After speaking of losing first a sheep and then a coin, Jesus turns our attention to a son (Luke 15:11). He turns our eyes from our possessions to our own families. In Jesus’ parable a man had two sons. The younger son asked his father to divide the inheritance at once and give him what would be his. This was not only disrespectful, for it implies that the son believed he would be treated better by strangers than his father, but it also expresses the son’s desire that his father were already dead. Perhaps father and son had a falling out, and the son in anger decided a life with strangers would be better than living under his father’s discipline.
Surprisingly, the young man’s father, did exactly as his son demanded, and Jesus intends for his hearers to understand that this idea points to the path the publicans and sinners had chosen. I believe the reason behind the father submitting to the young man’s demand is that a heart cannot be possessed or seized, as one seizes and possesses his property. A heart must be given, and if the father didn’t have his son’s heart, then perhaps lessons learned apart from him would draw his son and him together. This hope, I believe, is behind the father’s seeming indulgent behavior.
Shortly after receiving his inheritance, the younger son left on a journey into a far country (Luke 15:13). That is, he wasn’t satisfied with merely having the freedom to do as he pleased with what his father had given him. He wanted to be far away from the watchful eye of his father or anyone who knew his father. The guilt of one’s sin desires privacy—at least away from the eyes of those whose opinion one values.
The young man’s journey that took him far from his father depicts the place sinners are in with respect to God (cf. Luke 15:2; Isaiah 59:2). They have tasted the ways of the stranger, and understand, probably more than folks who have always sought to obey God, that the ways of the stranger lack the love of God. There is no compassion when mistakes are made. It is all about survival, and an expected 24-7 attitude of loyalty to their strange ways.
In the three parable of Luke 15, Jesus spoke of lost sheep (Luke 15:4), a lost coin (Luke 15:8) and a lost son (Luke 15:13). The sheep was lost because it simply wandered away. Such is the manner of sheep, for the interest at hand (feeding) is more important to them than looking at where the food is leading them. The coin was lost through an accident. Somehow it fell away from the other nine, nothing intentional is implied, but the effect is the same, fault or no fault.
On the other hand, the younger son intended to do exactly what he did. He wanted to place some distance between himself and his father. Unlike the previous two parables, his condition was deliberate, although later he did find out that he had made a great mistake. Thus, Jesus tells us how sinners have come to be in the condition they are in. It isn’t always intentional. Sometimes their condition is accidental, or they simply were not aware of what they were doing, until it was too late.
Behind Jesus’ message, however, is the hope not offered by the teachers of the Law. It is the hope of the love of God, expressed in the idea the Good Shepherd will search for his lost sheep until he find it. Jesus doesn’t allow for the idea that the Shepherd will give up. He loves his sheep, and he will search for the lost until he finds it. In the next parable Jesus turns the story around, and the seeker is the woman and what is lost is what she needs to conceal her shame, either her dowry or her redemption money. Nevertheless, God wants to be found by those who seek him and he is represented in the light the woman uses to find the lost coin—her relationship with her Redeemer.
Finally, Jesus emphasizes the love of the Father for his lost son. What his son did was of little importance. The Father was willing to pay the cost, symbolized in the sacrifice of the fatted calf, and receive his son back. Nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God, our Father (Romans 8:33-39), our Daddy (Romans 8:15).