Lost and Found
Luke 15 is one of the most well-known and beloved passages of the entire Bible. And that presents us with a problem, actually, two problems.
The first problem we have when reading any familiar passage is that we think we know what’s in it. It happens all the time, we quote a passage from memory only to find out that our memory is faulty and what we quoted isn’t in the passage at all.
Second problem with a familiar passage is that we think we know what it means. This happens a lot with the parables. Often, we assume that they are meant to be understood as allegories. So, we set about to find the allegory—assigning a meaning to every detail of the story. That is not the way to interpret parables, unless Jesus says the parable is meant as a metaphor. For example, the Parable of the Soils (“The seed is the word of God . . . etc. – Luke 8:1-15). If Jesus doesn’t say that the parable is meant to be an allegory then we must not interpret it as an allegory, lest we read into the text that which is not intended.
Specifically, in the case of the Prodigal Son, we rip it out of context and try to interpret it on its own. It was never intended to be read that way. The Prodigal Son is one of a set of three parables which Jesus told together in a specific setting. It is only as we view it in its setting that we discern its meaning.
The Setting (vss. 1-2)
The setting of these parables is the reaction of the Pharisees at tax collectors and sinners coming to Jesus. But, let’s widen the context a bit.
13:10-- On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues – Jesus is doing what rabbis do, teaching in a synagogue. A crippled woman comes to him and he heals her, igniting a controversy over healing on the Sabbath.
13:22-- Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Jesus is headed to Jerusalem and along the way he is visiting different villages. Again, doing what rabbis do, teaching and preaching.
14:1-- One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. Jesus is eating in the house of a prominent Pharisee on the Sabbath. The Pharisees are watching him to see how he will keep the Sabbath regulations. Again, he performs a healing and talks about healing on the Sabbath. Still, Jesus is doing what rabbis do. Even if they do not agree with him, disagreeing and debating is what rabbis do.
14:25-- Large crowds were traveling with Jesus – Jesus is becoming extremely popular, drawing huge crowds. It is one thing to be a rabbi and be teaching in the synagogues and going to dinner with prominent Pharisees—that’s what rabbis do—but speaking to large crowds outside the synagogue is NOT what rabbis do.
That brings us to 15:1-2
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
This is the last straw. Righteous people just didn’t associate with THAT kind of people. In fact, Pharisees did everything they could to separate themselves from such people (Pharisee means “separated ones”).
This is the setting in which Jesus tells the three “Lost Parables”—not that the parables are lost, but that they are about lost things—a sheep, a coin, and a son.
The Lost Sheep (vss. 3-7).
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’
It makes perfect sense. A man loses 1% of his wealth. It is worth his while to go out and look for it until he finds it. And when he finds it, it makes perfect sense to celebrate. After all, I have recovered 1/100 of my entire fortune.
The Lost Coin (vss. 8-10)
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’
Again, something is lost. This time a coin. Possibly a part of the woman’s dowry, nevertheless it is valuable to her. Worth not 1% but 10% of her total wealth. Wouldn’t she sweep the floor and look in every nook and cranny until she finds it. You bet she would! Wouldn’t you? And when she finds it she celebrates. Makes perfect sense.
Jesus makes the same observation in both stories “I tell you that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (vs. 7). “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (vs. 10).
Why? Because they were lost and now they’re found. It wasn’t that the one was more important than the 99; or that the one was more valuable than the 9; it was that they had been lost and now they were found. And that was cause for celebration. That is the point of these three parables.
The Lost Son (vss. 11-32)
“There was a man who had two sons” (vs. 11).
Not 1% or 10% but 50%. If it makes sense to celebrated when you recover 1% of your sheep and 10% of your coins, how much more when you lose 50% of your sons and he comes back.
Now, Jesus could have made it simple—you lose your sheep, you find it, you celebrate; you lose your coin, you find it, you celebrate; you lose your son, he comes back, you celebrate. But he doesn’t do that. He makes the lost son as unappealing as he possibly can.
First, he is greedy, impatient and disrespectful to his father (vs. 12).
“The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.”
By asking his father to give him his share of the estate, he is saying, in effect, “Dad, I can’t wait until you die.”
But wait, there’s more:
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 (vs. 13).
Going off into a distant country meant that he left Israel, the covenant community. And he wasted his inherence on riotous living. Do you hate this kid, yet?
Wait. There’s more:
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything (vss. 14-16).
“There was a severe famine in that whole country” – In the Bible, famine is a sign of God’s judgment. So, this young man was under the judgment of God.
“He . . . hired himself out to a citizen of that country”. Now he’s a slave to Gentiles. Working feeding animals that, as a good Jewish boy, he shouldn’t even touch. He’s hit rock-bottom.
But, that’s not the end of the story:
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! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
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.
21The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22But 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. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate (vss. 17-24).
You lose 1% of your sheep—you find it—you celebrate!
You lose 10% of your coins—you find it—you celebrate.
You lose 50% of you sons—he comes back—you celebrate. It’s only natural. Who wouldn’t do that?
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So 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. 29 But 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. 30 But 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. 32 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’” (vss. 25-32)
The point of these three parables addressed to the Pharisees, who were getting their undies in a knot because Jesus was associating with “tax collectors and sinners”, is: You lose a sheep and find it, you throw a party. You lose a coin and find it, you throw a party. The Father has sent me and I am reclaiming lost sons, and you are angry, because you can’t find it in yourself to celebrate.
But lest we jump too quickly on the Pharisees –
To rightly understand this parable, we need to put ourselves in the proper place. Usually when we read the parable of the Lost Son, we put ourselves in the place of the son who comes home. “This is me,” we say, “I was lost in sin and came back to my Father and he received me with joy.” But, remember, Jesus didn’t tell this parable to the prodigals. He wasn’t talking to those who had wandered away and now were being brought back. He told it to the Pharisees. The ones who, like the elder brother couldn’t find it in themselves to celebrate the fact that tax collectors and sinners were being brought back to God. To properly understand this parable, we need to stop seeing ourselves as the prodigal and start seeing ourselves as the older brother.
The older brother had several problems:
1. He viewed salvation as his reward for faithfulness.
“I am the one who deserves a party. He’s getting what I deserve.” We all know Ephesians 2:8, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” but, if we’re honest, we sometimes think of salvation in terms of a balance sheet. There’s good stuff on one side, and bad stuff on the other; and if my good stuff outweighs my bad stuff, then I go to heaven. But, if my bad stuff outweighs my good stuff, I go to hell.
That’s the way the Pharisees thought. That’s why they gave so much attention to the law. If I obey the law, they thought, then God will accept me. They didn’t understand that salvation has nothing to do with obedience and everything to do with God’s grace.
If the elder brother had understood this, then he would have understood that the father was not celebrating the younger son—who he was or what he had become; he was celebrating the reunion. This is not a condoning of wild living—it is a celebration of a relationship restored.
2. He believed that he had merit in himself. (29)
“I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends” (vs. 29).
The elder brother sincerely thought that he was better than the prodigal. He thought that the father owed him something. “I’m the good one. I deserve a party. I stayed home and obeyed you. I didn’t go and spend all your money on prostitutes. You should be celebrating me.”
Isn’t that the way we think sometimes? We’ve been good, moral, faithful—surely God owes us something. Let me tell you: God owes you nothing. The only thing you deserve is death and hell. It is only by his grace that God hasn’t already destroyed you.
This is the reason why it is hard for so many people to come to Christ. They reason: “I’m better than most people. Why do I need Jesus?” Let me answer. You need Jesus because without him you are under the condemnation of God and there for you only the expectation of an eternity without God.
3. He forgot all that he had to be grateful for (vs. 31)
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours’” (vs. 31).
Think about all that you have enjoyed that he has not in the months or years that he has been gone. You had me. You had everything that I had. While he sat in the pig sty starving, you sat at my table day after day, and now, you have the temerity to complain that I never gave you a goat? Are you envying him?
We do this too when we look at the lifestyles of some of the people we know and we envy them. “That guy isn’t half as righteous as I am. He never goes to church, he beats his wife and kicks his dog. And look at what he has! I bust my back side trying to follow God and my stuff isn’t as good as his stuff. God, don’t you see me here?”
Really? You envy the wicked because their better off materially than you? They may have a bigger house, a nicer car, more money in the bank—but think of what you have—Jesus, sins forgiven, a guarantee of eternal life and a glorious future with your Father in Heaven. How can you envy the non-believer just because he may have a bit more square footage?
Psalm 73 is appropriate here:
God is good to Israel,
as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
have no struggles;
is what the wicked are like—
in vain I have kept my heart pure
15 If I
had spoken out like that,
you place them on slippery ground;
my heart was grieved
I am always with you;
who are far from you will perish;
What he has prepared for you who trust in him is beyond imagination. How can you envy even for a moment those who do not acknowledge him?
Make Him your delight and highest reward and don’t be the elder brother.