In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables that make the same point. God loves the lost. The lost sheep, the lost coin and a lost son are part of a trio whose members are of increasing value. The lost sheep was one of one hundred, the lost coin was one of ten, and the lost son was one of two. In the first parable, Jesus is the shepherd; in the second, he is the woman; and in the third he is the father who seeks his lost sons. Today I’m going to talk for just a couple of minutes about the third and final parable.
For centuries it has been called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but a more appropriate title would be the Parable of the Loving Father. While a father might divide his estate before he died, the younger son’s request was cold and scandalous because he was saying in effect that he wished his father was dead. As the younger son, he received one-third of the estate, while the older brother received two-thirds (as was the custom at that time).
When you hear the word prodigal, you might think that it means “wayward” or “rebellious”, and the younger son certainly behaved that way. The term “prodigal” also means “recklessly spendthrift”, and the father acted that way. He gave his sons everything they asked for and showered them with gifts. This is an image for God. He lavishly spends his love on us from start to finish.
After the younger son received his inheritance, he went away to a far country. This was more than a reference to geography. It also referred to moral and spiritual separation from God. The lowest point of this separation occurred when the younger son spent all of his money and reached the point where he had to work in a hog pen. Pigs were considered unclean animals for a Jew. Wanting to eat the pods that were fed to the pigs was a sign that he had reached the lowest point in his life. He had to come to this lowest point in order to realize how foolish he had been. This is a picture of some of us. There are times when as wayward sinners we have to come to the lowest point in our lives in order to realize that we have been foolish by running away from God. It is at times like these when we finally turn back to God and start the journey home to our loving, heavenly Father.
The prodigal son’s first words to his father fell short of repentance. Jewish tradition viewed the statement “I have sinned against heaven and in your sight…” as an attempt at manipulation. The father did not care about the son’s words though. He just wanted him to return. Every day the father travelled a great distance to a vantage point from which he could look for his son. When the day came for the son to finally return, the father was so happy that he did something that was very undignified for a first-century man to do. He ran to meet his son. This is an image of God. God is so happy when we turn to him and away from sin that he comes to meet us in the person of Jesus Christ. Just like the father showered his son with kisses of compassion, forgiveness, acceptance and restoration, God showers us with love and affection. Jesus even said that there is great rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents.
God even loves people who stubbornly refuse to repent. A good example of someone who refuses to repent is the older son. He rebelled by referring to his brother as “this son of yours”. While the younger son was away, the older son continued working and doing his duty without love. He reduced the father-son relationship to a system of rewards in exchange for services rendered, much like an employer-employee relationship. In spite of this the father never stopped loving him.
The older son also represents the Pharisees, who we heard about in Luke 15:1-3. They hated sinners, especially tax collectors. Tax collectors worked for the Romans, who occupied the territory. In addition, many tax collectors tried to get rich by extorting more money that they were told to collect from people. Jesus wanted the Pharisees to see that his purpose in coming to earth was the very thing that prompted them to make accusations. His purpose was to reach out with grace to sinners, and that is still his purpose today. Repentance and forgiveness give birth to an authentic, loving parent-child relationship-and that’s the type of relationship that Jesus wants to have with us.
- Jeremiah, David: The Jeremiah Study Bible, NKJV (Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing; 2013; pp. 1416-1418)
- Swindoll, Charles R.: Swindoll’s New Testament Insights on Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan; 2012, pp. 382-389)
- ESV Study Bible. Part of Wordsearch 11 Bible software package