Comments on the Parable of the Prodigal Son

(Luke 15 verses 11 to 32)

            One uses the commonly used title “The prodigal Son” as it is well known though it is not actually used by Christ. It wasn’t just that the younger Son had wasted the property that his Father had given him but the manner of it - he had lived in debauchery (verse 13).

            The parable is often used by Gospel preachers, usually with particular reference to the younger Son.

            One is commenting on the passage just now as the articles on my web site have been to date mainly of the critical sort and it is thought that something of a different nature may be interesting and helpful to my readers.

            The first thing one would notice is that the parable is peculiar to Luke; there is nothing like it in the other Gospels or anywhere else in the Scriptures so far as I am aware. It is characteristic of Luke to give us cases where there are two persons where one gets blessed and the other not. See for instance the two that went up into the temple to pray where one was a Pharisee and the other a tax gatherer and the two thieves that were crucified with Jesus (Luke 18:10 and Luke 23:39-43). This is in contrast to Matthew who usually gives cases where two persons were involved and both were blessed (e.g. Matthew 8:28 and 9:27). Matthew was concerned, we might say, with witness. He emphasises the objective facts, whereas Luke is more concerned with the work in persons, what we might call their exercises, as in the parable we are considering. This is born out by the case of the two houses (Matthew 7:24-27; Luke 6:47-49). In Matthew’s account the emphasis is on the contrast between the material used (rock and sand), but in Luke the thought of digging deep is introduced, that is, work was involved. Luke makes a lot of prayer which again emphasises the thought of need and exercise in persons. The matter is worth considering.

            Some tend to favour the younger Son and some the elder. As a matter of fact both were sinners. With the younger Son his sin was clearly seen, but with the elder Son the problem was more hidden. The parable was particularly directed at the Pharisees as is evident if we go to the beginning of the chapter (verses 1 and 2). In a wider sense it applies to the Gentiles and the Jews (those who were afar off and those that were nigh as to position - Isaiah 57:19; Ephesians 2:17). Elsewhere, Christ points out to the chief priests and elders that the tax-gatherers and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before them (Matthew 21:31). However one would point out that eventually some of the Pharisees and priests believed (Acts 15:5; 6:7). Paul himself was a notable convert (Philippians 3:5). It is noticeable that at the end of the parable we are considering the door was still open for the elder Son to come in. However the day will come when the door will be shut (Matthew 25:10). However that is in the hands of the master of the house (Luke 13:25).

            Considering now the detail of the parable, what is noticeable is that both Sons were concerned with what was for themselves. The younger Son says: “give to me” (verse 12) and the elder Son points to what he had not been given: “to me hast thou never given a kid that I might make merry with my friends” (verse 29). It is noticeable that in Ecclesiastes 2:4-11 the writer is occupied with what he had done for himself and what was the end result: “all was vanity and pursuit of the wind, and there was no profit under the sun.”(Ecclesiastes 2:11). I call that chapter the self chapter !

            The next thing we find in our chapter is that the younger Son “went away into a country a long way off.” (verse 13). He had no need to do so. It is a bad sign when young people go far away from a godly parental home for no good reason. It looks as if they want to go to a place where they can do what they fancy without their parents knowing what they are up to. It shows that they know their parents would not approve of the lifestyle they want to follow. It is noticeable that the Father (a Mother is not mentioned incidentally, nor Sisters for that matter) did not hinder the younger Son from going far away. The younger Son then cast off all restraint and gave rein to his lusts. The elder Son did not apparently do this but he apparently prided Himself that he was a good boy. Evil does not come out in the same way in all of us. Some are loose livers (as the younger Son), but others behave themselves as to their outward life (as the elder Son). However it appears that the elder Son was aware of what his Brother was doing in the far country and maybe he envied him and the good time he appeared to be having. Perhaps his heart was in the far country, but he thought that he was very good for not going there himself. This may be a challenge to us: would we rather be spending our time drinking in a pub than finding our life in the company of the Lord’s people?

            The Father did not go after the younger Son, but, one may say, left him to learn his lesson. We would have to be careful that we do not keep our Sons at home if they want to leave as they may break away later with disastrous results or they may be a trial to us if they continue to live with us.

            What brought the younger Son to his senses was his need resulting from the fact that there was a famine in the far country and that his resources had all been used up. There is nothing about a preacher going to help him. It was particularly the famine that made him think of what he had lost. God can use such things to wake us up, so to speak. He is not limited to any one method. It says in Amos, he may send a famine; “not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of Jehovah.” (Amos 8:11). As has often been noticed “no one gave to him” (verse 16). We may say that this was because of the hardness of the world, but it may well have been because people thought he had got what he deserved. The swine that he was sent to feed were not allowed to be eaten under the mosaic law (Leviticus 11:7; see also Isaiah 65:4), and to have to feed such would have been really humbling to a Jew. God often has to bring us right down to the lowest place before we will listen to his voice. In the Old Testament much is said about God using famines to make his voice heard. See for example 2 Samuel 21:1.

            It is noticeable that there is a difference between the prodigal’s return home and that of Absalom. With Absalom there was no repentance (2 Samuel 14:33). However, with the prodigal there was. Notice that the first thing he said was: “I have sinned against heaven” (verse 21). Heaven is God’s throne (Acts 7:49). We should get right with God first. This should be followed by putting things right with our fellow men and, I think, would be involved in what is called: “doing works worthy of repentance” (Acts 26:20).

            There is nothing specifically about the Lord’s work in this parable or about faith in the prodigal. However, the prodigal appears to have had confidence that his Father would receive him even if only in the character of a hired servant (verse 19). What the prodigal received was not what he had wasted, but what was better: the best robe, ring and sandals (verse 22). These things are suggestive of Christian blessings, such as the “robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). Some may see a reference to the death of Christ in the killing of the fatted calf, but it is not the idea of taking away sin which is connected rather with the Lamb of God (John 1:29).

            When the long lost Son returned they had what today would probably be called a party (verse 24). It corresponds to the joy spoken of in verses 7 and 10. The music and dancing was what was appropriate though it is not something that would be done literally for a repentant sinner today any more than we would literally produce robe, ring and sandals. However, we may say that the passage shows that music and dancing are not themselves evil things. Music had a place in the service of God in the Old Testament (Psalm 150) and it is said: “Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance” (Jeremiah 31:13). However, as man corrupts everything in which he involves himself there can be music which is depraved and dancing also (Ephesians 4:22).

            It should be noted that the prodigal was thinking of asking to be made as one of the hired servants (verse 19). He never got round to saying it as his Father was receiving him as a Son and this must have been obvious to the prodigal. A hired servant must have been lower in status than a bondman for the Father did not ask a hired servant to bring out the best robe, but his bondmen (verse 22). One should note here that a true bondman is not what we imagine a slave to be - someone forced to work using whips. Christ speaks of bondmen as those to whom he gives authority (Matthew 24:45; Mark 13:34).

            As to the prodigal the Father says: “This my Son was dead and has come to life, was lost and has been found” (verse 24). The sheep and the drachma were simply lost, but with the Son there is an additional thought - the Son was also dead. It may be said he was not physically dead, but he was in a spiritual sense as we get it in Ephesians 2:1 “dead in your offences and sins” and also in 1 Timothy 5:6 “She that lives in habits of self-indulgence is dead [while] living.” There was no life Godward. However, the Christian is to reckon himself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:10/11).

            It is clear that the Father loved both his Sons. In the case of the younger Son he ran to meet him (verse 20). In the case of the elder Son he went out and besought him to come in (verse 28). As to the younger Son Christ tells us that the Father was “moved with compassion” (verse 20). This is something that is often said of Christ Himself when he was on earth. The expression is used four times in Matthew as can be ascertained by using a concordance. The elder Son’s problem appears to be that he did not love his Brother. He was hard (had no compassion) and obviously did not want to meet his Brother. He no doubt despised him for the life he had led. The Father said to him: “Thy Brother is come” (verse 27). He said: “thy Son” (verse 30). He wasn’t recognising him as his Brother. Had he met him one would think the prodigal would have put matters right with him. However, as he would not see him this could not happen. See 1 John 3:10-12.

            The elder Son says: “Behold, so many years I serve thee, and never have I transgressed a commandment of thine.” It is to be noted that the word serve that the elder Son uses is that for bond-service, i.e. of a slave. It would suggest that his service to his Father was not willing service, but something he felt he had to legally fulfil. He was under law so to speak. Further, he says: “Never have I transgressed a commandment of thine” (verse 29). However, he was not obeying his Father at that moment, because he “would not go in” (verse 28).

            The Father makes it clear that the elder Son had nothing to complain of as he says: “all that is mine is thine” (verse 31). The younger Son had wasted his substance. What was left was the elder Son’s share. Although, the younger Son got a blessing so to speak there is no suggestion that he got back what he had wasted. The governmental consequences of what we do should not be belittled. The elder Son inherited what was his due. If we apply this to the Gentile (the younger Son) and the Jew (the elder Son) we find that the Gentile has come into heavenly blessings (in the Father’s house), but the Jew largely put himself outside of them (Ephesians 1:3). He will however get earthly blessings in a coming day. God will see to that (Romans 11:29). Consider also Matthew 5:5 and 23:39.

            In what is said above there is no attempt to exhaust the parable. Though it primarily refers to sinners coming to repentance, it could also be of help to Christians who have got away from God. We should also learn not to be wasteful. Christ did not tell the rich ruler to waste his money, but to make use of it for the benefit of the poor (Luke 18:18-23). We may also learn that there is no profit in placing ourselves at a distance from God. The end of such a course is death (Romans 6:21). We learn that there is no real spiritual food in the far country, but there is in the Father’s house - abundance of it (verse 17) . There food is found that will build us up spiritually; the food in the far country is only fit for swine. We do not want to get down to the level of such.


April 2008.