Grab your Bible, and let’s dig into Luke 15 and the setting of a famous parable Jesus taught.
Luke 15:1-3 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable:
Have you ever stopped to really consider what the parable of the Prodigal Son is about by studying the context in which Jesus tells it? First it says, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear him.” Let’s look at these for a moment:
The Tax Collectors
If you grew up in the church as a child, you were told the tax collectors were bad guys because they were like Friar Tuck from Robin Hood: They took more than they should to get rich. To give you the full picture of why tax collectors were so hated, you have to understand Rome at that time. Rome dominated the people with oppressive rule that required a massive army. How do you fund, supply, feed, and train a massive army to oppress the world? TAXES!! Tax collectors were the guys showing up at your door to take a large portion of your money, essentially so an evil empire could later come through your neighborhood to kill and abuse your loved ones.
Let’s look at the second group listed: sinners.
We know that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are all sinners. So what is unique about these “sinners”? When Luke writes “sinner” here in the Scriptures, he is talking about the outcast. Sinner, here, means one who is deformed or diseased, homeless street people, prostitutes, slave traders, drug runners, etc. This is speaking from the Jewish perspective on society. If people were outside of the Jewish norm, they were labeled in this way. They were sinners!
The third group that was near Jesus on this hillside was “the Pharisees and the scribes.”
A Pharisee was a person who held a high position in society because he was part of the religious elite—the highest rank in the Jewish faith. And Pharisees loved being above everyone else. It says here that the Pharisees were “grumbling” or “muttering.” This is what self-righteous people do!
Who do you know that is always complaining about something or, even worse, is nit-picking other people all the time? Ask yourself, “Am I muttering a lot lately?” So what were they grumbling about? We find the answer in verse 2: "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." The Pharisees disapproved of a Rabbi (Jesus) allowing dirty, unrighteous people to fellowship with him. Eating together was a sign of acceptance, and the Pharisees wanted nothing to do with it.
Now, I want to set the table for what Jesus is about to unveil in these three parables, as it gives us a great way to think about our spiritual journey and go about our ministry. Jesus is going to deconstruct and reconstruct three world views—three roads we can travel.
1. The Irreligious
In biblical times, the irreligious person (e.g.: the tax collector and the sinner) had:
No real regard for the law of the Bible or religious ways.
If they grew up Jewish, they have left home, leaving behind the Jewish traditions and beliefs.
By doing this, they were told regularly by the religious that they were outcast and that they would be judged and condemned for their rebellion.
They essentially lived for themselves and for pleasure.
**Even though the irreligious have done life their way and are put down by the religious, HERE THEY ARE GATHERING AROUND JESUS! They are interested; they want to hear what He has to say! WHY? Because it is different than RELIGION.
2. The Religious
The self-righteous, religious man looks down on others because that is what you do when your identity is wrapped up in accomplishment—in keeping the RULES! Everything is about keeping the moral standard.
If you keep the rules, you feel good; and when you are on top of your game, you point out all those who fall short compared to you.
When you are not at the top of your game, you scramble to work harder to earn your righteousness back.
Now, there is a third party in this hillside scene: It’s Jesus! But many times, as with life, He is the one that we completely look right past. The Bible is given to us, not so that we can learn about these other people and how to copy them or not copy them, but it is always pointing us back to Jesus.
So, there is a third camp that we can be in. But only because Jesus makes it so.
3. The Gospel
Now, here is the kicker: Just because you go to church or because you prayed a prayer when you were younger, doesn’t mean that you are currently living through the GOSPEL. It is this very important clarity that we NEED to chase down.
Understand this: each of us is currently living in one of the three camps! It is imperative that we begin to see how we relate and operate out of these different relationships with God!
1. Some are living like the irreligious person—seeking answers and salvation because everywhere else we have looked, we have not found it. When those who are the irreligious look at other irreligious people, they say, “Sweet, rock on.” Or they see the danger in the worldly lifestyle they are in, and it causes them to want to change—to not end up where their dad or brother or friend ended up.
When you who are the irreligious look at the religious camp, you want to vomit at their hypocrisy and uppity, self-righteous, “look at me” lifestyle. When you look at those truly living out of the gospel, you are inspired but hesitant, because you are fearful that deep down it just looks like the religious.
2. Some relate with the religious who are frustrated with the grace of Christ that is trumping all the self-righteous good works they have worked so hard to do to earn their place. When the religious look at the irreligious, they think, “What a lazy waste! Get yourself together. I did it; so can you!”
When you who are the religious look at other religious people, many times it is all judgment. Are you as good as me? When the religious look at those truly living out of the gospel, they are frustrated at the peace and the freedom in Christ!
3. Or we are the ones humbled and transformed by the gospel who seek to know Him more and worship Him as our greatest treasure! Your objective in showing up is to say, “Thank you,” and dig deeper—to walk in obedience, not because you have to, but because you want to.
When you who are living out of the gospel see the other two camps, your response is the same: sad and excited. Sad, because you see their lostness in their unsatisfying, man-driven pursuits. Excited, because people who truly love the treasure they have found are only really satisfied when they get to share it with others. A heart captured by Christ, treasuring Christ above all else, is one of authentic worship and true love for others.
So in which of the three camps are you living?
The common reality is for many who are saved, we can resort to taking a religious or irreligious approach to life in certain things. Our heart is captured and surrendered to Jesus in one setting, but we are completely reliant on our own strength and works in another. Some of us who have the gospel don’t live out of it at times because we get caught up practicing the habits of our religious upbringing or our wild days of trying to be satisfied with the world’s offerings or methods.
Now don’t miss this: In verse 3, it says, “Jesus told them this parable.” Really, He goes on to tell them three parables. Let me ask you this about the Prodigal Son: In what context have you told the story of the Prodigal Son to another or heard it used? Relating to someone who is lost or has lost someone they love and how it doesn’t matter how bad their rebellion was, the loving Father God always welcomes them home! RIGHT?
But there is so much more to this story. At the beginning of the story as Jesus told it in verse 11 that a man had two sons. We have made this story mostly about the younger son, but it is as much about the elder son as the younger son, and as much about the father as the two sons.
Instead of its well-known name “The Prodigal Son” (by the way, Jesus didn’t call it this), a better name might be “A Loving Father’s Response to His Two Lost Sons.” What we must see is Jesus is telling this story to not only show the sinners their need for Him, but to speak to the Pharisees, who relate to the elder brother and show them their need for Him, too. He is saying, “Do you see that you are just as lost as the younger brother? That you need me just as much as they do?”
Jesus is highlighting the failure of both brothers—both camps: irreligious and religious!
-The hedonistic, self-centeredness of the younger brother
-The self-righteous, self-centeredness of the elder brother
They both are lost and in need of the father. They both really want the father’s stuff more than the father. They just go about it differently.
In the end, only the father’s love and grace bring hope! This points us to the gospel!
In verses 1-3, we see Jesus take the time to share and speak truth and hope into the people who surround Him.
Just as Jesus came for them, the religious and irreligious, we are to share the gospel with both lost groups. We are to share the good news to the self-centered and the self-righteous. We are to share with them that Jesus left His throne to put on flesh.
If we are going to share this GOOD NEWS that changes lives with others, we have to see the costly expense of a Father who loves us and paid the high price for us to come into the party and celebrate with Him! We have to live out of the gospel camp and not just talk about it.
It begins by acknowledging which road you have been walking lately. Irreligious? Religious? Gospel?
Go back and read the parable of the Prodigal Father and his love for his two lost sons in Luke 15:11-32 again, and let it help you see and savor the beauty and power of living out of the gospel in all things.