In Bethany Beyond the Jordan just after the Feast of Dedication, Jesus gives a series of parables to further expose the hardness of the Pharisees' hearts. This episode details the well-known parable of the "prodigal son" and connects it with the larger themes of Jesus' ministry to Israel.
Hey I’m Josh Hawkins, this is episode 101 of Opening up the Gospels. In the last episode I talked about Jesus’ activity in Bethany Beyond the Jordan after the Feast of Dedication in December of 28AD. As Jesus was leaving Jerusalem, we saw that large crowds followed Him, just as they did for a while in Galilee. Luke 15 begins with tax collectors and sinners eagerly listening to Jesus. In contrast, the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about Jesus associating Himself with sinners. Remember, the term “sinners” in the Gospels is referring to those Jews who didn’t adhere to the Pharisaical traditions, the rules and regulations that were not in the Law but were established so that there would be be no possibility for them to even come close to violating the Law itself. I talked about that back in Episode 59, so go back and watch that for more. In the first several verses of Luke 15, Jesus gave a couple of parables that were addressed to the Pharisees, and today we’re going to look at one of Jesus’ more famous stories, the parable of the prodigal son. Let’s read starting in Luke 15 verse 11: "And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything." (Luke 15:11–16 ESV) Now I know this story is probably very familiar to many of us, and I bet that we probably have some preconceived ideas as we come to the passage. So do your best to put those aside for a bit, because I have a feeling there will be some new things you see in here that you may not have seen before. First, we have to remember who Jesus is talking to. His audience is Jewish, and the parable is directed at the Pharisees, though likely the sinners there would also have heard Jesus speak it. Let’s not be too quick to read this as a general statement about me and you and every other Christian for all time, and disconnected from the first century context. This parable is very corporate, just as the last two have been and how the next several will be. Jesus is talking about two groups of people with this story - the Pharisees and the tax collectors / sinners, and in that He’s contrasting two basic heart postures. One absolutely loves money and wealth and influence and is self-righteous, and the other seeks to be humble and contrite and repentant. If we understand these things, I think we can more easily understand what Jesus is saying in this parable and all of them in this section, in fact. So Jesus said there was a man who had two sons, and the younger one wanted his portion of the inheritance. Normally an estate isn’t divided and given to the heirs until the father died or couldn’t manage it well anymore. But the father conceded and gave it to him, and he took it all and went to another country where he squandered the wealth in wild living. Yet a famine arose, and the younger son had found himself hungry and wanting. He hired himself out to someone, who in this context is a Gentile. How do we know? Because he was raising pigs, and Jews considered pigs unclean animals according to Leviticus 11:7 and Deuteronomy 14:8. The younger son had fallen as far as he could have, as this would have been the lowest of the low for the Jew. He was working for a Gentile, associating with pigs, and is actually contemplating eating with them. Now, what’s going on here? Don’t forget, this is a parable and Jesus is telling this story to Jewish people, and at this point they all would have understood the picture He was painting. Clearly the group He is talking about here is the group of outcasts, the sinners and tax collectors, the ones whom the Jewish authorities would have considered unclean lawbreakers. Does that make sense? Now in contrast, the story depicts an older son who remained home with the father and didn’t engage in the reckless living that the younger one did. The older son represents the self-righteous Pharisees, and I’ll talk about that more in just a minute. Let’s continue in Luke 15: "“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise 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 as one of your hired servants.” ’" (Luke 15:17–19 ESV) The younger son “comes to himself”, which is a Hebrew and Aramaic expression for “he repented”. Clearly this is more than just thinking more clearly about his situation, but it also involved real action - a real return to his father and real acknowledgement of His guilt. He would go back and say “father, I’ve sinned against heaven and before you”. Now the word “heaven” here is just being used as a substitute for the word “God”, which is another common thing the Hebrews did. Now I know that in modern interpretations and readings of this parable, we equate the father in the story with God - but I think we just too readily seek to apply all of the fine little details of this parable to our theology. But that’s not the point here - Jesus isn’t giving doctrine, this is just a simple story that He's telling to make a point, just like the last two parables in Luke 15. Clearly the younger son says that he has sinned against God and against his father, so the way this is worded really prevents us from saying that the father in the parable is representing God. In other words, the text restrains us from making a direct allegorical connection between God and the father in the parable. However, the attitude of the father in the parable is certainly meant to depict that of God, just as Jesus made clear in the last parable, saying that there was joy in heaven even over one sinner who repents. Do you see that? Again, sometimes we just have to let a story be a story and not take the details too far. Now the sinful son says that he is no longer worthy to be called a son anymore, and seeks to be treated just as one of the hired servants. His attitude reveals his true repentance, and he realizes his actions grant him no more grounds for being treated like a member of the family. He realizes how ungrateful and selfish he has been. Let’s keep going in Luke: "And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate." (Luke 15:20–24 ESV) Jesus continues with His story, saying that the father throws off all cultural norms as he embraces his son and kisses him. The son realizes his sin and truly repents, and the father’s reaction is a picture of how heaven rejoices when a sinner turns in repentance. Even the servants in the family begin to celebrate. Now there’s much that could be said about these details, but there’s one that sticks out to me that is not one you will often read in commentaries. I believe this image of great celebration and feasting is also a picture of the nation of Israel’s repentance at the end of the age, when they acknowledge their covenant breaking and consider themselves unworthy of the stewardship that God gave them as His chosen nation to bless all the other nations. Isaiah 25 and Revelation 19 both speak of a great feast that God will host to celebrate the redeemed. Israel was dead, they were lost, but as Paul says, the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable, and when they return, God will embrace them. Wow, what a picture of God’s restoration to come! Let’s finish up the story in Luke: "“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 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.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ ”" (Luke 15:25–32 ESV) So instead of rejoicing with everyone when the sinning younger son repented, the older son gets angry and refuses to go inside and celebrate. Now remember that it’s the Pharisees that Jesus is directing this parable to here. In the story, the older son is being self-righteous, just like the Pharisees. They are refusing to rejoice when sinners and tax collectors are coming to repentance. The older son makes much of the younger son’s harlotry instead of his own. The father then entreats the older son, encouraging him to join the celebration, but he flat out refuses. And that’s where the parable ends. Jesus is saying once again that the self righteous will not inherit God’s promises. He said the exact same thing back just a chapter before in Luke 14 with the parable of a man who gave a banquet and invited guests, yet none of the ones who were invited would actually taste the banquet. Now some say this parable is about a prodigal son, some say it’s about a prodigal father, others use it to say that hell is the place where the pigs were… Even though it’s one of Jesus’ more famous parables, again I don’t think we should derive doctrine from it. But in the context of the other parables Jesus just spoke, and the fact that this is just a simple story used to illustrate a point, I think the most straightforward way of understanding it is just that Jesus was again making a division between the Jews, indicting the Pharisees for their lack of repentance, their bad leadership of the people, their refusal to encourage the sinners to truly repent themselves, and their hard hearts towards God. If you’ve tracked along with me in this series so far, I know you’ll see that those themes are the predominant ones we’ve seen already throughout the Gospels. Well we are out of time for this episode, but in the next episode we’ll continue looking at Jesus’ dialog with the crowds in Luke 16. If you’ve missed any of the past episodes in this series, you can find them all on my website - www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. I hope you come back for the next episode. God bless.