Luke 15:11-32 - The Parable of the Prodigal Son
Read Luke 15:11-32
I suppose that no series of lessons on the parables would be complete without the treatment of the parable of the prodigal son. It is a familiar story but also a story which has profound meaning for every age until our Lord returns.
Three Stories of Lost Things
This chapter contains three parables with certain similarities but also differences. These three parables were spoken against the Pharisees when they accused Him of eating with the publicans and sinners. In the first of these three parables someone who had a hundred sheep lost one. In the second, a woman who had ten coins lost one. In this parable, a father who has two sons lost one. There is an ascending order in these parables. To lose one of a hundred or lose one of two makes a great difference. Sheep or coins also do not compare with sons!
This parable has often been called the pearl of all the parables. It is also the longest parable our Lord gave us. The former two in this chapter are introduced in question form, this one is not. This parable too is taken out of the common life of that time and it is also taken right out of the heart of man. The parable sings of the wonderful love of this father. The lost son may return to his home and family as though nothing has happened. The question may be raised: which one of the two sons was really lost? There are almost two parables given us in this one, the first concerning the prodigal and the second about the elder brother!
A Restless, Wayward Son
The picture which our Lord draws for us in this parable is very common. A man had two sons. Nothing is said about the station in life of this father and we certainly do not get the impression that we are here dealing with a king, as in some of the other parables. It is a common household. One of the sons, and it happens to be the younger, is not satisfied with his life in the home of his father. Here everything is too tame and too monotonous. He desires the excitement which the big world outside of the parental home has to offer. In order that he may avail himself of all that the world has to offer, he asks for his share of the inheritance which he would receive later. He can't wait till the proper time comes. He wants it now! He is not entitled to half of the inheritance because he is the younger son – he is only entitled to half of what his older brother will eventually get. The father does not object but gives him his share. Soon he leaves home to put his new-found wealth to use.
A "Liberated" Life
He does not stay in the vicinity of the ancestral home, but goes even outside of the country to a "far country." The kind of a life which he has in mind should not be lived in the vicinity of his father's house and, perhaps, not even in the same country. He wishes to go where no rumor of his mode of life will come to the ears of his father. But, the farther he goes away from home, the farther will be the road back! When he has arrived in this "far country" all the reminders and restraints of home are gone. Here he is free! Here he can do as he pleases without running the risk of being censured for what he is doing. It is the common picture of the person who is in the first stages of going astray!
While he is in this "far country" he wastes his goods with riotous living! The Lord does not describe the nature of this riotous living. The older brother later characterizes it as "devoured thy living with harlots." This may well be true, but Jesus leaves it in general terms. This riotous living is precisely the kind of life which he sought. Herein does he think he will find the enjoyment which he missed while he was in his father's house. The temptations of this world are strong and he falls into them easily. He seeks them! He has not learned to pray: "lead us not into temptation." He believes that giving in to temptation will unlock for him the pleasures which this world has to offer.
However, riotous living is expensive. One does not engage in this kind of life very long before a fortune will be consumed. Now it becomes disaster upon disaster. When he has wasted all his goods there comes a famine in that land! He has nothing left and everything now becomes very expensive. The plenty which he had enjoyed ever since he left home now makes way for want. In desperation he now hires himself out to a citizen of that land. He has to go to work! But, he is in a "far country" where there is no respect for the attitudes and customs which were part of his life since the earliest days. This citizen sends him into the field to "feed swine"! What can be more loathsome to a Jew than this? Perhaps every shred of religion is gone, but the attitudes and customs of former years will certainly speak to him even now. But, real want does strange things. He would like to have taken of this pig feed to allay his own hunger, and he might not touch it. This feed was expensive in famine times. In times of famine these hogs were very valuable and in a country where religion is dead they may well be considered as of more value than the individual who tends them! There are plenty like him!
Decision to Return
Finally, says Jesus, he came to himself! It is about time! He may not have liked all the rules and regulations which obtained in the house of his father, but there even the lowliest of the hired hands have enough to eat while he, who is the son, is now perishing of hunger. Hunger will blind him to various other things! He decides to go home! He cannot continue here! If his father will only have him! He will most certainly have to assume a posture of penitence. He will have to humble himself. What can he say to his father? He rehearses the speech he will make. He will say that he has sinned against God and his father. He isn't worthy to be called the son of his father, but would be like a hired servant! This humility may furnish him with food – with the necessities of life.
The sad result of the dissatisfaction with the mode of life in the father's house is pictured graphically by our Lord. There this son never suffered the pangs he has suffered in this "far country." Neither has he ever had such a feeling of penitence as now comes over him when he contemplates a return to his father!
A Festive Welcome
He carries out what he had intended to do and actually returns to his father. His father sees him coming. This does not mean that he has been looking down the road every day while he was gone to see if he would return. But, he sees him come and goes out to meet him. He left with the inheritance which would later have fallen to him and he returns looking like a beggar. The speech he had rehearsed so well in the other country doesn't flow so smoothly now. He does admit that he has sinned against God and against his father. He also insists that he is no longer worthy to be called this father's son, but he does not ask that he be made as one of the servants. Of course not. That would have been an insult to the father. He is still his son whether he is worthy of it or not! The father does not hold him at arm's length as David did to Absalom. No, he welcomes him heartily. He commands that the rags be taken away and decent clothing be given him. Even put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Then kill the fatted calf because we are going to feast. The fatted calf could not have been saved for a better occasion than this one. This boy was dead and is alive again. The father received him as though he had been resurrected from the dead! He was lost and has been found! There is reason to rejoice. The father's prayers have been answered. Forgiveness is richly given. The love of this father for an unworthy son cannot be quenched. He does not ask for restitution. He accepts him as he is. Christ would later give His life to redeem such a one as this. "God so loved the world..."
The Older Brother
If the parable would end here we would say that it was a beautiful story which surely reveals the wages of sin and the free gift of God. But, the purpose of this parable was to answer the criticism of the Pharisees concerning Jesus' eating with publicans and sinners. The youngest son clearly is a picture of the publican. This one didn't want to be a child of God and became a slave of sin. But, he was restored to favor. He was penitent. David not only sins grievously but also writes Psalms 32, 51 and 130! This father had "two" sons. Only the one had been lost. The other was obedient and faithful!
In the parable Jesus also tells of this elder brother. He comes in from the field at the close of the day where he has faithfully done the work which had been assigned him by his father. As he now approaches the house, he hears something out of the ordinary. He hears feasting. People are having "a good time" at the house and he doesn't know what the occasion is. Being told that it is because his brother has returned, he becomes angry and will not join in the festivities. In his estimation this goes beyond all limits. He is not happy that his brother has returned. He was perfectly satisfied with the life as it was lived in the father's house in the absence of his brother. He had not missed him. Besides, he was ashamed of him. He not only brought dishonor on the name of his father, but also on the name of the other members of the family.
His father goes out to ask him to enter the house to join in the festivities. He refuses. He defends himself to his father and criticizes his father at the same time. He says that he has not been as this younger brother. He has served his father faithfully all these years. He has not transgressed any of his commandments. He has been a model son! He is in complete agreement with the words which the Apostle Paul would write some years later:
If any other man thinketh to have confidence in the flesh, I yet more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee ... as touching the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless.Philippians 3:4-6
Despite this blameless life, the father had never so much as given him a kid so that he could have a party with his friends! But, when this worthless son has returned after he has squandered all his goods, the fatted calf is slain. How unfair! He criticizes his father and refuses to acknowledge his brother!
Critics Corrected: Celebrating God's Grace
The sadness of the father can be felt in the words he addresses to his eldest son. I always have you. You have not been lost. Everything that I have is yours. Take a kid and make merry! Take a fatted calf! It is all yours. But, it was proper that we have a feast when your lost brother was found. You don't have feasts when only the ordinary things take place. But, this is something special! It is time to feast. How can you be so hard-hearted?
So Jesus replied to the Pharisees when they accused Him of eating with publicans and sinners. It was time to feast. It was proper. They should do likewise!
Questions for Discussion
- Nothing is said in this parable about the sacrifice of Christ as the ground for forgiveness. Why not? Would that fit in this parable?
- Why does the life of the world have such an appeal for the children of God? Is the believer's manner of life too rigid? Can we chase our children away?
- How great is the love of God? Can this be brought into words? Why not?
- What do you think is the meaning of the statement "when he came to himself"? Did his life in a "far country" bring him any enjoyment?
- Why does the elder brother assume the attitude he did? Is Christ too harsh in His condemnation of the Pharisees? What does the father mean when he says: "all that is mine is thine"? Does this mean that the Pharisee will still inherit all things, or is it only said to fill out the parable?