The Prodigal Son

Return of the Prodigal Son by Murillo

Return of the Prodigal Son by Murillo

[PART 1 OF 4]

The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is one of Jesus’ most well-known parables. It is actually the third in a series of parables that Jesus told, one after the other, in Luke chapter 15. All three parables have a common theme.

The Audience

Jesus and the Pharisees by Dore

Jesus and the Pharisees by Dore

It is interesting to note the audience to whom these parables were told. Luke 15:1 says that “the tax collectors and sinners were gathered around to hear him”. Tax collectors were despised in Jesus’ day. They had a reputation for being crooked, and were notorious for cheating people out of their money. “They are generally described as being greedy, and taking more money than they are entitled to.” [1] “Tax gatherers and sinners were excluded from the religious community”. [2]

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were also present in this crowd. They had come, as they always did, not to listen to Jesus with sincere hearts, but rather to scoff at Him and ridicule Him, and to try to find some way to prove Him wrong and humiliate Him in front of His followers. When the Pharisees saw the make-up of the crowd that had gathered around Jesus, they “muttered” among themselves, “Look at this guy. He is welcoming sinners, and eating with them!”

So we see a fascinating contrast in this crowd. Those who were the religious outcasts were the ones who were genuinely interested in what Jesus had to say, while the elite religious leaders held Jesus in disdain, could not care less what He had to say, and in fact considered themselves superior not only to those lowly tax collectors and sinners, but also superior to Jesus Himself.

We learn something very interesting about these Jewish religious leaders in John chapter 3, where we find the story of Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. He was one of the Jewish leaders represented in the Luke 15 crowd. These Pharisees and teachers of the law were some of Nicodemus’ cohorts.

Jesus Instructing Nicodemus by Jordaens

Jesus Instructing Nicodemus by Jordaens

When Nicodemus came to Jesus by night in John chapter 3, he made a very revealing statement in verse 2. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, because no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Notice, Nicodemus did not say “I know”, but “we know”.

“We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.”

That statement has always fascinated me because Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, seems to be admitting to Jesus that the Jewish leaders knew that Jesus was the real deal, that He was, in fact, from God. So my question is this: If they knew that Jesus was a teacher who had come from God, why did they repeatedly try to discredit Him and prove Him to be a phony? These were the spiritual leaders of God’s chosen people and they knew that Jesus was a teacher who had come from God. Yet they still considered themselves superior to Him. Their arrogance is simply unbelievable.

The Parables

Jesus began to speak in parables to this diverse crowd of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and teachers of the law.

The first parable was in the form of a question. “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?”

© dzain - Fotolia

© dzain – Fotolia

It was a rhetorical question, to which even the Pharisees knew the correct answer. When the lost sheep is found, the shepherd throws a party to celebrate the return of his lost sheep.

The application of this parable is found in verse 7. “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.”

Maybe I am reading too much into this, but, considering His audience, I think Jesus might have been taking a direct jab at the self-righteous Pharisees with that statement. We have already seen the arrogance that was so characteristic of the Pharisees. They considered themselves to be exceedingly righteous and looked down their noses at anyone who, in their estimation, was less righteous (like, say, the tax collectors and sinners who were in this same crowd).

To these self-righteous Pharisees, Jesus said, “Look, it is the repentance of one of these unrighteous persons that causes the heavens to rejoice.” That was kind of a slap in the face to the Pharisees. “How can God possibly rejoice more over an unrighteous person than He rejoices over me? That’s preposterous!”

But do you know what is so ironic about this whole scenario? These Pharisees, who considered themselves to be the most righteous people present in this crowd, were actually the ones who most needed to repent of their unrighteousness.

“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.” This application of the first parable will carry through to the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Interestingly, in the second parable, the Parable of the Lost Coin, Jesus simply re-emphasized this same theme. Verse 10: “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

With that groundwork laid, Jesus then proceeded to tell the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Paul O'Rear Signature

This is Part 1 in a 4-part series entitled “The Prodigal Son”.
Part 1: “The Prodigal Son”
Part 2: “The Prodigal Son (Father’s Perspective)
Part 3: “The Prodigal Son (Prodigal’s Perspective)
Part 4: “The Prodigal Son (Brother’s Perspective)

Next: “The Prodigal Son (Father’s Perspective)

Photo Credits:

  1. Return of the Prodigal Son, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Wikipedia), Public domain.
  2. Jesus and the Pharisees, by Gustave Doré (Wikipedia), Public domain.
  3. Jesus Instructing Nicodemus, by Jacob Jordaens (Wikipedia), Public domain.
  4. cute little lambs, © dzain (Fotolia), Used by permission.


  1. “Tax collector.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 30 Oct 2009, 13:18 UTC. 8 Nov 2009
  2. from IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament by Craig S. Keener Copyright © 1993 by Craig S. Keener. Published by InterVarsity Press. All rights reserved.

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