Today we are looking at possibly the best known and the best loved parable that we have been given in the scriptures. It is popularly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Prodigal is a word that means wastefully extravagant, to spend or use resources recklessly. It’s interesting that the word prodigal is not used in the Biblical account of Jesus’s words. He never used that word.
Just to be contrary, I guess, I came up with what I think is a better title. I am calling it The Parable of the Lost Son. I’ve heard many other possible titles over the years, but I feel that I have good reason to call it the Parable of the Lost Son because if you notice it is part of a trilogy of parables that Jesus gave on the same occasion, in response to the criticism of the Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling about Him, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
So if you notice the first two parables that Jesus gives, you will see that in the first parable it’s a parable of the lost sheep. The shepherd leaves the 99 sheep and goes after the one that was lost. And the second parable is the parable of the lost coin. The woman has 10 coins, loses one, and looks for that one until she finds it.
In both of those parables, Jesus emphasizes the fact that they were lost, and they were found. And so I think it is obvious that this next parable follows the same template, but just as an expanded version. And as with the previous two parables, this parable concludes with the same type of expression; Jesus says, “for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.”
What being lost indicates is that a person is without salvation. When Christianity first started it was called “the Way.” And so to miss the way to life is to be lost. And so in this parable we will see how the way of salvation is offered and received. We also can see from the first two parables that salvation originates from God. In the first parable the shepherd goes to seek the lost sheep. The sheep isn’t looking for the shepherd, but the shepherd is looking for the sheep. It’s a picture of what Jesus said in Luke 19:10 “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
That same principle is being emphasized in the second parable of the lost coin. The woman who owned the coins seeks for the lost coin until she finds it. Again a picture of the origin of our salvation is God. As Psalm 3:8 “Salvation belongs to the LORD.” So we understand that our salvation originates with God seeking us, quickening us, with Him opening our eyes, and causing us to be convicted of our need for salvation.
But in this third parable of the lost son, the divine origin of our salvation is not emphasized as much, but rather the sinner’s response is emphasized. Jesus said that the lost son “came to his senses.” He had a spiritual awakening. We know that salvation originates with God, but nevertheless it necessitates a response from the sinner. It is necessary for the sinner to respond to the call of salvation. And so in this parable Jesus emphasizes the response of the sinner.
Let’s look at the parable to learn what Jesus is teaching concerning salvation. Jesus said a man had two sons, and the younger son asked the father to give him his inheritance early. This would have been a brash and offensive demand to make. Basically, the young man was saying that “I can’t wait for you to die to get my inheritance. I want it now.” The young man doesn’t want to live under his father’s rule anymore, but he wants to cash out so he can live the way he wants. But nevertheless, the father figured out what part the son should receive and he divided it up and gave him his share.
The younger son then gathered all that he had, and left home, going to a distant country. And Jesus said that while there he squandered his estate with loose living. He wasted his inheritance in riotous living. That’s quite common among young people, to want to leave home and go somewhere that they can live without fear of reprisal by their parents or people that know them. But in pursuing this reckless lifestyle he wasted all the wealth that his father had given him.
We could dramatize this part of the story and add a lot of embellishments in hopes of making this a more relevant, or more exciting story. But the simplified way that Jesus tells it should suffice to understand that God has given us the blessing of life, but man wants to live according to what he thinks is good and beneficial, and so he seeks to satisfy the lusts of the flesh and the pride of life in the world, according to what the world says is desirable. But this sinful lifestyle ends in ruin.
After the son spent all his money, a severe famine came upon the land. Without any resources to fall back on, the son was compelled to earn a living by taking care of pigs. The young man was so hungry that he would have gladly eaten the food that he was feeding to the pigs. Pigs were the most unclean of all animals in the eyes of a Jew, so Jesus uses this picture to show the extent of this man’s uncleanness. To a Jew, he could not be more unclean. And I think Jesus adds that element to the story to illustrate that we have to come to a point of recognizing our sin for what it is, and the horror of the depravity of our sin.
Finally, the son “came to himself” and realized the severity of his situation. It’s as if he had a great awakening, his eyes were opened, and he saw his situation for what it really was. At certain times, God awakes people to their spiritual predicament. And it takes an act of God for such a person to come awake out of their blindness. There was an event in this country in the eighteenth century which was called the Great Awakening. It was a time when God moved to bring this nation to revival. He used men like George Whitfield, and John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards.
Jonathan Edwards is known for one sermon in particular; Sinner’s in the Hands of an Angry God. God used this powerful message to break in to the conscience of the people, so that they felt the full weight of their sin, and they turned in repentance to the Lord. Repentance really is the key to salvation that is expressed in all three parables here in this chapter.
Notice that in the first parable, even though the sheep showed no signs of seeking God, yet Jesus summarizes it by saying, ““I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Yes, God awakens, and God calls, and God initiates salvation, but it is necessary for sinners to repent.
The same principle is emphasized in the second parable of the lost coin. When it was found, Jesus said in vs10 “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Once again, repentance is not specifically taught by the story of the woman who found the coin that was lost, but Jesus adds that in order to show that repentance is a necessary part of salvation.
In the parable of the lost son, Jesus doesn’t say specifically that he repented, but the characteristics of repentance are clearly there. When he came to his senses, he showed an awareness of the depravity of his sinful condition, and he recognized his need to turn from the path he was on, and return to the father. That’s repentance. It says in vs17-19 “But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’
Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son, make me as one of your hired men.” That is repentance, pure and simple. He knows that he has sinned against God, and against his father. And consequently, he is willing to turn away from that and live in service to the father if he would just accept him and forgive him. Repentance is not just feeling sorry for the situation you find yourself in, feeling sorry for the consequences of your sin. But true repentance is being willing to do a 180. True repentance is being willing to die to your reign over your life, and being willing to live for God under His reign. That is what is meant by Paul when he says in Romans 10:9 “if you confess Jesus as Lord… you shall be saved. You relinquish the throne, and submit to Jesus as Lord.
Part of this young man’s problem was that he was in rebellion against his father. He wanted to live as he thought best rather than submit to the father’s rule of the house. And that is a picture of the sinner’s rebellion, wanting to live as master of their destiny, as the lord of their own house, rather than live under the control and authority of God. But when he realized that his situation was hopeless he decided to seek his father’s forgiveness. He had a repentant heart. And it should be obvious that without that repentance, he would have remained in the same sinful condition that he was in. 2Cor. 7:10 says, “For the sorrow that is according to [the will of] God produces a repentance without regret, [leading] to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.”
So the repentant son made the return journey to his father’s home, planning to confess his sin to his father. He rehearsed what he would say to his father, whom perhaps he imagined would be unsympathetic to the idea of him coming home. So he would say he was no longer worthy to be called a son, but that he hoped to be hired as a servant in his father’s household.
But long before he was even close to the house, the father saw him coming. Jesus said, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” That is the most beautiful part of the story, isn’t it? Being a father, and having had a father, I kind of get a lump in my throat every time I read that part.
His father wasn’t sitting there in front of the television, grumbling about that “no good son of mine, that ungrateful, sorry no good you know what.” No, the indication is that the father was out looking for the son every day. He would walk out in the middle of the road and stand there looking at the direction his son had left, hoping and praying that one day he might return. And you can just imagine after such a long time, how one day, the father spotted a lone figure coming down the road, way off in the distance. The resemblance seemed faintly familiar. And then his breath caught in his chest as he began to believe that it was his son walking back down that road.
Men in those days wore long robes and it was definitely considered undignified for the patriarch of the tribe to be seen running. But this father couldn’t care less what people might think. His compassion towards his son was so great that he hiked up his robe around his waist and started running down the dusty road while his son was still way off in the distance. Remember what we said about compassion last week in the parable of the Good Samaritan? It’s a love that moves you. It’s a love that calls for action. It’s pity, and empathy, and sympathy and love all rolled up into a great big emotional roller coaster that compels you to do whatever you can to help this person in need. Jesus said the father felt compassion for the lost son, and so he started running.
What a tremendous picture that is of our God who pursues us, who seeks for us, who finds us, who calls us, who draws us to Himself. What compassion that caused Him to come to our rescue, to become our sacrifice, our substitute, so that we might be saved. God is not unmoved, but He has moved heaven and earth to be our Savior and Lord.
The lost son started to say the words that he had rehearsed, but the father interrupted him. He knew that the son was repentant, otherwise he would not be walking home down this road. But he wanted to restore him, to show his love for him, and to renew him. So he said to his servants, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.
The father fully forgave and restored his son. He embraced his son and kissed him. Instead of rebuking him, he restores his place in the family. He summoned the servants to bring him fine clothes that were fit for a son in his house, and a ring for his finger which was a symbol of his place in the family as a son. And he ordered his servants to prepare a great feast to celebrate the return of the lost son. He was lost, and has been found. He was dead and has come to life again. Such a picture of our salvation.
Well, that would be enough of a story for me if Jesus had just stopped there. I kind of wish that He would have. Because this last section has among certain theologians overshadowed the first part of the story. And I think that is a mistake. I think the first part of this story is the main part of the story. Its’ the story of salvation; the story of repentance and restoration.
But nevertheless, Jesus added this last section for good reason. Let’s see if we can find out why. The older brother heard the noise of the celebration as he was returning from working in the field. And he asks the servants what’s going on. Their answer angered him. “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.” And because of his anger he would not go in to the celebration.
His father came out of the house and began pleading with him. “But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’
“And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”
Now what is Jesus saying in this section? I think the answer is very simple and straightforward. I think it was a gentle rebuke of the Pharisees. Remember at the beginning of this chapter? The scribes and Pharisees were grumbling because tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus. They said, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
I think the Pharisees were jealous of the fact that grace was being shown to sinners. They thought they had stayed home, so to speak, and obeyed the Father, while these sinners had been living in the world and doing all kinds of things that were against the commandments. They wanted to see such people punished and their own behavior rewarded. But Jesus makes the point that we are saved by grace, not by works. And only when you realize that you are sinner in need of grace, and are willing to repent of your sins, can you be saved. And I think he makes the point that if you have been truly saved by grace, you will not begrudge others that come to salvation by grace, and in fact you will rejoice over them, along with all the hosts of heaven.
“As the father said in the parable, ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’” Let’s not lose sight of the primary message of this story, how the lost son was found, how the dead have begun to live. It’s the story of the compassion of the Father being so great, that his mercy resulted in forgiveness, and his grace resulted in restoration and life. Let us be sure we have returned to the Father in faith and repentance, confessing our sins, and asking for restoration and new life. And not be found as the Pharisees, thinking they had no need of repentance because they trusted in their good deeds. Jesus came to seek and to save those that were lost. Recognizing that you are lost, and in repentance turning to the Lord is the way to life.
Isaiah 55:6-7 says, “Seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way And the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon.”