This morning we’ll be looking at verses 11 to 24 of the fifteenth chapter of Luke. Before we get there, though, remember what’s been happening. In Chapter 15 Jesus tells a series of three parables. The third begins in our passage today. But all three of these parables address the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees. This is what we read in verses 1 and 2:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
The scribes and Pharisees couldn’t understand why Jesus was eating with “outsiders”—with people who were sinful, unfaithful to the covenant, and unclean. He claimed to be the Messiah, but he was feasting with people whom God should have been punishing—at least so far as they thought. And so the Pharisees were angry with Jesus. This wasn’t the way a rabbi was supposed to act and it certainly wasn’t the way the Messiah was supposed to usher in the kingdom.
In response to their grumbling Jesus tells three stories. We looked at the first two last week. They were stories that anyone—even we today—can easily identify with. In the first he describes a shepherd who discovers at the end of the day that one of his hundred sheep is missing. He leaves the other ninety-nine with his fellow shepherds and goes off into the night to rescue the lost sheep. Chances were the sheep had already been or soon would be eaten by a wild animal. The shepherd himself might be eaten or fall into a ravine in the dark, but he goes out anyway because the lost sheep is precious and valuable to him. Amazingly he finds the sheep, he carries it back to the sheepfold, and he celebrates with his friends.
In the second story Jesus describes a poor woman—probably a widow—whose life-savings, her dowry, consists of ten small silver coins. They were probably made into a headdress that she had worn on her wedding day. She took it out to look at it and to remember better times and as she puts it away she notices, to her horror, that one of the coins has come loose and is missing. Her little mud-brick house was dark so she lit a small oil lamp and began frantically looking. Finally she resorted to sweeping the whole floor until she found the lost coin. And when she found it she ran to tell all of her friends and to celebrate with them.
Each of the stories is told in the form of a question. In each case Jesus describes something precious that was lost and then found and asks the Pharisees: If this happened to you, wouldn’t you celebrate with your friends too? And, of course, the answer was “Yes”. And Jesus rebukes them, explaining the reason why he feasts with tax collectors and sinners: There is joy in heaven over even one sinner who repents—over a sinner who was lost, but has been sought out and found by the love of God.
The Pharisees were convinced that they had God and his kingdom and his plan for the world all figured out. God would send his Messiah to judge and condemn sinners and the unfaithful and would then resurrect the righteous and give them a place in his eternal kingdom. This was at the core of what the Pharisees believed. The Sadducees, who were the ruling party of the day, denied this idea of resurrection. It was too politically subversive. Belief in the resurrection of the faithful also meant belief in the condemnation of sinners and the unclean—including gentiles. Those were people with whom the compromising Sadducees had become comfortable and to whom they owed their high status. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed that when the Lord’s Messiah came he would lead a revolt to overthrow the gentiles, to free his people, and to resurrect them and lead them into the age to come.
Jesus is feasting like the Messiah, but he upset the people because he was feasting with the wrong people: sinners, gentiles, and outsiders. In fact, when he did feast with the righteous, he always seemed to end up condemning them. The Pharisees understood that God’s way of dealing with sinners was condemnation. But instead, Jesus came and is showing them God’s grace—he’s preaching good news to them, he’s healing them, he’s freeing them from guilt of sin and their bondage to the devil. These people were lost. The Pharisees would have preferred they stay lost. Instead, Jesus is seeking them out, they’re repenting, and Jesus is celebrating with them. This is what God’s real plan is all about and the parables are meant to rebuke the Pharisees; they’re meant to call the Pharisees themselves to repentance: to turn aside from their wrong ideas about the Lord and his plan and to get in line with the plan the Lord is revealing through Jesus.
And we can gather that in judging their responses to these two parables Jesus saw that they weren’t really getting it. So he tells a final story and we’ll look at the first half of it today. Look at verses 11-13:
And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country…
This story gets right to the point. The Pharisees could easily identify with the shepherd who had lost a sheep and with the poor widow who had lost her coin. This man, however, they would have condemned as an indulgent fool.
Here’s what’s going on in the story: Jewish law allowed for a father to divide his assets amongst his sons. The land and assets were theirs, but not until the father died did they have any real control over their inheritance. This might allow a son, for example, to borrow against his future inheritance. But as long as the father was alive, the property remained in his control and the income off it belonged to him. This young man—since he isn’t married we can gather he’s probably in his late teens—goes further. He doesn’t just want to know what will one day be his. He wants full possession of his share. And he wants it now so that he can sell it, take the money, and go to the big city.
As I said, the Pharisees would have condemned not only this young man but his father as well. One of the Ten Commandments is to honour one’s father and mother. This son’s actions are the polar opposite of that. To demand his share of the inheritance so that he can sell it wasn’t just presumptuous, it would be akin to telling his father that he wished he were dead. It was to rob his father of his livelihood. And to take the proceeds of the sale and go to a far country was to blow off the obligations he had as a son to provide and care for his father in his old age. Not only that, but a “far country” meant going to live with gentiles—it was to abandon the promised land and his heritage as a son of Abraham. On every level this kid is self-centred, presumptuous, disrespectful, and impious. Even just the asking of this would have brought shame and dishonour on his father. A father would have been within his rights to disown his son for such disrespect or even to have him flogged. But this son doesn’t care and, no doubt to the horror of the Pharisees, the father agrees to his son’s demand like some kind of indulgent fool.
As if he hasn’t painted this kid in a bad enough light already, Jesus goes on in verses 13-16:
The younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
The boy left his family and his people and went to live with unclean gentiles. Not only that, but instead of investing the proceeds from the sale of his inheritance, he squanders it. Jesus isn’t specific on how the boy squandered his money, but it’s not hard to guess after he’s shown such a careless disregard for honour and piety. In verse 30 his older brother accuses him of spending it on prostitutes, which isn’t hard to imagine. Not surprisingly such a foolish boy spends his way through his fortune quickly and is left with nothing, which is made worse by a famine hitting the land at the same time. He was destitute. Jesus says that no one gave him anything, which highlights his abandonment of his own people. The law that God gave through Moses called the Jews to be charitable—to look after the poor—but we don’t see that sort of thing in ancient pagan cultures. In fact, we see just the opposite in their writings: to give to the poor only prolonged their misery and encouraged them not to work.
The boy has the good sense to get a job, but the only job he can find brings him down lower. He winds up feeding pigs. Remember that for Jews pigs were unclean. Even an impious brat like this boy would have felt the shame of having to take a job as a pig-keeper. And while he’s got a place to sleep in the pigsty, he’s still hungry—hungry enough that the carob pods he fed to the pig were starting to look good. And it’s at this point, destitute, sitting in a pigsty, and hungry enough to eat pig food, that the boy finally comes to his senses. Look at verses 15-17:
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “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.”’
Jesus’ call was a call to repentance and there’s hardly a better illustration of what repentance looks like than the one Jesus gives us here. The boy came to a complete end of himself. He trusted in his pride and shamed his father and his family for the sake of money and a good time. Now his money has run out and so has his pride. He’s at rock-bottom. And there in the pigsty God gets hold of him and he repents. He realises the significance of what he’s done. He knows that he can’t just go home and pick up where he left off. He has no legal claim to anything from his father—he already claimed it and spent it. He can’t go home to be his father’s son anymore, but he could go home and beg his father to take him on as one of his paid field hands. It would be humiliating to ask, but it couldn’t be worse than starving in a filthy pigsty. He turns from sin, from foolishness, from pride, from self-will and goes to his father—essentially in hopeful faith—trusting in his grace.
This is where many of the tax collectors and sinners found themselves. Because of their sins or because of their occupation or because of their association with gentiles they were unclean. They had no part in Israel. If the temple and the sacrificial system were what gave access to God, they could have no part in them because they were unclean. And yet they wouldn’t have even considered going back to the priests or the Pharisees and asking to be let in as hired hands. That wasn’t an option. The religious leaders would never take them back. The Pharisees even looked forward to the day when God would condemn people like the prodigal son and like these tax collectors and sinners. For the tax collectors and sinners, restoration with the people of God was hopeless—they were outsiders.
And yet getting back to the parable, look what happens to the young man. Imagine him making the long trip back home from that far country, dirty, ragged, and barefoot.
And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20-24)
Imagine the young man rehearsing his story all the way home: how best to confess his sins and ask for a job. He gets to his family’s village and can see their house in the distance and he’s filled with relief and dread at the same time. He’s got no other options. Again, he’s taking a step of faith here. He’s repented of his old ways and in faith he’s going back to his father and hoping he won’t be too angry to give him a job. And yet Jesus says that the boy’s father saw him when he was a long way off. The father was looking for his son. The implication is that this man had been missing what he’d lost. He’d been hoping and praying for his son’s return—even sitting on the porch day after day and straining his eyes every time he saw a figure coming down the road. “Is it my son? Is he coming home?”
The Pharisees would already have thought that this man was an indulgent fool, but now it gets even worse. When the man sees his son on the road, he runs to meet him. Wealthy old patriarchs don’t do that sort of thing no matter how excited they get. So Jesus paints an almost comical picture of this father’s joy at his son’s return as he runs down the road, robes flying.
The son begins the humble spiel he’s no doubt been rehearsing all the way home, but before he can get it out his father calls for the servants to cover his son’s shame. He places his best robe on him, he gives him shoes for his bare feet, and he puts a ring on his finger. And not only does he cover his son’s shame, but he calls on the servants to prepare a feast—not just a meal for his hungry son, but a real feast. The whole extended family and neighbourhood would have been invited to this kind of affair. Why? Because his son who was dead is alive. Because his son who was lost has been found.
Once again Jesus explains why he was celebrating with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees would still have been angry, but this time Jesus stresses not just the reason for celebrating, but the point of this third parable digs at the root of their problem. Jesus is telling them that they’ve misunderstood God and his plan. In fact, the Pharisees themselves need to repent too.
Any time we hear Jesus telling stories about fathers and sons or about masters and slaves that should be a cue to us that what he’s really talking about is the Lord and Israel. These are images he draws from the Old Testament. In this case the father is the Lord and the sons represent his people. Also, in this case the father’s description of his son who was dead but is now alive spoke directly to the Pharisees. Remember that the resurrection of the dead was one of their most cherished doctrines. And yet they were looking forward to the resurrection of the righteous, not the resurrection of sinners.
But this is what Jesus does. He came as the culmination and fulfilment of Israel’s story and the parable puts him in that place. The Jews had sinned against God, they had turned aside from his covenant and as a result their land had been destroyed by the Babylonians and the people themselves had been carried off into exile. Even though many of them had returned home, even though they’d rebuilt Jerusalem and, most important, had rebuilt the temple, they still saw themselves as living in exile. God’s presence had never returned to the temple. They were still occupied and ruled by pagans. They longed for the Messiah to come and to lead them in a new exodus, this time driving out the pagans and coming back to take up his presence in the temple. And so the story of this boy who abandoned his family and his land, who squandered his inheritance on sinful living in a far country—this was Israel’s story. And this father saying that his son who was dead is now alive—that was Israel’s hope and especially the hope of the Pharisees. It harkened back to Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. The bones were Israel, but through Ezekiel the Lord had promised that one day he would take them back, he would breath his Spirit into them, and he would restore them to life.
And yet what Jesus is saying isn’t that this is going to happen, but that it’s happening right here and right now. It’s happening as the tax collectors and sinners and all of Israel’s outsiders hear and receive Jesus’ good news that the King has come and that God’s kingdom is being established. It’s happening right here and right now as sinners turn from their sin and embrace the King. And this is why Jesus is celebrating. He and his subject are celebrating the Lord’s fulfilment of his promises, they’re celebrating the fulfilment of Israel’s hope. This is the banquet the Pharisees had been waiting for. And yet, ironically, they’re the ones outside choosing to wail and gnash their teeth.
But there’s no reason for them to be doing this. If the tax collectors and sinners, like the prodigal son, can repent of their sins and follow Jesus, the Pharisees can turn from their wrong ideas of God and his plans and follow Jesus too. Brothers and sisters, this is the love of God. It will meet anyone anywhere. It will forgive any sin, no matter how big. It will forgive any misconception about God and his plans, no matter how wrong. We only need recognise that each of us is the prodigal. That’s the hard part. The tax collectors and sinners knew they were on the outside—the righteous people like the Pharisees made sure they never forgot. In a sense repentance was made easy for them. All Jesus had to do was reach out to them—something no one else was willing to do. He gave them hope and they took hold of it. The real difficulty—and we’ll look at this next week in the second half of the parable—the real difficulty is for those who are convinced of their righteous insider status, for those with judgemental hearts, for those who hope and pray for God’s wrath on the wicked. The Pharisees weren’t the only ones with that problem. We Christians are prone to the same sort of attitude. Friends Jesus has good news for us: We need only repent. We need only turn and follow him in faith. In response he will wash us clean and fill us with his gracious and life-giving Spirit.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for the loving grace you have shown us in Jesus. You lovingly created us, but we rejected your love, we rebelled, we fell into sin, and we made ourselves your enemies. And yet you never stopped loving us. You sent your Son to humble himself, not only taking our flesh upon himself, but at the cross dying the death we deserve that our rebellion might be put right and that we might be given forgiveness of our sins. Thank you for the hope you give us in Jesus. Open our eyes to our folly and to your love that we might be moved to repent: from sin, from selfish desires, from worldly security, and from wrong and misguided ideas about you and your plans. Turn our hearts to Jesus and give us faith to follow him. We ask this through him. Amen.