My series on Luke got put on hold because I didn’t preach at all for a while (whooping cough can be really, really nasty, if that was what it was, and if that isn’t what it was, then whatever it was can be really, really nasty :)) and then there were a couple other things I needed to preach. But I’m back to Luke, and yesterday I preached on Luke 15.
This chapter contains three parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son (more commonly known as the Prodigal Son). The parables were given in response to what is described in the first two verses of the chapter.
1 Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.
2 And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.
That was a terrible thing, as far as they were concerned — to receive sinners, and eat with them. Jesus responded with three parables, pointing out their error.
It is sometimes said that these parables are intended to refute the Pharisees and the scribes, and to teach us not to have their self-righteousness. If the Prodigal Son were the only parable Jesus told in the context, there would be something to be said for that. But we’ve already seen in Luke an emphasis on God’s loving desire to bring lost sinners into a proper relationship with Him. So I would suggest that the rebuke to these religious leaders, while obviously present, is not the main point, not the reason for which these parables are recorded.
The main point? The compassionate heart of our loving God towards His lost ones who have gone astray. We don’t see any self-righteous condemning older brother in the first two parables, that only comes in on the last. That’s the only parallel to the Pharisees, and there weren’t any Pharisaic sheep or coins, so we can’t see them directly in those parables. What we DO see is the rejoicing of the Father (not the rejoicing of the angels, as is often said, but of the One who is in the presence of the angels — I do think the angels rejoice when God does, though :)).
These parables primarily teach us God’s heart towards us and other lost sinners. They only secondarily teach us that the self-righteous behaviour of the religious leaders, as typified by the elder brother in the parable of the lost son, is wrong — wrong because it is out of touch with the heart of the Father.
These parables rebuke our self-righteousness, but far more, they teach us of the Father’s compassion, extended not just to others, but especially to us. What is rarely mentioned, but I’d like to bring out, is that compassion extends even to the self-righteous — the sin of self-righteousness is not unpardonable, either! In verse seven, Jesus issued a challenge to those who think they have no need of repentance — there’s not so much joy in heaven over you:
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.
That challenge is particularly stark when seen in the light of his earlier teaching:
I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
Jesus is challenging them with their need to repent, that their attitude is effectively a claim to need no repentance. That brings no joy to the Father, for they will perish. This is not merely condemnation, however — He is reaching out even to these self-righteous ones, challenging them to consider their own position. We see this illustrated at the very end of the chapter. For in verse 28, the rejoicing father does not send a servant out, nor does he sit back and say, “Well, that son is being self-righteous, so he can just miss the feast.”
Just as the father went out on the road to meet the returning prodigal, so he goes out into the field to meet the lingering self-righteous one. He does not deny the elder son’s charges against the prodigal. He simply challenges him on his failure to share in the father’s joy. In the eyes of the elder son, the prodigal is “this thy son.” To the father, he is “this thy brother.” He’s not only my son, he’s your brother.
The heart of our Father is compassion, compassion even for the self-righteous. He wants to bring us together into loving fellowship with Him and with each other, whether we are profligate prodigals in a far country, or proud prodigals in the field. That won’t happen until the profligate prodigals come home, but it also won’t happen until the proud prodigals come out of the field. Otherwise, they aren’t in the feast other. The Father calls to both to come to the feast of joy.
Our pride is just as grievous to Him as our profligacy. He desires both to end, and rejoices when His children come home.
“This man receiveth sinners.” Yes, He does indeed. May He give us grace to rejoice in His compassion towards us, and to share and rejoice in extending that same compassion to others. If only we really knew how deep and broad is His love, for us and for others. That’s a lesson we’ll never quit learning in this life. I’m not even sure we’ll know all there is to know of it “when we’ve been there ten thousand years.” Whether in the field or in the far country, won’t you come on home?