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The parable of the Prodigal Son is the most beloved of all of Jesus’ parables. It has been the source of music, literature and art. Multiple millions of people can identify with the son who left home, returned and was graciously received by his father.
I hope to deepen your appreciation of this longest of Jesus’ parables through today’s article and the one that follows tomorrow.
This parable, like all of the other parables, cannot be lifted out the larger context of Jesus’ teaching. It is a major message in the midst of Jesus’ central message in the Gospel of Luke.
The section of chapters 14 through 17 in Luke tells the story of Jesus’ travel from Galilee to Jerusalem. These chapters have been beautifully termed, “The Gospel for Outcasts.”
Within these chapters the parable of the Prodigal Son has been called “the gospel within the Gospel.” Even so, the parable cannot be properly understood unless it is situated within the teaching of the whole chapter.
Luke 15 began with these words, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15.1-2).
According to Luke, Jesus’ response to the grumbling of the religious leaders was this: “So he told them this parable” (Luke 15.3).
We should not miss the grammar of Jesus’ words. “Parable” is singular, not plural. That means that the parable of the Lost Sheep, the lost Coin, and the lost Sons is actually one parable with one very important meaning.
The answer of Jesus to the critical religious establishment did not end with the parable of the Prodigal Son, but with the compassion of the father toward the elder son who most resembled the Pharisees.
The Prodigal Son
Today’s lesson will focus on the Prodigal Son and tomorrow we will complete a study of this fascinating answer by Jesus to the religious leaders with the parable of Elder Brother.
— Verses 11-12 – Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.”
In the ancient world failure to care for parents was greatly condemned. Depending on the actions of the son, the punishment for this act could range from censure to stoning (See Deuteronomy 21.18-21).
— Verses 13-14 – “A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.”
The younger son wanted his father’s money, but cared little for a relationship with his father. He threw off all moral restraint and lived in moral squalor until his resources were exhausted.
— Verses 15-16 – “So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.”
Just as the tax collectors worked for the Roman occupation forces in Israel, this man hired himself out to feed pigs for a Gentile. Don’t miss the point that Jesus was being criticized for eating with tax collectors and his parables were an answer to that criticism.
The pods that the man wanted to eat were the food of animals and humans who were living at the lowest level of economic survival.
— Verse 17 – “But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!'”
At the “rock bottom” point of his misery, the young man “came to himself.”
His motive may have been nothing more than survival, but it got him started on the way home.
— Verses 18-19 – “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.'”
The Prodigal knew that he had shamed his father, his family and himself. He had chosen money and the fleeting pleasure of sin over a faithful relationship with his father.
His only hope is to go home, throw himself on his father’s mercy and live his life as a servant.
— Verse 20 – “So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
In the parables that we have read in Luke 15, the shepherd and the woman both search diligently for what was lost. The father did not search for his son, but he did run to him and welcome him home with compassion and love.
For an elder to run in the ancient world was a shameful act. Elders were to be stately and regal in their demeanor. This father cared far more for his son than he cared for the customary rules of society.
— Verse 21 – “Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'”
The son began the speech that he had rehearsed. His words were full of regret and repentance. He knew his actions had not only brought shame to his family, but had put them in a difficult financial situation.
— Verses 22-24 – “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”
The Prodigal came home hungry, shamed, repentant, and wearing no shoes. Because of his actions, he believed that he could never assume a place in the family.
His father had a different opinion. Not only did he put sandals on his feet, he place a ring on his finger and a robe of honor on him.
Meat was rare at meal in the ancient world, but not for this special occasion. A calf accompanied a celebration of joy, because a the lost son had been found.
The applications for this parable are obvious, but let’s consider them all the same.
(1) The religious authorities criticized Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus’ actions reflected the heart of our heavenly Father, who rejoices and celebrates the return of his prodigal children. Meals with sinners was Jesus’ way of searching for sinners and celebrating their return home to God.
(2) The parables in this chapter illustrate the power of the presence of the kingdom of God. The people of God looked for a time when God’s kingdom would come to the world and change their situation. Jesus announced the kingdom’s reality with words and deeds.
In another article I will expand on how Jesus’ actions and message emphasized the new developments of God’s kingdom that came with his presence in the world.
(3) The stages of repentance are pictured quite fully in this parable. Repentance involves recognizing the lost state of our existence, actually leaving our way of life, and going to God to serve him in humility.
God responds to repentance with forgiveness, celebration and recognition of our being part of his family.
About This Blog
Klyne Snodgrass has devoted 12 years of study to produce the book, Stories With Intent. His book is recognized as the best book on the parables in print. I am indebted to Dr. Snodrass’ work that helps shape my articles.
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