Luke 15:1-3,11-32


Luke 15:1 Now the tax collectors and  "sinners"  were all gathering around to hear him. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered,  "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." 

Verses 1 and 2 give us the situation:  Social outcasts, open sinners who were repenting, were listening to Jesus.  But Pharisees and scribes, who were covert impenitent sinners, in their dissatisfaction and jealousy, were beginning to grumble at Jesus.  In response Jesus spoke three parables.  Jesus makes application in verses 7 and 10 but not in the parable of the Two Sons.  The reader is left to find the point of comparison himself.

The word  "repent"  occurs in 7 and 10. Just as the lost sheep and the lost coin did nothing to be found, so  "repent" must be understood monergistically, not synergistically. True, people repent but they do nothing which is meritorious before God. The word "repent" is not found in verses 11-32 but it is implicit in application of the younger son and is conspicuously absent in the elder son.

We follow Arndt's scheme of dividing verses 11-32 into five sections:

  1.  11-12;

  2.  13-16;

  3.  17-19;

  4.  20-24;

  5.  25-32.

Luke 15:3 Then Jesus told them this parable:

(Verses 4 through 10 are omitted in this Sunday's text) Luke 15:4  "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? Luke 15:5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders Luke 15:6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' Luke 15:7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. Luke 15:8 Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? Luke 15:9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' Luke 15:10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

Luke 15:11 Jesus continued:  "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.

The Prodigal's longing for a life of sin. His request in verse 12 shows his insolent dissatisfaction with his freedom at home. Note the Father divided the estate, or the property, and gave shares not only to the younger but also to the elder son.

Luke 15:13 Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

He loses his freedom and finds slavery and misery. This happened very soon. The younger son turned everything he had received into cash. He lived wildly. In verse 15 he becomes a slave. Feeding pigs was forbidden to Jews and here denotes utter degradation.  "He longed to fill his stomach" might indicate that he had to be satisfied with what the pigs left. The verse ends with the man's utter destitution. He is friendless and no one cares about him.

Luke 15:17 When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.'

His repentance. This is contrition. He had more than enough of this. He says: "I am dying!"  "Against heaven" means against God. No excuses. Verse 19 indicates the humility of contrition but also the trust in the Father. Note the young son does not ask to be called a son.

Arndt: Here we have a picture of true repentance. But there is likewise faith in the father's forgiving love.

Luke 15:20 So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21 The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.

His loving reception. Note how the father takes the initiative.  "His heart went out to him." 

At the end of verse 21, unlike the KJV, the modern translations omit the last part of his speech according to the better texts. The father interrupted his son's speech. The stole, ring, and sandals indicate high honor. Look at  Romans 5:20b,   the last part.

Because of the father's compassion, the son gained more than he had lost. He received not his old robe back, but the father's best robe. Note the contrast between verses 15-16. The son goes from degradation to high honor. Ancient wealthy families always had a fatted calf on hand for special occasions.

Note the typical Hebrew parallelism in verse 24:

Luke 15:25 Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' 28 The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!' 31 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'

The attitude of the elder, heartless brother compared with the love of the father.  At first the elder brother is not yet angry, but is inquiring politely. Upon hearing the sound of music and dancing he became very angry with the result that he refused to go in.

Note that the elder son does not address his father with respect, but merely says:  "Look here!"

Verses 29-30 show that though the elder son had everything available to him, he speaks of himself as a slave, a man of self-righteousness, perfect obedience, a man who was not getting what was coming to him, a man who is extremely jealous of the person who has received mercy.  It is a remarkable picture of the covert impenitent sinner, dissatisfied and jealous, who grumbles at the Lord.  Furthermore, in verse 29b, he is practically saying that he never has a good time.

In verse 30 he refuses to speak of his brother but calls him  "this son of yours."  All he can do is find fault with his father.  The mention of harlots is made without evidence but on the grounds of probability.

Note the contrast.  The father shows affection for the elder son:  "My dear son."  The father shows not the least bit of anger and nothing has been withheld from the elder son.

Note how the doctrine of  universal atonement  or  objective justification  underlies this parable.  God, in Christ, seriously and earnestly desires the salvation of all.  He has done everything and says:  "Come for all things are now ready."  We would have expected the father to be angry with the elder son.  But he is not.  He divided his property with  both  sons in verse 12.  Furthermore, in verse 31, though the elder son is angry, jealous, and very disrespectful, the father still says:  "You are always with me and everything I have is yours."  The heart of the elder son, of course, is not with his father but the father still loves him dearly.  The only difference between the sons, in application, is that one repents, and the other does not.  Compare the two malefactors in   Luke 23:39-43 

Geldenhuys: One well known commentator made this remark: 'Luke appears nowhere to associate the remission of sins directly with Christ's death.' This is not true.  Luke's whole Gospel is framed and arranged in such a manner that it creates the impression that it has been written to illustrate the Pauline text: 'God commended His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8.

On this whole passage compare 1 John 1:5-2:2. The angels sang at creation, Job 38:7; when Christ was born in Luke 2:13-14; and still do when one sinner repents, Luke 15:7-10. If the preacher cannot preach repentance, he can preach nothing.

The Christian sees himself in both of these sons.  By the grace of God he repents and knows that, for Christ's sake, he is absolved.  But he also sees the element of the elder son in himself.  We need to repent even of our imperfect repentance.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series C Luke-John, Festival Season Sundays Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1979, pp. 49-51. Used with permission.

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