Luke 15:11-32 The Truth about Reconciliation

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1 Luke 15:11-32 The Truth about Reconciliation Purpose Statement: Learn the nature of sin and repentance, marvelling at the Father s welcome and imitating that welcome of sinners. Context Luke 9:51 sees Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. This Jerusalem journey section runs until 19:44. There is lots of different types of material in the section; two recurring themes focus on opposition that Jesus faces and discipleship. Chapter 15, in some ways, combines both of these. Verse 1-2 set the scene for the chapter: - Verse 1 shows Jesus attracting tax collectors and sinners who have come to hear him. Luke has shown Jesus doing this in 5:30 at a banquet Levi has thrown and in 7:34 where Jesus repeats an accusation that he is a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were regarded as Jewish turncoats and traitors. They would have been considered unclean by strict Jews possibly due to their continual contact with Gentiles and their work on the Sabbath, as well as their unjust selfish practices. In many ways they were a subset of the group sinners. A sinner was anyone who was seen to have been unfaithful to God s law. It does not merely indicate those who have committed the worst kinds of sin. So this group was a large group. Given the call in Luke 14:35 it is ironic to see that it is this group of people who is drawing near to Jesus. As is consistent in Luke, this group is seen as having a problem. Luke does not down play the fact that these people are in real need precisely because they are sinners and tax collectors. - Verse 2 shows the reaction of the Pharisees and teachers of the law to this occurrence 1. The issue which seems to particularly exercise the religious leadership is that Jesus is enjoying table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners (this is also seen in 5:30 and 7:34, 39). Part of the reason for this grumbling is that the religious leaders would avoid all such contact with such unclean people. 1 See notes on 5:17-26 for more on Pharisees and teachers of the law.

2 What follows is a series of three parables which concern lost things being found with the response of rejoicing. - 15:3-7 the lost sheep - 15:8-10 the lost coin - 15:11-31 the lost son The lost sheep and the lost coin are very similar. In both something is lost, a search is made, when the lost is found other are called upon to rejoice. In both cases there is an explanation of sinners repenting and their being rejoicing in heaven. The final parable is much longer and seems to develop these themes in significant and important ways. Notes on the Text: Verses These verses set the theme of for the rest of the chapter. We are introduced to the characters, the Father and two sons. Although this parable is traditionally called the parable of the prodigal son there is a focus at different points on the Father and each son in turn. The following paragraph written by Tannehill is helpful in thinking about what follows: Parables are often built upon a basic contrast. In this parable the situation is more complex than usual because there is a struggle between two contrasts. The parable beings, There was a man who had two sons. This beginning suggests that the two sons will represent the main contrast. This, indeed, is the way the elder son wants to tell the story; for him it is the story of a prodigal son and a faithful son, and the contrasting ways that they have been treated by their father (vv 29-30). The way the narrator tells the story, however, suggests that the basic contrast is between the father and the elder son. It is a story of two contrasting responses to the younger son s homecoming. The conflicting responses are highlighted at the end, as the father tries to persuade the elder son. 2 In verse 12 we have the statement from which the rest of the story proceeds. The younger son asks his father for his share of the estate. This is a shocking request as the inheritance would have normally been paid upon death (there is some evidence that a Father may divide it before death). The son in requesting the inheritance is expressing his desire to completely sever the relationship with his Father. Normal practices at the time would have meant that the older son received a double portion of inheritance (thus the younger son would have received 1/3). As remarkable as the request is that the Father willingly divides his property. The word translated property literally means the resources needed to maintain life, means of subsistence. The giving of the inheritance 2 Tannehill, Robert C. (1996) Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke. Nashville: Abingdon. pp

3 would not have meant withdrawing money from the bank, it would have meant dividing up land and selling possessions. Verse These verses described succinctly the action of the younger after his father divides the estate, - He gathers up all his possession (probably selling off new acquired land) - Set out to go to a distant country (probably indicating that the distance from his Father created through his request is confirmed and increased). - That he squandered his wealth in wild living. What the wild living is we do not know, although the younger son will claim it included visiting prostitutes. - He spends everything and is left in need when a famine comes. - His descent into poverty mean he ends up hiring himself out to look after pigs. He hires himself out to Gentile as the nature of the work demonstrates. That he, a Jew, was looking after pig emphasises just how low he is brought, as pigs were an unclean animal 3. - He longs to eat the pods the pigs ate, yet he has no one to help. The picture we are left with is of a man who had it all but has been brought low, completely degraded and alone. His bid for freedom away from his Father has completely failed. Verses At his lowest point, the Son comes to his senses. When he comes to his senses he thinks about his father s hired men. The hired man would be a day labourer, who would have worked on a day to day basis. Even these lowest of his father s labourers had food to spare. This is in contrast to his position now. In verse 18 we begin to hear the internal thoughts of the younger son. He begins to make a plan - He will return to his Father. - He will say he has sinned, acknowledging that he is not worthy to be called a son. - He will ask to be made a lowly servant in his Father s household Notice that these two points are repeated in the text when the son returns (verse 21). Thus the son s actions provide a description of sin. So sin is to be seen as wanting to take what the Father 3 For a Jew to become unclean was a sign of being out of relationship with God and with the rest of society. The connection with sin is very strong. The choice by Jesus of him becoming a pig farmer would have been incredibly shocking for a Jewish audience.

4 gives but live apart from him. It is a bid for freedom to live life in the way which I determine to be good and right. The consequences of sin are also pictures in the son s descent. Although sin was good for a while the effect ultimately is to be destitute, shamed and alone. This picture conformed to the picture which we see in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve there also make a bid for freedom from God. Their bid for freedom also results in the destruction of their relationship with God and each other. This descent caused by sin is then common to all people. Also pictured here is what repentance looks like. The son humbly returns to the father to throw himself on the mercy of God. There is no excuse to be made, only confession and humble request. The two previous parables in chapter 15 have finished with a statement about rejoicing over sinners who repent. Here in this incident we get a deeper understanding of who a sinner is and what it looks like to repent. Verses Having made up his mind the son gets up to return. As he returns the focus shifts to the Father. We are told: - He sees him while he was a long way off. This implies he was watching. - He was filled with compassion - He ran to his son - He hugs him - He kisses him It is a striking picture of the emotional welcome, acceptance and love of the Father. All this is done before the son has even uttered a word. The Son then begins to rehearse his prepared speech. He only gets to confess his sin and unworthiness. This underlines the theme of sin, confession and repentance. He doesn t complete his prepared speech, whether this is because the father interrupts him or he realises that it is no longer appropriate we do not know (Tannehill, 1996, p242). In verse 22 the extraordinary welcome continues with the father s extravagant actions: - He gives him the best robe - Put a ring on his finger. This may have been a ring with a seal representing the son s membership in the family (Bock 1996, 1314).

5 - Sandals on his feet. Sandals would have been a sign of wealth, immediately this son goes from destitution to wealth. - Bring fattened calf. Bock notes that families would have kept a calf specially fed and prepared for special occasions (1996, 1315) 4. The scene finishes with a prodigal feast being thrown by the father. The father is not planning a quiet family gathering but is making a public gesture to proclaim his acceptance of his son so that the whole community will follow suit. [...] All this is done without requiring any period of testing or acts of public penance from the wayward son (Tannehill 1996, 242). The reason for the Father s action is given in his words in verse 24 (note they are repeated in verse 32). He says this son of mine 5 : - Was dead and is alive again - Was lost and is found Both of these picture a contrast before and after. The before half refers to the sinful rebellion above and the after to his return and welcome. So adding to the picture of sin we see that it means someone is dead, and lost. The way back from being dead and lost comes through humble repentance of sin. This means being found and raised to life. The result then is that the Father celebrates. This links to the celebration which occurs in the two previous parables. Also it seems to picture even more strongly the rejoicing that happens in heaven and in the presence of the angels. Verse In these verses the scene changes to the older son s return and hearing the party going on inside. Wanting to know what was going on inside he calls the servant to explain. The servant explains the reason well - Your brother has come - The father killed the calf - Because he has the son back safe and sound. In verse 28 we are shown the brother becomes angry and refuses to go in. The refusal to go in is ironic. The older brother is the apparent insider but he remains on the outside. While the rebellious 4 Meat wouldn t normally be eaten. 5 It is a sign of the complete welcome back that he is called son. The younger son only hoped to be welcomed back as the lowest of labourers.

6 outsider is on the inside. And if party parallels verses 7 &10 the state of the older brother becomes even starker. He remains on the outside of the heavenly party. This is the conclusion reached by Tim Keller: So we have two sons, one bad by conventional standards and one good yet both are alienated from the father [...] But Act 2 comes to an unthinkable conclusion. Jesus the story teller deliberately leaves the elder brother in his alienated state. The bad son enters the father s feast but the good son will not. The lover of prostitutes is saved, but the man of moral rectitude is still lost. (Tim Keller Prodigal God p34) In the second half of verse 28 we see the father going out to plead with him, just as he ran to welcome the younger son. We do not know what the pleading consisted of; however it must have contained a request for the older son to come into the feast, to be part of the family. In verse the older brother explains his grievance. Firstly, he points to his obedience to the father. He says he has slaved for years and never disobeyed his father s orders. In return, he says, he has never even been given a young goat to celebrate with friends 6. Secondly, he contrasts his good behaviour and apparent bad treatment with the son s profligate lifestyle and good treatment by the father. Verse 29 begins with him speaking of this son of yours 7 and talks of his immoral life. It is not clear from the story how the older brother knows about his immoral behaviour. Had they heard from others what has happened? Is he speculating? We cannot answer these questions directly but the main point is clear; he thinks the younger brother should be disowned. To his mind fairness has been reversed. The father responds to the older brother in verse 31. He begins by addressing him as my son. There is real tenderness in this address. The father says the older brother has always been with him and everything the father has belongs to the son. Notice the use of always and everything, Jesus wants the listeners to be clear that the benefits of access to the father and his things have been there for the older son. As Bock says in a sense, he has always has access to the celebration (Bock 1996, 1319). The father however must address the older brother s view of his younger brother. He begins by saying that there was a necessity of celebration. Literally the father says it was necessary to celebrate and be glad. The father reveals that his action was more than just a nice thing to do, or something he did because the mood took him; he says it was a necessary action. He then shows why such an action was necessary using the same words as he used in verse 24. The younger brother was dead and is alive was lost but now found. 6 A young goat would have been an animal worth very little. 7 The brother indicates his distance by calling him your son as if he is not related to him. Also it does indicate that the younger son has been welcomed back as a son.

7 The main issue for the older brother is that he refused to share his father s concern for the dead and the lost. It seems that the failure to share in this love for sinners is what means he is actually alienated. It is worth noticing at this point that reversal: the older son is now on the outside. If this party is a picture of the heavenly party which takes place when a sinner returns, then the older brother is on the outside. This is a serious sin which the older brother is demonstrating. Subdivide the Passage V V V V The scene set and an outrageous request the descent of the younger son The prodigal welcome of the father The anger of the older brother Themes Sin: The passage has much to say about sin. It shows that sin means being dead and lost. Both are helpless states which require someone to help. The younger brother demonstrates sin as a rebellion against God. He takes what is the father s and lives life apart from him. I think that it is significant that in the first section we are not told what the younger brother did, other than it being wild living. This is because sin is not so much about rule breaking as a rebellion from God. Rebellion is personal whereas rule breaking can be seen as impersonal. Our rebellion is against God and this is the fundamental sin (big S sin as I sometimes say). Whereas the wild living is an evidence of that big S Sin: that is our big S sin is evidenced in many sins. This helps explain why the older brother has sinned in the story. At the end of the story we are left hanging as we do not know how the older brother will respond. What we see though is that he is on the outside; he is being presented as lost. The issue is that he is rebelling against the father in his welcome of sinners. Although he has not rebelled through moral laxity, he rebels in thinking that the kingdom should just be for people like him. He does not have the father s heart for sinners. Repentance: Repentance has been a theme throughout Luke s gospel. John preached a baptism of repentance (3:1-20) and Jesus said he had come to call sinners to repentance. The passage shows the simplicity of repentance. Repentance is returning to the Father and acknowledging sin. This includes coming to his senses, returning, acknowledging sin and humbly seeking acceptance.

8 Notice what is not included that often we confuse as essential for repentance - There is no sorrow (repentance may include this but not necessarily) - There is not a call to prove the repentance before it is accepted as genuine. - There is no other action which is required before acceptance. Some people complain that this view of repentance is too easy. You often hear people say something along these lines: So I could live a life of degeneracy and then all I need to do is pray a prayer? Repentance shouldn t be seen as a magic spell. However if a person does return genuinely then repentance will be accepted. The above view is what the younger brother expresses. Another alternative people present, is that they say there should be some kind of action to do. They want some kind of religious activity, or moral action. However this again is not shown in this passage or elsewhere. The Father s Welcome: In this story the father represents God. We are shown that he is the injured party, injured by the rebellion of both sons. Throughout all of this he is desiring to, and willing to, welcome repentant sinners. He is also presented as actively watching for sinners to return and running to them (not waiting hidden away). He goes out to plead with the older brother to return. The welcome the father gives is extravagant. The sinner is welcomed like a son and is rejoiced over. This is the welcome of any sinner who repents. A repentant sinner is not held at a distance until they are welcomed in. Notice how different this is to Catholic teaching of purgatory or penance in which the sinner has to work off sin before being welcomed in. Purpose Statement: Learn the nature of sin and repentance, marvelling at the Father s welcome and imitating that welcome of sinners.

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