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.
Mercy and justice, relationship and righteousness exist together without compromise in God’s dealings with sinners, and this is displayed magnificently in the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Gospels, He was happy to maintain relationships with sinners, but He always drew the line at participating in their sin, silently bearing witness to their sin, or doing anything that could show approval—even tacit approval—of their sin. He ate with Levi the tax collector, and tax collectors were well known in that day for stealing from the taxpayers, but He ate with Levi only after Levi left everything to follow Him, only after Levi repented (Luke 5:27–32). He received the worship of a sinful woman because He forgave her sins, not because she worshiped Him in a state of impenitence (Luke 7:36–50). He feasted at the house of Zacchaeus, another tax collector, approving of him not in his sin but because Zacchaeus was repentant, as seen in his willingness to do whatever he could to see Jesus, and in Zacchaeus’ later resolve to restore fourfold what he had stolen (Luke 19:1–10).
Jesus even showed compassion to some of the Pharisees, for whom He often reserved some of His harshest words of judgment. He did not resist Nicodemus but willingly conversed with him when Nicodemus came to Him at night (John 3:1–15). But when the Pharisees pressured Jesus and His disciples to keep extrabiblical traditions, our Lord would not follow their practices. To do so would signal that one can elevate human traditions above God’s Word (Mark 7:1–13). Had Jesus given in to such pressure, it would have been a sign that He approved of sin (Matt. 15:1–19). This is true pharisaism—a dogged adherence to manmade traditions that are beyond or even contrary to God’s authoritative Word and judging others based on those traditions. It is not pharisaical to avoid taking part in “the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11) or to refuse to join with those who do not fear the Lord (see Prov. 24:21). In 1 Peter 4:1–6, we are commanded directly by God not to engage in, approve of, or silently bear witness to sin. Peter also tells us that people will be surprised when we obey God, and they may even malign us because they do not understand or accept the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14–16). We are to avoid “every form of evil” including even the appearance of evil (1 Thess. 5:22). We will face immense pressure to give in, even if only to bear silent witness, but we are called to stand firm (Prov. 1:8–10; 1 Cor. 16:13).
Christ did not let His perfect righteousness keep Him from entering into relationships with sinners, but He also did not allow His desire to maintain those relationships pressure Him into doing something that could be construed as approving of sin. This should not surprise us because He is the perfect image of the invisible God and thus the incarnate expression of God’s character (Col. 1:15). God is compassionate toward lost sinners, sending His only begotten Son to save sinners (John 3:16). But the sinners whom God saves are repentant sinners, not those who by their words or actions call good evil and evil good (Isa. 5:20). Jesus is the Lamb who was slain to save repentant sinners, but He is also the conquering Lamb who will bring an end to all wickedness (Rev. 5:6–10; 17:14) and who will not allow into His glory anything unclean, false, or detestable (Rev. 21:27).
Our God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33). In His great compassion, He does not do things that suggest that He countenances sin. If He did, then we would be confused about whether He is holy and whether He demands our repentance and faith to be in a right relationship with us. And thanks be to God who sovereignly brings us into a right relationship with Himself—by His grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone—leading to a life of good works (Eph. 2:8–10). We therefore walk in the light as He is in the light (1 John 1:5–7).
True Compassion and LGBTQ Weddings
The above has practical ramifications for a question that many of us face: Can a Christian attend a “wedding” ceremony for a homosexual couple or a transgender couple? Some have suggested that a Christian can attend such a ceremony in certain situations just as long as the Christian has expressed to the couple his or her disapproval of their lifestyle and has told them that it is sinful. Some suggest that when the Christian has spoken clearly to the couple regarding the biblical sexual ethic, he or she may attend the “wedding” and should even give a wedding gift. This suggestion to attend such a ceremony is sometimes presented as the nuanced answer to a complex question and that anyone who takes issue with it is operating out of a judgmental, pharisaical, and fundamentalistic mindset akin to that of the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. It has been suggested that those who believe that it is never appropriate for a Christian to attend an LGBTQ wedding ceremony are actually showing condemnation of the person instead of compassion.
The question at hand, however, does not in any way require a nuanced answer when we properly understand what marriage is, what a wedding ceremony means, and how Christians are to demonstrate true compassion in all circumstances. Marriage was instituted by God in creation as the lifelong union of one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24–25). A wedding ceremony exists to make a public declaration of this union before witnesses of the marriage. Those who attend a wedding are witnesses to and thereby approvers of the covenantal union made before God and man. The purpose of witnesses in a wedding is to bear witness to the covenant of marriage that is established, and the very presence of the witnesses necessarily signals that the union is desirable and agreeable to the clear stipulations of God’s unchanging and authoritative Word. We must not forget that witnesses are present to show approval of the marriage and to hold the married couple accountable to their vows. The witnesses are not present merely as well wishers to show their love for the couple. Many faithful pastors when officiating weddings often remind the bride and groom and the attendees of the purpose and significance of those who are bearing witness to the covenant vows made in the wedding ceremony. This is why many traditional wedding ceremonies make clear that attendees are countenancing the marriage when the officiant asks anyone present to state any reasonable objections to the lawfulness of the union if he has any reasons that the man and woman should not be married. If a person makes no objection, he is signaling that he knows of no lawful reason why the union should not take place. Whether the attendee has voiced disapproval of the LGBTQ lifestyle to the couple beforehand is peripheral. What matters is his attendance.
Furthermore, it is clear from Romans 1 that homosexuality and impenitent rejection of one’s biological gender are especially heinous sins. These are things contrary to the nature of reality. They deny what God has told us in Scripture but also in the created order—namely, that man is made for woman and woman for man. These sins, of course, are not unforgivable sins. There is forgiveness for all who turn from such sins and embrace Christ by faith alone. But because they are high-handed rejections of the natural order, they are high-handed rejections of the God who established that order. Having a “wedding” ceremony to celebrate such unions takes what is already a high-handed sin and makes the high-handedness even more flagrant.
A Christian, therefore, simply cannot attend such a ceremony, let alone buy the couple a gift to mark the occasion, no matter how well intentioned the Christian may be in doing so. 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. In fact, not attending such a ceremony is a much greater act of love. It shows the couple that we really do love God above all and are willing to show it when others demand that we compromise. The first and greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt. 22:34–38). Proper love of neighbor is essential (Matt. 22:39–40), but it flows from the right love of God, and right love of God means hatred of sin and hatred of acts that approve of sin. Engaging in, celebrating, or silently bearing witness to sin for the sake of a relationship is loving that relationship more than loving God. It shows others that God is not so lovely and glorious that He should be treasured above all else. Attending an LGBTQ “wedding” ceremony points the couple away from God as the only One who can fully satisfy us and thereby is an act of hatred toward that couple. It gives them more reasons to justify their refusal to love Him above all and turn from their sin. It allows them to walk further down the road toward hell. Christians should love sinners too much to do this. Christians should love sinners enough that they will risk their rejection rather than do anything that would encourage them to remain estranged from God and without hope for all eternity.
Further, a Christian’s refusal to attend an LGBTQ wedding is not our cutting off the relationship with the couple. Christians are not called to shun impenitent sinners or forbidden to show their love in other ways. Jesus did not do such things. He still talked to the Pharisees even though they regularly rejected Him. There are innumerable ways that we can be involved in the lives of impenitent sinners and can seek to share the gospel with them. A birthday party, for instance, does not celebrate a sinful union but expresses gratitude for the celebrant, so it is not wrong to attend a birthday of someone who is living an LGBTQ lifestyle. Festivals including graduation parties and retirement celebrations that mark milestones are likewise not formal celebrations of sinful unions. Christians can dine with impenitent sinners. In fact, as Christians we should do whatever we can to demonstrate love and kindness to impenitent sinners as long as doing so will not constitute approval or the appearance of the approval of sin. The Apostle Paul also taught that Christians in the church should not cut off the “sexually immoral of this world” (1 Cor. 5:9–10). Rather, Paul also was willing to become “all things to all people, that by all means [he] might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Why did Paul do this? “For the sake of the gospel, that [he] may share with them in its blessings.” Yet Paul was unwilling to compromise or share with them in the works of darkness, as he told the Ephesians: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11). This command will require Christians to say no to certain invitations to events and associations that celebrate, champion, or approve of sin. Many Christians have followed these principles, giving us noble examples of faithfulness to follow. Christian bakers, florists, and others who have refused to use their skills to celebrate LGBTQ “wedding” ceremonies have lost their livelihoods and have been dragged through the courts. They have endured death threats and have been called evil simply for seeking to be faithful to Christ. We betray them and the God they serve when we say it is sometimes acceptable, and even right, to attend an LGBTQ “wedding.”
The first-century Christians faced immense pressure to participate in pagan ceremonies. They were conducted at almost every public event, so Christians were often considered antisocial for refusing to attend. Moreover, trading guilds participated in these ceremonies, so Christians were at risk of losing their jobs. It was not enough for them to tell their coworkers that they did not approve of the ceremonies and then attend them anyway. They had to abstain entirely because of what their attendance connoted—the approval of idolatry and demonic worship (1 Cor. 10:1–22). In our day, we face a similar situation with attendance of LGBTQ weddings. Merely to attend is to engage in a ceremony that lies about what marriage is and about God’s approval of it. At best, verbal disagreement with the act but participation in the ceremony sends a confusing message that God both approves and disapproves of the marriage. It is not an act of compassion. It is the encouragement of a lie, which is the opposite of true compassion. When we refuse to encourage such a lie, we will be reviled, hated, and called judgmental. This has always been the case. John the Baptist refused to countenance an illicit marriage, and he was beheaded for it (Mark 6:14–29). We may not lose our lives, but we will certainly endure hatred for not attending an LGBTQ “wedding.” But Jesus told us that the world would hate us for our faithfulness to Him (Matt. 10:22; Luke 21:17; John 15:19; 17:14). It is vital that we exercise sound discernment, as we will be tempted to think that the most loving thing to do would be to give in to the demands of those who want to define love as our silently bearing witness to or celebrating their sin. We must think carefully about these things, as the Lord called us to (Eph. 5:10).
Christians who insist that we should not attend an LGBTQ “wedding” ceremony are not the older brother who does not desire the repentance of sinners and who refuse to celebrate if and when sinners repent. Christians are to emulate the father in the parable, who remains ever ready to receive a sinner who turns from his ways but does not go with him into that far country. Attending an LGBTQ wedding and buying a gift are acts that in some way communicate to other attendees approval of the union.
Christians should be the kindest and most compassionate people that homosexuals and those who identify as transgender people interact with. True kindness and true allegiance to our Lord Jesus Christ, however, do not permit us to celebrate a commitment to egregious sin. A faithful Christian cannot attend and sanction a celebration that makes a mockery of an institution ordained by God for one man and one woman. In communicating our rejection of a wedding invitation, we must do so gently but firmly. The person may take it as a sign of hatred and seek to cut off the relationship, but if that happens, it is not our fault. We can express to them our willingness to be involved in their lives in many ways, but we cannot allow the pressures of our culture or the pressures of our friends and loved ones to lead us to participate in that which God forbids. The choice before us is not compassion versus condemnation. The choice is compassion versus compromise. Amid a constantly changing culture, true love and compassion for our friends and loved ones means standing firm on the unchanging truth of God’s Word. Compromise in the name of compassion is precisely the way liberalism has often crept into the church throughout history. But compassion that is grounded in the truth, demonstrated consistently according to the truth, and expressed through the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, leads, by God’s grace, to the salvation of God’s elect from every tribe, tongue, and nation for God’s glory, and God’s glory alone.