The occasion for these parables is shown to us in verses 1-2. Jesus attracted tax collectors and sinners to himself.
Tax collectors were considered traitors because they collected taxes for the Roman government and often over charged.
Sinners were anyone known for bad behavior, such as thieves, drunks, prostitutes, or just people who refused to conform to the standards of the Pharisees.
Jesus did not send them away. He saw them as the lost sheep of Israel.
In contrast, the Pharisees would not interact with either group and they criticized Jesus for it. They said he receives them and eats with them. Eating with someone was a sign of fellowship and acceptance.
We know this is a symbol of the gospel of grace. All who turn from their sin (repent) and put their faith in Jesus are received by him and enjoy the messianic feast forever.
In response to the criticism of the Pharisees, Jesus told the three parables.
The Lost Sheep
The parable of the lost sheep is a parable from the world of men. It is about a shepherd who, although he had 99 of 100 sheep accounted for, searched into the open country for one lost one. When he found the lost sheep, he put it on his shoulders and carried it him.
This is a picture of a tired and worn out sheep who cannot make it home on its own. The shepherd did not punish the sheep. Rather, he tenderly lays it on this shoulder and carries it home. And he did this rejoicing. (5)
It reminds me of Hebrews 12:2, that says Jesus, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross.
This image has been painted many times. It often appears in stain glassed windows. It was the most common image used in the early church. Pictures of the shepherd have been found in the Roman catacombs.
The oldest known Christian statue in Rome is a statue of the shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders.
After the shepherd brought the lost sheep home, he called together his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. (6) His joy represents the joy God feels when a sinner repents. This is what Luke means when he says there will be joy in heaven over a sinner who repents. It may also mean that even the angels rejoice along with the Lord.
The Pharisees did not rejoice that sinners came to fellowship with Jesus, so Jesus showed them, indirectly through a parable, how their attitude failed to reflect God’s attitude. Jesus put an extra sting in the story by saying there would be greater rejoicing over the one sinner who repents than over the 99 who thought they needed no repentance. (7)
Believers should rejoice every day that the Good Shepherd sought and found us and brought us into his flock. Likewise, we should rejoice every time a sinner repents and is saved, no matter his or her race, gender, economic status or degree of vileness.
We must reject the idea that a sinner must change his ways before he comes to Christ. Most of all, we should not lose the joy Jesus experiences in the salvation of a sinner, no matter how different he may seem to be compared to us.
The Lost Coin
The parable of the lost coin is a parable from the world of women. Jesus cares as much about women as he does about men. He wants to teach women as much as men. That is why he used examples from the life of women as well as men.
The woman lost a coin in her house. She probably had 10 coins wrapped in a rag and one had fallen out. She searched diligently for the lost coin. When she found it, she called her friends and neighbors to celebrate with her. The woman in this story represents God. Again, Jesus taught the character of God and the joy of God over a sinner repenting.
The Lost Son
The last and longest parable is about two sons. As with the story of Mary and Martha it is important that you do not project your family experiences onto the story. For example, I am the oldest son in my family and expected to do things for my parents. For years I identified with the older brother in this story and missed the point of the parable entirely. Don’t do that! Identify the symbols for what they are and understand the message of the parable correctly.
The younger son demanded his share of his father’s estate. As the younger son, he would inherit one third of the estate. He, in effect said, I cannot wait for you to die; give me my inheritance now. He wanted what the father could give him, but he did not want the father. It was an act of contempt for his father. Yet, the father granted his wish and divided the estate between the sons. (12)
The younger son went into a far country, getting as far away from his father as possible, and spent all of his money.
When famine struck, the the prodigal was out of money and in need. (14). He was homeless, unemployed and broke. He was so desperate he took a job feeding pigs. This would have been the “bottom of the barrel” for a Jew.
Finally, though, the prodigal came to his senses and realized he must return to his father. He knew he must admit his sins to his father and he did.
The father received the son gladly and without rebuking him. The father actually ran to him, something no older man of means would ever do in Jewish culture. He restored the son to sonship, symbolized by the giving of a robe, ring and shoes. He even threw a party for him, continuing the idea of a feast.
The father also said his son was dead, but is now alive, was lost, but now found. (23) These are the same words we use for salvation. Many of our hymns contain this language and imagery.
So, what does this parable mean?
The younger son, the prodigal son, represents all sinners. as the son had no regard for his father, so a sinner has no regard for God. Romans 8:7 says the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God. This son went as far away from his father as possible, into a far country, symbolizing the lifestyle of sinners who wander far from God.
The father represents God, our heavenly father. As with the other two parables, the father is shown rejoicing over a lost son, representing the Father’s rejoicing over a son or daughter who has turned from sin and come to him for salvation.
There is an another character in the story, though. It is the older son. The older son, was not glad his brother returned. He would not even call him his brother. He called him “this son of yours”. (30)
The older son refused an invitation to join the party. He was resentful and bitter. He believed he had been faithful and obedient, but had gotten nothing for it. (29)
The older son represents the Pharisees in their criticism of Jesus for receiving tax collectors and other sinners. They did not believe in grace and did not appreciate Jesus extending grace to sinners. They believed they were righteous through their works and God should award them for it. They displayed their attitude at the beginning of the chapter by their criticism of Jesus.
The truth is, the older son was out of fellowship with the father just as the younger one was. If he had been in fellowship with his father, he would have shared the father’s joy at the return of the prodigal. We show we are in fellowship with the Lord when we love what he loves, hate what he hates and rejoice when he rejoices.
In fact, the older son was in worse shape than the younger. He was further away from the heart of his father. For the younger accepted his father’s invitation to fellowship, but the older son refused it. He would not repent of his self righteousness and bitterness.
This parable was a defense of Jesus’ fellowship with sinners. It was also a condemnation of the attitude of the Pharisees, their self righteousness and works oriented view of their relationship with God. Last, and most importantly, it was an invitation to the Pharisees to join him in fellowship, to repent, believe and come into Christ’s kingdom.
Sadly, we will see in the progression of this book, the Pharisees rejected Jesus’ invitation as the older son rejected the invitation to the party.
You may be religious. You may follow the rules. You may even be a regular church member. But the party does not begin until you repent of your sins and put your faith in Jesus for eternal life. He invites you to come today.
You may already be a believer, but find yourself bitter and judgmental. As heaven rejoices when any sinner is saved, you should too. You should also remember that God rejoiced when you came to Christ. He rejoiced over you! Repent of your bitterness and embrace the joy of God.
Join the party.