Luke 15: 11 – 32 The parable of the lost son
Jesus continued: ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them.
‘Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
‘When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants” So he got up and went to his father.
‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms round him and kissed him.
‘The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
‘But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.
Meanwhile, the elder son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. “Your brother has come,” he replied, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.
‘The elder brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
‘ “My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” ‘
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The three characters in this parable are very clearly drawn and convey Jesus’ message precisely.
The youngest son starts the story as an immature wastrel. He’s rude – outrageously rude – to his father. “Father, give me my share of the estate.” I mean! “Dad, for me you’re as good as dead, so you might as well give me my inheritance now.” He clearly neither knows nor cares about his father’s business.
He squanders his money in a dissolute life until he runs out of cash, and then he works in the most menial job imaginable, herding pigs – animals which are unclean to the Jews. He’s as lost as he could be.
Then he remembers what it was like at home. Everybody had a roof over their head and plenty to eat. “Perhaps I could go home,” he thinks – and then is overwhelmed by shame as he thinks of what he’s done. How can he possibly go back? He’s cut himself off from his father.
Hunger, though, makes him desperate. Obviously, he can’t go back as a son of the household, but maybe his dad would give him a job. At least he’d be fed.
He doesn’t have much hope; just the faintest gleam. It’s his last chance. If he doesn’t take it, he might as well die. What gave him that gleam of hope, I wonder? Something in the way his father treated him as a child and a young man must have encouraged him to trust.
The father has a deep love for his son. He sees him approach “while he was still a long way off” – he’s looking out for him, always hoping to see him.
“He ran to his son.” Now, in 1st century Palestine, this would have astonished Jesus’ hearers, because a rich, high status man would never run; it would be far too undignified. But the father of the spendthrift son runs to meet him. He is absolutely thrilled by his return!
His son says the words of repentance that he’s prepared “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
The father hardly seems to notice. He throws his arms around his son, kisses him, has his servants dress him in the best robe, with a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet – all showing that he is accepted back as a son – and he’s so excited that he arranges a feast with music and dancing to celebrate his son’s return.
Jesus doesn’t stress the repentance, but his story mentions it twice.
The first time is when the son is starving in a foreign land, at the moment when he realises he must return home or he will die. If he hadn’t set out for home, he would not have been restored to his position as son, he would have died.
The second time is when his father comes to greet him. The son acknowledges out loud to his father that he has fallen a long way short, and relies entirely on his father’s mercy. Note, his father’s forgiveness doesn’t depend on this – his father knows that he’s repented because he’s come back. So why does Jesus repeat it? I think it’s to make the point that we need to make a proper statement of our repentance for our own spiritual health. Forgiveness by God is a matter of the greatest importance and seriousness, and a formal act of repentance can keep us mindful of that.
The third character in the story is the elder brother. He’s worked hard for years and his father has never even allowed him a young goat to enjoy with his friends, much less thrown a party for him. He sulks outside, and won’t join in the party.
He’s not shut out; he chooses not to enjoy the party. His human nature makes him resent his father’s seeming preference for the sinful younger son. Although he has worked many years with his father, lived with him, learned a little of how he thinks and works, he has missed a vital detail of his father’s nature; he hasn’t realised how lavish his father is with his love, and how much he loves both his sons. If the elder son had learned that capacity, he would have been waiting with his father, watching for his brother’s return.
Listen to how gently his father deals with him.
“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”
And he explains why his younger son’s return is so important to him
“But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Thank you for this parable that reminds me of how much you love me. I’m sorry for all those times I fall short and don’t do your will.
In Jesus’ name, Amen