Though the Gospel of Luke is historical narrative, the passage at hand is a parable. A parable does not describe a historical event. It tells a fictional story that communicates a principle. Jesus tells the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32) on His journey to Jerusalem, where He will die and rise again. A central theme in this large section of Luke (9:51-19:44) is God’s judgment upon His people. Several times, Christ confronts the hypocrisy and unbelief of Jews (mainly Pharisees) around Him (e.g. 14:15-24). I believe chapter 15 begins a new scene and sub-section of teaching. Therefore, we can begin detailed contextual analysis at verse 1 of this chapter.
Christ had made clear to all those with Him that repentance would cost them everything (14:25-33) and unrepentance would not be tolerated (vv.34-35). By God’s grace, many tax collectors and sinners drew near to Him, despite this hard teaching (15:1). The Pharisees and scribes, however, did not like how happy Christ was with their repentance. They complained, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them” (v.2). They grumbled like their forefathers in the wilderness. These scholars thought it was a travesty that Jesus dined with and welcomed sinners – the kind of sinners who didn’t care to white wash their tombs. Christ responds to the complaint with three parables (v.3). The first parable tells the story of a lost sheep (vv.4-7), the second of a lost coin (vv.8-10), the third of a lost son (vv.11-32). The weight of Christ’s response is found in the similarities between all three stories.
The Parable of the Lost Son
In our text (the third parable), the younger son demands his inheritance from the father. The father obliges and soon afterwards, the younger son leaves to enjoy his new wealth. When his wealth is spent, the younger son becomes a slave and eats with the pigs – he has fallen very, very low (vv.11-16). Then the son has an unusual spark of logic: if he has to live as a slave, why not live as a slave in his father’s house? So he goes back home and repents: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son” (vv.17-21). But immediately, the father makes the situation plain: because he is repenting, the younger son will be much more than a slave. He will once again be a son. The whole house rejoices at this news (vv.22-24). The whole house, that is, except for the older son. The older son becomes angry that the father has so much joy in the younger son’s return, yet had never made such celebrations over him, while he never lived a prodigal life. The older son cannot comprehend the cause for such joy (vv.25-30). The father explains, “It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found” (v.32).
This third parable follows the pattern of the previous two. First, the scene opens with someone owning a specific number of possessions: 100 sheep (v.4a), 10 coins (v.8a), 2 sons (v.11). Second, one of the possessions at hand is lost (vv.4b, 8b, 12-16). Third, the lost possession is found (vv. 4c, 8c, 17-21). Fourth, the owner rejoices and calls others to rejoice that the lost possession is found (vv.5-7, 9-10, 22-32).
Joy in Repentance
Jesus clarifies that joy is the theme of the first two parables. The parable about the lost sheep, Jesus explains, should teach us that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (v.7). The parable about the lost coin should teach us that “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v.10). The theme of joy continues into the third parable, where the father’s reaction to his son’s repentance is to throw a party and “be merry” (vv.23-27).
The first parable contrasts the joy heaven has in repentance with the joy heaven has in no repentance. Notice that the explicit comparison is not between repentance and unrepentance. Jesus is focusing on the greater degree of joy heaven has for the sinner who repents – greater than for those who have already repented and are not lost. This is further evident at the end of the third parable. The older son is always with the father and has a true inheritance awaiting him: “all that is mine is yours” (v.31). Therefore, we should not read into these parables judgments regarding the eternal destination of those who grumble at repentance. The point is simpler: the one who complains is in error, but not necessarily outside of the kingdom.
The second parable declares the simple fact of joy in the presence of the angels over repentance (v.10). However, the contrast of the first parable seems to be implied in the second. Claiming that a sinner who repents gives the angels a cause for joy, implies that they did not have such a cause for joy before that sinner repented (v.10). So explicitly, the point of joy in the second parable is more general than the first. Implicitly, the point is the same: when a sinner repents, the host of heaven have a special reason to be glad (vv.7, 10).
The third parable, over three times longer than the first two combined, explains this theme of joy in greater detail. When the younger son repents, the father holds a special feast to celebrate. The older son is angered by the joy of the father. The anger is fueled by a sense of injustice. The older son believes it is wrong for the father to have more joy in the repentance of the younger son than in the obedience of the older son (vv.28-30). As in verse 7, the contrast is not between God’s joy in the repentant and His displeasure in the unrepentant. The contrast is between God’s joy in the repentance of a lost sinner (younger son) and the joy He has in the ongoing obedience of one not lost (older son).
A Threefold Joy
Christ describes the joy of repentance – that is, the godly joy that arises from witnessing repentance – in at least three ways. First, this is a momentary joy. We’re thinking about a special celebration for a one-time event. This is important to notice because it means that eventually the younger son will join the older in receiving the same disposition from the father. The older son had never had a party thrown in his honor like the younger son had (vv.28-30), and if we imagine the future state of this household, the younger son will probably never again have such a party thrown in his honor.
Second, this is a miraculous joy. The joy of the father is explained. “We should make merry and be glad,” the father says, because the younger son “was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found” (v.32; cf. 24). This is the first time Jesus has given us a reason for joy in repentance. We know the degree of joy, but verses 24 and 32 explain why there should be joy in the first place. This cause is Christ’s climactic response to the complaint of verse 2: “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” It was right for the father to rejoice in a special way when his younger son repented (v.32a), because that moment of repentance marked a miraculous transition in the life of the younger son. He went from death to life, from being lost to being found (v.32b). This the kind of joy that billows over in response to a miracle. This is the joy of expecting things to be one way, but watching God supernaturally shift the tide. The father says his younger son was dead. The son’s return home was a resurrection, and in response to that miracle there is no other appropriate response except to “bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v.23-24).
Third, this is a covenantal joy. The repentance (and therefore the joy) in question is in the context of covenant with God. This is a repentance within God’s people, a repentance of His church. First of all, this is the plain implication of each parable. In all three cases, the object lost (sheep, coin, son) is at all times owned. Even when the coin was hidden under the table, it still belonged to the woman. Someone must have a claim on you in order to count you lost. God has a claim upon those who have taken up His covenant. Those covenant-makers who have left His church are lost, but they nonetheless remain bound to God in covenant (Joshua 24:25-27).
Second of all, this is evident in the use of “lost/found” language elsewhere in Scripture. God spoke of His sheep through the prophet Ezekiel that He would find those which were scattered (Ezekiel 34:11-31). This theme is carried forward into the Gospels, where the terms “lost/found” are covenantal, not universal. When He sent out the disciples, Christ forbade them to minister among the gentiles or Samaritans, but only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). Jesus said of Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10). Again in Matthew 15:24, Christ refused to help a Gentile woman on these grounds: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He does end up healing her daughter (v.28), but only after she acknowledges that, as a Gentile, she is not a covenant child (vv.25-27).
Third of all, this is evident in the other instance where Christ used these parables. In Matthew 18, He calls a child to Himself (v.2) and tells the parable of the lost sheep (vv.10-14). “So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (v.14). The parable is the same we find in Luke 15, so the significance must be equivalent. In Matthew, Christ is not revealing God’s will that no little one anywhere in the world should perish(18:14), but that God’s will is that these little ones (i.e. those born in covenant with Him) should not perish. During Jesus’ ministry, a Jewish child who left home to indulge in sin (like the prodigal son) would have been like a sheep leaving the pasture. This is a different situation from a child in Rome leaving home to indulge in sin, for that child was not part of God’s household.
With these three proofs in mind, the terms “lost/found” do not seem applicable to those outside of the covenant. The joy of the shepherd (Luke 15:4-7), the woman (vv.8-10), and the father (vv.11-32) was a covenantal joy. This is the gladness with which Heaven (v.7), angels (v.10), and the Father Himself (Matthew 18:14) overflow, when a man who left truth returns to it. It is a glorious, happy event that one would remember the sweetness of Christ and tarry no longer outside the church door.
First, receive sinners in repentance, not “as they are.” The coming of sinners and complaint of the Pharisees (15:1-2) is in the context of Christ’s hard teaching in 14:25-35. Christ made it plain that repentance was not a flippant or easy matter. Discipleship is costly. The sinners who came to Christ drew near in repentance: they had ears to hear (v.35). The three subsequent parables explain joy in repentance. This is a specific joy and cannot be taken as arbitrary joy. Christ was not receiving sinners without concern for why they were coming to Him. Christ was receiving sinners in repentance. The church’s reception of sinners should be no different. Because every man is created in God’s image, we should honor all men. However, this does not mean we extend to every individual the joy of Luke 15. We have no business receiving sinners “as they are,” as if their life before Christ can continue after they make covenant with Him. Sinners must come in repentance, ready to lay aside what their flesh values most for the sake of pursuing Jesus.
Second, cultivate within yourself a love of repentance. We find it easy to criticize the Pharisees for their hard-heartedness, but how easily we slip into the same habits! Are you jealous of the attention a prodigal son receives in your church? Have you been reluctant to rejoice in the repentance of one you have known to be a great sinner? You may need to renew your love of repentance. Search the Scriptures and increase your understanding of Who God is, that you may love Him more. It is His will that sinners repent. Search the Gospels and increase your understanding of God’s glory in the face of Christ, that you may better resemble your Savior.
Third, be careful not to break bruised reeds. Isaiah prophesied of Christ that He would not break bruised reeds (42:3; cf. Matthew 12:20). This was in reference to the Pharisees, whom Christ opposed but remarkably never upended. Even in His dealings with these leaders, who would soon have Him killed, He demonstrated compassion (e.g. John 3:1-21). We see the tactful gentleness of Christ in His response to the Pharisees. Although He criticizes them, He yet leaves room for them to repent by not concluding the older son’s tale. If the Pharisees will rejoice in the manner of a citizen of Heaven, they will remain in God’s house as sons. Who do you know who may need an extra measure of kindness? To the one who has wronged you, extend a merciful hand. To the one who has slandered your name, offer a gracious compliment. Let God be the Judge, and content yourself with mercy.
Fourth, be greatly encouraged to repent of your sins. Our Father will be delighted to see us return home, for He teaches us in our text that He loves covenant renewal. There is no cause for shame to keep us from repentance. The cross is for those who need to die. Therefore, if you have indulged yourself in fleshly vices, come put them to death where Christ stood in your place. The tomb is for those who need to live – for it is empty! If you have put on the old man who stinks with the stench of dead things, come see the tomb from which Christ rose. He is bringing you with Him, and He loves to see you shed earthly weights.
 A key interpretive decision I have made is that the universal lean of Lukan literature does not require any passage be read as universal, where a plain reading of the text would suggest a direct concern with only concerning Jews, God’s covenant people
 The father twice interprets the younger son’s prodigal living (vv.12-16) as being dead and lost (vv.24, 32). Therefore, Jesus gives us ample grounds for equating the son’s sin and repentance with the sheep and coin being lost and found.
 “Just persons who need no repentance” (v.7). Jesus may want us to remember that there are actually no perfect people who do not need repentance. For example, the Pharisees considered themselves just before God, but they were white-washed tombs. While this is a possible implication of the text, I think the phrase should be taken at face value first.