When reading Luke 15, it is easy to forget the context , especial ly when reading the parable of the prodigal son. The chapter opens with the Pharisees and scribes criticizing Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners (vv. 1–2). Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners signifies the gospel of grace. All those who turn from their sin and put their faith in God will enjoy the messianic feast forever. Jesus tells His opponents three parables to defend His table fellowship with sinners: the parable of the lost sheep (vv. 3–7); the parable of the lost coin (vv. 8–10); and what I call the parable of the two lost sons (vv. 11–32). By addressing the Pharisees and scribes in parables, Jesus gives them indirect direction. He doesn’t directly criticize them for their self-righteous and loveless attitudes. Instead, He subverts their self-understanding through parables so that they understand the love of God and see themselves in the self-righteous older son.
The parable of the lost sheep recounts a story from a man’s world (vv. 3–7). If a shepherd loses one sheep out of one hundred, he pursues it until he finds it. Upon finding the lost sheep, “he calls together his friends and his neighbors,” summoning them to rejoice with him (v. 6). The earthly joy over finding a lost sheep reflects the joy in heaven over a sinner who repents. Since the Pharisees and scribes were not rejoicing but grumbling over Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners, they were not mirroring God’s attitude toward those who repent.
The next parable addresses the world of women (vv. 8–10). If a woman loses one silver coin out of ten, she diligently searches for it until she finds it. When the coin is discovered, she calls together her friends and neighbors to celebrate. Similarly, the angels in heaven are full of joy when a sinner repents. Both this parable and the preceding one ref lect the character of God. He pursues sinners, beckoning and inviting them to turn from their sin and live. We think of Ezekiel 18:23: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should tur n f rom his way and live? ” Similarly, Romans 10:21 says that God stretches His hands out to those who have rebelled against Him, entreating them to return. The Pharisees and scribes do not reflect the character of God. Instead of longing for the repentance of sinners, they grumble and complain about the sinners’ conversion.
The last, longest, and most famous parable in the chapter is the parable of the two lost sons (vv. 11–32). The younger son, the prodigal, represents all sinners. He had no regard for his father, asking for his inheritance even before his father died. His “journey into a far country” symbolizes the lifestyle of sinners, for they wandered far from the love of God. Like the younger son, lost sinners recklessly pursued lives of wickedness. But a famine turned everything around for the prodigal, indicating that the pleasures of sin are evanescent and temporary. Desperation gripped him. He took any job he could find, landing a job feeding swine. Food was so scarce that he yearned to eat what was given to the pigs. The irony was not lost on Jesus’ hearers. Pigs were unclean animals, and yet the man was forced to work among them and had become the lowest of the low, for he would give anything to eat their food. Working among unclean pigs also reflects the lives of those designated as sinners by the Pharisees. They were unclean and defiled since they violated the Torah—the Mosaic law—and did not follow purity regulations.
The prodigal son, however, came to his senses, realizing that he would at least have enough to eat if he worked as a servant of his father. But he also knew that he could not approach his father without admitting his sins. His repentance was not staged or super f icial. He acknowledged that he had sinned against God and his father, and that he had no claim (as one who had wasted his inheritance) to be his father’s son, and he asked only to live as one of the father’s servants. With resolve in his hear t , he returned to his father, expecting to be rebuked for his wasteful ways. His father, however, did not upbraid or rebuke his son, but ran and embraced him, kissing him. It was not dignified for fathers to run, but the father did not care about his status, for his heart was full of mercy toward his wayward son.
The son began to rehearse his sins, but the father cut him off in midstream. The father knew his son was deeply repentant. He did not make the son a servant but endowed him with the best robe, a ring, and shoes. Moreover, he threw a party, killing the fattened calf for a feast. The father explained why: “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (v. 24). Clearly, the father represents God in the story and the prodigal signif ies sinners. Jesus, in His ministry, reflects the character and purposes of God, for He welcomes with compassion sinners who repent and turn to the Lord. The parable, of course, is not comprehensive. Liberals have sometimes said that forgiveness can be granted apart from the cross on the basis of this parable. It is hermeneutically flawed to demand that a parable teach us everything about soteriology. Indeed, the parable is part of the storyline of Luke’s gospel, which concludes with Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is on the basis of His atoning death and resurrection that forgiveness is offered to sinners.
The party began with the return of the younger son. Meanwhile, the older son was working on the estate, unaware of the younger son’s return. As he approached the house, it was evident that a party was in progress. Music and dancing were pulsating from the house. Upon inquiring from a servant about what was going on, he discovered that his father was giving a party and had killed the fattened calf because the younger son had returned safely.
The older son did not respond gladly but angrily. He was resentful and bitter that his father was giving a party for “his profligate brother.” But the father also loved the older son, the one who stubbornly refused to come to the party. The father pleaded with him to join in the festivities.
The older son, however, was sullen, self-righteous, and acrimonious, saying he had never transgressed the father’s will, and yet the father had never given a party for him. The Pharisees and scribes had that same sense of entitlement, for they were convinced that they were the law-abiding moral minority, and yet Jesus was now associating with tax collectors and sinners. They didn’t think fellowship with God was a gift of grace but something they earned by their piety and obedience (see Luke 18:9–14).
The older son, therefore, exploded with venom toward his father, exclaiming, “But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prost itutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” (v. 30). He could not even bear to acknowledge that the younger son was his brother. He was simply “this son of yours.” He did not want to have anything to do with the younger son, dismissing him as an utter disgrace since he had squandered the father’s wealth and consorted with prostitutes. Here we see the attitude of the Pharisees and scribes toward notorious sinners Jesus welcomed. They despised and vilified them, seeing them as unworthy of a second or third chance. They believed no repentance, no forgiveness, no compassion, and no party should be given to those who have lived wickedly.
But the father in the parable loved the older son as well, reminding him that all his wealth and property was at his disposal. The older son needed to reorient his thinking. He needed to see that they had something to celebrate. The father reminded him that the younger son was his brother (“this brother of yours,” v. 32). There had to be a party, for the one who had been spiritually dead had found life. The one who had been lost was now found. Sinners came to the party because the Shepherd had found them. The father was inviting the older son into the party as well, pleading with him to come in. Would the older brother recognize his self-righteousness, arrogance, and lovelessness, and come to the party, or would he continue to resist the invitation because of their stubbornness and hard hearts? The parable ends with an invitation for the older brother to come to the party. Just so, Jesus was inviting the Pharisees and scribes and sinners to respond to the love of God in Christ.