‘Now all the public servants and sinners were drawing near to him to hear him.’
Gathered in the crowds around Jesus were large numbers of public servants and ‘sinners’. The ‘public servants were those who served the Romans in one way or another, either under Herod or under Pilate, both of whom represented Rome. They would include a large number of tax and toll collectors, men, often brutal men, who had taken advantage of the system to enrich themselves, and they would be as unwelcome to the sinners as they were to the Pharisees. We must not just ignore the truth about them. The ‘sinners’ were those who did not in Pharisaic eyes sufficiently follow the laws of cleanness and uncleanness, the laws of tithing, and so on. They would include those guilty of all kinds of sins, some mild, others more serious. But all shared one common position. They were despised by the Pharisees. Yet their presence here indicated that in their hearts there was a desire for the truth, and a recognition that their present lives were unsatisfactory. Jesus welcomed them as those who were seeking to change, not as those who would stay as they were. And while to the Pharisees their presence was an offence, to Heaven it was a joy.
‘Were drawing near.’ The verb is used similarly of crowds in Matthew 15:8, and the tense probably indicates their continual drawing near over a period of time. It was during this period of regular association with the crowds that the Pharisees and Scribes began to mouth their criticisms.
‘To hear Him.’ This suggests a certain attentiveness about their listening, (compare Luke 14:35). They were listening, ‘the Pharisees and Scribes’ (for the order compare Luke 5:30; Mark 7:1; Mark 7:5; Matthew 15:1) were not. This idea of listening is important in Luke, see Luke 5:1; Luke 5:15; Luke 6:17; Luke 6:27; Luke 6:47; Luke 6:49; Luke 7:29; Luke 8:8-18; Luke 8:21; Luke 9:35; Luke 10:16; Luke 10:24; Luke 10:39; Luke 11:28; Luke 11:31. He wants us to know that it is important that we genuinely ‘hear’.
The Parables of The Seeking Shepherd and the Lost Coin (15:1-10).
In these twin parables Jesus illustrates Heaven’s concern over all lost persons, whoever they may be, and of whatever class they be, and stresses that His purpose in coming is to reach out to them and find them. He has the love of the shepherd for his wayward sheep. He has concern at the loss of a treasured possession. At the same time it illustrates God’s election of those who are His, and whom He has given to His Son (John 6:37; John 6:44-45; John 10:26-29). For Jesus makes clear that there is a certain inevitability about the finding of the sheep because it is His, and about the finding of the coin because it is in the house and is His own treasured possession. Both are sought for until they are found. In this picture of a compassionate God who seeks out those who have sinned against Him in order to have mercy on them we have an idea which is unique in religious history.
We may analyse the passage as follows:
a All the public servants and sinners were drawing near to Him to hear Him (Luke 15:1).
b Both the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners, and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).
c He spoke to them this parable, saying, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, and having lost one of them, does not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?” (Luke 15:3-4).
d “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing”
e “And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost’.” (Luke 15:5-6).
d “I say to you, that even so there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over ninety and nine righteous persons, who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7).
c “Or what woman, having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, does not light a lamp, and sweep the house, and seek diligently until she find it?” (Luke 15:8).
b “And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I had lost.’ ” (Luke 15:9).
a “Even so, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).
Note how in ‘a’ the sinners draw near to Him to listen, and in the parallel the sinner repents and causes joy in Heaven. In ‘b’ the Pharisees and Scribes grumble at Jesus receiving sinners (those who have been lost and are now being found) and eating with them, while in the parallel the woman calls her sinner friends together to celebrate with them that what was lost has been found (something at which Heaven rejoices). In ‘c’ the man has lost his sheep, and is not satisfied until he has found it, and in the parallel the woman has lost her coin and is not satisfied until she has found it. In ‘d’ the shepherd rejoices over finding his sheep, and in the parallel Heaven rejoices over the ‘found’ sinner who repents. Central in ‘e’ is the calling of all together to rejoice at finding the lost sheep.
Men Must Live In The Light Of The Coming Of The Son of Man In His Glory (15:1-19:28).
Having established in Section 1 that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the city of David where He was proclaimed ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord Messiah’; and in Section 2 that as ‘the Son of God’ Jesus had faced His temptations as to what His Messiahship would involve and defeated the Tempter; and that in Section 3 He had proclaimed in parables the secrets of ‘the Kingly Rule of God’; and had in Section 4 taught His Disciples the Lord’s Prayer for the establishment of that Kingly Rule and for their deliverance from the trial to come; and having in Section 5 seen in the healing of the crooked woman on the Sabbath a picture of the deliverance of God’s people from Satan’s power; this section now centres on His coming revelation in glory as the glorious Son of Man (compare Daniel 7:13-14).
(For the evidence that these points are central to the narrative see Introduction).
Section 6 follows the chiastic pattern that we have already seen abounds in Luke. It may be analysed in detail as follows:
a Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him (Luke 15:1).
b The parables concerning the seeking Shepherd who goes out into the wilderness, the woman with the coins, and the three, the father and the two young men, who each make their choice as to what they will do, and Heaven’s rejoicing when tax collectors and sinners repent (Luke 15:2-32).
c The steward who used his lord’s wealth wisely, and thoughts on using money wisely in preparation for the eternal future in the everlasting dwellings (Luke 16:1-13).
d The Pharisees are blind to the truth about Jesus and cavil at His teaching, but all who see the truth press into the Kingly Rule of God (Luke 16:14-18).
e The story of the rich man, and the beggar Lazarus, is a pointer to the wrong use of wealth in the light of the eternal future and to the unwillingness of many even solid Jews to truly listen to the Law of God, which will result in their being lost for ever (Luke 16:19-31).
f The danger of putting stumblingblocks in the way of others, especially of children, in the light of the eternal future (Luke 17:1-5).
g The servant who only does his duty in the expansion of the Kingly Rule of God does not expect a reward, for that is his duty (Luke 17:6-10).
h Ten lepers come seeking deliverance and are healed - but there is only one, a Samaritan, who afterwards seeks out Jesus with gratitude so as to give thanks. Among the many the one stands out. He alone finally seeks Jesus in faith and is abundantly vindicated. Jesus asks, ‘where there not ten cleansed, where are the nine?’ and stresses his faith (Luke 17:11-19).
i The Kingly Rule of God does not come with signs (Luke 17:20-21)
j After first being rejected the Son of Man, when He comes, will come in His glory (Luke 17:22-24), men must therefore beware of false Messiahs. After this we have a cluster of Son of Man sayings (Luke 17:26; Luke 17:30; Luke 18:8; Luke 18:31; Luke 19:10).
i The coming of the Son of Man will be unexpected (and thus without signs) (Luke 17:25-37).
h In parable there is an unrighteous judge, (who represents God), and he is faced by one who comes to him seeking for vindication, a picture of God’s elect seeking vindication. God’s elect must persevere in prayer and seek Him with faith that they too might find vindication. Among the many, the few stand out. Jesus asks, ‘when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?’ (Luke 18:1-8).
g The Pharisee who thinks he does his duty and expects thanks for it, is contrasted with the one who comes humbly and is justified (Luke 18:9-14).
f The Kingly Rule of God must be received as a little child (Luke 18:15-17).
e The approach of the rich young ruler and the difficulty of entering under the Kingly Rule of God, stressing the wise use of wealth for the sake of the Kingly Rule of God (Luke 18:18-30).
d While the Apostles remain partially blind to the truth about Jesus, (the fact that what is written about the Son of Man must be accomplished), the blind man at Jericho recognises Him as the Son of David and insists on being brought to Jesus and his eyes are opened, He insistently presses into the Kingly Rule of God (Luke 18:31-43).
c The chief tax collector Zacchaeus uses his wealth wisely and yields it to the Lord, demonstrating that the Son of Man has successfully come to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:1-10).
b The king goes to a far country to receive Kingly Rule, he gives coins to his servants to trade with, and his three servants have each to make their choice (Luke 19:11-27).
a ‘And when He had said thus He went on before, going up to Jerusalem’ (Luke 19:28).
Note how in ‘a’ the section opens with the tax collectors and sinners drawing near ‘to hear Him’, and ends with Him ‘concluding His words’ before moving on towards His death in Jerusalem. In ‘b’ the shepherd goes into the wilderness, the woman looks after her coins, and a father and his two sons make their choices, while in the parallel a king goes into a far country, he dispenses coins to be looked after, and three servants make their choices. In ‘c’ the steward uses money wisely and in the parallel Zacchaeus uses his money wisely. In ‘d’ The Pharisees are ‘blind’ to the truth about Jesus and cavil at His teaching, while those who see the truth press into the Kingly Rule of God, and in the parallel the disciples are ‘blind’ to Jesus’ teaching, while the blind man presses insistently into seeing Jesus. In ‘e’ we have the rich man who used his wealth wrongly and in the parallel the rich young ruler who refused to use his wealth rightly. In ‘f’ we are told of the danger of putting stumblingblocks in the way of others, especially of children, while in the parallel the Kingly Rule of God must be received as a little child. In ‘g’ the servant who only does his duty does not expect a reward, while in the parallel the Pharisee is confident that he has done his duty and boasts about it, but is seen as lacking. In ‘h’ ten men cry out for deliverance, but one man stands out as seeking Jesus and is commended and his faith alone is emphasised, in the parallel one woman seeks to a judge (God) and His elect are to seek out God for deliverance and are commended but lack of faith on earth is feared. In ‘i’ the Kingly Rule of God does not come with signs, and in the parallel His coming will be unexpected (and thus without signs). In ‘j’, and centrally, the rejected Son of Man is to come in His glory and false Messiahs are to be avoided (Luke 17:22-24).
Three Parables Dealing With The Seeking and Saving of the Lost (15:1-32).
It will have been noted how great a concentration there is in this section on preparing for the eternal future, and on the Kingly Rule of God. This will lead on to an emphasis on the heavenly Son of Man, and the revelation of His future appearing in glory.
In this chapter Jesus commences by vividly illuminating His coming statement in Luke 19:10 that ‘the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.’ He does it by means of the parables of the shepherd going out into the wilderness to seek his lost sheep, the woman being concerned over her coins and seeking the one that was lost, and the three men, a father and his two sons, who are faced with choices. These themes remarkably parallel the descriptions in the parallel parable which immediately follows Luke 19:10, of the king who goes ‘into a far country’ to receive a kingship, dispenses ‘coins to be looked after’, and faces up ‘three men with their choices’ (Luke 19:11-27).
The three parables in this present chapter have the one theme, the rejoicing over the finding of what had been lost. In the first two parables that is specifically related to joy in Heaven. In the third it is the rejoicing of the father, but as in that case the father himself represents God, the idea is the same. The first two parables are also parallel to each other in that both depict the seeking of what was lost. They also follow Luke’s man/woman pattern which we find elsewhere (see Introduction), introducing alternately first a man and then a woman, both of who sought what was lost. In the third it is the father who is prominent, the father who compassionately welcomes one son and graciously guides the other, while the aspect of repentance also comes to the fore. Together the parables reveal the reaching out of God towards man, and man’s required response.
Jesus here delineates three types of sinner. The first is like a sheep, he goes astray through foolishness and thoughtlessness, drawn away by the promise of better pasture elsewhere; the second is like the coin, he simply goes astray by accident or as a result of the carelessness of those who should be watching over him; the third goes astray by his own self-will and as a result of a desire for pleasure. But all end up in the same situation and all need to come back to the father in the same way.
‘And both the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners, and eats with them.’
It is clear that Jesus welcomed these ‘public servants and sinners’ openly (compare Luke 5:30; Mark 2:15-16) and was willing to eat among them, quite probably often in a kind of picnic situation (as when the five thousand were fed), although no doubt sometimes being invited to people’s houses. And this was so much so that the Pharisees muttered among themselves at what they saw to be His ‘irreligious behaviour’. As they do not suggest otherwise, however, it is probable that even when doing so Jesus went to the trouble of proper cleansing in spite of the conditions. He still sought to avoid offence wherever He could. But that did not satisfy them. For even close association with such people was frowned on, and no Pharisee would have mixed with them.
It should be noted that the Pharisees and Scribes must not be seen as all bad. They would have welcomed these people one by one if they had come privately and had ‘repented’ and had been determined to follow their ways, but they would never have sought them out, and such a one would first have had to follow very rigorous procedures in order to be finally welcomed after appropriate cleansing. They therefore totally disapproved of Jesus lax approach.
‘And he spoke to them this parable, saying,’
Jesus, as He often did, answered them parabolically in front of the great crowd. The singular noun ‘this parable’ may indicate the opening parable, or it may signify ‘spoke parabolically’. ‘Them’ includes all who are in the crowd. He was being publicly criticised, He now gave a public reply.
In His parable (‘this parable’) He demonstrated that He was merely behaving like the shepherds of Israel should have behaved (compare Isaiah 40:11; Isaiah 49:22; Psalms 23:1-6; Jeremiah 31:10-14; Ezekiel 34:11-16; Micah 5:2-4). He was watching over God’s sheep and seeking out those who had strayed. And as the parables advance He wants them to recognise that Heaven itself was involved, and that it was more concerned with moral purity than with ritual cleanness and was very open to sinners who repented, far more in some ways than to the self-righteous who were self-satisfied and did not recognise their need to repent.
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, and having lost one of them, does not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness (the semi-desert pasture-land), and go after that which is lost, until he find it?”
Jesus deliberately addresses the ‘sinners’ among the crowd by saying, ‘Which man of you’, indicating by this that He is classing His listeners with shepherds, who were seen as almost permanently unclean, and as rogues into the bargain. (It probably made the Pharisees cringe to think that they were being included with shepherds). The question would awaken their interest. Note the emphasis on ‘man’. This is partly as a contrast to ‘woman’ in Luke 15:8.
The one hundred sheep represents a complete flock (an intensifying of ten). There is a perfect number, and of them not one must be lost (compare John 17:12). Each shepherd would know each of his sheep by name (John 10:3) and would not need to count them. He would see almost immediately which one was missing. (Most shepherds probably could not count to a hundred). Distressed at the realisation this shepherd leaves his remaining sheep with his fellow-shepherds and goes out to seek the one that is lost. And he does not cease in his search until he has found it. All faithful shepherds would immediately respond to the picture, recognising in it their common experience. But behind the parable is the theme of the care of God and His Messiah over His flock. ‘I, I Myself will search for My sheep and will seek them out’ (see Ezekiel 34:11-12; Ezekiel 34:23-24).
‘Lost.’ The verb is used in all three parables in this chapter. The verb stem means to perish, but it extended to include what was lost, for such things had perished as far as the speaker was concerned.
“And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.”
Note that in this narrating of the parable success is assumed. It is not ‘if’ He finds it, but ‘when’ He finds it (contrast Matthew 18:13, which demonstrates that the parable there was given on a different occasion. The emphasis of the parable would vary depending on the emphasis Jesus wished to lay). This carrying of the sheep on his shoulders would be normal practise for a shepherd. The sheep would be exhausted, and the shepherd triumphant and rejoicing (compare Isaiah 40:11).
“And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost’.”
Arriving home the shepherd calls together his friends and neighbours, announcing that he has found his lost sheep. Such a celebration might at first seem a little excessive, but we must remember that the shepherd would know the sheep by name and would not just be thinking commercially. He had found a beloved sheep. Then these ‘sinners’ (unlike the Pharisees) would all gather together to rejoice over the finding of the lost sheep. We need not necessarily assume that the rejoicing resulted in a costly meal, although no doubt some refreshment was available.
“I say to you, that even so there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over ninety and nine righteous persons, who need no repentance.”
Jesus then completes the parable with a comparison. Not only do sinners gather together to rejoice in the finding of what is lost, but when it is a lost sinner so also does Heaven. God Himself rejoices, and all who are with Him, for thereby is fulfilled Luke 5:32; Luke 13:3; Luke 13:5. The only ones left out are the religious cynics who have no time or inclination for such behaviour. The Rabbis in contrast preferred to speak of God’s joy over the downfall of the godless.
Those ‘who need no repentance’ may refer to the godly in Israel who are walking in God’s ways making use of the appropriate means of forgiveness (people such as Zacharias, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna), but the Pharisees would certainly have included themselves in the total.
‘There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over ninety and nine righteous persons, who need no repentance.’ This is not to disparage the ninety and nine, or to suggest that they were loved the less. The latter, if genuinely righteous, are fully appreciated in Heaven. However, they are not a surprise. But to find something valuable that is lost is an especially delightful surprise.
It is noteworthy in all this how confidently Jesus can speak of goings on in Heaven. For Him it was not ‘beyond the veil’. It was home.
Further Thoughts on the Parable.
The first emphasis in the parable is on the fact that the shepherd sought the sheep. It is a reminder that it is God in Jesus Christ Who in His graciousness seeks us, not we who tend to seek God. The second is on the fact that He sought until He found it. When Jesus Christ sets out after someone He does not cease until they have become His. There is behind both these ideas the concept of election, the concept that we are ‘chosen in Him before the foundation of the world, that we might be holy and without blame before him in love’ (Ephesians 1:4). The perfect number is fixed. Not one must be lost. (The same idea is present in Revelation 7:1-8). The third is the joy in Heaven once a sinner turns to God. It brings out that God is more concerned about such things than we are. The fourth is in a sense hidden behind the simplicity of the story, and that is the cost to the shepherd. Seeking a lost sheep could mean going into inhospitable territory, and the way could be hard. It can best be put in the words of the hymnwriter,
‘But none of the ransomed ever knew,
How deep were the waters crossed,
Or how dark was the night that the Lord passed through,
Ere He found that sheep that was lost,
Out in the desert He heard its cry,
Sick and helpless and ready to die.’
And He knew the cost even as He taught this parable. He knew that ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day’ (Luke 9:22). And yet He still sought the sheep, whatever the cost, until He found it.
And the fifth lesson that we must not lose sight of is that the one which was lost represents the outcast, and the despised. It represents those who while not precious in man’s sight, are precious in God’s sight.
“Or what woman, having ten pieces of silver (ten drachmae), if she lose one piece (drachma), does not light a lamp, and sweep the house, and seek diligently until she find it?”
In this case the woman has ten drachmae, again the number signifying completeness. The drachma was a Greek coin, often found in Palestine, which was about the equivalent of a denarius, thus representing a day’s wage. This was possibly her dowry money, saved up for the future, and it may have formed part of a necklace or other ornament. To her it was very valuable, a treasured possession, and the loss of any part of it would be heartbreaking. And that is what this parable is about. The seeking of a treasured possession which has been lost (Exodus 19:5; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:4; 1 Peter 2:9).
Unfortunately, however, one of the coins is lost in the house and the completeness of her dowry is broken. The woman would experience a great sense of loss. She had watched over it for years and now this had happened. This situation would be made worse by the fact that the house was dark, for it would have had few if any windows, and the floor was probably of beaten earth and covered with rushes. The lost coin would thus not be easy to find. So what does she do? She lights her lamp, she sweeps the house, and she seeks and seeks and seeks with great diligence until finally she finds it. And she does it because of how precious it is to her.
The lighting of her lamp reminds us of the parable in Luke 12:35. It is an indication that all is in darkness and that without the lamp of witness the coin will not be found. She is seeking to bring it out of darkness into light (Acts 26:18). Light is necessary if darkness is to be dispelled. Her diligence in seeking the coin parallels the durability of the shepherd as he sought the sheep. She will not rest until she has it.
The Woman And The Lost Coin (15:8-10).
As the analysis above shows this is in continuity with the previous parable and brings out Luke’s tendency to combine parables together and to refer to both men and women. For similar pairs of parables compare Luke 5:36-37; Luke 11:31-32; Luke 12:24-27; Luke 13:18-21; Luke 14:28-32, the centre three of which also include the man/woman element. (We say Luke’s tendency, but of course the tendency must be traced back to Jesus). The stress in this parable is on the recovery of a treasured possession. For God’s people are His own treasured possession (Exodus 19:5-6), and He does not like to lose one of them.
“And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I had lost.’ ”
And when she has found the coin she calls her friends and neighbours in to celebrate, and to rejoice with her. For she has found what was precious to her. Most of us know what it is to lose something, and the joy we have on finding it, but in our case it will not usually be quite so important to us as this coin was to the woman.
“Even so, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
But a greater joy than both is found in Heaven when a sinner repents. Here the rejoicing of the lost sinner who repents is in ‘the presence of the angels’ (compare Luke 15:7). All Heaven is involved in the rejoicing. The one who is found is precious to Heaven. And we have in this parable the lesson that both men and women are to be involved in seeking the lost. It is not a ‘men only’ preserve. Each seeks within their own sphere.
The Rabbis would later tell the story of a man who searched for what was lost, but they represented it in terms of a man seeking the Law of God. They had no equivalent of a loving God seeking man.
‘And he said, “A certain man had two sons,” ’
The parable is about two sons. But it is so easy to lose sight of the elder son (partly due to the vividness of the story, and partly because in our sinfulness we relate most closely to the younger son). Yet to Jesus the elder son was important, for he represented many of those to whom He spoke. He wanted them to come to repentance too.
However, it is the younger son who dominates the first part of the parable, and he is therefore the one whom we have to consider first.
The Parable of The Loving Father, The Prodigal Son and the Dissatisfied Brother (15:11-32).
When we come to the third parable there is a different emphasis in that the emphasis is laid, not on the seeking out of the person involved, (that has already been made clear in the previous two parables), but on his repentance, and on the father who is longing for his son’s return, and on the contrast with the elder brother who is angry when his younger wastrel brother is rapturously received. But it has in common with the others the finding of what was lost and the same emphasis on the rejoicing at the return of the one who was lost. It is a vivid picture of human psychology and emotions.
When considering the parable we need to have in mind the contents of the crowd. There were first of all the common people, the ‘public servants and sinners’, whose religious life was a little haphazard, and then there were the ‘righteous’ people, those who were good living, responsive to God, and who genuinely looked to the sacrificial system to keep them in fellowship with God. And finally there were the hypercritical among the Pharisees and Scribes, men who struggled hard to build up a special level of righteousness and to ensure that they kept every letter of the covenant, but who thereby missed its most important underlying basis, the principle of mercy. The younger son represents the first. The elder son the second and third, both of whom needed to learn more of the grace of God.
We should notice that it is the parable of thetwosons, as well as that of the loving father. It can therefore be divided into two or three parts, the first mainly dealing with the activities of the younger son, the last mainly dealing with the response to his return of the elder son, and the middle section mainly having in mind the loving father (although the father’s love shines out all the way through). The fall, and especially the repentance of the younger son, is vividly described, reminding us that it was not just any public servants and sinners, but repentant public servants and sinners that Jesus welcomed. But equally important in its significance is the resultant reaction of the elder son, for this vividly portrays the reaction of the Pharisees and ‘the righteous’ (those who wholeheartedly sought to live their lives before God) to His welcoming of public servants and sinners. It is not only hypocrites who sometimes find it difficult to understand how a man can live a long life of open sin and then be welcomed back at the end as though he had never sinned. Here Jesus will give something of an explanation.
Thus while the initial part of the parable deals with the welcoming of sinners, the final lesson arising from the parable deals with the harsh attitude that the ‘righteous’ might have towards the reception of repentant sinners. The question is not finally dealt with but is left open for all to consider. (And we must never forget that a number of Pharisees did become Christians).
But the overall importance of the parable is found in the compassion and wisdom of the father who was able to cope with both and sought to understand and be reconciled with both. He is the figure who unifies the parable and is its central theme. For central to its significance is the love of the Father, Who yet in His love requires repentance from both. Without that there can be no restored relationships.
a And he said, “A certain man had two sons” (Luke 15:11).
b “And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of your substance which falls to me.’ And he divided to them his living” (Luke 15:12).
c “And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together and took his journey into a far country, and there he wasted his substance with riotous living” (Luke 15:13).
d “And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that country, and he began to be in want, and he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine, and he would willingly have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat, and no man gave to him” (Luke 15:14-16).
e “But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight, I am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants”.’ ” (Luke 15:17-19).
f “And he arose, and came to his father. But while he was yet afar off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20)
g “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight, I am no more worthy to be called your son’ ” (Luke 15:21)
f “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring forth quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet, and bring the fatted calf, and kill it, and let us eat, and make merry, for this my son was dead, and is alive again, he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to be merry” (Luke 15:22-24).
e “Now his elder son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called to him one of the servants, and enquired what these things might be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother is come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ And he was angry, and would not go in, and his father came out, and entreated him” (Luke 15:25-27).
d “But he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years do I serve you, and I never transgressed a commandment of yours, and yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends’ ” (Luke 15:28).
c “But when this your son came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you kill for him the fatted calf.’ ” (Luke 15:29).
b “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are ever with me, and all that is mine is yours’ ” (Luke 15:31).
a “But it was right to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive again, and was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32).
Note that in ‘a’ there are two sons and in the parallel there are again two sons. This brings out the pathos of the remainder of the story. Ever since the younger son had left there had been an emptiness in the heart of his father. He had only had the one son. But now his other son has been restored. In ‘b’ the younger son claimed his inheritance, and in the parallel all that is left now belongs to the elder son. In ‘c’ the young man lives riotously, and in the parallel this is precisely the elder brother’s grumble. In ‘d’ the descent of the younger son into abject poverty is described, from partying (spending all) to swine husks, and in the parallel is the contrast of the hardworking elder brother, keeping on an even keel and always well fed but never partied. In ‘e’ we have the young man’s repentance and recognition of his folly, and in the parallel the elder son’s reaction and hardening. In ‘f’ we have the father’s joyous reaction to his son’s return, and in the parallel this is emphasised and expanded on. And centrally in ‘g’ we have the depiction of and stress on the young man’s repentance.
The story is partly based on Old Testament ideas where God said, ‘Sons have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against Me’ (Isaiah 1:2). And the consequence was, ‘A voice on the bare heights is heard, the weeping and pleading of Israel’s sons, because they have perverted their way, they have forgotten the Lord their God. Return O faithless sons, I will heal your faithlessness’ (Jeremiah 3:21-22 a). And the reply then comes, ‘Behold we come to you, for you are the Lord our God’ (Jeremiah 3:22 b). And who can fail to see the yearning of the father for his lost son in Jeremiah 31:20, ‘Is Ephraim (Israel) My dear son? Is he My darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I remember him still, therefore My heart yearns for him. I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord’. So the Old Testament is firm in its teaching concerning the Father Who yearns for His sons to return to Him, and is ready to receive them with mercy.
It will also be noted that, as we also find in Old Testament chiastic parallels (see our commentaries on Numbers 18:4; Numbers 18:7; Numbers 23, 24 and Exodus 18:21-22; Exodus 18:25-26), there are here in Luke repetitions of phrases within the chiasmus. Both ‘Father I have sinned against Heaven and in your sight, I am no more worthy to be called your son’, and ‘this my son (your brother) was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found’ are repeated. It will be noted that both are central emphases in the story.
“And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of your substance which falls to me.’ And he divided to them his living.”
The younger son come to his father with the request that he might have his share of what he would in the future inherit. In a case where there were two sons this would normally be one third of the whole (the elder brother who would take over responsibility for dependants would receive a double portion), although in a situation like this where it was received early it may have been a lesser proportion (for the whole see Deuteronomy 21:17). Such an apportioning of an inheritance before death did happen regularly, and the principle behind it was that the sons would then have financial responsibility towards their father who retained a right to receive the income, and utilise the capital. But that a son would actually request it while his father was in good health would be an unusual case, and is probably intended to emphasise the waywardness of the son and the goodheartedness of the father. There was probably no thought at this stage of the younger son leaving home, except for business reasons, nor of him having the capital simply to do what he liked with. The younger son was probably only in his late teens, for he was unmarried, and had seemingly no thoughts of marriage.
“And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together (or ‘turned it all into cash’) and took his journey into a far country, and there he wasted his substance with riotous living.”
After a period, we may assume with the agreement of his father, the son turned his portion into cash and went to a far country (far from the father). The idea was probably that there he would establish himself in business, and increase their fortune. It was quite a regular occurrence for Jews to go to the great cities for this purpose, and in doing so he would require capital, which explains the father’s willingness to allow him it.
But the son, once released from home, went to the bad. Instead of concentrating on business he gave himself up to a good time and the bright lights. He forgot his obligation to his father (who still had a right to the use and protection of the capital and to any income from it) and used the money to live extravagantly and immorally. It is very probable that the elder brother’s summary of his behaviour was very near to the truth (Luke 15:30).
This young man is a vivid representation of how large numbers live today. Like him they forget that it is God Who has given them their prosperity, and ignore His rights, and live totally to please themselves. They do not see themselves as having any responsibility towards the Father.
“And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that country, and he began to be in want, and he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine, and he would willingly have filled his belly with the husks (carob pods) that the swine did eat, and no man gave to him.”
Like many a foolish person who receives a fortune he felt that he could ‘spend, spend, spend’. And that was fine until the money ran out. But unless the fortune is huge the money does eventually run out. And the problem in this case was that it happened at a time of famine. Thus he found himself in great need. The result was that he had to hire himself out to a foreigner to look after his pigs. To a Jew nothing could have been more degrading. Pigs were ritually ‘unclean’, and to associate with them was heavily frowned on and despised by all Jews (Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8; Isaiah 65:4; Isaiah 66:17; 1 Maccabees 1:47; 2 Peter 2:22). And yet this young Jew not only had to live among the pigs, he had to eat the food that they ate. It was the opposite of all that he had ever known. He was homeless and friendless and lacking in even the basic amenities. He had reached rock bottom. We do not have to assume dishonesty. Eating the pig food may well, in a time of famine, have been part of the agreement. And he may well also have received a small wage. But there was no charity for him. He was an outcast. His ‘good time’ friends had forgotten him. No one wanted to know him. The pig food was probably carob pods, of which the Rabbis would say, ‘when the Israelites are reduced to carob pods, then they repent’. For carob pods were the worst possible type of food.
We must remember that Jesus is here describing the ‘public servants and sinners’, people who had wandered away from God and had lived for themselves. They had lived their lives as though God did not exist and by it they had lost everything that was truly worthwhile. Even the wealthy ones were spiritually ‘living among the pigs’.
“But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish here with hunger!’ ”
But while feeding and looking after the pigs he had plenty of time to think, and eventually he ‘woke up’. He ‘came to himself’. He recognised what a fool he had been, and what a fool he now was, and how he had sinned against his father, and against God. These latter were the marks of genuine repentance. And he also recognised how well off his father’s servants were compared with his own position. He had not only forfeited his sonship (in Jewish eyes he had forfeited it the moment that he began to use his inheritance recklessly and disobediently instead of for the family honour) but he had even fallen to a level below his father’s lowest servant. At least they were properly clothed and well fed, while he starved and was in rags.
What a difference there now was from the arrogant young man who had so loudly demanded his inheritance. Now he was humbled and willing to be a servant. There was a lesson here even for the disciples. For Jesus was constantly telling His own disciples that they must learn to desire to be servants (Luke 22:24-27). And it had all been brought about by adversity. The fire that Jesus had kindled (Luke 12:49) was working on his life.
“I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight, I am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.’ ”
So he vowed to himself that what he would do was humble himself, and seek a position in his father’s house as a day-servant. He was well aware that he had lost his rights and forfeited his sonship. Nor would he try to claim any differently. He would not go back claiming sonship. Nor would he ask to be a favoured servant. He would only plead to be allowed to be a ‘hired servant’, a ‘day labourer’, to be fed and paid a decent wage while not being accepted back into the household. Perhaps his father would have pity on him and at least allow him this. It was certainly better than what he had.
Note his recognition that he had firstly sinned ‘against Heaven’, that is, against God. And then secondly that he had grievously sinned in his father’s eyes. His father had trusted him, and had provided him with capital so that he could establish himself in business, and he had ‘disappeared’ and squandered it all. He was well aware of the social situation. He no longer had a right to claim sonship. All then that he would ask was employment in whatever capacity his father chose.
He was the perfect picture of the repentant sinner, coming with no pretensions, and with no claims to special treatment, admitting grave fault, and simply trusting in a merciful God to have compassion on him and forgive him and accept him just as he is. He is like the public servant in the parable of the Pharisee and the Public Servant who stood afar off and would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven (Luke 18:13). He is already on his way home.
“And he arose, and came to his father. But while he was yet afar off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.”
So he rose and came to his father. That was all that was needed, a turning of the back on the old life and a response to his father in order to beg forgiveness. For even while he was some good distance away his father saw him. He knew his son immediately in spite of his rags and his bare feet. And moved with compassion he ran, and flung his arms round him, dirty as he was, and kissed him (compare Acts 20:37). This was a sign of acceptance and forgiveness (2 Samuel 14:33; Genesis 45:14-15). It was his son. He could do no other.
By this Jesus was openly saying that when we turn from our old ways and seek Him, God is like this. He welcomes us with open arms just as we are, and takes us as His own.
“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight, I am no more worthy to be called your son.’ ”
No doubt very moved the son began to explain why he had come. He acknowledged that he had sinned against both God and his father, and that in such a way that he could not expect to be received as a son. That much he had to say in the parable lest the impression be gained that his sin did not matter. But not more, in order to demonstrate the father’s unconditional love.
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring forth quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet, and bring the fatted calf, and kill it, and let us eat, and make merry, for this my son was dead, and is alive again, he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to be merry.”
But the father had forgiven his son, and he called to the servants to reinstate him in his former position. He was to be clothed with the very best robe available, a sign of status; a ring was to be put on his finger, a sign of his reinstatement to a position of authority in the household; and shoes were to be put on his poor bare feet. Shoes were worn only by free men, and in the house only by the owners. This was thus a repudiation of the suggestion that he be a servant and an acknowledgement that he was once more to be seen as one of the ‘masters’. And then the partying was to begin.
We are reminded by this picture of another who stood before God in filthy garments, one who as the High Priest was bearing in himself the sin of Israel, and how God in His grace had received him and reclothed him in glorious apparel (Zechariah 3:1-5) ready for his future service. And so does He offer the robe of Christ’s righteousness to all who repent and believe.
And once the son was clothed and freshened up the fatted calf was to be killed. This was the calf which in well-to-do households was kept aside and especially fattened up, and was then reserved for when important guests came. And in the killing and shedding of the blood of the calf every Jew would see an offering of gratitude and thanksgiving to God, and of atonement, for its blood would be poured out on the ground as an offering to God (Deuteronomy 12:24). And then all were to eat and make merry because it was as though his son ‘had been dead and had come alive again, he had been lost, and now he was found’.
The powerful wording brings out that the father had never expected to see his son again. Probably we are to see that when no word had come back the father had sent men to look for his son, but had discovered that he had covered his tracks too well. He had not wanted to be found. And the father had then reluctantly given him up for dead. He had become a ‘missing person’.
But now all was changed. He was back. It was as though he had risen from the dead. He was alive (compare Romans 7:9 for the use of the verb). He was no longer a ‘missing person’. He was here in front of their eyes! Like the sheep he was alive and home, like the coin he was found and restored as a treasured possession.
There were no doubt a number in the crowds around Jesus who were also missing persons, young men who had abandoned their homes. Perhaps now they would be made to think again. And there were others who would recognise that they had deserted God’s ways, and could now recognise that He was ready to welcome them back on their turning from sin and coming to Him.
“Now his elder son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.”
But then a new figure comes into the picture. It is the elder brother. He had been at work, ‘in the field’. He was the quiet hard worker, the faithful son, who had worked hard all these years and had enjoyed few luxuries. And as he approached his home from his day of honest toil he was astonished to hear the sound of music and dancing. The fact that he had not already been immediately informed of the situation may well have been simply because no one knew precisely where he was. Or it may simply be because it is a necessity for the story. The music and the dancing would puzzle him. He would be able to think of no reason for it.
“And he called to him one of the servants, and enquired what these things might be.”
So he called to him one of the servants and asked what the reason was for all this music and dancing. It was a complete enigma.
“And he said to him, ‘Your brother is come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ ”
And the servant told him what had happened. His brother had arrived back unexpectedly, and his father had killed the fatted calf because he had received him safe and sound. It is salutary to consider that the servants were apparently seen as more delighted than the elder brother. They were fond of their master and delighted because he was delighted.
“But he was angry, and would not go in, and his father came out, and entreated him.”
But the elder son was angry, and we are probably to see that all the resentments of the years rose up within him. He had originally envied his brother’s freedom as the younger brother had gone off to see the world, and then when his brother had squandered the money entrusted to him and had become estranged from the family, it was he who had had to work twice as hard to build up their resources again. And now here was his brother back again, and being treated as though nothing had happened. Possibly he also saw some of his inheritance disappearing with him. Whatever way it was he refused to join the celebrations. Like many such snap assessments it was a wrong assessment, as his father would now attempt to make clear. But it was a natural one. It brought out how unreasonable we can all be at times, especially when we are tired.
And when his father heard that he had arrived back and had not joined the celebrations, he realised that he must be upset, and he went out to him and begged him to come in and join them. Note how the father goes out to both sons, just as God reaches out to all men. He loved them both.
“But he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years do I slave for you, and I never transgressed a commandment of yours, and yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends, but when this your son came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you kill for him the fatted calf.’ ”
The elder brother could not hold back his fury. He pointed out belligerently how for years he had slaved, and had never transgressed against any of his father’s orders, and yet when had his father ever thrown a party for him, or given him a kid so that he could invite his friends for a meal? But now that this worthless and dishonest son (note ‘this your son’, not ‘my brother’) had arrived back, who had cheated them and wasted so much of the family’s wealth on prostitutes (the worst thing he could think of at the time) what happened? The fatted calf was killed in order to celebrate his return. It did not seem fair.
We note how extravagant his argument is. For in fact the younger son’s friends had not been invited to the present celebration, and the probability is that if he himself had at some time wanted to invite his friends round he could have done so. He has patently manufactured a case in his own mind in order to make it seem as bad as possible. And we see how he saw his life, not as a joyful day by day life lived with his father as they worked together and enjoyed their privileges, but as a burden and a care and a trial, as something to be endured, the way in fact in which many religious people see it, especially those like the Pharisees. But before we criticise him too much we must remember that Jesus has drawn him like this in order that he might illustrate the Pharisees. It was probably one of the Pharisees’ strongest arguments, both to themselves and to others, that all their slaving to keep the commandments and to ‘do what God wanted’ would bring its own reward, a reward lost to those who did not live as they did. And that may well have been part of the reason for their antagonism against Jesus. He appeared to overlook all their hard efforts, and yet freely forgave those who had done nothing to deserve it. Like the elder brother they were unable to rejoice in the free grace of God to sinners. It did not seem fair. And it was in order to bring about a change in this attitude that Jesus was telling the parable. For He was as much concerned with bringing the Pharisees round to a new way of thinking, and to a sense of compassion, as He was to bringing the public servants and sinners to repentance.
“And he said to him, ‘Son, you are ever with me, and all that is mine is yours.’ ”
His father then gently explained the situation. ‘Son.’ This was a tender and loving way of addressing him. He wanted his son to know how much he appreciated him. ‘You are ever with me.’ He also wanted him to know how much he appreciated his loyalty. He acknowledged that all his life he had been faithful, never going astray. ‘And all that is mine is yours.’ Far from begrudging him a kid he wanted him to know that everything that the family owned was his. Whether we are to see this as signifying that this had been made officially so at the time when the younger son received his portion, which seems probable, or whether it was to be seen as tacitly understood, it was as the father saw it. Thus he would lose nothing by his brother’s return. It was his right and it would not be taken from him.
It was also an assurance to all who heard Jesus that no one who had genuinely served God would lose out by it. If their hearts were right towards God then God would take account of all that they had done (Romans 14:10). Jesus recognised that there were at this stage genuine people among the Pharisees and Scribes and He was appealing to them. They would not lose their reward. God would reward faithful service. But let them not therefore be lacking in compassion and mercy. And He was putting up a case that no one could destroy. If any did lose out it would be as a result of their own fault.
“But it was right to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive again, and was lost, and is found.”
And then He pointed out how right it was to rejoice in the conversion of sinners. It was right for the elder brother to rejoice because his younger brother had come back repentant and would escape the dreadful life that had recently been his (note his emphasis on ‘your brother’). He could lose nothing, and gain much, by rejoicing with him. For let him recognise what had happened. One who had been dead had found life again. One who had been lost was now found. Was that not good reason to celebrate from an honest and unselfish heart?
By these strong phrases Jesus was also assuring all who heard Him that any of them who turned in repentance towards God, seeking forgiveness, would also find life and would be ‘found’. So His message was to both, to those who were far off, and to those who were near while not being near enough.
We are deliberately not told what decision the elder brother came to. For the intention was that every one among His listeners who saw themselves as like the elder brother had to decide for themselves. That was a major point of the parable.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Luke 15". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Lent