Luke 15:11–32 . . . Bible Study Summary with Questions

Rejoice! A Lost Son Has Been Found

Most parents of young children have put their child in front of a mirror. At first the young one doesn't realize that it's his own reflection he sees there; but he begins to realize this from his movements: "That's me!" The Bible is like that mirror. At first we look into it and think we're reading stories about others, seeing how they're portrayed. The longer we look, the more we begin to notice that those Bible characters look more like us! Gradually, we begin to also realize (with some embarrassment): "That's me!" The parable of the prodigal son is like that mirror. At first it just seems like an interesting and touching story. But the more you look, the more you begin to see your own heart either in the prodigal, in his older brother, in the father, or in all three.

To interpret the parable correctly, you must see it in light of last week's study of 15:1–10 The tax gatherers and sinners had gotten close to Jesus to listen to him, which caused the Pharisees and scribes to grumble, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." Jesus told the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and today's lost son parable to affirm that that charge was correct, and to show the proud, self-righteous Pharisees why it was proper for him to associate with sinners.

It's a mistake to infer that the sons represent believers, since they are sons of the father whose household isn't one of faith, but of Israel. The prodigal son represents sinners who repent and come to Jesus; the older brother represents the Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling about Jesus receiving the sinners. Both groups needed repentance.

This parable's emphasis is on God's great love and mercy, and on the necessary human response to experience his mercy, namely repentance. Each of the three characters reflects different lessons: The prodigal shows us the devastating effects of sin and the nature of true repentance; the father shows us God's great mercy toward repentant sinners; the older brother shows us the ugliness and danger of the self-righteous pride that lurks in every human heart. The entire parable teaches us that God welcomes repentant sinners with abundant mercy, but the self-righteous exclude themselves from his mercy. Let's see how it goes for you today in this very personal summary.

[You can see in Warren's commentary on Jesus' Parable of the Lost Son how this salvation parable documents Father God as always being willing to accept our sincere return to him, given the mistakes we’ve made.]

The Prodigal Son

Jesus doesn't go into detail about what must have led up to this familial rupture. The younger of the father's two sons asks his father for his share of the inheritance. A short time later, the boy gathered his things and left for a distant country, where he squandered his estate by living loosely. Then a famine hit and the young man was in need. The prodigal's rebellion and downward course illustrate the terrible toll of sin in human lives. Sin always alienates the sinner from fellowship with the loving and merciful Father.

The prodigal finally comes to his senses and realizes that even his father's hired hands have it better than he does. So he determines to go back to his father, confess his sin, acknowledge his own unworthiness to receive anything from his father, and yet appeal mercifully so that he could become like one of his dad's hired men. Initially he'd left demanding his rights; he returned in humility and brokenness. So he got up and went to his father, probably not quite sure how his dad would respond.

The prodigal shows us a number of things about true repentance. It always begins by seeing our condition for what it is: "He came to his senses," realizing what he'd done. His eyes were opened to his awful condition and he thought, "What am I doing here?" He thought about the fact that even the servants in his father's house were happier than he was. He determined to return to his father. That's the next thing about repentance: It's the turning away from our sin to God himself; no one else can help.

The gospel always brings us to the end of ourselves, our resources, our schemes, and all that we rely on, until we realize the fact that we must relate directly and personally to God himself, pleading for his mercy. Repentance must be directed personally toward the God against whom we've sinned. True repentance includes an honest confession of our sins, without any excuses, accepting responsibility for what we've done.

Implicit in the prodigal's repentance is also a measure of faith that his father would show him mercy. If he'd thought that his dad would beat him black and blue and order him never to set foot on his property again, he wouldn't have bothered going home. He had a hope, however slim, that his father would grant his request that he become like one of the hired men. After all, if you come to God with just an inkling of faith that he'll receive you because of his great mercy, he won't disappoint you! Also, note that the prodigal's repentance wasn't only in thought but action. He didn't just sit there feeling depressed; he got up and made that long journey back. Repentance isn't merely a change of mind. It's one that results when we turn from our sin and face God one on one. In going back to his father, the young man was leaving his friends and his loose way of life; he put a great deal of distance between himself and those old temptations. Repentance involved the action of leaving his sin and returning to his father.

The Father of Both Sons

This is a very moving picture of God. "While he was still a long way off, his father saw him" (v. 20). It wasn't an accidental sighting, since the boy was a long ways off. The dad was continually looking for his wayward son. The instant he saw his son in the distance, he did something that no dignified father in that culture would have done: His compassion moved him to lift up his robe and run to him, embrace him, and kiss him lovingly.

While the boy was in the midst of making his confession, the dad called his slaves and told them to get the best robe. He stripped off the boy's rags and put the robe on him. He put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet to show that he was not just a hired hand but his son having full privileges of family membership. He told the slaves to kill the fattened calf, which was reserved for very special occasions. He hired a band and invited everyone he knew. There was food, music, and dancing, as many celebrated the return of his son who'd been dead and had come back to life, who'd been lost but now was found.

What a picture of the abundant mercy that God pours out on repentant sinners! He doesn't just parcel it out a little bit at a time; he dumps the whole load all at once, instantly. The repentant sinner is totally, freely forgiven. All of your sins are blotted out, too. You don't have to brace yourself for the big lecture about how stupid you've been. There's no finger wagging or "I told you so!" There's only grace, mercy, and love poured out on you as you're welcomed into God's presence as one of his children.

You'd think that the story would end there with this: And they all lived happily ever after. But there's a third character in this powerful parable who reveals a necessary lesson.

The Father's Older Son

The older son comes in from the field, hears the music, and sees the dancing. He doesn't go inside, but calls one of the servants and asks what's happening. When he finds out that his no-good brother has returned, and that his dad has thrown a party to celebrate his return, he explodes. Whenever anyone blows up like that, it's not just a spur-of-the-moment thing; you're seeing pent-up anger boiling over. He refuses to go in. When his dad comes out to appeal to him, he unloads.

First he attacks his dad while justifying himself. He's bitter, accusing his dad of being stingy and unfair. Then, he reveals his contempt for his brother, whom he won't call "my brother," but rather, "this son of yours." He didn't know for sure that the brother had devoured his father's wealth on prostitutes, but he assumed the worst. He despised his brother and resented the fact that while his brother had gone away to party hearty, he stayed home getting stuck doing all the work.

In spite of the older brother's attack, the father responds with love and gentleness toward this son also. He tenderly calls him, "My son," reminding him that he's always been with him and that all that the father owned was his. He explains why they had to be merry and rejoice, because "this brother of yours [not, "my son"] was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found." The father's love extended to both sons, and he didn't want either son alienated from him or from each other.

This part of the parable shows us that the sins of self-righteousness and pride can be just as fatal as sins of the flesh. Jesus is holding the older brother up as a mirror to the Pharisees, who prided themselves in their observance of the Law. They looked with contempt on others who weren't outwardly as good as they were. But, as Jesus so penetratingly shows, they weren't keeping either of the two greatest commandments: They weren't loving the Father and serving him out of joy, and they weren't loving others as they loved themselves. If they'd done so, they'd have rejoiced to see sinners coming to Jesus.

There's a supreme irony in this parable. The brother who went astray comes home and is welcomed inside to a big feast. The brother who'd never strayed but who's probably hungry after working all day, remains outside, sulking; everything that he needed was inside the house, but his anger and self-righteous pride kept him outside the bounty and joy of his father's table. So, the first has become last and the last, first.

If you, like the prodigal, have rebelled against God and have come to see your wretched condition, your response should be like his: Get up, leave your sin, go to the Father, and appeal for his mercy. You'll find it in abundance.

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  Some might say that it's better to be like the prodigal and sow wild oats than to be like the older hardworking brother. How would you respond biblically?
  • Q. 2  Which of the three parable players do you resemble most closely today? Would you prefer to play one of the others?

This Week's Passage
Luke 15:11–32 (Lukas)

New International Version (NIV)
[To view it in a different version, click here; also listen to chapter 15]

The Parable of the Lost Son

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 servants 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 servants.' 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.'"