Lost and Found
Topic: Parables Passage: Luke 15:1–15:32
“LOST AND FOUND”
It has happened to us all...more times than we care to admit. Call it “the case of the missing car keys,” or “the missing cell phone,” or whatever else it is that you have a hard time keeping track of. You remember laying it “right there,” but now it’s gone. “Poof!”... vanished into thin air. After a lengthy search, the item is at last found and equilibrium is restored to your momentary out-of-control world. There is probably no elation or exuberant joy in locating it...just a passing “sigh of relief,” a lowering of your anxiety level, and a resumption of life without giving it further thought.
There are some things, however, that once lost and recovered bring a great sense of rejoicing and celebration. And that is what we read of in the 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. I invite you to turn there with me, and we will read this chapter in its entirety:
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.’”
Friends and foes alike gathered to hear Jesus teach, but their responses to what He said were vastly different. Verses 1 and 2 of this passage tell us that the downcast of society—“the tax collectors and the sinners”—eagerly listened to His instruction, whereas the “religious elite”—that is, “the Pharisees and the scribes”—appear to have had a pre-conceived bias toward what He said. This latter group simply didn’t like the fact that Jesus hung out with “sinners.”
Recognizing this, Jesus responded with a series of parables intended to draw a line of demarcation between the two groups. In all three of the parables something of value is lost and is later found. The first two parables—that of the lost sheep and that of the lost coin—are stated briefly and to the point, but the third—the parable of the lost son—is given in greater detail. All three make the same point.
Before we enter into the text, it is helpful for us to recall the nature and purpose of a biblical parable. The word itself comes from a Greek term (“παραβολη”) that refers to “placing of one thing beside another” for the purpose of comparison or illustration. Jesus often spoke in parables, and He did so for two reasons: to reveal truth to those willing to receive it, and to conceal truth from those who were not. By obscuring the meaning of the parables from unbelievers, our Lord was actually showing mercy, because the more truth they heard and spurned, the greater their judgment would be.
In verses 3 through 7, we find the parable of the lost sheep. The shepherd owns one hundred sheep and one of them wanders off. He leaves the ninety-nine and goes searching for that one until he finds it. And when he does there is great “rejoicing.” And then in verses 8 through 10, we find the parable of the lost coin. A woman owns ten silver coins and one goes missing. She searches the entire house until she finds it. And when she does there is again great rejoicing. Please notice that the Lord concludes both parables in a similar way. There is great joy in the presence of God “over one sinner who repents.” If we learn nothing more from these parables, then we see right away that heaven is a place of great joy!
The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin provide the prologue to the third, the parable of the lost son. It is here, in the story better known as “the parable of the prodigal son,” where we will be focusing our attention this morning. Most of us are familiar with its content, but we may not be as clear when it comes to its interpretation and application. Perhaps some introductions are in order. So let’s begin with...
The profile of the family.
Here we have the account of a father who has raised two boys. We are not told the ages of the sons, but it may help our understanding of the parable to presume that one was likely in his late-teens to early-twenties, while the other was probably several years older.
The father is depicted as a wise and wealthy man, but even more significantly as one who loves his sons very much. He provides for them, seeks their well-being; but will not force them into obeying him against their wills.
The older son is what we might call “proper” and “respectable.” He is obedient and dutiful, perhaps never giving his father a moment of worry. With a degree of imagination, one has described him this way: “The elder son is well-groomed, serious minded, industrious, intelligent, perfectionistic, perhaps fresh from the university—in other words, what one might call ‘the ideal son.’” He’s the one with all the accomplishments and honors, the so-called “successful son,” the one who is bragged about to neighbors and friends at church.
And then there’s the other son, and he may have been just that: the “other” son. He’s the one that people have to ask about because you may not talk about him very much. He is probably as different from the older son as night is from day. He seems to have been the “free spirit” of the family, the one who pushes all the family rules to and beyond their limit. Far from being a perfectionist, he is carefree, taking life as he finds it…not very serious about anything. He may have been just as intelligent as his older brother…it’s just that he marched to the beat of a different drummer.
There came a day when the younger son felt that it was time for him to leave and go out on his own. We are not given all the details, but for some reason this young man grew restless in the home where he had been raised. Perhaps he had been living in the long shadow cast by his older brother’s reputation. For whatever the reason, he decided to leave home, asking his father to give him his inheritance now. Undoubtedly, from a wise and loving heart, the father sought to dissuade his younger son; but when he saw that his efforts to reason with him were falling on deaf ears, he relented and complied with the request. Verse 12 says that “he divided his property between them.”
Let’s not pass over that statement too hastily. If we do we will miss a few significant things. In the first place, those who have studied ancient Middle Eastern culture tell us that to request one’s inheritance before the death of the father was tantamount to wishing him dead. Such requests were unheard of in biblical times. In essence, the younger son was saying—if not openly, at least in his heart—“I don’t really care if my father lives or dies. All I want is his money…and I want it now!”
Secondly, did you notice that the father “divided his property between them”? In other words, both sons—not just the younger one, but both—received their inheritance when the father began dividing it.
And then third, the word for “property” in this phrase is not the term that we would expect. Instead it is the word “βιοs,” from which we get the term “biology,” or “the study of living things.” Granted, the term could mean “livelihood,” but it is better understood in its most basic sense here. It means “life.” The father was willing to give up his “life” for his two sons.
It wasn’t long before the younger son gathered all of his things together and left with his pockets full, departing for what the passage calls “a far country.” He wanted to separate himself from home and all of those “restrictions” that had “cramped his style.” He was going to the city; he was going to live it up; he was going to be “free.”
Henri Nouwen provides further insight into the son’s decision when he writes, “The son’s ‘leaving’ is, therefore, a much more offensive act than it seems at first reading. It is a heartless rejection of the home in which the son was born and nurtured.” So, without looking back, off he went. For a time the younger son was “living the dream.”
Meanwhile, back at home, the older son continued to work alongside his father in the family business. While he was probably happy to be rid of his little brother, he also may have envied him…as we see later. As for the father, day after day and night after night, he never stopped thinking about his younger son, wondering how he was getting along. “Was he alright?” “Was he still alive?”
We are not told how much time elapses in this passage, but by its end we find the prodigal back home…he and the father reunited in a touching scene while the older son’s deep resentment and angry bitterness are finally exposed.
That, in a nutshell, is the story. But what are we to make of it? In order to answer that question, I believe we need to take a deeper look at the three main characters found in this parable. Each has something to say to us...and perhaps about us.
First, let’s look more closely at...
The path of the younger son (verses 11-19).
We have already discussed the personality of this young man, noting that he grew tired of the family restrictions with which he had been raised. So, with a fistful of dollars and a headful of dreams, he headed off for the bright lights of the “far country.” The text says that he “squandered his property (his inheritance) with reckless living.” He thought that, by living out his fantasy, he would find everything he had been “deprived of” at home. Instead of fulfilled expectations, he ended up with futility and emptiness.
For a while he lived it up. There was no shortage of friends and lovers, as long as he had the money to spend on them. But one day he reached into his wallet and found it empty. He had blown it all. His money was gone and, soon...and so were his friends. To make matters worse, a famine hit the land and there were no jobs to be found. Verse 14 says, “And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.” The truth is, he had been in need all along. He just had not yet realized it.
In time things went from “bad” to “worse.” Although he managed to hire on with a farmer in the land, he was given the degrading job of “feeding the pigs”…“slopping the hogs.” What greater humiliation could a Jewish boy have placed before him? In fact, so hard up was he that the text says he desired to get into the pigpen and eat pig-food with the pigs! That, my friends, is “skid-row!” There were no community charities or soup kitchens in those days…no food stamps. The end of verse 16 is striking: “No one gave him anything.” He was desperate and help was nowhere to be found.
At last, verse 17 says, “he came to himself.” One day he looked around at his deplorable condition. Perhaps for the first time since he had left, he thought of home. “What a fool I am,” he must have said to himself. “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger. I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’”
For him, it was truly a matter of life and death. Either remain in the imprisonment of his own rebellion, which had resulted in the world’s rejection, or return to the freedom of the father’s house. He had to decide. At last he recognized his need, and at last he admitted it. His plan would be to confess his foolish mistake and ask his father to take him back...not as a son, for he knew he didn’t deserve that privilege, but as a hired hand...a servant, a slave.
Please notice that there were four steps involved in the prodigal’s return from the distant country. In verse 14, he became aware that he had a need…in verse 17, he admitted that need…in verse 18, he acknowledged that there was someone who could meet his need…and (don’t miss this) in verse 20, he knew that he must arise and go to that one—the only one—who could meet his need.
All four steps were necessary if he was to be rescued from the deplorable situation in which he found himself. That is because sin in its very essence is rebellion against the Father...rebellion that can only be quashed through repentance. To “repent” is to have an accurate assessment of one’s own condition before God, and a willingness to humble oneself in order to receive the Father’s aid.
We must each walk the path from the “far country” because, in truth, we are all desperately needy people who have rebelled against a loving Father. The Bible says that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. It further declares that the result of our sin is eternal separation from the Heavenly Father. And yet that same Bible further tells us that God is able to “supply every need...according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (cf. Philippians 4:19). When we are made aware of our need as sinners, admit our sin before God, acknowledge Christ as the only One who can meet our need, and then arise and go to Him, we are welcomed into the Father’s house and given the gift of eternal life. Have you done that? There is no way to the Father apart from the journey to the cross that Jesus took (cf. John 14:6). It is the only way that leads home.
Repentance on the part of the younger son brought him from disgrace and desperation in the “far country” to a privileged position in the father’s house. But what was the father doing while his younger son was away? He was waiting. Verses 20-24 speak of…
The patience of the father (verses 20-24).
Perhaps you are here this morning and you are waiting for someone who is dear to you to return from the “far country.” Perhaps that person has broken your heart time and again. You have urged and pleaded with that one, but your love and compassion continue being rejected. Your prayers seem to go no higher than the ceiling of the room in which you offer them. Because God is the ultimate Father represented in this parable, and His heart continually aches over the lostness of prodigals, consider the fact that he has permitted you to be in a position where you are able to identify with His heart.
During the weeks, months and perhaps years of his son’s absence, I wonder how often the father—with tears filling his eyes—looked up the road leading from the house, hoping against hope of seeing his younger son returning home. Verse 20 tells us that “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him.” How many times had he thought the figure in the distance might possibly be his son, only to be disappointed again and again. But on this day his doubts were dispelled and his hopes were realized. He saw him “from a distance” and the text says that he was “felt compassion” That is a very mild translation! The word “compassion” means more than simply “pity.” It means to be moved with such an intense feeling of empathy that one cannot keep from taking helpful action. It’s the kind of compassion that can’t sit still. It’s the word (“σπλαγχνιζομαι”) that was used of Jesus when He looked upon the lost multitude “like sheep without a shepherd” (cf. Matthew 9:36). We were those sheep, and His compassion moved Him to die on a cross for us.
So moved was the father that he could not wait for his son to arrive. Instead, he ran out to meet him—embracing him and kissing him. One can only imagine the tears flowing freely that moment as the father’s patient prayers were at last answered.
Before the son could even finish the confession he had rehearsed, the father ordered his servants to “bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.” Taking these in reverse order, the “shoes” were the gift of “sonship.” “Hired servants” went barefooted, but “sons” wore shoes. The “robe” was the gift of “honor.” We think of the coat Jacob made for Joseph, his favored son (cf. Genesis 37:3). And the “ring” was the gift of “authority.” It bore the signet of the father and allowed the son to act in the father’s name and on his behalf.
Hear the father’s joy as he declares in verse 24, “This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” “Lost and...found.” Sound familiar? First, there was the lost sheep... then the lost coin...and now the lost son. All valuable...all lost...and all found. And in all of their finding, we hear the sound of joy...joy beyond measure. And the clearest expression of joy is that which is emanating from the heart of the father.
As with the father in the parable, so the Heavenly Father patiently waits for the wayward to come to Him. So moved was His heart with His compassion toward us that He was prompted to act on our behalf. He provides for us eternal life and the abundance of the Father’s house if we will but return to Him. Have you personally experienced the Father’s compassion? Do you occupy a place of “sonship” within His family? If not, please know that He is running out to meet you. His arms are extended to you. Will you humble yourself and fall into His embrace?
The path of the younger son…the patience of the father. But lest he escape our notice, we need to also consider…
The problem of the older son (verses 25-32).
While the reunion was going on between the father and his younger son, the older brother was away from the house. From out in “the field,” he heard the festive sounds of celebration. Upon learning that his estranged brother had returned home and that his father had warmly received him, verse 28 reveals that he “was angry and refused to go in.” Joy and resentment can never coexist. We find here an interesting contrast: while the father felt compassion for the son who was lost and had been found, the brother felt nothing but anger. He was filled with jealousy and disgust over what he considered to be an injustice. After all, he had served the father for many years, but never once had the father so honored him.
But please notice that the older son was no less-loved by the father. In fact, the text says that the father “came out and entreated (pled with) him” to join in the celebration, and reminding him, “all that is mine is yours.” But the disgruntled son adamantly refused…and here we encounter a sometimes overlooked fact. You see, there is actually more than one “prodigal” in this story. Both of the sons were estranged from the father. They had simply traveled different routes. While one had journeyed afar, the other had remained at home; but the heart of neither had beat in rhythm with that of their father.
You can hear the disdain for the father on the part of the older brother when he says in verses 29 and 30, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I have never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me (so much as ) a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” Do you see the contrast? The repentant son had said to the father, “I have sinned,” but the self-righteous older son said, “I have served.”
The older son believed that by working hard enough and long enough he could merit the father’s favor. Jesus and the cross can be avoided if we can keep all of the moral laws God has laid down. But of course, none of us are able to do that. Jesus is the only One who lived a perfectly sinless life. The younger son, however, realized that there was nothing in himself that was worthy, and if he was to be restored to the father it would have to be on the basis of the father’s mercy and grace.
Regardless of the so-called “respectability” or “degree” of our sin, we are all guilty sinners in need of forgiveness and restoration. There are no “small” or “large” sins in God’s economy. “Sin is sin,” as my Dad used to tell me. That is because all sin—every sin—is an offense to a holy God and is, therefore, punishable. At the divine bar of justice, before which we all must appear, the Lord will drop His gavel and pronounce sentence upon us all— “guilty” as charged. It matters not whether we have been to the “far country” or have stayed close to home…each of us has the same need: restoration with the Father.
We are, therefore, left with but two options…the first is to claim the Father’s offer of forgiveness, which the younger son did; or the second is to seek to justify ourselves, which the older son attempted to do. The Scriptures make it clear, our relationship with the Father must be on His terms. We must come God’s way; and His way leads to a cross...the cross upon which Jesus Christ died to pay the price God required in order that you might be restored. There is no other way to the Father’s house. There is no other road home.
Because of how this parable has been labeled, we have come to apply the word “prodigal” to one who has rebelled and wandered away from family values in general, and specifically from God. If you were to look up the word in a dictionary, however, you would find the definition of “prodigal” to mean “lavish,” “wasteful,” and “recklessly extravagant.” With that in mind, I’d like for you to consider who the real “prodigal” is in this story.
This parable is about “joy,” remember. There is “joy in heaven...(and) joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Earlier I said that “Heaven is a place of great joy.” But I need to add something to that, and it is this: Heaven’s joy is based on God’s lavish grace shown to repentant sinners! You see, it is the father who is the real “prodigal” in this story. In the words of Tim Keller, the Heavenly Father is “the prodigal God.” He is the One who became “recklessly extravagant” by yielding up the life of His uniquely beloved Son in order to bring many sons and daughters to glory (cf. Hebrews 2:10).
It is, of course, Jesus who shows us what true “sonship” really is. He is the younger son without being rebellious. Think about it...Jesus left the Father’s house to go to a distant country, not out of selfishness or self-interest, but in order to offer His own life so that He might gain more sons to take home to be with Him forever. Jesus is also the older son without being resentful. In everything and in every way, He is obedient to the Father. This is true divine “sonship,” and it is to this that you and I are called, as well. Because of Jesus I, too, can become a true son of the Heavenly Father.
Looking back at this chapter in its entirety, we see that Jesus spoke these three parables—and particularly this last one—with the two groups in mind who are mentioned in verses 1 and 2. The younger son represented “the tax collectors and sinners,” those who were desperate and “drew near” to Jesus. The older son was a picture of “the Pharisees and the scribes,” those justified themselves and grumbled at His words.
There is probably a lot of both sons inherently within each of us. Whether I am like the younger son, looking for fulfillment in places where it cannot be found, or like the older son, who has sought for fulfillment through self-effort, God’s plan is for us to become like little children (cf. Matthew 18:3). Being in the Father’s house requires that I humble myself and fall upon the compassionate grace of the Father, in order to be received as His son.
It is sin that led to our lost condition and marked us for death in the first place. And it is only through repentance and faith that we are found and made alive. There is “more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” But none of that latter group exists. “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). Both sons in this parable were lost and in need of “repentance”...but only did and was found by the Father. The way home remains the same today.