The parable of the prodigal son answers the question about how God feels about the lost As you think about this parable, let’s give some attention to the background.
This parable is found in Luke 15. If you read the first three verses of this chapter, you will find three different people.
Tax collectors in first century Rome were individuals who were given authority by the Roman government to collect taxes from Jewish citizens. These tax collectors were given a quota, and were allowed to do whatever they could to get as much money from each citizen as possible. It was legalized extortion. So tax-collectors in the days of Jesus were thieves.
Usually when you read about tax collectors in the New Testament, they are paired with sinners. Sinners were not people who made a mistake now and then. These were a specific group of individuals known as sinners. If you study your New Testament, you will find that tax-collectors are paired with harlots. So when you are reading about tax-collectors and sinners, you are reading about the basest of human beings. Verse 1 tells us that these tax-collectors and sinners came to Jesus because they wanted to hear what Jesus had to say.
The scribes were the law-makers. They would come up with laws and traditions and expect the Jews to obey.
The Pharisees did their absolute best to follow the laws and traditions of the scribes. They were self-righteous and would look down their noses at their fellow Jews. Just as tax-collectors and sinners were often paired together, scribes and Pharisees were paired together.
You learn in verse 2 that these scribes and Pharisees were complaining because Jesus received these tax-collectors and sinners.
The worst kind of people were coming to Jesus and were interested in what He had to say. The self-righteous, religious people were looking down their nose at these people and at Jesus for befriending them. Jesus then takes this occasion to teach a valuable lesson on how God feels about sinners. This is the background to this parable of the prodigal son.
In response to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus actually spoke three different parables.
In each of these parables, something was lost and then found. When what was lost was found, there was rejoicing. The point is being made how God feels about those who are lost. God rejoices over a single individual who decides to make his life right.
Having established the background of this parable of the prodigal son, let’s focus our attention on the three main characters of the parable. In doing so, we will learn what God is thinking and how God is feeling toward those who are lost.
Here is a young man who is ready to venture out on his own. He doesn’t want to be under the care and control of his father. He wants to be his own man. He wants to live by his own rules. He wants to live his own life without having to answer to his father or having to ask for his father’s permission. So his father divides up the inheritance and gives this young man his portion. Now look at the life this younger son chose to live.
The prodigal son who was ready to live his own life went to a far country far away from his father’s influence. He took his portion of the inheritance and wasted it. He thought he was ready. He thought he could handle his affairs. He thought wrong.
There was a famine in the land, and because he had not prepared himself, his wasteful living caused him to be in want. He was in such dire straits that he would be satisfied to eat the food that he fed to the pigs, and he could not even do that. He found out that the world did not owe him anything. In fact, no one gave him anything. He finds himself far away from home, hungry, and alone. In this state of need, he reflects back to the way things used to be.
Imagine the prodigal son sitting among the pigs. He is hungry, dirty, miserable, and he thinks back to a time when he lived at home. He had everything that he needed. There was an abundance. His father had hired servants. There was an abundance of food. There was enough food that the family could eat all they wanted, the servants could eat all they wanted, and there was still food left over. He lived a comfortable life under the care of his father, and he threw it all away because he wanted to live his life his way.
Do you see the parallel? Here you are enjoying the peaceable life as child of God under the abundant love and mercy of your Heavenly Father. But you decide that you want to live your own life. You’re going to do things the way you want to do them. You don’t want God or anyone else telling you the way you are supposed to live. So you leave God and go into the world. But all you find there is deep despair of spiritual poverty.
As a result, the prodigal son went home. If you keep reading, you will find how the father reacted to his son’s return.
How do you suppose the prodigal son smelled? This son had been working by feeding swine. It seems obvious that the prodigal son probably had an unpleasant smell. If you have ever worked on a farm, you know how this boy smelled.
What do you supposed the prodigal son looked like? He had taken his inheritance and squandered it. He didn’t have any money to buy new clothes. He didn’t have any money to wash the clothes that he wore. He probably was wearing clothes that were tattered, dirty, and stained. He probably had dirt under his fingernails. His hair would have been shaggy and dirty.
How do you suppose the prodigal son felt? We know how he felt, because it says in verse 19, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He felt worthless because of the decisions he made and the circumstances of the life he chose to live. Have you ever felt that way about yourself? Do you feel that way now?
Notice how the father responded to his son when he returned home.
First of all, verse 20 tells us that “when he was still a great way off, his father saw him.” The Greek word for “saw” is “eido.” It carries the idea of seeing with the mind. It means that you have a complete understanding of something.
The father saw a figure that was walking in his direction, and there was something familiar about this figure. He was too far away to be able to be seen clearly, but the father recognized him. "Could it be? That’s my son coming home!"
Is it possible that his father was out there by the road looking for his son? When you study the verbs in this verse, it is very possible that his father was out there looking down the road hoping that his son would appear.
Secondly, it says that “his father saw him and had compassion” (v. 20). Here is an important observation. The phrase “had compassion” is not an active verb but a passive verb. That means that compassion wasn’t something that he did. It was something that happened to him.
He didn’t choose to have compassion. He saw his son, and what he saw tugged on his heart, and he was moved to compassion. He had compassion because of how he felt about his son.
Third, it says that his father “ran and fell on his neck and kissed him” (v. 20). The word for “kissed” is “kataphileo.” “Kata” is the Greek word for “down.” “Phileo” is the Greek word for “love.” He ran to him, fell on his neck and loved him down.
The picture that is being painted is that of a father who saw his son at a great distance. He was so moved with compassion that he ran to his son, and in their embrace, they fell to the ground. It was at that point that the son something to his father.
When you keep reading, you will see how the father responded to what his son just said. Before you do that, remember that in this parable of the prodigal son, there are two sons. There was a younger son who made a mess of his life because of the bad choices that he made. There was also an older son who did not make those choices, but he was also in a mess because of his attitude.
The older son complained that it just isn’t fair. Everyday his father gets up and goes out to the road to look for his brother. Here he is working in the field. He has never broken his father’s commandments. He has been faithful to his father day after day and year after year. His brother shames the family. His brother leaves the family and squanders his father’s livelihood. His brother wasted his money. He wasted his life. Now he comes back into their lives. When he does, father throws him a party. He never threw his older son a party and he’s the good son. He expects the older son to be happy about it? This is the attitude of the older son.
I don’t know the hearts and minds of everyone who reads this. Is it possible that there are some of you who, like the scribes and Pharisees, are extremely condemning and critical of those who have made a mess of their lives because of some bad choices? Is it possible that some of you, like the scribes and Pharisees, look down your noses at the people of the world thinking yourself better than they? I believe that most of us are people of compassion who look at the people of this world with compassion.
Let’s ask the same questions that we asked concerning the prodigal son.
How do you suppose this older son smelled? It says in verse 25 that “his older son was in the field.” He didn’t have time to shower. He had been working in the field all day. He smelled like you would expect someone to smell who had been outside working.
How do you suppose this older son looked? It says in verse 25 that “his older son was in the field, and he came and drew near to the house.” He didn’t have time to change his clothes. He heard this noise and merrymaking, and he wanted to know what was going on. He wasn’t even invited. So he’s in his work clothes. His clothes and his body are filthy with sweat and dirt from working in the field.
How do you suppose this old son felt? The Bible is very clear about how he felt.
When you keep reading, you will see how the father responded to his older son.
First of all, he says, “It was right...” The Greek word for “right” is a word that means “necessary.’ He father said that this was necessary. The father was so moved with compassion over his son returning home that he felt he had to celebrate. Why was it so necessary?
He continues to say “...for your brother.” That’s important. The father says to his older son that this is his brother. You shouldn’t be thinking this way filled with anger, selfish, jealousy. He’s your brother.
He then says, “was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.” The word “lost” is in the form that indicates that the son did it to himself. The word “found” is in the form that indicates that it was something done to the son.
Don’t miss the significance of the father’s words. He said that his son, by his own choices and actions, put himself in a state of being lost. But now his father has found him. The father was the one who found him, and now it is essential that there be a celebration. This is what the father told his oldest son.
This father celebrated with a lavish feast to welcome his younger son home, and to teach his older son a lesson. In this celebration, we learn how God feels about those who are lost.
When the prodigal son comes back home to his father, he says, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like a hired servant” (Luke 15.21). In verses 22-24, you read how the father reacted to what his son said. In these verses, he makes preparations for this celebration.
The son felt that he was unworthy, but the father responded by giving him the best that he had. It is believed that this is the signet ring. This is the ring that is worn to show that you have the authority in the family. The son felt that he was no longer worthy to be called his son, but the father responded by giving him his ring.
Culturally, servants went around barefoot, but the members of the family were able to wear sandals. The son felt that he was no longer worthy to be called his son, but the father responded by giving him sandals because he was family.
Here was a child who left his father, and when the prodigal son comes back, his father rejoices and gives him everything. It demonstrates how God feels about His children.
Study the parable of the prodigal son, and you will find that it is not really about the prodigal son, nor is it about the older brother. It is a parable about how God feels for the sinner and how much God wants the lost to come to Him. This is how God feels about a Christian who has gone back into the world, but then comes home. This is how God feels about someone who is lost and then is found.