Luke 15 (ESV): The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Parable of the Lost Coin, The Parable of the Prodigal Son
This entry combines together a number of thematically-related parables on what it means to be “lost”—or rather, how God views “lostness.”
It begins with the Pharisees and Scribes “grumbling” about the fact that Jesus is eating with sinners. So he tells a couple of parables:
“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? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 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.’ 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.
“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? 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.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
But after these two “mini parables,” Jesus gives a longer parable about the Prodigal Son in verses 11–32 (ESV). This is a pretty well known parable, but the essence of it is:
- A man has two sons, and the younger decides he doesn’t want to wait for his father to die, he wants his inheritance right away. Surprisingly, his father agrees, and splits the inheritance between the two brothers.
- The younger brother gathers it all up, leaves town, and squanders it all in “reckless living.”
- This is where he gets the name the “Prodigal Son.” We don’t use the word very often anymore, but “prodigal” simply means “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant,” so we call this man “the prodigal son” because of the way he spent his part of the inheritance.
- No sooner is the money gone than a famine hits, so he gets a job feeding pigs.
- But he starts to notice that the pigs are actually eating better than he is, so he eventually comes to his senses: his father’s servants eat better than he’s eating now! He decides that he should go home, beg his father to hire him on as a servant, and then maybe he’ll eat better.
- So he sets off, planning to do exactly that—he even has a little speech prepared—except that before he can reach his father (let alone deliver the speech), his father sees him coming and runs to him, embracing and kissing him. The son finally starts to give his speech but he can’t finish before his father is telling the servants to fetch “the best robe,” and to start preparations to have a feast to celebrate his son’s return.
- This all happens while the older son is out in the fields, working. When he returns, hears the sounds of the celebration, and finds out that the celebration is on behalf of his little brother, he gets angry. All these years he’s been working diligently for his father and never received thanks for it, yet his brother goes off and squanders all he has, and then when he comes back there’s a celebration!
- But his father responds, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
The first two parables here are obviously related to each other; they’re essentially two different metaphors to describe the same situation. (If you can’t relate to herding sheep, maybe you can relate to money, and vice versa.) The point Jesus is trying to get across to his listeners—especially the Pharisees, of course—is that we don’t always give proper regard to those who aren’t part of the “in crowd.” Even if the “in crowd” is Christians!
Perhaps I should find a better way to phrase that.
The Bible—especially the New Testament—makes it clear, over and over again, that God cares about lost sinners. The only reason He hasn’t already returned is that He doesn’t want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:8–9 (ESV), though it’s probably better to say "he doesn’t want any of His chosen ones to perish—but I guess I’ll get into that if/when I ever get to the book of 2 Peter), so He’s not going to return until everyone on His list is in His kingdom. We should have similar regard for lost sinners, but we often don’t. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day definitely didn’t, they looked down on sinners in an obvious and odious way, but that doesn’t mean modern-day Christians are any better. (Or if we are, only marginally.) There are certain people we look at as irrideemable; as un-salvageable; as un-saveable. God, however, doesn’t look at people like that. God says, “Look, it’s great that there are 99 of you in your local church who are saved and belong to me, but what about that person around the corner in their apartment? I care about them too!” And it’s really easy for us to read this passage, look down our noses at those terrible Pharisees, and not stop to think that we do the same thing. Think about…
- The person in church who sinned so badly we don’t think they can ever be forgiven.
- The homeless, whom we assume are probably homeless because they screwed their life up badly (as opposed to the blameless way we lead our lives)
- The single mother, who is obviously morally bankrupt (though somehow we don’t seem to look the same way at males who have sex outside of marriage)
I could come up with dozens more examples, but the point is that our natural reaction is to treat certain classes of people exactly how the Pharisees treated “sinners” in their day: Not to put too fine a point on it, we simply don’t care about them. But I should be thanking God in my prayers that that’s not how He looked at me. He would have been right to do so—I was (and am) no better than anyone else—but instead He saw me as someone who needed to be saved. And when He did save me, and I finally realized how sinful I was and repented, there was “joy before the angels of God.”
But that brings us to the third parable Jesus gives in this chapter, which we always call the parable of “The Prodigal Son,” though smarter people than me have pointed out that it’s actually a parable about two sons, not just the one. Both sons have problems with the way their father does things (though they deal with those problems in different ways), but at the end of the parable it seems much more clear that the “prodigal” son has been reconciled with his father than it is about the older brother.
Smarter people than me have also pointed out some cultural aspects to this story that may not be obvious to Westerners. So that said, let’s get into it!
The first thing to notice is that the younger son seems to care much more about the money than he does about his father or his family. An inheritance, by definition, is something that the son is supposed to get after his father dies, but the son doesn’t want to wait for that. (My study Bible indicates that his share would likely have been a third of the estate, with the other two thirds going to the older brother.) Culturally, I’m led to believe, this would have been insulting to the father; Jesus’ listeners would likely have been mortified that the son would make this request, and outright shocked that the father actually agreed to it! Seeing that the father in this parable is an obvious metaphor for God, we should probably read this and think of God’s patience with His people; we are constantly making undeserved demands of Him, and He is constantly being patient with us. You could read the entire history of the Israelites up to Jesus’ day in that light, but we should also read our own personal lives in that light as well.
Regardless, given all of this newfound money, the younger son immediately goes off and squanders it, after which point he finds himself penniless and trying to do anything he can to make money so that he won’t starve. It might be pushing things a bit too far—I don’t like trying to interpret each single line in a parable looking for deep meaning—but it’s probably worth pondering the fact that the same often happens to us: we chase after sin, sometimes the Father prevents us and sometimes He lets us have our way, but regardless it never seems to satisfy the way we’d thought it would. The younger son in this story feels that his share of the inheritance will make him happy, and I think it does for a while, but then he finds that the happiness has run out, and he’s left with nothing.
So he eventually realizes that he was foolish to take the material blessings instead of simply staying with his father, and decides to come back in repentance. In fact—and this sentiment has always resonated with me, and maybe with other Christians as well—he decides he is no longer worthy of even being considered his father’s son; he’ll become a servant, instead! On this point, I think the younger son’s heart is in the right place, at this moment in time, but he doesn’t properly understand his father’s heart, just as we don’t always understand our Father’s heart when it comes to repentance and forgiveness.
- While it sounds very humble for the son to take on the position of a servant instead of a son, it’s actually underestimating how big his offense was, and what type of punishment is deserved—just as we typically underestimate the severity of our own sins before our Heavenly Father. We sometimes get a similar attitude, and think of ways we could “make it up to God” for our sins, whereas knowledge of how bad our sins really are would probably cripple us mentally and emotionally…
- Similarly, while the son is humbling himself in this moment, if the father had actually taken him up on his offer, and made the son a servant, how long would he have stayed humble? At what point would the novelty of being a servant have worn off, and he’d have started missing his days as a son? At what point, after he’d been serving for a while, would he start thinking to himself that his offenses weren’t that bad, and shouldn’t his father be forgiving him by this point and letting bygones be bygones?
Again, I’m not saying his heart was in the wrong place—I’ve always read this part of the story as genuine repentance—he just wasn’t fully understanding the full gravity of the situation. (And I’m also recognizing that this is a parable, so the son wasn’t a real person, but I think the discussion is relevant to how real people would react in similar situations.)
But most importantly, especially when comparing this metaphorical son with ourselves, the younger son is trying to fix his own problem, whereas the only way this problem can actually be solved is by the father. As mentioned above, Jesus’ listeners would have been shocked at the father’s reaction when the son requested his inheritance; they would have been equally shocked (maybe more?) at the father’s response to his son’s return. The son delivered a terrible insult to the family by requesting his inheritance, he went off and stupidly squandered it, and then when he came back the father simply restored him back to his original place? Not only that, but showed tremendous affection for him? What this fictional father did for his fictional son was simply over the top: no real father would have reacted this way for his son. He would, in fact, be throwing away his family’s honour and status by doing so. But he did!
Similarly, we—who have done nothing but rebel against the Father our entire lives, living in direct rebellion against him (regardless of whether we’d viewed it that way)—come before Him and ask for Him to forgive us, even though we have no means of earning that forgiveness, and He simply… does it! And, like the fictional father with his fictional prodigal son, God doesn’t accept us as servants, He accepts us as His children—to really hit this point over the head, He considers us his heirs, alongside Christ:
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:16–17 (ESV, emphasis added))
And in a lot of our minds, that’s probably where this story ends: The younger son behaves terribly but his father forgives him and restores him, even though he doesn’t deserve it. But we know the story doesn’t end there, we need to remember the older brother. The one who, as far as Jesus’ listeners are concerned, has done everything right. The good son. While modern-day readers tend to focus on the younger, “prodigal” son—part of this is the fault of the various Bible translations we use, that always put in a heading calling this parable “the parable of the prodigal son,” squarely putting the focus on the younger—we should note that Jesus is explicitly telling this story to the Pharisees (given the context), and their main takeaway from this parable would have been about the older son.
And as it turns out, the older son is actually making the same mistake the younger made: he believes his father’s love (and inheritance) can be earned. He’s done everything right, he’s followed the rules—he doesn’t even realize when the younger son comes home because he’s working in the fields!—so he feels that he deserves what he has.
It’s not surprising, incidentally, when the older brother gets angry with his father for giving even more to the younger son; after all, the inheritance has already been split! A third went to the younger son, two thirds went to the older son, which left the father with nothing! So when the father puts a robe on his younger son, it’s the older son’s robe; the fattened calf they slaughtered for the feast was the older son’s fattened calf. Financially, if this were a real story Jesus was recounting, it wouldn’t be the father’s place to give the younger son anything, because the father had nothing left to give.
But I don’t think we’re to take the story that literally. Again, Jesus is talking to the Pharisees: They firmly believed the Kingdom of God was theirs by right. They’ve been doing all the right things, they’ve been earning God’s favour (in their own eyes), so if God were to give His “inheritance” to anyone other than them—such as myself, for example, since I’m not Jewish—they’d feel He is doing them wrong. And that is their profound misunderstanding of the Gospel: they’re sort of half right, God is freely offering His Grace to people who don’t deserve it, but they’re very much half wrong in thinking that they themselves do deserve it. Frankly, what they don’t get is the concept of “Grace;” they’re still of the mindset that God makes a bunch of rules, people obey those rules (or don’t), and then “get what they deserve” based on that obedience. This is what most people around the world believe about religion. Sure, maybe we don’t obey the rules perfectly, but we’re close enough.
Jesus came along and tried to explain to people that, actually, our sins are much, much more severe than we realize. If we “got what we deserve” from God, we’d all end up in Hell. But those of us who believe don’t get what we deserve, we get God running out to us, taking us in His arms, and counting us as children and co-heirs with Christ.
And then, to quote the passage again, “there is joy before the angels of God” of our repentance.