Luke 15 and the Prodigal Son
The parables of the Gospels are interesting from a number of perspectives. Many people have lauded the brilliance of the parables in so clearly and convincingly communicating Jesus’ message in a way easily related to by the masses. I have no doubt that Jesus used parables at times to communicate clearly, though the only recorded time he was ever asked about his purpose for using parables, his response was quite different.
Matthew 13:10 And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
11 He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
12 For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
13 Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
14 And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:
15 For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.
Jesus had been speaking to “great multitudes” in parables. His response to the disciples’ question indicates that his purpose in this case was to obscure his message rather than to make it clear. He continued after this to teach his disciples the meaning of a parable he had just spoken to the multitudes. The disciples would get it. The multitudes would not.
So when was Jesus communicating clearly and when was he obscuring and either way, what is the meaning of each parable and how can we know for sure? The answer my friend is not blowin’ in the wind. The answer is context, context, context. Many people do not significantly consider that the parables of Jesus, like everything else in God’s Word, occur within a context. Sometimes it is even stated what the purpose of the parables is. A case in point is in Luke 18.
Luke 18:1 And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;
2 Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man:
3 And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary.
4 And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man;
5 Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.
6 And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith.
7 And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?
This parable is also a good example of the truth that there is ONE major point to a parable. Drawing a point from each part of a parable may or may not be valid. If we were to do so with this parable, we would equate God with the unjust judge, obviously not the point of the parable.
An example of a parable, or parables, understood by the context occurs in Luke 15.
Luke 15:1 Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.
2 And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.
3 And he spake this parable unto them, saying,
It is obvious, isn’t it? Whatever parable Jesus is about to tell, it is addressed to a particular group of people regarding a particular situation. The “publicans,” by the way, were tax collectors. They were loathed for a number of reasons and understandably so. That could be a whole other article, but anyway, the self-righteous Pharisees and their scribe friends were offended by Jesus associating with publicans and sinners. What was the problem? They should have rejoiced that these publicans and sinners had come unto Jesus, but instead, they were offended. Here is the parable with the meaning given.
Luke 15:4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
7 I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
The Pharisees considered themselves as just persons needing no repentance. They were not, of course, but Jesus is telling them that there is more rejoicing in heaven over these sinners coming to him than there is for them in spite of how righteous they think they are.
There is no change of the context for the next parable. Jesus is still speaking to the same group for the same reason.
Luke 15:8 Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?
9 And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.
10 Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.
The meaning is obvious. The singular point is not how to find the lost, or whatever, but the rejoicing that should occur with the finding of the lost. With this in mind, let’s go to the next parable. Again, there is no change in setting or context. Jesus is telling a third parable to the same group of people for the same reason.
Luke 15:11 And he said, A certain man had two sons:
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.
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.
14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.
15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
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!
18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.
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.
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.
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:
23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:
24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.
Granted, a lot of ink is given to the “prodigal son.” If the story were really about him, it would end here, would it not? The story does not end here because it is not primarily about the “prodigal son.” It is about the unthankful son. It is about the Pharisees and scribes who were indignant at the grace being shown to the publicans and sinners. The ones to whom the parable is addressed are confronted for the third time in the third parable addressed to them.
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.
26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.
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.
28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.
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:
One must recognize that the Pharisees to whom this parable is addressed would have viewed themselves this way, having never transgressed in any way and thus so much more deserving of favor than poor sinners.
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.
31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.
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.
So is this a parable about a “prodigal son” or is it a parable about an unforgiving, unthankful, and not rejoicing son? Well of course both are involved, but considering the truth that parables are promoting just one underlying truth, I have to go with the latter.