This week we’re going to be looking at Luke 5:11-32. This is one of the most familiar stories that Jesus ever told. As you read this passage, I want you to be on the lookout for each of the three main characters in this story, and I want you to be asking yourself the question, “What would Jesus’ original hearers have thought about the descriptions of the prodigal son, of the loving father, and of the elder brother?” To focus our study, we’ll see what we learn from each of these three characters.

I. The Prodigal Son

Jesus tells us that a young son goes to his father and asks for his share of his father’s possessions. The people who were originally hearing Him would have been utterly shocked. They lived in a culture where fathers were deeply respected, and the son is, in effect, saying, “Father, I wish you were dead so that I could get my inheritance.” Then the son gathers up his possessions and goes into another country to spend his money recklessly. This is where he gets the name, “the prodigal.” He is prodigal, wasteful, unrestrained.  The people hearing this story are going to think, “This is a moral, cautionary tale. We’re going to be told in this story what happens when people do bad things.” Sure enough, the bad things start happening to this young man. A famine comes after he has spent all of his money, and he has to hire himself out as a servant to a stranger.  

But the story doesn't end with the situation of the prodigal in complete disarray. We read in verse 17, “He came to himself.” He says to himself, “I'm going to go to my father and say, ‘Father, I've not just sinned against you, I've sinned against God. I've dishonored you, a loving and generous father, and I no longer deserve to be called your son. I want to ask you if you’d take me back as one of your servants.’” Jesus wants to emphasize to you how ready the Heavenly Father is to receive repentant sinners. This sinner has felt the sharp consequences of his sin, and he's throwing himself on his Father's mercy. You might think a person like this is beyond hope of forgiveness and of turning from the life of debauchery. Yet he comes to himself and goes back to his father, and his father receives him.

If you are a child of grace but go the way of the prodigal, the Father will track you down. Are you going to repent the easy way or the hard way? This prodigal found out the hard way what doing things your own way will bring you. If you’re a child of grace, the Heavenly Father will pursue you, and if necessary He will bring you to nothing in order to bring you back to Himself. But the encouraging thing you see about this passage is this man came to his senses and repented, and Jesus is encouraging us that the Father will receive those who repent.

II. The Father

We first see the father when the son goes to him in verse 12 to ask him to split up the property. All we're told is that he divides up the property. The hearers would have thought, “If this were a just man, he would beat the son and then disown him.” But the father just divides up the property. Later, in verse 20, when the son has come back, the father looks out at a distance and sees him, and he “feels compassion and he runs and he embraces him and he kisses him.” It was not considered dignified for an older man to run because it would have required him to lift up his long robe. Yet here's this father who's been mortally offended by this evil son, sprinting towards him in compassion and love to receive him. Finally, in verse 22, he tells his servants to bring the best robe, a ring, and sandals. These items are signs that he's being welcomed back into the household, not as a servant but as a son. The people listening to this story would have thought, “How prodigal is that! How wasteful is that!” Nobody would have been saying to that father that he was doing what was just.

Of course, that's exactly what Jesus wants us to understand. There are people in the world who have fallen under conviction of sin, and they are so deep in their conviction of sin that they cannot believe that God would receive them in the light of what they've done. Jesus is showing you this father to show you precisely this. He will never turn away a sinner who has repented of his sins. The Gospel is even better than this because the Father doesn't just wait with open arms for us to come home to Him. He sends His own Son into the far country to die for us and sends His Holy Spirit to draw us to faith in His Son and to bring us back into fellowship with Him.

III. The Elder Brother

The reaction of the elder brother picks up in verses 25 and following. When he sees the party for his brother he is furious. He shows disrespect to his father, too. First of all, in verse 28, we're told that he was “angry and he refused to go in.” The whole village is likely at this party, so now everybody in town knows that there's a domestic dispute. When this kind father goes outside to talk with his son, the son complains in verse 29 about his brother’s treatment. You hear the voice of someone who thinks he’s entitled to God's favor and has no idea how to rejoice when undeserving sinners receive God’s love.

Jesus is confronting the Pharisees who have criticized Him for fellowshipping with sinners. His reception of those sinners is a picture of the Father’s attitude toward those who have strayed and then repented, but the attitude of the Pharisees reflects that their hearts are strangers to grace. And Jesus’ message isn't just for the Pharisees. When someone has wronged you deeply, it can be difficult to see them repent and to rejoice with them, because in those moments we feel like they don't deserve the grace that God has shown them, and we feel like, because of the pains that we have borne, we deserve to be dealt with differently by God. But none of us deserves God's grace. When we are begrudging in our attitudes towards those who receive it, we betray that perhaps we think we do deserve that grace.

You know, it's very interesting. Jesus doesn't tell us the end of the story, and it's one of the ways that you know that Jesus really cares about the hearts and the lives of the Pharisees. Why does He not tell the end of the story? Because He's leaving a door of repentance open to the Pharisees. And you know what? He's leaving the door of repentance open to you and to me.