The Welcoming Father and His Three Sons

Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable:  “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?  And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders   and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’  I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?  And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’  In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons.  The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.  He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!  I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’  So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.  For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing..  So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.  ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.  But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours..  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found'”

Luke 15:1-32 2

Purpose: To magnify the marvelous, undeserved forgiveness that God has given to us through Christ, and to inspire people to imitate that kind of forgiveness to others.

Key Principle from Small Group Study #7: Our forgiveness shows what we think of God’s forgiveness.


When you play hide and go seek.  There’s somebody who is chosen to find all the other ones.  If you’re the seeker, how exciting is it when you find somebody?

What are the joys of finding somebody in a crowd of strangers?

The Bible Reading from Luke 15 is a story about being lost and found.   In response to the attitude of the religious leaders of his day, Jesus tells three parables or stories about  lost and found.  Sheep lost and found.  Coins lost and found. Sons lost and found.

All three parables are about being lost and the joy of being found, but the third story is different from the first two. A lost sheep and a lost coin are like a misplaced wallet or purse or keys.

The third story tells of something far more deliberate and terrible. Jesus says that to some degree we are all lost in the most profound way of all—we are lost from God. Get this– it is not that God lost us as a woman loses a coin, or as a shepherd loses a sheep.

No, we’re lost … because we’ve left God.

Like the sheep, we’ve wandered away. Like the coin, we’ve slipped out of the hand. Like the younger son, we’ve run away from home. Like the older brother, we refuse to sit and eat with our heavenly Father.

Let me ask you, do you need peace and reconciliation in your life? Do you want a renewed life with God? The first step is knowing that you’re lost. Seeing that you’ve gone astray. Not merely knowing your wounds, but knowing your waywardness.

So how do you know you’re lost? There are several indicators. For some it is the plaguing sense of guilt for a wrong done. For others, it is the self-condemning tape message we play over and over again in our heads.

Still others feel enslaved to some bad and disgusting habit; you hate it about yourself but you can’t seem to stop. For others, it is the despairing self-resignation that you can’t change. “That’s just the way I am.”

Even Christians can be lost from God. Jesus called it “little faith.” You see it in prayerlessness, lovelessness, no longer reading the love letters from God, his Word. You find it in a general thanklessness, or joylessness in singing his praises.

Today, if any of you are feeling lost, if your life seems tasteless, if you’ve even become bored with chili peppers, if you are fearful of returning to God for what he might say, I have good news for you. God offers real water to thirsty souls. He offers real welcome to the lost who left and who want to return. Jesus says, “God is a welcoming Father.”

1. We all view God as an employer

These three parables are Jesus’ answer to the mutterings of some men about his welcoming and eating with “sinners.” The men muttering are religious people. The “sinners” they are talking about are the irreligious people.

The religious people view themselves as being on the inside of God’s attitude and agenda. They think they know what God is up to and doing. The outsiders are admittedly clueless. They know they don’t know what God is about and doing.

The religious people thought that God was like a great employer. Do good work and you keep your job. The irreligious thought that God was a harsh employer, so they left.

But both the religious and the irreligious thought the same about God. They all viewed him as an employer. Work hard, get paid. They both thought that you could calculate God’s attitude toward you by adding up your good works. If you’ve done well, God is happy with you—at least for the moment. If you’ve been lazy or failed to follow the rules, God is pointing you to the door and telling you to leave until you shape up.

Jesus knows this! He knows very well the kinds of thoughts people have about God. So he tells this story of a Father and two sons.  And what he tells us shocks us … if we listen like good Middle Easterners.

2. The story of the younger son (vv. 12-24)

First, let’s look at the younger son.

The request

The younger son appears to us to make a simple and reasonable request. “Father, give me my share of the estate.” He wants his inheritance ahead of time. And the father appears to respond in a reasonable way. He divides up the inheritance between his sons.

But to the ears of someone from the Middle East, the son’s request comes with shock.

Kenneth Bailey, a biblical scholar who has lived 40 years in the Middle East, says that he has had hundreds of conversations with people in the Middle East about this story. He asks them, “Have you ever heard a son ask for his inheritance?” And do you know what is the typical response from Middle Easterners?


Could anyone ever make such a request?


Bailey then asked: If anyone ever did ask, what would happen?

His father would beat him, of course!


Because asking for an inheritance means the son wants his father to die!

Did you know that? What appears to us as a simple request—tame, reasonable—is in reality not a request, but a curse. It is shocking. And it says a world about this young man’s heart.

Any Middle Easterner knows only too well what this son has done. He has openly, publicly—before the entire community—cursed his father, humiliated him, insulted him, embarrassed him, and yes, in his murderous heart—as much as murdered his father. And that’s why Jesus told it. He wanted us to be shocked.

Jesus knew that most of us don’t understand the severity of sin. For many of us, sin is a mistake. Sin is just “blowing it.” Doing something bad. But for Jesus, sin looks more like this son’s request.  Sin is wishing God were dead.  Sin is the human desire that God would die. Sin is a way we curse God by our actions. Like the son, sin is leaving God. Yes, we are lost. But we are lost only because we have left.

But look at how the father responds…he’s been insulted, he’s been humiliated before the entire village, and he lets his son leave. He gives him his entire share of the inheritance. The father does not respond in kind…when insulted, he does not retaliate. Despite the murderous thoughts of his son – despite the public humiliation – he lets him go. I think the father knows that if he is to have his son, he must have him for the right reason…the son must love the father.

And that again reminds us of the mystery of sin. People in conflict are in conflict because of sin. And sin has a mystery to it. How can the son leave such a home? This is not a dysfunctional home…this is a home where the son is cared for every day – where every day he eats with his father, and his father makes everything available to him …and he still says, “Yes, and I wish Dad would die so I could take my money and run.”

Jesus goes on to tell how the son squanders his money, falls on desperate times, finds himself starving to death, and then comes to his senses when he is down in the pig pit.

But again here appearances are deceiving. In verses 18 and 19 we read that the son says, “I will set out and go back to my father and say to  him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me one of your hired men.”4

Sounds good to you? Sounds like he came to his senses? Most of us think so.

However,  the wording of the prodigal son’s confession is the first clue that things really haven’t changed. This son hasn’t really come to his senses. He has a plan to go back to the farm. Yes, indeed. But not to return to his father.

Listen again to what he says: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men” (emphasis added).

Do you see what the boy wants? He wants to pay back the money he squandered. He thinks he is at least good enough to be a hired hand. Yes, he’s not worthy to be a son,

Let me ask you. Does that son think of his dad as a Father or as an employer?

Isn’t it as an employer? He doesn’t expect his father to accept him as a son.

He returns, not to be a peacemaker, not to be reconciled, but to seek a position. He returns, not as a son, but rather as an employee.

In one sense he was right. He was “no longer worthy to be called a son.”  All that he had formerly possessed as to rights and privileges as a son, he had squandered when he cursed his father and showed utter disregard for his family. He had taken off and wasted all he had been given. But he thinks that he can still repay.

The son seems to have calculated his losses and made a good business plan to recoup what he lost. Yet he did not calculate one thing —he never counted on his Father’s response. He never suspected the kind of response he’d receive from the Father he had insulted and wished was dead.

The Father’s response

How does his Father respond? Listen again:

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. . . ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.  24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate (Luke 15:20-24).

Did you expect that? You expect the shepherd to go after his lost sheep. You expect a woman to search for her lost coin. But you don’t expect this.

When you lose your wallet, I expect you to search for it. If you lose your car, I expect you will look long and hard for it.

But when your son steals your wallet, totals your car in a drunken spree, we don’t expect you to run out to meet him, kiss him, welcome him home, call for a party, and say, “Let’s celebrate!”

Do you expect that response? Think of how you responded the last time someone cursed you, insulted you, wished you were dead.

No, Jesus tells this story to hook us. He knows what we expect. He knows that whenever and wherever this story is told—whether in the 21st century or the first century, in the USA or in Bangladesh—we all expect God to look at our performance, grade us, and respond in kind. It is justice we expect, not mercy. It is wages, not grace. And Jesus says, “Wrong! You don’t know my Father.”

So he gives us the unexpected.

Instead of the community catching and condemning the boy before he gets home, the Father runs to greet him while he is still on the way.

Instead of a harsh reprimand, “How many times have I told you …?” we find a kiss. Instead of “Well, you made your bed, now you can just lie in it,” the Father dresses him in the best of robes (a sign of full acceptance).  He puts a ring on his finger (a sign that the Father trusted him in a remarkable way). He puts shoes on his feet (a sign of being a son, not a slave). And he calls for a feast and rejoicing (a sign of full reinstatement into the family and community)!

Instead of condemning his son, the Father runs to greet him. He seals his forgiveness with a lavish celebration. That’s how God loves the lost. That’s how he loves the religious and the irreligious. That, says Jesus, is how God loves you and me—the ones who have left God.

But that is not where the story ends.

3. The elder son (vv. 25-32)

In one sense, all we’ve heard so far is just a preparation for the story of the elder brother.

The rejection

The time of feasting has begun. A calf being killed tells us that the entire community is invited.  This is a grand celebration. Grand, that is, for everyone except the elder son.

The elder son is working in the fields: he’s a good boy, stays home, works hard for his dad. Makes the family prosper. He honors his father, he honors his family, and he honors his community.

He hasn’t messed up. He hasn’t done drugs. He hasn’t been a drunk. He hasn’t squandered his wealth. He saves faithfully. He’s a good son. We all love to talk about that kind of son: He’s a good son, he brings honor to the family name.

So he comes in from the fields and he hears the music and dancing! He asks one of the servants or young boys outside the home, “What’s going on?”  And he’s told, “Your brother has returned. He was lost and now he’s found.” And what is his response? He becomes angry and embittered. And he refuses to go in to the celebration.

Wouldn’t you? Don’t you hate it when the kid who causes all the trouble gets the most attention, while you’ve been so good? So yes, we expect the elder son to get angry. But there is more that is going on. Again, Kenneth Bailey’s expertise is helpful here.

In the Jewish culture it was the custom of the elder son to be present at such a celebration.  He holds a semi-official role. When the father is having a feast, it isn’t just for the nuclear family. The whole village is there. The elder son belonged right beside his father. So his defiant refusal is a major insult to the father.  But what does the father do? Does he ignore his son or send a servant to command him to come in? No. He goes out—the second time he has gone out for a son—and speaks to his son.

But listen to how that elder son responds to his father, who has already been insulted and embarrassed by his younger son. If the prodigal son was doubtful of his father’s love, the elder son is downright antagonistic. He murmurs and complains and wallows in self-pity.

“Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’” (Luke 15:29-30)

What do you think of that? Does he see himself as a son or a slave? Does he see his dad as father or an employer? Does he know himself and his work as that of a son and an heir or just as the best employee?

Yes, the younger son surrendered his soul to his passions.  But the elder son surrendered his soul to his pride and self-sufficiency !

This elder son accuses his father of being a fool; worse, he accuses his father of neglecting to pay what he owes—he thinks the father has cheated him. You can easily imagine the stinging tone in his voice as he says, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.”

“You stupid old man, you cheat! You task-master!” That is what the elder son is saying. Again, this is a public accusation. When the father left the feast, do you think the guests kept eating? No, they followed him out and watched the confrontation. They heard the

elder son sully his father’s name and reputation. He embarrassed his father just as surely as the younger son did.

The elder son’s rejection shows us another aspect of our own hearts. We don’t want anyone to offer hugs and kisses to those who have done wrong; no robe or sandals on the feet or a new gold ring. We don’t want to celebrate. When others have done wrong, we want justice, not mercy. We want payback … somebody has got to pay. Restitution must be made.

The Father’s response

And we expect the father to give him a tongue-lashing. But what does the father say?

“My son, … you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” ((Luke 15:31-32)).

Even though the elder son deserves a severe rebuke for publicly defying his father, the father responds with the same kind of mercy he extended to the younger son. The father reaffirms his love for the defiant older son, gently admonishes him, and reminds him of the inheritance that will always be his. He seeks to draw him into the celebration of repentance and reconciliation.

Both of these sons were lost in their sin and their rejection of their father. One gave himself over to his passions, the other to his pride and self-sufficiency. And yet the father’s love was unquenchable. He continued to extend grace and mercy as he sought to draw his sons back to himself.

That is Jesus’ point. We don’t know how great the Father’s love for us is—how much he welcomes us home. How ready, willing, and eager he is to forgive—with no strings attached!

In this story there is one final thing we do not expect—the Third Son.

4. The third Son

You may be looking now to see if you have the right Bible. What third son? Doesn’t Jesus only mention two? Well, you haven’t fully understood the story if you miss the third Son.

Who is the third Son? He is the one telling the story. Jesus is the third Son. He is the insider who truly knows the Father’s heart, and he is telling us that this is what God is like—a welcoming Father to rebellious, bitter, foolish sons.

Why is the Father so willing and eager to welcome lost sons? Because Jesus, his only begotten son, lived a perfect life and fully paid the penalty for all of the wrongs we have committed. He received the harsh rebuke, the just wrath, the severe punishment that every wayward son deserved. Jesus has paid for all our sins and thereby opened the way for all of us to return to our Father’s loving arms.

Because of the perfect third Son, our heavenly Father is waiting for his sons to return—for you to return— so that he may bless you, forgive you, accept you, and celebrate over you with the whole host of heaven.

And we don’t have to look up to heaven to find that this is true. For in telling us the story of the welcoming father, Jesus is pointing to himself and reaffirming, “Come to me. I am the way to the Father. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”

A few days or months later, on another occasion, Jesus would tell the people, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19.10). And a week after that he would prove his love by giving his life as a ransom, as a payment for the sins of the sons and daughters. Justice was done… there was “payback.” And yet three days later—for the religious and the irreligious, for the offender and the offended—the Father would raise Jesus from the dead and say, “It is paid back. Paid in full. Welcome in… Welcome in… Welcome in!”


The parable of the prodigal son and his elder brother reminds us that the foundational “G” for all peacemaking is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Peacemakers are people who understand the lavish, undeserved love, mercy, and forgiveness of our heavenly Father, and delight to reach out to others who are lost in conflict and lead them back to the Welcoming Father through Jesus, his perfect Son.

In response to the Gospel, you can be inspired to “Glorify God” in the midst of conflict instead of pursuing your own selfish agendas.

Because of the Gospel, you can begin to “Get the log out of your own eye.” You are no longer condemned, because Jesus has paid for your sins. Therefore you don’t need to cover up or hide your wrongs. You can look at your sin and confess, “I was wrong. But my Father loves me, and he has embraced me, and he has put new sandals on my feet. My Father in heaven calls me his son!”

In response to the Gospel, you can seek to “Gently Restore” those who have wronged you – even as the father in this parable earnestly sought after and gently restored his wayward sons

And because of the Gospel, you can “Go and be reconciled.” Having tasted the forgiveness of your Father in heaven, you can share that same lavish forgiveness with others. For whatever they may have done to you, it is nothing in comparison to the debt of sin that Jesus has already paid on your behalf.

You have a Father who loves you beyond words and sent his Son to seek after you, to pay your debts, and to open the way for everlasting forgiveness and reconciliation. All he asks of you today is to run into his arms without hesitation, and to then turn around and open your heart and arms to those who need your forgiveness.

Challenge: Think of someone you know who is “lost” and in need of Jesus’ forgiveness and love.  Then, find a way to point this person to the loving arms of the welcoming

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