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Luke 15:11-32

March 19th, 2010


The Parable of the Lost Son

11Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

Jesus concludes his reply to the charge that he associates with sinners with his most familiar parable of all, the parable of the lost son. According to custom, if a man had two sons, the older son got two thirds of the estate, and the younger got one third. The impression we get from this parable is that the father is wealthy, since he has property, flocks, and servants. So the younger son would have received a substantial amount, enough to start out on his own. Surely the father knows his younger son’s nature. He knows that his son will not use his inheritance to start a new business in another town and build his own estate. He knows that instead, his younger son will waste his inheritance, but he gives it to him anyway. He knows that his son is asking for this out of rebellion, but he lets him go his way and make his own mistakes. Many parents know the pain of having to let their child do just that.

I have always thought of this parable in terms of the actions and attitudes of the two brothers, but in context with the parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep, and given that Jesus is replying to the Pharisees about God’s desire to seek and save the lost, I’m now more focused on the father’s attitude in this parable. The father represents God, of course. Like the father in the parable, our heavenly Father is rich beyond measure. And like the father in the parable, he gives to us freely, and even allows us to rebel against him using the gifts he gave us.

13“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

Here we see what happens when we rebel against God. We may start out having a good time, but the story never has a happy ending. When he got to the far off country (think Babylon, far off but close enough to make the journey, with a decadent pagan culture), the younger son started out as the life of the party. He had lots of money, and spent it freely. When you do that, everybody’s your friend. But then the money ran out, and his friends deserted him. I’m reminded of the bridge to the old blues song, “God Bless The Child” by Billie Holiday. The words go like this:

And when you’ve got money, you’ve got lots of friends

Crowding ’round your door

But when the money’s gone, and all your spending ends

They won’t be ’round anymore

The only work the younger son could find was feeding pigs, which would have been the most degrading work a Jew could stoop to. And the pigs were eating better than he was! But then he came to his senses.

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! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 20So he got up and went to his father.

The younger son was a hired servant working for a man who wouldn’t even give him anything to eat. He realized how much better his father’s servants had it than he had, and more importantly, how much better of a master his father was than the man he was working for. Sometimes, especially when we’re young, we think God’s rules are restrictive, and we want the freedom to do whatever we want. But ultimately, none of us gets to be our own master. As Bob Dylan once said, you gotta serve somebody. And when we rebel against God, we eventually discover that God is a much better master than the devil is.

I don’t think the younger son’s thought that he would ask his father to hire him as a servant was an empty offer. He meant it. When he asked for his inheritance, he forfeited his rights as a son. His only thought was, if he had to be a servant, he’d be better off serving his father. If you gotta serve somebody, it may as well be your heavenly Father who loves you.

But we can’t come back to God with demands. We have to come back in humility, confessing what we’ve done wrong like the son did. The son didn’t blame anyone else for what had happened to him. He took responsibility for his sin. This is what Jesus meant when he talked about repentance earlier in this chapter. In fact, this whole part of the parable is a picture of repentance. The son didn’t just say he was sorry and continue feeding the pigs. He came to his senses and returned to his father. He did a complete 180 degree turn, with abhorrence for his past sins.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.[b]

22“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

All the time his younger son was gone, his father never gave up on him. He kept watching for him, saw him a long way off, and ran to meet him. If that’s not a picture of God, I don’t know what is. I like the fact that in verse 21, even though some early manuscripts add the phrase “Make me like one of your hired men,” all three translations I use leave it out. I can just picture the son rehearsing this speech all the way back, but when he finally got back, his father wouldn’t even let him finish it! Instead, he immediately started the celebration.

The Amplified Bible calls the “best robe” in verse 22 the festive robe of honor. This was an image that had resonance for that culture, like when Pharaoh honored Joseph in Genesis 41:41-42. It also recalls Zechariah 3:3-5, when Joshua the high priest had his filthy clothes replaced by rich garments to symbolize his sin being taken away. The ring would have been a family ring to show that he belonged to the family again. The son had fallen so far that he walked all the way home barefoot, so his father gave him sandals for his feet. The father didn’t say to his servants, “Very well, take this man to the servant’s quarters and give him work to do.” He said, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” The robe, the ring, the sandals and his words all restored his son to his previous status. The son was no longer worthy to be called his father’s son, and in our sin and rebellion, we are no longer worthy to be called God’s children. But God will restore us like the father did in this parable if we will return to him in full repentance and humility the way the younger son did.

25“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31” ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ “

Here is where the Pharisees come into the story, and I’m sure they realized it. The Pharisees were objecting to the fact that Jesus welcomed sinners and even ate with them just like the older brother objected to the celebration at his brother’s return. One of the things the older brother may have been upset about was that if his younger brother was restored, that might mean the younger brother would be owed another inheritance, which would come out of his share. Have you ever been upset because someone else got something you felt you should have had? We’ve all been there, but if that’s our attitude, we’re like the elder brother.

But I keep coming back to the father’s attitude. He gave the younger brother his inheritance out of love, and restored him when he returned out of love. He also went out to plead with his firstborn, and every word out of his mouth is spoken in love. Everything he says and does is out of love for his sons, and everything God says and does is out of love for us.

All three of these parables illustrate how God seeks to save us when we are lost, and how he rejoices when we are found. The parables of the lost sheep and lost coin show the effort to which God has gone to seek us out, but only the parable of the lost son shows how the responsibility of coming back to him, of repentance, is on us. Some are troubled by this, those who believe there is nothing we can do to be saved. They are more comfortable with the first two parables. Though it’s true that we cannot save ourselves through our own efforts, some action on our part is required for salvation, namely repentance. When does celebration erupt in Heaven? When a sinner repents. A sheep can’t repent, and neither can a coin. But we can, and we must. And if we will, God is waiting to run to us, throw his arms around us, and welcome us back home.

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