Chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel is well known mainly for the story we like to call The Parable of the Prodigal Son. But Luke 15 is actually three parables with a common theme – something is lost, something is found, and a response is given. The first parable is told in verses 3-7 and is about a shepherd that has 100 sheep, one of the sheep wanders off, and the shepherd goes in search of the lost one. The second in verses 8-10 is about a woman who has 10 coins; she loses one and searches all over until she finds it. The third parable has many facets to it, the most common being the prodigal son who becomes ‘lost’ in a life of fast camels and even faster women! OK, those are things that happen in the stories, but what is the point? All parables have a point.
By the way, the word parable is a conjunction of the preposition ‘para’ meaning “to come along side” and the Greek verb ‘ballow’ which means “to throw” (a second aside – we get our common word ‘ball’ from this Greek verb ballow because, well, what happens when you get a ball? You throw it!). So, a parable is a story thrown in alongside the main story. Every parable has a point, but the parable is never the main point itself, it is meant to illustrate some greater truth.
So what is Jesus trying to get at here in Luke 15 with these three parables? Well, I believe the text tells us plainly. I use the NRSV version of the Bible, but the NIV and others say pretty much the same things. Verse 15:6 says the shepherd calls his friends and asks them to rejoice with him (we call this a party) because he found the lost sheep. Jesus then says there is much celebrating in heaven over one person who repents. Likewise verse 9 says the woman throws a party when she finds her coin and Jesus follows up with a similar statement saying there is great joy amongst the angels over one sinner who repents.
This brings us to the prodigal son parable. Now, I have heard many sermons on this parable. Most of them have focused on the younger brother repenting and coming home. Tim Keller of Redeemer Church in New York City wrote a whole book on the idea that it was the father who was the prodigal (prodigal means to spend lavishly or foolishly) and he showered the younger son with great gifts when he came home. Others focus on the older brother, representing the Jewish leaders of the day, or devout Christians of today, who are upset that a person like the younger brother gets treated so well, upset to the point of refusing to eat with him. Indeed the parable ends in a quandary; the older brother is invited to the banquet but refuses to come in. The father is missing the banquet because he is trying to convince the elder brother to come in. And that’s it, the parable ends, however, it does not end until the father makes this statement, “But we had to celebrate and rejoice…” (Luke 15:32)
And that, my friends, I believe is the point. You see the teaching in the first two parables was that people celebrate when a precious thing is found and Jesus tells us that the precious thing is a person, a person who is lost, repents, and then the angels in heaven celebrate. The first two parables had no repentance stories associated with them. One was a silly sheep that wandered off and the other was a person who lost some of their money. Neither the sheep nor the coin had any part in repentance. The younger son, on the other hand, ran the full circle. He abused his father by asking for the inheritance while the father was still alive. He dishonored the family by going off and squandering the inheritance. He dishonored his Jewish heritage by hanging out with the pigs and eating their food. And then he woke up, he repented, he turned around and said he was sorry in the most humbling of ways. It was this humble action of the younger son that causes the father to tell the elder son, “But we had to celebrate!” You see the father knew what needed to be done. Without Jesus intervening in the story, the father boldly states that celebration, not a lecture, was the proper course of action in responding to the younger son’s contrite heart.
Luke 15 is a collection of three of Jesus’ parables. Two of them are complete – you party here, angels will party in heaven. The third one shows the actions of a beautiful father doing the only thing he could with the son he loves. In this story, we are the elder brother. We are outside the banquet. We are angry because we just don’t get it. And the story ends with us outside arguing with our father. So what are you going to do? Are you going to celebrate when someone apologizes? Or are you going to pout, miss the banquet, and still not get your way? The choice is ours to make.