What is the parable of the Prodigal Son about? Probably more than you think. Most Christians will say something about it’s about how God welcomes the lost sinner home. It’s true…that’s there.
Have you ever noticed when you read what we call “The Story of the Prodigal Son,” that there are, in fact, two sons?
Luke 15:11 And he said, A certain man had two sons:
If this is the story of the prodigal son, why are there two sons? Why does the second son, get over one-third of the space in the story? Because this is not the story of the prodigal son—it’s the parable of two sons—a younger son and an elder son.
According to sociological family studies, the oldest sibling in a family is often the responsible one. It makes sense, because they are often tasked with caring for their younger brothers and sisters.
The youngest sibling tends to be more of a rebel, perhaps because they were spoiled rotten.
The parable of the two sons follow this family psychology to a tee. Let’s look at the parable. There are basically two acts: the first is about the younger son. The second is about the elder son.
ACT I – THE YOUNGER SON
Luke 15:12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.
The younger son demands his inheritance. We can see how this would have been tantamount to wishing that his father was dead, after all, that is when children usually get their inheritance.
As we look closer, we see even more of the selfishness of the younger son. Notice that the father divided unto his sons, “his living” (bios). This isn’t the Greek word for wealth or land (and there were plenty to choose from, like ousia, translated here as “goods” or “substance”)…instead it is bios. We get words like biology from it—the study of life.
The father divides “his living” in that, to give the younger son cash, he has to sell land. Around eastern Montana, we understand the value of land. It’s almost like he has to give up his career or his business. Selling his land is giving up part of his livelihood.
These verses reveal the heart of the lost sinner: it’s a heart that is self-centered. This son has no interest in a relationship with the father, only in what the father possesses. It reminds me of the sinners described in Romans 1:25—
25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. (Romans 1:25)
The lost sinner doesn’t care about God, just the stuff God has made. The younger son doesn’t care about his father, just the money his father has made.
How about you? Do you care about God? Or are you just interested in enjoying the stuff that He, in His grace, has allowed you to have and to experience these many years? The younger son’s story here has a happy ending, but only because he repented. Will you?
There is a profound rejection of the father here, but also the first display of the father’s profound love for his son.
In that society, there would have been no expectation on the father to do what the son requested. As a matter of fact, most people probably would have expected the father to kick out and disown the son for proposing such an outrageous thing. So for the father to relent and give the younger son what he asked is a thing of love.
The second scene follows the younger son in a downfall.
Luke 15:13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.
The younger son does what every sinner thinks that they have the right to do. He lives life on his own terms, all out, without consideration for the consequences. Soon, the consequences do catch up with him, however…
Luke 15:14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. Luke 15:15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. Luke 15:16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
Now comes the statement of repentance—
Luke 15:17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! Luke 15:18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, Luke 15:19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.
The younger son admits that he has sinned, not just against his father, but against God Himself. He does not assume that he has the right to be his father’s son again, but is humbly content to ask to be hired servant.
Scene three sees the return of the younger son.
Luke 15:20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
It’s common knowledge that this was unbecoming a father in those days. A man of means did not run, he did not make a great show of emotions, and he certainly didn’t welcome back a rebellious son like that!
In my mind’s eye, I see the younger son, embarrassed and pushing away the father so that he can tell him the plan he concocted in the feeding trough of the pigs.
Luke 15:21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
Incredibly, the father will have none of it. Instead, he orders a welcome home party.
Luke 15:22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: Luke 15:23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: Luke 15:24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.
The “best robe” would have probably been the father’s own robe that, with the “ring,” was an unmistakable sign of acceptance back into the family. The son likely returned barefoot, symbolic of his financial destitution, so the “sandals” indicate a return of wealth. The “fatted calf” was something reserved for very special occasions, like weddings.
This is a wonderful picture of God’s love and grace poured out on the lost sinner. We learn that we cannot earn our way to God, but we do need to repent and come to Him.
Act I ends on a wonderful note, but Act II starts out very sour.
ACT II – THE ELDER SON
Luke 15:25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. Luke 15:26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.
Luke 15:27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.
Luke 15:28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.
The elder son, who was working in the field (as usual), hears the noise of a party and investigates. After discovering the reappearance of his long-lost brother, he becomes angry. He refuses to open the door and go in, forcing his father to come out to him.
This is something that the father would not have been expected to do. Like running to kiss and greet the younger son, it was demeaning to have to go to a disobedient son and beg him to come to a party. But the father does it out of love.
Why is the elder son angry?
Luke 15:29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: Luke 15:30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.
His focus seems to be on the cost and unfairness of the party. He’s never had the father give him a “kid” for a party, much less a more expensive “fatted calf.” And yet, for the son who ran off and slept around, the father throws a party with a “fatted calf.”
How unfair is that! And to be honest, to many people, it does seem unfair—perhaps that is an indicator to which kind of person they tend to be. The elder son was jealous, not righteously indignant. Furthermore, unlike the younger son in verses 12, 18, and 21, the elder son refuses to address his father in a respectful manner.
Probably, the elder son has hated his father for some time. For reasons not revealed directly in the parable, he has resented his father and wished that he could be like the younger son and just run away.
Everything about the elder son’s response and demeanor is such that the father had a right to rebuke him or even disown him. But does the father? No.
Luke 15:31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. Luke 15:32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
These are unexpectedly gracious words. Jesus’s listeners would not have expected them. They would have been waiting for a good tongue-lashing. But the father surprises them again. What he says could be paraphrased this way:
“My son,” he begins, “despite how you’ve insulted me publicly, I still want you in the feast. I am not going to disown your brother, but I don’t want to disown you, either. I challenge you to swallow your pride and come into the feast. The choice is yours. Will you, or will you not?” (Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith)
With that…Jesus ends the parable. My dear wife hates it when a movie or tv show ends like this. There’s no resolution! Did the family come back together? We aren’t told.
Why? Because Jesus leaves the resolution with us. Are you an elder son? Do you have a problem with extending grace to the sinner? Do you have anger issues with those who don’t toe the line like you do? Are you listening to what Jesus is saying to you?
We’re going to come back to this parable and dig deeper into the nature of sin and lostness, and even the nature of the father. But for now, let’s look at the overall picture it presents.
What is Jesus doing with this parable? To find out, look at His audience that day that He first told it.
Luke 15:1 Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. Luke 15:2 And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.
Who do you think the younger son represents? It’s “the publicans and sinners.” And who is the elder son? It is “the Pharisees and scribes.” Do you see what Jesus is doing in the parable of the two sons? He is describing two kinds of people.
The first kind, the sinners, are people who live the wild life. They do not care about the rules. Their focus is on having a good time, having fun, living life to the fullest. They are the ones who waste their lives on “riotous living.”
The other kind of folks are the Pharisees. These are the strict people. They are the moral ones. They hold to tradition.
In Jesus’s day, the Pharisees were dumbfounded that Jesus would eat with sinners. To eat with someone meant that you accepted them and their lifestyle. The Pharisees could not understand why a teacher like Jesus would defile Himself like that.
If you really want an ending for the parable, you can look at what the Pharisees ended up doing to Jesus Christ and read it back into the parable. After the father tries to convince the elder son to come in, the elder son becomes even more enraged. He grabs the nearest heavy object and beats the father with it until he is dead on the ground.
This is not the parable of the prodigal son. This is the parable of two sons—of two kinds of people. Who are you most like? What do you tend towards? The younger son or the elder son? There is a message for both in this parable.
A Younger Son
If you are most inclined to be a younger son, to grab the life that God’s given you and yet forget the God Who gave it, then you need to come home. God is a patient, loving, and compassionate Father. He wants you reconciled with Him. But He waits for you to repent. He waits for you to run to Him.
The life you are living may be fun, but it’s not secure. There’s a famine coming. There will be consequences for the decisions you are making now. The end result for you is worse than eating pig slop. It’s eternal punishment.
You might complain that seems unfair. But listen, the Father has made it so that you can come to Him through Jesus Christ. You have to make the decision. You have to, like the younger son did, come to yourself and make the decision to come to the Father.
An Elder Son
If you are most inclined to be like the elder son, to be upset with sinners and with people who try to reach out to them through ways that you would not use, then you need to come through the door and join the party.
The parable here challenges us elder sons to have hearts of compassion like the Father does. It challenges us to joyful run to the returning prodigal instead of sitting back and saying, “Well, we’ll see…” It challenges us to give others the grace that God has given to us.
Remember that Cain was the elder son. In his anger, he murdered his brother Abel. When God came to Cain and asked where his brother was, Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). What is the answer to the question? Yes, Cain, you are.
What should the elder son in Jesus’s parable had done? He should have chased after his brother when he first left. He should have hunted him down and pleaded with him to come home. He should have done this not only because of a love for his younger brother, but also because of a love for his father. May we be that kind of elder son!
Levi Durfey—LDM-42-Luke 15.11-32-Part 1-LKA#079-20200209FBCAM-SERMON