The Parable of the Lost Sheep and Coin, 1-10

15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear him. 15:2 But the Pharisees and the experts in the law were complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

‘One of the most distinctive features of Jesus’ message and ministry is the promise of salvation to sinners. Not only is there much material which includes that message, but it is found in diverse forms-ranging from sayings and parables to reports of Jesus’ activity and accusations against him. Jesus is said to have associated with sinners (Mk 2:15,16 par.) and to have sought out the sinner as one who was lost. (e.g., Lk 15:7,10) Jesus flatly declares that one aspect of his ministry was “not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mk 2:17 par.) One encounters no difficulty understanding the general use of “sinner” in the Gospels to designate the person who commits acts of sin defined by law, as is likely the case of the sinful woman in Lk 7:36-50. But in the Gospel accounts the term “sinner” also designates a narrow segment of the people. A well known combination, “tax collectors and sinners,” appears to specify an identifiable segment of the people called “sinners” as being linked with “tax collectors” (Mt 9:10,11,13 par.; Mt 11:19 par.; Lk 15:7). On several occasions the Pharisees are placed in contrast with “sinners,” apparently an identifiable segment of the people held up for special criticism by the Pharisees (cf. Mt 9:10,11,13 par.; Lk 7:37,39; 15:1,2; 18:13; Jn 9:16,24,25).’ (DJG)

Recent scholarship has tried to identify this group of people called ‘sinners’:-

1. Some, such as Jeremias, think that this term simply refers to the common people; to that group of people whom Jesus calls ‘the poor’. the problem with this view is that it offers a simplistic view of Pharisaicism.

2. Others, such as E.P. Sanders, think that the term refers to those who have stepped outside of the law. Together with tax collectors, they are thought of as ‘traitors’. Jesus, according to this view, offered such people his favour without requiring them to undergo the normal repentance required by the law. But the idea that Jesus offered salvation without requiring a change of behaviour is not true to the Gospel accounts.

3. Still others think that the term refers to those who oppose God’s will. This certainly seems to be the case in Mk 14:41 par. Mt 26:45. But texts such as Lk 15:1 do seem to suggest that the term is at least sometimes used with reference to identifiable, groups.

There are probably elements of truth in all the above. We may define these people as those who did not live by the standards set by the rabbis and were therefore disapproved by them.

Why were so many ordinary people drawn to Jesus?-

  1. All lack of affectation no parade of greatness, no false assumption of humility. His manner was what beauty is to the landscape, what the sublime, majestic repose of the ocean is to the oceans greatness. His manner ever reflected the moral grandeur of his being.
  2. The originality of his methods.
  3. The grandeur and claims of his doctrines.
  4. The authority with which he spoke.
  5. The adaptation of style and matter to the people.
  6. His profound earnestness.
  7. His scathing denunciation of the hypocrisy of the ruling sects.

(Biblical Illustrator)

‘Nor is it difficult to account for their being thus attracted to him. He did not despise them as others did; and while he never said a word that could lead them to make light of their sin, and his own purity was a constant protest against their wickedness, yet by his message of salvation he awakened hope within them, and by his winning love he drew them after him to follow in his steps. He taught them to respect themselves, by showing them that they were the objects of the Divine solicitude; and he helped them to rise above themselves, by breathing his own Spirit into them: so that, as they listened to his words, they too might say, like the officers who, being sent to apprehend him, were themselves apprehended by him, “Never man spake like this man.”‘ (Taylor)

“This man welcomes sinners” – Let it be noted that no Gospel writer has more to say than Luke about Jesus’ welcoming of sinners, outcasts, and the poor. We may suppose that this accords with his original aim, which was to commend the gospel to Gentiles. Assuming that this accusation was correct (which it was) we may ask, ‘Why did this man welcome sinners and eat with them?’

Why did they find fault with Jesus for welcoming sinners? Jesus is the sinner’s friend. What needy souls rejoice in these critics found objectionable. Moreover, they managed to persuade themselves that if Jesus treated ‘sinners’ kindly he must be of similar character. “A man is known by his friends.” ‘These words were evidently spoken with surprise and scorn, and not with pleasure and admiration. These ignorant guides of the Jews could not understand a preacher of religion having anything to do with wicked people! Yet their words worked for good. The very saying which was meant for a reproach was adopted by the Lord Jesus as a true description of his office. It led to his speaking three of the most instructive parables which ever fell from his lips.’ (Ryle)

Jesus will receive all

‘In the New Testament the Lord seems to have selected some of every kind and class to show that he will receive all.

  1. He will receive the rich – Joseph of Arimathea.
  2. The poor – Lazarus the beggar.
  3. The learned – Dionysius the Areopagite.
  4. Physicians – Luke.
  5. Soldiers – the Roman centurion.
  6. Fishermen – the apostles.
  7. Extortioners – Zaccheus.
  8. Tax-gatherers – Matthew.
  9. Thieves – the dying robber.
  10. Harlots – the woman who was a sinner.
  11. Adulterers – the woman of Samaria.
  12. Persecutors and murderers – Paul.
  13. Back-sliders – Peter.
  14. Persons in trade – Lydia.
  15. Statesmen and courtiers – the eunuch of Ethiopia.
  16. Families – that at Bethany.
  17. Whole multitudes – those on Day of Pentecost.

(Biblical Illustrator)

‘It was an offence to the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus associated with men and women who, by the orthodox, were labelled as sinners. The Pharisees gave to people who did not keep the law a general classification. They called them the People of the Land; and there was a complete barrier between the Pharisees and the People of the Land. To marry a daughter to one of them was like exposing her bound and helpless to a lion. The Pharisaic regulations laid it down, “When a man is one of the People of the Land, entrust no money to him, take no testimony from him. trust him with no secret, do not appoint him guardian of an orphan, do not make him the custodian of charitable funds, do not accompany him on a journey.” A Pharisee was forbidden to be the guest of any such man or to have him as his guest. He was even forbidden, so far as it was possible, to have any business dealings with him. It was the deliberate Pharisaic aim to avoid every contact with the people who did not observe the petty details of the law. Obviously, they would be shocked to the core at the way in which Jesus companied with people who were not only rank outsiders, but sinners, contact with whom would necessarily defile. We will understand these parables more fully if we remember that the strict Jews said, not “There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” but, “There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who is obliterated before God.” They looked sadistically forward not to the saving but to the destruction of the sinner.’ (DSB)

‘The eater never did bring forth such sweetness as when this testimony was extorted from wicked men. Why this revelation of the Fathers will? My brethren, the great foundation of all Divine revelation, from the forfeiture of Paradise downward through all its prophecies, and through all its promises, the great foundation of all revelation lies in this little fact, God1 receives sinners. Open your Bible, read through the Scripture; it gives you the character of God. Surely the errand of the beloved Son must be in harmony with that character. Listen! hear the declaration of your Fathers mind: I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord. Listen to the exhortations of your Fathers love: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. Listen to the proclamation of his own name: The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. Hear his promise: I have blotted out as a thick cloud thy transgressions, and as a cloud thy sins: return unto me; for I have redeemed thee. Hear his remonstrance: How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee, Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I set thee as Zeboim? Mine heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together. I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God, and not man. Oh! declarations, expostulations, proclamations, promises, remonstrances, surely these must have their sign and seal in him, of whom it was said, See him, and you see the Father; of whom it could be said, The voice of those human lips is the very echo of the voice of God.’ (Biblical Illustrator)

Think of the ways in which many great and famous people distance themselves from ordinary folk. But not so Christ, and it should not be so with Christ’s followers. ‘Let those of us who are working for the Master in soul-winning, try to be be like Christ in this matter, and not be, as some are apt to be, proud, stuck-up, distant, or formal.’ (Spurgeon)

‘There is this to be said to you who are unconverted: if Jesus Christ be so approachable, oh! how I wish, how I wish that you would approach him. There are no bolts upon his doors, no barred iron gates to pass, no big dogs to keep you back. If Christ be so approachable by all needy ones, then needy one, come and welcome. Come just now!’ (Spurgeon)

Ryle points out that this verse is a key to all three parables that follow. ‘The Pharisees found fault with our Lord for “inviting sinners.” Our Lord replies, in effect, that the thing which they found fault with was the very thing he came on earth to do, and a thing of which he was not ashamed. He came to do for sinners what the shepherd did for his lost sheep, the woman did for her lost money, and the father did for the prodigal son. As for his murmering enemeis, they were like the elder brother of the prodigal son.

Although all three parables make the same fundamental point, it is possible to find a slightly different perspective in each of them. According to Bengel, the lost sheep represents the stupid, foolish sinner, the lost coin the sinner altogether ignorant of himself, and the lost son the daring and wilful sinner. (Q by Ryle)

As Hendriksen remarks, there are a number of different attitudes we can take towards the lost:-

  1. regarding them with disapproving rejection
  2. regarding them with indifference
  3. welcoming them when they come to you
  4. seeking them

The Pharisees accused Jesus of being ‘guilty’ of welcoming sinners. Actually, he not only welcomed them, but actively sought them, Lk 19:10.

15:3 So Jesus told them this parable: 15:4 “Which one of you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go look for the one that is lost until he finds it? 15:5 Then when he has found it, he places it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 15:6 Returning home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, telling them, ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 15:7 I tell you, in the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent.

‘The parables in this chapter are three, but the purpose pervading them is one. They were all designed to show the Pharisees how unlike God they were in the spirit which they manifested when they taunted Jesus with the reception of sinners; and so they all illustrate the joy that is in heaven over a penitent’s return to God. The first two show the scribes and Pharisees what they ought to have felt, by describing the joy of a hsepherd over the recovery of a lost sheep, and the joy of a woman at finding a piece of money which she had lost; the third teaches the same lesson by portraying the happiness of a father in receiving to his home again the son whom he had lost, and in the episode of the elder brother there is held before the Pharisee a faithful mirror in which each one of them might see himself.’ (Taylor)

In each of the three parables, there is a claim on that which was lost. The lost sheep belonged to the Shepherd, the lost coin belonged to the woman, the lost son belonged to the father. The Lord has a prior claim on every sinner, and a special interest in his welfare.

Lk 15:4–7 = Mt 18:12–14

Referring to this parable and the following one, Blomberg says, ‘Both parables suggest three main points, not unlike those derived from the prodigal son. (1) Just as the shepherd and woman go out of their way to search diligently for their lost possessions, so God takes the initiative to go to great lengths to seek and to save lost sinners. (2) Just as the discovery of the lost sheep and coin elicit great joy, so the salvation of lost men and women is a cause for celebration. (3) Just as the existence of the ninety-nine sheep and nine coins afford no excuse for not searching for what is lost, those who profess to be God’s people can never be satisfied that their numbers are sufficiently great so as to stop trying to save more. This triadic interpretation is more concisely summed up by the concluding refrains of verses 7 and 10, which contrast (a) the joy in heaven over (b) one sinner who repents with that for (c) those who need no repentance.’ (Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables)

Three things stand out in the parable:-

  1. The value of the sheep
  2. The thoroughness of the search
  3. The gladness of the welcome

‘The great and magnificently honest Jewish scholar, C.G. Montefiore, asking himself at what point, if any, the teaching of Jesus is completely new and original, finds the point of originality here. The Rabbis had said that if the sinner returns to God, God will receive him: they had not said that the love of God goes out to seek the sinner where he is. But in the Gospels it is so.’ (S.C. Neill, Christian Faith Today)

‘Luke’s parable of the lost sheep turns out to be a carefully constructed chiasmus in which the concluding sentence (“I tell you that in the same way there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous who need no repentance”-Lk 15:7), far from being the secondary addition it is usually alleged to be, perfectly balances the opening question (“Which of you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them does not leave the ninety-nine…?”-v. 4). Both verses begin with a direct address to “you,” then refer to the “one,” and conclude with the “ninety-nine.” In between, Lk 15:5-6 introduce the themes of “losing,” “finding” and “rejoicing,” and then repeat them in inverse order. This leaves the first part of verse 6 (“he goes home and calls his friends and neighbors together”) as the climactic center, a detail not always emphasized in treatments of this narrative.

A. Which one of you
B. one
C. ninety-nine
1. the lost
2. find
3. joy
4. restoration
3′. joy
2′. find
1′. the lost
A’. I say to you
B’. one
C’. ninety-nine

Such communal celebration over a lost sheep would have been extraordinary among Palestinian shepherds; it is one of those “atypical features” which emphasizes the nonliteral referents of the parables. Although a shepherd may search almost as diligently for a lost sheep as God does for unredeemed humanity, the heavenly celebration over a saved sinner, without a doubt, far surpasses the typical shepherd’s relief at finding his strayed animal. This type of structural analysis clearly enhances both the case for the parable’s authenticity and our grasp of its meaning, and it is to be welcomed appreciatively. Similar studies of the parable of the prodigal son and of the rich man and Lazarus have pointed out intricate synonymous parallelism between the respective “halves” of each narrative, (Lk 15:11-24,25-32; 16:19-23,24-31) thus challenging the view which sees the second “half” in each case as a later addition to Jesus’ original, as well as highlighting the details most emphasized in each story.’ (Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables)

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep” – Jesus’ audience would already be familiar with the imagery of the OT concerning sheep and shepherds: cf. Ps 23; Isa 40:11; Eze 34:15f.

“And loses one of them” – we can not, we dare not, eliminate from this losing of the sheep, of the money, of the son, all reference to the feelings of God toward the sinner. They mean, that, in the separation between him and the man, which sin has caused, Jehovah has lost something which he had formerly possessed, and highly valued. They mean, that, to God, the sinner is as something lost is to him to whom it belonged; and these parables let us see how anxious he is, and what efforts he will make, to regain it for his won. At first there was a human voice in the choral anthem of his praise; but when man sinned, that voice dropped out, and he marked its absence with as much of sadness as Deity can feel. Nay, there was a special reason why God should miss human allegiance, even though, in other respects, its loss should seem no greater than that of one sheep out of a hundren; for man alone, of all his creatures, was formed in God’s image. In him alone could Jehovah see the complete, though miniature, representation of himself; but when he sinned, that image was defaced, and God lost that which was to him so dear. Or, to put it more simply, when man fell, God lost the honour and service of human lives, the affection of human hearts, and the joy of human fellowship.’ (Taylor)

“Does he not…go after the lost sheep?” – An emphasis in this parable and the next is on the initiative taken to find that which was lost. ‘Christ’s love is an active, working love. Just as the shepherd did not sit still bewailing his lost sheep, and the woman did not sit still bewailing her lost money, so our blessed Lord did not sit still in heaven pitying sinners. He left the glory which he had with the Father, and humbled himself to be made in the likeness of man. He came down tinto the world to seek and save that which was lost. He never rested till he had made atonement for our transgressions, brought in everlasting righteousness, provided eternal redemption, and opened a door of life to all who are willing to be saved.’ (Ryle)

What, then, is the feeling of loss experience by our Maker in the light of our wandering away from him like lost sheep? And what of the love that sent the Saviour down to earth to seek and to find us at such cost? (cf. Jn 3:16) ‘This view of the subject may well give careless sinners food for serious reflection. You are God’s. As his creatures, yea, as hi sons, you are his. But you have gone away from him after your own paths, seeking your own ends; and hi misses you. He on whom the universe depends, and who, it might be supposed, care nothing about you, – he misses you. He yearns for your affection. He desires your return. Yea, he has used means of the most costly sort to find you out, and to bring you back. Why will you continue to be indifferent to him? Why will you perversely misrepresent him as one who takes no interest whatever in your welfare? Believe me, you can give him no higher joy than by returning unto him, while at the same time your repentance will secure your own eternal happiness.’ (Taylor)

‘Never forget that the whole drama of Redemption the Incarnation, the Ministry, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension was all but one long search for the lost sheep, and carrying it home rejoicing. The whole race of man was the lost sheep until Christ found it. All we like sheep had gone astray.’ (Biblical Illustrator)

“Until he finds it?” – The Good Shepherd does not take one cursory look for the lost sheep, and then give up. How persistent are we in seeking the lost?

“He joyfully puts it on his shoulders” – he does not punish it; he does not even rebuke it. Jesus is more willing to receive the sinner than the sinner is to come.

“‘Rejoice with'” – There is a fellowship of rejoicing, Php 2:17; 2 Tim 4:7-8.

“There will be more rejoicing in heaven” – Does this rejoicing take place at the moment of the sinner’s recovery, or when he is received into glory? If we need to press for an answer to this question, it would have to be, ‘both’. Suppose (explains Taylor) a child wanders far from home. A trusted member of the family is sent out to search for the child. At length, a message is received that the child has been found, safe and well, a long way from home. There will be rejoicing when this message is heard. But there will also be great rejoicing when the child actually returns home and is received ‘in the flesh’.

This phrase could equally be translated, ‘there will be rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents, rather than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.’

‘One sinner can make all heaven glad.’ (Spurgeon)

“One sinner who repents” – ‘Some find unbearable tension between the shepherd (or woman) searching and finding the entirely passive sheep (or coin) in verses 4-6 (and 8-9) and a sinner’s more active repentance, (Lk 15:7,10) yet this is precisely the kind of tension between divine sovereignty and human response which characterizes much of Scripture.’ (Blomberg) It is not until we reach the third in this series of parables (that of the lost son) that the repentance becomes a part of the parable itself.

“Ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” – If such could be found. The word ‘persons’ is supplied, there being no equivalent in the original. The literal meaning therefore, is, ‘righteous ones’, and the reference could be to (a) the righteous angels (so, with some hesitation, Taylor). Alternatively, (b) Calvin thinks they are faithful Israelites who have not wandered from the faith and therefore need no repentance. However, (c) the best approach is to assume that this expression is ironical, and that these ‘righteous persons’ represent the self-righteous Pharisees, who, in their own opinion, ‘do not need to repent’. Cf. Lk 5:31. So Hendriksen.

There is rejoicing in heaven – in the heart of God and in the hearts of his holy angels. Therefore (and this is a key point in the parable) there should be rejoicing on earth too. We should have the same attitude as Jesus, who kept company with ‘sinners’ because he loved them and wanted them to have God’s best.

‘The moral of the story is: As the shepherd’s friends rejoice when he finds that which was lost, so do God’s friends rejoice when he recovers what was lost to him; thus Jesus’ accusers, who resent his fellowship with sinners he seeks to restore, may not really be God’s friends (15:1-2).’ (NT Background Cmty)

With the reference to this heavenly joy, ‘implied in all this is the thought: should not you, Pharisees and scribes, imitate God in this respect and try to find and restore the lost?…For The Twelve too this was a valuable lesson. And for the people of low reputation it was an encouragement.’ (Hendriksen)

15:8 “Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search thoroughly until she finds it? 15:9 Then when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 15:10 In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents.”

‘Palestinian women received ten silver coins as a wedding gift. Besides their monetary value, these coins held sentimental value like that of a wedding ring, and to lose one would be extremely distressing. Just as a woman would rejoice at finding her lost coin or ring, so the angels would rejoice over a repentant sinner. Each individual is precious to God. He grieves over every loss and rejoices whenever one of his children is found and brought into the kingdom. Perhaps we would have more joy in our churches if we shared Jesus’ love and concern for the lost.’ (HBA)

‘God saves, not only for his glory, but also for his gladness. This goes far to explain why it is that there is joy (God’s own joy) in the presence of the angels when a sinner repents (Lk 15:10), and why there will be “exceeding joy” when God sets us faultless at the last day in his own holy presence (Jude 24 KJV). The thought passes understanding and almost beggars belief, but there is no doubt that, according to Scripture, such is the love of God.’ (Packer, Knowing God)

The Parable of the Compassionate Father, 11-32

15:11 Then Jesus said, “A man had two sons. 15:12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that will belong to me.’ So he divided his assets between them. 15:13 After a few days, the younger son gathered together all he had and left on a journey to a distant country, and there he squandered his wealth with a wild lifestyle. 15:14 Then after he had spent everything, a severe famine took place in that country, and he began to be in need. 15:15 So he went and worked for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 15:16 He was longing to eat the carob pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 15:17 But when he came to his senses he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have food enough to spare, but here I am dying from hunger! 15:18 I will get up and go to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 15:19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired workers.” ’ 15:20 So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran and hugged his son and kissed him. 15:21 Then his son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 15:22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Hurry! Bring the best robe, and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 15:23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it! Let us eat and celebrate, 15:24 because this son of mine was dead, and is alive again—he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.

There was a man who had two sons – we refer to this as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but that is only half the story. It is, in fact, the Parable of the Two Sons. It thus provides something of a commentary on Lk 5:31f –

“Those who are well don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. 5:32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

But, apart from the emphasis of the two sons, the parable strongly communicates the love of the waiting father, and his willingness to welcome back his rebellious son.

Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God) proposes a somewhat idiosyncratic interpretation of this parable, in line with his view of the prominence of the theme of exile and restoration within the teaching of Jesus:-

‘Babylon had taken the people into captivity; Babylon fell, and the people returned.  But in Jesus’ day many, if not most, Jews regarded the exile as still continuing. The people had returned in a geographical sense, but the great prophecies of restoration had not yet come true. What was Israel to do? Why, to repent of the sin which had driven her into exile, and to return to YHWH with all her heart. Who would stand in her way, to prevent her return? The mixed multitude, not least the Samaritans, who had remained in the land while the people were in exile. But Israel would return, humbled and redeemed: sins would be forgiven, the covenant renewed, the Temple rebuilt, and the dead raised. What her god had done for her in the exodus . . . he would at last do again, even more gloriously. YHWH would finally become king, and would do for Israel, in covenant love, what the prophets had foretold.’

Blomberg suggests that the parable is structured in three episodes, and teaches three main points, ‘one per character, and, in this case, one per episode.

(1) Even as the prodigal always had the option of repenting and returning home, so also all sinners, however wicked, may confess their sins and turn to God in contrition.

(2) Even as the father went to elaborate lengths to offer reconciliation to the prodigal, so also God offers all people, however undeserving, lavish forgiveness of sins if they are willing to accept it.

(3) Even as the older brother should not have begrudged his brother’s reinstatement but rather rejoiced in it, so those who claim to be God’s people should be glad and not mad that he extends his grace even to the most undeserving.

Different members of Jesus’ audience would have identified themselves most closely with different characters in the parable, so that one of these points might have come across more strongly to them than the others. Those who hear the parable today may also tend to identify with just one of the individuals in the story, so that it is helpful to listen to the parable three times, trying to understand the action from the perspective of a different character each time. But any attempt to exclude a particular perspective loses sight of a key teaching of Jesus.

The three main points of the parable also illustrate the impossibility of avoiding an allegorical interpretation. Each character clearly stands for someone other than himself. Virtually every commentator notices the close correlation between the prodigal and the “tax collectors and sinners,” (Lk 15:1) with whom Jesus was criticized for associating, and between the older brother and the “Pharisees and scribes” who leveled that criticism, (Lk 15:2) even though many think that these two verses reflect Luke’s later interpretation.’ (Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables)

Although the parable seems to ring true to life, Blomberg says that ‘it is not quite as lifelike as many have alleged. Would a first-century Jewish son have dared to ask his father for his share of the inheritance while the father was still alive and in good health? Would the father have capitulated so readily? Although a few scholars have argued that both practices were not at all unusual, it seems likely that at the very least such behavior would have appeared as “deplorable.” Kenneth Bailey goes so far as to interpret the son’s request as equivalent to a wish that his father were dead, and the father’s response as an almost inconceivable expression of patience and love. The issue is complicated by a lack of detailed evidence for the legal situation presupposed by the narrative. It is more generally agreed that the father’s later welcome for the returning prodigal was certainly atypical. However inwardly glad he may have been to see his son again, no older, self-respecting Middle Eastern male head of an estate would have disgraced himself by the undignified action of running to greet his son. (Lk 15:20) Nor would he have interrupted the son’s speech before a full display of repentance (cf. Lk 15:21 with Lk 15:18-19) or instantly commanded such a luxurious outpouring of affection for him. (Lk 15:22-23) All of these details strongly suggest that Jesus wanted to present his audience with more than a simple”], realistic picture of family life. Rather he used an extraordinary story to illustrate God’s amazing patience and love for his ungrateful children.’ (Op. cit.)

‘Father, give me my share of the estate’ – ‘Weary of restraint, panting for independence, unable longer to abide the check of a father’s eye. This is man impatient of divine control, desiring to be independent of God, seeking to be his own master; that “sin of sins, in which all subsequent sins are included as in their germ, for they are but the unfolding of this one” Trench’ (JFB)

‘According to Jewish law, an elder son received twice as much as the other sons, (Deut 21:17) and a father could distribute his wealth during his lifetime if he wished. It was perfectly legal for the younger son to ask for his share of the estate and even to sell it, but it was certainly not a very loving thing on his part. It was as though he were saying to his father, “I wish you were dead!”‘ (Wiersbe) The same writer adds, ‘We are always heading for trouble whenever we value things more than people, pleasure more than duty, and distant scenes more than the blessings we have right at home.’ And again, ‘If the sheep was lost through foolishness and the coin through carelessness, then the son was lost because of willfulness.’

“He divided his property between them” – ‘Thus “God, when his service no longer appears a perfect freedom, and man promises himself something far better elsewhere, allows him to make the trial; and he shall discover, if need be by saddest proof, that to depart from him is not to throw off the yoke, but to exchange a light yoke for a heavy one, and one gracious Master for a thousand imperious tyrants and lords” Trench’ (JFB)

“Wild living” – reminding us that there is pleasure (of a kind) in sin, but as the next verse will tell us, it is only ‘for a season.’ Cf. Heb 11:25.

“He began to be in need” – ‘Life in the far country was not what he expected. His resources ran out, his friends left him, a famine came, and the boy was forced to do for a stranger what he would not do for his own father-go to work! This scene in the drama is our Lord’s way of emphasizing what sin really does in the lives of those who reject the Father’s will. Sin promises freedom, but it only brings slavery; (Jn 8:34) it promises success, but brings failure; it promises life, but “the wages of sin is death.” (Rom 6:23) The boy thought he would “find himself,” but he only lost himself! When God is left out of our lives, enjoyment becomes enslavement.’ (Wiersbe)

To feed pigs – the lowest humiliation for a Jew. Swine were unclean, Le 11:7, and no Jew would take this job willingly.

The pods – the seeds of the carob tree.

“When he came to his senses” – Cf Ps 119:59, on which Matthew Henry comments, ‘conversion begins in serious consideration.’ This is reminds us that there is an ‘insanity’ in sin because we perceive it to be so attractive and yet it is so harmful. But to come to God also brings us to a right mind. The unbelieving Jews thought that the Christians had ‘turned the world upside down’, Acts 17:6; but in fact they had been turning it round the right way!

‘A sinner must come to himself, as did the prodigal, before ever he will come to Christ.’ (William Nevins)

‘How many of my father’s hired men…’ – See Eph 6:6n. Note that it was not just a realisation of his own badness, but also a remembrance of his father’s goodness, that led him to repentance. And it is just so in the conversion of the sinner to God, Rom 2:4.

‘But did he not know all this ere he departed and every day of his voluntary exile? He did, and he did not. His heart being wholly estranged from home and steeped in selfish gratification, his father’s house never came within the range of his vision, or but as another name for bondage and gloom. Now empty, desolate, withered, perishing, home, with all its peace, plenty, freedom, dignity, starts into view, fills all his visions as a warm and living reality, and breaks his heart.’ (JFB)

‘I will set out and go back to my father’ – This is the difference between remorse and repentance. The former wallows in its guilt, the latter involves resolute action.

‘Father, I have sinned’ – ‘The prodigal charged himself with sin before his father charged him with it.’ (Thomas Watson)

“While he was still a long way off” – ‘The emphasis is on the initiative of grace. The father did not wait for his son to reach home; he ran out to meet and welcome him. He did not wait for him to make amends, or demote him to the servitude he knew he deserved; he instantly reinstated him as a son in the family and honoured him with a ring, with shoes and with the best robe. He did not even wait until the boy had finished his confession; he interrupted him to order a feast.’ (Stott, Christ the Controversialist, 181)

“His father saw him and was filled with compassion for him” – The father was apparently looking out for his son and waiting for him to come home. For a commentary on this, cf. Eph 2:1-10.

“He ran to his son” – It was regarded as undignified for an older man to lift up his robes and run.

‘This wayward son had brought disgrace to his family and village and, according to Deut 21:18-21, he should have been stoned to death. If the neighbors had started to stone him, they would have hit the father who was embracing him! What a picture of what Jesus did for us on the cross!’ (Wiersbe)

‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.’ – Cf Ps 51:3-4.

“But the father said to his servants” – The Father does not even wait for the son to complete the confession he has prepared! Truly, God is more willing to forgive than we to repent. Notice how the father provides for his returning son. It has always been so with our heavenly Father, who provided good things for our first parents events though they had sinned, Gen 3:21.

The robe, the ring and the sandals are all signs, not only that the Father has accepted him, but that he welcomes him back as a son, and not merely as a servant. Cf v24. Footwear was the prerogative of free men, not slaves.

The renewal of the relationship between father and son is an illustration of Ps 103:10-14.

‘Wilbur Chapman often told of the testimony given by a certain man in one of his meetings:

“I got off at the Pennsylvania depot as a tramp, and for a year I begged on the streets for a living. One day I touched a man on the shoulder and said, “Hey, mister, can you give me a dime?” As soon as I saw his face I was shocked to see that it was my own father. I said, “Father, Father, do you know me?” Throwing his arms around me and with tears in his eyes, he said, “Oh my son, at last I’ve found you! I’ve found you. You want a dime? Everything I have is yours.” Think of it. I was a tramp. I stood begging my own father for ten cents, when for 18 years he had been looking for me to give me all that he had.”

What a wonderful illustration of the way God longs to treat us, if we will only let him.’

Robe…ring…sandals…fattened calf – ‘The father’s actions indicate complete forgiveness and restoration of relationship. The “best robe” is a mark of distinction and the ring signifies authority. (Ge 41:42 Es 3:10 8:2) Because slaves did not wear shoes, the sandals point to the status of a free man. The fatted calf was reserved for special occasions.’ (New Geneva)

“Dead…alive” – Cf. the language of Jn 5:24; Eph 2:1-10.

So they began to celebrate – ‘Religion does not banish all joy. As there is seriousness without sourness, so there is a cheerful liveliness without lightness. When the prodigal was converted, “they began to be merry.” Who should be cheerful, if not the people of God? They are no sooner born of the Spirit, but they are heirs to a crown.’ (Thomas Watson)

15:25 “Now his older son was in the field. As he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 15:26 So he called one of the slaves and asked what was happening. 15:27 The slave replied, ‘Your brother has returned, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he got his son back safe and sound.’ 15:28 But the older son became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and appealed to him, 15:29 but he answered his father, ‘Look! These many years I have worked like a slave for you, and I never disobeyed your commands. Yet you never gave me even a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends! 15:30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 15:31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything that belongs to me is yours. 15:32 It was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.’ ”

“The older son” – Intended to represent, no doubt, the scribes and the Pharisees. Cf. vv1-3. The younger son represented the publicans and ‘sinners’, who indulged in the sins of the flesh. The religious leaders dealt in the more subtle, yet more deadly, sins of the spirit. Cf. Mt 23:25-28; 2 Cor 7:1.

Dancing – In NT times dancing was a common enough part of social life, and it entered into children’s games, Mt 11:17; Lk 7:32; cf. Job 21:11.

The older brother became angry – The elder son’s attitude is the same as the Pharisees’ (Lk 15:2; 18:11-12). The words reflect self-righteousness.

“His father went out and pleaded with him” – as God had pleaded with Cain, Gen 4:6f; and with the Israelites who complained that he was not fair, Eze 18:25.

“But as father and household began to make merry, a shadow was cast on their celebrations by the morose detachment of the elder brother. Learning the cause of the music and dancing, he was angry and refused to join in, despite the personal entreaties of the father. He resented the welcome accorded to his wastrel brother, especially as his own filial loyalty appeared to him to have been inadequately recognised. He represents those to whom religion is a matter of merit, and its just reward, and to whom the concept of grace is unjust, even immoral. He knew nothing of the guilt which no human merit can expunge, nothing of the divine offer of an unmerited forgiveness, nothing of heavenly joy over penitent sinners. He was harsh, sour, self-righteous and pitiless. While others made merry, he stayed away and sulked.’ (Stott, Christ the Controversialist, 181). He was of one mind with the Pharisees, of whom Edersheim says, ‘theirs was not a Gospel to the lost: they had nothing to say to sinners.’

For Wright, the older brother represents ‘the Jews who did not go into exile, and who opposed the returning people.’

“All these years I’ve been slaving for you” – ‘This statement indicates that the older brother viewed his relationship with the father as the reward for meritorious behavior. Like the father’s loving response to the undeserving younger son, salvation is not a reward for good works but entirely the gracious gift of God.’ (Eph 2:8,9) (New Geneva)

“This son of yours” – he cannot bring himself to call him ‘my brother’.

“Squandered your property with prostitutes” – Then has been no mention of prostitutes until now.

Blomberg (Interpreting the Parables) notes that the parable is ‘strikingly open-ended.’  We are not told if the older brother came into the house and joined the festivities.  We are probably not meant to know.  We are left with an invitation for all, whether they know they are a long distance from God, or imagine that they are close to him, to respond and believe.

Evans distinguishes between how this parable would have been understood in its original context, compared with how Luke intended his own readers to interpret it.  In its original context, the younger son would have represented collectors, sinners’ and other irreligious Jews.  The older son represented the attitude of the Pharisees (see Lk 15:2).  Luke and his readers, however, may have understood the sons as representing believing Gentiles and Jews  (possibly believing Jews) respectively.  The tensions between these two groups are recorded in Acts 11 and Acts 15.

No atonement in this parable?
Steven West notes that critics of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement sometimes cite this parable for their own purposes.  There is no blood sacrifice in this parable, they say: there is no need for atonement: all that is needed is a forgiving Father.  In response, West says:-

This is a parable.  No parable is intended to teach about all aspects of salvation.

This is the third in a sequence of three parables.  In each of them, the focus is on the loving and forgiving attitude of the Father, rather than on mechanics of atonement(!).  ‘The shepherd in the first parable didn’t offer a blood atonement for his sheep. The woman in the second parable didn’t offer a blood atonement for her lost coin. The father didn’t offer a blood atonement for his returning prodigal. This may be relevant if any of the three parables were about atonement. But they’re not.’

If the argument proved anything, it would prove too much.  Many other things go unnoticed in this parable.  There is no Christ, and there is no Holy Spirit!  Are we to infer that we can be reconciled to God without them?

The Parable of the Prodigal Son, then, gives us the motive for salvation, but not its mechanism.  It stands as a great encouragement to sinners to come to God, and as a warning against all forms of loveless hypocrisy.