When the Pharisees criticized Jesus for associating with sinful people, Christ responded with three parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of Luke’s gospel to show how these parables beautifully portray the Lord’s compassion for wayward souls.
We will continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke this morning. We are beginning a new chapter. I will read Luke 15:11–32, which is Luke’s record of the parable of the prodigal son. I have not forgotten that there are two shorter parables Jesus gives before the parable of the prodigal son, and I will incorporate those preparatory parables in the sermon this morning. For our purposes now, we will look beginning at verse 11 through verse 32. I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’
“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And 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.’ And they began to be merry.
“Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’
“But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’
“And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 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.’”
What a magnificent story this is. No wonder it is one of the two most popular parables of Jesus, along with the parable of the good Samaritan. In this story, we read our story as we read of the blessed grace of God. This is His Word and His truth that carries His authority. Please embrace it as such. Let us pray.
Our Father, we call upon You and ask for Your help. We have heard Your truth. We have listened to Your Word, but we have built a shield around our souls lest that Word would pierce them. So, we ask now that, by Your spirit, You would cut through that shield and that Your Word might find a resting place in our souls. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Jesus with Sinners
The context of this parable that follows the two shorter ones had to do with a confrontation Jesus had with the Pharisees and scribes. At the beginning of chapter 15, we read that all the tax collectors and sinners drew near to Jesus to hear Him, but the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” The reason Jesus gave these three parables in chapter 15 was because He had just heard the criticism that He had associated with tax collectors and sinners. Not only was He associating with them, but He was sharing meals with them.
Jesus’ behavior made the scribes and Pharisees aghast because it violated every principle they held precious. They practiced a kind of spiritual apartheid, believing that salvation came through segregation and in keeping oneself a perfect distance from anyone tainted with evil of any kind. Then, they saw Jesus spending time with sinners and tax collectors.
Jesus spent time with sinners not because He wanted to be like them but because He was driven by compassion. This was His mission. Jesus said on another occasion: “I came to seek and to save the lost. Those who are healthy have no need of a physician, but those who are sick need Me.” That is where He spent His time.
Parable of the Lost Sheep
In responding to the vigorous criticism from the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus told two brief parables before the larger one that we have read. The first was the parable of the lost sheep. Listen to it briefly:
So He spoke this parable to them, saying:
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!” I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.’”
It is a simple story, taken from the common activity of the land filled with sheep and shepherds. How many times do the Scriptures liken God and ultimately Christ to the Shepherd of our souls?
Jesus said: “This is a simple thing. Which one of you, if you owned one hundred sheep and one wandered away and was lost, would not leave the ninety-nine that were safe in the sheepfold and go pursue through the darkness or the heat of the day, searching everywhere for that one sheep that was lost?”
If that happened, you would keep looking. It would not be a casual search. You would not just spend five minutes looking about the landscape to see if you notice a little sheep scurrying here and there. No, you would keep looking until you found it, unless you were a hireling, simply being paid to take care of somebody else’s sheep. Then if you lost one, you might think: “What’s one out of one hundred? It’s only 1%—the sheep owner will probably never even notice that one is gone.”
If you are a good shepherd, you can count, and you know your sheep and your sheep know your voice. If one strays and gets lost in the wilderness, you are on a holy pursuit until you find it. When you find him, you do not take your shepherd’s crook and beat him over the head with it. You do not scold the sheep. The sheep is probably bleating, frightened from being separated from the flock and the shepherd. When you find that sheep trembling, you stoop over, reach down, and pick up that lamb. You put him around your neck, hold his feet, and bring him home.
When you bring him home, you cannot wait to tell your friends. You say: “I found him. You know the sheep that wandered away? I lost him, but I went out and searched until finally I found him. Come, rejoice with me.” Jesus said that not only do his neighbors rejoice with him, but He said, “Likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.”
The Stray Brought Home
There is a dispute about whom the ninety-nine just persons represent. Do they represent righteous people in the world who have no need of the gospel, who have no need of the tender mercies and compassion of the good shepherd? I do not think so, because you could not find ninety-nine of those in the whole world. This can only refer to those who have been justified, who have come safely home to the Savior and now reside in His church.
Every congregation has those who stray. Some stray because they never were converted in the first place. As John said, “Those who went out from us were never really among us.” Even when we believe in the perseverance of the saints because the Lord preserves us, we acknowledge that even the truly converted person may fall into serious, deep sin and stray from the kingdom of God and from Christ.
When straying happens, the hound of heaven will not stay home. The hymn of the church is not, “Leave them alone and they’ll come home wagging their tails behind them.” No, the church sings, “There were ninety-nine who safely lay in the shelter of the fold, but there was one lost sheep on that hill far away, far off from the streets of gold.”
That one who strays from the fellowship of the church, the means of grace, and the community of Jesus is sought by the Lord until he is found and brought home. This is about compassion. This is about the love of Christ for His people.
Parable of the Lost Coin
In like manner, Jesus went on to talk about a woman who suffered a loss: “What woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”
In the first small parable, it is only 1% of the sheepfold that was lost. Only 1% of that valuable collection had disappeared. In this parable, it is 10% of what she had. The woman only had ten silver coins. One silver coin was the equivalent of a day’s wages for a laborer in the ancient world.
In the parable, Jesus was describing a virtually destitute woman. She had ten coins to her name. That was it. She did not have an IRA, an annuity, or a high-salary position. Her life savings amounted to the wages of ten days’ labor. If you lose 10% of that, you have lost something exceedingly valuable.
The woman’s first reaction was panic: “I can’t find the coin.” A whole day’s work, 10% of her net worth, was gone. She lived in a small house with a dirt floor and crude furniture. She turned the furniture upside down. She grabbed a broom and went to the dirt floor. She swept this corner and that corner. She then lit a lamp and held it close, looking at every nook and cranny in her house with the hope that she would see a little glitter of silver.
This parable is not like my wife when she loses an earring. It is not going to change her lifestyle, but it still requires me to turn heaven and earth upside down to find that one earring. We do not like to lose anything that we consider valuable.
The reason the shepherd went looking for the sheep and the reason the woman went through so much trouble to search for the coin was because the shepherd cared for his sheep and the woman valued the coin. She diligently searched after it.
We read in verse nine, “And when she has found it,” she does not just get down on her knees and thank God. She runs out her front door, goes to her next-door neighbors, and says: “Come on, we’re having a party. I found the money that I lost. It was there all along. Nobody stole it. Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece that I lost.”
Jesus said, “Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” What is the point? Jesus was saying to the religious leaders: “What’s wrong with you? You complain when I seek the lost, but every angel in heaven is rejoicing.” No wonder Jesus called the Pharisees the children of the devil. Every time Christ finds one who is lost then brings it to Himself, the angels rejoice, and the devil complains. We all know that sheep are valuable. We all know that money is valuable, but it is just stuff. Sheep and silver cannot compare with the value of a human being.
The two mini-parables Jesus told at the beginning of Luke 15 were simply preparatory, a warmup for the big one, which begins in verse 11. Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons.” Now it is not one out of one hundred or one out of ten, but it is one out of two. He continued: “And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.”
In the ancient world, just as is the case today, inheritances were passed down to children and grandchildren following the death of the owner of an estate. On rare occasions, the wealthy owner could give a trust fund or certain gifts to them in advance, but it was exceedingly rare that anybody would give the entire inheritance to a child before he died. That would mean liquidating all the estate owner’s assets to distribute them among his heirs. Such cases would usually involve a potential long-term loss of the real value of the estate. That did not bother the son in this story. He said: “Father, I want my inheritance, and I want it now. I don’t want to have to wait until you die. I may be too old to enjoy it. I want to enjoy my portion of your legacy now.”
In this text, we have a young man who did not believe in delayed gratification. He wanted it, and he wanted it now so he could spend it now.
A few weeks ago, I told you of R.C. Sproul Jr.’s law of hermeneutics—if you see someone acting stupidly in the Bible, that is you and me. When we read this story, we want to identify with the father or with the good brother, at least at the beginning. We certainly do not want to identify ourselves with this profligate young man who flagrantly wastes his father’s inheritance. We do not want to identify with the boy who does not want to defer or delay gratification. Are we not like him when we have interest payments on our credit cards and spend money that we do not have? Are we not like him when we live beyond our means and steal from our creditors by delaying our payment to them?
There is an old adage that fast pay makes for good friends. I have been working recently with a contractor on a job. For each portion of the job he finishes, he wants to be paid that day, even though he often fails to show up on the days that he says he will be there. Nevertheless, I paid him on the day he asked to be paid, until the most recent time. I said: “You keep saying that you’re going to do something, but you don’t do it. You keep saying you’re going to be here and then you don’t come. But when you do come, you want to be paid right now.” The contractor said: “I’m sorry. It’s been raining and we’re delayed.” I responded: “It’s been raining on my bank account and checkbook, and you’re not getting another dime until you do what you said you were going to do.”
We do this, do we not? Credit card debt is an epidemic in America. It is crippling. Credit card debt comes when we live beyond our means, when we become prodigal and profligate just like this man in the story. That is bad stewardship. It is not how God wants His people to live.
In this parable, the young man said, “Give me the portion of goods that falls to me.” An incredible part of this story is that the father agrees to it. The father allows his son to go with his inheritance. A few days later, the younger son gathered everything together, journeyed to a far country, and wasted his possessions with prodigal living.
The first thing the young man did after receiving his early inheritance and gathering it together was to leave the house. He left the confines of his family. He left the restraints of his parents. He did not just go to the next town where somebody might know him; he went to a far country where he was anonymous. He went into the darkness where no one could see him do the things that he always wanted to do without restraints.
Every year, I see the news accounts of spring break in Fort Lauderdale and Daytona. The news shows the unbridled debauchery of college kids who are far from school and far from home. You know that the TV cameras can only show so much and get away with it on their broadcasts. They leave to your imagination all the rest that is going on during the endless partying syndrome. Mostly, you see these kids having a great time.
Every time I see one of those news broadcasts, I think: “I wonder if their parents are watching this on television. I wonder if their parents know what they are financing on spring break.” I am sure there are some parents who do know and say, “Go ahead, have a great time, and do whatever you want.” You wonder how many parents who care about their kids have any idea what they are doing when they go into a far country.
The young man in the parable went to a far country where nobody knew him so he could have the mother of all parties. He was like a sailor on shore leave with a pocket full of money. He had no restraints. Certainly, finances were not a restraint.
The Lord Cares about Wasted Lives
We are told that the young man wasted his possessions with prodigal living in the far country. A prodigal is somebody who is involved in radical, lavish waste. He was wasting his money—his father’s money. He was wasting his time. Far worse, he was wasting his life.
We learn later in the parable that he consumed his wealth in riotous living and harlotry, then lost it all until he became penniless and had to live with the pigs. You probably know someone that you love and care about who has gone off the deep end into this kind of lifestyle. You see people who do this in misery, in shame, and often in jail. You still see them with hardened hearts. You wonder what it would take to get them to the end of themselves until they hit bottom and realize the enormity of their waste.
Is there anything more tragic, beloved, than a wasted life? It is one thing to waste a paycheck, but to waste a life is the tragedy of all tragedy. Jesus was telling this story because He cares about people like them. The Pharisees could not care less about a young man wasting his fortune and living with the pigs. The Lord of Glory, however, cared about this young man.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.