In almost every Bible Luke 15:11-32 has the heading “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”, which indirectly causes many readers to focus on the younger rebellious son, which misses the point of the whole story. This is really a parable about “A Father with Two Lost Sons”, both of which are prodigals. The father is compassionate and merciful. Both sons are lost, but in different ways. These are two seemingly different sons who, beneath the surface, are essentially the same. My point, this parable focuses on the entire family, the relationships among family members. If we read the parable through these lenses I believe it has implications it has for us as “Children of God” (individually) and implications on what it means to be in “the family of God” (corporately).
You see, Jesus was a masterful story teller. There are very powerful reasons why he chose to tell this parable in the setting of a family. There were cultural distinctives that his hearers would have picked up on. The context of biblical material is always important in helping one understand the story.
A Few Cultural Distinctives
During this time period the basic idea of family was much different than it is today. In modern Western culture we think in terms of a “nuclear family” of individual people (Father, Mother, Children), for Jesus original hearers the family was a larger extended unit of people. Unlike our culture, their idea of intimate family members would consist of grandparents, the married children’s families (the in-laws), their unmarried son’s and daughters, the male and female hired servants, and the family slaves. There was a reason for this. In those times you did not survive unless you had a strong intact, cohesive family group. The family was a means of survival. In many ways the family functioned on a corporate (by this I mean, a body of people who act as a unit) level- as a means of livelihood. There was security in being a part of a family. This is hard for us to understand in our day when so many of us are independent. In that day wealth and livelihood was measured by land, cattle, and means of production. It was crucial that the family fortune stay in tact.
Beyond that, there was a cultural understanding of sonship that is important to understanding the parable. The son’s of the patriarch were held in special honor. The son’s were heirs. As an heir you guarded the Family Heritage. As a son you carried the family name, and your name was an important part of your identity. Your name stood for your values and beliefs. The sons also guarded the Family livelihood, tightly connected to the “family business.” This is particularly interesting in the case of the “elder son.” The elder son was to carry on the family business once the father was no longer able to run the household. This was one of the reasons that the elder son got the majority of the inheritance. Being an elder son was more of an “office” than anything else. But more importantly, for the purposes of the parable, the elder son was also expected to serve as a family mediator. He was to protect the family and their assets to prevent the breakup of the family.
Commentary on Luke 15:11-32
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.’
This is unimaginably disrespectful and hateful. By saying “give me my inheritance”, the younger son was saying (to his father) you are more valuable dead. Give me what your life is worth. I do not care about the livelihood of our family. I want no part in our heritage. I don’t care about the family name. Most importantly, I want to cut off my relationship with you. This is a death wish.
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.
No one would give the younger son anything. He had exhausted all of his resources. He was poor, hungry, and needy. Not to mention that there was a famine, so no one has anything to give him. No one has anything to sustain his life. So much so that he longed pig feed.
Is this not the story of humanity? We were created to live in fellowship with God. That was our original home. But, our first parents, Adam and Eve cut off their relationship with our Heavenly Father and were exiled. We (as the human family) have been in spiritual exile ever since. Like the younger brother many people around us live in famine, and nothing in this world can sustain life. So many people try and fill their emptiness with pig feed.
“But when he came to himself (came to his senses), he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! (He was going to die) I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. (He acknowledge his folly towards God and his Father)
Here is an extremely important acknowledgment of the younger son;
I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.
This is huge! He knows that intentionally broke off his relationship with his father, with his whole family. He had no care for their well being. He had no respect for the family name. He had even wasted his whole inheritance, the family wealth. He had basically said to his father- you are more valuable dead to me.
As he comes back he knows, “I am not longer worthy to be called you son.” And he’s not. He has given up all rights to be a part of the family. He has given up all rights to ever have his fellowship restored. They owe him nothing. Yet, he plans to do the only thing he can do, plead with his father, have mercy on me, at least treat me as a servant. “Treat me as one of your hired servants.”
This “servant” language is key to understanding what is going on. He is basically planning on saying “let me attempt, at least make an effort repay you for everything I have done. Let my work, not only move me towards repaying you, but also let it be a sign of my repentance.”
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, (the father’s robe, as head of the household) and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand (place the family seal on back on his hand), and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it (they rarely ate meat- livestock = wealth), and let us eat and celebrate (lets have the biggest party this family has ever seen).
For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’
That’s the good news. That’s a picture of the Gospel. I am not worthy to be called a son! But the father has mercy when he repents and makes the declaration, “You are now my son. You are now part of the family.”
And they began to celebrate.
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.’
Remember, the oldest son in the family had a special occupation to secure the families wealth and unity. He was to act as a mediator in these situations. But he refuses, and walks out of the family home. Think about it. The younger son has wasted his inheritance. So allowing the younger son back into the family came at the expense of the elder brother. He would have to sacrifice his riches.
But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out (the father came out to bring the young rebellious son home, and now goes out to bring the older self righteous son home) and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you,
There is that “serve” word again. Don’t miss this. When the younger son returned home, he asks that his father would make him a servant (to pay his way back into the family), now the older son is basically saying the opposite, that he has earned his place in the family in a life of service. He declares, “I have been your servant.”
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 (notice, he does not say “my brother”), who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he (the father) said to him, (being rich in mercy and compassion) ‘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.’”
Now, the elder brother represented the religious leaders that were in Jesus audience; he “never” disobeys any of the father’s laws. In the end, he is the one who misses the feast of salvation rather than his rebellious brother. See, the younger brother knew he was lost. The greatest danger to the elder brothers is that they do not know that they are lost.
Jesus ends the parable there. The elder brother is left outside the celebration. Jesus was using this story to teach us that all of humanity is lost- Either in rebellion or self-righteous religion. The whole human family is lost in sin. Jesus was also saying that the heavenly father is compassionate and merciful. Lastly, Christ was saying that he would be the true and greater elder brother. His audience might or might not of picked up on this at the time, but think about it.
Jesus the True and Greater Elder Brother
As Jesus proclaimed- “No one comes to the father but through me.” I mentioned earlier about the importance of sonship in that culture. In their family the elder son got the majority of the inheritance. Like the younger son, we as humanity have thrown away our inheritance, which is our relationship with the father. Colossians 1:15 tells us that Jesus “is the first born of all creation.” He is humanities true and greater elder brother. Unlike the elder son in the parable, Jesus comes and searches for us while we are prodigals. While are dead in our trespasses and sins, wandering in a famined land. That’s why Jesus came. Jesus brings us home. He brings the lost to their senses.
In the same way that the elder son was to serve as the family mediator, Jesus serves as our mediator. He mends the broken relationship back to the Father through his perfect life and sacrifice. As the elder son’s job was to continue and protect the family business. God is in the business of redemption, of brining the lost prodigals and the proud self-righteous back into the family feast. And Jesus is always (As we read in Luke) “about his Fathers business.” Unlike the elder brother in the parable, Jesus celebrates when we come home. Jesus gave his life to give you and I the riches we do not deserve. Unlike the elder brother of the parable, Jesus gladly shares with us the riches of His father. He was slaughtered so that you and I could be reconciled and brought into the family of God. That’s the good news of our Elder Brother Jesus Christ. This has massive implications on our lives as “Children of God” in the “Family of God.”
As Children of God we are given the status of sons
“Sonship” is not an automatic universal given. Not everyone is a “child of God.” Now, there is a sense in which all human beings are God’s “offspring” by virtue of being created by Him, in His image (Acts 17:29). But we as Christians, we actually have a relationship with God as Father, and only we have the status of children of God. As Galatians 3:26 says “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” This is a gift. Not something you earn, or loose. It is a gift, for those who are “in Christ.” In other words, it is only through faith in Christ that God adopts us into his family. Our status as children of God is secure in Christ.
As sons we have a deep security because we are part of the family through Christ. Like the younger son who said, “I don’t deserve the status of sonship.” We also do not deserve sonship in the family of God because of sin. But like the father in the parable, the heavenly Father is compassionate and merciful when we come to him in realization that we are lost. Some of us rarely apply this security to your daily walk. Like the younger son we often get in the attitude of “I want to pay you back, God.” when we sin. Or some of us are like the older brother who try and use our obedience to get out of God what we want (“God, I have done all these things- I deserve so and so.” Or- on the negative end, “God I cannot believe this is happening to me, after all I have done for you?”). In other words, we attempt to justify ourselves before God by our morality. But there is no security in that mindset, in that mindset you are basing your security on your performance, and you will fail.
Thank God for our true and greater elder brother, Jesus Christ. As a true believer, as a son and daughter you are secure! You are not a servant who earns favor before God. You have been given a secure legal sonship in Christ. This is a legal relationship that you can rest on. Does this mean that we don’t need to be obedient? Certainly not! But it does change our motivation for obedience. The point of being obedient is not to make yourself feel secure in your relationship with God. Once you realize that you have been given the status of sonship, something you do not deserve, it will promote obedience. So obedience is a response to God’s grace.
As Children of God we experience the relationship of sons
Being brought into the family of God, through Christ, gives us complete access to our loving Father. As we read in Galatians 4:4-7; “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”
“Abba Father” is an intimate name for God. As sons we have unconditional intimate access just as a child has access to a father like no one else in this world has. Like the father in the parable, our God is compassionate and merciful. As true believers you will always be his children, and therefore never have to worry about your access to him. The fathers love for you is not based on your performance, but on Christ’s perfect obedience. When you are in Christ, God sees you in Christ. In other words, God now treats you as if we are “only sons”, like Jesus. Jesus says in John 17:20-24, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one.” In other words, we can approach God with the same boldness as Christ, because we have the status of sons.
As Children of God we gain the full inheritance of sons
Our inheritance is life- it is relationship with God. When Christ removed the curse we deserved, he gave us the riches and authority that he alone deserved. As sons we have authority over sin. Unless we remember the riches set before us we will be anxious and even despairing in this life. We need to remember that our inheritance of life is guaranteed. It’s not something to be earned (like the elder brother in the parable thought), it is ours as sons.
As you grow in your Christian life more and more sin will be revealed in your life. But here’s the thing, you realize that all sin looks about as good as pig feed in light of the feast promised to us in Christ. This should give us boldness to conquer sin. Romans 8 reminds us that; “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death…For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.”
That should give you boldness over sin. You are a child of God. This not only has massive implications on your personal walk, but also ties in to how we function as a church family. We are not just members of some organizational group. We are a family. In a family there is not just one point of contact, like there is in a “quilting club” or “car club.” The gospel touches every area of our lives. As believers we are brought into the family of God together. This is a family, and like a family we share life, we are a unit. Our fellowship with one another is a gift of grace, because, like a family, these relationships go deeper than any other human relationships.
In the family of God there Should be Commitment to the Family Livelihood
We belong to each other in Jesus Christ. Period. There are going to be times when all of us act like younger brothers, there are going to be times when all of us act like elder brothers. In the same way that you did not choose your siblings, you do not choose your brothers and sisters in Christ. They come with the family. There is a bond. We would all acknowledge that there are people in God’s family that you would never choose as friends, but you are family. Remember that we have a compassionate father, and a sacrificial elder brother- therefore, what God did for us, we owe to each other. The more we realize we have received, the more we can give.
In the Family of God there Should be Transparency among Family Members
You can’t fool your brothers and sisters. They know what you are really like! Like I said, all of us have “younger brother” and “elder brother” tendencies in our lives. So I encourage everyone to be honest with each other, hold each other accountable, gently call each other out. We need to realize that God has created this church family reality through Christ, and it is for your good when you participate. Plus, this is only possible in Christ. Why? Well, when your security is based on Christ, and not how others perceive you its a lot easier to build meaningful relationships. In Christ we are enabled to be transparent because we don’t fear rejection from our Christian brothers and sisters. There is security in the family of God.
In the Family of God there Should be Transformation of Lives
In many ways, you and I are largely the product of your family. You are largely shaped by the people you spend the most time with. You will only change if you are “re-familyed.” You need to get to know people, not just come to church classes, but really intimately being with each other. This is costly. Being closely involved with other people will be time consuming, complicated, and messy. Close relationships make it more likely to that you will sin against someone or someone will sin against you. Therefore you will need times of confession and forgiveness.
Close relationships push us to die to ourselves. It’s in these close relationships that we begin to see the younger brother or elder brother spirit revealed in our hearts. But that is God’s plan- that we grow together. In many ways, sanctification is a group project. Thank God, for what he has done in Jesus Christ to make s part of this glorious family reality. Our true elder brother is Jesus Christ. He came to earth to sacrifice himself so that we could become sons of God. This is what turns us into a family, and this is what guides us in our relationships with each other.
- The Prodigal God- Tim Keller
- The Parables- Brad H. Young
- Interpreting the Parables- Craig L. Blomberg
- The Gospel of Luke- Joel B. Green (NICNT)
- The Gospel of Luke, Vol. 2- Darrell L. Bock (BECNT)
- God, Marriage, and Family- Andreas J. Kostenberger
- Marriage and Family in Ancient Israel- Chapter by Daniel L. Block
- Life Together- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- How People Change- Timothy S. Lane, Paul D. Tripp