By Larry Ray Hafley
A casual glance at Luke 15 will suffice. You know the text and are familiar with the Lord’s narrative concerning the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. These well known stories cannot be understood properly unless one knows what precipitated and prompted the Lord’s parables. “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them” (vv. 1,2). It was in response to these chiding, challenging remarks that the Son of God uttered His reply.
The insinuation and implication of the Pharisees and scribes is that Jesus receives and eats with the hated publicans and sinners because He is one of them, i.e., He, too, is a sinner (cf. Matt. 11:19; Lk. 5:27-32; 19:7). This public affirmation and accusation cannot be summarily dismissed and dispelled with a shrug of the shoulders. No, for it strikes at a vital area and aspect of our Lord’s mission and ministry. All of His mighty miracles and wondrous words will be rejected by the mere murmur, “He, too, is a sinner.” The people will give Him no hearing if the charge is accepted as truth; therefore, it must be met with force and fervor.
The indictment is analogous to that of Matthew 12:22-24. The people saw Jesus’ miracles of healing, and, in amazement, began to ask, “Is not this the son of David?” In other words, “Is tins the King of promise and prophecy?” Of course, the Jewish leaders could neither refute the Lord’s work nor reprove His word, so they chose the easy path of reviling, saying, in effect, “Oh, yes, He performs mighty miracles, but do not be alarmed. After all, He is in league with the devil.” The effect of that charge is to discredit and destroy the efforts of the Savior. For now, no matter how many marvelous miracles He manages to do, the people can say, “Impressive, indeed, but He is of the devil; so, we need not listen to Him. ” It is the same in Luke 15. If the masses are led to believe that Jesus is a sinner because He associates and affiliates with them (“Birds of a feather flock together,” you know), then His work is aborted and abolished. Thus, Jesus, as He did in Matthew 12 (see McGarvey’s commentary) is impelled and compelled to answer. The lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son are His defense, and to them we turn our attention.
Three Separate Items Lost
Observe the difference between the things of our text: a sheep, a coin, a son. One is an animal; one is an object; one is a human being. One is motivated, perhaps, via sheer animal impulse, instinct; one is lost as an inanimate object; one chooses to leave of his own free will. The sheep may fear, but be unable to return; the coin is insensible to feeling of being lost or found; the son can, if he elects to, remember, repent and return. Yes, numerous differences can be seen in these three, yet they all had some things in common — all were lost; the return of each was fervently desired; all were received with rejoicing!
To be lost is a horrible thing. A child can be lost in a large store. One can be lost on a strange highway. One can be lost in an algebra class. Every person of age has felt the knifing terror and gnawing horror of being lost or of having lost something of great value. Terrible even to recall, is it not? Still, there is nothing worse than being “lost,” separated and alienated from the life of God!
One may become lost, ignorantly and unknowingly, as the sheep probably was. Peter recognized this truth when he said, concerning the Jews’ crucifixion of Jesus, “through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:17). On the cross, Jesus’ petition emphasized a similar theme and thread of thought. “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Sadly, though, many choose to follow lust and be lost, as did the younger son of Luke 15. In the Old Testament, God called His people, begging them to stand, see and ask for the old paths that they might find rest for their souls, “But they said, “We will not walk therein” (Jer. 6:16; cf. Isa. 30:9-11). It is a recurring refrain in human history.
God Calls, Man Answers
Jesus came “to seek . . . that which was lost” (Lk. 19:10). Our study reveals the ardent search of God. The shepherd sought the lost sheep, and was determined to do so “until he (found) it. ‘I He was not going to quit looking “until” he rescued the lost sheep. The woman anxiously searched for her lost coin. She lit a candle for light to see in every dark crevice and cranny. She swept the house, “every inch of it,” as we might say. Truly, she sought “diligently.” We shall have more to say presently about the father’s keen interest in his son’s return, but this establishes the fact that God seeks those that are lost with love, grace and vigor.
However, man, too, must seek God. Man must answer the call of God. Man must “seek the Lord” (Acts 17:27). To the lost sheep of the house of Israel, Jesus comes, stands at the door and knocks. But He does not open the door. The lost must hear His voice and the lost must open the door, and the Lord “will come in to him” (Rev. 3:20). The Lord seeks, but the lost must “diligently seek” (Acts 17:27; Heb. 11:6; Rom. 2:7), “strive” (Lk. 13:24 – [“strive” is our word for “agony”]), “come” (Heb. 11:6; Jn. 6:37; Matt. 11:28; Rev. 22:17), “hear . . . and open” (Rev. 3:20), “believe” (Heb. 11:6), “receive” (Jn. 1:11), and desire to accept (Jn. 5:40; Lk. 13:34).
The Lord did not say that the lost could not hear and receive Him. He said they would not (Jn. 5:40; Lk. 13:34). Even the spiritually dead man can hear, “and they that hear shall live” (Jn. 5:25). Some, to be sure, do not seek after God (Rom. 3:11) and “cannot hear (Jesus’) word” (Jn. 8:43), but that is because they have made themselves deaf and not because they were born in that condition (Matt. 13:15; cf. Jer. 17:23; 19:15; Zech. 7:11-13).
“Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar”
The description of the wandering, squandering son is one of the tenderest, most touching love stories of the Bible. We are introduced to him as the youngest of two sons of a wealthy plantation owner. That he was wealthy we may fairly deduce from the (1) “portion of goods” (v. 12); (2) “gathered all together” (v. 13 – seems to indicate a great sum); (3) “wasted his substance” (v. 13 – Why the reference to his substance being wasted if it was negligible?); (4) “many hired servants,” “one (implies others) of the servants” (vv. 17,26); (5) “devoured thy living,” (v. 30 – This charge of the elder brother would lose its force if it did not contemplate a large share); (6) festive provisions (fatted calf, ring, robe, shoes, music, dancing, vv. 22-25); (7) “all that I have is thine” (v. 31 – This would be shallow consolation to the elder brother if it did not involve a vast value).
The younger son secured his inheritance, traveled to a far away land and “wasted his substance with riotous living, ” which included immorality with harlots (v. 30). It happened to him as the word of God said it would. “He that keepeth company with harlots spendeth his substance” (Prov. 29:3). “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
We are not told explicitly how long the man was gone, but it must have been many months, if not a year or more. Several factors lead to this conclusion. First, he went into a “far country.” Modes of travel were slow in that era, so it took several weeks to go to a far country. Second, he spent a fortune. As previously reasoned, we may surmise that the young man was wealthy. One may “fool away” a significant amount of money in a short time, but we may safely assume that he did not come to abject poverty over night. Third, “A mighty famine” arose in that land to which he had gone. A famine or an economic depression may arise almost immediately, but they often involve many seasons or months in their development. Fourth, when he had “blown” all his resources, he looked for a job, One can find work in a day, but it is unlikely that our character did so. (A) He as an alien, a foreigner, the last to be hired in any region. (B) There was a famine; work was scarce. (C) He sought work, we may imagine, at several levels before he stooped to feed swine. That was the last place one would seek employment. This search for employment, therefore, took time. (D) The young man had to walk home from a far country. He had no means to pay fare. It took a long time to walk back from whence he came. Thus, we conclude, and trust that you concur, that the young man was gone from home for a long period of time.
The younger son’s descent into debasing debauchery is not less sorrowful despite the fact that it was of his own making. It is correctly said that one must hit bottom before he looks up. And, oh, how deep was the bottom of the pit into which our young son had fallen! He had recklessly, riotously and wantonly wasted his goods. He had reached the proverbial “bottom of the barrel.” He had tried every avenue, seeking to climb out, but he had been reduced to the lowest common denominator. Poor Lazarus himself was not a more helpless, hapless, hopeless, hungry beggar than our young man, “and no man gave unto him.”
But, then, the road to recovery was paved before him. (1) He reflected – “He came to himself.” No lost person can be found who does not admit to himself the futility of his position and condition before God. (2) He remembered the bountiful provisions of hearth and home. “How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!” (3) He resolved, he purposed, “I will arise and go to my father.” (4) He repented. .I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight.” (5) He regretted his actions. “I am no more worthy to be called thy son.” (6) He returned. “He arose and came to his father.” (7) He was restored, received, reunited. “Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him.” (8.) He rejoiced “And they began to be merry.”
Our emotions are not all directed toward the young man. We must pity his father, grieve with him and for him, before
we rejoice with him. It had been a hard time for him, too. His heart was torn with fear and anxiety for his boy. “But how did he know what was happening to his son?” you may object. “There was no communication; he had not heard of his son’s pitiful plight and predicament.” Oh, yes, but he had heard! He knew as every loving father knows. He knew the tendencies of his son. He knew whether or not the young man was frugal or wasteful. He feared that what happened would happen. Even the elder brother knew, for without a word of information, he knew intuitively and instinctively that his brother had “devoured thy living with harlots.” He knew by a life time of observation and experience. Ask any devoted parent.
Further, as noted earlier, the father was evidently a man of considerable wealth. It is reasonable to surmise and conjecture that, as a rich land owner with crops and flocks, he had economic intercourse with traders, shippers and wholesalers of other regions. As such, he would doubtless learn of financial conditions in other climes. Surely, he knew of the tragic, “mighty famine” that had arisen to ravage that “far country.” Assuming he knew where his boy went, as he certainly must have inquired of him the day he left, his heart sunk within him when he heard of the famine, because he has a son in that land, a son who is given to being wasteful. So, the poor father dreaded, fretted and feared the worst.
All of the above is further corroborated and confirmed by the statement, “But when he (the son) was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” First, it was not an accident that his father saw him when he was yet a great way off. He had been watching, hoping for his return. Perhaps from the porch of the old home place, he had spent many lonesome, tearful hours scanning the horizon for the outline form of his returning son. Alas, there he was! Secondly, how did he know or recognize him when he was “yet a great way off”? Again, like every loving mother or father, he knew his child. Let a dozen or more young men come toward me, and I can tell you which one is mine while he is still “a great way off.” I know how his hand moves at his side when he walks. I recognize the shape of his body, the form of his walk, and so it was with this anxious father. Thirdly, he “had compassion.” Before the boy could pour out his remorse, regret and repentance, the father “had compassion.” Why the compassion if he had not anticipated the need for it? The compassion vindicates and validates our conjectures.
To think of this tender return brings tears to the heart if not to the eyes. Well had the shepherd and the woman said, “rejoice with me,” after they had found that which was lost! “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.” The scribes and Pharisees would not rejoice at the Lord’s receiving, reclaiming and redeeming of the publicans and harlots. They had rather smirk and cast unfounded aspersions which were deftly designed to assassinate Jesus’ character. The elder brother exactly represented them in this regard. The use of the brother’s reaction was a jab at the Pharisees and scribes. It placed them in a bad light.
The elder brother “would not go in.” He referred to his brother as “this thy son” (v. 30), not as his brother (note the father’s gentle correction, “this thy brother,” v. 32). He was jealous, bitter, accusing, rather than “merry,” “glad” and rejoicing. This lesson must not be lost and wasted on us today. Paul instructed the Corinthians to forgive, comfort and confirm their love toward a penitent person, “lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:7).
But we are ahead of our story. When the younger son returned, his father said: (1) “Bring forth the best robe” – not just any robe, but the best. The young man was in tatters and rags as his circumstances would imply. (2) “Put a ring on his hand.” A robe we can understand, but why a ring? Rings were frequently used as family insignias. They showed that one was of and in the family. The young man said he was “no more worthy to be called thy son,” hence, the ring was the token to show that he was not a servant, but a son, fully forgiven, accepted, restored. But what happened to such a family ring he may have possessed before he left home? We are not told, but if he had one, it may have been lost, stolen or pawned to keep himself from starving or to pay debts he incurred with his riotous living. (3) Put “shoes on his feet.” The young son was, no doubt, barefooted. He had walked many miles and any shoes or sandals he had owned before were long since worn away. (4) “And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat and be merry.” The son was emaciated, destitute. Remember, he had desired to eat swine’s food, he was perishing with hunger, “and no man gave unto him.” Also, the father’s fears, worries and concerns for his son had likely stifled his appetite during those weary, dreary months. His longing and pining for his boy had made him sad, distressed. So, he said, “Let us eat, and be merry.”
How thankful we are to revel and regale with them during this happy time, “For this my son (not “my prodigal son;” not, “my servant,” but “this my son”) was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.”
And just here we shall leave them. It is their private moment, their family time to savor, to be renewed, to be refreshed, to close up their wounds of worry and pain. We shall quietly steal away and bask from afar in the sublime joy of their sweetest hour.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 12, pp. 363-364, 374
June 19, 1986