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 hear 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.