Our passage this morning is commonly referred to as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” As you know, a parable is a story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson and it was one of Jesus’ favorite forms of teaching. And who doesn’t love a good story? There are three characters in this story—a father, and his two sons. The younger son is the one after whom this parable is often named. And given that the definition of “prodigal” is “spending money or resources freely and recklessly,” this is certain an apt description of the younger son’s behavior. However, I’m going to suggest that a better name for this parable is “Our Compassionate Heavenly Father” for if there is a hero in this story, it is surely the father.
Now the events that unfold in Luke 15 really begin at the end of chapter 14 where Jesus, having addressed the cost of being a disciple, ends his teaching by proclaiming, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” The first three verses in chapter 15 then provide a brief introduction to our parable as well as two others that precede it. These opening verses are important because they provide a clue as to why Jesus decided to tell these stories.
In verses 1–2 four groups of people are mentioned that may be coupled into two categories— on one side are tax collectors and sinners who are “all gathering around to hear Jesus” (v. 1). On the other side are the Pharisees and teachers of the law who are muttering against Jesus.
In terms of the tax collectors, the point being made here isn’t that people who were the equivalent of IRS employees today came out to hear what Jesus had to say. No, at this time, Jewish tax collectors were despised since they were considered to be collaborators with the occupying Roman forces. They had a reputation for being notoriously dishonest as they not only collected and kept more taxes than people owed but would also resort to extortion. They were so hated by their own people that they were excluded from the religious life of the synagogue and temple. They were true religious outcasts. Similarly the “sinners” were immoral people who followed occupations viewed as being incompatible with keeping God’s law. Rabbis wouldn’t even consider teaching such a person. And yet it was these outcasts of society who understood Jesus’ teaching about the cost of being a disciple and they wanted to hear more. They are the ones who have “ears to ear” and have responded by “gathering around to hear Jesus.” And Jesus not only welcomes them but breaks bread with them.
On the other hand, the Pharisees were among the most influential of the Jewish sects along with the “teachers of the law” who were also known as “scribes.” These religious leaders, scribes and Pharisees, are often paired together in the Gospels and about them we’re told that rather than gather to hear Jesus—to learn from him—they “muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” And from the parables that follow, you can be pretty sure that Jesus heard their muttering! In fact, in response to the Pharisees and law teachers saying that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them,” in this third parable Jesus tells a story about a younger son, whom anyone would consider to be a world-class sinner, and his older brother who muttered against the father who welcomed him. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves in this story and instead turn to consider the story as Jesus has told it.
In verse 12 we’re told that, “The younger [son] said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’” Right off the bat we have an unusual circumstance in this story. As is still the case today, it would have been highly unusual for a child to request his inheritance prior to the father passing away. During this period sometimes the father would give the rights to the property and retain the income. But to give the property outright to one of the sons as in this parable was unconventional. Nonetheless we see the father complying with the younger son’s request as he “divided his property between” his two boys.
Soon after receiving his share of the estate, the younger son gathered “all he had.” His “gathering all” indicates that he had converted his inheritance, which may have included land or cattle, into cash. And the fact that he gathered all of it suggests that his plan was to leave home for good since he didn’t leave any of his possessions behind to return to. Though he was probably a teenager, the younger son isn’t taking the equivalent of a “gap” year between high school and college to figure out what he wants to do with his life. No, he’s leaving home for good, never to return. He’s making a clean break with his family.
Having gathered “all he had” he “set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living” (v. 13). This country being distant, the son would have cut himself off not only from family but also any friends who may have helped him out. He’s gone to a new, faraway, place where no one knows him and there “squandered” the inheritance he had demanded and been granted—and for what? For “wild living.” And, as we’re later told by the older son, part of what comprised this “wild living” included squandering “[the father’s] property with prostitutes” (v. 30). This is a true prodigal, someone who has given himself over to a wasteful and reckless lifestyle.
Well, in time, the parable continues, “After [the younger son] had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need” (v. 14). The younger son who had been given his life’s inheritance now begins to finds himself in a position of need. To make matters worse, even if he had had money, it may not have been easy to find food given the “severe famine” taking place in this country so distant from home. Since he was now off on his own, with few financial resources left, “15he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.” (v. 15). Now hiring himself out to feed pigs is significant. This detail in the story would have been especially troublesome because pigs were unclean animals to Jewish believers. No Jew would have taken this job willingly as it would have been one of the most humiliating jobs they could have. But this son was in dire straits. Though “16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating…no one gave him anything” (v. 16). This son had hit bottom. He had left the security of his home and family. Since he had gone to a distant country, he had no friends. And even the pigs, these unclean animals, were eating better than he.
It’s at this point that the younger son comes to his senses. He had an “a-ha!” moment that is recorded for us in verse 17 as he says to himself: “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” So he sets out a plan: He’ll return home to his father, own his bad behavior, and say (v. 18): “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” In this moment of hitting rock bottom, he realizes he has sinned not only against his earthly father but also against his heavenly Father—against heaven. Having sought out the life and lifestyle he thought he wanted—he thought would bring him contentment and fulfillment—and having been proved wrong, the younger son now longs to return home, content to live even as one of his father’s hired servants. He has come to realize that even the servants in his father’s home lived better than he, who had squandered his inheritance, was living. And so he heads home to face his new life as a servant, rather than as a son, in his father’s home. Having frittered away his inheritance, in his own mind he realizes he has forfeited his rights as a son.
Now at this point in the story, the Pharisees and law teachers who had criticized Jesus’ behavior—his welcoming and dining with people who were clearly considered to be sinners in society—were probably approving of the consequences of the younger son’s immoral and sinful behavior. Isn’t the outcome of his godless behavior what one would expect—and even hope for? Surely anyone who would waste his earthly inheritance on profligate living deserved to live no better than a slave. Surely the son now was entitled to no better than a servant life. This is how the story should have ended.
But, as a good story will, there’s an unexpected narrative twist here. Rather than accept as servant the son who had frivolously whittled away his hard-earned inheritance, we read in verse 20 that “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.” What? The father was watching for this ingrate? He was filled with compassion for him? This isn’t what the son deserved. Doesn’t the father realize how badly his youngest has behaved? How he not only turned his back on his family, demanding what was his, and carrying all of his possessions with him, never to return home again—but also wasting his inheritance on immoral living, thus adding insult to injury?
And it isn’t bad enough that the father felt compassion—sympathy and pity and concern for the misfortunes of what his youngest has suffered—but his compassion led him run to his son, throw his arms around him, and kiss him. This is terribly undignified behavior for a grown man, this lifting up of his robes and running, especially since he was probably a wealthy landowner.
Again this was no reluctant welcome for we are told that the father saw his son “while he was still a long way off.” In other words, though the son had decisively left with his possessions, never to return, the father had nonetheless been eagerly looking for his son each day. And even before the younger son had opportunity to ask his forgiveness, his father ran out to meet and embrace him. There were no recriminations spoken. No “I told you so” pronouncements. No scolding about having wasted his hard-earned inheritance. There is only compassion and joyful exuberance that his younger, misguided, once defiant son had come to his senses and returned home.
This son, having been so warmly embraced by his father, nonetheless concedes what he has done and remains true to his “a-ha” moment as he owns his sin against heaven and his father and acknowledges that, given his poor behavior in demanding his inheritance and then blowing it on reckless living, he is no longer worthy to be called his son (v. 21). But before he is able to finish the remainder of his rehearsed speech and ask to be received back not as son but as one of his father’s hired servants, his father calls out to his actual servants in verse 22–24: “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
The younger son, despite having acted in a disgraceful and deplorable manner, and returning home poor, hungry, and with his tail hanging between his legs isn’t reminded of his shameful behavior. No,
He, who is probably dressed in worn out clothes and rags, is given a robe—a “best robe” which “is a mark of distinction”;
he, who probably wore no ornaments, is given a ring for his finger, “indicating that he has been reconciled and welcomed back as a full member of the family;”
he, who probably returned barefoot, is given sandals for his feet since only slaves went shoeless but his shoes would point his status as a free man.
he, who was hungry—so hungry that he longed to eat even the pods of the pigs he had hired himself out to feed—is provided a feast, a fattened calf—a calf reserved for special occasions—just for him.
he, who willingly cut himself off from his family, demanding what was his, and leaving home to live a salacious lifestyle, is thrown a feast.
Though he knew his father well enough to assume that he would accept him back home, this extravagant welcome by his father could not have been predicted by the son or anyone else. Who would have guessed that upon seeing the return of a son who had turned his back on him and his family, blown his inheritance, and done so on loose living, the father would not only have accepted him back—without recrimination—but would have thrown a feast out of his great love and gratitude and joy to see his son alive?
And the reason the father does all of this for his younger son, as he tells his servants, is “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” When the son chose to leave his father and home he chose death rather than life. Rather than finding himself, he lost himself. And it was only when he returned to his senses and returned home again, that he was truly found.
But the story isn’t over yet. In the meantime, the older son who was “in the field” heard “music and dancing” as he came near the house (v. 25). And when he asked one of the servants what was going on (v. 26), he was told not only that his brother had returned home but also that his “father [had] killed the fattened calf because he [had] him back safe and sound” (v. 27). Now we might expect that he, too, would be delighted that his misguided younger brother had returned home. But we would be wrong. Instead we read that he “became angry and refused to go in” (v. 28).
Are you beginning to see why Jesus might have told this story in response to the Pharisees and teachers of the law muttering about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them??? The older brother in the parable represents them. They, who view themselves as being righteous—or is that self–righteous?—followers of God’s law cannot abide the thought of Jesus not only welcoming and but also eating with—extending fellowship—to these outcasts who are turning to him. Rather than rejoicing at the thought of people seeking to learn about and turn to God, they too “became angry” as the older son in the parable did.
Now when the father in Jesus’ parable learns that his older son won’t join the party, he goes out and pleads with him to please come and join the celebration. But the son refuses and answers in verses 29–30: “29 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. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” Ahh, there’s the rub. Whereas the older son had dutifully served his father these many years, he felt slighted and overlooked because no celebration had ever been thrown for him even though he had always done what was expected of him. He had slaved for his father. He had never disobeyed his father’s orders. Yet he had never been given even a young goat—never mind a fattened calf—so that he could celebrate with his friends. And this was unlike the younger son—whom he can’t even own as his brother but whom he refers to as “this son of yours”—who had squandered his father’s property and, what is worse, he had done so with women of ill repute. Yet when this ungrateful, unfaithful, undutiful son returned home penniless, he was thrown a party. Where’s the justice in that???
Again, make no mistake. In telling this parable Jesus is letting the Pharisees and teachers of the law know that he gets it. He understands why they are grumbling. Why was he bothering with the tax collectors and other sinners who were gathering around to hear him? Shouldn’t Jesus, a rabbi by his own right, be spending time with other religious leaders and teachers and followers of the law? Didn’t he know what manner of people he was not only associating with and welcoming but even breaking bread with?
Now we who are flies on the wall as we watch all of this unfold need to be careful. We may feel a little smug and experience some pleasure at the thought that the religious leaders have received their comeuppance and secretly be glad that they’re being put in their place. Don’t they who are so self-righteous, so holier-than-thou, deserve to have their sanctimonious and pious attitudes exposed?
But part of the beauty of this parable is that it provides a word of hope even for the religious leaders of the day for the father in the parable reaches out to the older son as well, reminding him of what he was unable to see. The father’s compassion extends not only to the youngest son but also to the oldest. “My son,” he says “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” As he did with the younger son, the father takes the initiative in restoring the relationship. The older son has taken for granted all that he does have. It is likely that he already had a robe to wear. He already had a ring for his finger. He already had sandals for his feet. He already had food to eat whenever he was hungry. Given this, what need would there be of celebrating? Whereas regarding the younger son, as it states in the closing verse (32) for the second time, “we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
As I suggested earlier, this parable isn’t about a prodigal son.
This parable isn’t about a self-righteous son.
This parable is about a compassionate and caring heavenly Father who loves all his children.
This parable illustrates and points to our loving Father in heaven who, having created all people in his image, desires for all to return to him.
And important as well is the fact that it is Jesus, the Son of God come in the flesh, who is telling this parable. As the Son of God, he knows our heavenly Father better than anyone else does. And, as he tells us elsewhere in Scripture, he is the only way, he is the only truth, he is the only life. And no one can come to this compassionate Father in heaven but through him.
Better than anyone else, Jesus knows what our heavenly Father is like. Better than anyone else, Jesus knows, and shares in—along with the Holy Spirit—the love that our Father in heaven has for all whom he has made in his image. Our compassionate heavenly Father desires nothing more than that we come to our senses and return home to him in whose image we are made. He desires that we, like those needy tax-collectors and sinners, have ears to hear—and hearts to believe—in what his Son, Jesus Christ, teaches and offers us—eternal life with him. He desires that we turn from those things we think will give us meaning and turn to him who is the true bread and true life.
Our compassionate Father in heaven actively seeks out unworthy sinners—he actively seeks us out, even when we are not seeking him. He wants us to join in the great banquet feast whose price of admission is acknowledging our sin and our need, and turning to Jesus, his Son, that we might gain access to our Father in heaven who looks for and sees us even when we are still a long way off.
Brothers and sisters, how appropriate it is this communion Sunday to be reminded that if we turn to our compassionate Father in heaven and confess our sins, he will embrace us and forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness, treating us not as servants but children.
If we turn to our compassionate heavenly Father, he will invite us to feast with him not only now but for all eternity.
If we turn to our compassionate heavenly Father he will run to us, throw his arms around and kiss us, and never ever let us go, not in this life or the next.
Let us pray.
 Luke 14:35b.
 The Parable of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin.
 Compilation of ReformationSB and ESB notes on Luke 3:12–14.
 RSB, note on Luke 15:1.
 ESV Luke 5:17, 21–22 note.
 RSB. Too, the firstborn son would have been entitled to two-thirds of his father’s property (Deut. 21:17).
 ESV, 15:13 note.
 Leviticus 11:7: And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you.
 RSB. Genesis 41:42 “Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck.” Esther 3:10: So the king took his signet ring from his finger and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. 8:2 The king took off his signet ring, which he had reclaimed from Haman, and presented it to Mordecai. And Esther appointed him over Haman’s estate.
 ESV 15:22.
 John 14:6: I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.