Jesus’ Warnings in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, part 2

The father pleading with his elder son as described in the Parable of the Prodigal Son
The story of the Prodigal Son ends with the elder son stubbornly holding to his works-based righteousness. He refuses to recognize the validity of his father’s gracious forgiveness of his sinning brother. Despite his father’s pleading with him, he won’t enter his father’s house and eat the fattened calf to celebrate his brother’s return. Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

We saw in part 1 of “Jesus’ Warnings in the Parable of the Prodigal Son” that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is really the last story in a three-part parable that takes up most of Luke 15. And Luke 15 is set within the context of Jesus criticizing the self-righteous Jewish leaders who looked down upon the poor, uneducated people as sinners. This, in turn, contrasts with passages that reveal that Jesus considered the poor people of the multitude His friends. He even told them, “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” When the Pharisees and scribes murmured about Jesus’ welcoming and eating with these people whom they considered sinners, “He told them this parable.”

This parable consists of three stories that Jesus wants His listeners to compare with reality. While all three stories together contain a picture of God’s gracious love, they are also a dire warning to the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ generation. They also hold a cautionary lesson for twenty-first century Christians. The first story emphasizes a shepherd’s willingness to leave his flock to go out and find a lost sheep. The second story emphasizes a woman’s diligence in lighting a lamp and sweeping her house to find a lost coin. Now, let’s look at the third story.

Unpacking the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Let’s read Luke 15:11-24 first, discuss these verses, and then look at the rest.

He said, “A certain man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of your property.’ He divided his livelihood between them. Not many days after, the younger son gathered all of this together and traveled into a far country. There he wasted his property with riotous living. When he had spent all of it, there arose a severe famine in that country, and he began to be in need. He went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He wanted to fill his belly with the husks that the pigs ate, but no one gave him any. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough to spare, and I’m dying with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will tell him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. I am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.” ‘ He arose, and came to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. 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.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe, and put it on him. Put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat, and celebrate; for this, my son, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.’ They began to celebrate.”

Luke 15:11-24

The Identities of the Story’s Characters

The Father

Certainly, the father in the story represents God. Is he God the Father only? I don’t believe that we can say that he stands for only one of the persons of the Trinity. His zeal to go out to find lost sinners, his joy in their repentance, his eagerness to give gifts, his desire to bring repentant sinners into his house, and his patience in dealing with the unrepentant son picture characteristics shared by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Younger Son

His father’s plainly stating, “He was lost, and is found,” should be enough to tell us that the younger son fills the same role in this story as the lost sheep and the lost coin in the earlier stories—that is, he is the sinner who repents and his found. But does he represent a sinner who has newly found Christ, or is he a Christian who has fallen into sin and then repented?

Was the younger son born again but backslidden?

Some commentators assert that the younger son represents a born again Christian who has fallen away or backslidden, repents, and comes back. I see that as clearly wrong. Here’s why:

  1. This view doesn’t fit the context and setting. Jesus would not be talking to Pharisees and scribes about backslidden Christians.
  2. The father has his servants put the best robe, a ring, and shoes on his repentant son. These are new to him. He didn’t have them before. The nature of these spiritual gifts doesn’t fit in with the mistaken idea of the son being a born again, but backslidden, Christian who has returned.
    • The robe stands for Christ’s robe of righteousness (see Isaiah 61:10; Revelation 6:11; 7:9). In being given to the son, it represents the imputed righteousness of Christ. Nothing we do can undo Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, otherwise it would have no value. We would simply be determining our righteousness or lack of it by our works. Therefore, the son’s receiving the robe shows his receiving Christ’s righteousness as a new Christian once and for all time.
    • Anciently, a ring signified authority. Pharoah’s putting his ring on Joseph’s hand meant that Joseph could act in his name (Genesis 41:42). So, the father’s giving his son the ring shows that the son can now act in the name of his father. This is a picture of Christ’s giving the authority to act in His name to all believers upon their profession of faith (John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-27).
    • The word translated “shoes” is hupodēma. It literally means something “bound under.” As we see in Ephesians 6:15, Romans 10:15, and Isaiah 52:7, this refers to the Gospel, which protects us as we walk in this world. Again, this is for all Christians from the moment they believe.
  3. His father says, “this, my son, was dead, and is alive again.” A born-again believer has eternal life. Eternal life is eternal. Someone with eternal life can’t lose it. Sliding into a worldly life doesn’t kill the person’s eternal life. Only an unsaved person is spiritually dead. The fact that he “was dead” is a description of the state of all natural humanity since Adam’s sin. That he is now “alive again” is the state of one who has been born again, Adam’s sin undone.
  4. The father says to “Bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat.” The fattened calf pictures Christ, not as killed and offered on an altar, but as killed for us so we can “eat the flesh of the Son of Man” (see John 6:53). But Jesus died once for all time (Hebrews 10:10, 14). The return of a backslidden sinner does not require the re-sacrificing of Jesus Christ.

Was the younger son a Jew, a Gentile, or does it matter?

In Matthew 21:43, Jesus, speaking to the Jewish leaders, says, “Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and will be given to a nation bringing forth its fruit.” What nation did Jesus mean?

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: who in time past were no people, but now are God’s people, who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.

1 Peter 2:9-10, emphasis mine

That holy nation includes all repentant people. The Jewish leaders understood the kingdom of God to be the physical kingdom of Israel. This gave them a feeling of superiority simply because they were Jews—Jewish Nationalism. But, in this story and in other passages such as Matthew 21:28-43, Jesus was telling them that God was about to take the kingdom of God from them and give it to spiritual Israel: elect people from all nationalities.

The dregs of society

Jesus came to a divided Jewish society. The educated class were well versed in the Law and the Prophets. This gave them a sense of superiority. They included the scribes, the lawyers, and the doctors of the law (these are probably synonyms for the same people—experts in the Law), and the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians. These people—often priests, businessmen, or merchants—were schooled in the law and were considered to be the observant Jews. The rest of the people were largely uneducated and poor. The educated class considered these poor people to be ignorant concerning the Scriptures and, therefore, not scrupulously observing the law.

In Hebrew, these lower-class people bore the stigma of am ha’aretz. Literally, this simply means “the people of the land.” But it came to mean the uneducated people who worked the land, and it eventually came to refer to the uneducated poor in general. The educated Jews saw these people as stupid sinners born in sin from other stupid sinners. We see this attitude in John 9:34. If you read John 9:35-41, you’ll see that the poor man came to believe on Jesus, but Jesus told the stubborn Pharisees that their sin remained.

These poor people were the multitudes who followed and heard Jesus. These were the people whom Jesus called “my friends” and the “little flock” whose Father wants to give them the kingdom (Luke 12:4, 32). Bear in mind that Jesus never made a distinction among them between sinners and repentant sinners. Like His heavenly Father’s giving of the sun and rain (Matthw 5:44-45), Jesus called them all His friends. And, these were the people Jesus referred to as “your children” in Luke 13:34, while He meant Jerusalem to refer to the Jewish leaders.

Jesus meant the younger son in the parable to represent the very people the Jewish leaders looked down upon: The rabble of the sinful Jewish poor. But, since a pivotal element in the story is the attitude of the elder son toward his brother, I believe we can say that the younger son stands for all of the people that the self-righteous and judgmental Jewish elite scorned as sinners. These included groups outside of Jewish life—the Samaritans and the Gentiles. Jesus referred to these people elsewhere (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30) as the last (or lowest) who would be first (or foremost), while the first in society would become last.

The educated Jews were well-positioned in their social structure. These leaders thought they understood their Scriptures. They didn’t. They had overlooked what their prophets had foretold about the Messiah: He would execute justice for the poor and oppressed (e.g. Psalm 72:1-20; Isaiah 11:1-16; 61:1-2). They had forgotten the warnings God had given their ancestors. For example, Jeremiah foretold of destruction and captivity because some in the prophet’s time had grown fat (rich) while not judging the right of the needy (see Jeremiah 5:14-31; see also Zechariah 7:9-14). The Jews Jesus spoke to were guilty of the same transgression.

The younger son represented the uneducated and unobservant poor Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. He was in a “far country,” at a distance from his father, to show the position of separation sinners find themselves in when the Holy Spirit opens their eyes. Yet, once people recognize their wretched, sinful condition (needing no human to tell them of their sin), God is instantly with them and forgives them. At that point, the son pictures all of God’s people, His holy nation.

The father’s love comes first

In Luke 15:18-22, we see the father’s love for his son, which pictures God’s unconditional love for sinners who come to Him. The younger son determined to go to his father and, 1) confess his sin, 2) concede that he wasn’t worthy to be called his father’s son (admit he had no works that could earn the position of son), and, 3) ask to be made a hired servant.

When the son and father met, the father immediately showed his love by falling on his son’s neck and kissing him. Then the son confessed his sin and admitted his unworthiness to be a son.

This is immensely important. Look again at Luke 15:17. This sinful son was feeding the pigs when he came to himself and thought of his father. That was a picture of God’s drawing him (see John 6:44; 65). God loves us first, before any works, even confession (see Romans 2:4; 5:8; and 1 John 4:19).

The son’s offer of works refused

The father in the story knew his son was about to offer to be a hired servant, but he wouldn’t hear it. Why? Because this was an offering of works in exchange for wages. Instead, the father gave him free gifts and called him his son.

The father tells the servants to “bring out” (ekpherō) the robe, ring, and shoes to put on his son (Luke 15:22). Something not immediately obvious in English is that verse 23 begins an instant change of scene. We see this when the father orders, “Bring the fattened calf.” Instead of saying, “bring out” (ekpherō) as we saw in verse 22, he uses the word “bring” (pherō). We’re no longer outside. We’re in the father’s house. And we’re celebrating because the younger son is living and found!

The Self-Righteous and Resentful Elder Son

Let’s continue reading the story.

“Now his elder son was in the field. As he came near to the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants to him, and asked what was going on. He said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and healthy.’ But he was angry, and would not go in. Therefore his father came out, and begged him. But he answered his father, ‘Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed a commandment of yours, but you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this, your son, came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ He said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.’”

Luke 15:25-32

The elder son’s anger

The elder son was in the field. He was on the father’s property, which I take to represent Israel, but he wasn’t spiritually in sync with the father. As he comes near the house, he hears the music and dancing of a celebration!

He asks a servant what’s going on. The servant tells him that his brother has come and his father has sacrificed the fattened calf because his father has received him safe and healthy. Does the elder son whoop and run in to hug his brother and rejoice? No! He would if he had had the same heart of love as his father. But he did not.

Verse 28 tells us, “He was angry” (ōrgisthē), “enraged.” And, he “would not go in” to his father’s house. Even this does not daunt his father who comes out to him and entreats him. This I see as the preaching of the outward call of the Gospel to the Jews.

Notice the similarity of this to Romans 10:19-21:

But I ask, didn’t Israel know? First Moses says, “I will provoke you to jealousy with that which is no nation, with a nation void of understanding I will make you angry.” Isaiah is very bold, and says, “I was found by those who didn’t seek me. I was revealed to those who didn’t ask for me.” But as to Israel he says, “All day long I stretched out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”

Romans 10:19-21

The father’s grace toward his younger son, who pictures God’s holy nation, provokes the elder son to jealousy and anger. Yet, the father continues to plead with the elder son.

The elder son’s self-righteousness

Does the son repent? Does he fall on his father’s mercy? Does he at least say he’s sorry? No. He asserts his works: “these many years I have served you.” And he pronounces his adherence to the law: “I never disobeyed a commandment of yours.” Could he then enter the father’s house based on these declarations? Of course not. No one but Jesus has ever been perfectly righteous (Romans 3:10; 1 John 3:5).

As Jesus said to the Pharisees in John 9:41, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.” Did they really see? No. What they saw was the law, and as long as they relied on the law, the law condemned them. Their self-righteousness prevented them from seeing their need for what theologians call alien righteousness (the imputed righteousness of Christ), receiving forgiveness, and allowing God to save them. That’s how it is that Jesus didn’t come to call those who think of themselves as righteous to repentance, but those who know themselves to be sinners (Luke 5:32). The self-righteous, by not seeing their need to repent, keep themselves out of the kingdom of God (see Luke 18:9-14).

The elder son’s jealousy

After proclaiming his righteousness, the son tells his father, “but you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” I think we can hear the sarcasm in his naming a goat instead of a fattened calf. He means even so much as a goat. So, he is accusing his father of being stingy toward him and generous toward his brother. Not only that, but he has no real desire to celebrate with his father and brother. He wants to celebrate with his friends, those who are like himself.

The elder son’s judgment of his brother

The elder son is still not finished with presenting the evidence of his hard heart: “But when this, your son, came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him” (Luke 15:30). By using “your son” instead of “my brother,” he shows complete contempt for his brother and for his father, who accepted the brother into his house.

True to form for self-righteous people, he then points out the sins of his brother, disregarding the fact that his father has forgiven his brother’s sins. He continues this disregard by suggesting that the father should not have sacrificed the fattened calf for his brother.

Consider how all of this fits with the context that we’ve seen. Think again of the father’s going to his younger son who had sinned. Before the son had confessed, his father was moved with compassion, fell on his neck, and kissed him. After the father had already expressed his unconditional love, the son confessed. But his father never asked for a further explanation or ever even mentioned the sin. Neither did he tell his son that he had to wait before being accepted or that his acceptance had to be put to a vote. Nor did he tell him he had to attend discipleship classes or any of the other unbiblical hoops people are often made to jump through today. Instead, the father gave him gifts and welcomed him into his house to eat the fattened calf.

Contrast the father’s gracious, loving forgiveness of his younger son with the elder son’s pitiless, legalist stand against his brother. He lists his brother’s transgressions and refuses to go in and eat with him, scorning him as a sinner. Do you see how this hearkens directly back to Luke 15:2? “The Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.’”

In the story, the behavior of the elder son mirrors the Jewish leaders’ display of self-righteousness. Further, Jesus shows how such an unforgiving attitude separates these graceless people from God. The story’s father and his younger son eat together in the father’s house. The elder son, by refusing to eat with his brother, cuts himself off from his father.

Through this story, Jesus is striking a blow at the hard hearts of the legalist Jewish leaders whose judgmental attitude separated them from God. And Jesus purposely ended the story leaving us to wonder if the elder son will ever repent.

Always With Me

Why did the father say to this elder son, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours”? How was this rebellious child always with his father?

The fact that his father came out to him and patiently pleaded with him demonstrates that the elder son was always with him by being in his father’s mind.

The father said “all that is mine is yours” because the father was ready, willing, and able to receive him into his house and bestow his wealth upon him if…

If what? If, like his younger son, his elder son would see his own need for repentance and grace. If, like his father, he would see that his brother’s repentance necessitated celebration and rejoicing.

We know that his coming to that understanding of his wretched condition would have been a sign of the Holy Spirit working in him. That, in turn, would indicate his election (although this would not be seen in the parable). And, it would also signal his regeneration that would allow him to receive his father’s wealth as a free, unearned gift of grace through faith. Yes, the father had it all there waiting for him, but the son refused to receive it.

As Paul wrote in a passage that nicely summarizes this,

What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, who didn’t follow after righteousness, attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith; but Israel, following after a law of righteousness, didn’t arrive at the law of righteousness. Why? Because they didn’t seek it by faith, but as it were by works of the law. They stumbled over the stumbling stone; even as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and a rock of offense; and no one who believes in him will be disappointed.”

Romans 9:30-33

In part 3, I’m going to focus on how Luke 15 was Jesus’ warning to the first-century Jews and how that warning came to pass.

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