“Let’s have a feast and celebrate” (Luke 15:23).

Once upon a time, there was a young man who couldn’t wait for his father to die. He had two main reasons for wanting his dad dead. First, he thought that with his father out of the picture, life would be more fun. Second, his father was rich, and the young man wanted to inherit his dad’s money and spend it the way he wanted. If only Dad would hurry up and die! But the father was in good health. It didn’t appear the young man would be free of his father or inherit his money any time soon.

The young man didn’t want to wait, so he decided to take action. He didn’t murder his father, but he did something almost as bad. He went to his father and demanded, “Give me my share of the estate.” He made it clear that he wanted to get as much of his dad’s money as possible and to see as little of his dad as possible. This father was grieved, but he didn’t lose his temper or tell his obnoxious son that he’d never inherit a penny. Instead, he took inventory of his property and gave a share to the young man and a share to his older brother as well.

The young man took the money and ran. He didn’t want to be home. He didn’t even want to be close enough for visits. He wanted to get away, the farther the better. So he headed for an entirely different country. At last, he was going to do what he wanted. He was going to enjoy life without his father spoiling his fun. He proceeded to have all the fun money could buy. He went to wild parties and went to bed with wild women. He drank hard and played hard. It was fun while it lasted.

But eventually, he used up all the resources his father had given him. Without his father’s resources, he didn’t have anything. Was that so serious? Why not just get a job and make some money on his own? But that didn’t turn out to be so easy. Just when he ran out of money, the economy went bad. Jobs were scarce. Food was scarce. The only job he could find was carrying garbage to feed pigs, and that didn’t pay enough even to buy a decent meal. After a while the young man got so hungry that even the garbage he fed the pigs looked appetizing. But nobody cared about him or gave him a thing to eat. When his money had disappeared, so had all his so-called friends. He was left with nobody and nothing.

At last he came to his senses. His thoughts turned toward home. Suddenly life with his father didn’t seem so bad, after all. Why stay in a place without food, without income, without happiness, without anyone who cared about him at all? The young man said to himself, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” If the hired men back home had no problem with food except maybe a weight problem from eating too much, wouldn’t it be stupid for him to stay in a land of starvation? The young man made up his mind: “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.

As he traveled, he didn’t know what to expect. He had trashed his family and wasted his inheritance, so he didn’t dare to hope for much. After everything he had done, he deserved nothing but rejection. The best he dared to hope for was that his father might at least feel sorry for him, pay him room and board to do some lowly job, and save him from starvation.

But the boy didn’t know his father’s heart. He didn’t know how much his father loved him. He didn’t know how much his father mourned every day he was gone. He didn’t know how much his father longed to see him again. He didn’t know his father had been looking down the road every day since the day he left. The boy simply staggered toward home, not sure what to expect.

While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. And what did he do? Did he stand scowling, arms folded, waiting for the kid to come crawling back? No, the father was filled with compassion, and he did the last thing anyone expected a wealthy, prominent, elderly man to do. He ran out to meet the returning run away as fast as his old legs could carry him. The youngster was a mess—dirty, sweaty, stinking like a pig—but his father threw his arms around him and kissed him.

The son started to say the words he had planned: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” That was all true enough, and it was good for the young man to show sorrow for his sins.

But before he could finish his speech, before he could make his offer to work for room and board, his father quieted him and began barking orders to his staff. He called for clean clothes, and not just any clothing but the very best robe in the house to be put on his son as a sign of honor and authority. The father called for a ring to put on his son’s finger, the family ring for sealing important documents. That meant the son again had standing and a fresh share in his father’s estate. The father called for sandals to put on his son’s feet. Barefoot was for staff—sandals were for family members. The father restored his son to all family privileges on the spot.

Then he called for a big party with an all-you-can-eat dinner of prime beef. “Let’s have a feast and celebrate,” he said. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So the party began, with music and dancing so loud it could be heard in the surrounding countryside.

Unearned Love

Jesus told this story of a lost son and a loving father in order to reveal the heart of God the Father. God’s love for his children doesn’t depend on how lovable we’ve acted lately but on God’s huge heart of love. We don’t earn God’s love. He gives it.

Crossroad Bible Institute President David Schuringa, writing in the Back to God Hour’s Today devotional booklet, pointed out that when Jesus told this story, it wasn’t all new. Other religious teachers had been telling a similar story about a son who demanded his inheritance, blew it all in wild living, hit bottom, and came home sorrowfully. In the story told by these teachers, the father took the young man back—as a slave. The young man first had to work hard and earn back all the money he had wasted, to show he was truly sorry and to make up for what he had done. Only then would he be received as a son again.

When people heard Jesus telling the story of a runaway son, they probably expected the ending they had heard before—the boy serving as a slave to earn back his sonship. People must have been startled when Jesus described the father rushing out to kiss his son and instantly welcoming him to every privilege of the family.

Which story shows the truth about God? Is it the story about the young man who first had to be a slave and prove himself before his father would accept him back as a family member? Or is it the story Jesus told of a father whose heart is so loving that he rushes out to kiss his long lost son, a father whose heart is so forgiving that he pardons horrible offenses, a father whose heart is so generous that everything he owns is made available to his son, a father whose heart is so joyful that he sings and celebrates over his son? Jesus knows the heart of the Father better than anyone, for Jesus and God the Father are one. Others might teach that we must slave away to earn standing with God, but Jesus reveals the Father’s heart.

In every person and in every period of history, a basic question arises: Is a relationship with God something we must earn, or something God gives freely? That question arose with special urgency at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Many church leaders in that time taught that sins could be forgiven only after acts of penance and good works. These leaders did not see the Father’s heart the way Jesus did. They insisted that we must serve awhile as slaves before being accepted back as sons. But God sent Reformers who insisted that God’s grace is a free gift and that we are welcomed into his family because God is love and for the sake of Jesus Christ, not because of anything we do to deserve it. This was not just a doctrinal quarrel. It was, and is, a relational question about the heart of God the Father.

The good news announced by Jesus is that you don’t have to earn a relationship with God. Just receive it and enjoy it as his free gift and your greatest joy. When you’ve wasted all the good things God has given you, when you’ve made a stinking mess of your life, home is still waiting for you and the Father is still watching for you. You can’t pay for all that you’ve squandered, but the Lord himself takes the loss and pays the price himself. Jesus did that by suffering hell on the cross to pay the cost of all the world’s sins. Just as the father in Jesus’ story takes the loss for his son’s wild living, so the Lord takes the loss for our sins. That means that when you’ve made a total mess of your life, you still have one hope. You can go home to your Father and say, “Father, I have sinned.” And God will embrace you as his child, not treat you as a slave or put you on probation. That’s the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Father’s heart of love doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter how much we sin or wander from him. The blessings of being God’s children are not found in the far country but in the father’s home. If we wander far away, we suffer the consequences. God doesn’t make us comfortable and happy in the far country of sin and rebellion. If we choose that place, we will suffer its problems. We end up stinking and starving, lost in sin, dead to God. Existence without God is hell. So don’t think God’s loving heart means you can sin and sin without any problems.

But God’s loving heart does mean that when you’re sick of sin and come to your senses, the way home is open. When you come to God admitting your sin and asking for help, the Lord welcomes you as his dear child without making you earn his approval. God doesn’t waste time saying “I told you so.” Instead, God “gives generously to all without finding fault” (James 1:5). That’s the father’s heart: he’d rather save and welcome and celebrate over returning runaways than keep complaining how bad they’ve been.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible, a verse that reveals the Father’s heart, is Zephaniah 3:17. “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” As the father in Jesus’ story delighted to see his son back, so God delights over all who humbly call on his name. As the father hugged his son and quieted him even before he could offer to become a slave, so God quiets us with his love and welcomes as not as slaves but as sons and daughters. And as the father felt he had to celebrate with music, so God sings and celebrates over his redeemed people, and we can celebrate with him.

Big Brother

Can you picture God throwing a party? Can you imagine him putting on a feast, complete with music and dancing? Can you imagine the Lord himself standing up in the middle of the party and singing a happy song? Can you picture that? Maybe not. Maybe you think of God as solemn and somber and silent. In your mind, God isn’t the party type. He certainly isn’t the type to sing and dance—or at least he shouldn’t be, not when the people he sings over have been so rotten. God should be more dignified, and if he’s going to celebrate at all, he should reserve the celebration only for those who deserve it.

In Jesus’ story of the rotten runaway who stumbled home to his father when other options had failed, the father received the young man with hugging, kissing, celebrating and singing. Jesus knew some people wouldn’t like the story. These people had already been griping that Jesus had too many parties with too many people who had been very bad. Jesus’ critics preferred a story of their own in which the father was stern with the runaway and made him a slave for a while before he could be received back as a son. That was their kind of God. They didn’t want a God who was, well, so undignified, so sentimental, so quick to forgive. God should be less generous with scoundrels. He should reward those who work hard and keep the rules.

Jesus knew how tempting it is to think of God that way, so he took his story a step further and told about big brother. When the younger brother grabbed his inheritance and ran off to the far country, the older brother also received an inheritance. But he didn’t run off and spend it. He stayed and worked for his father. In fact, he was out working in a field some distance away when that rascal of a younger brother staggered home to his father’s welcome. Big brother went on working, not knowing what was happening back at the house. When he finished his work, he headed home. As he got closer, he heard music and dancing. He saw one of his father’s staff and asked him what was going on.

“Your brother has come,” he replied, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”

The older brother became angry and refused to go in. 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!”

Big brother didn’t know his father’s heart. He thought he could earn his father’s favor, and he saw his brother as a rival for his father’s affection. He thought that if he slaved away hard enough and kept the rules long enough, his father ought to love him more than his brother. He wouldn’t even call his younger sibling “my brother.” Instead, he spat out, “This son of yours.” He was furious. Why should that no-good brat get all the love and attention and parties? Why should the better brother be loved less and given less? It wasn’t fair!

Big brother didn’t know his father’s heart. He didn’t know his father already loved him without him needing to earn it. He didn’t know his father’s heart was big enough and had plenty of love to go around for each son. If the father’s love for the prodigal son was huge, it didn’t make his love for the elder brother any less. But big brother didn’t get it. He was so close to his father and yet so far.

Big brother never ran away to the far country, but his heart was far from his father’s heart. As it turned out, his attitude toward his father wasn’t much better than his younger brother’s attitude had been. He didn’t enjoy his father’s company any more than his wild younger brother had. He didn’t enjoy his father’s love and generosity. He was all work, no play; all duty, no delight. He wasn’t the partying type, though he did have a secret wish for less slavery and more celebration. But he didn’t think his father would approve, and he thought his father was too stingy to provide him the goods for even a low-cost party with friends. Now that a party was being held for that good-for-nothing scoundrel, big brother blamed his dad for not doing enough to make his good son happy. He thought he had been a very good boy, and he deserved better.

How did the father respond?

Everything Is Yours

“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.”

Maybe you’re like big brother. You’re not a wild and wicked runaway. Maybe you’ve gone to church and tried to be good and hoped God would notice and approve. But you can do all that and never know the Father’s heart. Do you see yourself slaving away for God without much chance to enjoy life? Do you get upset sometimes that God doesn’t seem to notice your effort and doesn’t give you as much happiness as you deserve? That’s how big brother felt. But he didn’t know his father’s heart.

Do you know your Father’s heart? Do you know how loving and generous God is? Do you know how God feels toward you? Do you really know? You can be a well-behaved, hard-working, religious person and not be secure and happy in God’s love. In fact, that may be the most miserable way to live: to be a strict, religious person who never quite dares to go for a wild, fun fling of sinning in the far country but never really enjoys God either. You try to do what God says simply because that’s what you’re supposed to do, not because you enjoy being God’s child. You know enough about God’s standards that you can’t enjoy sinning, and yet you don’t know the Father’s heart well enough to take pleasure him. You strain to perform, to prove yourself, to impress your Father in heaven, but you don’t sense that God takes pleasure in you as his son or daughter. Until you know that God loves you and delights in you, until you realize that all God has is yours as well, you don’t know the Father’s heart. You will not enjoy the relationship with God you are meant to have, and you won’t enjoy the relationship with other people you are meant to have.

The person who makes you the angriest, the person you resent most, is often someone close to you: a brother, a sister, a wife, a husband, a close relative or friend. You may detest and despise them for things they’ve done, but do you know the real reason you detest and despise them? Not because of anything they’ve done—bad as that might be–but because you don’t know the Father’s heart. You’re not secure in God’s love for you, and so you can’t share in God’s love for that person. Big brother wouldn’t resent little brother so much or be so angry at his father if he was content in his father’s love.

The father in Jesus’ story knows this, and he responds to the oldest son’s bitterness with an outpouring of love for him. When the older brother grumbles about slaving away, the father’s heart comes through in the first two words of his response: “My son.” What love is in those two gentle words: “My son.”

Can you hear God saying to you, “My son” or “My daughter”? With all your duties and rule-keeping, don’t miss the Father’s heart. God doesn’t want you as his overworked, underpaid slave; he wants you as a son or daughter who delights in his love.

He wants you to know his love, and he wants you to know he enjoys having you around. The father in the story says, “My son, you are always with me.” He says it in a way that shows he is glad this son is always with him. He reassures his son that there’s nothing he enjoys more than just being together.

Then the father takes it even further and says, “Everything I have is yours.” The older son has been griping that his father never gave him even a scrawny goat for a meal with friends and yet spoiled the rotten runaway with a huge party of prime beef. The father’s response, in effect, is, “Oh, my son. A goat? You thought I wouldn’t give you a goat? Son, my whole herd is yours. Everything I have is yours!”

The heavenly father says the very same thing to every follower of Jesus. God says, “Everything I have is yours.” In 1 Corinthians 3:21 the Bible says, “All things are yours.” All things? Yes, everything that belongs to God belongs to his children as well. After all, if God gives his very self in the person of his Son Jesus, what is there that he would hold back? As Romans 8:32 puts it, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

There is no limit on how much God is willing to give me, and there is no limit on how much God loves me. I don’t always let this sink in, but God the Father loves me with the very same love he has for Jesus. In the Bible Jesus talks to God the Father and says, “You sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:23). God gave his eternal Son over to death in order to make me his son and to give me eternal life. God’s infinite love for Jesus is directed toward me as well.

And because I am connected to Jesus by faith, God takes the same pleasure in me that he takes in Jesus. In the Bible God said of Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). When you are linked with Jesus by faith, God says the same of you: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” or, “You are my daughter, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

How would your life be different if you heard God saying that to you? What would change if you knew in your heart that God loves you and takes enormous pleasure in you, that he even sings and celebrates over you? If you really knew the Father’s heart, you would not want to run away from him at all. If you had run away, you would head back to God as quickly as you could. And if you had been doing religious duties all your life, trying to earn your way into God’s favor, you could relax and rejoice that you are his beloved child and that everything God has is yours as well.

This is the relationship with God that Jesus came to show us. This is the relationship with God for which Jesus paid the price. Don’t try to earn it. Just believe it, enjoy it, and live in his love. Come, enjoy Father’s party!

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.