By Mark Scott
This parable is the most familiar of Jesus’ 40 parables. Jesus’ teaching on discipleship ended with the words, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (Luke 14:35). The most unlikely people, namely tax collectors and sinners, drew near to hear him (15:1). To justify his association with such folk, Jesus told three parables that act as one (notice the singular use of “parable” in Luke 15:3).
Coming to His Father
Jesus began the story with the phrase, There was a man who had two sons. Both times Jesus started parables this way did not end well for the religious leaders (Matthew 21:28-32). While we should be careful of assigning meaning that may not have been intended (allegorization), it is hard not to think of the father as God, the younger son as the tax collectors and sinners, and the older son as the Pharisees and scribes.
Perhaps Helmut Thielicke is correct in calling the story The Waiting Father. Father occurs 12 times in the story (9 times in our text). Three times in our text the younger son uses the direct address, “Father” (vv. 12, 18, 22). No doubt the younger son broke his father’s heart by saying, “Give me my share of the estate.” In the Middle East that means, “I wish you were dead.” One would expect the father to discipline his son or at least object to this flying-in-the-face-of-love. Instead, with great vulnerability, the father divided his property between them.
Verses 13-16 tell of the downward spiral of the young brother’s poor choice. He set off for a distant country (“far off”—the same word is translated in v. 20 when the father sees him; also used in Ephesians 2:13). This is pagan territory. He squandered his wealth in wild living (the same word describes the shrewd manager in Luke 16:1). When the son was at the end of his resources, a severe famine occurred. Biblically speaking this was Jesus’ way of saying that someone was not obeying God. The son got a job feeding pigs (consider how that went against the Levitical dietary code) and longed to fill his stomach with what the pigs ate. Things could not have been worse.
Things for the son also could not have been better—when we come to the end of ourselves it is a glorious moment. The young man came to his senses. The boy assessed his situation, compared it to the life he had with his father, made a plan, and rehearsed his speech.
This action took courage. In the shame and honor culture of which he was a part, to return home after bringing dishonor and financial ruin to the family was a huge risk. There were no guarantees that things would go well. He recognized that his sin not only broke his father’s rules but also broke his father’s heart. Perhaps there was a fraction of works righteousness in him thinking he could work hard to pay off his debt. But his efforts to make himself right were quickly jettisoned when he saw his father running toward him.
Coming to His Father Again
Verse 20 is probably one of the greatest verses in the Bible depicting the love of God in story form: His father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. Love, tenderness, and protection are all in evidence.
The son tried to get his recorded speech out, but the father interrupted with plans for a spontaneous party. The son may have started his journey back home by coming to himself, but he was pulled all the way home by his father coming to him. The best robe was placed on his back. The signet ring was put on his finger and sandals were brought for his feet (only sons wore shoes; hired men worked in bare feet). “The” fattened calf (the one being nurtured for the next big occasion) was slaughtered.
This is the story of the younger brother. It is the story of the tax collectors and sinners. It is our story. And it is the essence of the gospel and the story of the love of God.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.