When Jesus heard people complaining that he was eating with sinners, he gave them three parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost boy (Luke 15). In these parables Jesus is saying to his critics, “You really don’t know my Father, do you? If you had known my heavenly Father wouldn’t have criticized me as you did.” They would have been celebrating the sinners coming to Jesus. Let me show you what I mean…
The shepherd whose sheep went astray left ninety-nine other sheep and searched in the wild country until he found the lost sheep. The woman who lost a coin stopped everything else she was doing, lighted a lamp and swept her house until she found the coin. Jesus points out in both these stories that neighbors and friends were invited to come in and help celebrate the recovery of the lost property. He was emphasizing in these stories the value of lost sinners whose repentance (and recovery) was celebrated in heaven in the presence of the angels. “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent,” he said.
The third parable is what we call the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” It tells about a wayward boy who was not content to stay at home with his family, doing what he could to help on the farm. He was enamored with the glitz and glamor of this world and the promise of a “good time.” He took his portion of the inheritance of his father and went off to “enjoy himself.” Life probably was good – as long as his money lasted – but he “squandered his wealth in wild living” and woke up in a pig sty, broke, hungry and alone. When he “came to his senses” he decided that his best option was to go humbly to his father and ask him to permit him to just be “a hired servant.”
The lost son in the parable was, like the sheep and the coin, something of value. To be sure, he was of inestimably greater value, but for the purpose of the parable, he functions in the story just as the sheep and coin do in the other two. It is also obvious that in each case the things of value represent the sinners who were coming to Jesus and whose coming should have been a cause for rejoicing. But it is only in the case of the prodigal that there is not universal joy. His brother was resentful of him and the ado that was being made over him. The older judgmental, self-righteous, whining, pouting brother represented the carping, complaining, critical people who objected to Jesus eating with sinners.
In this parable the focus really isn’t on the boy just as in the other two parables the focus isn’t on the lost coin or the lost sheep. In both these cases, it is the people who lost something of value and who expend all necessary effort to recover what they had lost and who then throw a party when they are successful. So it is with the third of these parables, it is the father that Jesus wants his hearers to focus on. The father who looked down a lonely road toward a far-off land where his son had gone. The father who, when he saw that lost son coming way off in the distance, ran to meet him and hugged and kissed him. The father who put shoes on the boy’s feet, a ring (did it bear the family insignia?) on his finger, and threw the best robe on his back. The father who ordered his servants to kill and prepare the best fattened calf so that everyone in the household could celebrate the return of the lost boy. What was Jesus trying to teach these sour, sanctimonious hypocrites by these parables, especially the last one? There are several lessons I see in these stories, but mainly it is to teach them about the heavenly Father
First there is the love of God for the lost sinner. He or she is so valuable that when they are lost, they are worth every effort to recover. “Yes,” you may say, “but why didn’t the father go after his son?” That boy – that sinner – went into the “far country” by his own choice and whether or not we like it, there was not a lot the father could do after his son had turned his back on him. If he had forced him to return home before he had made up his own mind to do so he would only have resented his father. God will not force a sinner to repent against his will. To do so would be to violate his free will – his right and responsibility of free choice. But God does go after lost sinners! In the person of the only begotten Son who came to “seek and save” the lost, God went to the furthest limit of His divine power to bring the sinner back to himself. When Jesus died on the cross, the greatest ransom was paid to bring the wayward ones back to him. God is deeply grieved, as was the father in the story, when people go off into sin. He anxiously awaits their return, and the knowledge of the awaiting forgiveness is the incentive He uses to call people back to His loving embrace.
The second lesson we learn – and I think the main lesson Jesus was driving at in this parable – is that the Father is a God of grace. When the wayward son returned there was nothing but joy in the heart of the father. There were no recriminations, accusations nor probationary demands. The boy did not have to “do penance.” There was no “trial period” to see if he would hold out before he was restored. There was only a father’s embrace, an unconditional reception and a joyous party awaiting him when he came home. Just as the son had not originally earned his place in the father’s family, he didn’t have to earn it again. But there is a difference here. He was first a member of his father’s family simply because he was born into it but he was restored to his original place, not because he had earned it, but because of the generous heart of his father. He didn’t deserve it, but the father forgave him and that forgiveness was a gift – the most generous gift he could ever hope to receive.
The third lesson is that we should always try to have the right attitude toward someone who comes to the heavenly Father seeking forgiveness. To not do so reflects that we do not value others as we should. It shows a hard heart that cannot appreciate the greatness of God’s grace toward us. It shows an attitude of pride that says, “I haven’t ever done anything like that, and he shouldn’t have either.” It smacks of an attitude toward God that says we have a higher standard than He and we know better whom He should receive and whom He should reject than He does! What arrogance!
And finally, we should learn that forgiveness and rejoicing go hand in hand. The shepherd invited his neighbors over for a party when he found his lost sheep. The woman rejoiced and invited her friends to rejoice with her. The father in the parable threw a huge, noisy party when his son returned. God rejoices and the angels rejoice over one sinner who repents. If there is all this celebrating in heaven (it wouldn’t be wrong if we think of it as a party, a great gala feast!) shouldn’t we have one every time a person down here turns to the heavenly Father? About all we do, however, is we shake the hand of a person while they are still wet from their baptism and tell them how glad we are for them – and then we leave them standing there! And woe be to them if they ever become unfaithful! We will cut them off in a heartbeat!
Oh, how little we know the heavenly Father! Are we any better off than the Jews who criticized Jesus? We may know the law, but we do not know the lawgiver! We know the judgments of the law but we do not know the grace of the merciful, loving Father! We are so ready to judge and condemn but we know nothing of the joy of the Father over a sinner who returns to His arms! Oh, how we need to know Him, His mind, His heart!
Do you know my Father? Let me introduce you to Him!