A shepherd rescues his wandering sheep, and a woman discovers her missing coin—in Luke 15, Jesus regales His audience with palatable lost-and-found stories, drawing them in with familiar, socially acceptable scenes. But confrontation awaits unsuspecting listeners in the third parable, where rebellion abounds and Love must wait, heartbroken but hopeful.
To get the most out of this Bible study, read Luke 15. Before you read, pray and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into the truth available in this passage. Give yourself permission to ask questions that may not have answers. Wonder aloud, imagine the scene, and take note of anything that surprises, confuses, or even offends you. And above all else, trust the Lord. He’s the best teacher.
Key Passage: Luke 15:11-32
The religious elite consider themselves righteous and, therefore, blessed of God. But they look down on “tax collectors and sinners” and see Jesus’ socializing with them as repulsive (Luke 5:30). In chapter 15, when the Pharisees and scribes again grumble about the inappropriateness of such dinner companions, Jesus tells three parables to show the Father’s delight in finding what has been lost.
A diverse crowd made up of “sinners,” tax collectors, scribes, and Pharisees hears the Lord’s stories—about a sheep, a coin, and a son.
In broad terms, how are these three parables alike? Now consider the audience—in which parts would the “sinners” and tax collectors see themselves? What do you think Jesus was trying to communicate to them about their inherent value by using those specific examples?
Look at Luke 15:2 and take note of the accusation against Jesus. With that in mind, how does this narrative trio address the Pharisees’ and scribes’ disdain for the way Jesus radically included “sinners” and celebrated with them?
Continuing the Story
Of the three parables He tells, Jesus dedicates the most time to that of the lost son. Much more than the previous two, this parable plunges the crowd into sensory details—the stench of swine, aching hunger pangs, a warm kiss planted on a dirty cheek—demanding they identify personally with the shame and discomfort of the situation.
According to Mosaic law, pigs were off limits for Jewish people on account of being unclean, and rebellious sons were to be shunned not embraced. Why do you think Jesus used such offensive imagery for this particular story?
Consider that the previous two parables are culturally appealing—everyone listening would have readily accepted the actions of the shepherd and the woman. What purpose might Jesus have had for ending with such a stark contrast?
Unlike the shepherd and the woman of the previous parables, the father in the third parable does not retrieve his lost son.
According to Mosaic law, rebellious sons were to be shunned not embraced.
Consider that words associated with rejoicing and celebration appear nine times throughout the three stories. With that in mind, reflect on Psalm 16:6, which says, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (NIV). Think about your own life—in what areas do you experience an abundance of joy? An absence of joy? What connection do you see between those experiences and your own boundaries?
Compared to the diligent search for the coin and the sheep, the father’s inaction seems cold and indifferent, yet his exuberant reception of his son (Luke 15:20-24) suggests otherwise. What does that say about the relationship of boundaries and joy?
Read Luke 7:34. Jesus was widely known not simply for celebrating, but for celebrating with “sinners.” From the Pharisees’ perspective, such people deserved only scorn and separation, yet with the Lord, they were found, worthy, and welcomed. How does the storytelling in Luke 15 impact your perception of Jesus’ propensity for “receiv[ing] sinners and eat[ing] with them” (Luke 15:2)?
The Pharisees’ strict adherence to a plethora of rules may give the appearance of good boundaries, but their obsession over the inadequacy of others reveals just the opposite. According to Strong’s Concordance, Pharisee comes from the Hebrew root parash, meaning “to separate.” In what way do good boundaries—like the father’s—differ from the Pharisees’ isolationist attitudes and behaviors? Contrast the way Pharisees interacted with “sinners” and the way Jesus did.
Boundaries tell us where our responsibility begins and ends. In that way, they free us from the burden of controlling others and instead empower us to live as God has called us to. It’s within these pleasant borders that compassion and kindness toward others flourishes.
REMEMBER Boundaries empower.
Over the next several weeks, use this section to review the study and consider how its message applies to your life.
Boundaries free us from the burden of controlling others and instead empower us to live as God has called us to.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus instructs His disciples to say: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). It’s interesting that in some Christian traditions’ Book of Common Prayer, the verse is rendered in a way that suggests boundaries: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This connection between debt and boundaries can be clearly seen in the life of the lost son—it’s not until he crosses the pleasant boundaries of his father’s property and lives in a foreign land that he experiences the devastating effects of poverty.
On a piece of paper, draw two large circles, labeling one “Father’s House” and the other “Foreign Land.” Reread Luke 15:11-32 and write the words associated with each place in the corresponding circle. When you’re done, review both sets of words, and consider your own life: What areas and relationships resonate with the joy, abundance, and acceptance of the Father’s house? What areas and relationships wither from the scarcity, shame, and desperation of the Foreign Land?
Look at Luke 15:25-30. How would you describe the older brother’s attitude toward his younger brother? Toward his father? Where in your life have you seen that same bitterness and entitlement creep up? Are there areas where you feel God “owes” you? What would it look like for you to abandon a merit-based relationship and join the house party?
As was true for the older son, it’s hard to confront our own selfishness. But consider the father’s response in Luke 15:31: “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Whether we’re coming in from the field or the foreign land, the journey back always starts with repentance and ends with our reassuring Father welcoming us home.
Illustration by Adam Cruft