Luke records 3 of Jesus' parables in the 15th chapter of his account of Jesus ministry. These three parables, typically identified as the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son, are given in response to criticism Jesus received from the religious leadership of his day. Seems like Jesus was hanging out with people that his denominational leadership did not approve of; scandalous behavior for a 'godly' person, eating with sinful people.
In the first of these parables, Luke 15:3-7, Jesus tells of a shepherd with 100 sheep. One of his sheep becomes lost and he searches diligently for it until he finds it. He then carries it home, calling on his friends to rejoice with him that the lost sheep has been found.
In the second of the three, Luke 15:8-10, Jesus tells of a woman with 10 coins who had lost one. The significance of the coins is not told, but it is obvious they were of great value to the woman. She lights a lamp, sweeps the house and searches until the coin is found. And then she shares the good news with her friends, rejoicing that what had been lost was now found.
At the conclusion of both of these parables Jesus says that in the same way there is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents and returns to God. Do you think the religious folks got the message? That God cares about the lost and is searching for them, rejoicing when one is found? Or did they mist the point entirely, still only seeing Jesus hanging out with sinners?
My guess is that they missed it altogether, so Jesus laid the third in the series on them, Luke 15:11-32, a parable of a loving father and his two sons, often call the parable of the Prodigal Son. In this parable the younger of the sons requests his inheritance and then heads out to enjoy life. But eventually his money is gone and he becomes destitute. In desperation he returns home, hoping to at least be accepted as a servant in his fathers house. This son plays the role of the lost sheep or coin in the two earlier parables.
On his return we find that his father was waiting for his return, and was looking for him. The father welcomed him back into the family with rejoicing; the son who was lost has been found. At this point there is really little difference between this parable and the two previous ones.
But now the older son makes an appearance, and it is not a happy one. He is angry to see his brother return and is upset with his dad for his joyful acceptance of this prodigal who had wasted so much of what the father had given to him.
Did they get it yet? The younger son, representing the tax collectors and other sinners, found joyful acceptance when he repented and came to the father. The older son, representing the Pharisees and teachers of the law, choose not to rejoice with God, and the angels, over those lost ones who are being found. Instead they set themselves up as judges, criticizing God for not excluding those they considered unworthy.
So just who are these Pharisees? In Jesus day they were a sect of the Jews who were zealous for the Law of Moses, dedicating themselves to a rigid adherence to it. And they were critical of anyone who did not share their legalistic zeal. Unfortunately, many of us today, who have grown up in the church and have been 'good people' all of our lives, have a lot in common with the Pharisees. How often do we look with uncaring, or critical, hearts rather than compassion on those who are living the life of a prodigal. It shames me to admit that the former describes me more often than the latter. The challenge of this parable for me, as the older brother, is to choose to work with the Father in seeking the lost, and rejoicing when they are found.