Who are you? How do you think of yourself? We’re going to be considering this question over the next couple of weeks as we look at some of the parables that we find in Luke’s gospel.
The prodigal son is probably one of the best-known stories in the Bible—and probably one of the best-loved. Because I think that for most of us, when we think about this story, we think about the father welcoming home the undeserving son—we love it because we see it as a picture of God’s love for us, of the welcome that we can expect someday even when we’ve really messed up our lives. Even when we’ve ignored God.
But there’s a lot more to this story, which is really the final piece to a larger story. And unless we consider it in its proper context, we can’t really understand the message that Jesus’ listeners received when He told them this story—the message that He wanted them to receive, the message that He wants us to receive.
We need to go back to the beginning of the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel and pay attention to who Jesus is talking to. Chapter 15 begins with the words, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them,’ So he told them this parable:” (Luke 15:1-2).
Jesus isn’t having a private conversation with His disciples. He’s talking to a crowd—a mixed crowd that’s made up of Pharisees and scribes and tax collectors and sinners. Made up of those who considered themselves to be the righteous ones and those who knew they weren’t. Tax collectors were like the terrorists of first century Israel and “sinners” probably meant prostitutes and whoever else wasn’t welcome in polite society.
Now imagine you’re in the crowd. Which group would you consider yourself to be part of? Because Jesus, in telling three parables about three parties, three celebrations, is asking His listeners to identify with people with whom they would never imagine identifying—He starts with a shepherd.
He tells them a story about a shepherd who has 100 sheep and loses one of them. The shepherd searches until he finds the one that’s lost and then he carries it home on his shoulders rejoicing. Then “he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’”
And then Jesus says, “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” (Luke 15:6-7).
But wait: Who’s the sinner in this story? Now, in the view of the Pharisees who are listening, all shepherds are sinners—but what sin has this shepherd committed? Isn’t this a story about a lost sheep? What does it have to do with repentance? What’s He talking about?
Then Jesus tells them about a woman who loses one of her ten silver coins. The numbers have come down and the value goes up. The coin is lost; the woman lights a lamp and searches 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 which I had lost!’” Another party! And then He says it again: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:9-10). Now again, in the view of the Pharisees and scribes, women are considered to have little value. A common prayer of the Pharisees was to thank God that they had not been born a woman. But who committed a sin in this story? The woman? The coin?
Jesus knows exactly what He’s doing–He has intentionally told these two stories with missing pieces. Because He has their total attention now. His listeners are wondering about sin and repentance—and then He tells the third story about a father with a lost son. The man has two sons and the younger brother wants his inheritance now—he didn’t want to wait until his father died.
Now this story they understand. They know who the sinner is here—because for a son to demand his inheritance while his father is still living is the same as saying, “I wish you were dead.”
But the father agrees. He divides his wealth between his two sons and the younger one soon gathers his share and “went on a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living” (Luke 15:13). And then, when he’s broke, a famine occurs and “he began to be in need.” He hires himself out to a pig farmer, but he’s not even allowed to eat what the pigs eat.
Pigs are, of course, an unclean animal for Jews and so being reduced to caring for pigs would have placed the younger son even lower than a tax collector in the view of Jesus’ listeners.
Now the son begins to realize that when he was living at home, things were really pretty good. He never had to worry about having food to eat or a roof over his head. And so he decides to go back—on the way he rehearses a little speech: He thinks to himself, I’ll say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:18).
He knows he was wrong—and he has repented. But he never gets a chance to give his little speech because his father sees him coming and runs to meet him, hugging and kissing him as he drags him back to the house, where he immediately orders his servants to killed the fattened calf to throw a big party celebrating the return of his son.
Meanwhile the older brother has been working out in the field and when he returns home at the end of the day he hears music and dancing and asks one of the servants what’s going on. When they tell him that they’re celebrating the return of his younger brother, he’s furious. He refuses to go in. His father comes out and tries to get him to join the party, but he refuses.
He says, “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. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:30-31).
He is bitter, he’s jealous, he’s angry. He hates his brother’s sin, but he also hates his father’s loving forgiveness.
Now—remember who Jesus is talking to, the crowd that’s listening to his story. They’ve already identified the prodigal as the sinner and the older son as the righteous one. But now the prodigal (the sinner) has returned in repentance and says, “I will be your slave.” And the older son (the Pharisee) says, “I have been a slave all along!”
Who’s right here? The older brother stayed home; he was obedient and hard-working. He played by the rules. While his brother was out sowing wild oats, he was home sowing crops for his father. He didn’t demand anything. On the outside, he was everything a father could want in a son. After his brother selfishly took off, he continued to labor in the father’s field, continued to do the right thing, to be what we would consider to be a model son.
Sure, maybe he was looking forward to the day his brother would return and get what was coming to him—but who could blame him?
Now that day has come—his younger brother has returned. Imagine his disappointment when his father joyfully welcomes the prodigal home.
We have in this story a summary of the entire Bible. A young man rejects his father, leaves home to enjoy a life focused on worldly pleasure, but who, when he realizes the error of his ways, when he repents, is welcomed home by his father. And not just welcomed, but welcomed with great joy and celebration.
This is a big problem not just for the older brother in the story, but also for the crowd listening to the story. Because the Pharisees and the scribes would have identified totally with the older brother. And the sinners and tax collectors might be liking the father’s welcome of his younger son, but they would have been thinking, “That’s not how things are. Nobody would ever actually do that.”
So where are you in the crowd? Now the father, of course, is God. Some of us can identify with the younger son—we were introduced to God by our parents but later left Him behind for a life of wild living in the far country before we returned in repentance. Others of us have always remained in the family, going to church and doing the right thing—playing by the rules. We can’t point to any particular moment when we wandered away and then later returned to Him.
Which one are you? Do you identify more with the Pharisees and scribes or with the tax collectors and sinners? The Pharisees and scribes are angry—because they know that they’re the older brother—the older brother who’s not presented in a good light in this story. And notice that Jesus doesn’t tell us whether the older son ever joins the party, whether he eventually comes to a place where he can rejoice at his brother’s return.
We’re not told anything at all about what happens to him in the end.
Everything seems to be turned upside down in this story. The hopeless son, who deserves slavery, is restored to full sonship, while at the same time we realize that it is the older brother who’s been a slave all along—a slave to his hatred for the lovingkindness of his generous and merciful father. An older brother who looks good on the outside, but who is consumed by jealousy and anger on the inside. Blinded by bitterness.
But that’s not all—Jesus is presenting a picture of God that His listeners don’t like. Because as He tells this story, every single one of those listening to Him would have been thinking that the father is a fool. A fool to divide his fortune and give the younger brother his share while the father is still alive. They know that no one but a fool would ever do that.
A fool to watch the road, waiting for the prodigal to return. A fool to come running when he finally sees him—because no self-respecting father in first century Israel, no “righteous” man, would ever have run anywhere. It was undignified—at best, he would have stood and waited for the son to run to him. This father made a fool of himself in front of everybody.
And, most of all, they would have considered him to be a fool to throw a big celebration, killing the fattened calf, putting the best robe on the youngest son and even giving him the treasure of a ring. Hadn’t the son already received more than he deserved?
What Jesus is giving us here, of course, is a picture of God’s grace. Jesus’ definition of grace is: “When the one from whom I have no right to expect anything gives me everything.”
And while we all want grace for ourselves, while we all want to know that there is no sin too great for God to forgive us, we often don’t want Him to extend that same grace to everybody else. Especially not to those people that we think don’t deserve it.
Sometimes we’re just like those Pharisees. We’re just like that older brothers. Maybe we even think that sometimes God is a fool. Oh, we’ve probably never thought of it in exactly those words, but… the prodigal son made a fool of his father when he demanded his inheritance and the father gave it to him.
And now he’s back. He’s back and he admits that he made a big mistake. He’s back asking for forgiveness. What would you do? Welcome him back with open arms and throw a big party?
Or maybe we’d want proof. How do we know that you’ve really changed? How do we know that you won’t do the same thing again? How do you expect me to trust you after all you’ve done?
Maybe we’ll let you come back but we’ll put you on probation for a while. Maybe you have to earn your place as son before we let you back into the family.
Maybe we’ll let you be a servant for a while. “Prove to us that you’ve really changed.”
All of this seems completely reasonable to us. The prodigal son had no right to expect anything other than perhaps a door slammed in his face. He doesn’t deserve a second chance.
Jesus’ listeners understood what He was telling them in this story—and they didn’t like it. Because they can clearly see that He’s telling them that both sons spent time in the pigpen. One in the pen of rebellion, the other in the pen of self-pity. The younger one has come home—the older one hasn’t. He’s still living in filth. He’s still crying out: “it’s not fair.”
And at least some of those listening to Jesus are so caught up in the idea that they’re more deserving than others because they look better on the outside that they can’t see that they’re the real fools.
They accuse, they blame: “Can’t you see how unworthy they are? They don’t go to church, they don’t volunteer, they don’t care about anybody else. They don’t have a job, they don’t take care of their kids ….” “They’re not like me.”
Jesus told another story once about a Pharisee and a sinner praying.
They brag: “I follow the rules. I play fair—in fact, I do pretty much everything better than anybody else.”
They whine: “Nobody listens to me. Nobody prays attention to all the things I do. Nobody appreciates me.”
These are the things the Pharisees and scribes are thinking. How about you? Any of us ever think this way?
When we wallow in our ideas of how much more deserving we are than someone else, we’re wallowing in the pigpen of bitterness.
The good news in these stories is that we don’t have a God who’s just like us. We have a God of unfathomable mercy and grace, a God who never decides that we’re too bad, too far gone. At the same time, Jesus is telling us, it’s only when the son’s cries of “give me” turn to cries of “forgive me” that he finds himself received back into a place of fellowship, comfort and plenty—a place of grace.
Jesus is showing us that the journey from the pig pen of self-centeredness, of living a life that’s all about me, that doesn’t care about anything other than our own comfort and pleasure is possible for every one of us. And that when we’re ready to receive the love and grace of the Father, to be willing to lose our life and take up our cross and follow Him, the Father will be there—waiting with outstretched arms.
He’s also giving us a picture in these three parables that the listening crowd couldn’t possibly have understood—showing us how much God cares about every single one of us. The shepherd in the first story is, of course, Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Jesus who was sent into the world to seek and save the lost.
Jesus, who chose the most righteous of Pharisees, Paul, to be the one that He called to spread His gospel to the Gentiles.
The Father in the third story is, of course, God. God who sent His only beloved Son into the world that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
The woman in the second story is the bride of Christ, the church. The bride that Jesus calls to light the lamp that is His Word, and to “seek diligently” that which is lost. To seek out even those who seem undeserving, those who seem unrighteous. To seek out those on death row, those who have committed acts of terrorism, those who we don’t think are good parents, or who are lazy and unwilling to work, those who disagree with us politically.
Because every single one of them is loved by God and He’s longing to see every single one of them return to Him. Just as He desires for each one of us.