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  • The Father and the Lost Sons

    By Peter Amsterdam

    Audio length: 12:22
    Download Audio (11.3MB)

    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.1

    This extraordinary request by the younger son would have shocked and scandalized the original listeners. The son was asking to receive the portion of the inheritance that he would normally receive upon his father’s death, while his father was still alive and healthy. By doing this, he was essentially severing ties with his father. The listeners would have most likely expected Jesus’ next words to tell of how the father exploded in anger and disciplined his son.

    Instead, the father acquiesced and divided the property between the sons. The younger son wanted to sell his inheritance for cash, and in doing so, he was showing no concern for his father’s future and was depriving him of a portion of the fruit of the land that was his due in his old age.

    The older brother, who also received his portion of the inheritance at this time, received possession of the remaining land but not control of it. As the story continues, it becomes clear that the father was still head of the household and the farm, as he says later in the parable to the older son, All that is mine is yours—since the older son would own and control everything when the father died.

    The younger son’s misfortunes

    Jesus then tells what happens to the younger son: 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.2

    Upon leaving his father’s house, the younger son went on to live a life which can be described as wild and disorderly, resulting in the loss of all that he had. After he had spent all his funds, a famine arose. In times like that, very little work would have been available.

    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.3

    The original listeners would have understood to what depths he had sunk by his job of feeding pigs. Pigs were considered unclean according to the law, and later Jewish writings stated that anyone raising swine was cursed. To make matters worse, he was starving and envious of the pigs’ food. It was at this point that he “came to himself.”

    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.’”4

    The son came to his senses and decided to return to his father, to confess he was wrong and had sinned. Recalling that his father’s “hired servants” had enough to eat, he planned to ask his father to treat him as a hired servant. As such, he would no longer have the status of a son. The speech the son planned to deliver to his father included a confession of guilt, “I have sinned”; an admission to destroying his relationship with his father, “I am not worthy to be called your son”; and a suggestion of a solution, “treat me as a hired laborer.”

    The homecoming

    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.”5

    The son had shamed his father before the whole village. It would only be just and right for the father to let the son come to him, walking through the village facing the disapproving stares of the community. But no, the father, full of compassion, runs to him, something which dignified older men never did in public. To do so, he would have to pull up his robe and expose his legs, which would have been considered shameful in the culture of the day. The father’s first action is to embrace and kiss his son, before he even hears what his son has to say.

    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.”6

    The son begins his practiced speech, but the father doesn’t let him finish. The father, hearing the son express that he isn’t worthy to be called a son, doesn’t need to hear any more. He orders his servants to clothe the son in the best robe, to put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Through these actions the father conveyed the message that he was reconciled with his son.

    Besides conveying a message to the servants and the community, there was a strong message to the son as well. That message was forgiveness. The welcome of the father was an act of undeserved grace. It was forgiveness. Nothing the son could do would make up for his past. The father didn’t want the lost money; he wanted his lost son.

    And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.”7 Preparing such a large animal for a feast implies that likely most if not all of the village would be invited to the feast. And the father exclaimed his joyous reason for feasting: “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to celebrate.8

    The older son

    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.9

    The older son, at the end of the workday, returned from the field after the festivities had started. On finding out the reason for the feast and that his father had welcomed the younger son back home, he was furious. The custom at such a feast would be for the older son to move among the guests, as part of his responsibilities as joint host with his father. But the older brother breaks with protocol and instead publicly refuses to enter the house and the festivities, and then argues with his father in public.

    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!”10

    Risking humiliation and shame in the eyes of his guests, the father leaves the party in order to plead with his son to join in the celebration. The son’s response is filled with disrespect, bitterness, resentfulness, and the truth of how the older son sees his relationship with his father.

    How does the father react? Exactly the same as he did with his other lost son—in love, kindness, and mercy. He says: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.11

    His older son, like his younger, has a broken relationship with him which the father desires to repair. Both sons need reconciliation and restoration with their father. Both sons receive the same love from the father, love given in humility.

    The father’s last statement expresses his joy that the younger son who was lost is now found. “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.12 The listener was left to imagine whether the older brother who was also lost would be found and restored, as we are not told the older son’s response.

    This parable tells us something beautiful about God, our Father. He is full of compassion, grace, love, and mercy. Like the father in the story, He lets us make our own decisions, and no matter what those decisions are and wherever they may lead us, He loves us. He wants each one who has wandered away, who is lost, who has a broken relationship with Him, to come home. He waits for them and welcomes them with great joy and celebration.

    That’s God’s attitude toward every person. He deeply loves and desires an unbroken relationship with each one. He searches out the lost and greatly rejoices when they come home. He welcomes them with open arms, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. He forgives, He loves, He welcomes. As the old hymn says, “Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home.”

    Each person is deeply loved by the Father. Jesus laid down His life for every person. We are called to share that news with others. And to do it, we, like Jesus, need to seek them out, make the effort to reach them, and share the message that God loves them and wants to be in relationship with them. God is gracious, full of love and mercy. He loves each person and has called us, as His representatives, to do as Jesus did—to show unconditional love, to love the unlovely, and seek out those who are lost, to help restore them, and to respond with joy and celebration when that which was lost is found.

    Originally published January 2015. Excerpted and republished January 2020.
    Read by John Laurence.

    1 Luke 15:11–13. All scriptures are from the ESV.

    2 Luke 15:13–14.

    3 Luke 15:15–16.

    4 Luke 15:17–19.

    5 Luke 15:20–21.

    6 Luke 15:21–22.

    7 Luke 15:23.

    8 Luke 15:24.

    9 Luke 15:25–28.

    10 Luke 15:28–30.

    11 Luke 15:31.

    12 Luke 15:32.

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Directors’ Corner

News, writings and thoughts from TFI Directors

  • Living Christianity: The Ten Commandments (Birth Control)

    As we continue to explore the seventh commandment—“You shall not commit adultery”—in relation to the Christian ethical view of marriage and sex, we move on to the topic of birth control.

    Throughout the Bible, having children is spoken of as a blessing from God. The very first command He gave to Adam and Eve was Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.1 In both the Old and New Testaments, Scripture offers positive views about children and their importance.

    Children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.2

    Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD.3

    Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth.4

    Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”5

    He took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”6

    Both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches agree that children are a blessing from God. They don’t, however, share the same view when it comes to birth control. In the Catholic view, all forms of birth control are morally wrong, with the one exception of periodic abstention from intercourse during a woman’s fertile period each month, known as the “rhythm method.” The Catholic Church considers this a “natural” form of birth control as opposed to “artificial” forms.

    It seems that the general Protestant view was similar to the Catholic view until the 1930s, when the Anglican Church decided that certain forms of contraception were acceptable. Since that time, most Protestant churches have accepted the use of contraception, though certain forms are not considered moral, as I will address below. Today, the majority of evangelical Protestants believe that using contraception is a decision each couple is free to make, and it is up to them to decide how many children they will have. Because Scripture teaches that children are a blessing, it is generally understood among Protestants that they should plan to have children at some point in their marriage, but it is considered morally legitimate to limit the number and space the births if they so choose.

    The Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant Christians who object to contraception often refer to the story of Onan in the book of Genesis as a precedent for their belief that birth control is sinful. In Genesis chapter 38 we read that Onan’s older brother Er was slain by God before having any children. In the culture of that time, when a man died leaving no children, his next of kin was obligated to marry the dead man’s widow in order to produce a child. Such a child was considered to be the descendant of the dead brother, and thus was able to eventually take care of his mother, continue the family name, and receive his father’s double share of any inheritance. Such a marriage is referred to as a levirate marriage, which comes from the Latin word levir, meaning “a husband’s brother.”

    When Er died, Judah [the father of Er and Onan] said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And what he did was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also.7

    The Roman Catholic view is that Onan died because he used withdrawal as a means of contraception. Their belief is that the contraceptive act was immoral and sinful, and therefore Onan was punished by death. They consider this passage as teaching that contraception is a grave sin and therefore forbidden.

    Another interpretation is that Onan was not judged because he wasted his semen on the ground, but because he refused to carry out his levirate responsibility by doing so. This wasn’t a one-time act, as the passage said that whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, Tamar, he would waste the semen on the ground. Onan put his own interests ahead of Tamar and her potential child. If a man died without a son, his inheritance would pass on to his daughter; and, if he had no daughter, then the inheritance would pass to his brothers. Onan may not have wanted Tamar to have a child so that he would be in a position to receive his dead brother’s inheritance. In that case, Onan was not judged because he used contraception, but because he was selfish and deceptive. God was very displeased because of his actions and attitudes, and therefore took Onan’s life.

    Modern methods of contraception give parents the option of choosing how many children they want to have and when to have them. A newlywed couple, for example, may not immediately be in a financial position to start a family, and may choose to wait until they are in a better position to raise children. A couple with a number of young children may not feel that they can manage another child at the time, and may therefore choose to wait until they feel they can. One Christian ethics book states:

    Each member of a family has financial, physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Parents should know whether those needs are being met, and they should also know whether the introduction of another life into that home would make it difficult or even impossible to meet the needs of all members.8

    Contraception can be helpful in putting space between children. Having too many children too close together can bring unnecessary strain on the mother and on the family in general. While the Bible has a positive view of having children, there is no command to have as many children as possible. When parents have all the children they can reasonably care for, it may be acceptable to prevent themselves from having further pregnancies by using contraception.

    While contraception is generally morally acceptable for Protestants, this does not mean that all methods of birth control are moral. Those that are considered moral are those that do not destroy any new human life. For example, methods which prevent the man’s sperm from fertilizing the wife’s ovum do not destroy human life. This would include the use of a condom, a diaphragm, a sponge, a spermicide, and most (but not all) birth-control pills. This also includes the “rhythm method,” which now has been superseded by the natural family planning (NFP) movement. If a couple decides not to have any more children in their lifetime, in the Protestant view it is morally acceptable for the man to have a vasectomy, or for the woman to have a tubal ligation (known as having one’s “tubes tied”).

    The reason these methods of contraception are considered morally acceptable is that they prevent the sperm from reaching the ovum and therefore prevent pregnancy. There are other methods of birth control which work in a different way, as they allow the woman’s egg to be fertilized by a man’s sperm, but then prevent the embryo from being implanted in the mother’s womb. Once the man’s sperm fertilizes the woman’s ovum, a new living creature with its own distinct DNA begins to form; meaning that methods of birth control which cause the death of the embryo (known as abortifacients) would not be considered morally acceptable. These would include morning-after pills as well as intrauterine devices (IUD).

    Children are a blessing, and those who have them have received a wonderful gift from God. Parents are responsible for the care and well-being of their children, and in order to do a good job of parenting, some couples may decide to limit the number of children they have and/or the timing of having their children. Contraception is a means to do so, and when prayerfully used, it can help parents to both space out the births of their children as well as limit how many children they have, in order to allow them to faithfully care for the lives God has entrusted into their hands.


    Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

    1 Genesis 1:28.

    2 Psalm 127:3–5.

    3 Psalm 128:3–4.

    4 Malachi 2:15.

    5 Matthew 19:13–14.

    6 Mark 9:36–37.

    7 Genesis 38:8–10.

    8 John F. Feinberg, Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton: Crossway Publishers, 2010), 305–306.


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