The Bible

 

Luke 15

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1 Now all the publicans and sinners were drawing near unto him to hear him.

2 And both the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.

3 And he spake unto them this parable, saying,

4 What man of you, having a hundred sheep, and having lost one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?

5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.

6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and his neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.

7 I say unto you, that even so there shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, [more] than over ninety and nine righteous persons, who need no repentance.

8 Or what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a lamp, and sweep the house, and seek diligently until she find it?

9 And when she hath found it, she calleth together her friends and neighbors, saying, Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I had lost.

10 Even so, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.

11 And he said, A certain man had two sons:

12 and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of [thy] substance that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.

13 And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together and took his journey into a far country; and there he wasted his substance with riotous living.

14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that country; and he began to be in want.

15 And he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.

16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.

17 But when he came to himself he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish here with hunger!

18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight:

19 I am no more worthy to be called your son: make me as one of thy hired servants.

20 And he arose, and came to his father. But while he was yet afar off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.

21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight: I am no more worthy to be called thy son.

22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:

23 and bring the fatted calf, [and] kill it, and let us eat, and make merry:

24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing.

26 And he called to him one of the servants, and inquired what these things might be.

27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.

28 But he was angry, and would not go in: and his father came out, and entreated him.

29 But he answered and said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, and I never transgressed a commandment of thine; and [yet] thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:

30 but when this thy son came, who hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou killedst for him the fatted calf.

31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that is mine is thine.

32 But it was meet to make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive [again]; and [was] lost, and is found.

  

Commentary

 

Exploring the Meaning of Luke 15

     

By Ray and Star Silverman

Lost and Found

In this next chapter, Jesus tells three parables about finding things that have been lost: a sheep, a coin, and a son. At the heart of these three parables is a message about the loss of something precious that God has given us, and the joy of its recovery. This is the connection to the previous parable which spoke of the “ten thousand.” These are the blessed states of love for the neighbor and trust in God, states that were given to us in childhood, but were seemingly lost along the way. The truth is, however, that while these precious states in us may become deeply buried, they can never be fully lost. Though they may be hidden beneath our consciousness, they remain with us for our entire lives. The joy of finding them again becomes the subject of the next three parables. 1

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

1. And all the publicans and sinners were near to Him to hear Him.

2. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, “This [Man] accepts sinners, and eats with them.”

3. And He said to them this parable, saying,

4. “What man of you, having a hundred sheep and having lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost until he find it?

5. And when he has found [it], he lays [it] on his shoulders rejoicing.

6. And when he comes home he calls together [his] friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’

7. I say to you that likewise there shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repents, more than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance.”

At the end of the previous chapter, Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Luke 14:35). It is appropriate, then, in keeping with the seamless connection of episodes, that the next chapter begins with the words, “Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near … to hear Him” (Luke 15:1). Apparently, the tax collectors and sinners “had ears to hear.” But it is not the same with the scribes and Pharisees who continue to complain, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).

Aware of their inability or their unwillingness to understand why He is healing on the Sabbath and eating with sinners, Jesus says to them, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4).

Preserving innocence

In sacred scripture, the word “sheep” symbolizes innocence. Like sheep who are willing to follow their shepherd, those who are in a state of innocence are willing to be led by the Lord. The imagery of the shepherd and his sheep occurs throughout the Word, most memorably in the twenty-third psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul (Psalms 23:1-2). This beautiful psalm sums up in poetic language the relationship that we can have with God. If we allow Him to lead us, we will find ourselves in “green pastures” feeding on the goodness He offers. If we allow Him to lead us, we will find ourselves beside still waters, drinking in the truth He offers. As a result, the Lord restores our soul. 2

The word “restores” implies that at one point the needs of our soul were fully supplied, but that over time something had been lost and, therefore, needed to be restored. This is what happens to each of us as we journey from the innocence and trust of infancy and early childhood into adolescence and adulthood. More and more, we begin to lose something of that childlike innocence and trust. We begin to crave independence, the feeling that we are self-sufficient and can figure things out for ourselves. We don’t want anyone to tell us what to do, and we want to do things for ourselves. In other words, we are less willing to be led, desiring instead to be our own masters. This is not evil or wrong. It’s just a stage in our human development.

God, of course, knows all about our development. He knows that each of us will move from total dependence on parents and caregivers to independence, from reliance on others to self-reliance, and from confidence in others to confidence in self. While this is a necessary step in the maturation process—a step that is expected and should be encouraged—we should remember that real maturity is to develop an ever-increasing willingness to follow God and live according to His teachings. This mature trust in God is called “the innocence of wisdom” and is true wisdom. 3

As we move from the innocence of childhood to the innocence of wisdom, the quality that is essential to both states is innocence. In childhood that innocence takes the form of a willingness to be led by others. This innocent and trusting state can be seen when children spontaneously reach up to take hold of their parent’s hand, allowing themselves to be led. This is an early picture of the greater innocence which is to follow. It is the innocence of adulthood, the willingness to be led by the Lord, especially through the teachings of His Word.

When seen in the light of the loss and regaining of innocence, the parable about the lost sheep is about those times when we succumb to the illusion of self-sufficiency. We believe that we have no need for the Lord and are sufficient unto ourselves. Fortunately, the Lord does not let us simply drift away. He comes to us, searching for us, and when He finds us, He brings us back home. This is the journey of life, a journey which begins with a tender willingness to be led by our caregivers, and ends with a mature willingness to be led by God. In this way, that state of innocence, initiated in infancy and further developed in adulthood, is preserved in us. 4

Regaining lost innocence

It’s wonderful to know that our earliest states of innocence—those affections for goodness and truth—can be regained and deepened in adulthood. But the question arises, “How is this innocence lost and how can it be found again?” The answer is revealed in the spiritual sense of this simple parable. The “man” who had a hundred sheep represents each of us when, in our infancy, we had an abundance of innocence. We were surrounded by angels who filled us with tender affections—“one hundred sheep.” But as we grow up, we begin to lose—or so it seems—these tender states of infancy. Therefore, there comes a time in our life when we must go in search of those lost affectional states, find them, and allow them to take a leading role in our lives again.

As we do so, our stubbornness and hard-heartedness begin to soften; we become kinder, gentler, and more forgiving. Our intellect, represented by “a man,” is reconnected with that which has been “lost”—the softer, more affectionate side of our nature, represented by the “lost sheep.”

This is an exciting moment in our lives. It is a time for great rejoicing. In the parable, Jesus puts it like this: “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (Luke 15:5). This describes those sacred moments in our life when we have reconnected with those innocent states of willingness to be led, but this time with greater wisdom. When this happens in our inner world, we are truly “home” again. As Jesus says, “And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’” (Luke 15:6).

It should be noted, however, that we cannot find the lost sheep by ourselves. In the deepest sense of this parable, then, we are not the ones who go searching for the lost sheep. Rather, it is God who comes searching for us. It is God who finds us, no matter how far we have strayed. It is God who lifts us up with the inspiration of His Word, and it is God who strengthens us by placing us upon His strong shoulders.

Understood spiritually, to be “placed on God’s shoulders” is to be empowered by Him, for in the human body the “shoulders” represent great strength. We know this from common expressions such as “Let us put our shoulder to the wheel,” “We must learn to shoulder our responsibilities,” and “Do not pray for a lighter burden, but for stronger shoulders.” And in the Hebrew scriptures, the Lord’s coming into the world is described as follows: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulders” (Isaiah 9:6). 5

The imagery of the Lord “putting us on His shoulders” pictures how the Lord strengthens those states in us that are willing to be led by His love and wisdom. These are like the tender, innocent states that we once knew in childhood. Although these states seemed to be lost, they were merely hidden away, buried beneath our consciousness. They may have been forgotten for a time, especially during those times when we lost our higher selves in worldly concerns. But they were always there, ready to serve as a foundation for the development of a more mature faith in later years, a faith that trusts in God. 6

The blessedness of dependency

As we conclude this first parable in this series of three, we need to remember the dramatic setting. Jesus has just been accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners, the despised outcasts of society. In those days, breaking bread with others was not only an expression of friendship, but also an indication of willingness to be more intimately associated with the people with whom one dined. Therefore, from the point of view of the scribes and Pharisees, breaking bread with people who are seen to be sinful would be considered disgraceful. Not only would it be regarded as accepting sinful behavior, but it would also be risking contamination through association.

This “arms-length” attitude toward sinners also extended to foreigners, non-believers, and people with physical deformities. In this regard, they believed they were acting in strict accordance with the teachings of the Hebrew scriptures. As it is written, “Thus says the Lord, O House of Israel, let us have no more of your abominations … you brought in foreigners to My house … and offered My food” (Ezekiel 44:6-7). Also, “No one with a defect, whether blind, or lame, or disfigured, or deformed … shall go near the veil or approach the altar, lest he profane My sanctuaries” (Leviticus 21:18, 23.)

Jesus, however, teaches a very different lesson about associating with outcasts, sinners, foreigners, non-believers, and people who might have a physical defect. As we saw in the previous chapter, Jesus speaks about a master who invites the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind to a great supper. We pointed out that this is the Lord’s invitation to each of us. However, when we are pre-occupied with self-sufficiency, we have no desire to come to the feast. This is the part of us that mistakenly believes it has no need for God in our lives. There is no need for His truth and no need for His power to live according to that truth. These are the parts of ourselves of whom Jesus says, “None of these shall taste My supper.”

But there are other parts of ourselves. These are the parts that have been seemingly “lost” for a long time. These are compared to the beggars who roamed the lanes and streets of the city, aware that they are poor, maimed, lame, and blind. These are the people that the man sends his servant to find and invite to the supper. Because they know they are poor, maimed, lame and blind, and desperately in need of help, they accept the invitation and come to the supper.

It is the same for these “lost” parts of ourselves. When we know that we do not have all the answers, we acknowledge that we are “spiritually poor.” When we know that we lack the power to do the good we would like to do, we acknowledge that we are “spiritually maimed.” When we know that we have been hobbling along in life, unable to “walk in the ways of righteousness” (Proverbs 8:20), we acknowledge that we are “spiritually lame.” And when we know that we cannot see the truth, we acknowledge that we are “spiritually blind.”

The key thing about each of these states is that they are states of dependency. If we are poor, maimed, lame, or blind, we must depend on others for help. The person who is physically blind sees nothing in the natural world; therefore, a blind person must depend on others for guidance. Similarly, if our spiritual eyes are not opened, if we have no understanding of spiritual reality, we will be unable to comprehend the things of heaven. This world is the only world that we will see. Therefore, we need God to open our spiritual eyes through the truths of His Word.

This is what can happen whenever we choose to repent, acknowledging our need for the Lord, and allowing the Lord to restore what has been lost. After years of looking elsewhere for nourishment, we finally decide that nothing in the physical world can provide the nourishment that our soul craves. Happily accepting His invitation, we turn to the Lord who has been seeking us the whole time. In doing so, we allow Him to supply us with the goodness for which we hunger and the truth for which we thirst. 7

In this regard, it’s reassuring to know that no matter how far we have strayed, the Lord seeks to find us and bring us back home—to the place where we once again feel something akin to the innocence of childhood. But this time we experience genuine innocence. This is the innocence of wisdom. It is a willingness to be led by the Lord and to experience, as a result, the ensuing joys of heaven. As Jesus puts it, “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).

The Parable of the Lost Coin

8. “Or what woman, having ten drachmas, if she lose one drachma, does not kindle a lamp, and sweep the house, and seek with care until she find [it]?

9. And when she has found [it], she calls together [her] friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma which I had lost.’

10. So I say to you, There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repents.

The parable of the lost sheep is followed immediately by the parable of the lost coin. “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and seek diligently until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8). As we begin this parable, we notice, once again, the use of the number “ten” whether it be ten times ten (one hundred sheep) or ten times a thousand (ten thousand men). Whenever this number is mentioned, it always refers to some blessed state with us—either in relation to some affection or some insight about truth. The previous parable was about the recovery of innocent affections (represented by the lost sheep); this parable will be about the recovery of some lost truth (represented by the lost silver coin). 8

In this parable, the silver coins represent truth—the truth that illumines the darkness, just as the silvery moon illumines the night. In our infancy the innate sense of what is good and true is given to us freely through the angels who surround and protect us. But as we grow older the tender feelings of love (represented by the lost sheep) and the awareness of simple truth (represented by the lost coin) recede from our consciousness. We come into states where these gifts from God feel as though they are lost. We, therefore, need to go in search of them.

What might the “lost coin” represent in each of our lives? Perhaps it is the truth that God is always with us. At one point, this may have been a precious and most valuable truth, but over time it was lost. Perhaps it is the truth that no matter what happens, God can bring good out of it. Perhaps it was the initial feelings we experienced when first falling in love and the accompanying truths that matched those feelings. Those truths may have included thoughts such as, I will always love you. Nothing will ever come between us. I will always be faithful. I will be there for you during bad times and good times, in sickness and in health.

Thoughts like these which flow in from God may abound at first, but over time they can be lost. When this happens, we have slipped from those earlier states. We find that we are no longer living by the truth we once knew. In the beginning, we were kind, considerate, and forgiving. Then, over time, something changed. We found ourselves becoming less patient, less forgiving, easily disturbed, and quickly becoming critical. What happened to those God-given principles we once cherished? Where did they go? Like the woman in the parable, we have lost a precious coin—a precious truth in our lives is missing. And, like the woman in the parable, we will have to search for that lost coin.

Her search begins with a thorough search of her “house.” In sacred scripture, a “house” represents the interiors of person’s mind. It is the place where we dwell, our mental “dwelling-place.” In other words, the thoughts and feelings that we choose to dwell on become our spiritual home. So, when it is written that the woman needed to “light a lamp” and “sweep her house,” we can know that this relates to something that is going on in her mental “dwelling-place,” that is, in her mind. 9

The parable calls each of us to “light a lamp” and “sweep our house” in order to find the coin that has been lost. As long as we are in darkness, the chances of finding the lost coin are slim. But if we light a lamp, our chances are greatly improved. In this case, lighting a lamp suggests the willingness to use the light of truth to examine ourselves seeking to find what has been lost. Not only do we “light the lamp,” but we must also “sweep the floor.” This suggests that we must carefully explore the inner rooms of our mind, sweeping away the dust of lower thoughts, so that we might be able to find the missing coin. Cleaning our mental house also suggests the re-ordering of priorities so that we can see the truth again—truth that may have become lost in the clutter of worldly concerns.

The search for the lost coin requires both the light of God’s Word and the willingness to do sincere self-examination. And when we find that lost coin, we will want to rejoice. As it is written, “And when she found it, she called her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I have lost!’” (Luke 15:9). 10

Jesus concludes this parable, as He did the previous one, on a celebratory note. He compares the joy of finding the lost coin to the joy that the angels feel when a sinner repents. As He puts it, “I say to you there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

A practical application

Like the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin speaks about something we once possessed, but then lost. In spiritual terms, both parables relate to our loss of connection with God. The parable of the lost lamb is about the loss of innocence—the innocent willingness to follow the Lord. The parable of the lost coin continues this theme, this time focusing on the loss of some God-given truth. When this happens, we find ourselves thinking, I used to be more patient. I used to be kinder, more considerate, and more forgiving. I used to be more diligent. I need to take a look at my life and put my priorities back into order, and I need to invite the Lord into this process. This is the “lost coin”—the missing piece. And this realization is what brings about the woman’s joy, so much so that she wants to tell her friends and neighbors. Perhaps you have experienced something like this as well. The rediscovery of how wonderful it is to reconnect with God and get back to first principles is certainly worth sharing. But first, you may need to “light a lamp” and “sweep the house,” in order to find that missing truth.

The Parable of the Lost Son

11. And He said, “A certain man had two sons;

12. And the younger of them said to the father, ‘Father, give me the part of the substance that is to be put upon [me].’ And he apportioned to them [his] livelihood.

13. And not many days after, the younger son, gathering all together, went abroad into a distant country, and there wasted his substance, living recklessly.

14. But when he had spent all, there arose a strong famine throughout that country, and he began to be lacking.

15. And he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.

16. And he longed to fill his belly from the husks which the swine ate; and no one gave to him.

17. And when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many hirelings of my father have an excess of bread, but I perish with hunger!

18. Standing up, I will go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee,

19. And am no more worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hirelings.”

20. And he stood up and came to his father. And being yet a distance away, his father saw him and was moved with compassion, and running, fell on his neck and kissed him.

21. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.”

22. But the father said to his servants, “Bring out the chief robe and put [it] on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on [his] feet.

23. And bring hither the fatted calf, and slaughter [it], and let us eat and be merry.

24. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.” And they began to be merry.

25. But his elder son was in the field; and as he came and was near the house, he heard music and dancing.

26. And he called for one of the boys, and inquired what these things meant.

27. And he said to him, “Thy brother has come, and thy father has slaughtered the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.”

28. And he was angry, and was not willing to enter in; therefore, his father came out and implored him.

29. And he answering, said to the father, “Behold, so many years do I serve thee, and I never transgressed thy commandment, and yet thou never gavest me a goat, that I might be merry with my friends;

30. But when this thy son came, who devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast slaughtered for him the fatted calf.”

31. And he said to him, “Child, thou art always with me, and all mine are thine.

32. And [we] ought to be merry and rejoice, because this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”

As we concluded the first two parables in this series, we mentioned that the thing that has been lost is our connection with God. In both cases, it is ‘the missing piece.” This theme is continued in an even more direct way in this next parable, this time through the story of two sons. As Jesus continues to speak to the scribes and Pharisees, He says, “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So, he divided to them his livelihood” (Luke 15:11-12). As the story goes, the younger son takes his inheritance, journeys to a far country, and spends everything. As it is written, “He wasted his possessions with prodigal living” (Luke 15:13).

The younger son is rebellious and wild. He represents our lower nature. This is the unregenerate human will delighting only in the pleasure of the senses without regard for anything higher. In the parable, it is the story of the younger son who asks that he receive an early inheritance and then spends it all on earthly pleasures. He soon discovers, however, that the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, apart from anything higher, leads to a profound state of emptiness. As it is written, “When he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country and he sent him into the fields to feed the swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:14-16).

This pictures each of us at those times when we have wandered away from our relationship with God. After spending everything we have on temporal pleasures, we sink into states of despair and emptiness. And so, it is written, “There arose a severe famine in the land.” This is what happens when we hunger for something, but don’t yet know what it is. We would even eat “the pods that the swine ate.” And yet, even that does not satisfy us. Gradually, we begin to awaken to the reality that living in this way does not nourish our spirits. As we come to our spiritual senses, we realize how far we have strayed and how mistaken we have been. And so, as the parable continues, we read that “when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!’” (Luke 15:17).

This is the moment when we realize that there is more to life than satisfying the desires of our lower nature; we realize that there is something higher—our relationship with the Lord. This is the moment when our spirit cries out, like the young man in the parable, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’ And he arose and came to his father” (Luke 15:19).

The return of the lost son

It should be kept in mind that while Jesus is telling this parable, and the two preceding ones, He is in the presence of the scribes and Pharisees. In a remarkable series of parables about things that are at first lost but eventually found, Jesus is indirectly instructing the scribes and Pharisees about the importance of learning to think in new ways. These three parables, when taken together, constitute Jesus’ response to their contemptuous comment which initiated this series. They said, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). Jesus wants them to know that if they could think differently, they could experience angelic joy when what has been “lost” could be found. More deeply, Jesus is encouraging them to think deeply about what has been lost in them and how it could be found again.

In that respect, this third parable in the series is no different. Having awakened from his wayward lifestyle, the younger son is now determined to head back home and apologize to his father. “I will arise and go to my father,” he says. Not only is he determined to return home, but he is also very clear about what he will tell his father. In fact, he has practiced the wording. “Father,” he will say, “I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:18).

With determination in his heart and words of repentance in his mind, the younger son begins his journey back home to his father. However, before we consider the father’s response, let us first consider how the scribes and Pharisees would have expected the father to react. After all, this young man had dishonored his father and brought shame to the family. According to the cultural standards of the day, and the religious practices that were then in place, if a son brought dishonor to his father, he would be disowned.

The father’s response, however, is totally unexpected. Before the son even has a chance to utter a confession, acknowledge his transgressions, or ask for forgiveness, the father sees him “a great way off” and is immediately filled with compassion. Without a moment’s hesitation, the father runs to his son, falls on his neck, and kisses him (Luke 15:20).

Still feeling a need to confess, the son recites the words that he has rehearsed: “Father I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). But the father hardly seems to notice. We read, “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is now alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:22-24).

It should be noted that the father continues to refer to him as his “son.” As he puts it, “For this my son was dead and is now alive again.” When our lives are immersed in natural concerns and the pursuit of sensual pleasures, it is as if we are “dead” to spiritual reality. But when we realize that a mere sensual existence is a “dead end,” and decide to return to God, it is as if we are “alive” again.

The resentment of the elder brother

This joyous scene is quickly interrupted by the elder brother. Apparently, he has been faithfully serving his father, doing his work in the fields. But as he comes in from his labors, and draws near to the house, he is surprised to hear music and dancing. And when he finds out that his brother has returned, and that his father has killed the fatted calf in his younger brother’s honor, the older brother is so angry that he will not enter the house. Even when his father pleads with him to come in, the elder brother refuses to take part in the celebration. Instead, he says, “Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I have never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might be merry with my friends” (Luke 15:29).

On one level, the “elder brother” who “never transgressed” his father’s commandment represents the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees who pride themselves on their strict observance of the commandments. Because they mistakenly believe that this was the key to obtaining divine favor, they would be deeply offended by any suggestion that God’s love and favor extends to all people, even to sinners. Moreover, because their envy and resentment prevent them from appreciating the blessings that are constantly flowing in from God, they are filled with resentment when they see others getting what they think they deserve. This is represented by the words of the elder son when he says, “You never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.”

The elder brother chose to remain at home, faithfully serving his father. As he says to his father, “I never transgressed your commandments.” This is a thinly veiled reference to the self-righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees who believed that they were righteous and blameless before the Lord. At a deeper level, it also applies to each of us. Rigid adherence to the commandments, apart from love and mercy, cannot save us. It becomes a form of truth alone, without goodness.

The elder brother’s problem, then, was not a failure to dutifully serve his father. Rather, it was an inability to appreciate all that he had been given and all that he had. He was so filled with resentment that he refused to take part in the celebration. Unlike the angels, he felt no joy that his brother had repented. Instead, all he could feel was envy. Through this parable, Jesus is telling the scribes, the Pharisees, and everyone who has ears to hear that the kingdom of heaven with all its blessings is available to each of us, right now, if we are willing to receive them. All of this is contained in the father’s stirring plea, “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad … for your brother who was lost is found” (Luke 15:31-32). 12

As the parable concludes, we can rejoice with the younger brother who awoke from his waywardness; but we are also left with a poignant picture of the elder brother who has not yet awakened from his self-righteousness. One brother has been found; the other is still lost.

A practical application

Although the elder brother claimed that he had “never transgressed his father’s commandments,” he was blind to the fact that he was jealous of his younger brother, thus transgressing the commandment against coveting. In the light of this parable, we are called to examine ourselves in terms of our own covetousness. Can we honestly feel joy in the success of others without wanting that success for ourselves? Can we honestly feel happy for the sinner who has repented without wanting some of that attention for ourselves? Can we be so content with what we have that we feel genuinely happy for others? Can we believe that the father’s words to the elder son, “All that I have is yours” also apply to us? We need to keep reminding ourselves that God wants to give us every spiritual blessing, right now. We are invited, so to speak, to enjoy “the fatted calf.” This realization can help us rise above covetous desires and feel truly happy for others. In fact, we can feel their joy as joy in ourselves. 13

Footnotes:

1Arcana Coelestia 561: “States of innocence, love towards parents, love towards the neighbor, and pity for the poor are preserved in a person by the Lord and stored up in the most internal part of a person, quite without one’s knowledge.” See also Arcana Coelestia 1906: “All the states of affection of goodness and truth with which a person is gifted by the Lord from first infancy to the end of life are called ‘remains.’…. As a person is introduced into the world, these celestial things of infancy begin to gradually disappear, but still they remain, and subsequent states are tempered by them. Without these remains [of goodness and truth] a person could not be called a human being.”

2Conjugial Love 395: “The nature of the innocence of infancy and early childhood shall be told in a few words…. Everything which they receive they attribute to their parents. They are content with the little things given them as presents. They do not worry about their food and clothing, and they are not anxious about the future. They do not look to the world or desire many things therefrom. They love their parents, their caregivers, and their little companions with whom they play in innocence. They allow themselves to be guided. They listen and obey. Such is the innocence of infancy and early childhood.” See also Apocalypse Explained 1038:2: “The Lord Himself because of His divine innocence is called a ‘Lamb,’ and because of His divine power is called a ‘Lion.’”

3Arcana Coelestia 2303: “When children are born on earth, they are immediately surrounded by angels from the heaven of innocence…. As the innocence and charity with the young children decrease, other angels are with them. At length, when they become older and enter into a life foreign to charity, angels are indeed present, but more remotely.”

4Heaven and Hell 341: “Because innocence is a receptacle of all things of heaven, the innocence of little children is a plane for all affections of good and truth…. But the innocence of children is not genuine innocence, because as yet it is without wisdom. Genuine innocence is wisdom, since so far as anyone is wise, one loves to be led by the Lord; or what is the same, so far as anyone is led by the Lord, that person is wise. Therefore, children are led from the external innocence in which they are at the beginning, and which is called the innocence of childhood, to internal innocence, which is the innocence of wisdom.”

5Arcana Coelestia 4932: “In the Word, the term ‘shoulders’ signifies the power that comes from good through the truth of faith. Those who are in the truth of faith from good are in the power of the Lord. This is because they attribute all power to Him, and none to themselves. And the more they attribute no power to themselves—not with the lips, but with the heart—the more they are in power.”

6Conjugial Love 413: “Little children are led from the innocence of early childhood to the innocence of wisdom; that is, from an external innocence to an internal one. This latter innocence is the goal in all their instruction and advancement. Consequently, when they reach the innocence of wisdom, attached to it is the innocence of their early childhood, which in the meantime had served them as a foundation.”

7Arcana Coelestia 5360: “Celestial and spiritual food are nothing else than good and truth. These are what angels and spirits are nourished by, and what they hunger for when hungry, and thirst for when thirsty.”

8Arcana Coelestia 2284: “The number ‘ten,’ signifies ‘remains,’ that is all the good and all the truth with a person which lie stored up in one’s memories and in one’s life…. I have learned from much experience that people of every religion are saved, provided that by a life of charity they have received remains of good and of apparent truth. This is what is meant by it being said that if ten were found [in Sodom and Gomorrah], they should not be destroyed for the ten’s sake. This means that they would be saved if there were remains.” See also See Genesis 18:32.

9Apocalypse Explained 208: “In the Word, a ‘house’ and all things belonging to a house correspond to the interiors of a person’s mind.” See also Arcana Coelestia 5776: That ‘entering a house’ denotes communication, is because by a ‘house’ is signified the mind of a person…. Therefore, when ‘entering a house’ is spoken of, it means entering into one’s mind.”

10Apocalypse Explained 675:10: “Losing the silver coin signifies to lose a truth or the knowledge of truth; ‘to light a candle’ signifies self-examination from affection; ‘to sweep the house’ signifies to traverse the whole mind and to examine every particular where the truth lies hidden.”

Arcana Coelestia 8990:3: “Those who are in faith alone set faith in the first place, and the good of charity in the second place, and even in the last place…. This is how it is with those who make everything of salvation to consist in the truths of faith, and nothing in the good of charity. Such people cannot enter heaven; for good reigns in heaven, and not truth without good; for truth is not truth, and faith is not faith, except with those who are imbued with goodness.”

12Invitation to the New Church 23: “The Lord is perpetually present with every person, evil as well as good. Without His presence, no one can live; and the Lord constantly acts, urges, and strives to be received; wherefore, the presence of the Holy Spirit is perpetual…. It is by virtue of the perpetual presence of the Lord that a person has the faculty of thinking, understanding and willing. These faculties are due solely to the influx of life from the Lord.”

13Divine Love and Wisdom 47: “The essence of all love consists in conjunction; this, in fact, is its life, which is called enjoyment, pleasantness, delight, sweetness, bliss, happiness, and felicity. Love consists in this, that its own should be another’s; to feel the joy of another as joy in oneself, that is loving.”