Week of March 8, 2020
The Point: Without Christ, we are hopelessly lost.
The Lost Son: Luke 15:11-24.
 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 with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.  “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. 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. [ESV]
“The Lost Son. If ever there was a boy who broke his father’s heart, it was the prodigal son. Sick of his father, sick of his family, and sick of living on the family farm, he went off to make his way in the world. First he demanded his share of his father’s inheritance – even before the old man died. Then he ran away from home, taking everything with him and leaving nothing behind. The young man wanted to do whatever he wanted to do, wherever and with whomever he wanted to do it. Soon the prodigal son had squandered everything his father gave him, and almost before he realized what was happening, he was living like a filthy animal. The boy was as lost as lost can be.
Lost and Found. The story of this lost son is one of the most famous stories ever told. It is famous because it was told by Jesus Christ, the only Son of the Father. It is famous because it is told so perfectly; not one single detail is wasted. And it is famous because when we hear it we sense that it is really our own story, that we are all lost children who desperately need to know the Father’s love. The parable of the prodigal son comes as the climax to a series of three stories in a triple parable about the joy of God in finding lost sinners: the lost sheep [15:1-7], the lost coin [15:8-10], and now the lost son [15:11-32]. Really, though, the parable is about lost sons, because even though he never left home, the elder brother was just as lost as the prodigal son. Jesus has both brothers clearly in view: There was a man who had two sons . These three stories go together. The third story brings the parable to its unmistakable climax. We pity the lost sheep and prize a lost coin, but identify most closely with the lost son. The son gets lost by his own deliberate will – not haphazardly like the sheep, or helplessly like the coin, but willfully and defiantly. He is lost because he wants to be lost, but just because he is a son, there is even greater joy when he is found. The prodigal son is usually regarded as among the most familiar of all the parables that Jesus told. Most people know its general outline, which may be summarized as follows: the lost son was sick of home [11-12], then he was just plain sick [13-16], until he became homesick [17-19], and finally went back home [20-24]. It all sounds so familiar. But do we really know this story as well as we think we know it. One way to find out is to study each of the three main characters: the lost son, the prodigal father, and the lost brother. We begin with the lost son. When we study his actions and attitudes carefully, we discover that he was even more lost than we ever realized. If we are honest, we may also discover that we ourselves are more lost than we like to admit. The prodigal son is partly who we are, not just who we were, because in our hearts we want to leave home again and again.
Lost at Home. Consider all the ways that the prodigal son was lost before he was found. He was lost at home, even before he left his father’s house [11-12]. At first it may seem that the son was simply asking his father for money, as sons will do. Yet this request was far more sinister because it really meant that he could not wait for his father to die. The son knew that when his old man died, he stood to inherit one-third of everything he owned (his older brother would get two-thirds). But he did not want to wait that long. As the years passed, he spent more and more time thinking about what he wanted to do with his father’s wealth. The old man was getting older, but he still wouldn’t die. Finally, the son decided he could not wait any longer, so he went in and demanded what he had coming to him. He wanted full control of his inheritance, and he wanted it now. For a son to make such a demand was utterly unthinkable. It could only mean that he regarded his father with complete contempt. When he said, “Give me my inheritance,” he was saying, in effect, “I wish you would just go ahead and die!” No doubt the young man had despised his father for a good long time, maybe all his life. His outrageous demand does not sound like the kind of speech that someone makes on the spur of the moment, but the kind that comes after years of disdain. The prodigal son was tired of always having his father tell him what to do. He wanted to go wherever he wanted to go and do whatever he wanted to do. But in order to do that, he had to be able to spend whatever he wanted to spend, which meant getting as much money from his father as he could. Like the tax collectors who were among the sinners listening to this parable [15:1], the young man was greedy for money. Do you see how lost the son was? He was lost when he was still at home, even before he left the family farm. He was lost in selfishness, ingratitude, rebellion, and greed. He was lost in his rejection of authority. But mainly he was lost because he did not love his father. Can you also see how lost you sometimes are, or may be altogether? Here was a young man who wanted what his father could give him but did not want his father himself. This is what it means for us to be lost. It means not loving the Father. It means putting demands on God without desiring God himself. It means wanting his gifts without loving him as the Giver. When we take this attitude, what we are really expressing is hatred to God. And of course there are times when all of us do take this attitude. We object to God’s fatherly discipline, wanting to have life on our own terms. We complain about God’s fatherly care, demanding something better than what he is providing for us. We presume upon God’s fatherly affection, expecting his blessing without depending upon him in prayer. Even when we are at home with God, our prodigal hearts sometimes long to run away. This is what sin is: running from God.
In a Far Country. As lost as the prodigal son was at home, he was even more lost when he eventually ran away . In case there had been any doubt, now it is perfectly clear why the lost son demanded the capital from his father’s estate: he was leaving home as fast as he could, and he was not coming back. Within a matter of days, the prodigal son had liquidated all his new assets, and by the time he was finished, he had a lot of money. We know from the end of the story that his father was a wealthy man, with herds of livestock, hired servants, and a banqueting hall he could afford to fill with music. Now the prodigal son had a big chunk of all that change in his pocket, and he was off to see the world. What he really wanted, of course, was the freedom to sin, and in order to have that freedom he had to get away from his father, away from his family, and away from the community of faith. As long as he stayed home, he would be unable to use his money the way he wanted; so he had to run away. And once he took everything with him, there was nothing left to tie him to his father’s house. These attitudes of the prodigal son come from the fallen condition of our sinful hearts. Left to ourselves, we would not choose to stay under God’s authority, but instead to wander in the far country of sin. How often the prodigal sons and daughters of the church have made the same journey. Sometimes they are lost even before they leave home, but usually they have to leave home to be as lost as they want to be. The result is all too predictable: he squandered his property in reckless living . Soon, and not surprisingly, all of his money was gone. The lost son had lived without any thought for tomorrow, so when tomorrow came, there was nothing left. As lost as the young man was, it is more important to see the temptations of our own prodigal hearts. Like the lost son, we want to run away from God and live the way that we want to live. We squander our time pursuing our pleasures. We squander our money, spending so much on ourselves that there is little or nothing left for God. We squander our talents by not using them for our Father’s joy. Jesus calls this reckless living. How recklessly are you living? Do not waste your life feeding your addictions, indulging your passions, and giving away your Father’s inheritance. Do not squander your time, your money, and your talents on yourself when you could and should be investing them in the kingdom of God.
The Lowest of the Low. It was bad enough for the lost son to waste all his money, but then something happened that turned his situation into a total catastrophe. There was a famine in the land – an unspeakable horror that brought him to the very brink of starvation [14-16]. Here was one humiliation after another. Although he had always planned on spending a lot of money, the lost son had never planned on running out of it, and he certainly had never planned on running out of food. But his situation became so critical that in a desperate attempt to stave off starvation, he took the only job he could find. Rather than going home to get help, or serving some devout member of the Jewish community, the lost son attached himself to a citizen of the far country. Even worse, this godless Gentile was a hog farmer, which was utterly detestable to the Jews. When Jesus told this story, the Pharisees must have murmured with dismay at the thought of a nice Jewish boy herding Gentile pigs, which to them was the most humiliating and repulsive form of servile labor. What could be more disgusting than farming hogs? Only this: the young man was so hungry that he wanted to eat what they were eating. The prodigal son was desperate. The lost son grew so desperately hungry that he began to envy the pigs, of all creatures, craving their food. Now he was as low as anyone could possibly go. He was helpless, homeless, hungry, and humiliated. He was as lost as lost can be. What a picture this is of our own spiritual condition outside of Christ. This is what it means to be lost. This is where reckless living always leads. To run away from God and decide to go our own way in life is to end up living in spiritual squalor. When we gratify ourselves with sinful pleasures, when we live for more possessions, and when we rush from one entertainment to the next, we are starving our souls.
Thoughts of Home. This is what the lost son was left with: absolutely nothing. He did not even have the bare necessities, but was dying of starvation. Then he had the thought that saved his life. Up until this point, the lost son had been willing to endure anything, as long as he did not have to swallow his pride and go back to his father [17-19]. Now that he had hit hog bottom, the lost son was finally coming to his senses. He was seeing how lost he really was, which is always the first step to recovery. He realized that he had nowhere to go but home. The ensuing monologue gives many encouraging indications of the young man’s spiritual progress. He has decided to get up and go back home, to the place where he was before he took his wrong turn in life. He is starting to think about repenting of his sin and to prepare the speech he hopes will touch his father’s heart. In that speech he identifies himself as a sinner, knowing that this is the moral category in which he truly belongs. He does not make any excuses for himself. He does not blame his desperate situation on the famine, or on God, or on the people who will not give him anything, but on his own deliberate rebellion. Furthermore, the prodigal son recognized that his sin was multidimensional. In other words, he had sinned against both his father and his God. This sin was so serious that he no longer deserved to be called his father’s son. Thus he expressed a deep sense of personal unworthiness, which was only appropriate for someone who had rejected his father, disgraced his family, and wasted everything they ever gave him. These are all marks of true repentance – the joyful repentance Jesus has been talking about in this triple parable [see 15:7,10]. When we are lost, the thing to do is to go back and see where we made our mistake. This means admitting that we are sinners, not making excuses, but confessing our sin. It means confessing our sin both to God and to the people we have wronged. It means acknowledging that we are no longer worthy to be considered God’s son or daughter. Yet even as we confess our utter unworthiness, we also need to remember that God is still our Father. This was the lost son’s only hope. He did not feel worthy to be called a son. Nevertheless, when he spoke about his father, he was still able to call him his father . Although he was a sinner, he was still a son, and just because the father was his father, he could hope that he would not be completely rejected, but accepted enough to be saved. So he got back on his feet and headed for home – the place where every lost sinner needs to return. Repentance is a rising up and a coming back to God.
A Flawed Repentance. From his proposed repentance, we can see that the prodigal son was moving in the right spiritual direction. There were some problems, however, with the little speech that he kept rehearsing. Although his repentance seemed to be sincere, it was not sufficient. We get our first hint of a problem when Jesus says that the lost son came to himself , or more literally, “returned to himself.” But this was the last place he should turn. After all, it was by turning to himself that the lost son first got himself into trouble. There also seems to be a problem with his motivation. His main concern is getting something to eat. But the real issue is not just the lost son’s survival; it is the relationship that he has broken with his father. Even though he is getting ready to go back home, it is not at all clear that he is ready to return his father’s love. He is still thinking of his father as a means of getting what he wants. He intended to go to his father and say, Treat me as one of your hired servants . These are the words of someone who is trying to work the system. He is still telling his father what to do, just as he did when he first left home. He is also trying to solve his own problem by working off his debt. In short, his approach to his deliverance is focused on saving himself by his own efforts. The prodigal is thinking like a servant, not like a son. So often we treat God the same way, even after we come to Christ. We know that we are in his debt, and to a certain extent we are sorry for what we have done. But we still imagine that there must be some way for us to balance the books, and thus to earn back God’s favor. Even after we have come to God through faith in Christ, we are tempted to treat him more as a master than as a Father. Like the lost son, we too may be lost in our rebellion against the Father, lost in our headlong pursuit of sin, lost in the humiliation of life’s failure, and lost in our last desperate attempt to work our way back to God.
Homecoming. As lost as we have been, all is not lost, because we are found in the Father’s love. Soon we will see the full extent of this father’s love, but understand that he was loving and loving his son the whole time that he was lost. The father loved his son when his son hated him and ran away from home, when he squandered his inheritance, when he was a total failure. We know this because of what happened the day he finally came back home. By the time the lost son reached the edge of town he was almost home, but he was still lost because he did not know his father’s love. He was still a long way off , Jesus said, and this was true spiritually as well as geographically. Yet his father was always looking for him in love, scanning the horizon for a silhouette that he could never forget. So while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him . This is the love that God has for lost sinners. It is a love that is running to receive you even before you have a full chance to repent, a love that wraps its arms around you even when you have been wallowing in the pig-sty of sin. It was at this point that the son finally offered the kind of repentance that Jesus was talking about all the way through this parable – a repentance that responds to the Father’s love. No more labor demands; no more strategies for having this relationship on his own terms; no more telling his father what to do – just a free confession of his guilty sin. Placing himself entirely under his father’s mercy, the prodigal son said, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son . This is all the farther he got, because before he could say anything more, his father was calling for fancy clothes, a fattened calf, and the biggest party anyone could ever remember [22-24]. The lost son was found in his father’s love. However imperfect it may have been, his repentance was accepted, and thus his sins were fully forgiven. Do you know how much the Father loves you? He loves you so much that he sent Jesus to be your Savior, so much that he is calling you back from the far country of your sin, so much that he is looking for you and longing to receive you. Will you come home to the Father’s love? Will you confess that you are more lost than you have ever wanted to admit? And will you ask him to forgive you through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Every lost son and daughter who comes home to God can offer this testimony. The Father found us when we were lost, loved us when we were unworthy, forgave us before we really knew how to ask for his forgiveness and sent Jesus to bring us home.” [Ryken, pp. 126-139].
“Literary Context. The parable continues Jesus’ response to the complaints about his welcoming and eating with sinners. In the previous two parables, the community of friends and neighbors celebrates the recovery of the lost object. No one stands off and sulks. This parable, however, dramatizes contrasting responses to repentance and the recovery of the lost. The older brother is like these Pharisees who reckon themselves as faithful servants and who look down on others and begrudge any unmerited grace shown to them. The parable expands on the theme of God as Father in showing mercy to sinners. Main Idea. God allows sin’s punishment to work itself out in the lives of those who willfully desert him and try to go it alone. But God’s grace can draw them back home and God’s love welcomes even those who seem irretrievably lost but who repent. God’s joy over their repentance and return must be shared by all who claim to be God’s children. Structure and Literary Form. The third parable is much longer than the previous two, and the percentage of loss increases from one out of a hundred and one out of ten to one out to two. The loss is even more devastating because it is a son, not an animal or a coin. The parable divides into two parts: the father’s interaction with the youngest son (rebellion, repentance, acceptance, and celebration) and the father’s interaction with the older son (resistance and insistence).” [Garland, loc. 16276-16293].
Questions for Discussion:
- Consider all the ways that the prodigal son was lost before he was found. What brings about a change in the lost son? Think about your own conversion experience. How did God’s providence bring you to the point of salvation?
- How is 15:17-21 a picture of any person’s repentance? What is flawed in the lost son’s repentance? What brought about true repentance in the son? How can you use this teaching on true repentance in your prayers for and witnessing to the lost?
- This parable of the lost son is the third in a series of parables dealing with the lost. How does this parable differ from the first two? How does this third parable present contrasting responses to repentance and the recovery of the lost? What is Jesus’ main point in this third parable?
Luke, volume 2, Darrell Bock, BENT, Baker.
Luke, David Garland, Zondervan (ebook).
Luke, volume 2, Philip Ryken, P & R Publishing.