And He said, “A certain man had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ And he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be in need. And he went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he was longing to fill his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”‘ And he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ And they began to be merry.”
Introduction: Eagerly Awaiting
All of Luke 15 is spoken as an answer to the accusation of the Pharisees and the scribes in verse 2 that Jesus “receives sinners and eats with them.” Verse 1 says that “all the tax-gatherers and sinners were coming near to him to listen to him.” And Jesus was making a place for them at his table and encouraging them to stay and eat with him.
Luke uses this word “receive” six other times in his writings and every time it means “eagerly await or expect and look for.” In Luke 2:25 Simeon was “eagerly awaiting” the consolation of Israel. In Luke 2:38 Anna the prophetess spoke to those in the temple who were “eagerly awaiting” the redemption of Israel. In Luke 12:36 Jesus says, Be like men who are “eagerly awaiting” the return of the master from the wedding feast. And so on. In other words, Luke 15:2 says that Jesus is not just receiving sinners; he is looking for them and eagerly awaiting their coming. He has his eye out for them. The word “receive” sounds passive. But Jesus is not passive. He is seeking sinners and tax-gatherers to come to him and eat with him.
So the Pharisees and scribes accuse him. And all the rest of the chapter is Jesus’ explanation to them of what is really happening when he welcomes sinners and eats with them.
The first answer in verses 3–7 is that his receiving sinners is like a shepherd who finds a lost sheep and celebrates with all his friends.
The second answer in verses 8–10 is that his receiving sinners is like a woman who finds a lost coin and celebrates with all her friends.
And in both answers Jesus leaves no doubt about what he means, because in verses 7 and 10 he tells the Pharisees that the lost sheep and the lost coin represent lost sinners, and the being found represents repentance, and the celebration is what God and all the angels are doing in heaven.
And at that moment some get it and some don’t. He is saying: I welcome sinners because I am the incarnation of God’s love pursuing the lost. I am the shepherd seeking the sheep. I am the woman seeking her coin. And this meal that we are eating together is a little bit of what is happening in heaven right now, and a foretaste of the joy that is coming. When sinners turn from their sin and accept my fellowship as the joy of their lives, they have come home to God. And God is glad.
Luke 15: Lost and Found
Now in verses 11–24 Jesus gives a third answer to the Pharisees’ accusation. When he receives sinners and eats with them, it is like a father who finds a lost son and celebrates with all his house. All three parables have this in common: being lost and being found followed by great joy in heaven.
Verse 6: “Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep which was lost!”
Verse 9: “Rejoice with me for I have found the coin which I had lost!”
Verse 24: “‘This son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ And they began to be merry.”
A lost and found sheep—and a party. A lost and found coin—and a party. A lost and found son—and a party.
Luke 15 is about the love of God coming into the cities and suburbs of our world to find lost sons and daughters. It’s about the identity of Jesus Christ and the meaning of his mission in the world—then and now. It’s about a story of destitution at our front door yesterday morning and Noël’s taking a woman to her landlord and paying some rent and praying with her—and knowing we were probably ripped off. And believing: this is the heart of God.
If you ask me, is the point of preaching on these parables that you want us to be like Jesus—to receives sinners and eat with them—to find lost sheep and coins and sons and bring them home to the Father? I would say, My first aim is that you would see Jesus. Jesus did not end these parables with “Go and do likewise.” And Luke did not end this chapter with: “Go and imitate Jesus.” The first point is: look at him. Look at him. Consider Jesus. Know Jesus. Learn what kind of Person it is you say you trust and love and worship. Soak in the shadow of Jesus. Saturate your soul with the ways of Jesus. Watch him. Listen to him. Stand in awe of him. Let him overwhelm you with the way he is.
That’s my first aim. If I could succeed at that, we would be so permeated with the beauty of this risky, painful, sacrificial, loving way of life, we could not but pursue it.
The Lost Son
What’s different about the parable of the lost son is that the misery of his lostness is spelled out, the nature of his repentance is spelled out, and the lavish enthusiasm of the father is spelled out more fully than in the other two parables. Let’s look briefly at each of these.
The Misery of the Son’s Lostness
Running away from God starts by feeling free and ends in utter misery—either in this life or the one to come, or both. Look at this in verse 13:
And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.
The word “loose” means a “wild, abandoned, reckless” manner. This always feels free for a season—like sky-jumping feels free—until you realize you don’t have a parachute. So running from God at first feels free.
But then verse 14:
Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be in need.
Easy come easy go. And then reality. A famine. Where do you think that came from? What might be the design in that?
Verse 15: And he went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
When we break our attachment with God, you will end up attached to another, and that attachment will be slavery not sonship. It may be drugs or alcohol or sex or an employer or a spouse or a sport or a hobby or a television or a lake cabin or a computer or books. The attachment may be crude or it may be refined. If we break loose from God, we will be attached to another. And in the end (whether crude or refined) this alien attachment will send us to the swine troughs—either in this life or the one to come.
Verse 16: And he was longing to fill his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him.
You and I were made to be filled with God. And if we run from him, if we take our little earthly inheritance of time and money and energy and use it to attach ourselves to other things than God, it won’t matter whether we are worth nine billion dollars or buried in Homewood, our future will be swine food for all eternity.
That’s the misery Jesus describes when we run from the Father’s house.