Luke 9:51-19:48

The Love of the Father for His Lost Sons and Daughters
Luke 15:1-32


You must be very careful when you approach Luke 15. The 3 parables in this chapter are so familiar that it would be tempting just to jump in and start applying them to our lives. Before you start applying these parables though, ask yourself if you understand the context of these 3 parables. Understanding the context of the 3 parables is critical if you are going to be able to apply them adequately to our lives.

The context of the 3 parables is found in verses 1 and 2. In these 2 verses we see the Pharisees criticizing Jesus because He is eating with publicans and sinners, publicans being the hated tax collectors and sinners being all those who are not Pharisees. The Pharisees simply wrote Jesus off because He was not observing some of the many rules they had made regarding purity. For example, they claimed that in order for a person to be pure, that person had to wash his hands before he ate. Moreover, he had to make sure that his food was prepared properly so that it would qualify as being kosher. In their opinion Jesus simply was not a righteous man because He did not observe these regulations.

Their problem with Jesus though went deeper than that. He not only skirted their food and purification regulations, He associated with those who totally flouted these regulations. Their disdain for these people can be seen in the fact that they called them “sinners.” (In John 7:49 the Pharisees actually said that these people were cursed of God.) The label “sinners” did not mean that these people had necessarily fallen into deep sin. Rather it simply connoted the fact that they did not observe the Pharisees’ regulations. They just couldn’t see how Jesus could associate with these people if He truly were a rabbi from God. The only conclusion they could draw was that He was not from God. The 3 parables directly address this last criticism, how Jesus could be from God and yet associate with such “sinners.”


In the first parable a shepherd who is also the owner of the sheep discovers that one of his flock has been lost. This is really no great loss to the shepherd since he has 99 sheep who are not lost. (The flock of 100 sheep shows that the man is doing OK by himself financially; he’s not rich, but neither is he poor.) Although the shepherd does have 99 sheep, his thoughts are for the one that is lost. Leaving the 99 behind, he searches high and low for the lost sheep until he discovers it. Because the sheep has most likely panicked over being lost, he is in no shape to walk back to the flock. The shepherd with a touch of tenderness and compassion for the sheep lifts the sheep, places it on his shoulders, and carries the sheep home. Upon returning home, the shepherd does not rebuke the sheep. Rather he calls together his family and friends, calling them to rejoice with him because he has found the sheep that was lost.

In the second parable we see a woman who has lost one of her ten silver coins, the silver coin being worth a day’s wages. (Notice that like the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, Jesus here balances out a parable featuring a man—the shepherd—with a parable featuring a woman. Luke highlights the equal love Jesus has for both men AND women.) Most likely because there were no windows in the house (for safety reasons), the woman lights a candle and searches high and low until she finds the silver coin. Upon finding the coin, the woman calls her neighbors to celebrate with her the finding of the silver coin.

The main point in both these parables is that the shepherd and the woman searched high and low for the thing that was lost to them, the sheep and the coin. It only stands to reason that if people would naturally search high and low for these things which were not all that valuable, then a loving God Himself would definitely search high and low for that someone who was lost to Him but who was also valuable to Him, one of Abraham’s children. God searches for those lost to Him until He finds them. Jesus reaching out to the publicans and tax collectors was simply performing the work of His Father. If anybody had a problem, it was the Pharisees, not Jesus. Moreover, if it was only natural that the shepherd and the woman rejoiced when they found the sheep and the coin, how much more natural is it for the Father to rejoice whenever He finds one of His sheep, a son or daughter of Abraham?

Notice that Jesus says that there is rejoicing over the returning sinner and not over the 99 righteous. Jesus is being facetious whenever he calls the 99 “righteous.” When He speaks of the 99 righteous, He is referring to the Pharisees. These were not righteous in the eyes of God. They were righteous only in their own eyes. The truth is that they were as lost as the one sheep and the one coin; their pride though prevented them from acknowledging that they were lost, and thereby prevented them from repenting, and thereby from being found (saved).

Every parable has its limitations. Two parables alone cannot communicate all theological truth. For example, neither parable shows that the people are to repent. This is simply due to the fact that sheep and coins cannot repent. Yet when Jesus finds a sheep or a coin, He finds them at the point of their repentance. The rejoicing in heaven is not only over the search for the sinner but also for the repentance of the sinner. Repentance is a necessary feature of this story.


There are some notable differences between this parable and the 2 preceding ones. First, the objects lost in the first 2 parables are a dumb animal and an inanimate object, a silver coin. In the third parable a son is lost. Also, the number of objects has been greatly reduced in the third parable. The first parable involved one sheep out of a hundred, while the second parable revolved around one coin out of ten. In each case the object is becoming more and more valuable. The third parable though deals with one son out of two; this object then becomes even more valuable. Finally, in this parable Luke pays much attention to the mindset of the lost object, the son. He has already established in the first 2 parables the attitude of the Father—He seeks after that which is lost. This parable though highlights the response the lost person is to have towards his situation.

Notice that I do not call this the parable of the Prodigal Son. The reason is that only half the parable is about him. At the very outset of the parable Jesus tells us that the father had 2 sons, not one. This parable concerns the second son as much as it does the first son. Why are there only 2 sons in this parable? Because Jesus is addressing this parable to 2 groups: the younger son who represents the sinners/publicans and the elder son who represents the Pharisees.

The Younger Son (15:11-24)

The first part of the parable concerns the younger son. Apparently he has just had his fill of living at home with his father and elder brother. (In light of the way the elder son acts later it is easy to see why the younger son might want to leave home.) He approaches his father and demands that he forward him his inheritance immediately. Since he was the younger son, he was entitled to 1/3 of his father’s possessions. This request might raise a few eyebrows since the father was not dead yet; however, in ancient Israel sometimes it was allowable for the heirs to receive the inheritance before the demise of the parents. Since the son does not simply want the inheritance, since he does want to get away from home as far as possible, he liquidates all his inheritance and heads for a distant country. There the son squanders everything he possesses on riotous living.

Just as the money runs out, a famine hits the land where the younger son is living. This is not coincidence; it is the hand of God arranging the circumstances of the man’s life in order to bring him to repentance. At that point the man discovers that all his newfound friends have left him. He is destitute. The only job he can find is tending to swine. In order to understand the depths to which the younger son sank, you need to realize that swine were listed as the most unclean of animals according to the Jews. Whereas the Jew might do a number of unholy acts, he won’t eat pork. When he sinks to taking care of swine, he can sink no lower. Moreover, he is so hungry that he wants to eat the pods that have been set aside for the swine. Unfortunately, even this food is not given to him to eat. He is basically starving to death.

Notice what does not happen at this point in the story. The father does not rush in to save the son. He doesn’t rush in with food and clothing and a nice apartment for him to live in. If the father had done this, he would have short-circuited the process of the younger son coming to repentance. There are some things worse than sitting among a herd of swine starving to death. Living a life of disobedience to God is a whole lot worse. If sitting among the swine starving to death is what it takes to bring us back to God, then we need to sit among the swine and starve. This applies not only to us but also to our own children and other loved ones.

At this point Luke says that the younger son came to his senses, literally came to himself. He reflects upon his situation and realizes that the servants in his father’s home have it better than he. At this point the younger son decides he is going to go home. He is going to confess to his father than he has sinned not only against him but also against God Himself. He has come to realize that he has sinned and that ultimately all sin is against God. I may sin against you; however, I have ultimately sinned against God who created me and therefore owns me, and who commanded me to treat you differently. The son will not ask to be reinstated in the household as a son but rather as a servant. He has correctly come to realize that he is no longer worthy to be called his father’s son. He arises and starts out home.

What happens next is one of the most poignant scenes in the entire Bible. It reminds me of a scene from the 1972 movie Sounder. That movie portrayed the story of a poor black family of sharecroppers living in Louisiana during the Depression. Paul Winfred plays the role of Nathan the father who deeply loves his family, while Cicely Tyson plays the role of the mother who is the emotional anchor of the family. There are 3 children and a dog named “Sounder.” In the movie Nathan is hauled off to prison for stealing bread to feed his hungry family. For much of the rest of the movie Cicely Tyson struggles to raise the crop and her children. One hot day the mother and the children are sitting on the porch of the home which sat on top of a hill overlooking a road which wound away in the distance. A speck appears at the far end of the road. The dog Sounder sits up, sensing somebody familiar is coming. Suddenly he starts to bark and tears off down the road towards the stranger. The mother calls out, “Sounder!” She thinks the dog has lost it. She peers at the person coming up the door. Suddenly she bolts from the porch and starts running down the hill. She cries out: “Nathan! Nathan!” The children run right behind her crying out: “Daddy! Daddy!” The father has come home, limping, holding onto a crutch. The family swarm him, hugging him and kissing him, crying all the while. The night I saw that movie in San Antonio, there was not a single dry eye in the house. It is a vivid portrayal of the emotions that the father experienced in our parable.

Apparently the father has kept his eye out on the road his son used to leave home. During the days, months, and even years the younger son has been gone, a lot has been going on at the homestead. Yet all the while the father has kept his eye on the road in hopes that the younger son will return. Although the younger son returns in a condition far different from the one he left in—poor, starving, tattered clothes, shoeless, the father nevertheless recognizes that this is his younger son. The father tears down the hill, falls upon his son’s neck, kissing him and weeping. The son begins to recite his prepared speech: “I have sinned . . . I am not worthy.” Because of love the father does not hear the speech. For the father the only thing that was important to him was that the younger son had come home. (What about repentance? The fact that the son had returned home showed he had repented.)

Notice something here. Wasn’t the father forgetting that because the son had committed this terrible sin that he was no longer worthy to be called his son? That may be true in the eyes of most people, but it is not true in the eyes of a father. Sometimes we love things because they are valuable; however, sometimes some things are valuable to us because we love them. I have a Mercury Mountaineer which when purchased was valued in the range of $30k (trust me, I didn’t pay that much for it). It is valuable to me. On the other hand, I have a miniature replica of Michelangelo’s statue the Pieta which cost under $50 when I purchased it in 1968. One day I will trade in the Mountaineer without a tear shed. I would hate it though if something happened to the Pieta. Why? I purchased it during the trip to Rome I took with my mom and dad when I was fifteen years old. It was one of the happiest weeks of my life. I am from a family of 6 kids, and I seldom if ever got my parents to myself. I did though that trip, for a whole 7 days. That replica is basically all that I have to remind me of that trip. It is valuable to me because I love it and what it represents. In the same way the younger son is valuable to the father because the father loves the son. Too often we are trying to find value and self-worth in what we do. If we go down that path, we are forever going to be frustrated. Value and self-worth are found in the love of God. We are valuable because He loves us.

The father begins to lavish gifts upon his younger son. He clothes him with the finest robe in the house; he places sandals on his feet and even places his ring upon the younger son’s finger. Each gift was unnecessary. He could have clothed his son with a lesser garment. The ring was not necessary for life. Slaves went around barefoot all the time. This is not a father just providing for the necessities of life. This is a father who is overjoyed by the fact that his son has repented and returned home. To top it all off, he orders that the fatted calf be killed and be prepared for a banquet in honor of his younger son’s return.

The Elder Son (15:25-32)

The parable is not over. There are 2 sons in the story, not one. The elder son has been working in the field all day; as he nears home, he notices all the commotion that’s been going on. When he asks a servant about all the commotion, he is furious when he discovers the reason for the commotion. He is so angry that he refuses to join in all the proceedings. When the father hears about the elder’s son reaction, he does not rebuke the son. He doesn’t tell him to go stew in his misery and bitterness. He rushes down to entreat the son to come home. (Notice that coming home in this story is the true mark of repentance.)

The elder son then reproaches his father not only for lavishing this banquet upon his younger brother but also for the way he has ill-treated him the elder brother. Notice several things here. First, he never calls the younger son "brother"; he only calls him his father's son. He really wants to have nothing further to do with this man. Why though? The elder brother is acting like the younger brother sinned against him. The younger brother sinned only against God and the father, not against the elder brother. Notice also that he claims that he has been "serving" his father for all these years. The word translated "serving" is really better translated "enslaved"; this is reinforced by what the elder son says next--"I have kept your COMMANDMENTS." In other words the elder son did not view his relationship with his father as being that of a father/son relationship; rather he viewed it as a master/slave relationship. Moreover, the father has never provided as much as a goat for the elder son and his friends to enjoy, much less a fatted calf. He was being treated unfairly.

The father responds out of love for the elder son. God loves the Pharisee too. The Pharisee has also been made in the likeness of the Father. He is as much God's creation as the publican/tax collector, even though he is harder to love. The father replies that everything the he has belongs to the son. This is true literally since all that remains is the 2/3 of the inheritance which goes to the elder son; it is also true emotionally and spiritually. The father loves the elder son as much as he loves the younger son.

Most of us can sympathize with the elder son. How many of us when we were younger got upset with our parents because they did not discipline our other brothers and sisters to the extent we thought they should have. Yet when we became parents, we began to understand the response of the father here. It is no longer a matter of "they did this" or "they did that"; it's a matter of love. We love our children, even the ones who stray. Moreover, it is true that the elder son was being treated unfairly. Yet how many of us really want God to treat us all fairly? The elder son was deluded if he thought he was always righteous. The elder son needed grace as much as the younger son did. The thing about grace though is that it is a sharp 2-edged sword. It works in our favor and also in the favor of people we think don't deserve that grace.

Notice also the divine necessity to love. The father replies that "we had to be merry and celebrate." The words "had to" refer to divine necessity; God demands that we celebrate. If we are going to do the God-thing, if we are going to be like God, then we must celebrate whenever a lost son has returned home. If God rejoices, then how much more should we. The Pharisee is finding himself totally contrary to the way God responds in this kind of situation.

The truth is that we are all prodigal sons. The question we have to ask ourselves now is if we are going to adopt the attitude of the father or the attitude of the elder son toward other prodigals. Our response is critical here. It determines whether or not we are going to participate in the banquet. God is preparing a banquet for all His prodigal sons and daughters. He is inviting all of us to join Him in that banquet. We have got to decide whether or not we are going to join in that banquet for all prodigals.

Notice two things in this story. First, it was totally up to the elder son if he was going to join the banquet or not. The idea that God chooses some for the banquet and yet rejects others finds no place in this story. Also notice that in this story it is not our attitude towards the father which determines whether or not we will get to join in the banquet; our attitude towards our prodigal brother is what determines that. When it is all said and done though, our attitude towards the prodigal brother reflects our attitude towards God.