I have always had a special joy in finding lost things. One of my best “finds” was a C4 automatic transmission, laying right in the middle of the road. I was on my way to the office when I encountered it. I stopped in the middle of the street, picked up this transmission, and put it in the back of my station wagon. After checking with all the nearby mechanics and turning it in to the police for the required time, I claimed it as my own. I did not call all of my friends or celebrate with a banquet, but this find was a source of enjoyment to me.
We all rejoice in finding lost things. The most dramatic example of this in recent times was the rejoicing of the nation as Jessica McClure emerged from a well shaft, where she had been “lost” for several days. Great sums of money and many hours of time were expended in trying to recover this lost child. Great was the celebration which followed her recovery.
Our text is Luke’s account of three parables, each of which describes the finding of a lost item, and each of which describes the joy and celebration which resulted. At first I thought that all three “finds” were of the same kind, but after study, discussion with others, and reflection, I have concluded that the third “find” is very different from the first two. I hope to share this in a moment, along with its implications.
As you well know, the story of the prodigal son is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible. This presents us with one of the greatest hindrances to our study, interpretation, and application of this text. To a great degree, our understanding of this text is filtered through our own experience. Parents who have or are presently struggling with wayward children will tend to identify with the father of the prodigal, and look at this text for guidance and comfort for them in the midst of their pain and adversity. Those who have fallen into sin will focus upon the wayward son and on the loving and forgiving heart of the father. Few of us will choose to identify with the older brother, and yet, in the context of chapter 15, he is the central figure, his sin is most in view, and his reaction to his brother’s repentance and return is our Lord’s explanation for the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes.
Let us attempt to set aside the previous interpretations of this parable, as well as our own predispositions and needs, and seek to study this text in the light of its context. Let us seek to find out where the older brother was wrong, and to learn how his attitudes and actions characterize and condemn sin in our lives. Let us seek the illumination of God’s Spirit as we approach this very important passage of God’s Word, so that we may learn what our Lord wanted His audience to understand.
I have chosen to deal with the entire 15th chapter in this lesson, rather than to break it up, as I often do. The reason is that the full impact of the third parable (that of the prodigal son) is best grasped in the light of the setting (vv. 1-2) and the first two parables (vv. 3-7, 8-10). The structure of the entire chapter can be summarized as follows:
(1) The Pharisees’ Response To Jesus’ Association with Sinners—Verses 1 & 2
(2) Man’s Response to the Lost, Compared with Heaven’s—Verses 3-10
(3) The Older Brother’s Response to the Return of His Sinful Brother—vv. 11-32
Even after our Lord’s strong words about the cost of discipleship (if chapter 15 follows chronologically after the end of chapter 14), and the exhortation for those who had ears to hear, there are many coming to Jesus to hear what He was teaching (v. 1). It was a different matter with the Pharisees and scribes. They were grumbling. Specifically, they were grumbling about the fact that Jesus “received sinners2 and ate with them” (v. 2). Why should this be such an offense to the Pharisees and the scribes? What did it matter to them if Jesus chose to associate with sinners?
From early in the book of Luke, the Pharisees chaffed over Jesus’ association with sinners, and the mood of joy and celebration which dominated the scene of His eating together with them (Luke 5:29ff.). The Pharisees found no joy in repentance of sinners at all. What did give them joy? And what was it that caused them such pain to have Jesus associating with sinners and enjoying them? I believe that the fullest explanation of this is to be found in Matthew’s gospel, in the 23rd chapter. In this chapter, Jesus stripped away all of the facade of self-righteousness and spirituality which surrounded the Pharisees. He sternly rebuked them, thus precipitating His own execution. What was it in Matthew 23 which characterized the Pharisees and scribes, and which helps us to understand their agony at seeing sinners flock to Jesus? Let me summarize several pertinent characteristics of the Pharisees, as our Lord exposed them:
(1) The Pharisees loved the place of honor at banquets (Matthew 23:5). They loved attention. They found banquets to be occasions where they could attract attention to themselves, where they could be in the limelight. No wonder the Pharisees were distressed about the “banquets” Jesus attended. He was in the place of honor, not them. And in addition to this, the tables were not occupied by people of prominence, people who would enhance the image of the Pharisees (especially if the Pharisee sat in a position of higher honor, cf. Luke 14:7-11). Jesus was, in the minds of the Pharisees, upstaging them.
(2) The Pharisees loved to restrict the “saved” to a select few, the elite of Judaism (Matthew 23:13). The Jews, as a group, felt superior to the Gentiles, but the Pharisees felt superior to other Jews (John 7:45-49). They wanted to keep the “saved” to a very small number, and to keep the undesirable element out. Jesus, by association with the masses, the “hoi polloi,” threatened to pollute this pure group of pious people.
(3) The Pharisees loved to focus on the technicalities (Matthew 23:16-24). The Pharisees set themselves up as the elite, based (to some degree) upon their expertise in very complex rules and regulations. Jesus condemned this in Matthew’s account. We know from the recorded teaching of Jesus, along with the fact that His teaching attracted the common people, that His teaching was simple (e.g. parables), and was not complex and complicated, so as to leave the masses in a fog. When Jesus taught simply, He threatened to undermine the complicated, technical teaching of the Pharisees, and thus they opposed people pursuing Him to hear His teaching.
Let me illustrate this, to be sure that my understanding of this issue is clear. The IRS has done it again. They have given us a new set of rules for figuring our income taxes. Anyone who has tried to read the instructions knows how complicated it can get. No wonder people are flocking to their accountants or those who professionally prepare tax forms. Suppose that someone were to come along with a one-paragraph explanation of all the rules (impossible as it seems), easily understood and applied by the masses. How many people do you think would go to the professionals? Now you see why the masses went to Jesus. He could make the truth simple; the Pharisees made it mind-bogglingly complex.
(4) The Pharisees sought to protect and promote their own hypocrisy by concentrating on external “sins,” rather than inner attitudes and motivations (Matthew 23:13-14, 25-36). The Pharisees looked at sin as an external thing, rather than a matter of the heart. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus emphasized the internal aspects of sin (cf. Matthew 5-7). To associate with those whose outward lives were sinful was to challenge the entire system of spirituality which the Pharisees had developed, and that was to avoid outward, socially unacceptable, sin, and those who did such evils. Therefore they could not passively accept the opposing view of spirituality of our Lord, which enabled Him to have contact with sinners, and yet not be defiled by it.
Jesus knew why the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling. The three parables which He spoke in response, were directed toward the Pharisees and scribes (cf. vv. 2-3). The first two parables reveal that the Pharisees, in some cases, had great compassion on certain “lost” items, and they also greatly rejoiced when they found them. The third parable, the parable of the prodigal son, reveals the attitudes of the Pharisees which caused them to resent the salvation of sinners, rather than to rejoice in it.
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
Jesus began by directing His critics’ attention to their own attitudes and actions as it related to a lost sheep. Which one of them, if they owned 100 sheep, would not leave the 99 to search for but one lost sheep? After a diligent search, would they not rejoice greatly at finding the one lost sheep? Would they not tenderly put the sheep on their shoulders, lovingly carrying it back to the fold, rather than “kicking it back,” scolding it all the way? And would they not then let their friends know of their success and have them over to celebrate the finding of the one lost sheep?
The assumption is that every one of the Pharisees would have responded to the loss and finding of one sheep just as Jesus suggested. In a similar way, Jesus added, all of heaven rejoices over the repentance of one lost sinner. Heaven, too, rejoices more at the repentance of one lost sinner, more than over the 99 “righteous” who seemingly did not need to repent.3
When you think about it, the parable of the lost sheep presents us with some haunting questions. Would it be wise, even profitable, for a man to put 99 sheep at risk, leaving them unprotected in an open field, to search for one lost lamb? That one lamb may well have been killed, or it might never be found. And would finding this one sheep be such an occasion of joy that one would want to celebrate with all his friends. Stop and think about the expense of having a celebration banquet, to celebrate the finding of one sheep. The celebration will undoubtedly be a banquet feast, with lots of meat served. Let’s say, then, that five sheep and perhaps a couple of goats are slaughtered, not to mention the cost of the other food. One might have to sell off or kill five sheep to celebrate the finding of one. That is not good economics. It is a very sentimental story, but once the reality of it sets in it just doesn’t seem to square with real life. Let’s put this question in hold, momentarily.
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Just as the sheep rancher would be touched by the loss of but one sheep, the loss of part of the family finances would deeply touch the woman of the house. It would seem that the loss of that one coin was equal to one day’s wages. The woman would “turn the house upside-down” to find that one lost coin. She would light a lamp to illuminate her search, and then she would sweep and clean until she found it. We get the impression that she would not stop until the lost coin were found.
When the coin is found, she, like the sheep rancher, would rejoice greatly at finding it. She, too, would call her friends and neighbors, so that they could rejoice with her. Once again, it is assumed by our Lord that all of His audience would be nodding their heads in agreement. They would search for the lost coin, just as they would rejoice in finding it.
Once again, heaven’s joy at the repentance of one sinner is like this (note, “in the same way,” v. 10, for the second time). The angels, as Peter and Paul both inform us (1 Peter 1:12; 1 Corinthians 11:10), are most interested in what is going on here on earth. They know that it is the plan and purpose of God to save men, on the basis of the shed blood of the Son of God. It is as though the angels were leaning over the rail of heaven, straining to see just one saint come to repentance and faith. Great effort is expended in reaching the lost and when the sinner repents, the angels rejoice in seeing God’s purposes fulfilled.
Heaven’s joy at the salvation is surely appropriate, and, in one sense, it is like the joy of the woman who found her one lost coin. But is the woman’s effort justified? Would she not have found the lost coin eventually? Should she be so happy at finding this coin? Is it such a momentous thing that she should be bothering to call all of her friends to share this with them? Once again, the search and the rejoicing seems to be overdone, when it comes to the sheep and the silver (coin).
It is my contention that the first two parables are a pair, emphasizing the same truth. The second parable begins with the expression, “Or suppose,” indicating that the second parable is like unto the first. The third parable is to be seen as distinct, focusing attention on a different area. Note with me the following characteristics of the first two parables, which is a key to our understanding what Jesus meant to be understood by them, as well as the basis upon which the third parable can be interpreted.
(1) In both parables, sinfulness is not stressed (in going astray, getting lost), but lostness.
(2) In both parables, the owner takes the initiative, seeking the lost.
(3) In both cases, the owner seeks diligently and persistently.
(4) In both cases, the owner rejoices and invites and expects his neighbors to do likewise.
(5) In both cases, the rejoicing of the one who has found the lost item is likened to the rejoicing of heaven to the salvation of one sinner.
(6) In both cases, it is not men who are lost, but things, and it is man (generically speaking, for there is both a man and a woman) that seeks diligently to find what is lost.
(7) In both cases, I believe, the parable is not primarily intended as a picture of God’s seeking after lost men, but of men seeking after lost things.
This last observation is the most crucial one for us. Earlier, it was my understanding that the first two parables described God’s heart for the lost. This cannot be the case, for several reasons. First, Jesus begins the first parable with the words, “Which one of you, if … ” Jesus was not describing God’s response to that which is lost, but their own. The Pharisees could easily agree that if they lost one sheep or one coin, they would diligently seek to find it, and they would greatly rejoice in finding it. Second, the over-zealous attitude of the Pharisees toward finding that which was lost or the extreme joy at finding it is explained. Should one abandon the 99 sheep, leaving them vulnerable to getting lost or to attack by wild animals? Is it not abnormal to notify all of one’s neighbors as to the finding of but one sheep, and to expect them to celebrate this with him? This over-zealousness is not characteristic of God, but it is believable in men. Third, the joyful response of heaven is likened to that of heaven, but in a way that suggests similarities and contrasts to the actions and attitudes of the Pharisees in seeking that which was lost. Fourth, the first two parables speak of men’s zeal in searching for and finding lost possessions, not lost people. The Pharisees were “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14), and it is therefore not hard to see how they would leave 99 sheep to seek one lost sheep, or to turn the house upside-down to find one lost coin. A materialist would easily identify with the mental torment of losing even one out of 100 sheep or one out of 10 coins. A materialist can’t stand to lose anything, and he (or she) would rejoice in finding what was lost.
The Pharisees were like Jesus in that they did have compassion, as can be seen in the tenderness of the shepherd toward the lost sheep, which he placed over his shoulders. The Pharisees cared very much for that which was lost, and they rejoiced greatly concerning the recovery of what was lost. The critical difference between Jesus and the Pharisees is that they cared about possessions, while Jesus cared about people. The Pharisees were hypocrites. They grumbled that Jesus could gladly receive back repentant sinners and rejoice in their salvation, yet they would diligently search for lost possessions and celebrate when they found them. The first two parables, then, expose the misplaced compassion of the Pharisees. They also contrast the “love for that which was lost” in the Pharisees with that of the Lord Jesus.
The Pharisees were “out of sync” with heaven. Why were they unwilling to seek to save sinners and unable to rejoice at their repentance? Why were they unwilling to associate with them? This is what the third parable will tell us. The third parable depicts the loving and forgiving heart of God (in the father), the repentance of the sinner (in the younger brother), and the sullen joylessness of the Pharisees (in the older brother).
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 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. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants 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!’ “‘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.’”
I am now convinced of one thing: the parable of the prodigal son is not recorded in Scripture primarily as instruction to parents of wayward children. I understand this parable in its context as Jesus response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes because of Jesus’ acceptance of and rejoicing with repentant sinners. If the first two parables reveal to us that the Pharisees did care (too) much about “lost possessions,” this parable exposes why they are not concerned about lost people. In Luke 15, this parable serves as the Lord’s final, forceful response to the grumbling of the Pharisees at His response to sinners.
There are really three persons in focus in this parable, not just one: the younger brother, the father, and the older brother. In order to understand and interpret this parable accurately, I will focus our attention briefly on each of these three characters. I will also forewarn you that I will not be as sentimental in my interpretation of this parable as some have tended (wrongly, in my opinion) to be. For us, this story may seem to be a very heart-warming incident, only slightly tarnished by the sulking older brother. For the Pharisees, this was a humiliating exposure of their sin and their hypocrisy. It did not produce “warm, fuzzy feelings,” at least not for those Pharisees who understood what Jesus was saying to them. Let us concentrate, then, on each of the three central characters of this parable.
The younger of two brothers one day approached his father with the request that he allocate to him his share of the inheritance earlier than would be customary, although not altogether out of the question:
“A man might leave his goods to his heirs by last will and testament (cf. Heb. 9:16f.), in which case he was bound by the provisions of the Law. This meant that the first-born received two thirds of the whole (Dt. 21:17). But he could make gifts before he died and this gave him a freer hand (SB). The rules for disposing of property are given in the Mishnah (Baba Bathra 8). If a man decided to make gifts, he normally gave the capital but retained the income. He could then no longer dispose of the capital, only of his interest in the income. But the recipient could get nothing until the death of the giver. He could sell the capital if he chose, but the buyer could not gain possession until the death of the donor.”4
The father granted the son’s request, and shortly thereafter the son left his father, his family, his country, and departed to a distant country, where he squandered his possessions in a sinful lifestyle. The money eventually ran out, and at the same time, a famine fell upon that part of the world, bringing this young man to desperate straits.
The young man was forced to hire himself out as a slave, and his job was the unpleasant task of caring for swine. Even the pigs, it would seem, were better cared for than he. It was in this state of want that the young man came to his senses. He recognized that he could live better as a slave of his father than as a slave in this foreign land. He knew that this would necessitate facing his father, and so he rehearsed his repentance speech, one that he was never allowed to finish.
The young man realized his folly and he returned to face his father. He had hoped only to be received as a slave; his father received him as a son. He had hoped, at best, for a little bread; his father provided a banquet. The young man did not gain all the material possessions he had lost, but he did regain the joy and privileges of his status as a son.
Let me emphasize two aspects of this story which relate to the younger brother. First, there is no attempt to minimize the seriousness or the foolishness of the sins of the younger son. Jesus did receive sinners and eat with them, but He never minimized sin. The seriousness of the young brother’s sins can only be understood in the light of his identity (I am assuming) as an Israelite. As an Israelite, this young man would understand several things about the blessings which God promised His chosen people. God was going to bless His people in the land. The young man left the land and went to a distant one. God was going to bless His people for obeying His law. This included the necessity of living a life that was very distinct (holy) from that of the heathen. This young man went and lived among the heathen as a heathen. Then Old Testament had very specific legislating to assure that the inheritance of each family was kept within the family, and that the children cared for their parents. This young man deserted his family, permanently lost his portion of the inheritance, and left his father in a potentially precarious position (he had just lost 1/3 of his father’s resources, and had lost his ability to look after him). For an Israelite, nothing could be lower than to be the slave of a heathen, and to have as one’s job the care of swine.5 This younger son, I say, acted in a very wicked and foolish way. I can envision Jesus’ audience sucking in their breath in shock and horror at what this man had done. I can see the Pharisees becoming bug-eyed and red-faced with anger at this man’s sin. Jesus did not attempt to minimize this younger son’s sin.
If the younger son’s sins were great, so was his repentance. Second, let us look at the characteristics of the younger brother’s repentance. The younger brother’s repentance was required by his sin, he very great sin, as we have just emphasized. The process of repentance began, I believe, when the younger brother began to suffer the painful consequences of his sin. It was only when he ran out of money and friends, and when he began to suffer hunger pangs that the young man “came to his senses.” Repentance begins, then, with seeing things straight, with seeing things as they really are. Repentance begins by seeing one’s actions as sinful, first in the sight of God, and then in the sight of men. Thus, the words of the son to his father, “I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight” (v. 18, NASB). The son’s repentance then led him to his father, whom he had offended, and to whom he acknowledged his guilt and sorrow. The son’s repentant spirit is reflected in his deep sense of unworthiness. He does not speak of or claim any rights. He hopes only for mercy. There are no demands. The son’s repentance touched the heart of his loving father, and paved the way for his restoration and rejoicing.
While the sheep-owner and the housewife accurately depicted the concern of the Pharisees for their possessions, it is the loving father of this parable who depicts the heart of the loving Heavenly Father, who longs for the return of the sinner, who willingly grants forgiveness, and who rejoices in the return of the wayward. This father gave the son what he had asked for. He allowed the son to go his own way, even when he could have prevented it (at least he could have refused to finance the venture). The heart of that father never forgot the wayward son. It was no accident that the father saw the son coming “from a long way off” (v. 20). The father ran to meet the son. He did not force the son to grovel. He did not even allow the son to finish his confession.6 The father quickly restored the son to his position as a son.7 The father commanded that there be a celebration. And when the older brother refused to participate, the father sought him out and appealed to him to join in the celebration, which he saw not only as permissible, but as necessary.8 The father was as gracious to the older brother as he was to the younger. How great the love of this father. How much like the Heavenly Father he is.
The older brother we know to be the one in the parable who represents the Pharisees and scribes, who grumble at Jesus’ reception of sinners. Notice that the older brother is out in the fields working when the younger brother returns. The father, on the other hand, is apparently waiting and watching for the younger son’s return. He does not know of the younger brother’s return until his attention is aroused by the sounds of celebration coming from the house. He learns from a servant that his brother has returned, that the father has received him, and that a celebration has been called. The mention of the killing of the fatted calf is the “final straw” for the older brother. He became very angry and refused to go in to celebrate with the rest, even though this celebration was called for by the father.
When the father came out to his older son, to appeal to him to join in on the celebration, the older son refused. The words of the older son are the key to understanding his desires and attitudes. Give attention to those things which this son mentioned to his father, which are the basis of his actions, his anger, and his protest:
(1) I have worked hard, but you gave me no banquet. The older brother was at work in the field when his younger brother returned home. It would seem that this older brother thought that the basis for obtaining his father’s favor was his works. The father’s answer suggests the opposite. As a son, the older brother possessed all that his father had. He did not need to work to win his father’s approval or blessing, he need only be a son. This emphasis on works is the error of the Pharisees as well. The were “hard at work” with respect to keeping the law, as they interpreted it, supposing that this was what would win God’s approval and blessing.
(2) You have given your other son a banquet, when all he did was to sin. This is, of course, the flip side of the first protest. The older brother expected to be rewarded on the basis of his works, and he would likewise have expected his younger brother to have been disowned due to his works (sins). It was not the younger brother’s sins which resulted in the father’s celebration, but in his repentance and return. The older brother not only failed to comprehend grace, but he resented it. There are many similarities between the prophet Jonah in the Old Testament and this older brother.
(3) I have never neglected a command of yours. Not only does this son think that his works should have merited his father’s blessings, he also is so arrogant as to assume that he has never sinned. How could he say that he had never neglected a command of his father when, moments before, his father had commanded that there be a celebration, and the older brother had refused to take part? Is this not disobedience? The Pharisees, too, thought of themselves as having perfectly kept God’s commandments.
The problem of the older brother, then, is self-righteousness. His self-righteousness is such that he expects, even demands God’s approval and blessings. His self-righteousness is so strong that he resents the grace of God and refuses to rejoice in it. The older brother failed to see that he was a sinner, and he also failed to understand that God has provided salvation for all sinners who truly repent. What the older brother did not think he needed (repentance and salvation) he resisted and resented in others, and thus he could not, he would not share in the celebration.
The father’s words to this son are significant. He reminded this older brother of the blessings which he had in staying home. He had, during those years when the younger son only had the fellowship of pagans and pigs, the fellowship of his father. The father said, “My child, you have always been with me… ” (v. 32a). This, for the older brother, was not enough, for he would have preferred to have been with his friends (v. 29). The father’s second statement was to remind the older son that he possessed all that was his: “… and all that is mine is yours” (v. 31b). This, too, did not seem enough to this older son.
How different these two sons were, in some ways:
(1) The younger son left home; the older stayed home.
(2) The younger son was prodigal (wasteful); the older son was productive (a worker).
(3) The younger lost his inheritance; the older did not.
(4) The younger did not any longer feel worthy of his father’s blessings; the older did.
(5) The younger realized his sins; the felt righteous.
(6) The younger repented; the older resented.
I have always thought of these two sons in terms of their differences. It was only in my study for this message that I came to realize the many similarities in the two. Consider the similarities in these two sons with me for a moment.
(1) Both sons wanted a celebration—a banquet. The younger brother “partied” with the pagans in a foreign land. The older son protested to his father that he had not been given a party.
(2) Both sons wanted to celebrate WITHOUT THEIR FATHER. The younger brother partied in a foreign land, with the wrong kinds of friends. The older brother refused to celebrate with his father (and younger brother), but he indicated a strong desire to have been allowed to have a banquet WITH HIS FRIENDS.
(3) Both sons seemed to feel that joy and celebration were not possible with their father. The younger brother left his father, his family, and even his nation to have a good time. Joy, to this fellow, was not possible in the confining environment of his faith and his family. The younger brother, too, seemed to feel that joy was not possible with his father, and thus he wanted to celebrate with his friends, not his father. Slaving seemed to be the principle governing him in his relationship with his father, not celebrating. I understand the “fatted calf” to have been the symbol of celebration. The father’s words to his older son seem to say, “The fatted calf (celebration and joy) were yours to enjoy at any time.” The older brother did not think so. Neither did the Pharisees, for their early protest to Jesus had to do with His celebrating (cf. Luke 5:27ff.).
(4) Neither son seems to have really appreciated or loved their father, even though he loved both of them. The younger son did not enjoy his father, so he left him. The older brother did not leave him, but did not enjoy him either. In response to the father’s words to the oldest son, “My child, you have always been with me,” the older son’s response, though unstated, seems to have been, “So what?” or, “Big deal!.”
(5) Both sons were slaves. The younger son was first of all enslaved by his passions (sins), and also by a foreign employer. He returned to his father, hoping only to be received as a slave, but not dreaming that he could be a son again. The older brother was really a slave, too. Listen to his words to his father,
“But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders’” (Luke 15:29).
Because this brother thought he had to work for his father’s approval and blessings, he was no less a slave than his younger brother.
(6) Both sons were materialists. The younger son loved material things—money—more than his father or than his family, because he asked for his portion at the expense and risk of his family. The younger wanted his inheritance to spend on himself. The older brother, too was a materialist. His anger toward his brother and his unwillingness to receive him back was due to the fact that he had squandered part of his father’s possessions. If the younger brother wanted money to spend, the old brother wanted it to save, and thus (it would seem) to make him feel secure. Both sons loved money; they only differed in what they wanted to do with it, and when.
(7) Both sons were sinners. The Lord had left unchallenged, at the beginning of this chapter, the assumption on the part of the Pharisees that while others might be “sinners,” they themselves were righteous. But this final parable proves this assumption to be entirely false. The sins of these two sons were very different in their outward manifestations, but inwardly they had the same roots.
You see, we tend to appraise sin (and “sinners”) by merely external standards and criteria. Jesus always looked at the heart. We quickly grant that stealing, murder, rape, and violence are wrong, especially when they are perpetrated on us. But Jesus goes on to show us in the gospels that prayer, giving, preaching, or showing charity can be sinful, when the motive of the heart is wrong. We would look at the compliant, hard-working older brother and commend him. There is no outward rebellion here. No, there is not, at least not until the celebration. But the inward attitudes and motivations of this older brother as just as evil, indeed, they are more evil, for there is much self-righteousness concealed behind his outward conformity to his father’s will and to his hard work.
The message which these three parables brought home to the Pharisees and scribes is painfully clear: they had too much compassion on their own lost possessions, but they cared little for lost people. This is why they could not rejoice at the repentance of lost sinners. But there is even more than this. It isn’t that the Pharisees and scribes found it impossible to rejoice; they actively resisted—they grumbled. The bottom line was that the Pharisees wrongly believed that it was good works which merited God’s favor, rather than His grace manifested toward sinners. The older brother was angry with the father because he felt he did not get what he deserved (a banquet), while the younger brother got what he didn’t deserve (a banquet). The older brother’s works didn’t work, but the younger brother’s repentance did. That is the way God’s grace works—it is bestowed on unworthy people, sinners, who do not trust in their good works, but in God’s grace.
This explains the Pharisees’ rejection of Jesus. He came to bring salvation to sinners, by grace, through faith, and not of works:
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, begin justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:21-24).
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The problem of the Pharisees was that they were too good for their own good. They viewed others as “sinners,” but not themselves. They believed that they, by keeping the law, could earn God’s favor, and that unworthy sinners would be condemned to hell. They failed to see themselves as unworthy sinners (like the prodigal did), and thus they not only rejected God’s grace, they disdained it.
My friend, it matters little whether you are a socially acceptable sinner—like the Pharisees—or a socially unacceptable sinner—like the prodigal. In either case, you are worthy only of God’s condemnation. What matters is that you know you are a sinner, that you are unworthy of God’s favor, and that Christ’s death on the cross of Calvary is God’s gracious gift to you. All you must do is to repent—to admit your sin, and to receive God’s gift of eternal salvation.
There are many lessons here for Christians (saved sinners), as well as those who are, as yet, unrepentant sinners. Joy is to be one of the characteristics of the Christian. Joy is rooted in God’s grace. We can rejoice in our own salvation, and thus we can also share in the joy of others who come to repentance as well. It seems to me that many Christians are “sad sacks,” devoid of joy, because they have lost sight of their own salvation by grace, and they are not involved in leading others to it. The apostle Paul was motivated by joy, even in the midst of great suffering, danger, and tribulation (cf. all of Philippians). Paul found great joy in the salvation and growth of others:
For who is our hope or joy or drown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).
I fear the we often fail to experience the joy which God has for us because we are not participating in the grace of God as it is at work in the lives of others, as well as in us.
I am reminded as well by our text that our grasp of the lostness of men is, to a large measure, the degree of our involvement in seeking the lost and our rejoicing when they come to repentance. We fail to evangelize, not because we lack the training or the methodology, but because we lack the deep sense of man’s lost condition, of the destiny they face, and of the delight of salvation which is available to them in Christ.
I think that there is much to be learned by Christians in the area of separation and holiness. We, like the Pharisees, seem to think that our holiness is measured by the distance we keep from “sinners.” The Bible speaks of holiness in terms of the closeness we keep to Christ. If, in the gospels we find Christ closely associating with sinners, then we can both have union with Christ and intimate association with sinners at the same time. Our concept of separation is the very thing that hinders us from evangelizing the lost, and it is one of the things which causes sinners to shun us, even as we do them. Let us give serious thought to the matter of biblical separation, for much that passes under this label is counterfeit.
Jim Peterson, in his excellent book, Evangelism as a Lifestyle, indicts the church for its failure to reach pagan unbelievers, those who have little or no contact with or knowledge of Christianity. There are many such people in our neighborhood and in our nation. Such “pagans” are not to be found only in far away countries. I fear that our failure to reach such pagan unbelievers with the gospel and then to integrate them into our churches is due to our twisted concept of spirituality. Let’s clear this matter up, so that Christianity can cut across social lines and into our culture.
I have implied earlier in this message that our definition of “sin” and of “sinners,” like those of the Pharisees and scribes, are often more social in nature than they are biblical. “Sinners” in our minds are those who are characterized by certain socially unacceptable activities. Sin, from a biblical point of view, is often characterized more in terms of attitudes. This does not mean that certain actions are not necessarily evil. Adultery is always evil, for example. But it does mean that many actions which appear righteous and spiritual—prayer, for example—may be evil, if the attitude behind the action is evil. “Sinners” to the Pharisees were more a social category than they were anything else. The Bible tells us that sinners are not just those in a certain segment of society, but that they are those whose attitudes and actions are contrary to the will and purpose of God. Let us think through our definition of sin much more carefully.
The parable of the prodigal and his proud brother serve to instruct us in the area of worship. Neither son (the younger son changed, happily) was able to enjoy their father for who he was. Both viewed him only in terms of the “good things and times” he could provide. For the younger son, the father was the provider of the inheritance, so he could indulge his fleshly desires. For the older son, the father was the owner of the fatted calf, the one who, if willing, was able to throw a party for he and his friends. But neither son found the father desirable to be with and to enjoy his person.
We are very much the same way with God. We most often tend to think of Him as the giver, rather than as the gift. We come to Him in prayer, not for the fellowship and communion we can have with Him, but for the things we want Him to provide for us and for our enjoyment. True worship is enjoying God for who He is, not just for what He gives. The older brother was not able to see himself as greatly blessed because he had been with his father, while the younger had been apart from him. Let us seek to enjoy our heavenly Father for who He is.
Finally, our text forces us to ask if we, as a church, welcome sinners, or whether we, like the Pharisees, send them a clear message that they are not wanted. If we understand the grace of God, we will welcome sinners as those, like us, who are unworthy of God’s favor, and rejoice when they experience grace as we have. We will not seek the salvation of those whom we will not also welcome into our fellowship. Let us seek to have the mind of Christ in warmly receiving sinners, like us.
255 “We should not let the modern chapter division make us miss an important point. Jesus has just made an uncompromising demand for whole-heartedness as He showed what following Him meant. He finished with ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’ Luke’s very next words inform us that these sinners came near to hear him.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 238.
1 The Pharisees’ words are pregnant with meaning, I believe. They referred to Jesus as “this man.” I believe this is intended to be a specific reminder to the crowds that Jesus was just a man and not God. The first run-in between Jesus and the Pharisees had to do with Jesus’ authority to forgive sins, which was only the prerogative of God (Luke 5:17-26). After this, the issue of Jesus’ association with sinners arose (5:27ff.).
2 “The occasions is the Pharisaic criticism of Jesus’ association with outcasts (‘sinners’ has a connotation that goes beyond our usual moralistic interpretation and involves a disreputable social status).”Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1984), pp. 147-148.
3 Jesus does seem to grant that the 99 are actually righteous here. This is because, at the moment, it is the return and reception of the lost which is at issue, not the “righteousness” of the righteous. Jesus grants them their premise, not because it was true, but because He wished to keep the focus on the issue at hand. The unrighteousness of “self-righteousness” will be exposed in the parable of the prodigal son, which is up-coming.
5 “For a Jew no occupation could have been more distasteful. A rabbinic saying runs, ‘Cursed be the man who would breed swine’ (Baba Kamma 82b). The pig was unclean (Lv. 11:7) and the Jew under normal circumstances would have nothing to do with it at all… That no one helped him shows the low esteem into which he had fallen. Pigs were more valuable than he.” Ibid. p. 241.
6 There is some question as to what the reading of the original text should be at verse 21, as indicated by the marginal note in the NASB. This is one place where the answer is clear, in my opinion. Some manuscripts do not allow the father to interrupt his son, and to cut his confession short. I believe that some ancient copiest had just written down the son’s words, which he had rehearsed to himself in verse 18 and felt that if this is what the son intended to say, it must also be what he did say. But you see the father would not allow the son to say any more. This interruption is one more indication of the father’s great love. No more groveling for this repentant son. He may have groveled with the swine, and before his slave master, but he would not grovel before his father for he had repented.
7 The father, to the best of my knowledge, did not restore to the son what he had lost, but he did restore him to the full benefits of being a member of the family—in other words, the inheritance, which he squandered was not replenished, but he was given a coat, a ring, and sandals.
“The embrace would stop the prodigal from going to his knees. A kiss on the cheek was a sign of reconciliation and forgiveness, the best robe a sign of honor, the ring a sign of authority (cf. Esth 3;10; 8:2; Gen 41:42), the shoes a sign of a free man—slaves went barefoot—and the feast a sign of joy… ” Talbert, p. 150.
8 “It was fitting is not strong enough for his word edei, which means ‘It was necessary.’ The welcome to the younger son was not simply a good thing which might or might not have occurred. It was the right thing. The father had to do it. Joy was the only proper reaction in such a situation. Notice that he does not speak of ‘my son’ but of your brother.” Morris, p. 244.