Luke 15 is an intriguing text. In this text, we have 3 parts of one story being told, 3 parables that relay the same message throughout. But before we can understand why this parable is being told, we need to understand what a parable is, and who the parable is being told to.
First, it’s important to know that a parable is a story used to illustrate a specific lesson. So Jesus would often share parables, stories, with crowds of listeners, as he’s doing here.
It’s also important to understand WHO he was talking to. Start in verses 1-2:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
This is important to note. Tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to Jesus as he spoke. We hear so often about tax collectors in the Bible. We hear that Jesus meets with them, talks with them, and eats with them. We think of them as people responsible for collecting taxes, and maybe occasionally pocketing more than they should. We see them as undesirable people, but I don’t think we really understand the boldness of their character.
At the time of this text, Rome ruled from England to India. And in order to have dominion over that large of a landmass, you had to have a massive, massive army. But you couldn’t have a massive army without massive amounts of money to pay for the army, to train the army, to feed the army. This army had full control, and there were no laws in place to keep them in check. So they did whatever they wanted.
This meant that the army was getting away with raping, stealing, and pillaging the ancient world. They could do whatever they wanted. And so the tax collectors, they were your neighbors who were taking your money and giving it to the army, enabling them to continue raping, stealing, and pillaging the ancient world.
That’s why their actions were so audacious. That’s why they were seen as undesirable. They were playing a part in the abuse happening in the ancient world.
This text also says that “sinners” were drawing near to Jesus as he spoke. Now in the first century, in the time of this text, there weren’t medical advances to explain disease, deformities, or mental illness. And because of that, their ailments were attributed to sin. People thought disease and deformity and mental illness as a result of sin. The term “sinner” also referred to those with less than desirable professions, such as prostitutes and thieves. So when this says “sinners” were drawing near, this is the crowd that it’s talking about.
This crowd was a rough crowd. But this crowd was a beautiful crowd. This crowd is the church. Because where the word of God is faithfully proclaimed, the most outcast of any culture will be drawn to the light of grace.
Now it’s important to note that the crowd wasn’t just tax collectors and sinners. Verse 2 says the Pharisees and the scribes were there too. And isn’t that always the story? Where Jesus is, there are broken people, and then there are broken people complaining about broken people, right?
Remember, the Pharisees and the scribes were the elite in religious knowledge. Pharisees would’ve had the entire Torah, the first 5 books of the bible, MEMORIZED. They held fast to the law. They knew more than us, simply put. But knowing ABOUT Jesus doesn’t mean you actually KNOW him, right?
So these are the people Jesus is talking to. We have a crowd of broken people, across the board. The tax collectors, the sinners, the Pharisees and scribes, they’re all drawing near to hear Jesus. And this is what he says, starting in verse 11:
“And he said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed by the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.”
As Jesus starts preaching here, the tax collectors and sinners would have found it very easy to relate to this story. But the Pharisees and Scribes? They would have immediately thought “I hope they’re hearing this.”
Now if as I read that passage, your heart drifted toward “I hope _____________ is hearing this,” I want to guard you from that. Don’t just wish someone else were hearing this. Make sure you’re hearing it too.
So the young son comes to his father and says, “give me my share of what is coming to me.” The son is young and demanding, and ultimately has no power over the father. The father could have just as easily laughed and said no. But sometimes, and as it is with this story, the Father, in his grace, will let you exhaust yourself in the things you chase after. So that Father divided his property between the two sons.
The younger son took all that he had, all that the father had for him, all that the father was saving for his son. He took it into a far country and squandered it. He wasted it in a foolish manner. He blew it. He lived recklessly, and he lived apart from his father.
Sound familiar? It did to the tax collectors and sinners. They understood this. They understood what if felt like to buy into the lie that what we really need is more of what we already have.
The younger son thought he had it figured out. He thought the father didn’t know what he actually needed, so he took matters into his own hands. And the father, acting in grace, let him go. He said, “You think this will make you happy? Here you go; run.
We feel the text change starting in verse 17.
“But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father.”
He realizes he was better off in the care of his father. He realizes that even his father’s servants live better than he is living. After all, the son is now looking at food that pigs are eating, wishing he could have it. And so he plans to return to where he started. But here’s what’s fascinating.
The son doesn’t think he can return as a son. “Treat me as one of your hired servants.”
This is the part of the story that would have been mind-blowing to the crowd.
For the tax collectors and sinners, they would have immediately thought “what will the younger son have to do to make it right? What will he have to pay?”
For the Pharisees and Scribes, they would have immediately thought “There better be a strict and heavy punishment for the younger son.”
But the response from the father couldn’t have been further from either.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate.”
The son, who said, “give me my money”, who took the fathers money, squandered the fathers money, belittled the fathers name, mocked the fathers name, who came to his senses in a pig pen, returns home hoping to be accepted as nothing more than a slave.
The father’s response was massive. It shook everything the crowd would’ve anticipated.
Instead of requiring the son to pay back for his mistakes, instead of the son receiving punishment, the father ran and embraced him and kissed him. And he didn’t wait until the son knocked on the door. He didn’t wait until the son got on his knees and recited his speech, asking for forgiveness. The father ran to him while he was still a long way off. (Romans 5:6) He brought him a robe, covering him in the father’s cleanliness. He brought him a ring, covering him in the father’s authority. He killed the fattened calf and threw a party, because the son was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.
Guys, that is scandalous grace. That is grace that would have shocked the crowd.
The son had believed that lie that what he really needed was more of what he already had. He had believed that he needed more money, more freedom, and more power. But when the son realized his mistake, he returned to the father, expecting to take the role of a servant, only to be welcomed home as the son that he was. The father threw a party, because the dead were alive and the lost had been found.
What a message this must have been to the tax collectors and the sinners. They’re hearing from Jesus: “you haven’t gone too far; you aren’t out of reach. There is no sin with more power than what I’m about to do on the cross.”
You see; the father in this parable delights in his son. And our Father delights in his children. And when we are the child that has left, that has squandered what the father has given us, we have a hard time thinking we’ll be returning to a father who delights in us. But the Father didn’t delight in the son because of what the son had done. The father was delighted in the son simply because he was his son.
Our father doesn’t delight in us solely because of what we do. Our Father God delights in us because of Christ. Christ covers us in his robe, taking on our guilt and shame and giving us his cleanliness. Christ puts a ring on us, claiming us as His and His alone. God delights in us because of Christ.
That was the message for the crowd. That was the message the tax collectors and sinners heard, the message that you and me need to hear. But Jesus knew who else was in that crowd. And he knows who else is in this crowd. So that’s not where this story ends.
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.” But he was angry and refused to go in. And his father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
This would have hit hard with the Pharisees and scribes, and will hit hard with those who struggle with self-righteousness. The older son, the one who has served for many years, who has never disobeyed a command, hears a party being thrown for the son who squandered everything. And his heart immediately gets cold and hard. He’s pissed. He did everything right. He followed all of the rules, and it’s the younger son who gets a party? The one who blew it all?
The father comes outside and entreats with him. The father asks earnestly. The father pleads with the older son. “Come inside. Join the party. Rejoice that your brother has returned.”
You see, the self-righteous have trouble with this. They see the lost being found, they see the dead being given new life, and they refer back to their list of everything they’ve done right, or everything the brother has done wrong. But the father says “No, son. Come inside.”
Don’t shake your fist at grace shown toward sinners. Don’t be wounded when the lost are found. Join the party. Celebrate what the Father is doing.
If this grace made sense, if we had to work to make up for our mistakes, if we had to serve a strict and heavy punishment, we wouldn’t need Jesus. But Jesus makes this grace scandalous and he makes this grace possible. And the more we understand this, the more we can run to God and not from God. You don’t run from God to clean yourself up; you run to God. Our Father delights in us. He delights in saving us. We think ‘how could the Father delight in me?’ We go through our resume of mistakes, of short-comings, of doubts and massive insults to the King of Glory, thinking there’s no way we could be seen as a son. But the same Father, who in his grace, let us exhaust ourselves, runs out to the road when he sees us coming and throws his robe and ring on us and calls us His child. That’s the scandal of the gospel. That is the scandal of grace.