The Prodigal Son

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Jesus speaks three parables against the hardness of the Pharisees' heart in comparison to the forgiving heart of God.

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Luke 15
There are three well known parables in Luke 15, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Parables are illustrations which use a story to shed light on spiritual truth. Jesus wasn’t the only one who taught in parables in his day, but he was a master of the art. We will be looking at these three parables with special emphasis on the third which has been called “the parable of the prodigal son.
The first three verses of the 15th chapter are critical to the understanding of these parables. This is because these parables shed light on the attitude of Jesus in comparison to the Pharisees. The first verse tells us that a number of tax collectors and sinners were coming near to Jesus. Tax collectors were despised in those days as they collected these taxes for Rome. They were known to hold company with notorious persons and prostitutes. Pharisees avoided company with these people. So it would seem scandalous to the Pharisees that Jesus had no problem with keeping company with them. Why would a Rabbi be tainted by their presence? But Jesus saw things the other way. The company of sinners did not make Him unclean. Rather, His presence cleansed the unclean.
The Pharisees were, as expected, indignant. The imperfect tense in Greek shows that they and the scribes continued to mutter about this. They were saying that Jesus was not only accepting the company of sinners, he was even eating with them! So Jesus answers this attitude by a cascade of parables.
The first parable talks about a shepherd who had lost just one of the 99 sheep. A lost sheep never returns on its own. It has to be searched for, encouraged, and led back to the flock. Going out to save a lost sheep was hard and dangerous work for the shepherd. The lost sheep might be on a rocky ledge of a cliff. There could be predators which could attack. There was danger of getting lost in the desert. There was heat by day and cold by night. There was hunger and thirst. It seems like a lot of work to save even a single sheep. It would be tempting to rejoice that the shepherd still had 99 sheep and let the stray go. There is some implication here that the Pharisees would have been content to let a lost sinner go and cut them off from their company. But not Jesus; He was willing to go through the labor and danger to rescue a single sheep. And when we remember that Jesus was keeping company with many tax-collectors and sinners, we get the idea that if laboring to save a single sheep is worth it, how much more when many are lost. We think of the prophet Isaiah saying: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every on to his own way.”
The second parable is of a woman who lost one of her ten silver coins. A lost coin for a rich person might not be a big deal, but these ten coins represented the family’s life savings. Ten coins would only feed a family for ten days. It isn’t very much of a nest egg. So this lost coin was significant. The first parable showed one of a hundred sheep was missing. Now it cascades to one coin in ten. The woman searched the house diligently until she found it. Like the shepherd, she called her friends to rejoice with her.
The third and longest parable goes on to amplify the attitude of Jesus for the lost. Now the loss here is far greater than a sheep or a coin. One of the father’s two sons was lost. As valuable as a sheep might be or a silver coin, it pales in importance with the value of a human life, especially of one’s own flesh and blood. The Pharisees might rejoice that one of his boys stayed home and would have pronounced their excommunication on the prodigal. He was the second son anyway, so even though it was sad, they were willing to let go of him.
The first two parables would have stimulated some interest, but they are fairly conventional and true to life. The parable of the Prodigal Son, however, it pure shock and awe. It is outrageously counter-cultural. It would have generated a visceral response by the hearers. The first outrage was that the younger son would be bold enough to ask his father for his inheritance when his father was still alive. The oldest son would get most of the property. Other sons would get some goods and sent out to find their own way, or they would stay and be subject to the older brother upon death of the father. Daughters were given a dowry and married off to some other family. But this son wanted to go out and make something of his life while his father still lived. This was unusual, but even greater outrages would develop.
This boy went out to a far country. This far country might not be all that distant geographically, but more is meant by “far.” Far is this context means cultural distance. He went out and shamed his father by wasting his money on prostitutes and parties. The Pharisee would have cut off such a son forever for such an offense. He was wasting his substance with the same king of people Jesus was keeping company with. They would have seen justice in that this former son descended into ruin for his transgression of the family honor code. “Let him slop the pigs for a Gentile! He deserves it.” The example of this boy would serve as a warning for those who stayed home not to run off. They lost that boy, but at least the others would be safe.
It then says that the lost son came to his senses. He was still a schemer though. He was not interested in reconciliation with his father. He may have thought his offense was too great. He was essentially being pragmatic about things. My father’s servants live better than this. So he made up his story he would tell his father. “Receive me as one of your hired servants” he would say. Even here, the Pharisees might well have shaken their heads. “No! He is worthless. If he did this as a son; what would he do as a servant!” The expectation was that the father would not have even come to him but would have sent a note through a servant that he was not welcome. The note would serve as a moral example to the readers. “Don’t do what this man did.”
It is at this point that Jesus turns the parable. The father sees his lost son coming from a distance. It wasn’t a servant who noted and gave notice to him. His gaze was already scanning the far country to which his son had gone. If anyone else saw him, they either did not notice or care. At this point, it says that the father got up and ran to meet the boy. Patriarchs do not run. The honor code said they remained seated and let others come to them. To run meant to tuck one’s robe in the belt. It meant exposing one’s buttocks. This was a shameful act which would have disgraced the father in front of the servants, and especially the son who stayed home. It is true that Abraham got up and ran to meed the three strangers. But there is one important difference. Abraham seemed to recognize that Yahweh was one of the three visitors. In relation to Him, Abraham was a servant. But here, the patriarch was the master and his boy a disgrace. This is as strong a contrast as could be made. What an outrage that the father should expose himself and run to a dirty shameful son. And then to embrace him! And then to let the son’s admission of sin and willingness to be a hired servant go past his year. He gives instruction to his servants to put on his fines robe and to put his signet ring on his finger. I can see the smoke arising from the Pharisees and Scribes! The same arrangements which Abraham had made for the LORD and the other two was now to be lavished upon this son. The special fatted calf was to be served up, the one which was usually reserved for a travelling superior who might chance by. It wasn’t enough that the hungry boy a basic change of clothes, a bath, and common food for his belly. This boy is received as royalty.
The attitude of the Pharisees and Scribes are demonstrated by the other son, one of utter horror or indignation. Even though the father had pleaded, they refused to keep company with this prodigal. This was a horrible rebuke of the father by this son. Such arrogance was deserving of the father’s wrath. He could even have been expelled. But even here, the father pleads to the son to come. I have already given you all this as your inheritance. You could have made merry with all this whenever you wanted. But shouldn’t you rejoice with us that our lost son is restored? Apparently, the older son had also been gazing in the far country. He had heard reports of what his worthless brother had done. He was looking in that direction for all the wrong reasons. In the same way, we often look in disgust at the world and its prodigality. We look so much in that direction, perhaps with a bit of envy that we can’t party like that. We see staying in the fold as an act of drudgery. We forget who we are. We are the heirs. We already can properly make merry and rejoice that we are His at any time. Instead we wander prodigally to the world and take out our own prodigality on the sinners.
When we look at the world, we must do it as Jesus does, with the attitude that these are brothers and sinners who need to be reconciled to the family. Here, I am emphasizing those who have backslid from the church family. The others have always been afar off. They are invited to join the family that they have never belonged to before. The Pharisees should have rejoiced that tax-collectors and prostitutes were coming home and embracing them. This is what the three parables illustrate. On the one hand it illustrates Jesus’ heart of compassion and mercy, and on the other the cold heart of the Pharisees and Scribes
When we understand this, we realize we have to choose between these two attitudes. We can look down at the backsliders when they return and refuse to keep close company with them. Or we can embrace them, even if we get shamed by those who have no mercy. If Jesus exposed his buttocks on the cross for us and received public shame, are we willing to do likewise. Or is peer pressure to great? Or is our hate and rage too great? People with such an attitude will never be happy in church.
If you are reading this as the prodigal who has left, be assured that Jesus eagerly awaits your return with open arms. You will get royal treatment from Him, even if others might look down their noses at you. Your most important relationship is not with your peers, but with your Heavenly Father. Jesus has paid the price for your sin. Come home and rejoice with Him and with those servants of Jesus who will embrace you.
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