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The Life of Jesus - Series 9: Episode 5

The Parable of the Prodigal (lost) Son

| Martin Charlesworth
Luke 15:11-32

This is the third in the series of parables. The sinners, Jewish authorities and God, the Father are all present. These people are listening. God welcomes all who repent and there is joy.

This is the third in the series of parables. The sinners, Jewish authorities and God, the Father are all present. These people are listening. God welcomes all who repent and there is joy.


Hello and welcome to Series 9 and Episode 5, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or the Parable of the Lost Son is our topic today. We're in Luke 15, and the second half of this chapter.

Introduction and Recap

Our last episode, the first half of this chapter, covered two other important parables and they're all parables that are linked together, the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. If you haven't followed that episode, it's well worth linking these two together because they're so closely connected. Our text is going to be Luke 15: 11 - 32, which we'll read in sections. We will discuss this amazing parable, one of the best-known stories of all time; one of the best-known parables of Jesus, an amazingly powerful story.

Let's set the context briefly first of all, and remind you of the position in the life of Jesus that this particular parable falls in. We're on the way to Jerusalem and the story of Jesus has been about going to Jerusalem for quite a long time. If you've been following episode by episode, you would be extremely well aware of that. This great trip to Jerusalem was Jesus' final main movement in his ministry, having spent three years in Galilee. He had a huge influence there, travelled all the way around the area, built up a huge following and did some wonderful things in Galilee. Everything has changed and, as has been described in particular by Luke's Gospel, the journey is southward from the north of the country in Galilee, through the central areas of Samaria, down to the southern area of Judea and to the great capital city of Jerusalem. Jesus clearly says that's where he's heading. Luke covers the story in considerable detail, which is why for the most part in this series, and in the previous series, we've been in Luke's Gospel. He has a particular interest in this era of Jesus' ministry.

John also has provided some information about two private visits that Jesus made to Jerusalem at different festivals during this period. Those events have just happened. They were private and brief. Jesus is planning a public and major entry into Jerusalem to confront the religious authorities and ultimately to bring about the events that would lead to his death and resurrection. This is the context. As he's been travelling along the road, there have been huge crowds gathering. Luke references that on a number of occasions. On one occasion, he describes the crowds as being many thousands, and people trampling on one another as they were trying to get close to Jesus. Also travelling with him are his disciples, the Twelve, the Apostles, and a wider group of disciples, people who'd left Galilee for a period of months, left their jobs and homes, and were travelling with him. Also travelling with him, coming and going were opponents, who continually appear in the narrative in Luke, and of course that's part of the narrative of this very parable. They are in the immediate context of this parable, these opponents are members of the religious establishment, notably at this point Pharisees and teachers of the law. It seems they've come from Jerusalem; they're connected to the Jerusalem religious authority, the council called the Sanhedrin, that rules over the Jewish religion and over the Temple, and which has taken a position of opposition to Jesus very publicly and very decisively already through their mouthpieces - members of the Pharisees - who have condemned Jesus as a false Messiah, inspired by evil power. They are constantly harassing Jesus, questioning him and trying to disrupt his influence on the crowds. This is an important part of the context because the presence of Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, and things that they are thinking and saying, is the incident that leads Jesus to deliver these three parables that appear all together in Luke 15.

Context of the Parables

Let's remind ourselves of the exact context. We discussed this very clearly in the last episode. I want to repeat a few things that I said then, in order to give a good introduction to this third of these three parables, the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and now the Lost Son, or the Prodigal Son. If we go to the beginning of the chapter, by way of introduction, and quickly remind ourselves of the context. The first two verses tell us very clearly what is happening at this precise moment as Jesus is travelling on the road going south, heading in the direction of Jerusalem, Luke 15: 1 - 2,

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Luke 15:1-2, NIV

Here's the context: the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law are in attendance most of the time, it appears, as Jesus is travelling, watching him closely as Luke describes in an earlier incident, and no doubt reporting what he says and does to their colleagues and leaders in Jerusalem, in preparation for future confrontation and hopefully condemnation and the execution of Jesus. That was really their intention. Here they are in the narrative, muttering that Jesus is inappropriately relating to the wrong kind of people in their society - tax collectors and sinners, to use Luke's full expression in verse 1. They don't like the fact that he is welcoming them, he's befriending them, and he's even sharing meals with them. This isn't the first time this has happened. As I pointed out in the last episode, when Matthew the tax collector was called, as described in Matthew 9: 9 - 13. He was so excited by this moment of joining Jesus' discipleship group, he organised a great meal in his house and many of his friends, who were tax collectors and so-called sinners, came. The Pharisees were literally outside the building and criticising Jesus for spending time with them, rather than spending time with more respectable people in society. This isn't the first time they did this. It happened, and you see this expression, ‘the tax collectors and sinners’, which comes up several times in the Gospels, has a particular significance. It means people who are not respecting the Jewish religion, not following the Jewish religion - people who are outsiders to the mainstream of society, for a number of different reasons. The tax collectors are outsiders because they were working for the Romans, directly or indirectly, collecting taxes and custom duties and making a lot of money through the process because they held some of what they made collecting taxes for themselves; they only gave part of it to the authorities. Therefore they were rich; they were materialistic; they were selfish; and they could be very exploitative of people who were in a vulnerable position when they demanded taxation of them, so they were really outsiders. Tax collectors appear in the narrative in several forms. We've obviously got Matthew, and another important incident with the tax collectors, is going to take place very shortly, in the story recorded in Luke when Zacchaeus, the tax collector in the city of Jericho, has a surprise encounter with Jesus. They appear in the narrative from time to time and the expression ‘sinners’ has two possible applications here; one is female and one is a male application. The female application are prostitutes; sinners is often a word used to describe prostitutes, and one or two of those types of women appear in the narrative of the life of Jesus. The sinners could also apply to men who were involved in business, in black marketeering and in profiteering; we can't be hundred percent sure but anyway all of those categories of people were on the outside of the mainstream of society - were not respected by the religious leaders, and were considered to be irreligious. They weren't very often seen in synagogues; they weren't very often seen in the Temple during the festivals, and they were the irreligious part of society. Why should Jesus spend his time with them? That is the question they had in mind, and that provokes Jesus to tell a number of stories.

The Theme of the Parables

The theme of these three stories is easy to detect, the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Lost Son - it's people who have got lost, who are far away from God, far away from faith, far away from salvation, far away from security. What these stories tell us, is that in the heart of God, is a great desire to reach out to those people who other humans and society feel are lost and maybe even a lost cause, not worth bothering with. The shepherd has a hundred sheep; he loses one and his interest is taking the effort to travel around to find that sheep and restore it to the flock and the fold. The woman who has 10 coins, loses one, and she made every possible effort in her home to find that coin. Here we have in this story another example, a father with a lost son.

The Parable of the Lost Son

We're going to discuss this in some detail. Parables, of course, have one main point, and the details in the parables that may or may not relate to events in other contexts; they may not be allegories. These parables are usually not allegories. It's the main theme, and the main points, and the main truth that Jesus is trying to bring out that is important. In an extended parable like this one, it's likely that some of the details are significant, and that's what we do find here. Without trying to turn it into an allegory, I think we can very reasonably go through this story and realise that Jesus is giving quite a lot of details to help us understand and flesh out what he's really saying about the main characters in the story. There are three main characters. The father, who owns an estate and some land, who appears to be reasonably wealthy, and his two sons, the older son and the younger son. What happens between these three people tells us a wonderful story about our God's grace, and human response to that grace. He's telling this story particularly to the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law. Luke 15: 3 makes this clear as I described last time. ‘Then Jesus told them this parable’. He told it to them, the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law were in his mind, as well as the tax collectors and sinners, and so people would be able to position themselves in the story. The third story is the easiest one to position yourselves in because it's a story entirely about human relationships, about family relationships and therefore we can enter into the story very fully and very easily. We'll read this in sections. We're going to read Luke 15:11 - 16

‘Jesus 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. 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.”’

Luke 15:11-16, NIV

Inheritance was a very important matter in ancient Israel, as in almost all societies. The oldest son would be inheriting the primary resources of the family, particularly land and property. That was the general pattern. Other children, particularly male children, would inherit in a lesser way, and very often their inheritance would come in monetary or financial form. Here's something unusual: the younger son of this particular man wants to claim his inheritance in his father's lifetime, not wait till he dies but to claim his inheritance quickly. It was an unusual thing to do, and it wasn't approved of in Jewish society. It was a request that could be refused. The father could say, ‘No, I'm not going to give you that cash, that money’, but on this occasion he did. Proverbs 20: 21 speaks about this very issue, ‘An inheritance claimed too soon will not be blessed at the end’, says the writer of Proverbs. The Jews didn't really approve of this; they considered this selfish and disrespectful of the father. However, on this particular occasion, the father agreed to give the son what appears to be a substantial amount of cash. The oldest son's inheritance of the land and property was not in doubt, nothing had changed there, but the younger son had claimed his inheritance.

A Distant Country

He went to a distant country and he lived a life that can be described as irreligious. A distant country means he went outside Israel, outside the direct rule of the God of Israel, and the direct rule of the Law of Moses, outside any accountability to his family, outside any religious or worshipping framework. He became his own man in a different culture. He created a new identity spending his money on social life and high living and basically wasting his inheritance in its entirety, until there was nothing left. He ended up in a very humiliating position. He ended up looking after and feeding pigs. For a Jew, this was very humiliating, because the Jewish law very specifically stated that pigs were unclean, and Jews were not to have anything to do with them. Leviticus 11: 7 - 8,

‘And the pig, though it has a divided hoof does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. 8You must not then meet or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you’.

Leviticus 11:7-8, NIV

As part of the Law of Moses, that was the standard rule for Jews, and yet this man, who almost lost his Jewish religious identity altogether, ended up feeding pigs. His bid for independence from his father, and his bid for happiness had failed catastrophically. Verses 17 to the first half of verse 20,

17‘“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants 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 servants.’ 20So he got up and went to his father.”’

Luke 15:17-20, NIV
He Came to His Senses

This is a wonderfully powerful expression ‘came to his senses’ in verse 17. This is the pathway of salvation for all people, to get a full realisation of what it is to live independently of God and how utterly futile that is ultimately. He'd made a terrible mistake; he'd been proud; he'd been selfish; he'd been arrogant; and he had neglected to remember that being in his father's household was a place of blessing, security and provision. He became much more humble and he'd prepared a speech. He didn't want to go back necessarily as his son; he was happy to go back as a servant in the household; he just wanted to be restored to his father. He returns home in a very famous and moving episode and description. Continuing to read verse 20 second half to verse 24,

‘“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.’ 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.”’

Luke 15:20-24, NIV
The Return Home

The father was on the lookout for the son. He had compassion on him. He didn't let him complete his statement, his pre-prepared statement, if you notice, and he was willing to accept his son's repentance - his saying that he was wrong, his expression of sorrow and his desire to be restored to the family home. There was joy; there was a feast; and tremendous joy. They had a feast and they dressed him up in noble clothes, welcoming him back to the family home. The story could end there. That story in itself is incredibly powerful. It tells us so much about the son who is lost and has been found again. We could finish the story there; we could preach many sermons on this parable, and just leave it at that point and that's exactly what happens. People preach and teach on this story, just to illustrate the love and forgiveness of God, the independence of sinful mankind, the journey of repentance back to God and God's reception of them. That's a fantastic message. It's a summary of key aspects of the Christian gospel, as described in relational and family terms. We mustn't forget that the target audience here included Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. Where do they fit into this? They weren't the prodigal son, they weren't the father. Who were they? How did they position themselves in the story?

The End of the Story

The next part of the story, of course, brings in the third character, the older brother. This story is as much about the older brother as it is about the younger brother, and it's as much about the older brother as it is about the father. All three characters are important. They tell us three different messages that are things we can learn from. Verse 25 to verse 32

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.’”’

Luke 15:25-32, NIV

The older brother has fallen for the emotions and attitudes of jealousy, pride, self-righteousness and legalism. He interprets his relationship with his father purely as obeying commands, fulfilling laws, doing duties and working hard. He doesn't interpret his relationship with his father as a close human relationship. Yet the father's words to him suggested that he wanted a close relationship with his older son but his older son was closed in on himself, just working away in the background. Obviously, he had been continually angered as he thought about his brother, knowing that he'd taken a substantial amount of money out of the family estate and out of the farm, and wasted all that money. He knew that that money could have been invested in developing their business, and their farming, and making life for the family and all the servants much better than it was. He felt really aggrieved; he felt really upset; he felt it was completely unfair, the selfish brother was being rewarded for his selfish action, so it appeared to him. I think you and I can identify with these emotions, and often this is how we can feel as we see God's favour resting on other people. It spoke very directly to the Pharisees.

The Three Characters

Let's now conclude this amazing story by thinking again about the three characters. First of all the prodigal son, the younger son. In a way, he was just like the tax collectors and sinners who are the other people listening in on this story. They were the ones who lived selfish, materialistic lifestyles, and were irreligious and disrespectful of God. The prodigal son is a bit like them, and the interesting thing is that the father did not give up on the prodigal or lost son. That's exactly the same as what's happening in real life at that point, when Jesus didn't give up on the tax collectors and sinners. He didn't push them far away; he invited them into a relationship with him and he challenged them to change their lifestyle. There's no doubt that Matthew changed his lifestyle from when he was a tax collector to when he was a disciple of Jesus. It's very clear when Jesus visits the home of Zaccheus, as recorded later on in Luke, and spends time with him, that something profound has happened because he starts giving money away and restoring money to people as a sign of his repentance. It's very clear when a prostitute comes in on one occasion and wipes Jesus' feet and seeks to gain his forgiveness and his favour, that she is forgiven by Jesus.

Jesus reaches out to the people on the outside in the same way that the father reached out to his younger son. He did not write him off. He always had a heart for him, always had a place in his heart for his younger son, always hoped that one day he would return, which is why he responded so quickly in the story. You'll notice in the story that the father is on the lookout for his son and as soon as his son comes back, he doesn't demand a long explanation, doesn't keep him at a distance. He basically embraces him, he welcomes him because he senses that this son has changed, his attitude has changed and the relationship can be restored. The same could happen for the tax collectors and sinners; the same can happen for anybody who is outside of Christ, anybody who's irreligious, anyone who's materialistic and selfish in the same way the tax collectors and sinners were. There's a way back to God. There's a way open to God for all such people. That's one of the things that this parable tells us.

What about the older brother? Here is a description of a religious attitude which is contrary to true Christianity, an attitude to religion which is about duty, about fulfilling laws, about not really having a relationship with God, just doing the things you think you ought to do, keeping him at a distance, feeling rather resentful deep down, feeling rather proud of what you've achieved. That sort of attitude which the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law had, was being challenged here. It appears that this story is telling us that God our father is calling us to a close relationship with him, that we may serve him out of love, not out of duty. That's the beauty and wonder of Christianity because Jesus shows us the love of the father, and when Jesus dies and the Holy Spirit comes, the Holy Spirit lives in an individual believer and reveals the extent of God the father's love for the individual and reveals to us that we can talk to God as our father. Jesus has made this clear in the Lord's Prayer, and Paul teaches this also elsewhere, for example in the book of Romans, when he says that the spirit helps us to cry out to God as father in a meaningful relationship. That is what God wants for each one of us. That's why this story is a really powerful story, to tell us about who God is, what can happen to people who are far away from God, and how traditional, legalistic, religious attitudes can be transformed into a joyful intimate relationship with our heavenly father.

All these parables end with a note of joy, and this is what I want to end with as we bring this conclusion. Concerning the lost sheep, verse 7,

‘“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”’

Luke 15:7, NIV

Verse 10 after the second parable,

‘“In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”’

Luke 15:10, NIV

And the father says to the older son,

‘“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.’”

Luke 15:32, NIV

My concluding point in this talk is to just affirm very clearly that those who are in the Church, and particularly God himself and the angels in heaven, rejoice profoundly, with utter joy, over every single person who finds true and living faith, who finds forgiveness and finds a relationship with God because it is the best possible outcome for any human life.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Are you more like the younger or older brother in the story?
  • Discipleship
    1. Do you really appreciate what God has done for you? How do you show this?
    2. How do you react to people who go away from God and then return? Are you pleased and welcoming?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What is the older brother's attitude? What can be done to make everyone welcome?
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