We now begin chapter 15 and this chapter is one of the most famous in the Bible. This is the chapter in Luke that contains the Prodigal Son. But the parable of the Prodigal Son needs to be seen in the context of the whole chapter. In that way we better understand the reaction of the elder brother which is part of the parable along with the loving father.
Jesus was criticized by the scribes and Pharisees for receiving and eating with the sinners. In response Jesus told these three parables the good shepherd and the lost sheep, the diligent woman and the lost coin, and the loving father and his two sons. The theme of these parables is the joy that God has over the repentance of one sinner.
The Friend of Sinners 1-2
The first two verses of this chapter are key to what Jesus was teaching. This was not a new issue that Jesus was having with the scribes and Pharisees as they had clashed over it before. But here in chapter 15 we read the longest response that Jesus had for their charge that He was a friend to the sinners. The focus of this chapter is the sharp difference over the issue of being with sinners. The approach of Jesus was to be inclusive of all people and the Pharisees was to exclude certain groups of people. The Pharisees did teach repentance but they would not associate with sinners. And the thought of breaking bread with a sinners was beyond their approach. Their acceptance of a sinner was only after they had become penitents and had the proof of good works. Jesus’ approach to sinners was to befriend them and then lead them to repentance. Jesus was demonstrating by His actions the desire of God to welcome repentant sinners.
A Shepherd and the Sheep 3-7
The focus of this parable is that the shepherd has lost one of his sheep. Because of his concern for the lost sheep he is diligent in his search for it. Once the lost sheep is found the shepherd is filled with great joy. Jesus was teaching that this is God’s attitude and actions toward a sinner. The revelation of a God that seeks the sinners is not a new thought and is seen in the Old Testament. (Genesis 3:9) There is also great emphasis on the need of the sinner to seek the Lord. (Isaiah 55:6-7) The gospels are very clear that God takes the initiative in seeking the sinners. The whole point of Jesus’ life and death was to save the sinners. As Jesus has said, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10)
The ninety nine righteous who did not need repentance are those who are already found and safely in the fold. This may have been an irony pointed at the Pharisees as they felt that they did need to repent of anything. Our evangelical understanding of the Scripture is that all of us are lost sheep until we are found by the Good Shepherd. (Isaiah 53:6)
The Lost Coin 8-11
It was not unusual for Jesus to use two parables to bring out the same message. This is true here with the lost coin. The woman had lost one of her coins and was very concerned over it. She set about the house searching for the lost coin. And when she had found it she rejoiced greatly. Jesus spelled out the lesson, “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)
The Prodigal’s Plight 11-16
We are to recognize from verses 11 that both sons are part of this parable. This parable represents God’s reception of sinners. The elder brother represents the attitude of the Pharisees who were self-righteous. And the Pharisees were critical of Jesus’ attitude toward the sinners.
An inheritance is ordinarily given after the death of the father. The father in this parable represents the Heavenly Father. In this context the action of the father displays the freedom that God gives to humanity. By the same token the prodigal’s actions show what sin is and what it does.
From a human point of view the prodigal can be faulted for his lack of responsibility towards his father. This action also typifies man’s actions towards the Heavenly Father. It shows the folly of man by misusing his God given freedom to seek freedom from a responsible relationship with God. The sinner squanders his God given gifts in a futile search for life and fulfillment on their own terms.
To the Jewish listeners of this parable of Jesus they could find no worse plight than the prodigals. The prodigal was feeding the swine and contemplating eating their food. Also the fact that he was fed nothing shows the disdain the Gentiles had for the Jews that they would value the animals over the Jew.
A Prodigal’s Decision 17-19
We find here a point in this parable that the previous two did not have. The first two parables focused on the seeking love of God but they did not show the sinners response to that love. When a shepherd finds his lost sheep he needs only to pick it up. The same is true for the lost coin. But there is a difference when the lost is a person. When a person is lost they must choose to receive God’s forgiving love. The father did not go to the far country to search for his lost son. The lost son had to decide to return to his father’s house.
Jesus said that the prodigal came to his senses. It was as one who awoke from a dream and came to grips with reality. He saw himself as he really was and remembered from where he had come. He did not expect to be fully restored to his sonship. He only dared to hope that his father would hire him as a servant. His father treated his servants much better than the way he was being treated in the far country.
The Father’s Welcome 20-24
Every loving father would have responded as this father did. The point of Jesus is that His Heavenly Father always responds in this way. Just as the shepherd and the woman rejoiced over finding what they had lost the father rejoiced over finding his lost son.
The Heavenly Father seeks repenting sinners, but they must respond to Him. The story of the prodigal uses a family scene to show how God responds to the repentance of one sinner. The waiting father rushed to welcome his son. Even before the prodigal could finish his rehearsed confession the father gave orders for a welcome-home celebration.
The Complaining Elder Brother 25-30
The way in which the elder brother complained to his father about the special treatment that his younger brother was receiving is much the same as the Pharisees. The Pharisees complained about the way that Jesus welcomed the sinners. The sketch that Jesus has presented with this parable was a portrait of the Pharisaic religion.
The elder brother stayed home and did all that his father had commanded him but he was lost to his father as his younger brother had been. The elder had not shared in his father’s anguish over the younger going away, and, he did not share in his father’s joy when the younger had returned. He even refused to acknowledge his younger brother. When speaking of him to his father he had called the younger “this son of yours.” Paul when remembering his days as a Pharisee considered himself as a blameless person as the Pharisees did. (Philippians 3:6)
We may also see a bit of envy in the elder son by his charge to the father that the younger had “devoured your living with harlots.” It is possible that he had but nothing in the parable said that he spent time with harlots.
The Father’s Response 31-32
The father displayed grace towards his elder son in his response to him. The proud son had complained that he had been reduced to a slave. His father replied that this had been his own choice. He had maintained the rights of sonship even if he had not recognized it. Then the father asked the elder to come and share in the joy of his younger brother returning home.
The parable ends without us hearing the response of the elder brother to his father. This was probably deliberate as Jesus hoped that some of the Pharisees would respond to the Heavenly Father’s call to them, but the choice was theirs.
The Pharisees were not far from the Kingdom of God. They knew the Scriptures and they wanted to be pleasing to God. The Pharisees took their responsibilities seriously. But in other ways the Pharisees were far from the Kingdom of God. Even farther than the out and out sinner or irreligious person. They were separated by their self-centered goodness. Others often responded more quickly to God’s loving call.