Skip to Main Content

Luke 15:20-32 Notes

Luke 15:20-32 - EXEGESIS:

CONTEXT - Luke 15:  This chapter includes three parables that deal with that which was lost but now is found. First is the Parable of the Lost Sheep (15:1-7). Second is the Parable of the Lost Coin (15:8-10). Third is the Parable of the Prodigal Son and his Elder Brother-in some places known as the Parable of the Lost Son (15:11-32). These parables share a note of great joy at finding that which was lost-joy that mirrors God's joy at a sinner's repentance (vv. 7, 10). The elder brother's response to his brother's return is a counterpoint to this joyous theme.


Note:  Some people treat Luke 15:11-32 as two parables: The Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Elder Brother. Preachers are tempted to deal with the story of the prodigal son and leave the story of the elder brother untouched. There is, however, a problem with that. Jesus told these parables in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes, who were upset that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus' first two parables (lost sheep and lost coin) offer a mild rebuke to the Pharisees and scribes by reminding them of heaven's joy over the repentance of a sinner. Then Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son to set up a more severe rebuke when he concludes with the story of the elder son. In other words, it is the "Elder Son" behavior of the Pharisees and scribes that prompted the telling of these three parables, and we do the third parable an injustice of we conclude with verse 24.  We also need to remember that there will be people in our congregations who most closely resemble the prodigal son and others who will most closely resemble the elder brother. These roles are not fixed. Sometimes, a person will most closely resemble the prodigal son at one time and most closely resemble the elder son at another time. Our preaching needs to address the spiritual condition of each of these types.


Comments on Luke  15:11-32 - The Prodigal Son and the Elder  Brother:   People love this parable because the father's forgiveness reassures them that, no matter how they have sinned, God will eagerly welcome them home. That is certainly part of the message, but Jesus gave this parable in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and the scribes. The story of the elder brother speaks to them-and to us when we succumb to self-righteousness.  We seldom hear the word prodigal used outside the context of this parable, and people often mistakenly assume that it means "bad." Instead, prodigal means generous, abundant, or wasteful, so prodigality is not necessarily bad. God created species and resources prodigally (abundantly), and it was good (Genesis 1:31). A philanthropist can give money prodigally (generously) to a good cause. In this parable, prodigal takes on a negative tone because the younger son "wasted his property with riotous living" (v. 13), spending his money prodigally (wastefully).  

View as two parables:  The first about the younger son and the second about the elder son. However, the focus of the parable is not the sons but the father, who has two sons-each flawed in his own way. The father loves both sons, and seeks to restore the family, which has been broken by (1) the younger son's departure from the father's home and (2) the elder son's estrangement even though he still lives at his father's home. The father's love and efforts at reconciliation bring unity to the parable.


20 So he set out and came to his father. But when he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, slaughter it, and let's eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.' And they began to celebrate.

"He arose, and came to his father" (v. 20a). A famine has become the instrument of the younger son's salvation. Only at the bottom was he willing to consider returning home. God often uses adversity to bring us to our senses. In most cases, we cause our own misery, but God always stands ready to redeem our misery.

God is in the business of making Easters out of Good Fridays.

  • We must credit the young man for taking this first step though. His father is his only hope, so he must be desperately afraid that his father will reject his proposal. What could he do then? He would be reduced to making the rounds of unsympathetic neighbors or trying to find employment with another pig farmer. Imagine the young man's anxiety as he walks the long, dusty road home. We can imagine him practicing his little speech as he walks along-practicing until his mouth is dry. But, as fearful as he must be, he keeps putting one foot in front of the other-his hope stronger than his fear.


"But while he was still far off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him" (v. 20b). It is not coincidental that the father sees his son from afar. He has surely spent many long hours gazing down that road, hoping against hope to see his son returning. We can imagine his pulse quickening at the first glimpse-long before he can identify his son with certainty. He squints and, perhaps, asks one of the slaves to take a look. When he finally dares to believe that this is his son, his heart fills with compassion and his eyes fill with tears. No longer able to contain himself, he runs to embrace the son whom he had feared dead. It is this moment, full of pathos and grace that makes this such a beloved parable.

  • People would consider it undignified for a man to run, but the father cares not for popular opinion. He has a son to greet! This is a resurrection moment! His action may also stem from a secondary motive-making it clear to his family, servants, slaves, and neighbors that this young man is his son again. The father sets the tone. People cannot reject the son without rejecting the father.
  • The son must be a pitiful sight coming down the road-sweating-caked with dirt-dressed in his filthy pigpen clothing. No telling when he ate his last meal!


"Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (v. 21). The son gets to recite only the first part of his practiced speech. His father cuts him off before he can ask to be treated as a hired hand.


But the father said to his servants, "Bring out the best robe, and put it on him" (v. 22a). The father would be generous to receive the son back home with only a mild rebuke and a plan that the son could follow to redeem himself.

  • This father, however, goes far beyond that. He takes immediate steps to remedy the son's situation. Dress this young man in a son's clothing! Dress him for a party! Get him something to eat! It is far better than the son hoped for and far better than he deserves. It is a moment full of grace-one of those beautiful moments when everyone wins. The son gets better than he deserves, and the father gets, not a hired servant, but a son.


"Put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet" (v. 22b). The robe, ring, and shoes convey dignity in the same way that a pinstriped suit and silk tie do today. They denote status. They signify that the father is returning this young man to the family. Servants don't wear robes, rings, and shoes, but instead wear clothing that marks them as servants. The robe, ring, and shoes mark this young man as a family scion-the father's son. Some scholars think of the ring as a signet ring, symbolizing the father's authority, but that probably stretches things too far.


"Bring the fatted calf, kill it, and let us eat, and celebrate" (vv. 23). Meat is not part of the daily diet, but is reserved for special occasions. When meat is required, a family usually slaughters a sheep or goat, because the smaller animal represents a lesser investment than a calf and can be consumed more easily within the family circle. They reserve the fatted calf for great celebrations, because its larger size needs neighbors, perhaps the whole village, to do it justice. In slaughtering the fatted calf, the father involves the community-sends them a message that he has restored this son to sonship and therefore to community membership as well.


"for this, my son, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found!' They began to celebrate" (v. 24). Note the contrast: dead/alive-lost/found. The father had almost, but not quite, given up hope. Now he has found what he had longed to find. His son is not only alive, but has come home. What a cause for celebration!



25 "Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 27 And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.' 28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 But he answered and said to his father, 'Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you never gave me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.'

 "Now his elder son was in the field" (v. 25a). The elder son was in the field doing what elder sons do-working like a slave (see v. 29)-serving faithfully-keeping the family afloat. It seems that, in the excitement, the father failed to dispatch anyone to tell the older son of the younger son's return. Perhaps he knew that the elder son would spoil the celebration, and could not bear to call him home early.


"As he came near to the house, he heard music and dancing" (v. 25b). The elder son's first clue to the party is the sound of music and dancing. It must be a lonely feeling to come from the quiet solitude of the fields at sunset, tired and dirty, to hear music and dancing. Even elder sons can enjoy music and dancing, but they need time to get ready-time to press their pants and shine their shoes and comb their hair-time to get in the mood. For this elder son, this party is more ambush than celebration.


"Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf" (v. 27a). And then the slave delivers the coup de grace. The dishonorable son has returned, and the party is in his honor. No wonder the elder son is angry!


"But he was angry and would not go in" (v. 28a). Don't miss the irony-"The brother who had been on the outside is now on the inside, while the brother who had been on the inside is now on the outside" (Bock, 260).


"His father came out, and begged with him" (v. 28b). The father is as full of grace for his disobedient elder son as he was for his disobedient younger son. He comes outside to reconcile with the elder son just as he came outside to greet the younger son. The difference is that the younger son was open to whatever his father might say, but the elder son has hardened his heart.

  • This is a poignant moment. The father's joy is shattered. He was celebrating having both sons under the same roof again, but now finds the elder son still outside, unwilling to enter the house or to take part in the celebration. The father was celebrating the end of his family's brokenness, but now finds it broken in another place.


"But he (the elder son) answered his father, 'Behold'" (v. 29a). Respectful address would begin with the word, "Father"-not "Behold!" The elder son orders his father to listen to the verbal threshing that he is about to deliver-takes on the role of a scolding parent-assumes authority over his father instead of deferring to his father's authority over him.


"these many years I have served you" (v. 29b). Just as the younger son discounted his sonship by wanting to become a hired hand, so also the elder son has discounted his sonship by adopting the attitude of a slave.


"and I have never disobeyed a commandment of yours" (v. 29c). But the elder son has just refused to accept the father's plea to join the celebration (v. 28a). The younger son demonstrated his estrangement by leaving home. Now the elder son demonstrates that he, too, has been estranged, even while living under his father's roof and (in his mind) doing the father's bidding. He has tried to earn the father's love, but has never allowed himself to believe that his father loves him-and probably has never loved the father. Elder sons, keeping score and finding fault, find it difficult to love-and are therefore difficult to love.


"but you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends" (v. 29d). The elder son admits that he could have found pleasure by having a party for his friends, but cannot find pleasure in having his brother returned from the dead-a damning admission!

  • The elder son's complaint has much in common with the complaint of the laborers in the vineyard-"These last have spent one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat!" (Mt. 20:12). Those of us who have labored long hours in the hot sun can appreciate the difficulty involved in seeing a dilettante, freshly showered and nicely dressed, take home the honors.


"But when this, your son, came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him" (v. 30). The elder son assumes that his brother spent his money on prostitutes, but he doesn't know how his brother spent his money. He only wants to cast his younger brother in the worst possible light.

  • The elder son isn't suggesting that the father turn his younger son away.  They could use another hired hand-someone to do the dirty work-someone to lighten the load- someone to carry out orders.
  • But the elder son does NOT need to hemorrhage money honoring this money-hemorrhaging brother!  He does NOT need a helper wearing silk instead of denim-a ring instead of work gloves-sandals instead of boots!  Let the younger son come home to face the music-to pay his debt to society-to set things straight.  Later there will be time to consider a pardon.  Let the younger son sweat first.  Give him time to prove himself-to redeem himself.



31 And he said to him, 'Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.'"

 "Son (teknon), you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours" (v. 31). The elder son did not use the word, "Father," to address his father, but his father uses the word, "Son," to address him. The father could have said huios (son), but instead says teknon (my child), an even more tender, inviting word.

"But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.'" (v. 32). The elder son never acknowledges the younger son as his brother, but refers to him only as "this son of yours" (v. 30). The father refuses to let that stand, referring to his younger son as "this brother of yours" (v. 32).

  • The elder son refuses to enter the house to join in the party (v. 28)-a shocking public affront to the
  • father. He should assist as host at a celebration. The father, however, does not rebuke him, but instead pleads with him to change his mind (v. 28).
  • In his callous disregard for his brother and his refusal to enter the house, the elder brother sets himself apart, not only from his younger brother, but also from his father. His actions suggest to the community that he has divorced himself from the family, an act every bit as shocking as that of the younger son.
  • Now the father, who extended grace to the younger son, extends grace to his elder son as well.  The father reassures the elder son that the younger son's presence affects neither the father's affection for the elder son nor the elder son's inheritance.  Both are secure, and always have been.
  • This is good news for the elder sons among us.  It is often easier to love a dissolute younger brother than a prideful, judgmental elder brother-but the father's love is broad enough to encompass both disobedient sons.
  • Jesus gave this parable in response to complaints to Pharisees and scribes who complained that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them (v. 2).  They need to hear that their inheritance is not diminished by God's love for sinners.  They also need to hear that they have no right to draw boundaries that would exclude others from God's presence.
  • But what can the father say to reassure a son who will not be reassured? Where the younger son was receptive as a sponge, the elder son is hard as a rock.

But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.'" (v. 32).  How can anyone not celebrate the resurrection of a loved one?  The problem, of course, is that the elder brother does not love the younger brother-and there is some question whether he loves the father-and even some question whether he loves himself.  Jesus ends the story without telling us the outcome of the father's plea, but we are left with the impression that the father has one repentant younger son and one unrepentant elder son. 


Lk. 15:20-32 Extra Commentary

JW Commentary

CONTEXT OF PARABLE-First off, it's important to see the parable in its context:

  • Introduction (15:1-2). Murmuring by Pharisees and scribes about Jesus' association with "sinners" and tax collectors.
  • Lost Sheep (15:3-7). Searching for the lost sheep. Celebration
  • Lost Coin (15:8-10). Searching for the lost coin. Celebration
  • Lost Son (15:11-24). Waiting eagerly for the lost son. Celebration
  • Older Son (15:25-32). Complaints of the older son. Invitation to celebrate

The Parable of the Prodigal Son follows two shorter parables in which something that was lost is searched for and found, followed by a celebration. Each of them is intended to illustrate that "There is rejoicing in the presence of God over one sinner who repents" (15:10). The Pharisees had grumbled about Jesus' attention to the "sinners" and tax collectors; Jesus' response is that God is delights when these lost ones repent and turn to him.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son makes the same point -- God's joy at the repentance of a lost and wayward son. But most often we look only at the first part of the parable that focuses on the younger, wayward son, who represents the "sinners" and tax collectors. The second part of the parable focuses on the older son's reaction -- one of anger and jealousy -- and represents the Pharisees' own reaction to Jesus' seeking the sinners.

Now that we've looked at the overall context, let's examine the details of the first part of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In the next lesson we'll look at the second part of the parable.

Apology of the Prodigal-Includes four essential points:

  1. He confesses sin against God -- expressed in Jewish fashion as "against heaven" -- for his moral failures and sinful lifestyle.
  2. He confesses sin against his father for squandering property that legally and morally should have been conserved to support his father.
  3. He renounces any legal claim to sonship. Though he is a son by birth, his father would need to use his older brother's resources to support him, since his father has already divided the property. He recognizes that he has no legal claim to the rights of sonship.
  4. He asks to be hired as a servant at the estate. While his father no longer legally owns the estate, he is still running it, and will do so as long as he is physically able.

The scene shifts to where the elder son is returning from hisday's work. This image may evoke the picture of a son still at home but dis-tant from his father.91 As he approaches the house he hears the festivities.92This puzzles him,93 so he asks94 one of the servants95 what was happening.The fact that the servant is made to repeat what the audience alreadyknows serves to further emphasize the father's extravagant actions.96 The elder son responds to the news with anger, with the imperfect hßqelen cap-turing his persistent refusal to enter and join the celebrations. Verse 30would indicate the unlikelihood that his anger is due to a fear that the property may be redivided. However, he may resent the fact that his brother can be supported once again by the family estate.97 More likely, he is indignantabout the quick forgiveness oˆered to his brother, feeling that this is entirely unjustied after his initial actions.98The father again acts contrary to all expectations. Bailey observes thatin this situation a Middle Eastern father would lock the son up, ̃nish thebanquet, then have him beaten.99 However, instead of rebuking his son hepleads with him to come inside. The imperfect parekavlei corresponds tohßqelen. The son's persistent refusal is met with the father's persistent pleas.This, in turn, causes the elder brother to release his harbored frustra-tions. He sees himself as the model son, serving his father obediently. Theuse of douleuvw is probably signi ̃cant, indicating that he really did not un-derstand what a father-son relationship was meant to be.100 In fact, bothsons wrongly believed that the key to acceptance by their father was to actas a servant.101His list of grievances continues, now reminding his father that he hasnever violated his command. The audience cannot miss the irony here. Hehas just shamed his father by refusing to enter the celebration!

Recalling the attitude of the laborers in the vineyard who griped aboutthe generosity shown to others (Matt 20:11-12), the elder son considers thathe has not received just treatment. He has not even been given a kid or agoat, let alone a more expensive calf, so that he could celebrate with hisfriends. It is signi ̃cant that here the elder son is demonstrating the samedesire as his brother-to celebrate apart from his family.102The insult now shifts to his brother, whom he describes in the derogatorysense of oJu¥ovÍsouou•toÍ (v. 30; cf. 15:2; 18:11; Acts 17:18). He cannot evenbring himself to call the prodigal his brother. His only concern is with thesquandered property. His brother simply does not deserve the fatted calf.In the end, therefore, we are confronted with an elder son who is alsoestranged from his father.103 He has insulted him, not only by refusing toenter the feast, but by addressing him without a title. This insult is evenworse than that given by the younger son, for this is public. He has thespirit of a slave. He is self-righteous and he expects to be paid for his ser-vices. His friends are not part of his family; emotionally his community iselsewhere.104 Furthermore, he has attempted to vilify his father's love forthe younger son by insisting that the boy squandered the money meta; pornΩn.This is pure conjecture.105Unbelievably, the father does not rebuke his son. Instead he displays thesame tenderness shown to the younger son, soothing him by using the aˆec-tionate term tevknon.106 He rea ̄rms that the former property settlementstill stands; the elder son will inherit the farm.107It is at this point that the story deviates from the standard Jewish taleof the elder and younger sons, where the younger is the object of favor.1

Imagine the ending

From the eldest son's perspective, such generosity is simply not fair. He is the good son. He shows up for work every day. He does his job, lives properly, follows the rules. When he discovers the feast and celebration being offered to the younger son, who most certainly does not deserve it, he launches into a bitter tirade.

For all his righteousness, he refuses to recognize his own privilege. The father reminds him: "Son [literally, "child," a term of affection] - you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." In one sentence, the father affirms the closeness of their relationship and gently reminds his eldest son that he loses nothing by welcoming his own brother home and joining in the celebrations.

In the end, neither son deserves a party. The younger son breaks all the rules and violates his relationship with the father, while the older son lives in joyless resentment. Neither deserves a party, but both are welcomed. Will they celebrate together?

Preachers might consider reading all three parables through the lens of Romans 8:38-39: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."