The Gospel of Luke

Summary of the Text

Highlighted Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Stop!!!  Do not read further until you have ordered and read Tim Keller’s brief yet very significant book, The Prodigal God: Rediscovering the Heart of the Christian Faith.  Hopefully you are already acquainted with pastor Keller’s take on this very familiar parable.  If not, you need to be.  In this book he explains how the entire gospel message is summed up in this pithy story.

Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?  

The setting of the “Prodigal Son” (which is much more accurately entitled The Parable of the Two Lost Sons) is critical to our understanding of the message and our ability to explicate it to our audience.  Jesus is observed eating with sinners, ie. tax collectors, prostitutes, people of ill-repute, certainly, the non-religious.  Vs. 2, He “welcomes sinners.”

This means he proactively pursues them, he searches them out, he invites them to a meal, he enjoys their company.  The religious leaders, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law are aghast at such behavior.  “No Rabbi would act this way, it’s unthinkable.  These people are unclean, we are God’s Chosen, we are morally pure, we are holy, we have kept all the laws of the Torah.”  They could not hide their contempt.  It must have been easy for Jesus to notice their unveiled disapproval.

Ἰησοῦς LensHow do we point to Jesus?

So, Jesus responds to the religious egotists by telling them three parables.  He is not addressing the sinners (but I’m sure they listened in with some degree of glee), but the self-righteous.  The tales concern three lost and found items: a sheep, a coin, and two brothers.  It would not be an over statement to say that Jesus is the shepherd, Jesus is the woman who actively searches and finds what was lost, and then celebrates with great joy.  The third story wonderfully expands the meaning of being lost, being found, of celebration.

Keller’s in-depth explanation of this parable is right-on, in my estimation.  There are two lost sons.  The brash younger son who insists on his inheritance, takes it, travels to a far land, wastes it on wild living, loses it all, lives in destitution, awakens to his sin, returns home prepared to confess and bare his punishment.  And, in contrast to this free spirit, we are presented his older brother, who is self-righteous and completely intolerant of either his roguish brother or his profligate father.

He feels only self-pity and righteous indignation.  He believes he has earned his father’s devotion and his property.  Keller explains that, “Jesus uses the younger and elder brothers to portray the two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfillment: the way of moral conformity and the way of self-discovery.”

In between these two polar opposites, Jesus sandwiches the great celebration lavished by the father upon his son, whom he thought was dead but now is home.  The younger son could hardly even utter his confession, nor beg forgiveness, before the father overwhelmed him with acceptance and exuberant feasting.

This is the picture of all homecomings, of all returns to our heavenly Father.  It is a precursor of the marriage feast of the Lamb, described in Revelations, when Christ brings all believers to his great wedding banquet.  The parable then closes in v. 31-32 with the father’s RSVP.  Was it answered?  Did the elder son join the feast? Or did he continue to pout and wallow in self-pity.  Jesus doesn’t say.  The Pharisees and teachers are left hanging. How would they respond?  Did they even see themselves in the story?  It seems so obvious, yet……?

Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?

We live in a fractured world.  Not just divided in-two, but split into many different pieces, with very little hope of reconciliation between any of them.  Around the world people are divided between right vs. left, capitalists vs. socialists, dictators vs. democracies, religious vs. secular-humanists, science vs. faith. 

The U.S. is further torn between Republicans and Democrats, whose parties are divided between moderates and progressives among the Democrats, and between the Trumpers and never-Trumpers among the Republicans.  Then there are the BLM and Antifas on the left and Q-anon and Proud Boys on the right.  And we must not forget the battle over the best way to deal with the Covid 19 pandemic which is dividing the country.  The Church, itself, has, obviously, not escaped these divisions. The Body of Christ is divided among scores of denominations, all sub-divided into dozens of creeds and sects.

In the midst of such upheaval and chaos this parable reminds us that all people are actually alienated from their Creator God along two broad schisms.  One tends to be the religious moralists, of many persuasions, who are proud of their orthodoxy and obedience.  On the other hand are the free spirited, freedom-lovers, who seek salvation through self-discovery and self- actualization with little or no fetters attached.  No one is excluded from this picture, all must choose with whom they most identify, the younger brother or the older brother.  The Father invites all to the feast.

I’m quite sure the vast majority of church-goers will see themselves as older brothers, if they are honest.  That is a good start on hearing and learning from Jesus, because that is clearly to whom he is speaking.  He waits for our response.  While he waits he continues to welcome the sinners and outcasts.  Clearly Jesus is more comfortable with them than the Pharisees.  The question must be asked, “Who is the church most comfortable with?

Ideas and themes to be explored

  • Why has the emphasis always been on the younger son and not the eldest?
    • Is this because how the church views itself?
  • What should the church’s message be to the self-righteous, the Pharisees?
  • What is the balance to be in the Church’s life between these options: seeker-friendly, missional, theological preaching/teaching, worship, confronting culture/society?
  • How do I/we grasp the importance of Feasting and Celebration?

Contemporary angle to preaching


  1. Two older movies beautifully portray the dynamics and conflicts evident in this parable, “The Witness”, 1985, with Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis as a hard-bitten cop and an Amish single mom; and “Amadeus”, 1984, with Tom Hulce and F. Murry Abraham, who are the libertine Mozart and the prudish, proud Salieri.
  2. In the light of such intense and universal divisions in the world, explore how the Church can best fulfill its role as Salt and Light, Peacemaker.
Bud Thoreen was raised in Southern California and has a BA from Wheaton College and an Mdiv. from Fuller Seminary.  He spent nearly 10 years as an Area Director for Young Life.   Retired after 37 years as a remodeling contractor, he now works for FaithQuest Missions, engaging believers in what God is doing around the world.   He spent 40+ years as an elder, teacher, part-time preacher at Irvine Presbyterian Church. You can contact Bud at [email protected]

Sermon Resources

Key Quotes

One of the signs that you may not grasp the unique, radical nature of the gospel is that you are certain that you do.”

Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Rediscovering the Heart of the Christian Faith


There two ways to be your own Savior and Lord.  One is by breaking all the moral laws and setting your own course, and one is by keeping all the moral laws and being very, very good.”

Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Rediscovering the Heart of the Christian Faith


“The first sign you have an elder-brother spirit is that when your life doesn’t go as you want, you aren’t just sorrowful but deeply angry and bitter.”

Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Rediscovering the Heart of the Christian Faith


“You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage:  but He is building a palace.  He intends to come and live in it Himself…. he will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly His own boundless power and delight and goodness.  The process will. Be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for.  Nothing less.  He meant what He said.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Key Illustration

The best illustration of how Christ interacts with both the Pharisee and the sinner is to be found in the Gospel of John, chapter 3 for the former and chapter 4 for the latter.  He understands both characters so well, knows their needs so intimately, and invites both so lovingly to enter into relationship with Him.

Bud Thoreen

“As long as we continue to live as if we are what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us, we will be filled with judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations.  We will remain addicted to the need to put people and things in their “right” place.  To the degree that we can embrace the truth that our identity is not rooted in our success, power, or popularity, but in God’s infinite love, to that degree can we let go of our need to judge.”

Henri Nouwen,  Here and Now, Crossroad Publishing, 2006


“In the novel The Second Coming one of Walker Percy’s characters says about Christians, “I cannot be sure they don’t have the truth.  But if they have the truth, why is it the case that they are repellent precisely to the degree that they embrace and advertise the truth?…A mystery: If the good news is true why is not one pleased to hear it”

Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace: Bringing Good New to a Deeply Divided World, Zondervan, 2018

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