Those who suggest that a Christian can and should attend an illegitimate, sinful “wedding” have suggested that attending the wedding of a friend or loved one is the compassionate thing to do so that we as Christians do not appear judgmental and that it is sometimes necessary for preserving the relationship. True compassion, however, does not approve of sin or give the slightest appearance of approving sin. It is never compassionate to approve of, silently bear witness to, or celebrate the very sins that are the grounds for eternal damnation for those who refuse to repent.
True Compassion in the Parable of the Prodigal Son
Perhaps no parable is more beloved than that of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11–32. It speaks to universal concerns and experiences. We all can feel the heartache of the father in the parable as we consider the sadness and pain of having a wayward child or friend, longing for our loved one to return in repentance and faith. We can also relate to the Prodigal Son because of our sin. We are like him when we turn from our sin and to our heavenly Father, knowing that He does not forgive reluctantly or give us mere table scraps, but rather that He celebrates our repentance. Moreover, many of us have known professing Christians who are like the older brother in the parable and who look down on repentant sinners with resentment because our heavenly Father has forgiven them. Maybe even we ourselves have acted like the older brother at times.
It is a good thing that this parable is so familiar and beloved for both its insight into the heart of God for the lost and because it addresses different kinds of human responses to God’s grace. At the same time, our love for this parable can make us miss all that the Lord Jesus Christ is teaching us through it. Further, our good and proper desire not to act like the older brother can make us susceptible to emotional manipulation from people who may be motivated by compassion for lost sinners but fail to make certain that their compassion is biblically consistent, being founded firmly on the unchanging truth of the whole counsel of God.
To understand what the parable of the prodigal son teaches us about the true compassion of God and the biblically grounded compassion that He calls us to have toward sinners, we must first look briefly at the immediate context of the parable in Luke 15:1–10. The parable of the prodigal son is the third in a series of parables about lost things—the lost sheep (Luke 15:4–7), the lost coin (Luke 15:8–10), and the lost son (Luke 15:11–32). Jesus tells these parables in response to the scribes’ and Pharisees’ grumbling that Jesus would receive and eat with sinners (Luke 15:1–2). From Jesus’ remarks in verses 7 and 10 over the joy in heaven over repentance, we can conclude that the scribes and Pharisees did not understand the extent of God’s mercy and grace. The actions of the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep and the woman in the parable of the lost coin confirm this. God receives and rejoices over those who were once lost in their sin but are now united to Christ, having turned from their sin and trusted Christ by God’s grace alone. Jesus also teaches us about the compassion and care of God, who will do all that is necessary to find and rescue His lost sheep and bring them into His sheepfold, much as the shepherd and the woman stop everything else that they are doing to find the lost sheep and coin (Luke 15:3–10). God rejoices when people repent (Luke 15:7, 10), and it is His kindness that leads us to repent (Rom. 2:4). The Pharisees and scribes were wrong to grumble because their doing so meant either that they did not want sinners to repent or that they thought that those who repent of egregious sins do not deserve to receive the same warm, gracious, and celebratory welcome from God that those who repent of less heinous transgressions receive.
That brings us to the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son is a picture of those who sin grievously against the Lord. His asking for his inheritance from his father before his father died was tantamount to telling his father, “I wish you were dead.” To make things worse, the son did not remain with his family once he received his inheritance, but he abandoned them, fleeing to a far country where he squandered his inheritance in “reckless living” (Luke 15:13). The depths of his fall are further illustrated in his having to go to work feeding pigs once his money ran out. Pigs were unclean to the Jews, and no Jew would be around them, let alone care for them, unless he had become thoroughly unclean himself (Luke 15:11–16).
The younger son was finally humbled and became broken and contrite over his sin and his situation, and he resolved to go home and confess his sin to his father. The younger son was repentant—convinced of his sin and misery and eager to seek his father’s mercy and forgiveness. He thought that his father would receive him back as a mere servant and not as his beloved son; instead, the father threw a party for his son, giving him the best robe and ring and preparing the most expensive food. He spared no expense in celebrating his son’s return home (Luke 15:17–24). The lesson here is clear as well—God’s grace and mercy are so abundant that He celebrates when sinners come back to Him in repentance. As Dr. R.C. Sproul comments on this parable: “This son who had disgraced the father coming home in filthy rags was greeted by his father, who fell upon his neck and kissed him. That’s what God does for every sinner who repents. He runs to you and He hugs you and He kisses you in your filth. That’s the way God works.” The father doesn’t hold a grudge against his son when he repents and returns home.
If we are not careful, however, we will miss what the father does not do in the parable. He does not go into the far country with his son. The father does not encourage the son in his sin, and he does not fund his son’s sinful exploits. In his rebellion, the son cuts off the relationship with his father, and, in his compassion, the father wants his son back. The picture in the parable is of a father who, while he does not go into the far country with his son, stands ready to receive him when he turns from his debauchery and returns home. The father waits on his front porch, as it were, looking and hoping for his son to return. He is so eager for that return that he is able to see his son coming back toward him while the son is yet far off (Luke 15:20). He recognized his son and had “compassion” on him, the parable says. This compassion was a readiness to receive a repentant son even while refusing to encourage, silently bear witness to, celebrate, or fund his son’s egregious sin. If we are to be imitators of God, as Paul instructs us to be (Eph. 5:1), the lesson is clear: We are to be ready to receive anyone who repents, but we are not in any way to encourage, silently bear witness to, celebrate, or fund the person’s sin. If our refusal to do these things leads them to cut ties with us, the fault is theirs, not ours. Christians are to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). A willingness to love and embrace a wayward sinner does not entail affirming or embracing their sinful waywardness, lifestyle, or decisions to maintain a good relationship with them. As Christians, we are to be the most gracious and compassionate people the world knows as we pray for sinners to turn from their ways through the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet the Word of God is clear that we are not to do anything that might demonstrate an approval of sin to maintain our relationship with our loved one or friend, for “[love] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6).
The last part of the parable concerns the response of the Prodigal Son’s older brother, who resents his father for celebrating his son’s return. The older brother had not claimed his inheritance prematurely or used it to engage in egregious debauchery. Thus, thinking that his brother got something that he the faithful son deserved, the older brother refused to join the father’s welcome-home party for his brother, choosing instead to accuse his father of unfair treatment. The elder brother’s attitude, which was akin to the attitude of the Pharisees and scribes to whom Jesus first told this parable, exemplified a hatred for the father that was masked by outward piety. In response, the father explained that the older brother’s heart was not in the right place. The older brother had every good thing from his father while the Prodigal Son was away and even after he returned. His receiving of his repentant son did not mean that the older son would lose out (Luke 15:25–32). The lesson is plain: God’s grace and mercy are enough to receive back wayward sinners without taking anything away from those who have been comparatively more faithful (see Matt. 20:1–16). The older son should have known that and should have known the father well enough to understand that the right response to repentance is celebration. The response of the older brother calls into question how well he really knew his father and thus how well the Pharisees and the scribes knew God. We are not to be like the older brother but should celebrate even when the most heinous of sinners turns to God in faith and repentance.
The problem with the older brother was not that he disapproved of his brother’s past sin. Jesus isn’t suggesting that the proper response of the older brother would have been for him to approve of his younger brother’s sin. The older brother’s problem was not that he thought it wrong to do things that might indicate or be construed as approval of sin. Rather, his problem was his refusal to receive back his brother with joy when he repented.
The True Compassion of Christ
It is clear from the above exposition of Luke 15:11–32 that God is full of compassion and grace and that He celebrates the repentance of lost sinners who turn to Him through faith in Jesus Christ. God’s compassion for lost sinners is grounded in both His mercy and His righteousness. In His sovereign providence, He permits sinners to go their own way, and sometimes He gives them over to their sin, but He never does anything that in any way signifies approval of their sin. Jesus ate with sinners, but He never encouraged or celebrated their sin. Jesus was a friend of sinners with true compassion for them, and it is precisely because of this that He called them to repent and believe.