Introduction: As I was studying to teach on this passage I came across this entry from Our Daily Bread:
A sociologist was writing a book about the difficulties of growing up in a large family, so he interviewed the mother of 13 children. After several questions, he asked, “Do you think all children deserve the full, impartial love and attention of a mother?”
“Of course,” said the mother.
“Well, which of your children do you love the most?” he asked, hoping to catch her in a contradiction.
She answered, “The one who is sick until he gets well, and the one who is away until he gets home.”
That mother's response reminds me of the shepherd who left 99 sheep to seek the one that was lost (Luke 15:4), the woman who searched for the one coin (v. 8), and the father who threw a party when his wayward son returned (vv. 22-24).
The religious leaders of Jesus' day resented the way He gave so much attention to sinners (vv. 1-2). So He told those stories to emphasize God's love for people who are lost in sin. God has more than enough love to go around. Besides, those who are “well” and are not “lost” experience the Father's love as fully as those to whom He gives special attention (v. 31).
Father, forgive us for feeling slighted when You shower Your love on needy sinners. Help us to see how needy we are and to abide in Your boundless love. (Mart De Haan, Who Gets the Love? September 23, 2004)
I think this gets the gist of this parable just about right, and I hope we will all want to utter a similar prayer by the time we are finished studying it today. But, as we prepare to examine this parable, we need to remember that it is the third parable in a trilogy and that the context of this parable is therefore the same as that of the preceding two parables in the trilogy. So let's read the opening verses of this chapter again in order to remind ourselves of this context:
NKJ Luke 15:1-3 Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. 2 And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So He spoke this parable to them, saying ….
And then Jesus tells three parables: the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and, lastly, the Parable of the Lost Son. It is crucial, therefore, that we keep this context in mind as we study this parable, because it provides the key for understanding why Jesus told the parable and what He intended to communicate through it.
It is also helpful to study the parable in a way that highlights the structure given to it by Jesus, since He had a reason for structuring the parable the way He did. He wanted to compare and contrast the relationship of the father in the story with each of his two sons. For this reason, we will examine the parable under two primary headings: 1) The father's relationship to the younger son, and 2) The father's relationship to the older son.
I. The Father's Relationship the the Younger Son
This is the focus of well over half of the parable. In this section we see 1) the younger son's rebellion and repentance, and 2) the father's reaction to the younger son.
1. The Younger Son's Rebellion and Repentance
His rebellion is seen in verses 11-16, where we also see a progressive description of the serious ramifications of his rebellion:
NKJ Luke 15:11-12a Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give [Aorist Imperative > δίδωμι] me the portion of goods that falls to me.'”
There are a couple of things here that indicate a rebellious attitude in this younger son.
First, the son doesn't just ask his father for his inheritance, he demands it. The form of the Greek verb translated give is an imperative, a command, which in this context is a very disrespectful way to address his father.
Second, the very fact that this fellow demands his inheritance now rather than upon his father's death indicates his rebellious and disrespectful attitude in at least a couple of ways.
1) It communicates a lack of concern over his father's welfare. If he wants to take a large portion of his father's estate away from him and leave – which for the younger of two sons would have been about a third of his father's money and possessions – then he shows little or no concern for his father's future welfare.
2) It amounts to saying, “I'm really tired of living under your authority and waiting around for you to die.”
His lack of concern for His father is also reflected in his desire to get away from him s soon as possible, as we see in the next verse.
NKJ Luke 15:13 And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal [ἀσώτως] living.
The Greek word translated prodigal here in the NKJV is an adverb that speaks of “living in a wild, abandoned manner” and has the idea of living “recklessly, riotously, [or] loosely” (Friberg # 3997, BibleWorks). It pertains to senseless or reckless behavior (Louw & Nida # 88.97, BibleWorks).
Thus, when his older brother later accuses him of having devoured his father's livelihood with harlots, he could have been correct. The point is that this young man got as far away from any familial accountability as he could and blew his entire inheritance on wasteful and ungodly living.
NKJ Luke 15:14-16 But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. 15 Then 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 gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
Notice that the son's foolish and wasteful living had left him no recourse when famine came other than to become the slave of a foreigner, which is what is indicated by the statement that “he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country” (vs. 15a).
And, if that wasn't bad enough, he ended up tending pigs (vs. 15b), which was a great disgrace for a Jewish man and would have rendered him unclean, just as the tax collectors and sinners in the context of this parable were viewed as unclean by the scribes and Pharisees.
But it got even worse! This young man ended up being treated so badly that he was willing – even glad (vs. 16) – to eat the same food the pigs were eating!
In the final words of verse 16 Jesus stresses just how bad it was for him when He says that “no one gave him anything.” Thankfully, however, this isn't the end of the story! Thankfully we see the younger son's repentance in verses 17-20a, where we see how he came to his senses.
NKJ Luke 15:17 But when he came to himself [or, as we might say, “when he came to his senses”], he said, “How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!”
Suddenly living under his father's authority didn't seem such a bad idea!
NKJ Luke 15:18-19 “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, 19 and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.'”
Here we see that the younger son finally learned some humility. And not only was he now willing to be his father's son again, but he would gladly be one of his father's slaves, thinking himself unworthy of such a father as he now realized that he had.
NKJ Luke 15:20a And he arose and came to his father.
Aren't you glad that this man didn't just think about repenting, but that he actually followed through in his actions. This will become even more clear when we look at the next portion of the parable.
2. The Father's Reaction to the Younger Son
What we see clearly in this parable is that the Father reacts with love toward the younger son.
First, we have already seen that the father's response to the younger son's rebellion had been a loving response from the beginning. Remember verse 12:
NKJ Luke 15:12 And the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.” So he divided to them his livelihood.
The father could rightly have punished his son for such egregious disrespect, but instead he graciously and lovingly granted his demand and divided his livelihood between him and his older brother.
Second, then, we are not surprised to find that the father's response to the younger son's repentance is also a loving response.
NKJ Luke 15:20b But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.
Here we see that the father loved his son so much that he acted in what would have been regarded as a very undignified manner. He didn't make his son come groveling to him so that he might save face in front of everybody else. Instead, we get the idea that he just couldn't help himself when he saw his son on the horizon. No sooner had he recognized who it was than he went running out to him to embrace him and kiss him. His compassion was such that he was overcome with joy, as Jesus will go on to make more explicit.
NKJ Luke 15:21-24 And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22 But the father said to his servants, “Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. 23 And bring the fatted calf here 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.
The son says to his father just what he had felt and planned to say when he was at his lowest point, eating with the swine. And he clearly recognizes that his sin is ultimately sin against God, which is what it he means when he says, “I have sinned against heaven.” Thus his repentance is seen by the father to be genuine, since it shows clear understanding of having wronged God and since it has resulted in his return to his father.
But notice closely the father's response. He ordered the servants to “bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet.” This was not the treatment of a slave, which is all the son had expected or now felt worthy of, but was a public acknowledgment that he was indeed to be regarded once again as the man's own son.
Notice also that the father had apparently given his younger son up for dead, but now that he saw he was alive and repentant, he couldn't help but celebrate! And he invited everyone else there to share in his joy and celebrate with him.
So, we find a son who ended up wishing he could be his father's slave, but who was treated even better by being accepted again as his son. This will be in stark contrast to his older brother, who felt that being his father's son was no better than being a slave. And this leads us to next portion of the parable and our second primary heading.
II. The Father's Relationship to the Older Son
This the the focus of the latter seciton of the parable. In this section we see 1) the older son's rage and resentment, and 2) the father's reaction to the older son.
1. The Older Son's Rage and Resentment
The older son's rage is seen in verses 25-28a:
NKJ Luke 15:25-28a Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.” 28 But he was angry and would not go in.
Notice that his anger over the way his father has acted in receiving his younger brother has left him out of the celebration and joy he could have been experiencing. He too could have been enjoying the fatted calf and the joyful fellowship his father wanted to share with him and with everyone else, but his jealousy and anger robbed him of this opportunity.
The older son's resentment is seen in verses 29-30:
NKJ Luke 15:29-30 So he answered and said to his father, “Lo, these many years I have been serving [δουλεύω, serve as a slave] you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.”
Notice how the older son resented not just his brother, but most notably his father! He clearly also had a bad attitude toward his father, an attitude that was really no better than the younger son had previously displayed. He had apparently just been hiding it!
Notice also that the older son wasn't as obedient as he claimed to be, because if he was, then he would not have refused to go inside for the celebration along with every one else!
As John Piper observes in his treatment of this text:
There are several clues here that the way he relates to his father is dishonoring to his father and disuniting to his brother and destructive to himself.
How does he see himself and his father relating? Answer: as master and slave. “Look! For so many years I have been serving you.” “Serving.” The word is for what a servant or a slave does. This is not the identity of a son, but of a slave. “For so many years I have been serving you.”
Then he says, “And I have never neglected a command of yours.” How does he see his father? As an issuer of commands. He sees the father as a master giving commandments, and himself as a slave paying obedience. This is not the way the father wants his children to relate to him. This is a distortion of Christianity. It is not the Christian life. (The Blinding Effects of Serving God)
I think this gets the picture right. And as we shall see through the words of the father in this story, Jesus is lovingly confronting the attitude of anger and resentment toward God and Himself that He sees in the scribes and Pharisees.
2. The Father's Reaction to the Older Son
What we see clearly in this parable is that the Father reacts with love toward the older son also.
First, the father's response to the older son's rage is a loving response.
NKJ Luke 15:28 But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded [παρακαλέω] with him.
We are not told what the father might have said to his older son at this point, but we can imagine from the reaction he has had to the younger son's repentance and from what we know he says later. We can imagine that he was trying to get him to forgive his brother even as he himself had done and to be glad that his brother was alright.
Second, the father's response to the older son's resentment is a loving response.
NKJ Luke 15:31-32 And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 32 It was right [δεῖ , literally “it was necessary,” ESV = “it was fitting”] that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.”
Notice that the father reminds the older son that his own standing hasn't changed just because his brother has been received with forgiveness and joy.
Notice also that the father appeals to his son's professed focus on doing the right thing. His son has essentially told him that he has always done what is right, whereas his younger brother has not. So his father responds by basically saying, “Well, then, do what is right now! If you have always done what is necessary and proper, then why won't you do so now?”
Notice finally that the end of the parable seems to be missing! We are left to wonder what the older brother will do after he has received the correction of his father. This is because the older brother represents the scribes and Pharisees, who have just been corrected by Jesus via this parable and whose response has not yet been seen. I think Jesus leaves the story open-ended in this way in order indicate that the ending is up to them. Jesus is giving them a chance to change their attitudes and actions. Will they or won't they respond as they should?
And, if over that past three weeks you and I have discovered in ourselves a bit too much of the scribe and the Pharisee, what will our response be? How will we end this story as it applies to our own lives?
Conclusion: I began with an illustration from an issue of Our Daily Bread, so perhaps it is fitting that I finish with one:
Mr. Mactavish was gone. I wanted to wait until morning to see if he would come back on his own. But the look on the other family members' faces vetoed that idea. So we climbed into the car to begin looking for our wayward Scottish terrier.
As we drove down street after street, calling his name and peering intently into the darkness, even I became sentimental. What if he got hit by a car? What if someone else picked him up? What if we never saw him again?
We eventually found him. And by the time we did, I was as happy as the rest of the family to see him. Even though he was a mess—mud-soaked and foul-smelling—Mac was a sight for sore eyes. In fact, at that moment my family appeared to be far happier about finding and being with that dirty dog than we were about being with one another.
Does that mean we loved Mac more than we loved one another? Of course not. Neither does showing special affection for a repentant alcoholic, adulterer, or enemy indicate that we love others any less. It means that we have enough of God's love to celebrate with the kind of joy He feels when a dearly loved rebel comes home.
I think that is a very good question, don't you?