by Frank Luke
“What is the Kingdom of Heaven like? To what does the thing compare?”
With these words, Jesus would introduce a parable. Parables were common in the first century. The people loved them and couldn’t get enough. Many rabbis used parables to make their point. Parables are stories, usually short, that illustrate the concept being questioned by comparing it to something common. They did not use this one, but it would work. “What is a lie like? To what does the thing compare? A lie is like a dandelion gone to seed. Once you blow upon it, you can never gather all the seeds again.”
That story may not tell everything about a lie, but it makes the point. Once you tell a lie, you cannot stop it from spreading. Someone else may have repeated it and then to another and another.
Turn to Luke 15, and, as you do, think about the central point of Jesus’ message: the Kingdom of Heaven. Luke 15 has three parables in a row. The first two are short, but a short parable is more common than a long one. First, Jesus tells of the One Lost Sheep, then the One Lost Coin. Finally, He tells the parable of the Two Lost Sons, more commonly known as the Prodigal Son. Let’s read that together.
Luke 15:11-32 11 And He said, “A man had two sons. 12 “The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. 13 “And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. 14 “Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. 15 “So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 “And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. 17 “But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 ‘I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”‘ 20 “So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 “And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 27 “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 “But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 “But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 “And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.'”
When we study parables, we must remember that not every item in a parable will have a corresponding point in the spiritual realm; let’s not force it to walk on all fours, as some say. The shorter the parable, the fewer points it will have. Most parables will have one point. Others will have more than one, and we should not ignore those other points. For example, the parable of the seeds illustrates four different responses. That’s not one point; that’s four. One thing to remember, the secondary points will always link back to the primary point.
Now, what is the purpose of parables? Jesus tells us they are to reveal and conceal. Parables are meant to be memorable and vivid and also enigmatic. Jesus said that the parables are to help those who want to know Him better understand while they will hide the truth from those who do not. In Mark 4:11, 12 He says, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12 so that WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND, OTHERWISE THEY MIGHT RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN.”
Jesus quotes Isaiah 6 here, comparing his audience’s failure to understand parables with ancient Israel’s failure to follow the prophets sent from God.
In our parable, we will be looking at the three characters: father, younger son, and elder son. At the beginning and end, all three are living in the same house. Most interpretations have focused on the wandering son but both sons are broken. Both sons see their father as a banker or employer, one who will give them funds. We look at the sons and think that they differ, but, underneath, they are the same. All three of the actors surprise the audience.
The father represents God. To his dismay, both his sons are lost. The younger walls him off by doing evil. The elder walls himself off by doing good. They both look at him only for financial gain.
A story like this would rivet the first-century audience. It’s a bit of a soap opera as families tended to be close knit. The audience would hear the younger son’s request as, “I wish you were dead, old man. Give me my money!”
That would break anyone’s heart.
An inheritance then would have given a double share to the elder son. This means the father would divide his estate into three pieces, two would go to the eldest and the final to the younger. They would both be given it now.
To the Father’s dismay, the youngest made the request. To his further dismay, the elder brother did not do his duty and attempt to reconcile the two.
In a situation like this, after fulfilling the request, the father and mother would be allowed to live on the land until they died. The sons could not sell the land, though they could make deals for it to be purchased upon death of the father. Likewise, the father would still have control over the land except for selling it. He could rent it out but not sell it.
The youngest son leaves, probably making a sales agreement with someone else to take over his share of the land when the father died. The elder son stays, but both are living in the far country. The father can only wait for them to realize the error of their ways.
The father is compassionate but cannot force the will of his sons. The father stands for God here. The omnipotent creator of the universe cannot force love from his creation. Like this father, God eagerly awaits any who return in repentance.
The prophet Jeremiah was commissioned to call the rebellious people back to the compassionate God. They had committed idolatry, seen as the worst sin possible. It was compared to adultery and fornication. Yet, even in this terrible sin, God yearns for the people to return.
The father does not argue with the lost sons but is always ready to take them back in.
The Younger Son
This boy was the rebel. He knew what he was doing was wrong and did it anyway. Family relationships were paramount in the first century. The phrase “gathered it all together” means he sold his portion of the animals and land for money.
In the far country, he lived his dream. He wanted to live the adventure, away from family. He wanted to do his own thing. In doing so, he squandered all he had in parties and riotous living. To his dismay, a famine sweeps the far country. He now has no money and no food.
He is dead broke. Out of hunger, he takes a job feeding pigs. As we all know, those in the Land did not raise pigs. They were unclean animals and forbidden by Torah. Those hearing this story from Jesus would be appalled at the boy’s desperation. The son of privilege has been brought low. All have rejected him.
The son also expected to receive food, but Jesus says that no one gave him anything. He fed the pigs with carob pods. Carob pods were the food of the utterly destitute. This is lower than commodity cheese. His employer would have seen how hungry the boy was and by all that is decent should have given him food. But he does not.
It is funny that Isaiah says those who are willing and obedient will eat the fat of the land, but this boy clearly has not been obedient to his father and was not willing to be so. He has refused and rebelled, so may not even eat the poorest food.
The boy yearned to eat the pods and came to his senses. As we know, being at the end of your rope leads to repentance. The boy has nothing left to lose and so repents. He returns home. This is the imagery used often in the time for repentance. The audience would have understood it this way.
The younger son even prepares an eloquent speech about becoming a hired hand. This is repentance! He returns home, happy to just be a servant.
To his great surprise, the father is not willing to let him finish his speech. The boy only gets to express that he has sinned against Heaven and the father before he is stopped! The boy was hungry, but will be filled. He was dead but becomes alive!
All of his wrongs hinged on one thing: a broken relationship with his father. No matter our sins, we should never think we are too far away to return.
The Elder Son
Though often thought to be in the right until the younger son returns home, the elder son was in the wrong from the beginning as much as the younger. He was a greedy hypocrite. Instead of trying to reconcile his father and brother, as societal duty declared, he quietly accepted his share of the estate. At the very least, he should have told the brother “you don’t know what you are saying and withdraw the request.” He would have been within his rights to forcefully stop the transaction. At the very least he could have refused to accept his double share and let it remain in their father’s control.
By doing nothing, he shows his heart is in the wrong place. Like the other brother, he views the father as a financial source, nothing more. He feels like he deserves the money. He boasts about his faithful service. He too has a transactional relationship with their father.
This son’s conduct at home was fine. He did his duty as a son on the estate. He worked the fields and the animals.
Obviously, he felt justified in his anger at the welcome-home party. After all, the brother had insulted their father and wasted their savings in a foreign land. But the elder bears fault. If he had stepped in, as an older brother should, the situation might have been different. Even if the younger brother still left after a failed mediation, the elder brother would have done his duty. To know the good and not do it is a sin (James 4:17). He accepted his share of the estate—a double share—without argument.
I consider it likely that the size of the inheritance led the elder brother in part of his decision to remain quiet. That is greed. Though the brother on the farm remains a model of obedience, he does only the minimal required of him.
Both brothers sees their father as an employer or a banker. The elder complains that he was not given a goat. The younger only wanted to return as a servant.
When he insults the father with the anger at brother’s return, he coldly refers to the penitent brother as “your son.” He has no desire to be linked to the other man. He laments how he and his friends have never been given a goat to celebrate. He will not be part of the community celebration for the return of the lost.
The father stands shocked and insulted yet again, leaving the decision in the elder brother’s hands and leaving the audience to finish the scene. The father desires to be served out of love and not obligation.
One thing we see here is that the father cannot forgive the elder son until the elder forgives the younger. As we read in 1 John 4:20, “the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
The purpose of Jesus’ parables always comes back to the Kingdom of Heaven. You may read each one with an implied “The Kingdom of Heaven is like” if the words do not appear.
Jesus leaves this parable without conclusion; we are to give it an ending. Will the elder son make his own return to the Father or will he remain in his own version of the far country? Both sons saw their Father as an employer and complained about lack of pay. Only later did the younger son repent. In our story, we want to know how the elder son will finally react.
That’s up to you. The elder son is one who stayed within the church all his life and is angry at the one who walked away and came back. He is one who serves by rote but does not understand God’s great love.
God plays the Father. In spite of being rejected by both sons, He stands ready to welcome them back, no matter how far away they have traveled.
This parable puts the listener on a collision with destiny. It’s up to you to make a decision. Everything depends on your decision.
Where were you in this drama? Are you the one who fled, wishing the father dead, or the one who stayed, wishing the father dead? Do you view your relationship with God as transactions or one of love?
Please visit Frank Luke’s blog where this article is also posted.