The Stories Jesus Told: The Father and the Lost Sons, Luke 15:11–32
January 27, 2015
by Peter Amsterdam
The Stories Jesus Told: The Father and the Lost Sons, Luke 15:11–32
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This third parable in Luke chapter 15 is a continuation of Jesus’ response to the scribes and Pharisees’ criticism of His keeping company with sinners. He began by telling the twin parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, both of which express the joy of finding what has been lost. He continued His response by telling one of the longest and in my opinion one of the most beautiful of His parables. The parable has three parts: the departure of the younger son, his homecoming and the welcome he receives from his father, and the concluding conversation between the father and the older brother.
“There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country.”
This extraordinary request by the younger son would have shocked and scandalized the original listeners. The son was asking to receive the portion of the inheritance that he would normally receive upon his father’s death, while his father was still alive and healthy. He was basically saying that his father was as good as dead to him. By doing this, he was essentially severing ties with his father. The level of disrespect to the father was such that the listeners would have most likely expected Jesus’ next words to tell of how the father exploded in anger and disciplined his son for treating him in such an ungrateful and disrespectful manner.
Instead, the father acquiesced and divided the property between the sons. According to the law of Moses, the older son would receive a double portion (in this case, two-thirds) of all the father had, while the younger son would receive one-third.1 A father could divide the inheritance, which generally was land, between his sons at any time he wanted. However, in doing so he would be giving ownership of, but not control over, the land. The control as well as the fruits of the land would still belong to the father until he died. He could keep any portion of the crops he chose, and what he didn’t use then belonged to his sons. The father couldn’t sell the land, as it belonged to the sons, but he would still control its use and its produce. If the sons wanted to sell the property, they could, but the new owner could only take possession after the father died. These rules protected fathers, ensuring them a means of livelihood for as long as they lived.
The younger son was actually making two requests. The first was a request that the father divide the property; the second, which is inferred, was that he would have complete possession and the right of disposal. The younger son wanted to sell his inheritance for cash. In doing so, he was showing no concern for his father’s future, and was both treating his father as if he were already dead as well as depriving him of a portion of the fruit of the land that was his due in his old age. The father’s response, agreeing to not only give the younger son his portion of the inheritance but also the right to sell it, would have been unthinkable to the listeners of the story.
Author Kenneth Bailey wrote:
To my knowledge, in all of Middle Eastern literature (aside from this parable) from ancient times to the present, there is no case of any son, older or younger, asking for his inheritance from a father who is still in good health.2
The implication is that the younger son sold his portion of the inheritance, and took the cash with him to a different country—which would mean out of Israel and into a Gentile land.
The older brother, who also received his portion of the inheritance at this time, as seen by the phrase he divided his property between them, received possession of the remaining land but not control of it. As the story continues, it becomes clear that the father was still head of the household and the farm, as he says later in the parable to the older son, All that is mine is yours—since the older son would own and control everything when the father died.3
The Younger Son’s Misfortunes
Jesus then tells what happens to the younger son:
“The younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.”
Upon leaving his father’s house, the younger son was free to live as he pleased. He had distanced himself from his father, brother, community, and country, and went on to live a life which can be described as wild and disorderly, resulting in the loss of all that he had. We’ll see later that his older brother accused him of having spent his money on prostitutes and immoral living, but that isn’t specifically confirmed in the story.
After he had spent all his funds, a famine arose. If there had been no famine, he probably could have worked to support himself, but in times like that, very little work would have been available. As we’ll see, the work he did get wasn’t sufficient for him to even feed himself.
“So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.”
One author explains the younger son’s plight like this:
When he finds himself in want, he hires himself out to work for a “citizen” of that country, a Gentile who raises pigs and sends him into the fields to feed them. At this point his status is that of an indentured servant—a status above that of a slave, but one that bound him by contract to work as a general laborer for his employer for a specified time.4
The original listeners would have understood to what depths he had sunk by his job of feeding pigs. Pigs were considered unclean according to the law, and later Jewish writings stated that anyone raising swine was cursed. The son was deeply degraded by caring for pigs, and to make matters worse, he was starving and envious of the pigs’ food. He had no food and no one gave him anything. He knew he would starve to death if he didn’t do something quickly. It was at this point that he “came to himself.”
“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! 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.’”
The meaning of the phrase “he came to himself” is widely debated among those who study and write about the parables. Some argue that this means the son repented; others that the son realized how terrible his situation was, and that his plan to return to the father was simply for self-preservation and had nothing to do with repentance. However this is interpreted, it’s clear that the son came to his senses and realized how foolish he had been, which would have been a first step on the road to repentance.
He decided to return to his father, to confess he was wrong and had sinned, and to ask to become as one of the hired servants. What did he see as his sin, and what would the original listeners have considered his sin? Most likely dishonoring his father, thus breaking the fifth commandment, by leaving home with his share of the property and therefore not intending to fulfill his obligation to do his part to provide for his father in his old age. He had sold and wasted what was normally expected to be the means to maintain the father beyond his working years when he would turn the farm over to his sons.5
Recalling that his father’s “hired servants” had enough to eat, he planned to ask his father to treat him as a hired servant. A hired servant would be understood to be a day laborer, someone without a steady job, who would be available to hire in the morning to work for the day. Such laborers had no ongoing relationship with those who employed them. In such a situation, he would not live on the father’s farm, wouldn’t eat at his table, and would be paid only when there was work for him to do. As such, he would no longer have the status of a son. His standing would be below the slaves and servants of the household and the farm, because the slaves and servants had a relationship with his father, lived on the father’s property, and were cared for by the father. However, he saw this as being better than his immediate situation, in which he could have soon starved to death.
The speech the son planned to deliver to his father included a confession of guilt, “I have sinned”; an admission to destroying his relationship with his father, “I am not worthy to be called your son”; and a suggestion of a solution, “treat me as a hired laborer.” The implication may be that the son wished to work for wages in order to repay the father for the money which he had squandered. There is no indication in the story that he expected anything more than hired laborer status.
“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. 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.’”
The father’s response to seeing his son afar off was most likely a surprise to the original listeners. Arland Hultgren explains the expectation of events like this:
Even though the father has compassion on his son, a proper response for him would be to let the young man arrive home, fall on his knees, and ask for forgiveness. Then, in the best of all circumstances, the father would respond with words of forgiveness and a review of expectations. The son would, in effect, be on probation around the home for a time; perhaps he could remain there until he could earn enough to leave as an independent person once again.6
The son had shamed his father before the whole village. It would only be just and right for the father to let the son come to him, walking through the village facing the disapproving stares of the community. But no, the father, full of compassion, runs to him. The son is a long way off, perhaps just approaching the village, when the father sees him. He runs to him, something which dignified older men never did in public. To do so, he would have to pull up his robe and expose his legs, which would have been considered shameful in the culture of the day.7 As we’ll see further on in the story, it seems his servants may have run after him. It’s likely the group would have caught the eye of the villagers. The father’s first action is to embrace and kiss his son, before he even hears what his son has to say.
“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.’ 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.’”
The son begins his practiced speech, but the father doesn’t let him finish. He cuts him off before the son can explain how he feels he should be treated. The father, hearing the son express that he isn’t worthy to be called a son, doesn’t need to hear any more. He orders his servants to clothe the son in the best robe, to put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. The father’s actions speak louder than any words could. His directing the servants to dress the son in the best robe ensures proper respect for the son. It tells the servants how they are to respond to the son. The best robe would have been the robe the father wore on feast days and special occasions. The ring is likely a signet ring, which is a sign that the father trusts the son. Putting shoes on his feet tells everyone that the son is considered a free man in the house and not a servant.8
Through these actions the father conveyed the message that he was reconciled with his son. When the guests at the feast would see the son dressed in the father’s robe, the ring on his finger, and shoes on his feet, they would understand and accept that the father had reconciled with the son and that they should accept the son back into the community.9 Any hostility they held against the son should be set aside, as the father had forgiven the son. Besides conveying a message to the servants and the community, there was a strong message to the son as well. That message was forgiveness. The son realized that reconciliation with his father was not going to come about by his taking on hired worker status and paying back his father. He was not going to be able to earn it.
As Kenneth Bailey expresses it:
Now he knows that he cannot offer any solution to their ongoing relationship. He sees that the point is not the lost money, but rather the broken relationship which he cannot heal. Now he understands that any new relationship must be a pure gift from his father. He can offer no solution. To assume that he can compensate his father with his labor is an insult. “I am unworthy” is now the only appropriate response.10
The welcome of the father was an act of undeserved grace. It was forgiveness. Nothing the son could do would make up for his past. The father didn’t want the lost money; he wanted his lost son.
“‘And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.’”
The father then ordered the killing and cooking of a fatted calf. Preparing such a large animal for a feast indicated that a lot of people would be fed. This implies that likely most if not all of the village would be invited to the feast. A calf which has been fattened is kept for just such a happy event. And the father exclaimed his joyous reason for feasting when he said:
“‘For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. ’And they began to celebrate.”
The use of the phrase “was lost and is found” reminded the listeners of the stories of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, as the same words were used when Jesus told each of these preceding parables.
The Older Son
We now move into the next phase of the parable with the appearance of the older son.
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 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.’ But he was angry and refused to go in.”
The older son, at the end of the workday, returned from the field—which was presumably some distance from the village and the father’s house. Preparations for the feast would have been going on for a good part of the day, the fattened calf having been slaughtered, dressed, and cooked, and the other food prepared. When things were ready, the celebration would begin. Such a feast would last until late at night with people singing, dancing, drinking wine, eating, talking, and coming and going throughout the night.11 The older son arrived back from the fields after the festivities had started, as probably did many other men of the village who worked in their fields.
The brother asked one of the servants what was going on, and one can imagine the brother asking other questions of the servant as well, since later, when speaking with his father, the older brother was fully aware that the younger brother had nothing left from his inheritance. On finding out the reason for the feast, and that his father had welcomed the younger son back home, he was furious.
The custom at such a feast would be for the older son to move among the guests, as part of his responsibilities as joint host with his father—making sure things are going well, that people are getting enough to eat and drink, giving directions to the servants, etc. In a situation such as this, the expectation would be that the older son at least enter the feast and pretend to enter into the celebration of his brother having returned, and to leave any disagreements with his father to be discussed later in private. But the older brother breaks with protocol and instead publicly refuses to enter the house and the festivities, and then argues with his father in public, as we’ll see. His actions are extremely disrespectful and insulting.
“His father came out and entreated him, 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. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’”
Risking humiliation and shame in the eyes of his guests, the father leaves the party in order to plead with his son to join in the celebration. The son’s response is filled with disrespect, bitterness, resentfulness, and the truth of how the older son sees his relationship with his father. He begins disrespectfully by not addressing him as father, but rather jumps right into his verbal attack. He says that he has slaved away for his father for years, expressing the attitude of a slave instead of a son. He claims that he has never disobeyed any of the father’s commands, yet he is doing so at that moment by refusing his father’s entreaties to come into the feast. He then accuses his father of favoritism because he has honored the younger son with a fattened calf, while he has never given his firstborn even a baby goat to eat with his friends. He goes on to refuse any relationship with his brother when he says “this son of yours.” He accuses his brother of wasting his father’s wealth on prostitutes, so as to further degrade him in his father’s eyes.
In essence, he’s saying, “I’ve been the good son, I’ve worked for you, I’ve obeyed you, and you owe me for it.” He’s basically expressing that his relationship with his father is akin to a laborer with an employer rather than a father and a son. His relationship with his father is one of law, merit, and reward, instead of love and graciousness.12 It becomes clear that the older son, just like the younger son, has been more interested in his father’s material goods than his relationship with his father. This would be very painful for a father to hear.
How does the father react? Exactly the same as he did with his other lost son—in love, kindness, and mercy. The older son, like the younger, has a broken relationship with his father. The younger son’s relationship was restored through the father’s love, and now the father seeks to restore the relationship with his older son in the same manner. He says:
“‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.’”
Even though his elder son doesn’t call him father, the father still calls him son, and in some translations it’s rendered as the more endearing my son, or my child. The son may see himself as someone who “slaves” for his father, but the father sees his son as a companion who is always with him, and as the co-owner of the farm. All that the father has is his. The farm belongs to the older son, deeded to him when the father divided the inheritance between the two boys. He may not have control of it until his father dies, but all that the father has belongs to him.13
Instead of responding with outrage, the father responds in tenderness and love, just as he did with the younger son. His older son, like his younger, has a broken relationship with him which the father desires to repair. Both sons need reconciliation and restoration with their father. Both sons receive the same love from the father, love given in humility.
The father’s last statement expresses his joy that the younger son who was lost is now found.
“‘It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
The listener was left to imagine whether the older brother who was also lost would be found and restored, as we are not told the older son’s response.
Reconciliation and Restoration
In the context in which the parable was told, Jesus expressed the purpose of His eating and interacting with the tax collectors and sinners who were coming to Him. He was there to show the love and grace of His Father to those who were lost, in order to bring reconciliation and restoration. His ministry was to seek and to save the lost.14 In their criticism of Jesus’ interactions with sinners, the Pharisees, like the elder brother, were unable to rejoice that the lost had been found, that their brothers and sisters were welcomed into their Father’s arms, loved and restored to Him. They had served God and kept His commandments and, like the older brother, felt they had earned their place in the father’s house. But, like the older brother, they missed the point of the kind of relationship God wanted—a relationship with a son, not with a servant.
The Pharisees are given the opportunity to change their thinking, to realize that God greatly rejoices in the lost being found, and that the lost are the focus of Jesus and His ministry. They are invited to enter into the celebration, but will they? In short, Jesus is inviting the listeners to determine the story’s end by their own response.
This parable and the two preceding it tell us something beautiful about God, our Father. He is full of compassion, grace, love, and mercy. Like the father in the story, He lets us make our own decisions, and no matter what those decisions are and wherever they may lead us, He loves us. He wants each one who has wandered away, who is lost, who has a broken relationship with Him, to come home. He waits for them and welcomes them with great joy and celebration.
Both sons had a distorted view of the father, similar to the view of God that so many have today. The rebellious son wanted to be independent of his father, severed the relationship, and lived as he chose. He wanted the benefits of what the father had, but not the relationship with his father. The older, dutiful son did those things which were outwardly seen as obedient and faithful, but he too misunderstood the relationship with his father. The older son tried to earn acceptance, while the younger son rebelled against the father. Both sons had broken relationships; both were lost and needed to be found. Both were offered the love of their father. He went out to them both, and while both sons deeply offended and hurt him, he welcomed them back unconditionally.
That’s God’s attitude toward every person. He deeply loves and desires an unbroken relationship with each one. He searches out the lost and greatly rejoices when they come home. He welcomes them with open arms, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. He forgives, He loves, He welcomes. As the old hymn says, “Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home.”
As Christians, it’s very easy to develop attitudes similar to the older brother. We can slip into the “I’ve done so much for God that He owes me” mentality. We can want His blessings, spiritual and physical, without truly wanting Him. We can look disparagingly and judgmentally at the younger sons of this world who are out of relationship with God, while considering ourselves so much better.
We should always be aware of God’s love, which is extended not only to us who believe but to all of humanity. Each person is deeply loved by the Father. Jesus laid down His life for every person. We are called to share that news with others. And to do it, we, like Jesus, need to seek them out, make the effort to reach them, share the message that God loves them and wants to be in relationship with them. God is gracious, full of love and mercy. He loves each person and has called us, as His representatives, to do as Jesus did—to show unconditional love, to love the unlovely, and embody the principles of the parables of Luke 15 to seek out those who are lost, to help restore them, and to respond with joy and celebration when that which was lost is found. May the Lord help each one of us to do that.
The Father and the Lost Sons, Luke 15:11–32
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 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.’”
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 He shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son … by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the firstfruits of his strength. The right of the firstborn is his (Deuteronomy 21:17).
2 Bailey, Poet and Peasant, 145.
3 Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, 74.
4 Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, 75.
5 Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, 77.
6 Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, 78.
7 Bailey, Poet and Peasant, 181.
8 Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables, 103.
9 Bailey, Poet and Peasant, 185.
10 Bailey, Poet and Peasant. 184–185.
11 Bailey, Poet and Peasant, 193.
12 Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, 80.
13 Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, 82.
14 Luke 19:10.