Lost and Found
Luke 15:11-32 (11-19)
Intro: This parable, even more so than the parable of the Good Samaritan, has been the object of more theological commentary from the early church to the present day. It has been the subject of more painters and artists, composers and musicians, playwrights, writers, and poets than any other parable of Jesus. (Keith Green recorded a 12-minute song telling this story!)
The three parables in Luke 15 that demonstrate the recovery of something lost can be distinguished this way: (a) through the unwearied labor of a shepherd; through the anxious searching of an owner; and through the never-wavering love of a father.
Doing the math, the stakes are significantly raised in this instance: the son who is lost is one of only two, compared with the one sheep out of one hundred and the one coin out of 10 – from a 1% loss to a 10% loss and now to a 50% loss.
As valuable as sheep and coins were in that culture, the loss and recovery of a son had a far greater value.
It is noteworthy how church history has treated these parables. Why are they popularly known by their negative features? The parable of the lost sheep, not the rescued sheep; the lost coin, not the recovered coin; the prodigal son, not the restored son. And all this even though all three parables end in celebrations of joy.
We all know people like the rebellious younger son or the resentful older son. At one time or another, most of us have been like both. But we have never known anyone like the father in the story, nor would we claim to be like him ourselves.
This parable is extraordinary in how it is composed. It develops its plot in an economy of words, there is no rambling in unnecessary details. It uses only the needed characters, with no more than two on stage at one time.
Jesus leaves the story open-ended. It ends on a cliffhanger. There is no resolution.
The father is the first party named and the last to speak. He is the extraordinary figure in both halves of the parable. The relationship between the two sons has eroded long ago. None of the problems posed in the story can be solved without the father. He is the last remaining link in the family to each son.
The father is the only finished character in the parable. He has done all he can and all that needs to be done to restore the family.
One commentator has noted that in this story Jesus shows “the costly demonstration of unexpected love.”
Luke 15:11 Then He said: “A certain man had two sons.
He leads off with the number of characters: there are three – a certain father and his two sons. We should expect to meet each of them along the way.
Calling this teaching by Jesus, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” is at best incomplete and perhaps even misleading.
A better description would be: “The Parable of the Gracious Father and His Two Rebellious Sons.”
This parable will not only address the raunchy sinner of the world, but also the religious sinner in the temple. It not only calls vile sinners to repentance, but also supposed virtuous ones.
Remember, Jesus told three parables about something of value being lost and then found as a reply to these verses:
Luke 15:1 Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him.
Luke 15:2 And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”
As Jesus preached to the masses, He made an open doorway to those who were outcasts. It was a welcome free for all, and many traitors and other sinners were coming close to Christ.
The Jewish teaching concerning repentance was contrary to what Jesus taught about repentance.
Theirs was not a gospel to the lost: they had nothing to say to sinners.
But to those who scrupulously prepared themselves for the kingdom by study and good works, the rabbis had much to say.
The rabbis urged their followers to “do penitent works,” and hope for the best. They would learn whether they would be rewarded or rejected on the final day.
Jesus, on the other hand, told His hearers about forgiveness, about what the Savior was doing, and what the Father purposed and felt for them – but not in the future as a reward for their penitence, but now in the present day!
Tax collectors and sinners were flocking to Him, but scribes and Pharisees only complained.
The word for “complain” here is the same word used to translate the “murmuring and grumbling” of the Israelites in the wilderness after crossing the Red Sea.
The “grumbling” or “complaining” here is Luke’s way of saying that the scribes and Pharisees are simply clones of an earlier generation of unbelieving Israel.
Why are they so upset? Well, “all the tax collects and the sinners drew near to hear” Jesus. For a rabbi, this was poor judgment.
What was He doing teaching these low-lifes, these vagabonds who had disqualified themselves from temple worship?
Not only did this new rabbi welcome sinners, He sought restore them to God’s kingdom, that there might be joy in heaven over them. (This was just too much).
Now we can understand. It is in the face of such complaining that Jesus tells these parables. All of Luke 15 is Jesus’ defense of His conduct. All of Luke 15 is Jesus’ answer to the griping of the local theologians.
The irony here is delightful. Their grumbling is our Gospel. Their ominous accusation is our only hope. We take comfort in their damning words.
Thank heaven for the “gospel of the Pharisees: ‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them.’” What better news could there be?
Even though most parables are not meant to be treated as allegories, that is, assigning every character and place and thing to something else, this parable lends itself to identify: (a) who the prodigal son might represent, (b) who the elder brother might represent, and most importantly, (c) who the father represents.
Luke 15:12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.
This request is all wrong. It is presumptuous. It is irregular. It is insulting. It is cruel. It signifies the outright rejection of his family.
According to Deut 21:17, the firstborn gets twice as much as the other sons, two thirds of the property.
A man with two sons would give 2/3 to the elder and 1/3 to the younger.
The irregularity of the younger son’s request is not the amount – he requests only his share, not his brother’s double portion – but the request itself and the timing of it was a bombshell. His request shames both his father and his family.
It is a certified public statement that he no longer wishes to live within or be identified by the family. In effect, he is writing his father’s death certificate for that day. In ancient Jewish culture this offense was virtually unforgivable.
It was as if he was declaring to his father, “I want to experience what life will be like for me once you’re dead.”
He meant to shake off the order and discipline of his father’s house. He could no longer stand the hypocrisy of his older brother. He was convinced that he could get along just fine in the world if everyone would just leave him alone.
It must have cut his father to the very heart. How humiliated he was to be openly despised by his own son!
The legal position was: The son gets the right of possession, but he does not get the right to liquidate or sell the property in any way until his father dies.
Obviously, this cost the father a large amount of money. Imagine how expensive it would be to give up, on demand, one full third of everything you have worked so hard to gain.
The son asks for his “portion of the goods,” but the father gives his own “livelihood.” What was requested was “financial wealth” (ousia); what was given was “life” (bios).
He responded to his son’s irrational request with unimaginable generosity. By doing so, he was leaving the door of grace open for a possible return. This father was both wise and gracious. He did not burn bridges.
Rather than disowning his son and driving him out of the house, as many fathers would have done, he gave this disrespectful son what he asked.
This “livelihood” was the same thing that the bleeding woman exhausted on many doctors to no avail (8:43); and the poor widow’s gift at the temple who “out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had” (21:4).
This is a word Luke uses for the maximum material sacrifice possible.
Next, we get a glimpse of the younger son’s cold heart. He breaks the rule of usage at once.
Luke 15:13 And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.
Insisting on your share of the estate during your father’s lifetime is one thing; actually liquidating the assets is quite another.
He settled his affairs “not many days after,” suggesting that he cashed out in haste for pennies on the dollar.
Imagine selling off your acreage for quick cash, but your plot was in the front of the ranch. Now someone from outside of the family owns prime real estate in your father’s front yard.
The whole family’s privacy has now been destroyed because of your impulsive decision.
The entire family suffered, but no one more than the father. To him, the loss was not the money, it was the relationship.
When his son began to sell his portion of the farm, this publicly humiliated the father. He was despised by his own son. There were no secrets in a town like this.
People would talk, and soon everyone would hear what his son had done. The family name would be tarnished. The prodigal son was putting them all to shame.
After turning his inheritance/property into cash, he leaves. He splits. He emigrates.
The “far country” in Jewish vernacular represented a distant land beyond the sea. It was the place of furthest alienation. This young man alienated himself from his father and his culture both geographically and metaphorically.
He bolts from the parental home and goes to a distant land to be as far away as possible from the watchful eye of his father. He will live without restraint. He will be his own boss.
He had money. He had anonymity (fresh start). He had distance. All these serve to release his stifled desires to indulge in any kind of pleasure. He has arrived at the far country. He thinks he has it made!
The result? He soon wasted his fortune in riotous living with others.
“He squandered his wealth in reckless extravagance.”
He fled to be outside the sphere of influence of his father, and to be free and independent. But in the far country he came under influences that caused him to fall into the worst form of bondage – he was imprisoned in his own sins.
He had exchanged the real freedom of living in faithfulness to his father and family, for the slavery of self-indulgent sin. He lost his fortune and his character at the same time.
Our Lord teaches in this parable that a life of sin and wickedness is at his deepest point the rebellious breaking away of man’s life from God.
Everything a man wastes in the far country he has received from the Lord as a gift meant to glorify God and to experience real happiness in life.
There can be no doubt this reckless son represents the tax collectors and sinners who were coming to learn from Jesus.
And what is one of the lessons they would learn? They would discover that absolute autonomy and indulgence of sinful desires will end in anything other than happiness.
Luke 15:14 But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want.
The younger son gathered it all and lost it all in a hurry, from feast to famine in one verse.
His folly is now compounded by forces beyond his control – an act of God – the onset of famine.
In happier days, the distant country spelled Land of Opportunity. Suddenly it becomes alien, a place far removed from the security and resources of home.
The arrival of the famine made employment and food even more difficult than usual to get. It only hastens the process whereby the younger son’s foolish choices catch up with him.
Had he reserved some of his initial wealth, he might have been able to ride out the depressed economy caused by the drought.
But he “spent all.” Now he had little to no recourse but to put himself in a circumstance where he again shamed his father, while his status plummeted from son of a large landowner to “unclean and degraded.” Even the life of a day-laborer was preferred to that.
Prov 28:7 Whoever keeps the law is a discerning son, but a companion of gluttons shames his father.
“he began to be in want” = he lacked even the necessities of life.
Luke 15:15 Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
Luke 15:16 And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
At his wit’s end and compelled by hunger, he accepts the most humiliating and repulsive from of labor – he herds the swine of one of the citizens of the far country.
He “joined himself” = to cleave to, to unite yourself with – the boy must go “all in” with his new boss’s culture in such a way that his Jewish identity is not only defiled, but also basically expunged.
But even this was not yet the lowest depth of his misery. He is treated worse than the pigs he must feed – although he is suffering utter starvation, he cannot even get a sufficient quantity of the swine’s food to eat. The pigs are better fed than him.
The general effects of a famine would be reason enough for us to easily understand why “no one gave him anything.” They would have very little to give.
When the weather dried up in that region, so did the charity of its citizens.
Additionally, it is worth noting that famine or not, the Greeks and Romans did not practice “almsgiving.”
Plautus, Roman playwright – He does the beggar a bad service who gives him meat and drink, for what he gives is lost, and the life of the poor is prolonged to their own misery.
In his desperation he would have been glad to eat pig food, but his supervisor was watching too closely for him to effectively pilfer as he worked.
The parable outlines a series of bad actions that lead from one level of infamy to the next:
(1) request for inheritance – dishonoring his father
(2) cashing out – devaluing his family’s strength
(3) escaping to a far country – departing the place of sanctification (1 Cor 7:14)
(4) squandering the wealth – devouring the physical means of grace (Prov 21:20)
(5) living as a Gentile – descending into unbelief
He could not observe the Sabbath. He had to be in contact with unclean animals. He even had to steal what food he got. He was reduced to the lowest depths of degradation and practically forced to deny his religion at every turn.
His lack or “want” had rekindled what his riotous living had extinguished.
“he began to be in want…no one gave him anything”
Why do people think that when bad things happen in a culture, it somehow becomes acceptable to treat others poorly during the suffering?
What do we know of the prodigal? (a) heartless (b) visionless (c) reckless (d) penniless (e) but was he now hopeless?
Finally disillusioned by the unpleasant experiences in the far country, he realizes how foolish he has been. He has now graduated from the school of “hard knocks,” and he has a new appreciation of the family life he had left behind.
Luke 15:17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
Luke 15:18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you,
Luke 15:19 and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’
Hardship has a remarkable way of bringing people to face facts.
Mindful of the conditions existing in his father’s house, he now sees his own state of misery in all its naked reality. He sees himself as he truly is in his shameful defilement. And he brought it all on himself.
“came to himself” – literally, “came to his senses; found his heart again”
Acts 12:11 And when Peter had come to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel, and has delivered me from the hand of Herod and from all the expectation of the Jewish people.”
For Luke, part of what it means to “come to yourself” is to snap out of whatever has been distracting you and recognizing the work of God in your life.
He assumes he has burned his bridges with his father and no longer has any future in the family, but even the hired hands at home have things much better than he does now.
He is desperate so he formulates a plan: he will go home and confess his fault to his father and beg for a job as a day laborer on the family estate.
Because of the series of actions already outlined, this prodigal son now recognizes his loss of status by which he has shamed his father the further he got away from his household.
“I am no longer worthy to be called your son” – this is undoubtedly the only statement in the parable on which both sons agree!
“A father like you deserves better than a son like me.”
True repentance empties us of ambition.
Psalm 84:10 Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked. NIV
Now he realizes that even the uncertainty of being a day-laborer is better than the condition in which he now finds himself.
It is better to be a household slave than a hired hand.
“Make me like one of your hired servants”
A day-laborer is a hireling whose subsistence is vulnerable to the full range of natural forces, the seasonal needs of the production of crops, and the whims of the estate manager.
As uncertain as that may be, it is better than feeding pigs in a famine.
His words, “I will arise,” mark the beginning of his plunge into the love and grace of a good father. His status cannot be restored until he has made a definite decision to return and plead for mercy.
He recognizes that his sin was first against God, “I have sinned against heaven and against you.”
Sin is always sin against God before anyone else.
Psalm 51:4 Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight
He does not fall into despondency or self-pity but decides to bid “farewell” to the far country and return to his father.
In his remorse for his sin there is also joined his faith that his father will receive him in some capacity.
Whereas he formerly demanded his portion of the estate in self-sufficient pride, he is now quite willing, in his humility, to take the very lowest place and to obey his father’s commands.
The lost one must first realize that he has no right to claim that he should be accepted as a child of God on his own merit.
Whosoever desires to go to God, trusting in his own dignity or making excuses instead of confessing his sins openly, is in no condition to receive the forgiveness of God.
It is indispensable that there should be a sincere confession of sin and of utter unworthiness.