The Parable of the Lost Son

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are!”

  I John 3:1  

What happens in the new birth is not getting new religion but getting new life.  What happens in the new birth is not merely affirming the supernatural in Jesus but experiencing the supernatural in yourself.  What happens in the new birth is not the improvement of your old human nature but the creation of a new human nature – a nature that is really you, and is forgiven and cleansed; and a nature that is really new, and is being formed by the indwelling of the Spirit of God.

 John Piper, Finally Alive

The Encounter

 11Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 

 13“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 

 17“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 20So he got up and went to his father.
      “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 

 21“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 

 22“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. 

 25“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ 

 28“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ 

 31” ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'”

Luke 15:11-31

Some Observations

One of the privileges of living in San Francisco is having opportunities to meet some very interesting and gifted people.  About ten years ago, an older gentleman in the locker room at my gym remarked that I was tying my shoes incorrectly and offered a suggestion that involved reversing the order of crossing the laces to prevent them from coming untied while exercising.

I would run into this man frequently at the club and we struck up a friendship.  Sometime later, we exchanged contact information by swapping business cards (old school!).  The full name printed on his card sounded familiar and a quick Google hit indicated that he had won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1978 as co-discoverer of cosmic microwave background radiation.  This discovery and subsequent research provided evidence in support of the big bang theory of cosmology, according well with the ex-nihilo account of God’s creation in Genesis.

While having lunch several years ago, I shared what is perhaps Jesus’ most famous and beloved parable with him.  As a Jew (having escaped from Nazi Germany as a young boy), he had familiarity with the Old Testament.  His reaction to hearing the parable is etched into my memory.  With tears welling up in his eyes, he said, “I have never heard that before.  That’s the most beautiful story I have ever heard.”  My learned friend had just encountered God’s gorgeous grace and it confirmed for me the incredible power and beauty of Jesus’ rendering here, particularly when heard for the first time by fresh ears.


Jesus has just told the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin with his audience comprised of both tax collectors and “sinners,” as well as accusatory Pharisees.  Given the shocking shape of the story and hanging in conclusion of the older brother’s lack of response, we can surmise Jesus was directing this heavily in the Pharisees’ direction and we can imagine that their reaction was very different than that of my friend at the gym.

In both prior instances, the shepherd who lost the sheep and the woman who lost the coin initiate the search and rescue mission.  Likewise, neither the sheep nor the coin willfully chose to be separated from the shepherd or the woman. 

Here, the younger of two sons of a wealthy landowner asks for his inheritance before his father’s death, all but saying to his father that he wishes him dead.  The father complies and divides his property in order to provide the younger son his inheritance prematurely.  This property was not “liquid” in that it could be easily sold, but rather land, crops and animals that would require time and cost to the father to liquidate to give the son his share of the wealth (no hitting “sell” on a Schwab brokerage account and wiring some funds . . . ).  Yet the father does so anyway.  

In the shame-and-honor Near East culture of Jesus’ day, a sane patriarch would simply not do this without bringing great shame upon himself and household (and, by default, the son also bringing great shame upon himself in making such an egregiously disrespectful request).  I imagine the disgust and anger of the Pharisees at even the suggestion of such a possibility of either the son’s or father’s actions.

The son takes the booty and disappears into a foreign land, where he squanders all of it on wild living – presumably the usual default stuff . . . sex, drugs and rock and roll.  The money is soon gone and a famine hits the land; the son is required to hire himself out as a slave to a man that uses him to feed his pigs.  The son is so hungry and has nothing, and he longs to eat even what the pigs have been given.  He “comes to his senses” and realizes he’d be better off heading home, begging for his dad’s forgiveness, telling him that he is no longer worthy to be called his son and serving as a hired man (a hired man being the equivalent of a day laborer for hire, below that of a servant living in the father’s household; we can surmise a degree of humility and contrition in the son to suggest so low a returned position). 

In Act I, we have a pretty vivid picture of our own natural rebellion and dishonor against God.  We demand everything God has blessed us with now for our own selfish purposes and live self-governed lives and, in doing so, create a trail of wreckage and shame. 

As the son gets closer to home (but is still “a long way off”), the father sees the son and is filled with compassion for him.  He is on watch and desperately hoping for the son’s return, even after such a heinous offense.  The father who has been woefully wronged and disrespected by the son then runs until he reaches the son, throws his arms around him and kisses him (note that that the hugs and kisses start before the son has uttered a word!).  The son starts begging for forgiveness as planned, but the father abruptly cuts him off before he can get to hired man proposal and yells to his servants: “Quick!  Bring the best robe and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the fatted calf and kill it.  Let’s have a feast and celebrate.  For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”  The celebration begins . . . the son has passed from death to life.

In Act II, we see Jesus’ image of God as a deeply compassionate Father who waits and yearns for the return of the rebellious son.  He is a Father who does not wait for proper protocol or apologies, but rather is filled with so much love, desire and compassion for us that he runs towards us as we approach home; he then clothes us in robe, sandals and ring (respectively signifying honor, sonship and authority), marking our restoration as full sons and daughters.  We do nothing but crawl our way home; it is the Father who acts to fully and completely restore us in his overwhelming love.

If the Pharisees were disgusted and angry earlier in the story at the disrespect of the son and the shameful compliance of the father with the son’s request, their heads are likely exploding now.  Would a father in such a position not seek to inflict punishment on the son, require a period of sorrowful apology, demand restitution, mandate some probationary period (perhaps as the son intended as the hired man he was planning to propose to his father) and prove through all of this that he was truly repentant and had turned his life around?  Running toward him (another shameful and inconceivable act of a wealthy patriarch), falling on his neck, lavishing kisses on his face, fully restoring his honor, sonship and authority no questions asked?  This is wrong six ways to Sunday.  The shame-and-honor cultural lens of this time period intensifies the shock value to all those listening.

As with the recovery of the lost sheep and lost coin (where there is celebrating in heaven and among the angels when a sinner repents), the father calls for a great feast and celebration likely including the entire village (a fatted calf would weigh around 500 pounds, providing enough roasted veal for at least a hundred people).  Jesus’ description of God does not reconcile with the ornery traffic cop in the sky image tragically held by many people, including some believers.

In Act III, the music and dancing are swinging into high gear as the older son is returning from the field.  He asks the servants what is going on and they tell him that his younger brother is back safe and sound and that their father has called for a celebration.  The older brother is furious and refuses to go inside. 

The father comes outside and pleads with him to join the celebration.  The older brother explodes at the father in his own show of disrespect: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” 

The older brother believes that he is justified for doing everything right and is outraged that the party is for the one who has done everything wrong.  The father calmly responds that everything he has is the older son’s, but that the celebration and joy is warranted – the younger brother who was dead is now alive; he was lost and is now found. 

Recall that when Jesus began telling the parables of the lost sheep, coin and son, he was addressing the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were condemning him for eating with tax collectors and “sinners.”  Act III brings things full circle and Jesus leaves out any details on how the older brother responded to the father’s pleading – the ball is now in the Pharisees’ court.  Can they overcome their self-righteousness to be reconciled with a father filled with boundless love who is indiscriminate in his grace to even the most rebellious and wayward people, e.g., the tax collectors and “sinners?” 

The other unspoken question is what becomes of the returned son.  What happens the morning after?  After sleeping among briars and thorns on the side of the road on the sorrowful journey home in rags, he now wakes up in a soft, comfortable bed.  The dim clinking of glasses, plates and silverware still being cleaned and put away by servants downstairs after the biggest party the town has ever seen (in his honor, after being so dishonorable!) can be heard downstairs.  The last 24 hours seem like an impossible dream, can this really have happened?  We do not know, but I imagine the son being so overwhelmed by the father’s love and mercy that – in his amazed and joyful gratitude – he will now live with a paramount purpose of pleasing and honoring the father in all he does.  There is nothing to prove, as the father has fully restored his sonship, but his obedient actions will be animated by a grateful desire to please his monumentally loving father.  Our posture in Christ living as sons and daughters having experienced the bottomless depth of God’s forgiveness should be the same!

Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, is one of the more illuminating treatments of this parable I’ve read (highly encourage reading it).  Nouwen observes that each of us is very likely a mix of the younger rebellious son and older judgmental son; we rebel against God in many ways, yet find it very easy to discern and critique the sins in others that we don’t struggle with and point to our own virtues. 

Jesus indicates that the father wants both to be reconciled to him.  Just as he embraces and takes back the younger son, he pleads and reasons with the older son to join the party.  Jesus is extending a graceful olive branch to the Pharisees here (and the Pharisee inside each of us as well).

Nouwen also notes that this parable is more about the father than either the younger or older son.  It is the father who acts and initiates action to reconcile both sons to himself, with deep love and compassion for both.  Nouwen’s ultimate conclusion is that Jesus points to our very call and purpose in life.  We are not to remain immature sons after our reconciliation with God, but to take on his attributes as the loving father. 

All of Jesus’ teaching corroborates this idea.  We are to become “compassionate as the Father is compassionate,” full of love, grace, mercy and a deep desire to see the restoration and redemption of those around us.  We are the ones called to extend the arms of God’s embrace, put our healing hands of blessing on the shoulders of broken people, clothe them with a redeemed identity in Christ and set the festive table of celebration.  That is Jesus’ mission – it must become that of his disciples as well (that’s us).  What a high calling! 

Nouwen’s book has meant a lot to Sara and me as we have struggled with not being able to have children of our own.  It is so clear that we can be – and are called to be – used by God to be “fathers and mothers” to those God has placed around us, regardless of age, desperately in need of hands of God’s blessing and restoration upon their shoulders.  Praise God for the immense joy that this calling brings and the “life to the full” that our response, even very imperfectly, provides. 

Jesus packs the luminous beauty the gospel into this short story in perhaps the most potent form ever conceived.  No sermon ever preached can rival this.

I John 3:1 from above: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are!”  Living in this reality, may we experience the same joy and amazement contained in John’s two exclamation points today . . . in our gratitude, may God use us to pour out his blessing, healing and restoration on those around us.


“The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.”

  Proverbs 18:10

A Prayer

“I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me.  When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out my untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted.  

I remember you, O God, and I groaned; I mused and my spirit grew faint.  You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak.  I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night.  My heart mused and my spirit inquired.

Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal; the years of the right hand of the Most High.’  I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.  I will meditate on all your works and consider your mighty deeds.  

Your ways, O God, are holy.  What god is so great as our God?”

  Psalm 77:1-6, 10-13