A Bible Study by Jack Kelley
Even in the midst of our very worst rebellion, we can’t stop being our Father’s children.
Prodigal means “given to extravagant expenditure.” The word never appears in the parable of Luke 15, or anywhere else in the Bible for that matter. I think the Lord would have titled this story, “The Parable of the Two Sons,” because we’re to learn from the behavior of both. But since He didn’t, we tend to focus on only the “bad” son and miss the lesson in the behavior of the “good” one.
I’ve described parables as heavenly stories put into an earthly context, where each major facet of the story is to be viewed symbolically. For example, in this parable the Father represents our Father in Heaven, the sons are types of believers, and the inheritance, a believer’s position and privilege as a child of God. As I’ll demonstrate one of those is permanent and the other conditional.
You know the story. One son, the younger one, asks for his share of the inheritance and upon receiving it goes off to a far place where for a time he lives a life “given to extravagant expenditure,” hence the parable’s name. The older son remains at home, apparently obedient to his father’s wishes.
Soon his money is gone and the younger son is poverty-stricken. Realizing that his father’s servants have it better than he does, he decides to return home and hire on as a servant there. But his father, seeing him in the distance runs out to meet him, immediately restores his former privileges and orders a big celebration in his honor.
The older son is scandalized by all this and resentful, complaining that for disobedience his younger brother is being rewarded, but by being faithful he has been taken for granted and received nothing. In a loving way, the father reminds him that “you are always with me and everything I have is yours, but we had to celebrate and be glad, for this brother of yours was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:31-32).
In the historical context of the passage, some Pharisees were criticizing the Lord for associating with sinners and eating with them. Remember, in those days religious lawbreakers were ostracized from society, and sharing a meal with them was unthinkable. The very fact that the Pharisees were pointing this out identifies the sinners as Jewish, subject to the law. Since the Lord used the parable in response to the criticism, the two brothers represent the Pharisees and the sinners.
His earlier claim that “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 who don’t need to” (Luke 15:7), was obviously aimed at those same Pharisees, and the older brother’s behavior mirrors their self-righteous attitude toward the Lord’s dinner companions. We know that there isn’t even one who doesn’t need to repent, and that no one will be declared righteous for keeping the law (Romans 3:10, 20). That’s why there’s more rejoicing in Heaven over sinners who repent than righteous people who don’t need to. There aren’t any who don’t need to, and that’s one lesson to be learned from the older brother. “Take the plank out of your own eye,” the Lord advised, “before removing the speck from your brother’s” (Matt. 7:5).
What About Now?
Since it’s a timeless story, the two brothers also represent the so-called faithful and fallen among Christians today. Just as there were no righteous Pharisees then, there are no truly faithful now. I have personally witnessed miraculous acts performed by the Holy Spirit through me as well as others, but I have never seen a mountain moved “from here to there,” a feat possible if we possessed faith even the size of a mustard seed (Matt. 17:20). Just as I don’t buy the older son’s claim of unblemished devotion and obedience and the Pharisees claim of righteousness, I don’t buy the church’s claim of faithfulness. The advice from Matt. 7:5 still applies.
And there are no fallen in the church, though many have stumbled. “My Father’s will is that I shall lose none of those He has given me,” the Lord promised (John 6:39-40). It has always been the Shepherd’s job to keep the sheep. So here’s another lesson from the older brother. It’s not about behavior, it’s about relationship. No matter what he did, the Prodigal never stopped being a son.
The most important lesson from the parable comes from what isn’t said. In welcoming his errant son home and restoring his privileges, the father didn’t say, “My son who was bad has become good” but rather “My son who was lost is found.” Even in the midst of our very worst rebellion, we can’t stop being our Father’s children. Like the Prodigal son, we may yield up our privileges for a time but we can never lose our position in the family of God.