The story of the Prodigal Son takes place within the context of two other parables which can be briefly noted in Luke 15:1-6. The setting for the narrative takes place within the familiar occasion of the Pharisees and scribes following Jesus during the days of His public ministry because Christ attracted large gatherings wherever He went so that we read in verse 1, “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.”
The term for publicans is a reference to tax collectors, a hated group of Jewish people because they worked with Rome and exploited hard working individuals. It was known that one of the disciples of Jesus, the man named Matthew, was a former tax collector. Other publicans would be curious about that, and some went to hear Jesus speak.
Then, there were the sinners, a polite expression for prostitutes and other unsavory characters. Jesus welcomed all, and ministered to those in need. The Lord met people were they were, in the struggles of sin and humanity, and moved them to where they should be according to gospel terms. He did this without condemnation for Jesus came into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world, through Him, might be saved. Every person who feels the weight of sin can know this fact. Christ receiveth sinful men.
In 1718 in Hamburg, Germany, Erdmand Neumeister was captivated by this thought and wrote these words.
“Sinners Jesus will receive,
Sound this word of grace to all
Who the heavenly pathway leave,
All who linger, all who fall.
Sing it o’er and over again;
Christ receiveth sinful men;
Make the message clear and plain:
Christ receiveth sinful men.
Come, and He will give you rest;
Trust in Him, for His Word is plain;
He will take the sinfulest;
Christ receiveth sinful men,
Even me with all my sin.”
There was a third group that came to hear Jesus speak. They were called Pharisees and scribes. Together, these men formed a large part of the ruling religious fabric of Jewish society. The Pharisees were dedicated to keeping the Law of Moses, all 613 provisions of it. Their adversaries mocked this attempt and called them “The Separated”. The Pharisees called themselves the Haberim or “Associate”, a term meaning “one who associates himself with the Law in order to observe it strictly, in opposition to the encroachments of Hellenism, or Greek cultural influence over Judaism. The Pharisees wanted to preserve the Law, and that was not wrong. The scribes were the interpreters of the Law. People looked to them for understanding and counsel because they wrote the Sacred Scriptures, and were familiar with the sacred text. They were called “lawyers”, meaning an expert in the Mosaic Law.
The main problem with the Pharisees and the scribes was that they had bad hearts. They were self-righteous, and they were critical of all others who did not associate themselves with a strict observance of the Law. We read in verse 2 that “the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” The religious leaders did not call Jesus by His name, in order to demonstrate their verbal disrespect. They referred to Christ as “This man”, and the jealousy, and contempt, could be heard in their voice.
It is against this setting that Christ began to teach, and a lesson is learned. A personal attack can be used as an opportunity to present the gospel. It is not easy to do, but it is possible to make an ugly moment a gospel moment, a teachable moment. And so we read in verse 3 that Jesus “spake this parable unto them”. Jesus spoke to the crowd in general, but He was addressing the Pharisees and scribes in particular, “saying, 4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? 5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. 7 I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.”
The word “parable”, means literally to place one thing beside another. What Jesus did was to lay a gospel truth alongside a little story that people could identify with in an agricultural society. A parable might be defined as an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. The meaning of The Parable of the Lost Sheep is very simple. There is joy in heaven when a sinner repents and begins to desire God and His Law in their life.
Jesus would know about this, for He is the Son of God, He is the Bread of Life, who has come down from heaven (John 6:38, 41). Jesus knew what heaven was like, and what joy is found in the great cloud of witnesses that encompass us. Imagine that. The moment you received Christ as your personal Saviour, you made the angels curious, and the saints in heaven joyful. Reflecting on this gospel truth in 1910, C. Austin Miles wrote about his conversion experience.
“I was humbly kneeling at the cross,
Fearing naught but God’s angry frown;
When the heavens opened and I saw
That my name was written down.
There’s a new name written down in glory,
And it’s mine, O yes, it’s mine!
And the white robed angels sing the story,
‘A sinner has come home.’
For there’s a new name written down in glory,
And it’s mine, O yes, it’s mine!
With my sins forgiven I am bound for Heaven,
Never more to roam.
In the Book ’tis written, “Saved by Grace,”
O the joy that came to my soul!
Now I am forgiven, and I know
By the blood I am made whole.”
To those people who are critical, and constantly murmuring against others, here is a reason to be happy and joyful. Sinners are repenting, and there is joy in heaven when this happens. As a gifted Teacher, Jesus pressed home the theme of spiritual joy, and what causes it, and for this reason. Religious people, who are legalistic and self-righteous, are generally unhappy people. They are so busy being right about everything, they cannot relax and enjoy life. Jesus has come to give life, and that more abundantly.
In verses 8-10 Jesus told The Parable of the Lost Coin. “Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? 9 And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. 10 Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.”
The main point is again stated. Let God’s people rejoice together when a soul comes to the Saviour. “Rejoice with me”, is the gospel plea in both parables (v. 6, 9). There is joy in heaven when a sinner repents. The Lord might have paused at this moment, having made His point, not once, but twice. And yet the Lord presses on to tell the Parable of the Prodigal Son. “11 And he said, A certain man had two sons: 12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.”
According to the Law of Moses, the son would have been entitled to one third of what the father possessed. The elder brother was to be given a double portion according to Deuteronomy 21:17. The younger son wanted his inheritance immediately. The idea of deferred gratification was not part of his philosophy of life. “13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.”
It was necessary for the son to depart into a far country, for that is the nature of sin. Sin does not like to walk in the light. It prefers darkness. Sin does not want to remain under a watchful eye of accountability, because the deeds of sin are evil. Sin demands autonomy. In Daytona, Florida, each year the news media will share the activities of students on Spring Break. The young people are engaged in the excessive use of alcohol, drugs, and unbridled sex. The students can engage in such activities because they are in a far country, away from parental authority, and away from normal social taboos.
The wealthy young people of today, like the rich man’s son in the parable, are free to engage in “riotous living” (v. 13), which is another way of saying they can engage in wanton living, prodigal, or wasteful living. There are few things in the world more futile than waste. God has given to many individuals some wonderful gifts, but they are squandered needlessly. “14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. 15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.”
To a devout Jew, a swine, or pig, was an unclean animal. The Law of Moses prohibited swine from being eaten as per Leviticus 11:7. The prodigal son not only had to feed the pigs, he had to live with them. Soon, he wanted to eat like them. It is the nature of sin to degrade a soul, and bring it down to the level of an animal. “16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.” The word “fain” means, “to set the heart upon something.” This young man was so desperate, he set his heart upon eating what slop the pigs were eating. v. 16. and no man gave unto him.
As a general principle, it can be said that the world does not care about individuals, unless there is something in the process of caring that is self-serving. In politics, a political party might feign interest in the poor, but what is often really desired is the vote of the poor in order to stay in power and be able to control the lives of others. If politicians really cared for the poor, they would not pass legislation that keeps people in poverty, and a substandard existence of living.
“17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my fathers have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!” All of life, and eternity itself, can change in a moment of time, when the heart comes to itself, and begins to think correctly.
In the eighteenth century, in New England, a wonderful spiritual renewal took place. It was called, The Great Awakening. It was not called The Great Revival. It was not called The Great Conversion. It was called the Great Awakening, because people were awakened out of their unconscious life of unbridled sin. People realized they were perishing.
The prodigal son woke up. He came to himself, but he did not come to himself by himself. No one comes to themselves by themselves. Only God can awaken a torpid sinner from their slumber. Only God can save those in the pigpens of life. “18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,”
This is the language of every sinner awakened by grace. The heart of the converted person says in essence, “I will arise and go to my heavenly Father, and I will say unto Him, Father, I have sinned. Make me one of Your servants.”
The narrative of the parable now changes from the son, to focus on the father. “20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” Attention is drawn to several characteristics of the father, which can be briefly mentioned.
The prodigal son’s father was a longing father. He looked in the direction of the far country to which his son had gone. Day after day, the father turned his eyes to gaze down the same road his son left. He was longing for his child’s return.
The prodigal son’s father was a seeing father. He saw his son struggling with restlessness. He saw his son longing to be free, and independent. He saw his son leave home on a personal quest for happiness. And then, he saw his son a great way off, coming back home.
The prodigal son’s father was a compassionate father. It only took a discerning look at his son to assess the trouble the child was in. And after seeing his son, He had compassion, and it made a difference. In like manner God the Father looks at His fallen children, and He has compassion. We know the compassion of God because of Christ.
“In loving-kindness Jesus came
My soul in mercy to reclaim,
And from the depths of sin and shame
Through grace He lifted me.
From sinking sand He lifted me,
With tender hand He lifted me,
From shades of night to plains of light,
O praise His Name, He lifted me!”
Charles H. Gabriel, 1905
The prodigal son’s father was a running father. He ran to his son. An older man running was deemed unseemly in Jewish society. Nevertheless, the father ran towards a familiar figure he recognized as his son.
He was a loving father. Before his son said a word, his father showed him love. Why? Because love precedes all else. Love preceded receiving the confession of sin. Love preceded listening to the humbling words of the son. In like manner, while we were yet sinners, God showed us His love. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.
“I heard an old, old story,
How a Savior came from glory,
How He gave His life on Calvary
To save a wretch like me.
I heard about His groaning,
Of His precious blood’s atoning,
Then I repented of my sins
And won the victory.
O victory in Jesus,
My Savior, forever.
He sought me and bought me
With His redeeming blood.
He loved me ere I knew Him
And all my love is due Him,
He plunged me to victory,
Beneath the cleansing flood.”
E.M. Bartlett, 1939
The prodigal son’s father was an affectionate father. He fell on his neck and kissed him. There are some children who are rarely, if ever, touched by their father in love. A hug, a pat on the back, a kiss never touches their upturned face.
Earthly fathers should be more like God the Father, and display affection. Consider the kisses of Calvary where God gave His only begotten Son to save sinners. There is the kiss of salvation. There is also the kiss of mercy and truth. The psalmist said, “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10). The proper physical display of affection reflects the spiritual affection of God.
The prodigal son’s father was a forgiving father. He accepted the son’s confession of sin without berating him, or shaming him. The confession of sin was enough. The details no longer mattered. They were assigned to the sea of forgetfulness. “And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son” (v. 21).
All of that was true. But, where sin abounded, grace did much more abound. Grace is not based on merit, or worthiness. Grace is based on favor being shown to the unworthy, and the undeserving.
“Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.”
Julia H. Johnston, 1911
The prodigal son’s father was a giving father. He gave his son a robe, a ring, a pair of shoes, and a feast. There were gifts of grace. These four gifts reflect the spiritual gifts of divine grace which God the Father gives to every sinner that comes home. There was a robe. Every Christian is clothed with the righteousness of Christ. There was an official signet ring with power to transact official business. Every Christina is given power to transact heavenly business through prayer. There was a pair of shoes. Every Christian is able to walk in fellowship with the Lord having feet “shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15). There was a fellowship meal. Every Christian is invited to come and dine with the Lord in a communion meal.
“Jesus has a table spread
Where the saints of God are fed,
He invites His chosen people, “Come and dine”;
With His manna He doth feed
And supplies our every need:
O ’tis sweet to sup with Jesus all the time.
“Come and dine,” the Master calleth, “Come and dine”;
You may feast at Jesus’ table all the time;
He Who fed the multitude, turned the water into wine,
To the hungry calleth now, “Come and dine.”
Charles B. Widnever, 1906
The prodigal son’s father wanted to have fellowship with his son. He wanted to say to all his guests, “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry” (v. 24).
By way of personal application, remember that the characteristics of the prodigal son’s father reflect the character of God the Father. That is important, because if children are to know, and love God the Father, they must have a good example.
The story is told of a devoted father who went into the room where his eight-year-old was dying of an incurable disease. The child, sensing that he was not going to get well asked his father, “Daddy, am I going to die?” “Why, son, are you afraid to die?” The child looked up into the eyes of his father and replied, “Not if God is like you, Daddy!” (Sunday School Times). Fathers must prepare their children for life, for death, and for God. The prodigal son’s father did exactly that, so this portion of the narrative closes with the lovely words, “and they began to be merry.”