Luke 15 (ESV)
15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” ’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ ”
We’ve all read or heard these parables so many times that we sometimes don’t catch the real significance of this trio of Parables.
Remember the context.
Jesus is hanging with notorious sinners and the Scribes and Pharisees are grumbling about the company He kept.
So Jesus tells three Parables to express the joy in heaven over the repentance of one sinner.
In the first parable, a shepherd is willing to seek after one lost sheep in a hundred. He leaves the flock searching for the one and comes back rejoicing.
Jesus remarks that there is more joy in heaven over the repentance of one sinner than that shepherd who has found one wandering sheep.
Jesus is the good Shepherd.
In the second parable, a woman loses one coin out of ten.
There were no banks in those days and this is her life’s savings. She turns over her house looking for a single coin and then celebrates with the town because she found a physical treasure.
Again, there is more joy in heaven when one sinner repents.
We move from 100 sheep to 10 coins to a tale of two sons.
Or is this parable more properly entitled a Parable of a Father with two sons.
Some of the details of this parable are lost on us because we live in the 21st Century.
Let me do my best to transport you to the land of Israel in the first century.
One day the younger of two sons walks up to his father and demands: Give me the share of the property that I will inherit.
You’re a first century listener right now so your jaw drops.
What kind of son talks to his father in this manner?
Give me my land inheritance?!
He’s the younger of two sons and entitled to 1/3 of the land that the father owns.
But, here’s the thing: when does a person inherit from his father?
That’s right – when the father is DEAD.
The son is essentially saying: I can’t wait for you to die. Give me the 1/3 now.
That’s bad enough that a Jewish boy wants his father dead but how is he supposed to get 1/3 of his inheritance right now?
It’s land after all. The father has no 401(k) but this is land used for agriculture.
The father would have to find a buyer for that 1/3 of land to turn it into coin and we all know that a seller who has to sell fast is going to get a bad deal.
He’s also selling off the land of his ancestors for this boy.
And so you the listener are shocked even more as the father actually agrees to sell off this land and give coin to his son.
You’re really bothered by this thought and then Jesus makes the story even worse.
He goes to a faraway land – outside the borders of Israel – and to make matters worse he squanders this fortune on what the Scriptures kindly call reckless living.
Reckless living. Wink, wink. Are you kidding me!
He just squandered generations of faithful stewardship of his ancestors on reckless living!
He ran out of money and a famine hit the land.
Ahh…, you think, now we’re talking. He deserves that. Fool of a son!
He couldn’t get work anywhere until, in desperation, he finds work.
You’re maybe far away from Jesus so you turn to your neighbor.
Did I just hear him say that he took a job feeding pigs?
What?! A Jewish boy feeding pigs?!
How much more loathsome can this fool become in the thinking of those hearing his Parable.
Now the story takes a turn.
Look for the conjunction “But” in the Scriptures because it’s a turn of grace in many places.
“But when he came to himself…”
The son realizes that this is absolutely foolish.
He realizes that his life now is so much worse than the servants of his father have it.
And so he conceives of a reasonable solution.
I will go to my father and tell him that I have sinned against heaven and against him. I don’t want anything more than to be your servant. Please forgive me and just make me a slave.
Now we’re talking. You know Jewish tradition on these matters.
The father has been offended and so the son, if this is going to work, is going to be expected to come to the father and grovel.
But first he’ll have to pass through the town.
There it will be appropriate for the towns people to heap scorn upon him.
Your father is a good man. Look what you’ve done to him.
I hope my kids don’t ever turn out like you did.
OK, Jesus, let’s hear how this goes as the boy approaches the town.
Wait for it, Beloved.
The Gospel is about to interject.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
Do you suppose that the reason why the father saw him a long way off is because he was looking for him.
How do you suppose the father could tell it was his son?
Brothers and sisters, I’ve got five children and I know the walk of my children.
I know their form.
The father knew this was his son.
I don’t think you can appreciate how undignified this whole scene was.
It was a shameful thing for an elderly man to run. Running was for young men and you only hiked up robes to be free to move in battle. It was otherwise undignified.
This old man ran as fast as his old legs could carry him.
He ran to where the son would receive the shame of the towns people.
And then he embraced a filthy, pig-stinking, unclean young man who didn’t deserve his love and embrace.
And he began kissing him.
But the son, in the embrace of his father’s love, has rehearsed the sinner’s prayer as he understands it.
He begins: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.
Wait for it, beloved.
But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.
Something was missing from the son’s plan.
What was it?
He was going to ask to be treated as a hired worker.
I like how Sinclair Ferguson explains this omission from the son’s statement.
He reckons that the son was about to say it but then the father’s embrace literally squeezed the breath out of him.
Bring my best robe! A ring! Sandals! Put them on him.
These are all things that belong to sons and not hired workers.
You see, beloved, there are no hired servants in the Kingdom but only sons.
The father was not finished…
23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
I was telling my children a few weeks ago how it was not common to eat meat in these times.
If you kill an entire fatted calf then you’re cooking it right away because there’s no refrigeration.
It’sa big deal and you’re going to invite the whole town.
The father throws a celebration at the return of his son.
The son had wished his father dead but it is the son who has returned from the death and the father is overjoyed.
I don’t know how to underline how shocking and strange this reaction to a rebel son would have been to the hearers.
Some of you may not relate to this and I was once warned never to use this example but I’m going to do it anyway.
Some of you may have heard of Sgt Bo Bergdahl.
By all accounts the man deserted his unit and the search for him led to the death of some soldiers.
He’s morally reprehensible. He’s not a hero.
What stuck out to me at the story of his restoration was how tireless his father was to get his son out of captivity in Afghanistan.
I’m just trying to get us to conceive of how odd it would be to throw a party for a family traitor.
Why would the father in this parable be celebrating?
A character now emerges that represents this very picture.
Someone is not at all happy about the younger son’s return.
The older brother.
The entire town is celebrating as he comes home from the field.
They’re in the house and he refuses to enter.
In another turn of cultural norms, the older brother is so rude that his father has to come out to him and plead that he come inside.
Notice the exchange…
The elder brother rudely states: ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’
Sons in this culture do not talk to their father’s in this manner.
Notice that he speaks of his own obedience and good behavior but goes further.
He complains that he’s never been given the opportunity with MY FRIENDS.
Not a party with the father and the son but MY FRIENDS.
Notice also how he refers to his own brother as this son of yours.
He’s not by brother. He’s this son of yours.
He’s disgusted with both his father and his own brother.
31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ ”
Now I want you to think of the imagery here.
Inside is celebration over a found son.
Inside is the light.
The older son is in the outer darkness gnashing his teeth at the father.
The father is pleading that there is plenty of inheritance and blessing left for him but that place is in the house.
Everything is available for the brother.
Everything he has.
And the parables end.
If you’ve been keeping score, every previous parable stated that there is more rejoicing in heaven when one sinner repents.
He doesn’t have to say it again here. It goes without saying.
But Jesus has also just made a point to his hearers.
Remember that the parables began in the backdrop that the Pharisees and the Scribes were complaining that Jesus received sinners and ate with them.
His point in the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin is that there is more rejoicing over one sinner than a bunch of righteous people who do not need to repent.
In this last story, he doesn’t make that point.
Or does He?
There is celebration inside the house.
Who is standing outside complaining about the celebration?
The older brother.
Who then is the older brother?
The Pharisees and the Scribes.
They have a problem with the priorities of heaven itself.
The reality is that they need to repent because they’re dead as well.
They’re in the darkness gnashing their teeth at the Son of God who came not to condemn but to save and to seek the lost.
We’re always tempted to shake our heads at the Pharisees and Scribes but the real question we needto ask ourselves is: How am I just like them?
I’ve been going through Romans with Aric and we came to the beginning of Chapter 2.
Romans 2:1–4 (ESV)
2 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
I found myself reflecting on my reaction to the news cycle and how often my reaction to this lost world is one of condemnation.
I hear about cities making laws that will hurt children and tear them away from parents because of a confused sense of gender and other things that the culture finds right.
What is my reaction?
I think: “Well, they’ll get theirs.”
To my shame my reaction is not immediately to pray that the Lord will raise up the Church to preach the Good News so that these lost people will hear the Gospel.
I’m not looking on the horizon hoping to see the dead brought back to life.
The servant of God must be kind, patiently enduring others in the hopes that they might be led to repentance.
This is the disposition of a Christian but I far too often look at the lost as the elder brother – comfortable with my friends who are righteous as I am.
This parable ends with an open invitation.
The reality is that we’re all in a state of utter filth compared to the holiness of God.
The Gospel is here. Today is the day to come to your senses.
Are you ashamed?
Are you in despair?
Are you forsaken?
Are you in darkness?
Repent of your sins and look to Christ.
Look up Christian.
Who is that in the distance?
It’s the father.
And he’s running…
Let us pray.