Luke 15 is the great returning chapter of the Bible. A sheep returns to the fold in vv4-7, a coin is returned to the woman who owned it in vv8-10 and the son returns to the father in vv11-32. All three had been lost, but had come back to their proper place. One intriguing thing is to compare how the lost sheep and the lost son return to their proper domain.
If you compare the two relevant passages you will notice that the shepherd went out to find the lost sheep and bring it back whilst the father waited for his son to return. He did not go to the far country. This immediately raises immense implications for those who are involved in seeking to help people know God and grow in God. When do you chase and when do you wait? If you get it wrong it can have big consequences. If you wait when you should chase or chase when you should wait then the consequences can be disastrous. So how can we know what to do?
I suggest that the difference lies in the manner in which someone goes off. Sheep are notoriously “silly”. Many stories are told about how they drift into situations without any awareness of what they are doing. This conveys to us the image of someone drifting away without being aware of what the consequences are of their actions. There is no deliberate defiant action towards God, His Word or His under-shepherds; quite simply they have just drifted into a mess. Such sheep need to be chased after and brought back to the fold. The “bringing back” will, no doubt, require some expenditure of effort, but we should be willing to do this for the benefit of the wandering sheep. In such instances we should be not waiting for the sheep to be mauled out in the fields; we should go after them.
The lost son is very different. He knows exactly what he is doing. He is very calculating in what he does. He gets his money from his father and he goes off to fill himself with a life of indulgence and self-gratification. This one is not acting in ignorance, but full knowledge. He is rejecting the goodness of the father and choosing an alternative lifestyle. Such a one had to experience the full bitterness of his choice so that he goes back with a changed mindset and a changed heart. We have here, in the lost son, exemplified for us, the one who sins against knowledge. Here is one who is emblematic of one rejecting God and His Word and the authority of the under-shepherds. No doubt there can be conversations held to establish that this is the character of this man, but once established it is necessary to leave him to experience the bitter outcome of his choice.
As regards to the attitude of the father towards that son, he was never indifferent to his plight. He loved him deeply. He longed for his return. One cannot avoid reaching that conclusion when you look at v20b ‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms round him and kissed him. The father was not callous towards his son. But he did know that in order for that son to appreciate the blessings of home he had to experience the bitterness of the far country. To have chased after such a one would have been ultimately detrimental to his spiritual welfare. To have bailed him out in the far country would not have helped.
We need wisdom then to discern the difference of these two cases. If we do not see to obtain this wisdom it can have big consequences.