The three parables in Luke 15 (lost sheep, lost coin, lost son) came within an environment that heightened the drama of their stories. The religious leaders were complaining about Jesus’ welcoming notorious sinners to His table. In response, Jesus didn’t give an explanation but a series of stories, and the third one was especially pointed—casting Himself in the role of the loving father and His opponents in the role of a resentful elder brother.
In this third parable, Jesus was painting a picture of two types of lost people. The first is openly rebellious—the “in your face” sin of the younger son. The younger son’s request epitomizes the enormity and consequence of human sin. “God, we want what You can give us, but we don’t want You!” Consider God’s gifts: His beautiful creation, the social order He has established, the institutions of family and government. But just as the younger son wanted to profit from his dad without continuing the relationship, we often exploit these blessings without submitting to God’s laws. We savor the creation and snub the Creator.
Second is a more subtle type of sinner—seen in the older son. He represents someone who appears to be near God, but is actually far away. He’s the church member who wants God’s blessing but could care less about God’s name being honored or about being an agent of reconciliation. He doesn’t care about his father or his brother—only about himself and what he can get out of the situation.
In other words, Jesus’ parable describes two types of sin—the outward rebellion exposed in the younger son and the inward bitterness concealed in the older son. The gracious father responded to both his children with honor and love. But unlike the younger son, who toward the end of the story fell with tears of repentance into his father’s arms, the older son simply voiced a whiny complaint. The older brother viewed his father from a commercial perspective. His boasting about his faithful service revealed more than what appeared on the surface. He was speaking about his father as if he were only a boss to be obeyed, and he was convinced he had been treated wrongly.
In turn, the older son refused to call the younger son his “brother.” He said, “But when this son of yours came…” If the younger son had to understand repentance as accepting that he was truly his father’s son, then the older son had to understand repentance as accepting his younger brother as a true brother!
There are churchgoers who see sinners finding acceptance in the family of God and despise them, refusing even to call them brothers or sisters because of the past they’ve lived. Examine your own life and relationships. Have you refused to accept your brother or sister even after God has accepted you?
What’s more, consider how the father’s treatment of the older brother models God’s graciousness. God has shared so much with humanity—His creation, His goodness, His common grace. He calls everyone, everywhere, to repentance. And when we do repent, He looks at us and says, “Son!” Will we accept Him as Father by confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior?
This article was adapted from The Gospel Project for Adults Summer 2017, Session 4—“The Father of Two Lost Sons.” The Gospel Project takes adults, students, and kids on a chronological, Christ-centered journey through the storyline of Scripture. Preview four sessions for free at gospelproject.com