Jesus tells great stories, but what is he trying to do with the Parable of the Lost (or prodigal) Son. The clue is in the context in which he tells it. The story both assures those sinners coming to him in repentance and challenges those who criticise him for welcoming them.
The parable of the lost son, the prodigal son, is one that some of you here will be very familiar with, for others here, this might be the first time you’ve heard this parable.
Whether this is the first time you’ve heard this parable or the 99th time it’s good to remember that the Bible itself tells us that the word of God is alive and active sharper than any double edge sword it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit joints and marrow it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
With that in mind It excites me that as we look at this parable today whether for the first time or for the 99th time we can be assured that Gods holy spirit can be revealing new things to us through it that will challenge us, encourage us and draw us closer to Gods love and to be the people he has called and created us to be. People of his kingdom. Living his way.
Jesus told parables – which are stories with a hidden meaning – to often teach about the kingdom of God. About what it’s like, the responsibilities of those in it, for example.
At face value this is a story that speaks of a Fathers love and forgiveness of a wayward son. And it might not take too much for us to put God in the role of the father in the story and the put us as humanity, in the role of the lost son.
But, when we read God’s word, it’s important to ask first of all what did it mean then to the audience it was written to and then we can draw conclusions about its teaching for us today.
We didn’t just begin with the parable in our reading this morning, we started at the beginning of the chapter. These first few verses set the scene for the parable of the lost son – ‘Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable.’
And then we read the parable of the lost son
In fact the parable of the lost son is the third parable that Jesus tells in the context of that event where Jesus is being questioned about who he is eating with. Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners and yet the Pharisees are muttering and grumbling about Jesus doing this.
It is with this backdrop, in this context that Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin and then finally the parable of the lost son.
All three parables share a common progression, moving from what a main character has, to its loss, it’s foundness, it’s restoration and the celebration that follows. Precedent is being set that when lost things are found celebration occurs.
The chapters that surround these parables (14 &16) involve Jesus teaching about the importance of welcoming into one’s homes those who live on the margins of society the ‘poor the crippled the lame and the blind’ (14:21 16:20) and seeks to answer the central question raised in chapter 15 – not the question Jesus appears to be responding to, but the one he has for those listening – will the Pharisees and legal experts welcome such persons as tax collectors and sinners, will they will be joining in the heavenly rejoicing at the finding of the lost, celebrating their recovery at the banquet table – an image given for heaven – the eternal banquet, the eternal feast.
The first two parables of ch 15 – shows God’s attitude and love for these ‘sinners’. And firmly establishes that the restoration of the lost and celebration go hand in hand. The third parable builds on this but switches the focus slightly as being an answer to the words that were uttered by the Pharisees at the start.
Through each parable Jesus is wanting to make it really clear, abundantly clear that yes, he welcomes tax collectors and sinners into his company. And that the kingdom of God that he is bringing about is open to all. It welcomes all and does not exclude anyone who turns to God, seeking him and living as part of his kingdom.
In this parable, there are three characters and we need to remember that – there is the father, the younger son and the older son. The older son briefly appears in v11 and then comes back into it in v25.
The younger son in this parable completely disowns his family, his faith, his heritage – in asking for his inheritance he’s saying to his father in effect drop dead.
To add insult to injury, the younger son didn’t just receive his inheritance, he cashed it in and left. The living in ‘a distant country’ suggests he went to a non-Jewish world which is emphasised by the pigs that he eventually ends up looking after. He has turned his back on his heritage and is living with the gentiles.
We’re told he squandered his wealth in wild living and the money is all gone. He’s already penniless when then famine hits making earning even harder – the younger son found himself in an agricultural and economic crisis.
If life couldn’t get any worse he ends up looking after the pigs. This was a big Jewish no no. They were seen as unclean animals.
The state of the younger son was dire. He’d hit rock bottom and then some.
One commentator writes: ‘The young man has been reduced to a level lower than the lowest of unclean animals’
He’s fallen from his status of son of a large landowner to that of unclean and degraded, he’s even thinking about eating the food of the pigs but no one gave him anything, but then they were in the midst of a famine so maybe no one had anything left to give.
It is only at this lowest place that there is a turning point in the story when the son comes to his senses.
We get this internal monologue – self talk.
In comparing his current state to his father’s hired hands he understands the depths to which he has sunk. The hired hands had bread to spare showing his father was generous with wages. He realises that even as a day labour his lot would be desirable when compared to his present condition. So he makes a plan.
He’s gonna get up – go back and say ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants’
So he does the first step – he gets up and sets out back home.
The younger son returns with his plan to live like a servant to the family he rejected, but this preplanned apology is sandwiched in between actions of the father that demonstrate acceptance and restoration.
We see in these actions the graciousness of this father that far exceeded all expectations.
- he is waiting expectanly
- Filled with compassion when he sees him
- Casts dignity aside and runs to his son
- Kissed him
‘The entire range of actions drive home the fathers profound even undignified love for his rebellious child’
A wealthy landowner running down the street of his village would have been extraordinary, then he publically embraces his younger son. The father disregards what others think and is focussed on the returning of his son.
Just as the son launches into his speech about being unworthy – the father cuts him short from what he intended to say and launches into reinstatement and celebration mode .
- best robe
- New ring
- New shoes
- Kill the fattened calf
Stating the reason for all this with the words – ‘For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
The embrace, the kiss and the gifts of robe, ring and sandals are all emblematic of the sons honourable restoration to the family.
The servants were to give him new shoes that symbolises reinstatement as son, not seen as a servant himself.
Then the fattened calf was to be killed – one interpretation of kill it = sacrifice it.
There is a celebration an act of worship giving thanks that the son was lost, thought to be dead, has returned.
It is as if the father had declared – spare no effort, spare no expense! why? because the son who had disgraced his father, the son who would propose to return as nothing more than a day labourer in his fathers fields, is nevertheless seen as this son of mine
And so they celebrate.
Then we get to the second son. The older son.
He’s been out working and on returning hears a party. Instead of going in and finding out what’s going on he asks a servant. His response to news is anger contrasted with the fathers response of compassion.
His anger leads him to refuse to join the celebration, he distances himself from his family and his role as the elder son – he won’t support his father and has adopted an attitude that is different and opposed to his fathers with regard to his brother
But in doing this the oldest son has turned himself into a slave, removed himself from his family’s presence. The Father again goes to meet his son, this time the older one.
But the older brother has a bit of a strop asking in effect ‘Why it is that recklessness and shamelessness are rewarded with celebration when responsibility and obedience have received no recognition?’
This is the fathers response: ‘My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 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.’
Jesus tells this parable in response to the Pharisees grumbling about Jesus eating with tax collectors.
It’s not hard to see In this context the Father is God, the younger son are the tax collectors and sinners and the older brother are The Pharisees and legal experts.
Through the parable Jesus is inviting the Pharisees to not only drop their concerns about Jesus but to replicate his behaviour in their own practices. By celebrating that the lost have been found. And welcoming all.
In welcoming the tax collectors and sinners to the table Jesus is demonstrating the expansive grace of God. That Gods love, invitation and kingdom are open to all. It should be celebrated.
The parable is open-ended and so is the invitation – We’re not told whether the Pharisees and legal experts are going to the act in the same way as Jesus joining in the celebration with those that have been lost and yet found. The Pharisees are being invited in following that example of being welcoming too by accepting these sinners as members of the family of God as those whom God accepts. But will they?
What is this parable saying to us today?
Which character did you connect with the most?
The younger son
The older son
This parable made me think – Who today are the equivalent of the tax collectors and sinners eating with Jesus? Do we celebrate when the sinners and tax collectors of our day join our churches and become followers of Jesus? Are we welcoming or do we stick to the people we know the best, people like us?
We have all been made in Gods image to enjoy his presence forever but everyone doesn’t know this and some outright reject. And may seem lost.
It follows that the same passion that Jesus has for the lost ought to characterise his followers. As his followers we should be seeking the same things. If we’re not then in a sense we are like the older brother, the Pharisees and law experts we’re rejecting Gods kingdom living if we don’t accept into our family those who God accepts, and wants to invite into his kingdom, to welcome home. God wants older brother and younger brother alike to be in his kingdom.
It is telling us we can always come back to God; that whenever someone believes in Jesus and invites him into their life we are to celebrate and rejoice no matter who they are.
If we are in need of forgiveness for areas of our lives where we’re not living as part of Gods kingdom, we can know that God is ready with his gift of forgiveness and love.
This parable tells us that God loves us all – no matter who you are and longs for us to enjoy being in his family and part of his kingdom. We have a gracious God who longs for us to have full lives living his way as part of his kingdom. So we do want to welcome people back to church because it’s in this family that we can grow together in faith experiencing Gods love and learning about, obeying and living in Gods kingdom.