In Luke 15 Jesus provided a trilogy of parables known as the “lost” parables. These parables are similar to one another because they each depict something valuable (i.e. sheep, coin, son) being separated from its guardian (i.e. shepherd, woman, father) before eventually being reunited, after which a celebration ensued because what was “lost” had been returned to the one who lost it (Luke 15:6, 9, 22-24).
There is one distinct difference between the first two parables and the last one. In the Parable of the Lost Son, no one embarked on a search and rescue operation. While the shepherd left the ninety-nine sheep to find the “lost” sheep (Luke 15:4) and the woman canvassed her house to find the “lost” coin (Luke 15:8), no one pursued the “lost” son.
Why didn’t the father pursue the lost son?
Did the father refrain from pursuing his youngest son because he did not love him? Absolutely not. It is evident in the parable that the father loved both of his sons deeply. He loved the youngest son enough to let him make his own choices (Luke 15:12), and he loved the eldest son enough to entrust him with everything he had (Luke 15:31). Not only that, but the father demonstrated his love for both of his sons by always being concerned about who was missing. When the youngest son finally returned home, we are told that his father “saw him” even though he “was still a long way off” (Luke 15:20). Why did the father spot the youngest son before he made it to the house? Because the father was always on the lookout for who was missing. Later, when the eldest son refused to attend the coming home party for his brother, we are told that the “father came out” to him and “entreated him” to come inside (Luke 15:28). Why did the father notice that the eldest son was not at the party? Because the father was always on the lookout for who was missing.
It seems that the father refrained from pursuing the “lost” son out of respect for the “lost” son’s free will. Unlike the sheep and the coin who left their guardian’s care accidentally, the youngest son left his father’s care intentionally. He made a deliberate decision to leave, and his decision was tantamount to a rejection of his father. Therefore, as the one rejected, the father, though desirous of his son’s return, was not in a position to initiate that return because he was respecting his youngest son’s freedom to choose.
Why didn’t the brother pursue the lost son?
If anyone should have pursued the “lost” son it was the “obedient” son. The eldest son loved his father and demonstrated that love through his obedience. We are told that he intentionally “served…and…never disobeyed” his father (Luke 15:29). Certainly, there would have been occasions when he observed his father’s longing for the youngest son. Certainly, the eldest brother knew that it would delight his father for his brother to come home. Should his love for his father not have prompted him to pursue his brother and bring him home so that his father’s heart would no longer break? The eldest son had the opportunity to do something that would bring his father tremendous joy, but he failed to do it. Why?
It seems that the “obedient” son refrained from pursuing the “lost" son because he did not love his brother like the father loved his brother. While the father watched for his youngest son to return home (Luke 15:20) and threw a party when he did (Luke 15:22-23), the eldest son sulked outside (Luke 15:28) and even refused to refer to the youngest son as his brother (Luke 15:30). Instead of celebrating his brother’s return home and his father’s healed heart, the eldest son criticized the father for loving the “lost” son more than him, the “obedient” son (Luke 15:29-30). When all is said and done, the one thing that is apparent is that the eldest son did not possess the heart of his father and that’s the reason he was not concerned about the state of his “lost” brother.
Why did Jesus tell this parable?
It is worth noting that Luke sets up the three lost parables by saying in Luke 15:1-3,
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
Who among this audience would have related to the “lost” son? The tax collectors and sinners. What message would the tax collectors and sinners have taken away from this parable? They would have heard Jesus communicate how deeply God loves every individual and how desirous God is of every individual to return home. By comparing the celebration of the guardians when they found what was “lost” to the celebration that occurs in heaven when a sinner repents, Jesus revealed to the tax collectors and sinners that it brings God great joy for those who are “lost” to be found (Luke 15:7, 10). God celebrates when one of his “lost” children returns home because He “so loved the world” (John 3:16) to the degree that He does “not [wish] that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). So, if you are a “lost” son, then the point of this parable is that God wants you to come home.
Who among this audience would have related to the “obedient” son? The Pharisees and scribes. What message would the Pharisees and scribes have taken away from this parable? They, too, would have heard Jesus communicate how deeply God loves every individual and how desirous God is of every individual to return home. The difference is that, through the behavior of the eldest son and the criticism he receives, they would have been confronted with God’s expectation that His children love the “lost” to the same extent as Him. Essentially, the disobedience of the “obedient” Pharisees and scribes is evidenced in their lack of concern for the “lost” because this trait contradicted the nature of the Father. The lesson to be learned from this group is that those whose relationship with God has been reconciled are tasked with “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18), meaning they are expected to pursue the “lost” on behalf of their Father as His “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20). So, if you are not a “lost” son, then the point of this parable is that God expects you to be a pursuing brother.