Today we are looking at Luke, chapter 15, which contains the well-known stories of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and what is often called the Story of the Prodigal Son. This chapter is sometimes called “The Heart of the Third Gospel” because of its eloquent
portrayal of God’s extravagant grace and his passion for the lost. But there is an Easter egg in this passage, there is an extra message in here that we often miss, and when that happens we don’t get full value from our reading of this text and how it applies to our lives.
To get the most out of this beautiful passage, you need to know the culture two thousand years ago in Judea and the surrounding areas was far different than ours is today. The Jewish religion dominated the culture and outside of Jerusalem it was the Pharisaic brand of Judaism that dominated the Jewish religion. The Pharisees emphasized living according to the Hebrew Scriptures and avoiding contamination from sinful people and things. Those who did not meet the Pharisees standards—people like the sick, the lame and the blind, along with prostitutes and tax collectors—were outcasts in society. But then Jesus comes along with his message that the kingdom of God is present and available to all through him—and an amazing thing happens—all the sinners and outcasts are attracted to Jesus and his message. And then—what is even more amazing for someone who is supposed to be a great religious teacher—Jesus does what is considered in the Middle East to be a highly valued expression of hospitality and fellowship: he eats with those who draw near to him.
The Pharisees are incensed. By fellowshipping with outcasts and sinners, Jesus has contaminated himself and violated a core principle of the Pharisees. Already in the early chapters of Luke’s account of Jesus’ life, the Pharisees are asking “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (Luke 5:30b). And so we have this divide that happens in the society of that time when people encounter Jesus. Those who would never darken the door of a house of worship and would never be welcome there anyway because their sin and brokenness is evident for all to see, they hear and see something in Jesus that is attractive to them and they flock to him. While those who are considered leaders in those same houses of worship, they see and hear something in Jesus that repels them and they condemn him. And we have that pattern continuing with the first verses of Luke, chapter 15.
1 Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: (Luke 15:1-3)
Now Jesus wants to heal this Great Divide. Jesus is just as concerned about the Pharisees as he is about the tax collectors and sinners. And so he tells a parable, that is, a short story that illustrates truth. But to whom does Jesus tell this parable? He tells it to the Pharisees.
The parable that Jesus tells can be divided into two parts. In the first part of the story, Jesus says things with which the Pharisees would mostly agree. First he tells a story about a Lost Sheep, and while the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were not shepherds, they were familiar enough with sheep herding to know that if they did have one hundred sheep and they lost one, they would go out looking for it. And when they found that one lost sheep, they would joyfully bring it home and invite their friends and neighbours to rejoice with them, and that usually meant celebrating with a banquet feast. And then Jesus concludes the story by saying words to the effect of “Just as you would be overjoyed to find that one lost sheep, so God is overjoyed when one lost person comes home.” And the implied invitation is, “Come join in God’s joy.”
Then Jesus tells a story about a Lost Coin. And while the Pharisees are not women, they know enough about coins to know that if they did have ten coins, each worth a day’s wages, and they lost one, they would search through the house looking for it. And when they found that lost coin, they would joyfully invite their friends and neighbours to rejoice with them, and perhaps that would mean going out for some decaf double tall non-fat extra-dry cappuccino with cranberry orange scones. And then Jesus says words to the effect of “Just as you would celebrate over finding a lost coin, so there is celebration among the angels in heaven when one sinner repents. And the implied invitation is “Come and celebrate with the angels in heaven.”
Then Jesus tells a story about a Lost Son. “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. (Luke 15:11b-12)
With this third story the value of the lost object increases dramatically from a sheep and a coin to a human being. And the ratio at risk increases exponentially from one out of a hundred, to one out of ten, to one out of two. And the degree of lostness rises by a quantum leap. This younger son is not just lost, he thoughtlessly says and does things which bring huge shame, not only upon himself, but also upon his father and, by extension, the village in which they live. By asking for his share of the estate while his father is still alive, the younger son is saying to his father’s face that he is wishing that his father was dead.
What is totally unexpected at this point in the story is that the father accedes to his younger son’s request. He divides up his property, giving two-thirds of his estate to his oldest son and one-third to his youngest son. And note that the oldest son, whose duty in that culture was to bring reconciliation between his father and brother, instead went along with his brother’s request. The father not only divided up his property between his sons, he did something that was totally unheard of in that culture, he allowed them to dispose of the land that he had given them if that was what they chose to do. The father’s love for his sons was uninhibited and unconditional even though it cost him to love like he did.
And through his actions the father brought shame upon himself. “What kind of a father raises a son that would ask for his share of the estate before his father had even died?” the neighbours must have wondered as the news spread throughout the village. “What kind of a father gives into that kind of a request and allows an irresponsible son like that to have one third of his estate?” They would have watched as the youngest son went from neighbour to neighbour trying to sell his share of the family farm. Only a disreputable person would contribute to the disgrace going on in this village by buying the land. So the youngest son probably sold at a loss, bringing more shame upon shame, so he could gather up his money, leave the village and go to distant country. There he squanders his money, but we usually read too much into the way that he spent it. The NIV translation says that he “squandered his wealth in wild living” and these words conjure up images of wine, women and song. But it would be more accurate to say that he “squandered his wealth in extravagant living.” Jesus intentionally does not attribute more sin to the youngest son because this story is not just about the youngest son.
Out of money in a foreign land with no friends or family to help him, the young man is in a terrible situation. But it is made worse by a famine that hits the land. Everyone has to tighten their belts. So the youngest son does the unthinkable: he hires himself out to a Gentile. To make matters worse, he is looking after this Gentile’s pigs, which were unclean animals and abhorrent to an observant Jew. Even worse than this, the youngest son is destitute, and he even longs to eat the pods that the pigs chew on, even though there would be no nutritional value in them for him.
In verse 17, we have the beginnings of a change: 17 “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! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father. (vv. 17-20)
Now if Jesus’ third story had ended here, the Pharisees could have nodded their head in agreement. Finally, the youngest son was doing what a good Jew should do: show great sorrow for his sin and express a deep desire to make amends for his sin. This, the Pharisees would have said among themselves, is what all those tax collectors and sinners that hang around with Jesus need to do. “They must first show through their deeds that they deserve to be readmitted into the community of Israel.”
But now we come to Part 2 of Jesus’ Great Parable. And this part of the parable is what I call a Gospel Explosion with a subtitle of Paradigms Lost because now Jesus absolutely blows apart all of the categories of the Pharisees. Because Jesus knows that what the youngest son has done so far and what the Pharisees think is sufficient is really not enough. The youngest son is sorry alright, but he is sorry because he has realized what a mess he has got himself into. And his change of heart and mind is really just a face-saving measure that will help him to bargain his way into a better situation. The key indication that his is not a genuine repentance is the younger son’s demand at the end of his planned confession: make me like one of your hired men. He doesn’t really want grace. He wants to save himself. Arthur Just in his commentary on Luke writes,
By asking to be a hired worker, the prodigal seeks a number of advantages. He is able to be back with the family even though he is not yet restored to the family; he is making money and may begin to pay back the debt he owes the father in squandering his share of the estate; he won’t have to live off his elder brother’s estate but will be making his own way; and he maintains a certain amount of freedom that will allow him a certain amount of dignity and status with respect to his father and brother. The downside of his plan is that he must live in a community that would consider him an outcast. He would be a pariah, but this is the chance he will take to extricate himself from his situation. The prodigal is repenting, but with certain conditions.”
And so Jesus explodes the Pharisees’ and our understandings of how things should be with the unpredictable, unexpected and extravagant love of the father. Before the son has a chance to say anything, the father, filled with compassion for his son, runs to him, embraces him and showers him with kisses. The father reconciles with his son in visible ways before the son has a chance to confess anything, and the father does all of this right in front of the rest of the village.
The son is clearly shocked by what his father has done. Overwhelmed by the love, forgiveness and acceptance of his father, the son now verbalizes words that indicate a true repentance. He says ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. (v. 21b) Note that he omitted the line make me like one of your hired men. No longer is he trying to bargain his way out of a tough situation. No longer is he trying to earn his way out of the debt he owes his father. Now the youngest son is overwhelmed by grace!
To further demonstrate his complete and unconditional acceptance of his youngest son, the father calls for his servants to bestow on his son all the visible signs of sonship: the best robe, a ring for his hand and shoes for his feet. Then the father orders that their best beef animal be sacrificed so that the whole village can be invited to a feast to celebrate the return of his youngest son.
Meanwhile, the oldest son returns from the fields. No feast was planned when he went to work that morning. If there was, he would have known about it because, as the eldest son, he would have served as steward of the feast so that his father could be the gracious host. Now, as he returns home he hears the sound of music and merriment. Instantly, he knows that a grand celebration is underway. He asks one of the servants what is going on and get this reply. ‘Your brother has come,…and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ (v. 26b) The oldest son becomes very angry, but what is he angry about? He is angry about the feast!
Because he refuses to go into the feast, the father comes out and pleads with him to come and join the celebration. In anger, the oldest son insults the father seven times: 1) he insulted his father by addressing him with no title. Even the younger son used the title “Father” when he addressed his father. 2) the oldest son insulted his father by demonstrating the spirit and attitude of a slave instead of a son, 3) he further insults his father by saying “I have never disobeyed your orders, 4) he insults his father by accusing him of favouritism when he says, “you never even gave me a young goat, 5) he insults his father by implying that he is not even part of the family, 6) he insults his father by saying that a party with his friends is a cause for joy while the return of his long-lost brother is not, and 7) he insults his father by attacking his brother and saying things that he cannot know, that he squandered his father’s property with prostitutes.
Jesus concludes his story to the Pharisees with a clear invitation to join in the celebration: 31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 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.’” (v. 31-32) And then the story is left open-ended. We don’t know how the oldest son responded. We don’t know if he repents and goes into the feast or not.
So which brother are you? Are you the youngest son who wants the Father’s stuff but not the Father and seeks to get what you want by disobeying your Father? Or are you the oldest son (and our churches are full of older sons) who wants the Father’s stuff but not the Father and we seek to get what we want by obeying our Father? At different points in the story both sons are lost. And both sons need to repent, that is, turn away from their God-forsaking ways and come home to the God who loves them so extravagantly. Whichever son you are, you have a Father in heaven who dearly loves you more anything else in the world, he’s watching for you to come home and he’s waiting to welcome you as his daughter, as his son. And if you are wondering why it is important for us to be continually reaching out to all the lost sons and daughters in our world with the love of Jesus Christ, maybe it is a simple as this: we were once lost too, we care about lost people and we want to share in the joy of this Father who loves the world so much.
(This message was presented at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on 30 October 2011.)