Harmony of the Gospels

(23) Parables of Lost Sheep, Coin, Son
(1 Peter 2:25) Luke 15:1-32

This chapter has probably got the best-loved parable that our Lord told; we call it the parable of the Prodigal Son.

The background for this parable is that multitudes of publicans and sinners came to hear the Lord Jesus.  The Pharisees and scribes began to murmur, to criticize Him because of this.  They were shocked that He would welcome them and even eat with them.

His answer to the murmurings of the Pharisees and scribes is a parable.  We usually think of it as three different parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son.  Actually, it’s three parts of one parable.  There is a common theme that runs through all three parts; it’s His love and concern for sinful men and women.  

(Luke 15:1-2) Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.  And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.

I want to pause for a moment and look at who the publicans were.  The class designated by this word in the New Testament was employed as collectors of the Roman revenue. The Roman senate farmed-out the collection of the direct taxes and the customs duty to capitalists who undertook to pay a given sum into the treasury called the publican, and so received the name of publican.  Contracts of this kind fell naturally into the hands of the richest class of Romans.  They appointed managers who were the actual custom-house officers, who examined each bale of goods, exported or imported, assessed its value more or less arbitrarily, wrote out the ticket, and enforced payment.  The name publican was used in the New Testament exclusively, for these Roman agents. The system was essentially a corrupt one. The publicans were encouraged to overcharge whenever they had an opportunity.  In Luke 3:13; they brought false charges of smuggling in the hope of extorting hush-money, and in Luke 19:8; they detained and opened letters on mere suspicion.  It was the worst of all livelihoods. In addition to their other faults, the publicans of the New Testament were regarded as traitors, defiled by their frequent interaction with the heathen Romans, willing tools of their conquerors.

(Luke 15:3-7)  And he spake this parable unto them, saying, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?  And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.  And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.   I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

A Parable is a short, simple story designed to communicate a spiritual truth, religious principle, or moral lesson; a figure of speech in which truth is illustrated by a comparison or example drawn from everyday experiences.  A parable is often no more than a story, using symbolic language to illustrate a particular truth.  In a parable something is placed alongside something else, in order that one may throw light on the other.  A familiar custom or incident is used to illustrate some truth that is less familiar.  Jesus’ characteristic method of teaching was through parables.  Although parables are often memorable stories, impressing the listener with a clear picture of the truth, even the disciples were sometimes confused as to the meaning of parables. For instance, after Jesus told the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24–30), the disciples needed interpretation in order to understand its meaning (Matt. 13:36–43). Jesus sometimes used parables in His teaching to reveal the truth to those who followed Him and to conceal the truth from those who did not (Matt. 13:10–17; Mark 4:10–12; Luke 8:9–10). His parables therefore fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 6:9–10. Like a double-edged sword, they cut two ways—enlightening those who sought the truth and blinding those who were disobedient.  

In His first parable, Jesus uses an animal that was very familiar to His audience.  The sheep is an exceedingly dumb animal, apparently not having much sense.  As such, it is sometimes used to picture the lost spiritual condition of people (Isa. 53:6; Jer. 50:6; Mt 9:36; I Pet 2:25).  This parable tells of a shepherd going out in search of one lost sheep while he leaves ninety-nine safely in the fold.  It is almost a universal human characteristic to go after that which one loses.  Jesus sees the plight of lost sinners and goes to seek and to save them (Lk. 19:10), while the Pharisees care little about lost sinners.  When he finds the sheep, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.  The poor sheep was probably exhausted from wandering, exposure, and hunger.  The shepherd did not mind the extra burden or journey because he rejoiced.  When he reached home, his friends and neighbors were summoned because of the shepherd’s great joy and because they may have aided in the search.

The shepherd in this parable is the Great Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ.  We are the sheep.  He had one hundred sheep and one of them got lost.  Frankly, that would be a pretty good percentage, to start out with one hundred sheep and end up with ninety-nine.  This Shepherd, however, would not be satisfied with just ninety-nine sheep.  When one sheep got lost He went out and looked for it.  When He found it, He put it on His shoulders, the place of strength.  He is able to save to the uttermost.  The high priest of the children of Israel wore an ephod.  On the shoulders of the ephod were two stones.  On them were engraved the names of the twelve tribes—six tribes on one stone and six on the other.  The high priest carried the children of Israel on his shoulders.  Our High Priest carries us on His shoulders, and we will not become lost.  When He starts out with one hundred sheep He will come through with one hundred sheep—not ninety-nine.  This is a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ out looking for those who are His.  

(Luke 15:8-10)  Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?  And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.  Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.

Jesus second parable gave an example with which the women in His audience could readily identify.  He described a woman who loses one of her ten silver coins, worth about a day’s wage (Matt. 20:2). These coins, which she wore as a headdress, represented her savings and probably formed part of her dowry. At issue was not only the value of the coin but also the fact that losing part of her dowry would be a shameful thing.

Jesus pictured her living in a peasant’s house which would have a low doorway and few or no windows. To find the coin she lit a lamp and diligently swept every nook, listening for the coin’s telltale clink and watching for its gleam in the lamplight. When at last she found it, her joy knew no bounds! She rushed to tell her friends the wonderful news and called them to rejoice with her.

Jesus then applied the parable by declaring the joy that the angels share together with God when sinners return in repentance to Him. The self-righteous scribes and Pharisees in His audience clearly lacked this joy (Luke 15:2), but God’s gracious acceptance was wonderful news to the ordinary women and men who heard Him (v. 1).

The coin was lost right at home. People may be members of good churches and still be lost and go to hell. The sheep may have had a vague idea it was lost, but this coin could picture those with no knowledge of being lost. We need to search for those who are lost to bring them to Christ. Joy in the presence of God’s angels over repenting sinners (vs. 10) shows that they are interested in our salvation (cf. I Pet 1:10–12), though they do not aid it.

(Luke 15:11)  And he said, A certain man had two sons:

Immediately, our Lord begins to put the background on the canvas.  And I see a lovely home (because this will represent the home of father, the heavenly Father) and it’s a glorious home.  It’s a home that has all the comforts and all the joys and all the love that ever went into a home.  In that home there is the “certain man”, and that is God the Father.  And this Father had two sons.  He has more sons than that, but these are representative, you see.  One of these boys is called the elder and the other is called the younger.  We see the lovely home, and out in front there stand the Father and two boys.  And now let’s watch our Lord put some more in the picture for us.

(Luke 15:12-13)  And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.  And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.

Here in this lovely home, a home in which there was everything in the world that the heart of man could want—love, joy, fellowship, comforts—this young boy does a very strange thing.  He says, “I’m tired of the discipline.  I don’t like it here.  I’d like to stretch my wings.  I’ve been looking over the pasture, and the grass over in the other field looks a lot greener to me.”  And I don’t know why that’s true, but the grass in the other field always looks greener.  The boy looked out from home and said, “If I could only get away off yonder on my own, it would be wonderful.”  He didn’t like it at home; he fell out with his father and lost fellowship with him.  And so the father gave to him his inheritance, and the boy left with his pockets full of money—which he didn’t earn with work he had done at home himself.  Every bit that came to him, his father had given to him.  He didn’t get it by his ability, he didn’t get it because he was clever, and he didn’t get it because he worked hard.  The money he had in his pocket was there because he had a very generous father.  

I said it was highly unusual for the younger son to be allowed to spend the inheritance before his father’s death, since the law and tradition didn’t work that way.  Upon the death of the father, the firstborn son would receive two-thirds of the inheritance.  The younger son, however, would receive only one-third.  If the family included daughters, the younger son’s inheritance would be less so that the family could provide a dowry for the daughters when they married.  But here the father agreed and divided his “goods.”  The younger son probably converted the goods to money.  That is inferred from the phrase “gathered all together”.  The far country could represent the “world” or any place far-away from home.  The younger son engaged in an irresponsible lifestyle, including sexual promiscuity (vv. 13, 30).  

This boy found out what it was like to have what the world calls a good time.  He made all the nightclubs; and he had money.  And when you have money, you can get fair-weather friends.  For a time he lived it up.  He enjoyed the pleasures of sin for a season there in the far country.  Our Lord didn’t give us any details of what the boy did there, but we can imagine some of the things he did.  However, there did come a day when he finished living it up; he reached into his pocket and there wasn’t anything left.

(Luke 15:14)  And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.

Not only was he in a bad way financially, but the country is also in a bad way.  You see, in that country where he thought the grass was greener, the grass is all dried up.  They are having a famine in that land and this boy doesn’t know what to do.  If you want to know what I think; he was afraid to go home.  Now he is desperate.  Now he is going to do something that no Jew would ever do unless he has hit the bottom.  This boy has hit the bottom.  He can’t get a job.  He goes around seeing his fair-weather friends and he asks them for a loan, since he had been generous with them.  But they tell him, “I’m sorry, but no can do!”  After he goes from place to place he discovers that he doesn’t have any real friends. 

(Luke 15:15-16)  And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.  And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.

Finally, he goes to the edge of town where a man is raising pigs.  He asked the man for a job.  The man said, “I can’t pay you, but if you will care for the pigs you can eat what they do, if you can beat them to it.”  The man must have winced when he was told that, because for a Hebrew, you couldn’t get any lower than that—according to Mosaic Law you were to have nothing to do with pigs.  Therefore, the man who owned the farm must have been a Gentile.  

The flesh of swine was forbidden as food by the Levitical law, Lev. 11:7; Deut. 14:8; the loathing which the Jews as a nation had for it may be inferred from Isaiah. 65:4. No other reason for the command to abstain from swine’s flesh is given in the Law of Moses beyond the general one which forbade eating any animal as food which did not literally fulfill the terms of the definition of a “clean animal,” that is, that it was to be cloven-footed.

The word “husks” describes the fruit of a carob tree.  This tree is very common in Syria and Egypt; it produces pods, shaped like a horn, varying in length from six to ten inches, and about a finger’s width.  It is dark-brown, glossy, filled with seeds, and has a sweetish taste. It is used for food by the poor, and for the feeding of swine.

(Luke 15:17)  And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!

When he came to himself, he took the first step in repentance—the realization that what he was doing was wrong.  Sin does an awful thing to us.  It makes us see ourselves in the wrong light.  It makes us see the pleasures of this world in the wrong perspective, and we just don’t see clearly when we are in sin.  This boy when he was at home, looked out yonder at the far country, and it all looked so good—the grass was so green and the fun was so attractive; but now he came to himself.  And the first thing he did was a little reasoning.  He begins to use his intelligence.  He said, “You know, I’m my fathers son, and I am down here in the pigpen with the pigs, and back in my father’s home the servants are better off than I am.  When he began to think like that, he began to make sense.   And next we see that this young man acts like he’s intelligent.

(Luke 15:18-19)  I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.

The boy is thinking of his father’s house, and it brings back good memories.  The Lord Jesus said, “In my Father’s house there are many abiding places…” (John 14:2).  I believe back home his father is looking out the window.  He has been looking out the window every day since the boy left.  And do you know why he was looking out the window.  He knew that someday that boy would be trudging down the road coming home.  I believe that once you’re saved, you’re always saved; but I also believe that a Christian can get into sin.  But a Christian can’t stay in sin, because the Father is watching.  All of His sons will eventually come home.  They have the nature of a son—a new nature that God gives and the indwelling Holy Spirit.  The only place in the world they will be content is in the father’s house.   His children may go off to the far country and get as low as a person can possibly get, but they never stop being a son.  And one day they will get up out of the pigpen and say, “I will return to my Father’s house.”

(Luke 15:20)  And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.

He’s in rags, and you can almost smell him—you know, that pigpen smell!  There stands the boy, and the father goes and puts his arms around him and kisses him.

(Luke 15:21)  And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.

He had memorized a little speech.  He’s saying the thing he planned in the far country.  I think he repeated that little speech all the way home.  I think every step of the way he said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am not worthy to be your son, but would you please make me one of your hired servants.”  He started to say this to his father, but he didn’t get very far.  He got as far as, “I am not worthy to be called your son,” and then he was interrupted.  

(Luke 15:22-24) But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

If you really want to have a ball, you can’t do it in the far country.  If you’re a child of God, you can’t sin and get by with it. You may even go to the pigpen, but you can never enjoy it.  If you’re a son of the Father, there will come a day when you will say, “I will arise and go to my Father,” and you will go.  And when you go you will confess to Him, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  That’s the way a sinning child gets back into the fellowship of the father’s house.  In fact, the only way back is by confession.

The prodigal asked to become a “hired servant”.  While an ordinary slave was considered part of the family, a hired servant (or day laborer) could be dismissed at any time, since he was not a family member.  Although it was highly unusual for a proper Oriental father to run, Jesus portrayed God as the Father who ran, because His excitement was so great over the return of His son. The son was forgiven and accepted back into the home.  The Father immediately gave his son a robe, a ring, and sandals.  The “best robe” was a sign of position; he was still a member of the family.  It is a representation of the righteousness of Christ that covers the believer after he is cleansed.  The “ring” indicated authority; it acknowledges that he is a full-grown son with all the rights that go along with sonship.  And the “sandals” (a sign of freedom and luxury) were put on his bare feet to set him apart from the barefoot slaves. Since meat was not ordinarily eaten at meals, the “fatted calf” was a sign that this was a special occasion.

(Luke 15:25-28) Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.  And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.  And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.  And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.

This is the real Prodigal Son.  He is angry when he heard that his brother had returned and a party was being given in his honor.  He would not go in and join the others at the feast.  His father came out and pleaded with his son to come to the banquet.  The older brother didn’t want to go in, and so all of the father's pleading were of no avail.  The implication is that God through Christ was pleading with scribes and Pharisees to come and enjoy what God was doing through Christ.

The older son represents the scribes and the Pharisees—all those whose attitude about restoring sinners is one of resentment and anger.  The older son had been about his responsibilities in the field all day and had no idea that his brother had returned.  Rather than rush inside when he heard music and dancing, he stayed outside.  Already, you sense his reluctance to get in on the good time inside.  But curiosity could not keep him from calling one of the servants, who could explain what was happening.  The older brother had no clue as to what these things meant.  The servant tells him that his brother has returned safe and sound.  From a spiritual point of view it refers to salvation.  Only a sinner who has been converted—repenting of his sins and trusting in Christ—can be in a state of true spiritual health.

(Luke 15:29:29-32)  And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.  And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.   It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

The older son misunderstood the nature of his father’s mercy.  He could acknowledge the returned wanderer only as “this son of yours”, rather than as “my brother.”  He hurled his brother’s sinful, foolish choices at his father.  The younger son had been a disappointment economically (devoured your assets) and morally (with prostitutes).  His wicked conduct was willful and inexcusable, but his repentance was complete and his forgiveness absolute. He is a picture of every man born on this earth and in need of a Savior. It is almost ironical that everything the prodigal son sought in the far country was right at home. There was abundance, freedom, and rejoicing.

The father tells the elder son, “Everything I have is yours.”  That can be applied to any child of God, because God Himself gives His children everything they need.  And, we who receive His forgiveness can extend forgiveness to others.  We can say to those who have disappointed us, “I understand forgiveness because God has had mercy on me and forgiven me.  Therefore, I extend mercy and forgiveness to you.”  The Father tells the older son, “It was necessary to celebrate.”  Heaven must rejoice when sinners repent.  God’s people, therefore, must celebrate also.  

There is a third son in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  The younger son broke the Father’s heart, the elder son was out of fellowship and the third Son is the One who uttered the parable.  He is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  He is the ideal son without sin.  He came to a far country, not to run away, but to do the father’s will.  He did not spend His life in riotous living but in sacrificial dying.  He was not a Prodigal Son but a Prince of Peace, who shed His blood for the sins of the world.  He was not a wayward Son but a willing sacrifice.  He says, “But as many as receive Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of god, even to them that believe on His name” (John 1:12).  Salvation comes to those who simply believe on His name.

What then is the central theme of this parable?  Clearly the father symbolizes the Heavenly Father who extended to each son unconditional, forgiving love. The father’s part pictures God’s love for lost sinners.  The lost son in his repentant return indicates the repentant sinner; therefore, he also represents the publicans and sinners who had found in Jesus their Savior and friend, and were now eagerly listening to Him.  And the older son clearly points to the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees.  

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