ILLUSTRATION OF THE SON WHO WAS LOST
Jesus has given the illustrations of the lost sheep and the lost drachma coin while likely still in Perea east of the Jordan River. The message that both teach is that we should rejoice when a sinner repents and returns to God. The Pharisees and the scribes have been critical of Jesus because he welcomes people of that sort. But do such critics learn something from Jesus’ two illustrations? Do they grasp how our Father in heaven feels toward repentant sinners? Jesus now gives a touching illustration that emphasizes this same important lesson.
The illustration involves a father who has two sons, the younger son being the principal character of this illustration. Both the Pharisees and the scribes, as well as others hearing what Jesus relates, should be able to learn from what is said about this younger son. However, not to be overlooked is what Jesus relates about the father and the older son, for the attitudes they display are instructive too. So think about all three of these men as Jesus tells the illustration:
“A man had two sons,” Jesus begins. “The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that should come to me.’ So he divided his belongings between them.” (Luke 15:11, 12) Note that this younger son is not seeking his inheritance because his father has died. The father is still alive. Yet the son wants his portion now so that he can be independent and do with it as he chooses. And what is that?
“A few days later,” Jesus explains, “the younger son gathered all his things together and traveled to a distant country and there squandered his property by living a debauched life.” (Luke 15:13) Rather than remaining in the security of his home, with a father who cared for his children and provided for them, this son goes off to another land. There he squanders all his inheritance in wanton indulgence, pursuing sensual pleasures. Then he comes into hard times, as Jesus goes on to relate:
“When he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred throughout that country, and he fell into need. He even went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to herd swine. And he longed to be filled with the carob pods that the swine were eating, but no one would give him anything.”
God’s Law categorized pigs as unclean, yet this son has to work as a herder of swine. He is racked with hunger, which reduces him to wanting to eat what normally is food only for animals, the pigs he is herding. In the son’s calamity and despair, “he came to his senses.” What does he do? He says to himself: “How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, while I am dying here from hunger! I will get up and travel to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Make me as one of your hired men.’” Then he gets up and goes to his father.
How will his father react? Will he turn on his son angrily and scold him about the folly of leaving home in the first place? Will the father display an indifferent, unwelcoming attitude? If it were you, how would you react? What if it were your son or daughter?
THE LOST SON IS FOUND
Jesus describes how the father feels and acts: “While [the son] was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was moved with pity, and he ran and embraced him and tenderly kissed him.” (Luke 15:20) Even if the father has heard of his son’s debauched living, he welcomes his son back. Will the Jewish leaders, who claim to know and worship Jehovah, see from this how our heavenly Father feels toward repentant sinners? Will they also recognize that Jesus has been showing the same welcoming spirit?
The discerning father can likely conclude from his son’s sad, downcast countenance that he is repentant. Still, the father’s loving initiative to greet him makes it easier for his son to confess his sins. Jesus relates: “Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’”
The father orders his slaves: “Quick! bring out a robe, the best one, and clothe him with it, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. Also bring the fattened calf, slaughter it, and let us eat and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead but has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” Then they start “to enjoy themselves.”
Meanwhile, the father’s older son is in the field. Jesus says about him: “As he returned and got near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants to him and asked what was happening. He said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father slaughtered the fattened calf because he got him back in good health.’ But he became angry and refused to go in. Then his father came out and began to plead with him. In reply he said to his father, ‘Look! These many years I have slaved for you and never once did I disobey your orders, and yet you never once gave me a young goat to enjoy with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours arrived who squandered your belongings with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’”
Who, like the older son, have been critical of the mercy and attention that Jesus has accorded the common people and sinners? The scribes and the Pharisees. Their criticism of Jesus’ welcoming sinners has prompted this illustration. Of course, anyone critical of God’s showing mercy should take the lesson to heart.
Jesus concludes his illustration by relating the father’s appeal to his older son: “My son, you have always been with me, and all the things that are mine are yours. But we just had to celebrate and rejoice, for your brother was dead but has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
Jesus does not reveal what the older son eventually does. However, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, “a large crowd of priests began to be obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7) That might have included some of the very ones who hear Jesus relate this powerful illustration about the son who was lost. Yes, it was possible even for them to come to their senses, repent, and return to God.
From that day forward, Jesus’ disciples can and should take to heart key lessons that he set out in this fine illustration. An initial lesson is how truly wise it is to remain in the security of God’s people, under the care of our Father who loves us and provides for us, instead of wandering off after tempting pleasures in “a distant country.”
Another lesson is that if any of us should deviate from God’s way, we must humbly return to our Father so as to enjoy his favor again.
Still another lesson can be seen by the contrast between the father’s receptive, forgiving spirit and the older brother’s resentful, unwelcoming attitude. Clearly, God’s servants want to be forgiving and welcoming if one who had strayed truly repents and returns to ‘the Father’s house.’ Let us rejoice that our brother who ‘was dead has come to life’ and that he who ‘was lost has been found.’