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Lost sons (Luke 15)

"The three parables of Luke 15 are treated as one, for introducing them Luke wrote: 'He spake this parable (not parables) unto them' (Luk 15:3). Each parable adds to the one that went before it, so that they follow one upon another without specific introduction (Luk 15:8,11). They illustrate three different aspects of one subject: The work of redemption. Consider the different causes of the loss in the three parables. The sheep was lost through its own action; it strayed from the shepherd through curiosity or desire for better pasture. The coin was lost, not through its own fault, but that of the woman who possessed it. The son was lost through deliberately, willfully, and consciously leaving the house of his generous father, and squandering the inheritance granted him. The first represented a one per cent loss of the flock; the second, a ten per cent loss of the woman's hoard; the third, a fifty per cent loss of the family. These figures are significant. They suggest that whilst comparatively few may stray through curiosity or desire for better pasture, the greater number are lost by the carelessness of others, whilst even more leave through wilful, fleshly desire. Now consider the three mediums of reconciliation in each parable. The shepherd represents the Lord Jesus; the woman, the ecclesia; and the father, Yahweh. The first parable centers attention on the loss, the second on the search, the third on the restoration, so that the dominant verbs throughout are 'lost, seek, find, and rejoice'. If these principles are kept in mind whilst the parables are studied, many wonderful points of exhortation will be revealed" (SB 10:7:108).
The reason for Christ's use of the three related parables of Luke 15 is given in Luke 15:2, where the Pharisees are heard to murmur, "This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them." Here was a question of "fellowship"; this itinerant preacher, this rabbi who was soliciting their discipleship, was asking them -- the "separated ones" -- to follow his example in taking to their bosom "sinners" of every sort! It was absolutely unthinkable!

The third of the three parables is usually known as "The Prodigal Son". It may also be called "The Lost Sons" (plural) because, in actual fact, at the beginning both of the sons were lost. Like the one hundredth sheep, the younger son was lost outside the fold, away from home. But, like the tenth coin, the elder was "lost" inside the house. He never strayed physically from his father, but his mind and his heart were miles away!

The parable of the lost sons introduces personal factors which cannot be found in the two preceding parables. "A sheep might realize it is lost -- but it cannot rise to any sense of folly in having strayed" (PM 233).

And a coin is completely without thought or feeling. But both sons are capable of realizing their relative positions in regard to the father; they are both capable of repentance, and of taking the initiative to bridge the gap. Whether the elder brother ever succeeded in aligning himself with the mind of his father is the lingering, unanswered question at the close of the parable. And it was the question which lingered in the air, from that day forward, for every one of the proud Pharisees who heard the story.

There is a great urgency of love and reconciliation in Christ's picture of the waiting and watching father, as he daily and even hourly stares down the road, looking for the familiar figure. There is not one shred of formality or legality in his reception of his returning son. Even while he is a great way off, his father sees him, and with compassion, runs and falls upon his neck and kisses him (Luke 15:20).

"He did not stand upon his dignity, or remain coldly aloof demanding proof of repentance. He did not force an apology. He loved him and he wanted him back and he was willing to forget the past and hope for the future. He showered every display of affection and attention upon him, in his intense joy at reconciliation" (GVG, Ber 48:158,159).

Here is the divine example for the ecclesial attitude toward any sinning brother who makes the first, faltering steps toward repentance. The members should never question the sincerity of those who seek to return (for they would not like their own sincerity to be questioned), nor should they make the barriers to fellowship more difficult for such than for new converts. The ecclesia should rejoice in that the withdrawal of fellowship collectively administered has by God's grace achieved its hoped-for outcome: the reclamation of the one who has strayed.

In this consideration of the parable we shall concentrate upon the attitude of the elder son, so that at all costs we will avoid his failings. When the younger brother had returned and been received by the father, the elder "was angry, and would not go in" (Luke 15:28). He chose to absent himself from his brother's feast with the father. In the spiritual application of the parable, he not only put his repentant brother "out of fellowship" but also all those who were "in fellowship" with his brother! In a "clean sweep" he rejected all who sat down to eat with him. But in drawing such a rigid line between himself and his brother, he accomplished one other thing: he unwittingly placed himself outside the father's house!

The elder brother rudely voiced his own righteousness in rather extravagant terms: "Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment" (Luke 15:29). Here is the extreme Pharisaical attitude that often goes arm-in-arm with the "touch not, handle not" school of "fellowship": "I thank thee, Lord, that I am not as other men, especially this miserable sinner."

"How ungracious the older brother seems in contrast with his father's love! But it did not seem so to him. He felt quite justified in his self-righteous indignation. He had no qualms at distressing his father, or marring the joy of reconciliation. He could only see one point of view and that was that he had worked hard and faithfully and here was this returned wastrel being shown favors that he had never received" (GVG 159).
How could the elder son claim perfect obedience? It was impossible. And even as he stood there in his bitterness and jealousy, he was at that very moment disobeying the father's will! May it never be our folly to stand upon our "accomplishments" and blindly overlook, at our very fingertips, the simple work we have left undone: that is, reconciliation with our brethren.

"And yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends." The elder son, just like the younger, had associates outside the family circle, characters that he had not brought to his father's table. This in itself suggests something less than a perfect obedience. And how true it is, that when we measure ourselves against our brethren, and say secretly, "I am better than he", we are really only saying, "I was smart enough never to sin openly"! But we have all sinned -- of this there can be no doubt. It is fatal to look upon one's own sins as not being as "serious" as another's.

The elder contemptuously disclaimed kinship with the younger in Luke 15:30: 'He may be your son, but he is not my brother', he seems to be saying. But the father patiently and gently responds, "For this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found" (Luke 15:32). "He is your brother and my son, whether you disown him or not!" It is certainly not without significance that the fatted calf (the special sacrifice of communion typifying Christ) was slain on behalf of the repentant sinner, not the proud "Pharisee"! How tragic it is that by his own hateful words the elder son admits that the "fatted calf" is not for him! He could have shared in it with his brother if only he had swallowed his pride and come into the house!

So we see in the elder brother some rather unlovely characteristics. May they never, even subconsciously, be ours! Here is unbridled jealousy: bitterness at the inclusion of his brother in his own previously exclusive benefits. Here is also greed, the latent fear: 'He has already thrown away (on harlots, a gratuitous assumption -- or was it true?) one-half (or one-third?) of your property, and now he wants mine!'

All that the elder brother had he had received from the father. Should he not go out of his way now to welcome his brother (thus pleasing the father)? There is joy in heaven, with the Father and His angels, when one sinner repents (Luke 15:7,10). What might the Father think of us, if we are angry or jealous or proudly aloof upon an occasion that gives Him joy?

The theme of the Pharisaic attitude toward repentance and reconciliation, which begins with Christ's three parables in Luke 15, continues through the next two chapters, providing other insights into the mind and character of the brother who was "lost" while still "at home":

  • Luke 16:13: "No servant can serve two masters." In his scarcely-hid concern for wealth and privilege, the elder son was demonstrating that he was not a single-minded servant of the Father. He was really a clandestine servant of "mammon", a "hireling" who sought his own reward (John 10:12,13), not a son who rejoiced above all else in the work of the Father.
  • Luke16:15: "And he said unto the Pharisees: 'Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.' "
  • Luke 17:3-5: "Take heed to yourselves" -- Examine yourselves as severely and more so than you examine others. If your brother trespasses, then rebuke him; but always stand ready to forgive him -- not just once or twice, but seven times in one day if need be! And the apostles, recognizing that such an attitude requires faith, pray Jesus to increase their faith. It is for us from time to time to exercise this kind of faith -- faith that, despite perplexing problems, all things will work together for the good of Christ's ecclesias; faith that our brethren will by God's mercy stand firm in the faith despite ever-present failings; faith that God will realize His plan without our constant brooding and worrying, or our presumptuous intervention in matters that do not directly affect us. Can we not develop such faith that God will do His part? This is the faith that pleases God, and without which He cannot be pleased!
  • Luke 17:10: "When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, 'We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.' " Here is the reason for the command that we should receive repentant sinners, and for the command that we should seek reconciliation with our brethren despite their imperfections: we are ALL unprofitable servants; the most we can possibly do is but our duty. Our Father has for each of us an inheritance infinitely greater than we could ever earn. Let us not be found in the position of appearing to deny that inheritance to others who have, in the last analysis, applied for it upon the same basis as we: not by works -- lest any man should boast -- but by the unlimited mercy of a loving Father.

I hope you have found this helpful.
God bless and keep you!