In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables (the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin & the Prodigal Son) showing that there is joy in heaven when a sinner repents (Luke 15:7, 10, 32). God is profligate, promiscuous even, with his mercy. And he is exceedingly pleased when those to whom he so graciously offers it humble themselves to receive it.
Three Found Things
Jesus tells three parables in Luke 15. The lost sheep and lost coin parables set up the third, which is the focal parable of the chapter. In these first two, lost things are sought diligently. Drastic measures are taken for the recovery of the sheep and the coin. And they are both sought until they are found. But the real point of the two parables is the joy and celebration that occurs once they are, in fact, found. Both invite their friends and neighbors to celebrate. The father of the prodigal son also celebrates his homecoming. Killing the fattened calf is not the sort of thing you do for a low-key, private party. He, too, has invited his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him.
Jesus told these parables because there were some present who did not grasp the joyful moment before them. At the end of chapter 14, Jesus had uttered those words so often on his lips, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” And, in the very next verse, with a touch of hyperbole, we’re told that the tax collectors and sinners were “all” drawing near to hear him. This is a joyous moment, when those who have been estranged are drawing near to the Lord. But the Pharisees and Scribes are “grumbling.”
To any student of the scriptures, “grumbling” ought to sound the warning of a faithless selfishness. Having been brought out of Egypt with a mighty show of power and providential care, Israel “grumbled” when they were thirsty or hungry (Ex 15:24; 16:2-3). And, much as Paul declares the thanklessness of mankind to be the root of their coming destruction (Rom. 1:21), so Moses points to this grumbling as the root of the exodus generation’s downfall in the wilderness (Num. 14:28-30). The Scribes and Pharisees cannot see past themselves to grasp God’s joy. But sadly, as the next parable is going to show, they cannot see within themselves very clearly either.
We often focus our attention on the prodigal son, and marvel at the forgiving heart of the father. And rightly so. If we are sensitive to the text and the context (Luk 15:2, 11), we may even focus on the older brother. But what I hope we’ll see is that the two sons are really not very different at all.
The younger brother’s first words are “give me,” a clear indicator of his selfishness. He wants his portion of the inheritance (1/3 of his father’s estate) now. This is an embarrassing request. It communicates a greater desire for the father’s property than for his care and guidance and company. He would just as soon see his dad dead now, so that he could have what’s coming to him and be free from the tyranny of his home.
But the older brother is no different. He, too, views the father as a tyrant. He is embittered by the fact that he had “slaved” for and “obeyed” his dad all these years. His estimate of his father is really no better than that of his younger brother. And he, too, claims that his father has not “given” him the means to celebrate. What impudence! And what folly! He ignores the fact that his father impoverished himself in the transaction with his sons. He divided his property between them (Luke 15:12). It is no figure of speech when he says, “All I have is yours.” All he had left was 2/3 of his estate, and he gave that to his oldest son. His son is rude and ungrateful. But he is also foolish and ignorant.
Both boys were “in the fields” (vv. 15 & 25) before their confrontation with their dad, a narrative clue that we are to compare them. Both boys express a selfish desire to use their property as they see fit. And both boys view living under their dad’s care and watchful eye as an unbearable burden. And both of them bring shame to the father …
While the boys are the same in their estimation of the father, the father, too, is the same in his response to the boys. Scorning the shame (cf. Heb 12:2), the father runs to embrace his returning son. Make no mistake about it, the younger brother has sullied his name and reputation. But when he sees him coming home, all insult is forgotten and he runs to embrace him. But he also scorns the shame for his older son. There would, no doubt, have been an audible gasp when the impertinence of the older brother was revealed. How dare he refuse to join his father in the house? With all his father’s friends and neighbors gathered, this childish refusal to come inside would have been regarded as willful, obstinate … pig-headed. And it would have been a source of extreme embarrassment. Both boys have brought shame upon the family by their stubborn selfishness. But the father also scorned the shame of his older son. Leaving his dignity behind him, he goes outside to entreat his insolent older son.
There are no 99 righteous people who need no repentance. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Rom 3:10–12 ESV) Though we are all created in God’s image, we have distorted that image, so that, far from reflecting the goodness and holiness of God, we have profaned his name. And yet, our Lord, scorning the shame (Heb 12:2), “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:7–8 ESV) Oh, the marvelous condescension of our God, that He would stoop to even care about us, let alone to crush his beloved Son to reconcile us to him. Is it any wonder that the God who humbled himself to draw us near would use humility as the doorway through which we come to him (Luke 18:14)?
Did the older brother come inside? Jesus leaves that question hanging out there. But from Luke 18:9-14, we can surmise that he didn’t. He was unable to see past his brother’s faults precisely because he was unable to see his own. And, unable to see his own sinfulness, he is not struck with how unfitting it is that God should show him mercy. No wonder he missed how fitting it was to celebrate the repentance of his brother. Let us be on guard against such a judgmental heart that would regard it as more spectacular for God to save the homosexual or the heroine addict or the prostitute or the muslim, than it was for him to save us. All of us come at the cost of God’s beloved son.