Lost & Found (Week 3)
The Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32)
How do you define the word “literally”. For most of us, we would probably it means something like “an exact or strict sense.” If you were to say “I literally came straight home after work” most of us would assume you mean that’s exactly what happened. However, in recent years “literally” has taken on a new, secondary meaning. In this new, secondary use, it actually has the opposite meaning. It means figuratively.
People will use it when they want to exaggerate something for effect. So someone might say, “There was a fire next door. Literally, there were a thousand firefighters outside.” There were not a thousand firefighters outside. What you’re saying is, “There were a lot of firefighters outside.” How do you use the word “literally”? It’s undergone a bit of a redefinition lately.
In the same way, in Luke 15 Jesus redefines the word “lost”. His new definition doesn’t mean the exact opposite of its original meaning like “literally” has but there is still a new definition going on. Jesus wants us to understand the categories of lost and found in different ways than we might intuitively think.
This morning we’re continuing our series Lost & Found turning our attention to the third parable, what has historically been known as the parable of the prodigal son. And ultimately the question we need to ask this morning is, what does it mean to be lost?
In the first two weeks of this series, we took a look at the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. In those two parables, Jesus explains that lost people are valuable. That they are worth the search and that there should be a celebration when the come home. In addition, we talked about how it’s our responsibility to search for the lost, rather than waiting for them to come home as well as a couple ways we as a church can do that. Remember, Jesus originally told these parables as a response to the Pharisees and teachers of the law who accused him of eating with sinners and tax collectors. So in the first two parables, he describes why he seeks the lost; why sinners are worth the search.
But in this third parable, Jesus turns the whole thing on its head completely redefining who is lost and who is found. So as we look at this parable this morning, I’m going to go ahead and spoil the ending for you now. Both sons are lost and are in need of reconciliation. Our job as we read and study this parable is to ask the question, which son do we identify with? Who are we in this story? Are we the younger son or the older son?
This parable is really long. It’s the longest and most elaborate parable Jesus tells in the Gospels and we’re going to go through it section by section, so I’m not going to read it through right now. Instead, let’s open with a word of prayer.
In verses 11 and 12 Jesus sets the scene. “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.”
Right off the bat, this is a scandalous situation. When the younger son asks for his share of the estate, what he’s asking for is his inheritance. In first-century Palestine, when someone died they left everything they had to their sons. They would divide everything they own into equal parts equal to the numbers of sons they have plus one. Then the oldest son would get two parts while every other son got one. So if you have four sons, you would divide everything you own into five parts. If you have two sons, you would divide everything you own into three parts. However, this division wouldn't happen until you’re dead. But by asking for his portion of the estate now, the younger son is essentially saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” What makes this even more shocking is that the Father does it. He divided his property and gave the younger son his portion of the estate.
Next, we read, “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 that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.”
This would not have shocked Jesus listeners. The younger son demanded his father give him money now and then ran away and wasted it all. After he wasted his money, a famine came on the land and he was forced to take the most menial and offensive job he could find; working with pigs. And not only was he working with pigs, he was so hungry in the process that he contemplated eating the food they ate. This is quite literally—and I mean that exactly—the bottom of the barrel for the younger son. He would be seen as foolish and getting exactly what he deserved for treating his father the way he did. In fact, there’s a good chance that the Pharisees and religious leaders would have thought this was the justice of God at work.
And in verse 17 the young son seems to come to this realization himself. “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.”
This is his inner-monologue. The son realizes that even the lowest people in his fathers household are treated better than he’s currently being treated. So in what is essentially an act of self-preservation, the son decides to return to his fathers' house. He realizes that since he was already given his inheritance, and that he wasted it all, he’s no longer worthy to be called a son and so he decides to ask to be made a hired servant.
In a wealthy house of this time, there were three levels of status. First, you had sons. They were the highest status because obviously they are biologically related to the father. Next, you had slaves. Slaves were property of the household. Since they were owned, they weren’t quite as high in status as sons, but they still belonged to the household and so their health and safety were a concern. Finally, on the bottom were hired servants. These people were day labourers. They would be hired for a single task, maybe harvesting grain or planting crops. When the task was done they would be released. There was no obligation from the household to provide for them long-term.
This third tier, the hired servant, is what the son plans to ask for. He doesn’t ask to be reinstated as a son, he doesn’t ask to be made a slave with the expectation that the household would take care of him long term. He plans to ask to simply be made a hired servant. And in verse 20 he starts off for home.
“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 around him and kissed him.” This would have shocked Jesus’ audience. First of all, in first-century Palestine, older men don’t run. It’s not dignified. Secondly, this younger son has squandered everything his father gave him. You would expect the father to see him, wait for him to return, and at least chide him for being so foolish. You might even expect the younger son to be beaten for his disrespect and foolish. And yet, that’s not at all what happens. Before the son has a chance to open his mouth the father ran to him, hugged him and kissed him.
This half of the parable finished up in verse 21 through 24. “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 sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast to celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”
Notice the son starts into his speech. “Father, I’ve sinned against you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” But he doesn’t even get a chance to finish it. The father interrupts the speech by talking to the hired servants telling them to put a robe and ring on him and sandals on his feet. All of these are signs of sonship. The father isn’t listening to his son's apology. He’s too busy already planning the party. He doesn’t need his son's apology. He ran to him while he was still a long way off. He orders the fattened calf to be slaughtered for a feast and a celebration.
The parable could easily end there with the same point as the other two parables. God throws a party when the lost return. God doesn’t need our apology. He just cares about our return and our restoration to sonship and daughter-ship. And if it ended there, it would still be a beautiful parable about how much God loves us even while are still far off. It would be a beautiful parable about how God extends forgiveness to us even before we have a chance to ask for it. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Suddenly the older brother comes back on the scene.
Verse 25 says, “Meanwhile, the older 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 come back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.”
Suddenly we see a reversal here. Originally the younger brother was on the outside. He was distant. And yet he’s been restored. And now we see the older brother standing on the outside refusing to come inside. He’s angry that his younger brother has been restored to his original position.
In verse 29 it says, “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!”
There is so much vitriol here. So much anger. Notice that the older son doesn’t refer to the younger son as “my brother”. He says, “This son of yours.” And notice the way he talks about his father? I’ve been slaving for you for years and I never disobeyed your orders. This claim that he’s never disobeyed is the very thing the Pharisees would brag about. They never disobeyed God’s commandments.
The older son stuck around the family farm, but in his heart, he was just as distant from the father as his younger brother was. And he’s angry at the celebration. He accuses his brother of squandering his father's property with prostitutes, even though the text never tells us that. It’s a baseless accusation made in anger. So he says, I’ve slaved for you for years while this son of your wasted your money. And now you celebrate him while you’ve never given me anything.
This is a gross mischaracterization of the father. The older son sees his father as a harsh taskmaster. He sees him as ungenerous; the kind of man you have to beg and plead just to be giving the smallest blessing. But everything we’ve seen about the father is the exact opposite. He’s generous, he’s loving, he’s forgiving. He’s willing to make a fool of himself to show his children the love he has for them.
Which is exactly what he says in verse 31, “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” This is literally true. Remember, he already split his estate between his two sons. The younger son got his which means that everything on the family farm belongs to the older son. Every goat, every fattened calf, every grain of wheat belongs to the older son. If he wanted to kill a fattened calf and eat it with his friends, he was more than welcome to.
The father continues in verse 32, “But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours (notice how the father doesn’t say son of mine?) was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found.” The story ends there.
We’re not told if the older brother repents and goes into the party as well or if he remains outside. But that’s the point for Jesus. The older brother represented the Pharisees he was talking to. This was ultimate an invitation for them as well. In this parable, Jesus redefined what it meant to be lost and found.
It’s clear that those people out there, the sinners, the tax collectors are lost. It’s clear that they need to be found by God. But what about us? What about the older brothers among us who stuck around, obeyed what they thought was a task master of a father?
In truth, both sons are lost and separated from their father. The younger son by his partying and wayward lifestyle and the older son by his self-righteousness. This parable should confront all of us and force us to ask ourselves what might be keeping us from the father. Is it our actions? Our attitude?
It’s possible to come to church, to sing songs, to work at building the Kingdom of God and still be lost. It’s possible to be physically near to the father—be part of the church—and yet still in our hearts be separated from him. Both sons in this parable are lost. Both need to be found and restored to a loving relationship with their father.
So here’s the ultimate question we need to wrestle with this morning. What kind of God do we believe in? Is it a God who stands ready to judge and condemn anyone and everyone who doesn’t jump through the right hoops or is it a God who runs to his son while he was still a long way off and cuts off his repentance speech? Is it a God who’s a slave master or one who freely gives of himself? we view God as the kind of taskmaster that we need to slave for in order to get anything? Or do we understand God to be a loving father who runs to us while we’re still a long way off? The way we understand God will ultimately determine how we understand evangelism and discipleship.
If we understand God as primarily a God of wrath and punishment and justice, then we will see conversion and discipleship as a way to satiate that wrath. We will evangelize by trying to convince people that God’s anger burns against them and that they need to say the right things in order to make God happy. But if we understand God as primarily a God who loves his children and wants what’s best for us, then we can tell people the good news of a loving father who runs to them while they’re still a long way off. We can tell people the good news of a God who will continue to meet them in their brokenness and heal them.
All of us are lost. All of us are in need of a saviour who will reconcile us to himself and to each other. Who are we in this story? What kind of God do we believe exists? What does it mean to be lost and found?