The fifteenth chapter of Luke is one of the best known and most dearly loved of all the chapters in the Bible. Jesus told three parables in response to a complaint by the scribes and Pharisees. They complained that He was being too friendly with tax collectors and sinners. They said, “This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them” (verse 2). They could not understand the concern and passion Jesus had for lost and sinful human beings.
God has a loving concern for all people. The three stories found in Luke 15 (the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son) really form just one parable—and the purpose of the parable is to picture the grace of God in three ways. Just as a shepherd will search long into the night for one sheep that has gone astray from the fold, so the Lord God rejoices over the salvation of just one lost wayward person. Our focus in this lesson will center on the story of the Prodigal Son.
Several things about the ministry of Jesus bothered the Pharisees. One of them was that Jesus went out of His way to have contacts with people who were rejected by Jewish society. He was accused of eating with “sinners.” But readers should remember that “sinners” were not necessarily down-and-out people—but primarily people who did not keep all the Jewish regulations.
Verses 1 and 2 (in Luke 15) describe an occasion when “tax collectors and sinners” were drawing near to Jesus, and the Pharisees were upset with Him (verse 2). Fellowship around a table has always been a mark of friendship, and eating a meal together was a special sign of acceptance in the Middle East. The scribes and Pharisees simply could not conceive of the kind of love that would seek out and associate with sinners and the unlovely people of society.
The Pharisees scorned publicans and sinners, and so, in order to teach an important lesson, Jesus told the stories recorded in Luke 15. The stories demonstrate that God has a special interest in those people who had a bad reputation among the Jews. The three accounts in Luke 15 have one central theme—the Father’s yearning love for the lost.
The major part of our lesson is devoted to the story of the Prodigal Son—but perhaps it would be more accurate to call it the parable of the loving Father. The Parable tells more about the father’s love than it does about the prodigal’s sin. The account in Luke 15 is the story of a son who went astray, and of a father who received him back. It is a picture of the heart of God going out after each soul who has wandered away from God. It is a picture of the process by which Jesus rescues us from sin, brings us back to the Father, and enrolls us as sons and daughters of God.
1. His Departure From Home (Luke 15:11-13)
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the most tender and the most humanly touching story that’s ever been told. The Parable is found only in the Book of Luke. The word “prodigal” means “wasteful”—and in this parable we are given the description of a young man who wasted his life in riotous living.
In the parable, Jesus told about a man who “had two sons” (verse 11). The younger son said to his father, “I’d like the portion of goods that falls to me” (verse 12). In other words, “I need my inheritance, and I need it now.” The young boy was tired of staying at home; he hoped to be free from parental restraints. The young man didn’t appreciate all that his mother and father were doing for him. He was convinced that he knew more than they—and that the spiritual surroundings of his home were preventing him from having a good time, and were keeping him from becoming a real success in life.
Such an attitude, of course, has been the case of a number of younger people ever since. To carry out his plan, the young man needed money. He knew that one-third of his parents’ estate would be his when his father died (Deuteronomy 21:17), but he wanted his portion now.
Surely the father was insulted by the attitude of the restless son. It likely meant selling some property and converting it into cash. The father would likely have done better by saying “No” to the request, but he was moved by kindness and grace—and so gave the money which the son requested.
Verse 13 says that the conceited young man took off toward a distant country. This son wanted to “sow his wild oats”—he wanted to have a fling. He had not yet learned that one of God’s laws is that we reap what we sow!
The “far country” was somewhere beyond Israel’s borders. It may have been the city of Rome. The term “wasted his substance with riotous living,” means that he was attracted by the allurements of the world, and misused his money. In other words, he had his fling; he invested his life in sinful pleasures; he dreamed that in order to be happy, one must indulge in the pleasures of the world, and really “live it up!”
2. He Squandered Life Abroad (Luke 15:14-19)
The young man spent his money right and left, and soon his inheritance was all gone. He was without money, without a job, and now without friends.
Soon after the Prodigal’s money ran out, a severe famine struck the area (verse 14). Famines were common in the semi-arid Mid-East, but this young man experienced a famine in his heart also.
The Prodigal no longer had anything; his money was all spent; the only job he could find was to help a farmer tend pigs. The young man was so desperately in need that he was at the point of eating with the pigs, even though the pods that they fed on did not have much food value.
He thought he was going to be free, but instead, the son found himself in the worst kind of bondage. Such is the power of sin. It usually starts off as a small, seemingly innocent thing—but it continues to grow. The prodigal boy squandered his money, lost his fortune, dissipated his life—and now he found a job feeding pigs. Can you imagine a Jewish boy, brought up to despise the hog, now landing a job tending pigs?
But that wasn’t the worst. The text says that the young man was really down and out — “he began to be in want” (verse 14). He almost starved to death (“I perish with hunger”—verse 17). His clothing was nothing but tattered rags. He was in a sorry condition. The four walls of the filthy pig pen made him sick.
This is a picture of the condition of every sinner. Sin may satisfy for a short while, but soon it brings one to a place of unhappiness. His friends had forsaken him now. His reveling was over; his money was spent; his companions were gone. Sin always brings a harvest of poverty and guilt and regret. The beginning of sin is exciting; the end result is disgusting.
In the midst of his poverty, the Prodigal began to think. He began to think of the home he had left sometime earlier. When you think about it, there’s a blessing sometimes in an empty pocketbook! The feeling of helplessness and desperation has a tendency to cause us to seek help from above.
The boy’s sense of values had been twisted, but now he was seeing life more clearly, and from a spiritual point of view. He saw that he was not only destitute, but that he had sinned against God and his family. Verse 17 says “he came to himself”—that is, he reflected on what happened since he left home. It could have gone like this:
- he remembered the days of childhood when he used to play with his older brother.
- he remembered the old birch tree that stood in front of the house.
- he remembered the bedtime prayers that his mother taught him when he was a little boy.
- he remembered the morning when he left home.
God sometimes permits hardship and famine to come into our lives in order to get us to think! The young man in the parable Jesus told did not stop with thinking, however.
His thoughts brightened into a resolution. He said, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. Make me as one of thy hired servants” (verses 18-19).
The young man chose the right remedy. He was not justifying his actions. He was not saying that he merely made an unwise decision. He decided to say, “I have sinned against heaven”—that is, against God. (The Jews, because of their reverence for God’s name, often substituted the word “heaven” for “God.”) He also decided to say, “I have sinned before you”—that is, “I have sinned against you, my earthly father.” And furthermore, when he would get back home, he would not ask to be made “a son,” but merely to be made as one of his dad’s “hired servants” (verse 19).
3. His Return to the Father (Luke 15:20-24)
And so in the spirit of confession and repentance, the boy arose and went back home. This was the greatest “home run” ever made. The young man in our story turned back, but the journey homeward was not like the journey coming away from home.
When he left home some time earlier, his pockets then were full of money; he was wearing good clothes; he was anticipating the good time he would have in the far country.
His return trip was altogether different: he was tired, ragged, and dirty, and there was only a spark of hope in his heart. He hoped his father would forgive him.
Then one day, he came to the top of the hill that overlooked his old home place—and he saw the farm-house lying peacefully in the valley below.
It may have been evening; his father may have been sitting on the front porch, resting after a day of hard work; we don’t know the setting. But when his father saw him coming in the distance, the Bible says he ran—the father rushed toward the boy, fell on his neck, and kissed him (verse 20). The tense of the Greek verb indicates that his father repeatedly kissed the boy. The young man had completely underestimated his father’s love!
The young man quickly made a sincere confession. He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son” (verse 21). And he was going to say still more; he was going to say, “I am willing to become as one of your hired servants” (verse 19b)—but the father did not let him finish the confession. Instead, the boy’s father called his servants, and said, “Bring forth the best robe and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet, and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat and be merry” (verses 22-23).
The robe for his body, the ring for his hand, and the shoes for his feet—were just three different ways of saying, “You are my son; you are my son; you are my son.”
It was only members of the household that wore shoes; the servants did not ordinarily wear shoes; they went bare-footed. The ring was not an ornament for the finger, but a stamp of ownership that was a brand-mark placed on his hand (as in Genesis 41:42). The robe was a sign of acceptance and status. This response on the part of the father is a picture of what happens when a sinner comes home to God. When you repent, and turn from sin, and start toward Jesus—the heavenly Father will rush out, and welcome you, and fill your life with a new beginning!
Our lesson today pictures the true and living God as one who delights to forgive. He longs to see people lay aside the old sin and come to repentance. The road back home may be long and hard and humiliating. It requires confession of sin, repentance toward God, faith in Jesus Christ, and fellowship with the church—but if you will come, God is waiting to cleanse your heart.
One preacher tells about an unusual experience while traveling a number of years ago on a train. He noticed a dejected-looking young man riding on the same passenger car that he had boarded. The preacher yearned to be of some help to the youth, and so he struck up a conversation with him—asking about the purpose of his journey. In response to the question, the young man told him the old, old story of a prodigal’s unhappy experience.
The boy related how he had left home when he was younger, and how he had spent the best years of his life living in worldly pleasures—only to find out what the boy in our lesson had discovered—it was all vanity.
Now he was on his way back home. He had decided he would go back to his dad and mother. He was riding the train. But he was afraid that his father would be angry. He had written a letter beforehand; he wrote to his dad and requested a strange thing. He said in his letter, “Dad, if you’ll receive me back home, will you hang a white cloth in the old apple tree in the front yard?”
Their house was close to the tracks; the boy would be able to see. A white cloth in the tree would mean “welcome home” to the boy. And if the cloth wasn’t there, he would just go on without getting off at the station.
As the train came closer to the home place, the young man said to the preacher, “Please sir, will you look for me, and see if it’s there?” The boy didn’t want to look. He was afraid it wouldn’t be there. But as the train passed the barn, and the apple tree came into view, the preacher said, “Look, my boy, look at that tree; it’s all covered with white cloths!”
The young man’s sadness was turned into joy; he got off at the station, and was restored into the good graces of his father.
If you are one who has been backsliding and drifting and walking at a distance from God; or if you have made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, but have been lukewarm and indifferent and have lost contact with Him—today the Holy Spirit invites you to come to the end of yourself, and to say, “Lord, I have sinned against heaven; I am not worthy to be called your son.” Jesus says, “He that comes to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37).
The Scripture that follows the account of the prodigal boy also tells about “the older brother” in the family. He was critical and envious of his younger brother, and refused to join in the party which celebrated the Prodigal’s return (verse 28). He said to his father, “I have worked hard all these years, and you have never made a party for me.”
The “elder brother attitude” is always wrong. The true Christian rejoices when a sinner repents; he will never look coldly on some poor sinner who staggers to the mercy seat!
The older brother was just as much a prodigal as the young man. When the younger brother came back from the far country of worldly pleasures, the older brother went out into the far country of bitter resentment. Note however, that the father treated both sons with tenderness and affection. All of us must seek to avoid the errors of the younger man—and of the older brother.
I pray to God—that like the young man in the story Jesus told—you would run to Jesus for mercy. Perhaps you have been backsliding and drifting, and walking at a distance from God. You know that you are not living right, and that you are out of close contact with God.
Why not say, “Lord, I’ve sinned against heaven; I’ve dishonored my parents; I’ve wandered far away from God—now I’m coming home?” Like the father who received his prodigal son with repeated kisses—so God the Father will welcome you with open arms!