Sermon preached on Luke 15 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 07/03/2022 in Novato, CA.
We’ve come today to a memorable and beloved passage that only Luke records for us. It is often divided up where pastors preach through each of these three parables separately. While there is a value in that, this chapter, with all three parables, is meant to come as a unit. These three parables make up the complete response of Jesus to the setting we find in verses 1-2. There we learn that many tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus to learn from him. Jesus had been receiving them and eating with them and of course teaching them. In verse 2, we see that the scribes and Pharisees criticized Jesus for this. Here’s where they again show some knowledge without the nuance of having God’s wisdom and heart. For yes, we know there is a way that God’s people must separate themselves from sinners, especially if such sinners claim to hypocritically profess the true faith and religion. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5:11 says to not even eat with such people. We don’t want to treat the wayward among God’s people as if they are not wayward by receiving them in a way that acts like nothing is wrong. And we certainly wouldn’t want to follow in the wayward’s wayward ways. Yet, Jesus shows here that there is a way to minister to wayward souls to call them to repent of their sins and return unto the Lord. Indeed, there is great joy to be had whenever any sinner repents. So then, this passage teaches God’s great grace towards repentant sinners even as he calls his people to have such a heart for the lost that they would be saved.
So then, as we work through this chapter, I will teach through three common elements that we can find in each of these parables. The first two parables are very closely parallel with each other. And the third, while more detailed, and with some complementary differences, also deals with the same general message found in the first two parables. So then, our first point will be to see what we learn about the tax collectors and sinners in these parables. Then, we’ll look at how these parables teach us about repentance. Lastly, we’ll see how these parables teach us how it is fitting to celebrate when the wayward repent.
Let us begin in our first point by talking about these tax collectors and sinners referenced in verse 1 that Jesus was ministering to. Let me begin by noting, that context would have us understand these as Jewish people who were living sinful lives. In other words, they weren’t pagan unclean Gentiles whom of course would not have lived according to God’s laws. These were people among God’s people of Israel who were living like this. The tax collectors, were notorious for stealing from the people by exacting more taxes than they were supposed to, and then pocketing the surplus. And the “sinners” were anyone else among Israel who lived in some public and gross sin for which they were unwilling to repent of. So then, the description of tax collectors and sinners was a common way to refer to people of bad reputation who weren’t even trying to follow God’s laws.
So then, these three parables each tell us a little something about such sinful and wayward people. In the first parable, they are compared to a lost sheep. I might be inclined to describe such a lost sheep as a sheep that wandered away, which would emphasis the sheep’s culpability in it. Then again, sheep are proverbially dumb and prone to wander. Such is true with the spiritually lost. Note in verse 7, that such sinners are then contrasted with the righteous. We should remember that no one is perfectly righteous, save Christ Jesus, so this is shorthand for the faithful people of God who have found imputed righteousness through faith. And so this first parable describes such wayward sinners as spiritually lost people who are not in a right standing with God. The second parable basically offers the same description. There the sinner is likened to a coin a woman lost. The emphasis on a sinner being lost in these first two parables really emphasizes the need for someone to seek and find them.
In the third parable of the prodigal, with its greater detail, we see a different but complementary picture of how such a sinner is described. And recognize that this third parable is a much more direct application. In this parable, Jesus doesn’t liken sheep and coins to wayward sinners. He actually gives a story about a specific wayward sinner, this prodigal son, which has a much more direct application to all wayward sinners. So then, notice all the things we learn about this prodigal son as an example of a wayward sinner. Here, we do see his own culpability in choosing to go astray. He demands for his portion of the inheritance, which most commonly would be given at the father’s death, though in rarer cases it might be given before. Then notice what he does with that wealth. In verse 13, he takes it all and goes to a far away country. Appreciate that point in the context of Israel. The Jews would have heard this and thought about it like this: that this prodigal son is moving away out of the Promised Land to go live with some pagan Gentiles. From a Jewish old covenant perspective, that alone shows his waywardness. But then he goes and spends all his money. It says he “squanders” it, which is the imagery of just quickly throwing it all away. And he does it in “reckless living” which as his older brother claims at the end of the parable included spending it on things like prostitutes. And so, he runs out of money, and then a famine hits, and he has to get a job to try to survive. He ends up working to feed pigs – unclean pigs – which is not surprising as he lives among Gentiles. So then stepping back, the picture is that he dishonors his father to cash out his inheritance early, leaves God’s people and land to live among unclean heathen, then wastes his inheritance on sinful and prodigal spending, only to find him in a position worse than the unclean pigs he has to feed. No one would give him anything, and so his waywardness left him in a dire position. As his father twice describes here, in this state, he is “dead” and “lost”.
So then, these three parables describe such sinners and tax collectors as people who are spiritually dead, lost souls, who in their depravity have gone astray away from the Lord in sin. They are in need of reclamation. They need to repent of their sin and turn to God to find forgiveness and grace and restoration.
That then brings us to our second point to see how these parables teach about such repentance. Each of them make clear reference to repenting sinners. The first two parables teach this by explicitly applying the imagery to repenting sinners. The lost sheep being found is likened to a sinner repenting in verse 7. The lost coin being found is likened to a sinner repenting in verse 10. Notice in both these parables, the repentance happens because someone seeks out the lost. In the first parable, you have this shepherd who leaves behind the other sheep in the open country to seek and find the lost sheep. Then he carries him back on his shoulders. And in the second parable, the woman is described as being diligent in hear search for the lost coin. She lights a lamp and goes over every part of the house until she finds the lost coin. So, the first two parables really emphasize the role of seeking out the wayward sinner in bringing about repentance.
And they also show that the result of repentance is to restore the wayward’s relationship with God like something lost being found and restored to its owner.
The third parable has that idea in it, but puts more flesh on the bone. I love verse 17 describes the mental state of someone who is repenting. It says the prodigal son “came to himself.” When someone repents, there is a change of thinking going on in their heart and mind. Prior to verse 17, this prodigal thought leaving his father and a life of sinful living was what was best for him. But when he ended up hitting rock bottom he finally came to his senses. He realized his sin left him with nothing. He had no money and there was no on there that cared. He was broke and alone and it was all his fault. And it was the result of his sinful godless thinking that pursued such a life. But now he came to his senses. Now he had a change of mind. His changed thinking realizes that even his father’s servants have it better than he has it right now. So, he hopes he can pursue that, becoming a servant in his father’s house.
In verse 18, we see what he plans to say to his father. He will acknowledge how greatly he has sinned, both against God and against his father. He will acknowledge his unworthiness, and it is in such humility that will have him ask not to be restored as a son but to hire him as an employee. So, these details show us some of the content of his changed thinking. But then we see that his changed thinking was put into action. Verse 20, he goes home.
This third parable also describes the final state of such a repentant sinner. In verse 24, the father says that his son went from being dead to alive and that he went from being lost to being found. Later in verse 28 the servants describe the repentant son as being “received back safe and sound”. We note that the Father in the parable also wouldn’t receive the son back just as a servant, but as a son. And so, by application, this again speaks to how repentance is about restoring someone in their relationship with God.
Let us now turn in our third point to consider how fitting it is to celebrate when a sinner repents. In the first parable, it says the shepherd wants others to rejoice with him when his sheep is found. Jesus applies this to the joy there is in heaven when a sinner repents. Actually, Jesus even describes this in comparative terms that that there is more joy in heaven when a sinner repents than when God’s people continue in their repentance. Now, of course, that doesn’t mean we should sin so we can then repent and give heaven a reason to celebrate. But it does rightly teach the great joy that should be attached when a sinner is lost and then found.
Likewise, the second parable describes how the woman is so happy about finding her lost coin that she tells all her friends and neighbors and asks them to share in her joy. Jesus applies that again in a similar way, this time mentioning how the angels in heaven have joy when a sinner repents. So, there is heavenly celebration going on even with the angels when sinners repent!
And then we have the celebration with the prodigal son parable. Look with me at the father’s response starting in verse 20. The father runs to greet the son with a hug and a kiss. The father calls for the son to be adorned with things worthy of a beloved son – the best robe, a ring, and shoes, surely all the sorts of things he lost in his poverty. And then the father calls for the fattened calf to be killed so they can celebrate with a great feast. Such a fattened calf would have normally been saved for some big special occasion, but the father sees that this is indeed such an occasion. So then, per verse 25 there is indeed much celebrating going on, for there is even music and dancing.
Do you see what the father is doing? Do you see how the father is treating his wayward son who has returned? He is literally “receiving” him and “eating” with him. He is literally “receiving” him and “eating” with him. Why do I point that out? Go back to verse 2. The thing the scribes and pharisees criticized Jesus as doing with the tax collectors and sinners is exactly what the father in this parable is doing toward his wayward son who has repented and returned to him. The father says that it is fitting to celebrate because of this, verse 32. His son who had been essentially spiritually dead and lost was now alive and found!
And yet while the father celebrated, the older brother did not. This third parable takes an unexpected turn starting in verse 25. We are drawn into the perspective of the older brother. He is angry, verse 28. He won’t go to the party. He won’t celebrate his wayward brother’s return. In his mind, the son connects the party with the brother’s sin, as if the father was rewarding him for his sin, which of course is not what the father was doing. But that is how the older brother was thinking about it. The older brother immediately begins to compare himself with his younger brother. He thinks of how faithful he has been to his father when his younger brother has not. He thinks it unfair for such celebration to be going on for such a bad younger brother. The older brother had misunderstood the point of the celebrating. The father goes out to him to appeal to him and to entreat him to come celebrate with them. The parable ends then with the father appealing like this to the older brother. We aren’t told how the older brother responded, but the father’s words to him are like what we find in how the other two parables end. He was lost and now is found. A lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. All found. And all reason to rejoice. And all ultimately about wayward sinners returning to God in repentance and find such great grace and mercy and restoration.
Stepping back then, I often like to ask people what the parable of the Prodigal Son is about? Or frankly, what all three of these parables are about? Almost always I get an answer that they are beautiful illustrations of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That we sinners can find forgiveness and grace and restoration through repenting of our sins and putting our faith in Jesus Christ. Well, yes, that is a beautiful lesson found here. If things ended at verse 24, I might be tempted to agree that that was the primary lesson.
But it didn’t end at verse 24. And so, I don’t think it is the primary lesson. When we read this in context, we realize that Jesus had a more specific message here. The context for Jesus’ teaching was there in verses 1-2. Jesus was responding to the scribes and Pharisees who criticized him for receiving and eating with tax collectors and sinners. This is why the third parable ended like it did. Jesus set things up with the first two parables. The third parable got very close to home then with a very direct story of a wayward sinner. And the third parable went beyond the rejoicing message that was found in the first two parables. It got there but went beyond to see the angry older brother unhappy that his brother was so received back and forgiven. You see, the scribes and the Pharisees were like this old brother. Jesus was speaking these parables against them. Verses 25-32 is the climax where he drives this home against them. Just like the father had pleaded with the older son that it was fitting to receive back the wayward son and it was fitting to celebrate, so too Jesus is entreating these scribes and Pharisees to have a similar heart of God toward wayward sinners.
You know, what is an interesting difference between the first two parables and the last one is that in the first two someone goes out after the lost. The shepherd searches for the lost sheep. The woman searches for her lost coin. But in the last parable, you have the father eagerly hoping for his son’s return. You might imagine the father being too old to search out the son himself. Clearly, he is waiting and watching and hoping for his son’s return because verse 20 says the father spotted the returning son while he was yet a long way off. But in this third parable, you don’t have what is there in the first two – someone seeking out the lost. And again, I think that is because the point is that the older brother should have sought out after his lost brother. Instead of grumbling at his return, a good older brother would have been longing for his brother’s return and would have went out and sought after him and himself been the one to call for everyone to rejoice at his being brought back home safe and sound.
But you see, while that is what the scribes and the Pharisees had failed to do, it is precisely what Jesus was doing and continues yet today to do. Jesus was like the good older brother who knew how his father longed for his lost son to be found, for his dead son to be made alive again. Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost. So then, the parable of the Prodigal Son and this whole chapter is first about admonishing the scribes and Pharisees for having the wrong attitude and perspective toward wayward sinners in Israel. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. And Jesus has come to bring healing and life from death to such sinners and tax collectors. Let us share with him in that mission, not spurn that mission.
So then, are you living right now as a wayward sinner? The bible says you are actually dead. Are you in your sin thinking you have found what life is about? The Bible says you are actually lost. Today’s message is Jesus seeking you out today to call you to repent and come to him and be saved. Come to Jesus and find mercy and grace and forgiveness and a restored relationship with God.
And if you are part of God’s people, have you been having God’s heart for the wayward? If so, are you helping to seek out those who are straying? In our church, there have been, are, and likely will be, people who are on the membership rolls but have been starting to wander. Have you reached out to them? Will you reach out to them? That is an application for today.
Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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