“Lost and Found” | The Parable of the Lost Son(s) | Luke 15:11-32 Bible Study

First shared 9.28.22. First posted 10.9.22

Introduction

As you may recall, on Sunday we talked about the Parable of the Wandering Sheep in Matthew 18:12-14. And we mentioned how the context is slightly different than the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15.

And considering that, later in Luke 15, Christ tells the Parable of the Lost Son (which could really be called the Parable of the Lost Sons) – and considering that today is National Sons Day, I thought it might be appropriate to revisit this popular passage.

Ever lose something that you just couldn’t find? Ever lose your wallet? Ever lose your ID? Have you ever lost your keys?

And when we lose something, we often ask someone else if they’ve seen it: “Hey, I lost my keys. Can you help me find them?”

And without fail, they’re going to give you the most basic advice of all-time: “Have you tried retracing your steps?”

And I think to myself sarcastically, “Hmm, ‘have I tried retracing my steps’? Nope, hadn’t thought of that. I’ve just been out here walking in zigzags….

But when you find your keys, don’t you just feel a wave of relief and delight? How much more do you think our Heavenly Father delights when one of His lost children is found?

Scripture says there is rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents (Lk 15:7, 10).

And I thank God for giving us the opportunity to return to Him in repentance. I thank God for His “Amazing Grace”. I once was lost, but now I’m found.

Now, in this popular parable of Luke 15,[1] often called the Parable of the Prodigal or the Lost Son,[2] the emphasis is actually on the father.[3]

And, depending on your response, the father demonstrates amazing grace, or amazing gullibility.

For I’m sure many parents might read this story and say, “What was this guy thinking? This is in-credible!” This is in-credible.

[1] Likely the most famous parable of Jesus. Allison A. Trites, William J. Larkin, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 12: The Gospel of Luke and Acts (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006), 219.

[2] “This unit is popularly called ‘The Prodigal Son,’ a title whose roots go back to the Vulgate… Some call it ‘The Gracious Father,’ a good alternative. Nonetheless, a title like ‘A Father and His Two Different Sons’ may be even better.” Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1306.

[3] Bock BECNT, 1309. “…any title given to this parable should make clear that the father, not the sons, is the central figure.” David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 624.

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Conclusion

Now if we zoom out a little, we read in the beginning of chapter 15 that Jesus is eating with tax collectors (who were hated back then) and sinners.

Now, you didn’t just break bread with just anybody back then. Sharing a meal with someone signified a certain level of intimacy and acceptance.[1]

So, understandably, the Pharisees are muttering to themselves.

Luke 15:1-2 says:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Lk 15:1-2, NIV)[2]

So, what does Jesus do? He sees their comments as a teachable moment. He tells three parables back-to-back-to-back: The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son.[3]

In the first parable, a shepherd leaves 99 sheep to go out a find one which had gone astray [more precisely, this sheep was “lost” (cf. Mt 18:12-14)]. As we read in Luke 15:3-7:

3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I havefound my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner whorepents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Lk 15:3-7, NIV)

In the second parable, a woman lights a lamp, and turns her house upside down until she finds one of her ten coins.[4] As we read in Luke 15:8-10:

8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Lk 15:8-10, NIV)

Then, in this third parable, a father runs out to meet one of his two sons (Lk 15:20).

So we can see the progression of the percentages: one out of 100 sheep, one out of 10 coins, one out of 2 sons.[5]

And, in each parable, there is rejoicing when what was lost is found (Lk 15:7, 10, 23, 32).[6]

And in each parable, there is a description of repentance (Lk 15:7, 10, 17). The younger son “comes to himself”, which is an expression that means he repents[7] (Lk 15:17).

So, given what we read in the first two parables, we can see how the father represents our Amazing, Gracious God.[8]

And, we can also see how the young son represents a sinner who has gone their own way, but then repents and turns back to their Heavenly Father [9]– likely similar to the sinners who were sitting at the table – listening to Jesus.

But who does the older son represent?

Well, the older son likely represents the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (cf. Lk 15:1-2).[10] Many of them, like the older son, were likely self-righteous.[11] Many may think they can earn God’s favor by their pious living.

Earlier in Luke 5:31-32, when the self-righteous Pharisees previously complained about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, He tells that it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. And the Savior says He’s come to call sin-sick sinners to repentance.

31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:31-32, NIV).[12]

Christ calls sinners to realize the error of their ways, repent from their sin, and come to Him. And all who come to God humbly through Christ – with no excuses or fake apologies – and throw themselves at the mercy of the Father, will be healed by the Great Physician.

They will be made spiritually healthy and they will be celebrated.[13]

Therefore, when someone repents and truly gives their life to Christ, we too should celebrate.[14]

Now we don’t know if the older son comes to his senses or not. With the cliffhanger, Christ leaves the account leaves it open-ended.[15]

And this is likely because he has told these three parables to invite the Pharisees and scribes to the table[16] – to the same table with the tax collectors and sinners.[17]

He is basically saying, “God and the angels are rejoicing over these sinners who have repented. Why aren’t you?”[18]

“Are you going to continue to be self-righteous, and continue to separate yourself from your Father and your spiritualfamily, or are you going to grab some of this barbecue?”[19]

So Christ responds to his critics with an invitation.[20]

He’s like: Hey, we got music, we got dancing (Lk 15:25), we got all the food you can eat. There’s room at the table; would you like a seat?

And this invitation still stands for both the self-righteous and the self-seeking sinners even today.[21]

As it’s been said, at its essence, sin is a self-separation from God.[22] It is knowing God’s way but saying “no” to God’s way.[23] Instead of saying “thy will be done” (Mt 6:10), it’s saying “my will be done.”

It’s doing our own thing, going our own way, following our own dreams. This is the sinful way of self.

And even though they might want to do whatever they wish, a child left to their own devices can do themselves grave harm.

And, I’m sure most parents know that what their children want is not always what’s best.

My brothers and sisters, what’s best for us is to be in right relationship with our Heavenly Father.

James 1:17 reminds us that:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (Jas 1:17, NIV)

As we’ve said before, if God is the Source of all that brings lasting happiness and joy, why do we try to find joy and lasting happiness away from God? By going our own way? By going astray?

Many of us may have gone astray. I know I did. Many of us may have been like lost sheep. But the Good News is that Jesus says He is the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11).

Later in Lk 19:10 Jesus says that He: “came to seek and to save the lost.”[24] To seek and to save the lost.

The shepherd in the first parable demonstrates how God in Christ is seeking to save us[25] – to be in relationship with us.

How does that make you feel? Men may have hurt you, women may have broken your heart, and this world may have chewed you up and spit you out.

But, my brothers and sisters, there is a God who is actively pursuing you. And no matter what people think, He thinks you are to die for.

We are not worthy; but He thought we were worth saving.

God’s grace is so amazing because, like the younger son, we don’t deserve it[26] (Rom 6:23, Eph 2:8-10). We have all sinned and separate ourselves from God (Rom 3:23).

And we can’t earn our reconciliation back to God simply by following the rules (just like I couldn’t earn a car from my parents simply by doing what I was already supposed to be doing).

We need grace – unmerited, undeserved favor.

We need grace that says, no matter what you’ve done, no matter how far you’ve fallen, no matter how many mistakes you’ve made,[27] if you turn back to your Heavenly Father, He is not only waiting for you, He will run out to greet you, to throw His arms around you, and to kiss you tenderly as His child.

Now people might ask, “What is God thinking?” This is in-credible! But we serve an incredible God – an Amazing, Gracious Father.

Repenting from our selfish, sinful ways and putting our wholehearted, active trust in Christ are the keys to eternal life.

My brothers and sisters, if you feel like you’ve lost your wallet and are spiritually broke… if you feel like you’ve lost your ID – your true identity established by the Creator, – if you feel like you’ve lost the keys to abundant life, please allow me to offer you the most basic advice of all-time:

Have you tried retracing your steps?

For our Amazing, Gracious Father rejoices when one of His children is lost and then found.

We leave our first love when we do our own-thing

Nowadays everybody wants to be their own-king

Broken relationships are things that we cry-for

We’ve broken God’s heart, yet He thinks we’re to die-for

“Amazing Grace”, I’ll get lost-in-the-sound

He’s prepared me a place ‘cause of that cross-in-the-ground

He’s the Gracious Father, the boss-with-the-crown

So don’t go no farther, if you're lost-then-be-found

May the LORD bless you and keep you.

(And Happy National Sons Day!)

[1] Keener, Lk 15:2

[2] Trites, 219 cf. Plummer, 377.

[3] “The parables are connected by theme (the joy of the lost being found) and by key words (“lost” and “found,” [Lk 15:6, 9, 24, 32]; “rejoice” and “celebrate,” [Lk 15:6, 9, 24, 32]). Together the three parables form a tightly knit unit with a single, strongly Lukan theme—God’s love for outcasts and sinners.” Stein, 400. Cf. Trites, 219. Cf. ““Unlike the lost sheep and lost coin, which were not responsible in any way for being lost, the lost son is lost because of his own wayward actions.” Evans, 232 (also quoted in Trites, 220).

[4] “The paradoxical mystery that repentance involves both human and divine action is portrayed in the three parables in this chapter. In the first two parables, the lost objects (sheep and coin) are passive figures that are diligently sought. These parables “suggest that the experience of repentance may be more like being found by someone who searches with great determination than like achieving something through our own determination.” The parable depicting the two sons is different and reflects “the human decision to return,” so that “the same act of repentance can be viewed as God’s saving action in a person’s life and as a human decision.” Though repentance is obligatory, it can never be understood as a human achievement that puts God in one’s debt.” Garland, 634.

[5] “The relative value of the lost item increases in each parable: one out of one hundred, one out of ten and finally (15:11) one out of two.” Keener, 15:8-10 cf. Garland, 623.

[6] Edwards, 431.

[7] “This is a Hebrew/Aramaic expression for ‘repented.’” Stein, 406. “The Greek expression behind “came to his senses,” eis heauton, is a translation of the Hebrew bilebo, meaning “in his heart.” Luke uses this phrase eleven times—all in Special Luke—to signify inner ruminations that result in resolutions to act.” Edwards, 440-441 + Footnote “ [Lk 1:29](D); [Lk 7:39]; [Lk 11:38](D); [Lk 12:17, 32](D); [Lk 16:3]; [Lk 18:4]; similarly pros heauton ([Lk 18:11]), eis heauton/heautous ([Lk 7:30]; [Lk 15:17]); eph’ heautois ([Lk 18:9]). Edwards, 441. “shades of repentance are clearly evident,” Green, 581. Cf. Trites, 220; Bock BECNT, 1312; Garland, 627. “The expression “come to oneself” was a part of the religious and philosophical vocabulary of the period. We encounter it in both the Testament of Joseph (3:9) and Epictetus (Disc. 3.1.15). For Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity it expressed a decisive step of “conversion” (μετάνοια), a return to God.” Bovon, 426.

[8] “God is the Father ‘from whom all fatherhood, earthly or heavenly, derives its name” (Eph 3:15) Michael Wilcock, The Savior of the World: The Message of Luke’s Gospel, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 151. Morris, 254. Marshall NBC, 1005. Green, 586, “It is worth recalling that a primary image of God in the Lukan travel narrative has been God as Father (e.g., [Lk 11:1–13; 12:22–34]), a portrait continued in this parable,” Green, 579. Cf. Bock BECNT, 1306.

[9] Cf. Evans, 233; Bock BECNT, 1306.

[10] Schreiner, 827; Evans, 233; Garland, 627; Plummer, 378; Chen, 220.

[11] Morris, 261. Edwards, 442. “Divine grace was not appreciated by the critics, who wanted to earn God’s favor and had no sympathy for those like the prodigal, who had to come back humbly to seek the Father’s mercy when they didn’t deserve it.” Trites, 221. Cf. Bock BECNT, 1306.

[12] “As the prodigal approaches his father, he relies totally on his mercy, completely humble and recognizing that the only right he has is the appeal for his father’s help. That is the essence of what it means to turn to God. As 5:31–32 says, Christ comes to call sinners to repentance.” Bock NIVAC, 415.

[13] Bock NIVAC, 415.

[14] Cf. Evans, 233; Bock BECNT, 1308. “One should not compare how God blesses, but be grateful that he does bless.” Bock BECNT, 1308. We should not share in unrighteous activities, but have an approachable, available relationship with sinners/unbelievers. Bock BECNT, 1321.

[15] Bock BECNT, 1320; Garland, 633; Plummer, 379.

[16] Bock BECNT, 1320; Garland, 633; Plummer, 379.

[17] Schreiner, 827. Green, 586.

[18] “For the elder brother represents the Pharisees and all like them, and the parable is an appeal to them to change their mind about the outcasts.” Marshall, NBC, 1005.

[19] Cf. “Why won’t you enter into this joy?” Stein, 401.

[20] Trites, 221.

[21] “The third parable in Luke 15 is designed to illustrate heaven’s receptivity toward a sinner’s repentance, as well as to condemn the protest of those who react against such divine generosity.” Bock BECNT, 1306. In a way, both sons are “lost”. But the lostness of the older is more subtle. Chen, 220.

[22] “Sin does not mean just disobeying a law. That is only its formula. Sin means separating yourself from God, knowing God’s will and yet “no-ing” it instead of “yes-ing” it.” Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, zz (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 303.

[23] Kreeft and Tacelli, 303.

[24] Edwards, 432; Bock BECNT, 1321.

[25] Edwards, 432. Cf. Is 40:11 (“He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms…,” NIV); Ezekiel 34 (esp. Eze 34:15 “I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD,” NIV); cf. Ps 23:1. Wilcock, 150.

[26] “The elder brother’s concern for justice is natural. But the point is that God’s action is gracious, not deserved.” Bock BECNT, 1318.

[27] “God’s forgiveness is always available. No history of sin is too great to be forgiven. Our need is to turn to God and take what he offers on his terms.” Bock BECNT, 1308.

.

Bibliography

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Bock, Darrell L. Luke. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke: 9:51–24:53. Vol. 2. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996.

Bovon, François. Luke 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9:51–19:27. Edited by Helmut Koester. Translated by Donald S. Deer. Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013.

Chen, Diane G. Luke: A New Covenant Commentary. Edited by Michael F. Bird and Craig Keener. New Covenant Commentary Series. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017.

Edwards, James R. The Gospel according to Luke. Edited by D. A. Carson. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2015.

Evans, Craig A. Luke. Understanding the Bible Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1990.

Garland, David E. Luke. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: . Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.

Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Keener, Craig S. … And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012.

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Marshall, I. Howard. The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1978.

Marshall, I. Howard. “Luke.” In New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, edited by D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham, 4th ed., 978–1020. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

Morris, Leon. Luke: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 3. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

Pao, David W., and Eckhard J. Schnabel. “Luke.” In Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 251–403. Grand Rapids, MI;  Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic;  Apollos, 2007.

Plummer, Alfred. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to S. Luke. International Critical Commentary. London: T&T Clark International, 1896.

Reiling, J., and J. L. Swellengrebel. A Handbook on the Gospel of Luke. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, 1993.

Robertson, A. T. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. Logos Bible Software, 2006.

Schreiner, Thomas R. “Luke.” In Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, 3:799–839. Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995.

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Stein, Robert H. Luke. Vol. 24. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.

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Trites, Allison A., William J. Larkin. Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 12: The Gospel of Luke and Acts. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

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