside (“The Weight of Glory”).
The inside of that door, and the story behind the story of the Prodigal Sons, is the communion of love between the Father and the Son. God the Father sent His only true and eternal Son on a mission, and that mission was to bring many wayward and rebellious sons to glory (Hebrews 2:10). That is the Story behind the story of the Prodigal Sons.George MacDonald sheds some light on what I mean:
“The secret of the whole story of humanity is the love between the Father and the Son. That is at the root of it all. Upon the love between the Son and the Father hangs the whole universe” (Proving the Unseen, 67) . . . “The love of God is the creating and redeeming, the forming and satisfying power of the universe . . . It is the safety of the great whole. It is the home-atmosphere of all life” (A Dish of Orts; Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and on Shakespere, 103) . . . “The whole of the universe was nothing to Jesus without His Father. The day will come when the whole universe will be nothing to us without the Father, but with the Father an endless glory of delight” (Proving the Unseen, 72).