Sunday, March 25, 2012

Luke 15 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son


There are three parables found in Luke Chapter 15: the first is the Parable of the Lost Sheep (4-7), the second is the Parable of the Lost Coin (8-10), and the third is the Parable of the Prodigal Son (11-32).  But instead of viewing them as three separate parables, we will view them in their proper context as ONE parable consisting of THREE parts; and there are several ways to tell.

First, Jesus said that he was going to teach them a parable, not parables (v. 3).  This is singular and not plural, and so there is only one parable being taught and not three.  Second, because of the common elements in each.  In all three, something was lost, a search was made, that which was lost was found, and then rejoicing.  And third, because of the doctrinal implications.  Some believe that it’s a parable about a backslidden Christian while others believe that it’s about a Christian who’s lost their salvation, while others believe that it’s about a sinner who’s never repented.  They all have their proofs, but the basic problem is that they don’t have the whole story; and because of this it leads them to the wrong conclusions, or the right conclusion based upon incomplete information.  The parable is about two groups of lost people who have never known salvation.  But instead of beginning with the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Verse 11, we’ll instead begin at Verse 1.  Again, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is but the third part of ONE parable – a parable that’s designed to demonstrate God’s love for all sinners no matter what type of sinner they are.  Some are more outward while others are more inward; but they’re all sinners nonetheless, and God wants to reach them both.

The Setting

Jesus is on the east side of the Jordan River in a region known as Perea.  We don’t know exactly where he is other than to say that he’s in that region.  This is just a few months before his death and so he’s on his last great evangelical tour before arriving in Jerusalem.  And as it happens, on this occasion he’s been approached by a mixed multitude of sinners – some more outward, some more inward, but all sinners.  The first group consists of the publicans and “sinners” while the second group consists of the scribes and Pharisees.  
                                                                             
1Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.  2And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.

Publicans were the tax collectors of their day.  These were Jewish men employed by the Roman government for the sole purpose of collecting taxes from their Jewish brethren; and suffice it to say, they weren’t very well liked.  The Jews loathed them more than the Romans because they viewed them as traitors: Jewish men who had chosen to collaborate with the enemy for financial gain.  But as part of their “employment package,” they were allowed to retain a percentage of what they’d collected; and so the more they collected, the more money they made, which of they did, thus making them very unpopular.  Matthew (Levi), one of the disciples of Jesus, had been a tax collector (Mt. 9:9; Lu. 5:27). 

Incidentally, they weren’t liked by the Romans either.  They were a conquered people and thus considered inferior.  But they were tolerated because they performed a vital function for the Roman government: the collection of taxes.  It’s much easier for a Jew to collect taxes from a Jew than it would be for a Roman because a Jewish man knows the “ins and outs” of Jewish business practices.  No one likes to pay taxes much less having to pay them to someone viewed as a traitor; and so these men lived in a gray area of existence somewhere between their Jewish roots and their Roman conquerors.  Hated by all, most were probably miserable and ashamed: countrymen without a country.  And yet, their greed and love of money afforded them enough temporal pleasures to satiate the leanness of their souls.

"Sinners," in the context of this story, is a general term which includes all those who were outwardly rebellious.  These were the drug dealers, prostitutes, drunks, thieves, etc.  If you told them they were sinners they’d probably agree.  Whether they repented or not is of course another story, but they’d probably at least admit it.  But despite their sinful state, on this day, this cast out and rejected bunch has come to hear what Jesus had to say.  They wondered at the gracious words which proceeded from his mouth because never in their lives had they heard such a man as this (Lu. 4:22).  His words were with such power and authority that even the unclean spirits obeyed him (Mk. 1:27; Lu. 4:32 etc.).  People were healed of sickness and disease and the hungry, both physically and spiritually, were fed.  This group didn’t must have known that the laws of God couldn’t be kept by mere outward observance.  Perhaps even a few of them were former members of the Sanhedrin.  But in either case, they had to have realized that the laws of God couldn’t be kept in the energy of the flesh.  Unfortunately, what they didn't realize that grace and truth could be received through Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:17). 

The second group in attendance consisted of the scribes and Pharisees.  They too have come to hear the Word of the Lord, but for entirely different reasons to trap Jesus in his words and to find fault.  "This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them," they sarcastically reply.  To their understanding, God’s laws were kept by outward observance.  Outwardly they wouldn't sin, but inwardly they were ravenous wolves.  They were white washed sepulchers who looked good on the outside but inside were full of dead men’s bones, rot, and decay (Mt. 23).  They longed inwardly to do what the publicans and sinners were doing outwardly.  However, the 10th Commandment, Thou shalt not covet, means that you shouldn’t even want to break the other nine commandments or the 10th (Ex. 20:17; Dt. 5:21).  The 10th Commandment simply showed that keeping the laws of God is and has always been a condition of the heart.  As James 2:10 says, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.”  In short, they had a form of godliness but denied the power thereof (2 Tim. 3:5). 

Consequently, their ignorance led them to believe that Christianity required a dress code.  In other words, if you didn't fit their description of what a Christian looked like, then you weren’t one.  These men simply judged themselves by themselves (2 Cor. 10:12).  They thought their salvation rested in the Scriptures and not in the One of whom the Scriptures spoke (Jn. 5:39).  Their mentality was, "I walk and I talk like a Christian; therefore, I am."  Sound familiar?  And yet, despite their overwhelming ignorance, Jesus loved them and desired that they too repent.

Needless to say, both groups were as sheep without a shepherd (Mt. 9:36).  The first group of publicans and sinners were lost and may have even realized they were, but they had no idea how to get home.  The religious leaders certainly weren’t preaching the gospel; and so they were caught between the disparity of their sin and the error of the religious leader's doctrine.  And yet, Jesus had love and compassion for them because they were sinners in need of a Saviour, and to seek and save those such as these was the very reason why he came (Lu. 19:10). 

The second group was also spiritually lost.  However, they had no idea they were lost.  They had no idea because they thought that the laws and commandments of God were kept by outward observation and not inward commitment.  To their understanding there was no need for them to repent, and this is why they had earlier rejected John the Baptist's call to repentance and now they were rejecting Christ's!  Preachers who preach repentance are seldom popular.  But in either case, they were lost.  For as 2 Chronicles 6:36 says, "for there is no man which sinneth not."  And because they considered themselves to be saved, they felt no need to preach repentance to others.  Their hearts were so wicked that they had no compassion toward the lost!  They only appeared to be saved people because of their outward religious appearance (and they were religious).  These men were not your average preacher or Bible teachers.  These men were the theologians of their day.  Selah. 

Then Jesus comes – claiming that he is God and receiving sinners and eating with them!  On numerous occasions Jesus said or taught that he was God, but this didn’t fit their description of what they thought God was like.  Unfortunately, they failed to realize, as we often do, that when it comes to God's Word, God is not interested in what we think.  He gives us the ability to form an opinion, but not the right.  To them, then, Jesus was a doctrinal problem.  A doctrine which they sought to destroy, and did, in one sense, when they hung him on the cross. 

So Jesus is in a predicament.  He needs to demonstrate the love of God to the publicans and sinners while at the same time revealing to the scribes and Pharisees that they too are sinners in need of repentance; and yet do so in a fashion which will allow them both to see the error of their ways without immediately provoking them into a doctrinal battle.  So Jesus begins with a series of parables in an attempt to try and accomplish that very thing.  And since Jesus has claimed to be God, everyone wants to know how God feels about sinners.

Parable of the Lost Sheep

               3And he [Jesus] spake this parable [singular] unto them, saying,

               4What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?  5And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.  6And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.  7I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

 Salvation is a personal decision that must be made individually by each and every one of us.  Jesus emphasizes this point when he begins, “What man of you…”  By starting with a question, he’s asking each and every one of them to place themselves into the role of a shepherd and to think and react as any good shepherd would do.  He’s using an example of which they’d all be familiar.  He’s asking them to “picture the scene,” as it were, in their mind’s eye.  And Israel being an agrarian society, this would have been understood by all; and so Jesus is simply making the story more personal.  And so as they begin to imagine themselves as shepherds watching over their sheep, the Holy Spirit begins to woo them toward salvation.

However, a problem develops.  One of the sheep has gone astray, and as any good shepherd would do, he leaves the others in the wilderness to go and find the missing one.  At first this would seem irresponsible; however, common sense dictates that the 99 would have been left with another shepherd or placed into a pen of some sort.  To leave them alone in the wilderness to go and find the missing one would have only made a bad situation worse.  Therefore, they were either left with another shepherd or placed into a pen or cave for protection.

But why would the shepherd leave the 99 in search of the one?  If the animal couldn’t be found it was the shepherd that had to pay for the loss; and in those days, a shepherds' pay was nominal (Gen. 31:38-39; Ex. 22:9-13), and so the loss of even one animal was potentially devastating.  However, if the lamb had been killed by a predator or suffered death as the result of an accident, then all that was necessary was for the shepherd to do was to retrieve the slain lamb (or a portion thereof) and present it to the owner.  Upon doing so, no loss of wage was incurred.  Hence, every sheep was of immediate personal value and worth whether they were his or another's.  In fact, just the shepherd's willingness to leave the other 99 is a demonstration of just how valuable this one lost sheep was worth to the shepherd.  Sheep are natural wanderers and have the tendency to go wherever their little noses lead them.  The result is that they usually find themselves in a whole lot of trouble.  That’s of course if they even perceive that they’re lost in the first place.
 
But finally, the shepherd finds the sheep.  He places it atop his shoulders and begins to rejoice.  He doesn't beat or chide the animal.  Instead, he simply places it upon his shoulders and carries it to the fold.  The sheep didn't have to earn his way back nor perform any works of penance.  He just rests in his shepherd's strength.  Thus the shepherd has taken it upon himself to bear the responsibility in caring for the sheep.  Clearly, to that shepherd that sheep was of great value.  And if the shepherd delighted in finding the sheep when it was lost, how much more when it is back in the fold?  The excitement is just too much.  He has to share it with others.  He calls his friends and neighbors, asking them to rejoice with him. 

And as it was with the lost sheep, so it is with us.  In the world system, we weren't looking for God, but God was looking for us.  The sheep wasn't looking for the shepherd; the shepherd was looking for the sheep!  Having found us, God places us atop his shoulders and bears all the responsibility to make sure that we make it home because we were once all as sheep going astray (Is. 53:6; 1 Pet. 2:25).  Jesus is the Shepherd of our souls, and as Isaiah 9:6 says, "the government shall be upon his shoulder" – keeping us there until the redemption of the purchased possession at which time we will be with our Father evermore (Eph. 1:13-14).  For now, we’re strangers and pilgrims, ambassadors, given authority to proclaim the gospel in a foreign land (Heb. 11:13-16).  Kings have authority in their own land; ambassadors are given authority by and from the king to represent him in foreign lands.  Selah.

And so when a sinner repents, all of heaven rejoices.  The celebration of the shepherd finding his lost sheep is likened to the celebration which occurs in heaven.  God is so thrilled that he calls and invites his angels to celebrate with him!  And if this is how God felt about us when we were lost, how much more now that we are in the fold?[1]

Parable of the Lost Coin

               8Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?  9And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.  10Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.

Again, Jesus is once again placing the listener into the story by asking them to “picture the scene” in their mind’s eye; the intent of which is to lead them into making a decision.  The first parable asked, "What man," whereas this one begins, “what woman...:” the idea, again, was to make the story more personal by appealing to both men and women.  Men would value the significance of the lost sheep a little more than a woman, while the women would value the loss of the coin a little more than a man.  In either case, Jesus equally ministers to all those present so that there are none with any excuse (Rom. 1:20). 

But in this case, a woman has lost a coin which on the surface may not sound too bad.  But in those days a woman could be divorced at any time, and the only possessions that she was allowed to have were those attached to her body.  And so gifts of gold, silver, gems, coins, jewelry, and other precious valuables were often melted down into some wearable fashion such as earrings, amulets, necklaces, bracelets, rings, etc., or sewn directly into their garments.  And so the loss of any of these could be devastating.   

So she lights a candle and searches for her lost coin.  Likely there wouldn’t have been very much natural light – even during the day because the typical home was constructed without windows.  The reason for this is to deter any would-be thieves or robbers.  They are known for their skill in burrowing through clay walls without making any noise.  They typically wouldn’t enter through the door because it’s a form of covenanting and so many were hesitant to violate its sanctity.  As John 10:1 says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.”  But they weren’t too proud to enter through a window or through the roof.  Thus, to have a window would only encourage them, and so they were often omitted in construction. 
           
Compounding the problem is the flooring.  The wealthy usually had floors of stone while the rest had dirt.  In both cases, floors were often covered with straw to act as a type of insulation between them and the often cool and sometimes damp ground.  Therefore, if an item was lost, finding it amongst the straw and dirt could be a laborious endeavor.  Nevertheless, the woman prevails in finding the lost coin as did the shepherd in finding his lost sheep.  She then calls her friends and neighbors and asks them to share in her joy.  This celebration is also likened to the celebration in heaven over a sinner who repents.

                                               Comparison of the First Two Parables

In comparing these first two parables to the two groups of people, the first group of publicans and sinners are like the sheep.  They’re lost and may even realize they’re lost, but they’re unable to do anything about it because they don’t know the way home.  The scribes and Pharisees surely aren’t preaching the gospel to them.  The second group of scribes and Pharisees are like the coin.  They are "lost as sin" but have absolutely no idea that they’re lost, neither of which alters the fact that they still are.  Their hearts are hard – just like to coin of whom they’re likened.   

In both parables, the shepherd and the woman searched until the lost valuable was found.  The shepherd searched until he found it while the woman searched diligently until she found it.  The emphasis placed upon the woman's diligence is a result of the fact that the coin would have been much more difficult to find – just like the heart of the scribes and Pharisees.  Nevertheless, the coin and their wicked hearts could both be reached.  Whether they repented or not is of course another story, but the opportunity is there.  Also note that it was the shepherd and the woman who took the initiative.  The sheep wasn't looking for the shepherd; the shepherd was looking for the sheep.  Likewise, it was the woman looking for the coin and not the opposite.  The publicans and sinners, just like the sheep, may come to the realization that they’re lost, but they’re unable to do anything about it because they don’t know the way home.  The coin was incapable of receiving revelation as were the scribes and Pharisees due to their hardness of their heart.  And so at this point Jesus has given two parables, each to address the two separate groups present, but now’s he’s going to combine the two into one parable.  

Parable of the Prodigal Son

A prodigal is someone who spends his money foolishly and lavishly.  And in this story, there is a son who’s done just that; hence, this is how this parable came to be known as The Parable of the Prodigal Son.  But as previously mentioned, this parable is actually the third part of one parable.  The first parable demonstrated the lost condition of the publicans and sinners.  Like the sheep, they are lost and are possibly aware they’re lost – none of which alters the fact that they’re still lost and unable to find their way home.  The second parable demonstrated the lost condition of the scribes and Pharisees.  Like the coin, they’re lost and have absolutely no idea that they’re lost, but they’re still lost.  But in this third parable, Jesus is going to combine both of these groups and illustrate that we are all sinners and that we all need of a Saviour whether our sins are more outward or inward (Rom. 3:23).  The scribes and Pharisees may not have understood the first two parables, but they’ll understand this one because Jesus is going to give everyone an example that they’ll be able to understand.  Again, whether they repent or not is another story; but the opportunity is once again being afforded to them. 
           
The first two parables also demonstrated how the scribes and Pharisees should have acted toward the lost: with compassion.  The third is going to demonstrate how they have been acting: with disdain.  The father in this story will typify Father God in that he, like the shepherd and the woman, is going to search for as long and as hard as it takes in an attempt to bring the sinner to repentance.  Jesus is doing that very thing.  The younger son will typify the publicans and sinners and the elder will typify the scribes and Pharisees.  And as we will see, the goodness of the father is going to expose the true condition and nature of each of the son's hearts.  Selah.  

               11And he said, A certain man had two sons:

               12And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.  13And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.

The younger son has asked for his inheritance; and in the land of Israel, a father's inheritance was divided amongst the male children with the firstborn to receive the double portion (Dt. 21:15-17).  So in this case, the inheritance would be divided into three equal parts.  Two-thirds would be given to the elder son and one-third to the younger.  Normally inheritances weren’t given until the death of the father.  However, it wasn’t uncommon for a father to go ahead and divide up his land and give it to his sons beforehand – usually the result of them getting married and starting their own families.[2]  The sons were then allowed to farm the land and reap the fruits thereof, although it’s true that they were still accountable to their father.  In other words, the land was not really theirs until their fathers' death.  But in this case, the son is doing neither.  His father hasn’t died and he has no intention of staying; and so for all practical purposes, his father is dead to him.  He’s only interested in his father for what he can get out of him.  The father knows his son is a rebel and that he cares nothing for him.  Yet despite this, because of his great love for him, he obliges him by dividing up the property and giving him his portion.  For as Romans 2:4 says, "Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?"  In short, sometimes God blesses people with the intent of bringing them to repentance.  Love always warns.  God's messages of repentance are warnings to bring us to repentance in order to keep him from having to bring judgment.  If he wanted to simply bring judgment, why warn?  It was better than the alternative.  The penalty for a rebellious son who failed to repent was death by stoning;[3] and it seems quite apparent that they’ve had this conversation.  The choice was either the stone pile or leave Israel, and the boy evidently chose the latter.  It should also be noted that this father was not breaking the laws of God by not putting his son to death.  These laws were written for the nation of Israel, as a nation, when they were "in the land," although we’d be wise to follow them.  If this boy would have remained in the land of Israel, then yes, he would have been put to death – else his father would have been in sin.  But in this case, the boy went into a far country out from under the laws of Israel.  And so the father, knowing his son, gave him a choice.  Stay in Israel and die, or leave Israel and live.  But he did so in the hope that he’d return with a changed heart because that’s the only way he could come back and stay – else the father would have to have him stoned.  It takes love to fulfill the laws of God.  Selah!  

He soon leaves and ventures into a foreign country.  Once there, he begins to waste his money on riotous living.  His money affords him many of the finer pleasures that this new land has to offer.  He attempts to fit into the crowd and to be just like one of the boys.  He tries to please everyone – hoping they’ll give him their loyalty and devotion in return.  They say that you can’t buy love, but he sure seems to be trying.  However, how long this lasts remains to be seen.

               14And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.  15And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.  16And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.  17And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!  18I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, 19And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.

Famine soon covers the land and prices begin to rise.  At first he's not alarmed.  He has plenty of money.  His father was evidently very wealthy because he had many hired servants who always had plenty to eat (v. 17).  So although he only received one-third of his father's inheritance, it’s still more than enough to sustain him for quite some time.  But he’s beginning to feel a prick in his heart as the Holy Spirit begins wooing him unto repentance.  Unfortunately, his pride keeps him from doing so.  His heart tells him otherwise, but he begins to reason, and reason is the first cause of rebellion and is as the sin of witchcraft – another sin that is punishable by death (cp. 1 Sam. 15:23 and Ex.22:18; Lev. 20:27). 

But famines occur slowly, and as the money dries up, so does his soul.  Prices continue to rise.  Only more sharply now than before as the severity of the famine deepens.  As a result, the money dissipates much sooner than anticipated.  Speaking of the lustful attitude of the children of Israel when they rejected God's manna and asked for flesh, Psalms 106:15 says, "And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul."  His “friends” forsake him and he’s soon alone in the world.  He goes to work for a citizen of that country feeding swine (pigs).  It was considered a disgrace for a Jew to have to tend swine because they were an unclean animal (Lev. 11:7-8; Dt. 14:8).  He wouldn't work for a father who loved him; but now he's working for someone who doesn't even like him.  He looks over at what they are eating and they’re eating better than he is!  He would have liked to have eaten what they were eating.  But the detestable nature of pig slop wouldn’t allow for it; he’d simply throw it up, if he could even get it down in the first place; so it was better for him to remain hungry.  Evidently, the wages he’s receiving aren’t even enough to keep him from feeling the pangs of hunger.  He begins to beg and no one gives him anything.  At home he was treated as a son.  In the world, he’s treated as less than an animal.  
Finally, "he came to himself."  He can't go any lower.  He remembers the goodness of his father and how well even the hired servants were treated – and he was a son!  Assuredly his father would hire him before he would hire another stranger!  Scripture reveals that blessed are those who hunger for righteousness because they will be filled (Mt. 5:6).  And in all respects this boy is hungry.  And so on his way home, he begins to rehearse what he’s going to say.  He wasn’t going to say that he’d made a mistake or an error, he was going to say that he’d sinned – good confession!  It's hard to tell someone that you've sinned.  Yet, it’s easier to forgive them because they’re usually being honest.  When we simply tell someone that we've made a mistake, the other person is much more likely to walk away wondering if we really meant it or not.  All too often we try to make sin sound less than what it really is.  Selah.
 
But the deceitfulness of sin has caused him to believe that he was no more worthy to be called a son.  He was never worthy to be called a son in the first place!  He was a son, but not worthy to be called a son.  He was a rebel and most rebels don't realize that they’re rebels until after they’ve left home.  Worse, his guilt feelings have led him into legalism.  He wants to work to please his father, which again illustrates that he knew nothing of his father's nature.  He thinks that he can earn his father's love and affection by working as a hired servant.  His father couldn't love him any more or less than he already does.  You can't earn that which you already possess.  He simply hasn’t come into the knowledge or experienced the love of his father because of his rebellious disposition!  But despite this, there is evidence of a sincere desire to repent, and so the boy must be granted the benefit of a doubt.  Meanwhile, the scribes and Pharisees are intently listening.  The story is beginning to come to a climax and the question is being pondered, Will this father receive this younger son – a sinner? 

               20And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.  21And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.  22But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: 23And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.
  
Biblical repentance not only includes confession, but repentance as well (Pr. 28:13).  Biblical repentance requires that we change directions and turn away from sin and this is what the younger son did when he arose to return to his father's house.  Earlier, he couldn't wait to get away from his father, but now he can't wait to get back.  Along the way, he continues to rehearse what he’s going to say.  But while he is yet "a great way off," his father sees him and immediately runs to him.  He was able to see him from such a great distance because in the land of Israel they farmed in the valleys and built their homes and cities on the hilltops (Mt. 5:14).  But this father has been looking for the return of his son since the day he left.  He never stopped looking because he never stopped loving – even with the knowledge that his son was living in sin.  He has compassion for his son and compassion is always based first upon a commitment to serve.  Scripture records that when Jesus had compassion on the people, he did at least one of three things.  He healed them, delivered them, and fed them, physically and spiritually; and as we will see, this father will do no less.  Tears of joy begin to run down his face as he runs to greet his son.  And by the time the child is able to do or say anything; his father has already thrown his arms around him and kissed him on the neck.  For years this father has been praying for his son to return.  He didn't pray for the famine or that he would have to work for a pig farmer.  He simply prayed and asked God to change his heart. 

But did you notice?  The father didn't allow him to finish saying what he’d earlier rehearsed (vv. 18-19).  He didn't allow his son to say, "make me as one of thy hired servants."  This father had no intention of allowing him to work for his salvation.  To say otherwise is to say that we can earn our salvation through works of the flesh apart from God.  This father has waited in eager expectation to receive a son, not a slave!  He steps back and takes another look at him.  He's a mess.  He stinks just like his performance but that doesn't matter.  His son was home.  If our salvation was based upon our performance, then none of us would make it!  The only "work" which God allows us to perform is to believe on him (Jn. 6:29).         

Immediately the father calls for his servants and they’re instructed to bring the best robe, a ring, and shoes, and to place them upon him.  In the blood covenant ceremony, one of the first things that the two covenanting parties did was exchange robes, symbolizing an exchange of natures.  So in this case, the reception of the robe symbolized the son receiving his father's nature.  He was never worthy to be called a son, he only thought he was.  But because of the father, now he’s worthy.  And this is true of us, when we accept Jesus, we are and become the adopted sons of God (Jn. 1:12-13; Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 3:29-4:7; 1 Jn. 3:1-3 etc.).  However, not only is he worthy to be called a son, but a prince.  As such, not only does he receive a robe, but a ring as well.  This ring was a signet ring which was used to seal important documents.  They were also used as "credit cards."  And so every time the son made a purchase, his signet ring meant that any debt that he incurred his father would pay.  And this is exactly what Jesus has done for us.  Any sins debts that we incur our Father pays through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.  Selah.
 
It only takes one sin to condemn us to hell, just like it did Adam and Eve.  This boy is spiritually bankrupt.  He left full, but has returned empty.  He had no money, no credit, no reputation, no friends, etc.  This ring simply demonstrates that any debts he incurs after becoming a son, the father will pay (1 Jn. 1).  And finally, shoes were placed upon his feet.  In Biblical times, people who were slaves were not allowed to wear shoes.  As Romans 6:16 says, " Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness??"  In other words, you are a slave to whom you choose to serve.  Sin always promises freedom but really does nothing more than bring about bondage and slavery.      

So the father receives his son and they begin to be merry – for that which was lost has now been found.  A banquet ensues and the father kills the fatted calf.  This wasn't just any calf, but the fatted calf.  Everyone knew that from the day that his son left home that the father had set aside a special calf in anticipation of his sons' return.  This calf was undoubtedly well fed so that it would be large and juicy for the celebration.  The father had great delight in preparing this animal because he knew that if it was ever slaughtered, it would be done in celebration over the return of his son!
At this point, surely the scribes and Pharisees are beginning to understand that this is what any good earthly father would do for his son.  And if this is what any good earthly father will do for his son, how much more would a heavenly Father do for his?  The scribes and Pharisee are probably beginning to think that this is the conclusion of the story.  However, Jesus has only exposed his heart towards the publicans and sinners.  Now he’s going to show the scribes and Pharisees the condition of their heart and their need for repentance.                 
  
               25Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.  26And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.  27And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.  28And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.  29And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: 30But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. 

The elder son has heard the music and dancing and inquires as to why all the revelry.  Upon the explanation that his younger brother has returned and that the fatted calf has been slain, he becomes angry.  Everyone knew about the fatted calf and they all knew that it had been especially set aside for the return of the younger brother.  However, this son's heart is so wicked that he can't rejoice when his brother, a sinner, has repented – just like the scribes and Pharisees (v.2).  He throws a temper tantrum and refuses to join the celebration; and so just as the woman initiated the search for her lost coin, the father initiates the search for his (oldest) son’s heart.  He pleads with him to repent and join the celebration, just as Jesus is now pleading with the scribes and Pharisees.  The son replies that he’s been faithful and that he’s never sinned.  His heart was so hard that he believed that he had never sinned!  He essentially says, "Dad.  You never gave me a kid."  A baby goat is cheaper than a lamb; and so by this statement he’s accusing his father of being unfair.  The wickedness of the fallen nature always finds fault with the Father.  The father didn't need to change his heart (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8), the older son needed to change his.  This son's heart is so hard that he has absolutely no idea that he is lost, just like the coin.  He was deceived into thinking, just like his younger brother, that he didn't need his father, when in all actuality, the love of the father was the only thing he had going for him.  God has to first love us before we can love him back (1 Jn. 4:19).  
           
"But as soon as this thy son was come," he sarcastically replies.  His sarcasm is detected by the father who will correct him out shortly.  He begins to point out his brother's sins.  In doing so, he makes the classic mistake of focusing on the sin rather than the sinner.  His father focused on the sinner and made no mention of his sin.  He felt his brother ought to be punished.  His father made no mention of punishment, why should he?  

               31And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.  32It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.   

But despite all of the hurt and anger that his son is exhibiting, the father, with all gentleness and meekness, replies by reminding him that the younger son has already received his inheritance, and that all that remains will one day belong to him.  In so many words, he’s also telling him that he would have been happy to throw him a party, but he never asked.  In effect, the father was saying that it was his fault, he’s always been there.  For as scripture says, we serve a God who says that he will never leave nor forsake us (Dt. 4:31; Heb. 13:5 e.g.). 
           
When the younger son left, he left with all.  The father had absolutely no idea whether he’d ever see him again or not.  And so yes, it was appropriate that they should be merry because the son that was dead is now alive, and the son which was lost is now found.  He was alive physically but dead spiritually because he didn’t have the nature and character of his father.  Nevertheless, he’s been received safe and sound, just like sheep in the sheepfold.  The elder brother, in speaking to his father, referred to his younger brother as "thy son."  However, the father in rebuttal refers to him as "thy brother" – thus reminding that he is supposed to be his brother’s keeper and that he’s likewise in the same boat as his younger brother once was; and the only difference is that the younger son was outwardly rebellious while the elder, while although outwardly obedient, was inwardly rebellious – just like these lost scribes and Pharisees in the audience. 
           
Jesus is trying to teach them how to treat sinners.  But they can’t do it because they don’t have the heart; and Jesus is trying to get them to see that because they can’t rejoice when a sinner “comes home,” that they don’t have a heart like God, which in turns means that they need to repent so that they can have a heart like the Father.  A true son should be like his father.  "Like father – like son" is the expression.  So do you see?  The goodness of the father will test our hearts to reveal their true condition.  The Father doesn't have to change his heart, we need to change ours.  The older son was more concerned about the money that had been lost than the life that had been preserved.  May we not allow our hearts to grow so cold.            

By now, the scribes and Pharisees almost certainly understand the parable.  A hushed, ominous silence must have encircled them – the air saturated with the presence of the Spirit of God, wooing them unto repentance.  You could have heard a pin drop.  But there’s no indication given as to how many of them repented, if any.  However, Acts 6:7 records that later many of them did.  Saul of Tarsus, whom we commonly refer to as Paul, was one of them.

                                                                     Conclusion

In our parable, Jesus was dealing with two different types of sinners.  Some more outward, some more inward, but all spiritually lost and in need of a Saviour.  Jesus showed the outward sinners how God felt about them, and then showed them the way home.  Jesus also showed the religious muckety-mucks that they too needed salvation.  They claimed to be serving God, but their heart was far from him as evidenced by the fact that they couldn’t rejoice in seeing a lost person come to salvation. 

The religious leaders accused Jesus of receiving and eating with sinners; and in the parable, Jesus taught them that God does indeed receive and eat with sinners.  And since Jesus was receiving and eating with sinners, then Jesus was subtly claiming to be God.  God, in the flesh, was standing right in front of them, and they couldn’t see it because their hearts were so hard, just like the coin.  But God always accepts repentant sinners, even theologians and Bible college professors.  So if you do not know the Lord, I would encourage you to repent of your sins and ask him to be the Lord of your life.  If you’re already a Christian, and perhaps God has quickened an area of sin in your life, then confess and repent and enjoy continued fellowship with the Father (1 Jn. 1-2:6).  God has great compassion and care for the sinner.  After all, that’s all he has to work with.[4]  Selah.




[1] Note: the context of this parable is to draw a contrast between two groups of lost people.  This is not teaching that God loves the sinner more than the saved – although he does rejoice more when the spiritually lost are found.  The Father's love is consistent.  Neither is it teaching that a Christian can lose their salvation.  Why?  Again, the context of the parable doesn’t allow for that kind of interpretation.  And so when he makes the statement about there being more joy in heaven over the sinner that repents more than the 99 just, it’s akin to saying a new baby boy has just been born.  It’s not that you no longer love your previously born children; it’s just that now there is a new life to behold! 
[2] Isaac received his inheritance before the death of Abraham his father (Gen. 25:5-6).
[3] Deut. 21:18-21
[4] To clarify, for those of us who already know the Lord, we are saved people who sin and no longer sinners by nature.  In Luke 5:8, Peter said that he was a "sinful man," not a sinner.  This truth is also applied in distinguishing a hypocrite from someone who is being hypocritical.  By Biblical definition, a hypocrite is someone who has never repented and accepted Jesus.  This is also true in distinguishing a fool from someone who is acting foolish.  In short, do not allow someone to put you under bondage by referring to you as a "hypocrite" when Biblically you are not.  Simply love them despite their ignorance.  If there is any truth to their accusations, then repent over that area in your life and continue to walk freely – not allowing them to put you again under bondage.    

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