Luke 15 Continued
11. Then He said: “A certain man had two sons.
Now this is the third part of this parable in three parts that the Lord told both to rebuke the attitude of the Pharisees, and to offer comfort to the tax collectors and sinners who heard him. This story is a familiar one to most who have made any study of the Bible, and is one that is considered and loved by many.
The story starts out by picturing a certain man who has two sons.
12. “And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.
Now in our story the younger of the two sons comes to his father with a most unusual request. He wants his father to give him the portion of his goods that would fall to him as an inheritance. Goods in those days would be distributed between the sons, with the oldest taking a double portion and all the younger sons a single portion. Typically this would be done either when the father was dead, or else when he wished to retire and to leave the management of the family’s affairs to his oldest son (or whichever son he chose to make the firstborn, if the oldest had been rejected for some reason.)
To actually ask for your inheritance ahead of time would be bold and even insulting, particularly for the younger son, who didn’t even get the largest portion or the birthright to take over the family. It was as if he was saying his father had no value in his eyes anymore, and he would just as soon that his father either die or else quit working and get out of the way so he could enjoy his inheritance. Since a retired father would be cared for by his sons, who would now own all his goods, this was not just an insult, but also an indication that this youngest son had no love for his father or desire to care for him when he was old and needed it. It was as if this son was telling his father that he would just as soon that he was dead.
In spite of his youngest son’s insulting and uncaring attitude in making this request, yet this father accommodatingly grants his son’s request and gives him his third of the family’s wealth. (As we will find out later, this father had two sons, and so with the oldest son getting a double portion, this younger son’s allotment would be a third.) Notice that he did not just divide it to the younger son, but to “them,” both the younger and the older son. Therefore, the father acted like he was dead, or else no longer competent to administer his own affairs. Now, he would be totally dependent upon his sons for his own care. All this at the younger son’s bidding! This father was quite indulgent to do this for his son.
13. “And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.
The younger son doesn’t stop his objectionable behavior merely at getting his inheritance early. He has big plans for living large and enjoying himself, and he wastes no time in putting them into action. Not many days after receiving his inheritance, he gathers everything together and journeys into a far country. Again, he seems to want to have nothing to do with his father or his family, and prefers to go where he will have no opportunity to be required to fulfill his obligations to them. As far as he is concerned, he still seems to express the attitude that he would be just as happy if his father were dead and gone.
While in this far country, this younger son lives it up. He spends his money recklessly and wastefully on prodigal living. Like many who come suddenly into money they did not have to work for, he probably felt as if this money were in unlimited supply, and he could spend it as he liked and it would never run out. Like most who take this attitude, however, he eventually found that he was gravely in error in believing this.
14. “But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want.
Once his inheritance is all spent and gone, the fortunes of the prodigal son change quickly. Having spent all his money, he finds himself caught in a famine. In our country of plenty it is hard for us to envision a lack of food. Yet in that day this was a common occurrence. Now, this son has grave need of the money he so wastefully spent, and yet it is all gone. Moreover, he has no means of getting more. At least those who had money or employment had a means of sustaining themselves, but this son, having wasted all his money, is now left with nothing.
15. “Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
This man had apparently left Israel to feed his desire for wild living. It is always easier to live profligately when there are none of God’s people around to see you do it. Now, in seeking a job, all he can do to find employment is to join himself to a citizen of that country. This probably means that he became an indentured servant or slave of this man. The job he is then given is to feed pigs. Swine being unclean, this would be close to the most shameful and ignominious position an Israelite could have, much like the job of the tax collectors who inspired this story. This is probably a veiled reference to the fact that many of those labeled “sinners” by the religious leaders were forced through hunger and want to find employment collecting taxes for the hated Roman occupiers.
16. “And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
This man is now so hungry that he gladly would have filled his stomach with the husks of grain that the pigs ate, yet even this was not given him by his new master. What a miserable position his selfishness, recklessness, and sin had led this man to! But that is often the way of things with sin. Yet when we fall to the bottom because of our sin, often that is just the position we need to be in in order to look up and realize that we need God.
17. “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
At last this young man awakes from his longing after the disgusting food belonging to the pigs and starts to think. Now, he realizes that even the hired servants (like he had now become) that are in his father’s house are given food and to spare. Yet here he is with nothing to eat, and longing after swine food!
18. “’I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you,
At last this son is forced to the realization of what he had left behind. Sin, with all its promise at first, has led him to this state and left him, and now he sees his mistake and feels shame for what he has done. He now knows the important truth that he is a sinner and unworthy of a place with the father. Yet now he has nowhere else to go, and so he plans to go back home to his father and admit his sin to him.
Notice that the son plans to say that he has sinned against heaven and before his father. We can understand that he has sinned against his father, but what does he mean “against heaven”? One can no more sin against heaven than he can against earth, for heaven is a place, and one cannot sin against it. What does the son then mean?
The truth here is that we are mistaken if we think that heaven is just a place. The word “heaven” means “lifted up” or “exalted.” Though it can be used for a place that is lifted up or exalted, it can also be used for people who are lifted up or exalted. In this case, this word refers to God, the One Who is lifted up and exalted above all others. It was first of all against God that this young man had sinned, and secondly against his father. Indeed, this is the way it always is when we sin. First we sin against God, and only secondly against other people. This is something we all need to realize.
19. “’”And I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’
Having admitted his sin to his father, this son hopes that he will be allowed to have even the humblest place with his father’s servants. No forgiveness is expected, and certainly none demanded. He does not expect to be accepted back as a son after all he did to hurt and insult his father, not to mention wasting his father’s goods. Realization of his sin has humbled him to the place where he can accept his father’s aid and admit his own unworthiness. Thus he plans to ask his father for the lowest place, and to just be allowed to be like one of his hired servants so that he might at least have food to eat.
20. “And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.
The son carries out his plan and arises to go to his father. Now this father, as far as we can tell, was a wealthy landowner. As such, he probably would have had his house up in a prominent place, probably on a hill where he could see far down the road. Thus, this father was able to see his son coming when he was still a long way off. Yet why would this father have been looking so closely to the road so as to have seen his son coming? We would imagine from this that this father had long been watching this road, hoping against hope that perhaps his son might return.
Thus when this father sees his son coming, he proves to have a far different attitude than the prodigal son had expected. He runs to his son and meets him while he is still on the road. We must understand that at this time the wealthy just did not run. It was considered undignified, and something for common workers to do. Not only so, but the robes they wore did not lend themselves to running. When one wanted to work or move quickly, he would take off his outer garments and gird up his under-robe, tying it up underneath into what we would describe as a kind of pair of shorts. Yet this father certainly took the time to do none of this. Thus, when he ran to meet his son, he would have had to hold his skirts up as he was running, and altogether would have looked not only undignified but also fairly foolish. Yet it is clear that this father did not care how he looked to others, so eager is he to meet his son.
21. “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
We cannot help but think that this reception he received from his father would have both surprised and emotionally moved this wayward son. Yet not knowing what else to say, he now begins to repeat his pre-rehearsed speech, and to admit to his father that he has sinned and how unworthy he is to be called his son any longer.
22. “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet.
The father does not allow the son to finish his speech, or to get to the part where he would make his offer to be a servant. The father will have none of this. Rather, he is eager to forgive his youngest son and to accept him back into the family. Thus, he calls to his servants to cloth his wayward son in the garment of a child of his father once again. The word “best” here is “first” in Greek, either meaning the first robe they came upon, or else the one that his son wore at first, before he left him. Moreover, he is to be honored with a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. How like our God, Who is ready to cloth the worst of us with righteousness if we will only turn to Him!
23. “’And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry;
Hospitality was an important tradition in those days, and a specially prepared calf was always kept ready to present to any important visitor who happened to come unexpectedly. Now the father wants to show this great honor to his returned son. Thus this one who had so dishonored his father when he departed is honored highly by his father upon his return. We do not again hear from the prodigal son, or learn what he thought about this. Yet surely he must have been amazed by the love and forgiveness of his father. How great is the same love of God for us, Who is willing to love and honor us in spite of all we might have done that is contrary to Him.
24. “’For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.
Thus the Lord justifies His attitude towards the tax collectors and “sinners.” Whether they were “sinners” or not as the religious leaders had branded them makes little difference, as they were truly sinners in the sight of God, as all men are. Yet the Lord’s story and His attitude towards them as declared in this parable provided the most positive encouragement imaginable to these outcast tax collectors and sinners. Here, all sarcasm and satire, as we saw in the first two parts of this parable, is entirely left out, and God’s true and loving attitude towards all who were willing to return to Him is displayed. The Lord did not view these outcasts as the Pharisees did. Instead, He was ever willing to minister to them and to help them, and to gladly receive them if they returned to Him.
25. “Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.
Now the Lord turns his attention to the other, older son of this father. While all this was going on, he was out in the field. Wealthy landowners at that time often lived within the walls of a city, and left the city daily to go out to their land and work the fields. Thus this son was probably out working for his father and overseeing the labor in the field while his brother’s return was taking place back at home. Now, the older son is returning, probably at the end of the day, and as he draws near the house, he hears an uncharacteristic sound: music and dancing.
26. “So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.
It is clear to this older son that some kind of celebration is going on, but this was nothing he was aware of when he left for the fields that morning. Thus, he calls one of the servants to himself, and asks him what this music and dancing he hears means.
27. “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’
The servant reveals to the older son what was going on. He explains that his brother has returned, and that his father has killed the fatted calf, as he would for a most honored guest. He has done this because of his joy at receiving his son back safe and sound. Yes, so is the joy of the Father of us all at receiving even one wayward child back into His dwelling.
28. “But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.
When the older son finds out what is going on, he is angry. Unlike his father he is not so eager to accept his wayward brother back into the fold. His father apparently hears of his reaction, probably from the servant who reported this to the older son, and so he goes out and pleads with him to change his attitude and to welcome back his younger brother, even as the father has.
29. “So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.
The older son explains his anger to his father. He has never gone astray as his brother had. He has certainly never expressed a desire that his father be dead, or demanded of him what he had no right to receive until the proper time. Moreover he has been serving his father faithfully for many years, and has never gone against his father’s commandment. Yet, he complains, he had never received the reception that his brother was now receiving from his father. He whines that he has never even been given a kid that he could use to make a feast and be merry with his friends. Why should his brother get such attention when he does not?
30. “’But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’
He points out that, in contrast with him, here comes this younger son back after devouring his father’s money. He accuses him of doing this with prostitutes. We do not know for certain what the younger son did in his riotous living, but the older son in his scorn assumes the worst, and consigns his brother to this sort of behavior. Then, he fumes, he returns and his father has killed the fatted calf for him. Indeed, we can see the older brother’s point. His long faithfulness is impressive, and we have to admit that he appears to deserve far more than his younger brother. The father’s actions do appear to be less than fair, especially to this older brother.
Yet we cannot help but think that perhaps there is a note of jealousy in the older brother’s comments here. There seems to be in the heart of the legalist the idea that somehow he is giving up much in order to do the things he does. Though he judges himself to be far superior for his stand and looks down upon those who do not take it with him, there seems to be in him the thought that he is really giving up something by avoiding the pleasures of sin, and that he therefore deserves a reward for so doing. Of course, this is a fallacious perspective, for the pleasures of sin last only for a season, and ultimately bring sorrow. Giving them up is no real burden. Yet deep down in his heart, the legalist seems to at least be worried that the truth might be otherwise. Thus, this older son seems to feel that he has given up something by not enjoying himself with his brother, and that he should get a reward to make up for it.
Notice how this older brother refuses to associate, even in words, with his younger brother. He calls his brother “this son of yours,” even though he is also a brother of his own. Yet he does not acknowledge him as his brother, and it is fairly clear that, if it were up to the older brother, this younger son would have been turned away and received no forgiveness from his father, not to mention any kind of favorable treatment. In this, this older brother is much like the religious leaders whom Christ was speaking against, who offered no forgiveness under any circumstances for those they had deemed unfit to be a part of Israel.
31. “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.
The father reminds his son that nothing has changed materially. Remember, at his younger son’s insistence he has already divided the inheritance with his sons, as if he were a dotard and no longer able to manage his own goods. He now owns nothing of what was once his, but has divided it all to his sons. Now the younger brother’s third of the inheritance is gone, and all that the father has will now go to the older son and the younger will receive nothing. Just because this son is received back does not mean that he will get an inheritance the second time. He has squandered this. The father has not received him back to restore him as an heir, but rather in joy that he has returned. Why then should the older brother be jealous of the younger? The father may have given this younger son a fatted calf, but in comparison everything he once called his own now belongs to the older brother.
32. “’It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’”
The father further argues that just because the older son now has everything and the younger nothing, this does not change the fact that they should be glad at the younger son’s return. He gently reminds his older son that this is his brother, referring to him that way when the older son refused to do so in verse 30. His brother, he tells him, had been lost and now is found, and had been dead to them and now is alive again. Even though his inheritance is wasted, his return to his father is reason enough to rejoice. The complaints of his older brother are not gracious and not right.
In this parable, the cold and uncaring attitude of the older brother shows forth and displays the cold and heartless attitude of the Pharisees. Just as his attitude towards his brother was not right, so the Pharisee’s complaints against the Lord Jesus’ compassion are not right. They like Christ should have been happy that these wayward children were being brought back to the father. Yet all they could feel was jealousy that God might have compassion on those whom they had rejected. This was not a right attitude, and the Lord’s parable points this out to them.
The story ends abruptly at this point. We might wonder and wish someone had asked the Lord how the older brother responded to this appeal, and what his attitude towards his younger brother was after this. Yet we have no indication of this, and I believe that this was quite on purpose on the part of the Lord. The question now was how the Pharisees would respond to this parable. Would they see the Lord’s point, and choose to show greater compassion on the wayward outcasts of Israel from that point forward? Or would they continue to have a cold and unforgiving attitude towards them? Of course, we cannot say for certain, yet we do know that even some of the Pharisees became believers in the Lord Jesus Christ in the Acts period that was to follow this. Thus, for some of them at least, the story might have had a happy ending.