Luke 15 is one of the most well-known parables of Jesus. But in all the teaching that has been done from this parable, I fear that the main point of the parable has been missed. Great lessons and truthful teachings have come from this parable. But it is important that we do not miss the point of what Jesus is teaching. Let’s make some initial observations before we dig deep into Jesus’ teaching.
Verse 3 tells us that Jesus told them this parable. Notice that the text does not say that Jesus told three parables or four parables, depending on how you want to break these things up. This is one long parable. Notice the connective words in verses 8 and 11. The text does not reveal that Jesus is telling new parables at these points. Rather, Jesus keeps on speaking. The teaching continues. The three stories are one parable and should not be broken apart from each other.
We also need to consider that this is a parable and not an allegory. It is very tempting to use this parable as an allegory where every part of the story has a spiritual meaning. Therefore, teachers will offer a lesson on the father in this story and offer a separate lesson on the lost son. But the father and the lost son in this story are not the point of the parable. While we learn beautiful truths about God through the story concerning the father, these truths were not the point of the parable. Now with fresh eyes and renewed attention let us dig into this parable.
The Cause of the Parable (15:1-2)
Before we dive into any parable we need to observe the occasion of the parable, but this will give us guidance on what we are to look for as we study. We saw this with the parable of the good Samaritan. When the occasion for the parable is missed, the point of the parable is also easily missed. Luke 15:1 tells us that tax collectors and sinners were coming to listen to Jesus teach. What a terrific outcome! Sinners and crooks are coming to listen to the teachings of Jesus. However, the Pharisees and the scribes were complaining. How can they be complaining? Listen to their complaint: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” This supposed teacher sent from God is welcoming and accepting sinners. Now consider how Luke is connecting an important theme in this part of his gospel. Luke 14 taught that God wants a full house for his banquet. The servant was commanded to go into the streets and hedges compelling people to come to the feast (14:23). God does not want people to be lost. But people who refuse to enter the feast will not enjoy the privilege of God’s kingdom. God will make the offer to all people to enter his kingdom for a relationship with the Father. This is the cause of the parable. The religious leaders are complaining about Jesus welcoming sinners to hear him teach.
Lost Sheep (15:3-7)
The first movement of the parable concerns a lost sheep. The shepherd has 100 sheep but one is now missing. Notice the observation in the first movement of the story: who doesn’t go after the one who is lost! Then notice the key point: who doesn’t call together his friends and neighbors for rejoicing? In the same way, there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. This is a very big deal to God. God wants people to be in his kingdom. God wants people to be saved. He does not want anyone to be lost. Therefore, there is cheering and rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents.
Lost Coin (15:8-10)
The second movement of the parable concerns a woman who has lost a valuable coin. She has ten coins but now one is missing. Notice the observation in the second movement of the story: who doesn’t go after the one who is lost! Then notice the key point: who doesn’t call together his friends and neighbors for rejoicing? In the same way, there is joy in heaven, even in the presence of the spiritual beings, over one sinner who repents.
Lost Son (15:11-24)
In the third movement of the parable, we read about the lost son. Jesus has told the first two stories to set us up with some expectations for how this third part of the parable will go. What the son does is awful. To ask for your inheritance is like telling your father that you wish he was dead. What you are saying is that you have no interest in a relationship with your father, you just want the money he can give you. There is no doubt this is every person. Every person has been rebellious to God. Every person has used God for the blessings that he offers, often with no desire for a relationship with him. We want life, possessions, wealth, and relationships, but not the God who gives those things. We see ourselves even more in the description of how this younger son is living his life in reckless living. Consider that any type of living apart from a relationship with the Father is reckless living. He is throwing away the blessings of the father through his wild lifestyle.
The next great scene to the story is repentance. Verse 17 are beautiful words, “But when he came to himself.” Reality finally strikes and he realizes what he has done. He realizes what he has said to his father. He realizes he is wasting his life in foolish living. Notice the humility found in his repentance: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” This is what must happen for all people. At a moment in time there needs to be a “coming to ourselves.” We need to wake up from the darkness of this world and realize what we have done. We are sitting with the pigs when we could be sitting in the Father’s house. Repentance is recognizing the error of our ways and turning back to the Father in humility. This is what the son does.
Based upon what we read in the first two movements of this parable, what is going to be the reaction of the father? The first two parts of the story showed both seeking the lost sheep/coin and rejoicing when the sheep/coin was found. We know what we are going to read with the father of this lost son who comes back. Therefore, we see this love in verse 20. The father sees his son returning, feels compassion, runs, and embraces his son. Further, the father calls for the best robe, a ring on the son’s hand, shoes on his feet, and killing the fattened calf. Notice the words, “Let us eat and celebrate.” The return of the lost is a celebration. The word is used again in verse 24, “And they began to celebrate.” This should be the end of the parable. However, it is not and the reason is because the religious leaders are complaining at him because he is welcoming sinners.
The Older Son (15:25-32)
What was the reaction of the older son when he heard the news that his brother had returned? “But he was angry and refused to go in.” The father comes out and urged the son to come into the celebration. Why is the older brother upset. Verses 29-30 give the reasoning. The problem is that he doesn’t think he has received anything like what the younger son has received. He wasted your inheritance with prostitutes and you killed the fattened calf and threw a party when he came back. I have not wasted your inheritance and have been slaving for you these many years and what have you done for me? The older son does not think this is fair. He is thinking about himself and stubbornly refuses to enter because these sinners are entering into the kingdom of the Father.
I love the Father’s response. Verses 31-32 are the critical teaching point of the parable. Please consider that the final words of a parable typically contain the point of the teaching. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” The father says to his older son, “You have everything. What are upset about?” How can you be upset at this celebration over the lost one returning? You have everything the father has. The older son sees that a fattened calf had not been killed for him. The older son failed to see that he had everything. All that the father possesses is ours. How can you be upset when the lost return? You are already experiencing everything the father has to offer.
Please notice verse 32. “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” The sheep was lost and was found. Therefore a celebration takes place. The coin was lost and was found. Therefore a celebration takes place. The lost soul was lost and was found. Further, he was dead but now is alive. He was eternally lost, separated from God. But now he is alive. He has been restored. Life has been returned to him. It is time to celebrate!
Welcome. Jesus welcomes sinners. Do we welcome sinners? Do we look at sinners with distain like the Pharisees did or do we welcome them? We need to show our guests that we want them here. We want everyone to be here. There is no better place and no other place they should go.
Seek. In the parable we see three times the seeking of that which was lost. Not only do we welcome sinners but we must seek the lost. God goes to great effort to seek the lost. He sent his Son to die for sins. He spares the world of judgment because wants the lost to return.
Celebrate. In the parable we see three times the celebration that is appropriate and fitting because the lost has returned. The dead have come to life. We must celebrate when the lost come to the Lord. It is a glorious day deserving of our praise, our singing, our cheering, our joy, and our excitement. Do not be self-righteous. We are no more deserving of the blessings of God than anyone else. Further, see that we are presently enjoying everything the Father has and desire to share those blessings with others.