You cannot understand Luke 15 without understanding verse 1. If you miss verse 1, you cannot fully understand anything that is said after it. The whole key to this chapter hinges on who is in the crowd to hear these three parables. So let’s look at it:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.”
I hate to start things off like this, but I want you to know that your childhood Sunday school has failed you. Most of us were told that a tax collector was a man who was supposed to get $25 from you but instead he takes $30 from you because he wanted to get rich. Now that’s a good story, but it isn’t true. Let me try to explain:
At this point in history, the world is ruled by Rome. From India to England, Rome ruled the world, and they were a ruthless, horrific government. In fact, there are historical accounts of Rome conquering a city and then taking 20,000 men, women and children, stripping them naked and crucifying them on the road leading up to that city for up to 40 miles. So that going into the city for supplies, going into the city to see family, going into the city to get work done, you would have to pass by 20,000 suffering, dying or dead men, women and children who have been stripped of their clothes as an act of shame just to burn in your heart, “Don’t mess with Rome.”
They were a brutal regime. Now if you rule from India to England and you don’t have an air force or you don’t have the ability to press a button and launch weapons, the only way you can govern a landmass that size is with a massive army. Now Rome did not have enough men for the size of army they needed. Therefore as they conquered a land, they would hire mercenaries and they would give them food, weapons and training, and they became part of the legions of Rome, despite the fact that they were not Romans. But how do you fund, supply, feed and train a massive army? Taxes. Tax Collectors were men who would purchase the right from Rome to raise funds for an oppressive occupying army that was responsible for the brutal death of hundreds of thousands of people. It would be like you living next door to a man who had single-handedly funded the attack on 911 and it was totally legal to do so. But here’s the thing…these tax collectors are drawing near to Jesus.
They’re not the only ones. Sinners are there too. And for us to understand “sinners,” we have to get out of the American mindset. Because here you’re a sinner, I’m a sinner, everyone’s a sinner. That’s not the case here in the text. Here “sinner” is marked as a class of people that are deformed, diseased or whose job is one that the Jews would have considered a life of sin. So they were prostitutes, strippers, slave traders, drunkards, addicts, lepers, the sick and disabled, etc. And we read here that the tax collectors and the sinners are drawing near to Jesus.
It was common knowledge that these people were not allowed in the synagogue, they’re not allowed to make sacrifices, they’re not allowed to hear the Torah read. They are absolutely exiled from the religious life of Israel. And yet here they are gathering near to hear Jesus. Got it?
But the tax collectors and sinners aren’t the only ones at this party. Look at verse 2. “And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.'” Pharisees and Scribes are there too! They’re the other end of the spectrum. So on one side of the scene, you’ve got your tax collectors and sinners and on the other side you’ve got your Pharisees and scribes. And the Pharisees and scribes live in such a way that is so morally upright that they believe that their moral uprightness has provided them favor with God that God will not extend to anyone else who is not as morally upright as they are…does that make sense?
So Jesus begins to do what He does and speak through Parables about the way things work in the Kingdom of Heaven. Look at Verse 3,
“So he told them this parable: '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? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 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.’”
Lets look at both sides of the crowd that Jesus is speaking to. If you’re one of the sinners or tax collectors over here then you probably think you’ve strayed too far from God and there’s no way He could forgive you for who you are or what you’ve done. But Jesus says, “No, no, no. You’re not coming to me. I’m coming to get you. And when I find you, it’s not going to be, ‘You stupid dumb sheep.’ I am going to throw you on my back, and I am going to rejoice. And when I get you home with the other ninety-nine, I’m calling everyone over to celebrate with me. That’s what Jesus is saying to the sinners and tax collectors. You following me? And if you’re one of the Pharisees or scribes then Jesus is saying, “the ninety-nine sheep aren’t good enough by themselves…you can't forget about the one. EVERYONE has value in the Kingdom and the obedient majority are not better-off without the ones that have gone astray. We should care for them, fight for them, seek them out. Jesus is saying that there’s more celebration in you coming home than you staying in your seat where you think Godly people should be seated. You see, this side over here believed there’s more celebration over their goodness than the repentance of those who are wicked, and they just found out that’s not true. Do you see how Jesus tore down both belief systems while simultaneously encouraging them with love? Isn’t that awesome?!?! Then He blows them both up.
“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.”
And then He just goes right into the next story:
“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? 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.’”
A silver coin is a day’s wage. She has ten day’s wages. She’s not hurting. Keep in mind that this in in a day and age where you don't have a bank account and a check card and you get paid every two weeks. She has ten days of wages saved up. She’s a pretty wealthy woman for this time period. She loses one day’s wage, but that’s not that big of a deal. She still has nine day’s wages left. Most people live day to day. It is not that big of a deal that she lost a coin, and it certainly isn’t worth ripping your house apart trying to find it. But that’s exactly what she does.
So in this story Jesus reassures the tax collectors and sinners who feel useless and probably think to themselves, “I mean, I’m just a measly silver coin. I really don’t carry much value.” And Jesus goes, “I’ll tear the house to pieces looking for the one coin, even though I have nine coins. I see value in the one coin!” But then the Pharisees are all like, “We’ve got nine coins, who needs one more? We can buy anything we want. It’s not worth the effort to search for one measly coin.” And Jesus is going, “We need every coin…every single coin is valuable because it increase the value of the whole lot.” Then again, He blows them both up.
“Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Now the third story’s the big one. It’s probably the most well known, and many of you are familiar with this story of the Prodigal Son.
Verse 11, “And he said, “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, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.”
So Jesus starts telling this story of a Father and two sons. One son comes to his dad and says give me all my inheritance, which is pretty much the same as saying “Hey dad, I wish you were dead.” And because he is the younger brother, he would have been entitled to one-third of the estate…which is half of what the older brother would have received. Older brother gets 2/3s…younger brother gets 1/3. Got it? Then you’ll notice that the text says, “not many days later, the son gathered all he had…” which means that the son actually took the time to sell all the tangible items like cattle, land, family heirlooms, and turn them into cash before he left on his journey. So keep in mind that the Father didn't just lose cash in this exchange…he likely lost one-third of his land, one-third of his cattle and crops, one-third of his valuables. That’s a big deal, right? Let’s keep reading…
“And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 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.”
Keep in mind that these are Jews, and this man’s eating with the pigs, which is the unclean animal. So not only has he turned his back on his father, his family, and his country, but he has also left behind his morals with his wild living, and he has also turned his back on his beliefs.
Then Verse 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! 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.'”
Now remember what I said at the very beginning…we have to keep in mind WHO Jesus is speaking to. We have the tax collectors and the sinners on one side, and the Pharisees and Scribes on the other. And right now as Jesus is telling this story, you know both sides have to be going, “Here we go.” Because if you are a tax collector and a sinner, you see that the son is going to go back to the father now and will have to be a slave to the father. So they’re thinking, “Ah, there’s the catch, there is a mountain of service, apologies, works, and humility that are going to have to happen in order to enter the house of The Father.” And the other side is thinking, “Ah, there’s the catch, because they’re going to try to come back to the Father and He’s really going to let him have it! He is going to get roasted and raked over the coals as soon as he returns, right? He is going to feel the wrath of his father!” Let’s keep reading, because both are so wrong.
Verse 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. 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. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.”
Isn’t that awesome? I know that we’ve heard this story about a thousand times, but it’s still super cool right? Especially when you realize the cultural ideologies that Jesus is breaking down on both sides of the table! Because right here, when we watch the father receive his son back into the family, Jesus is showing one side of the table that they do not have to work their way into right-standing with God. No, they can be accepted, forgiven, loved, and even celebrated just as they are! We even see the Father RUN…which was never something someone of wealth and status would have done. But Jesus says that the Father RAN…he left his own status and reputation behind in order to go and greet his repentant son! Isn’t that beautiful?
The younger son in this story is such a clear picture of sinners and tax collectors in the crowd, who were feeling dejected, depressed, and disposed of by the religious leaders of society. The younger son left his family, left his people, left his friends, left his country, left his morals, and left his faith in order to pursue life on his own. The tax collectors left their allegiance to their people and gave it all to Rome, in order to further their own wealth and prosperity, which you better believe severed plenty of relationships along the way. The prostitutes probably didn’t grow up dreaming of being a prostitute, but instead through whatever circumstances led them there, found themselves leaving their family, their morals, and any dignity they might have had left in order to earn some cash. The lame, the diseased, and disfigured, might not have chosen to leave all those things, but instead found themselves discarded and pushed away by society…but he result for them was the same. And now Jesus tells them that there is a father in heaven who is waiting for them to appear on the horizon so that He can RUN to them…showing them that He values people over perfection. That no matter what they have done, where they have gone, what they have squandered and left behind, there is a God who will welcome them back with open arms! Isn’t that awesome? We love this story because it is such a clear picture of the restoration and redemption that God provides for people who are lost and wandering. Right? We love the story of the younger son, because he had the correct response of returning to his father. But like we have already discussed, there are two sides to this crowd…and the story of the younger son only represents half of the crowd.
Let’s take a look:
“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. 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!’"
We all know how the story goes, the younger son comes back, the older son hears the music and the partying, he gets so mad that the Father has to come outside…leave the party…in order to find out what is wrong. And then the older son goes O-F-F…he goes off on the Father…saying “You never gave me this and that…I was nothing but loyal to you…I have worked hard and stayed pure and kept my good reputation…I was way better than the sinner!” He even goes as far to say, “Your Son”…and not “my brother”…distancing himself from the family and doing a little running away of his own. And then the Father, who is rightfully p.o.’d at this point, rebuked him and put him in his place, right? Isn’t that what the text says. Isn’t that what WE the sinners and tax collectors expect to happen to The Other Side…to the enemies of Jesus? But no…
Verse 31. And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
First and foremost, He calls him Son! The greek word actually further emphasizes the love and affection that a father has for his own child. He assures the older son that his place in the family has not been forgotten or replaced or revoked. The father leaves the party, and takes the time to love and care for and comfort his eldest…reminding him that all he has to do is ask and it shall be granted…everything is his, nothing is being withheld. You don’t have to work hard and be perfect, you just have to be my son and you will have access to all my wealth. And that is the message that Jesus is speaking directly to the Pharisees! Did you catch that? Jesus uses this parable to tell not only the sinners and tax collectors that they have a place in heaven as sons of God, but He also uses it to remind the Pharisees that He loves them just as they are and they no longer need to live in any kind of moral uprightness or holier-than-thou attitude. They just need to come to Him and He will give them access to the same thrown room as the redeemed sinners! Isn't that wild?
You see the problem with our society is that we love choosing sides. We love to choose a side and then point and laugh at the other side and tell them that they are SO WRONG. When we focus on the relationship rather than the religion, we are doing the right thing and Jesus HATES anyone who is overly fundamental and hyper-religious. But that’s not what Jesus says. He looks at all of us and says, you are all piles of trash and I love you all equally! You are all lost sheep, you are all lost coins, you are all lost sons and daughters…and I am willing to leave the herd, tear apart the house, and run into the field in order to be reunited with you. I will sacrifice EVERYTHING for you! I will leave my place in heaven at the right hand of the Father, I will face every temptation for you, I will shed tears over you, I will sweat blood for you, I will face physical punishment for you, I would rather be humiliated, tortured, and crucified rather than live without you! No matter where you’ve gone, what you’ve done, or what you once said to me…I love you like crazy and I will run to you! And even when you think you have everything together and you don’t realize that you are the sheep, the coin, or the son…and you feel that I have treated to you unfairly, you can still approach me with boldness, confidence, and assurance because you are a part of my family! And when you are a part of my family, that means you have a voice! And although we might not always see eye-to-eye, you need to know that whether you are a tax collector or a Pharisee, a sinner or a scribe, you are loved by me to the fullest extent. You cannot earn more love and you cannot lose my love…if you are willing to love me, then you. are. my. son….you. are. my. daughter. Period. End of discussion.
This story isn’t really about the sons at all…this story is ALL about the Father. A Father who loves.