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  • Writer's pictureWayne Shelton

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

Luke 15 is a chapter full of good things. After three introductory verses, Luke begins with the story of the lost sheep (vv4-7). Alongside it he places a similar story, that of the lost silver coin (vv8-10). To these he adds another, longer than the first two put together and told in a rather different way, but still recognizably on the same subject. This third story, which is perhaps (along with the story of the good Samaritan) the most familiar and best loved of all the parables of Jesus, is that of the ‘prodigal son’ (vv11-32).

Prodigal the young man was, wasteful and spendthrift with his inheritance; but as we shall see this story is in fact a story of two lost sons. The younger son was the black sheep of the family while the older son had outwardly been the model son. But though he was a son, living under his father’s roof, he did not live in a son/father relationship. Both sons failed to understand the true nature of their relationship with their father.

But we get ahead of ourselves for we want to think first of the three parables as being equally concerned with the finding of what is lost. In his conversational commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Michael Wilcox notes how these three parables together demonstrate the ‘who,’ the ‘why,’ and the ‘how’ of salvation.

Let us first consider the ‘who’ of salvation. While the basic lesson is the same in all three parables, they do, however, differ in their details. Although we are not actually told in so many words that the shepherd or the housewife or the father represents God, the plain meaning of the chapter is that, just as there is joy when any shepherd or any housewife or any father recovers a loss, so there is joy in heaven when a sinner is reunited with God. Whose is the rejoicing which Jesus describes when in each case the lost one is recovered?

The first story certainly brings to mind one of the basic images of the Old Testament, that of the Shepherd of Israel (think of Psalm 23). And in the New Testament days the title is taken over by the one whom Christians have learned to think of as the good Shepherd, the great Shepherd, and the chief Shepherd. By-passing for a moment the second story, we consider the third story. If the first is noting especially the Son, it is plainly apparent that the third story portrays the unbounded joy in the Father’s house when the lost son comes home.

Reverting now to the second parable, we have enough evidence to suggest that there may be some distinctive meaning in the picture of a woman with a lamp seeking a lost silver coin. As we have seen, there is good reason to suppose that the two figures in the first and the third stories represent in particular ‘the seeking Son’ and ‘the waiting Father.’ Having in mind the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, if the Son and Father are portrayed in two of the parables, it would not be altogether unexpected if the remaining one portrayed the Holy Spirit. Wilcox writes:

The upshot is that the symbolic meanings often attached both to the ‘woman’ and to ‘lamp’ elsewhere in Scripture may well be the meanings we are intended to see in this parable. The church in Old Testament and New is the Lord’s bride, and as a community through which the Spirit reveals God’s truth it is also a light; in the picture book of Revelation the symbols of woman and light are both used to depict the people of God. If Luke 15:8-10 is meant to have this added significance, we may see in it the Spirit of God lighting the church’s way as she sets about the divine work of seeking the lost.

So C. H. Spurgeon expounds the chapter in one of his sermons.

“The third parable would be likely to be misunderstood without the first and the second. We have sometimes heard it said – here is the prodigal received as soon as he comes back, no mention being made of a Saviour who seeks and saves him. Is it possible to teach all truths in one single parable? Does not the first one speak of the shepherd seeking the lost sheep? Why need repeat what had been said before? It has also been said that the prodigal returned of his own free will, for there is no hint of the operation of a superior power upon his heart, it seems as if he himself spontaneously says, ‘I will arise, and go unto my Father.’ The answer is, that the Holy spirit’s work had been clearly described in the second parable, and needed not to be introduced again. If you put the three pictures in a line, they represent the whole compass of salvation… yet each one is distinct from the other, and by itself instructive.”

We see in this chapter, then, the great scheme of the trinitarian salvation, and, viewing each parable separately, the three Persons of the Trinity as they are engaged in it. Who is concerned with the salvation of man? It is the triune God himself.

The three parables are like three musical instruments, which, although each makes a different type of sound, are nevertheless playing the same tune; the melodies are identical. The sheep is lost, then found; the silver is lost, then found; the son is lost, then found. The salvation which is the fundamental theme of Luke’s Gospel is here expounded from two points of view, summed up in the phrase ‘lost and found.’ All three parables taken together show us man’s misery in being lost, and God’s joy in finding him. It is on account of this misery and this joy that the great plan of salvation has been brought about. When we ask the ‘why’ of salvation, man’s misery in being lost is set alongside God’s joy in finding him. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

‘The gist of chapter 15 is that it is God who saves men, and that he does so because he wishes and delights to do so,’ notes Wilcox. These statements are the who and the why of salvation. ‘The practical question remains: how may this glorious salvation apply to me? How may I find myself in the position of the sheep and the silver which are found, and the son who is welcomed home?’ asks Wilcox. For that answer we will turn this Sunday to Luke 15:11-32.

I look forward to being back with you in worship this Lord’s Day. I am grateful to those who serve regularly to keep things going – whether I am here or not, these men and women serve faithfully. Thank you. And thanks to Chad for faithfully proclaiming Christ last week in the parable of the great supper. See you Sunday.

Grace and peace to you,

Pastor Wayne


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