An excerpt from Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God
Luke 15 informs us in verses 1-3 that Jesus told not one but three parables to the Pharisees who were complaining about his fraternization with sinners. The first parable is called the Parable of the Lost Sheep. A man is tending a flock of one hundred sheep, but one goes astray. Instead of accepting this loss, the shepherd goes out searching until he has found his lost sheep. Then he calls all around to “rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep” (verse 6).
The second parable is called the Parable of the Lost Coin. In this story a woman has ten silver coins in the house but loses one. She does not write it off as a loss, but instead “lights a lamp, sweeps the whole house, and searches diligently until she finds it” (vers 8). And when she does, she calls her friends and neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost coin.” The third parable is the story we have been studying, the Parable of the Two Lost Sons.
The similarities among the three stories are obvious. In each parable something is lost–sheep, coin, and son. In each the one who loses something gets it back. And each of the narratives ends on a note of festive rejoicing and celebration when the lost one is returned.
There is, though, one striking difference between the third parable and the first two. In the first two someone “goes out” and searches diligently for that which is lost. The searchers let nothing distract them or stand in their way. By the time we get to third story, and we hear about the plight of the lost son, we are fully prepared to expect that someone will set out to search for him. No one does. It is startling, and Jesus meant it to be so. By placing the three parables so closely together, he is inviting thoughtful listeners to ask: “Well, who should have gone out and searched for the lost son?” Jesus knew the Bible thoroughly, and he knew that at its very beginning it tells another story of an elder and younger brother — Cain and Abel. In that story, God tells the resentful and proud older brother: “You are your brother’s keeper.”
…[A true elder brother] would have said, “Father, my younger brother has been a fool, and now his life is in ruins. But I will go look for him and bring him home. And if the inheritance is gone — as I expect — I’ll bring him back into the family at my expense.”