In order to understand this parable you have to understand who is present when Jesus tells the story.
“Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable…”
Jesus gives one of his only three point sermons: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In each of these stories there are three movements of the narrative. Yancey points it out better than I can, “Each underscores the loser’s sense of loss, tells the thrill of rediscovery, and ends with a scene of jubilation.” – What’s So Amazing About Grace, 52. It is clear that Jesus’ implication to the Pharisees is that if they really understood that what was happening in their midst that they would share in their Father’s thrill of rediscovery and participate in the heavenly jubilation. Instead they could only see those with Jesus as a ragtag bunch of tax collectors and sinners. Jesus saw them as the lost being found and as dead men who were being brought back to life. And so Jesus begins his story…
In the ancient world it was considered a tremendous blessing to have a son. This story starts with a blessed father because he has not one son but two! One day he gets the shock of his life. His youngest son asks his father to cash out his inheritance so he can head for the big city and live “the life.” There is just one problem. His father is not on his death bed. In fact he isn’t even sick! Under the Old Testament law a child could be stoned for less. Rather than scold or pick up stones, he divides the estate between his two sons and the youngest goes on his way. In vs. 14 Jesus says, “[He] got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.” At this point in the story a new character arrives. Murphy shows up in the form of a famine and his life goes from bad to worse. His grumbling stomach leads him to do something he would have never before considered – feeding pigs.
Jesus is letting us in on the fact that he had lost his identity. The patriarchal family structure was the source of their identity. He had lost that by cursing his father. Now he had lost his religious identity as well by laboring among these unclean animals. After all, an observant Jew would rather starve than feed these pigs. This is a clue that gives us insight into the speech that this young man will later recite for his father – that he had sinned against his father and against his God – the two fundamental components of his identity. He was utterly lost. Until you comprehend the depth of his feeling of being lost in the world, lost from his family, lost from God you really cannot fully get your mind or your heart around what is happening in this story. That is the first thing Jesus hoped these Pharisees would clue in on – that they could find compassion instead of contempt for these tax collectors and sinners. (They wouldn’t have differentiated the two quite as clearly as I have – the two built on each other and were inseparable. Jesus is painting a picture of a downward spiral for this man’s existence. He is LOST.)
The second trip the young man makes does not involve a change of location. It involved a change of heart. In vs. 17 Jesus tells us, “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men 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 men.’ So he got up and went to his father.” Jesus points out that this lost son had done something that the religious authorities had still not done – he had come to his senses due to his profound sense of dependence upon his father. He would rather be a servant in his father’s house than be lost and without hope. Jesus is about to use the difference between being a son and being a servant to discombobulate the Pharisees.
As he makes his return home, his father sees him from a long way off. Being filled with compassion his father runs to greet him. This is one of Jesus’ key points to the Pharisees. If only they understood the compassion God had for those present with Jesus, maybe they would treat them with more compassion themselves. The son begins his speech, “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (15:21). Notice the father’s reaction to his son’s return – running, compassion, a hug, a kiss, a ring, a robe, a feast…He treats him like a son rather than as a servant. Then notice who the father gives orders to. He doesn’t now treat his son like the servant he was going to request to be. He orders his servant to take care of this young man who was now more his son than he had been when the story began. “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” (15:22-24).
Those the Pharisees treated so harshly who had turned to Jesus should have been treated as equal sons and daughters of God. In the next verses the one who thought he was the true son turns out to be more like a servant. The older brother hears the celebration. Instead of joining it he becomes very angry. Jesus said, “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!’” (15:28b-30). He was the one who had been acting like a servant rather than a son. His obedience and faithfulness are to be commended but having done these things with the attitude of a servant shows that his understanding of what it means to be in his father’s house is totally skewed.
The father responds by still calling him a son but he also reminds him of the bigger picture, “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.” (15:31-32). Jesus is saying that whether the Pharisees accept it or not the destitute and morally bankrupt of the world stand in the same relationship with God as they do as “brothers of theirs” because they were dead and are now alive. They were lost and have now been found.
We normally apply this verse to talk about prodigals and that is all well and good. Jesus did say this for those tax collectors and sinners in the room to hear. But let’s not forget that Jesus also said this for the other ears in the room – the Pharisees. He said it in hopes that those who were acting as the older brother would stop acting like servants and start acting more like sons. He said it so they would start seeing these outcasts as the fellow brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God that they were. It all stems from a compassion that can only be motivated by understanding just how lost people really are and by seeing how important it is to the father. Let’s treat sons of God like sons of God, daughters of God like daughters of God, our brothers in Christ like brothers in Christ, and our sisters in Christ like sisters in Christ. And when the lost are found and the dead are brought to life let’s be the first ones to attend the celebration!