In Luke 15, Jesus provided a trilogy of parables known as the “lost” parables. These parables share a common plot. They each depict something valuable (i.e., sheep, coin, son) being separated from its guardian (i.e., shepherd, woman, father) before eventually being reunited to great fanfare because that which was “lost” had been “found” (Luke 15:6, 9, 22-24). However, there is one distinct difference between the first two parables and the last one. In the Parable of the Lost Son, no one embarked on a search and rescue operation. While the shepherd left the ninety-nine sheep to find the “lost” sheep (Luke 15:4) and the woman canvassed her entire house to find the “lost” coin (Luke 15:8), no one pursued the “lost” son. He just came home on his own one day. This unique aspect of the third “lost” parable makes me wonder who should have pursued the “lost” son.
Let’s start with the father. Why didn’t he pursue the “lost” son? It is evident that the father loved both of his sons deeply. He loved the youngest son enough to let him make his own choices (Luke 15:12), and he loved the eldest son enough to entrust him with everything he had (Luke 15:31). Not only that, but the father loved his sons enough to notice when one of them was missing. We are told that the father “saw” his youngest son returning home even though he “was still a long way off” (Luke 15:20). In other words, the father spotted the “lost” son before he even made it to the house because he was always on the lookout for who was missing. Later, when the eldest son refused to attend the coming home party for his brother, we are told that the “father came out” to him and “entreated him” to come inside (Luke 15:28). In other words, the father noticed that his eldest son was not at the party because the father was always on the lookout for who was missing. Based on these demonstrations of the father’s love, we can safely conclude that his failure to pursue the youngest son was not due to a lack of love.
Instead, It seems that the father refrained from pursuing the “lost” son out of respect for the “lost” son’s free will. Unlike the sheep and the coin who accidentally left their guardian’s care, the youngest son intentionally left his father’s care. He made a deliberate decision to walk away, and his decision was tantamount to a rejection of the father. Therefore, as the one rejected, the father was not in a position to initiate his son’s return even though he desperately desired to see it come to fruition.
Since the father was not able to pursue the “lost” son, why didn’t the eldest son pursue him? It is evident that the eldest son loved his father. We are told that he intentionally “served…and…never disobeyed” his father (Luke 15:29). That description gives the impression that there’s nothing the eldest son wouldn’t do for his father. However, the story reveals one thing he never did for his dad. He never pursued his “lost” brother. Surely, there were times when he witnessed his father’s longing for the youngest son. Surely, the eldest brother knew that it would delight his father for his brother to come home. Should his love for his father not have prompted him to pursue his brother and bring him home? The eldest son had the opportunity to do something that would bring his father tremendous joy, but he failed to do it.
I believe there is an important lesson for Christians to learn from the elder brother. As Christians, we’ve been tasked with “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). That means that we are expected to pursue the “lost” on behalf of the Father as His “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Our failure to contribute to this assignment makes us like the elder brother. We may claim, like the elder brother, that we’ve “never disobeyed” our Father (Luke 15:29), but the reality is that if we don’t pursue the “lost,” then we’re not really keeping His commands (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15). And isn’t keeping His commands, including the commands to pursue the lost, the way we demonstrate our love to Him (John 14:15, 21; 1 John 5:3)? So, when we look at the Parable of the Lost Son and ask who should have pursued him, the answer is the elder brother. And, as Christians, we are the “obedient” sons who need to pursue our “lost” sons, knowing that bringing them home will bring great joy to our heavenly Father.