(54) While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him – Luke 15:20

As we saw in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used pictures and illustrations to help people relate to and remember his teaching. The first three gospels include around forty parables that Jesus told – stories from everyday life with a hidden meaning.

Jesus told the people about a farmer who went out to sow seed in his field. This would have been a common sight in the countryside and Jesus may have pointed to a farmer scattering seed from his basket in a nearby field. Some of the seed would fall on the hard path where the birds ate it, some would fall on rocky ground where it was unable to establish strong roots so it withered in the hot sun, some fell among weeds which choked its growth, while some fell on good soil where it grew up to produce thirty to a hundred times as much grain (see Mark 4:1-8).

The disciples asked Jesus to explain this parable and Jesus responded by telling them that he used parables for two reasons. He quoted Isaiah who also faced people who did not accept his message and said that some people may hear but would never understand. For those who refused to engage with Jesus or seek the truth in his teaching they would see no more than stories. But for those who took time to think about them, God would reveal the hidden truth.

Jesus then told them that the parable was all about the seed, which is God’s word, and the different soils, which represent how receptive people are to it. The path where the birds ate the seed represents Satan taking away the word before it takes root, the rocky ground is people who don’t persevere when times get tough, the patch of weeds are where other things crowd out the message, while the good ground represents those who hear his word and accept it. This is a challenge to all of us to ensure that we continually give room to God’s words to take root in our lives and bear fruit in terms of positive attitudes and behaviours.

Another time Jesus was speaking to a crowd of “tax collectors and sinners” – those who were looked down on by society – and “the Pharisees and the teachers of the law” (Luke 15:1-2) who were grumbling that Jesus kept such bad company. He told them a story of a man with two sons, a dutiful older one and a wilful younger one who asked his father for his inheritance. This is appalling behaviour as he is basically saying, “I wish you were dead.” What is even more shocking is that the father grants his request and so the son goes off to a far country where he “squandered his wealth in wild living” (Luke 15:13).

Once his money runs out and he is reduced to feeding pigs he decides to return home and plead for a job as one of his father’s hired servants. But when he gets home, his father “saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). Before the son can ask for a job as a servant the father throws a party for his lost son. This story perfectly illustrates God’s grace, the favour that he shows to us when we do not deserve it in any way at all. Despite our wilful and reckless disregard for him, God is willing to welcome us home when we turn to him.

The “tax collectors and sinners” would have received this story with a mixture of astonishment and joy that God would be prepared to welcome people like them but “the Pharisees and teachers of the law” were horrified at the father’s behaviour. Jesus has a message for them as he describes the older son’s reaction. He refuses to join the party for his brother and so the father goes out to plead with him to come in, pointing out that he has had all the advantages of being with the father for years. The father’s love for him too is unquestionable.

The story ends with us not knowing how things turn out for either son. Will the older one come in and celebrate? Will the younger brother now be a good son to his father? The ending is left hanging so that we can consider whether we are like the older or the younger son and how we will react to the incredible love of our heavenly father.

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