The Parable of Three Lost Sons
Over the past two decades, our understanding of the fullness of what Jesus was teaching in the parable of Luke 15:11-32 has been helpfully deepened by the writing and preaching of a number of theologians. With what has been indelibly labeled, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” Christians have, for far too long, focused their attention almost exclusively in on the younger son–thus treating the parable as if outward rebellion was exhibiting the worst form of rebellion in the sight of God. This is, in fact, to miss the point of the parable entirely. Jesus told this story to the self-righteous (inwardly rebellious) Pharisees and scribes who despised the fact that He was receiving lawless (outwardly rebellious) “sinners” to Himself. Sinclair Ferguson has helpfully explained it in the following way:
So why after…the prodigal son has returned home do we have another eight verses in the parable of the prodigal son? It must be either because Jesus wasn’t such a good story teller after all and He messed this one up, or the punchline isn’t really about the prodigal son at all. And actually when you read this parable in it’s context, it’s actually very obvious that the parable isn’t really about the prodigal son at all; or to put it the other way around, if we want to keep the title, the real prodigal in the parable is not in fact the younger brother…Jesus had the Pharisees in His sights. The story was ultimately going to be a mirror held up so that they could see themselves in the light of God’s grace and in the light of Christ’s Gospel.
Ferguson’s point is a point which was strongly emphasized by Edmund Clowney before him. Clowney’s chapter “Sharing the Father’s Welcome” in his book Preaching Christ from All the Scripture has been instrumental for many in helping to bring them to a fuller understanding of this parable. In addition, Clowney’s RTS lecture, “The Parable of the Prodigal,” has been an extremely formative resource. Tim Keller, following in the footsteps of Clowney, has written a short book, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, in which he explores in more depth the meaning of the parable. In addition to Clowney and Keller, Sinclair Ferguson has masterfully carried the exposition along in his three part sermon series, The Distant Son I, The Distant Son II and The Waiting Father.
Once we grasp that aspect of the parable we can safely squeeze out all of the spiritual truths embedded in the small details of the parable. In this parable Jesus teaches us about the nature of inward and outward rebellion, mistaken ideas about what God is like, the harsh conditions of the world, the nature of true repentance, the eagerness of the Father to receive returning sinners, and the joy in the heart of the Father over returning sinners. There is, however, one final point to the parable that is frequently overlooked. This parable has often been used by liberal theologians to suggest that no atonement is needed in bringing the younger brother back to the Father. In his sermon, “The Prodigal Son,” B.B. Warfield has helpful pointed out the problems associated with attempts to make the details of the parable into the essence of the Gospel, rather than as certain aspects of Christianity. In his chapter, “Sharing the Father’s Welcome,” Clowney explained that it would be insufficient to preach this parable without preaching the Jesus who taught it. He insisted that there was another brother in the parable–the one telling it. He wrote:
We do not understand this parable if we forget who told it, and why. Jesus Christ is our older Brother, the firstborn of the Father. He is the seeking Shepherd who goes out to find the lost; he is the Resurrection and the Life who can give life to the dead; he is the Heir of the Father’s house. To him the Father can truly say, “Son, all that I have is yours.” He who is the Son became a Servant that we might be made the sons and daughters of God. This parable is incomplete if we forget that our older brother is not a Pharisee but Jesus. He does not merely welcome us home as the brother did not; he comes to find us in the pigpen, puts his arms around us, and says, “Come home!”
Indeed, if we forget Jesus, we do not grasp the full measure of the Father’s love. The heavenly Father is not permissive toward sin. He is a holy God; the penalty of sin must be paid. The glory of amazing grace is that Jesus can welcome sinners because he died for them. Jesus not only comes to the feast, eating with redeemed publicans and sinners; he spreads the feast, for he calls us to the table of his broken body and shed blood.
The author of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus sings God’s praise in the midst of his brethren (Heb. 2:12). The joy of heaven’s feast is already anticipated in the fellowship of the singing Savior. Jesus knows his Father’s heart, and rejoices with him. Full of joy through the Holy Spirit, Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure” (Luke 10:21, NIV).
In his sermon, The Waiting Father, Ferguson takes this idea even further and makes the most profound observation about how this parable is related to the Person and saving work of Christ. He explains that only the sufferings of Christ make it possible for the Father to receive the outwardly rebellious son into His home again:
All of this loss has been sustained in the heart of the Father. This is why the joy is so great in the heart of the Father because the loss has been felt so keenly. Now why is that so significant in this story? For one reason, because in this story there are actually three sons: there’s the younger son who leaves home; there’s the older son who stayed at home; and there’s the eternal Son whose telling the story. And the story of that eternal Son is that in some time He is going to be given up to the cross, and He is going to cry out “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken Me?” in a sense that He has lost His Father; and there is going to be an echoing cry in the heart of the Heavenly Father, much deeper than the cry of King David in the death of his son Absalom, “Oh Absalom, my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom.” And you see its the story that’s taking place outside of the story of Luke 15, that makes the story in Luke 15 both possible and glorious. You remember how Paul sumamarizes this in what seems to me to be one of the greatest utterances in all of history, “The God who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things.”
One interpretation of the three parables in Luke 15 that I’ve heard is that the first is about Jesus coming to save sinners, the second about the work of the Spirit in bringing sinners to faith and repentance, and the third about the Father receiving sinners as a result of this.
I’m not sure that this is what Jesus had in mind (the fact that someone seeks for what is lost in the first two, but not in the third, therefore pointing to Jesus as the “True Elder Brother”, makes more sense to me), but this approach does deal with the atonement issue nicely.