Luke L: Lk. 15:1-32
This famous chapter of Luke focuses on how God responds when sinners repent, and our temptations when that happens. God rejoices when sinners repent, but sinners are tempted to sin by not entering into His joy.
Summary of the Text: This chapter consists of three stories about things that have been lost and are found: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. All three are told in response to the Pharisees and scribes grumbling, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Lk. 15:1-2). In the first parable, Jesus appeals to the Pharisees’ and scribes’ own sense of urgency to find even one lost sheep (Lk. 15:3-4). Jesus says when the one is found, the man comes home rejoicing and calls his friends together to rejoice with him (Lk. 15:5-6). Likewise, Jesus says, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over those who need no repentance (Lk. 15:7). In the second parable, Jesus again appeals to the common urgency of a woman to find a lost coin. Again, when the lost item is found, she calls her friends and invites them to rejoice with her (Lk. 15:8-9). Jesus says that God rejoices before the angels when one sinner repents (Lk. 15:10). Finally, Jesus tells the story of the two sons. The younger son despises his father and squanders his inheritance in reckless living (Lk. 15:11-16). When the son comes to himself, he repents and goes home (Lk. 15:17-21). And when the lost son was still a long way off, the father saw him, felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him (Lk. 15:20). While the son confesses his sin, the father calls for the celebration to begin, for his son who was dead is alive, he was lost and is found (Lk. 15:22-24). The climax of the parable is the response of the older son who is confused and angry at the rejoicing (Lk. 15:25-28). He protests that the father has never killed the fattened calf for him, but the father insists that all that he has already belongs to his son and that it is fitting to celebrate the return of his little brother (Lk. 15:29-32).
Rejoice or Resent?
The point of this chapter is God’s joy over repentant sinners and the particular temptation to respond to that joy with jealousy and resentment. Why are God’s people often tempted to be jealous and resentful? First, because God often uses repentant sinners in powerful ways. Paul knew that he was least of all the apostles, but God used him to accomplish more than the other apostles (1 Cor. 15:9-10). In fact, Paul understood that God actually intends to provoke older brothers to jealousy in order to drive them to zealous obedience (Rom. 11:11-15). Why does God do this? In order to magnify His grace. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Lk. 15:31). Second, people are tempted to resent God’s joy over the salvation of sinners because it’s disruptive. The inclusion of tax collectors, prostitutes, and gentiles was an enormous disruption and challenge in the early church (cf. Acts 6, 15). When God saves sinners, they come into the church not knowing how to discipline children, repenting of addictions, covered in tattoos and piercings, undisciplined with money, and full of misconceptions. But because they are made in the image of God and filled with the Spirit of God, they also bring gifts into the Church that the Body needs. Will you rejoice? Or will you resent the disruption?
Entering in to the Joy
It should not be missed that God rejoices over sinners repenting (Lk. 15:7, 10). Rejoicing is one of the results of confession of sin and repentance, both for the sinner and those around them (Ps. 32:3-11, Ps. 51:10-15). An unfortunate slander of Christ is that He merely ate and drank with sinners (Lk. 15:2). But the gospels make it clear that He was calling them to repentance (Lk. 5:30-32), forgiving their sins (Lk. 7:47-50), and asking about their sordid sexual history (Jn. 4:16-18). If there hasn’t been any repentance, it’s not older brother resentment to refuse to celebrate. So the question is always: what is God doing in heaven right now? Is He rejoicing? If He is rejoicing, then we must rejoice, but if the lost son comes back to grab a change of clothes before heading back down the road, we must not rejoice. Of course when sinners repent they come home smelling and looking like the world, and we embrace them gladly. But the celebration the father throws for the lost son is a feast that assumes ongoing faithfulness and growing maturity. Where did that fattened calf come from? Where did that robe come from? Where did that music come from? What about the dancing? All of that implies cultural maturity – hard work, industry, striving for excellence over generations, etc. What if the younger son had returned but refused to wear his father’s robe or ring? Or what if he sat in the back of the party, rolling his eyes at his father’s old-fashioned music and dancing? What if he kept up a pig feed habit on the side? It would indicate he wasn’t really repentant and that he had an older brother problem too. The older brother wants to be recognized and received by the father on the basis of his work (Lk. 15:29), not on the basis of the father’s free grace. Older brothers can resent younger brothers, and younger brothers can resent older brothers. The hard lesson to learn is that all of it is grace from beginning to end, from the seed to the full grown tree, from the hugs to the fine music. This is one of the goals we have at Trinity Reformed Church – to hold these two ends of the spectrum of grace together. Come as you are, but you may not stay that way. Grow up in Christ. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7, cf. Eph. 2:8-10)
Sons Dead and Alive
While arguably the parable of the sons is aimed primarily at the older brother problem, the historic church has perhaps focused so much attention on the younger brother because of that repeated description: “my son was dead, and is alive again,” “for this your brother was dead, and is alive” (Lk. 15:24, 32). What might a younger brother dying and rising again remind us of? Of course the answer is Jesus. Jesus left His Father’s house to go into the far country in search of all the lost sheep, in search of all the lost sons. He was “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). In Adam, all men have despised the Father and squandered their inheritance in the far country of sin and death, but God sent His Son into the world so that all who trust in Him might not merely be slaves, but reckoned as sons, and if sons, then heirs (Gal. 4:7). And if you are son, God rejoices over you. Are you rejoicing with Him?