Jesus’ parable of Luke 15:11-32 is usually referred to as “the parable of the prodigal son.” But at the very beginning of the parable, Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons,” and these two sons had a relationship as sons with their father (Lk 15:11). If Jesus’ intention were to speak only concerning the attitude and actions of the younger prodigal son, then He would have probably mentioned that the father had only one son who became a prodigal. The parable, however, involves the relationship of two sons with their father.
The fact that Jesus speaks of the behavior of both sons in relation to their father indicates that the lesson of the parable goes far beyond the behavior of either son. He wants us to discover the heart of our heavenly Father in the behavior of the father toward us as His sons.
Jesus wants us to see ourselves in the parable as we seek to reflect on our gospel living in our relationship with our Father. This is truly a parable that takes us into the function of God’s heart that should be reflected in our lives as we live the gospel.
There are three ways by which we can live in this world: (1) religiously, (2) irreligiously, (3) or by the gospel. In this parable, Jesus illustrates religion through the behavior of the older brother. He illustrates irreligion through the behavior of the younger brother in the wilderness. In the illustrations of both behaviors, He seeks to unveil the heart of “gospel living” that was soon to be revealed to everyone in His audience through the gospel of the cross and resurrection. But in order for his audience to understand how one lives by the gospel after the nature of the heart of God, they must first see the inadequacy of their religious behavior.
In the parable, it was the ambition of both sons to secure the wealth of their father. Each approached the matter from different perspectives. Out of frustration, the younger son demanded the immediate reception of his inheritance, and then went on his way. The other older son sought to secure his share of the father’s wealth by remaining in faithful obedience to the father. As the parable reveals, one son lived very bad and squandered his inheritance. The other son lived very good in order to secure his share of the wealth of the father for his future. However, we must not miss the point of what Jesus was trying to say to His audience in reference to our Father’s relationship with us as His sons, regardless of how we come before Him. The father of the two sons emulated grace toward the sons who came before Him regardless of the former behavior of either son. We must never forget that our Father does the same to us.
In the parable, Jesus unveils the heart of God to which we seek to be close because we cannot resist His love to forgiveness. The father’s behavior, not the sons’, is the focus of the parable because Jesus seeks to reveal the forgiving heart of our heavenly Father. We are thus driven to live the gospel of grace because we would never merit the grace of God who is defined by love (1 Jn 4:8). We always have His favor (grace) because we are always His created sons. We must simply obediently live according to who He is and what we already have because of our origin from Him.
We must also keep in mind that Jesus was, through the parables, leading the people to the heart of God that would soon be revealed at His last Passover/Pentecost feast. With the example of the two brothers, He sought to reach out to everyone who would futility seek to be close to the Father solely on the merit of their own obedience. Therefore, in the behavior of both brothers, we discover ourselves in our efforts to receive meritoriously the “wealth” that is freely given by the Father through His grace. The parable focuses on the gospel of grace to which Jesus was leading His audience, and to which grace all must respond on the basis of total dependency on the Father. We cannot, as either the younger or older sons, leverage grace from God through any meritorious behavior on our part. Grace is a free gift that is received only through experiencing its glorious nature.
Two key statements in the parable reveal the underlying motives of the two brothers in order to leverage a forgiving relationship with their father. The younger said to the father, “I am no more worthy to be called your son” (Lk 15:21). The older said to the father, “I have never transgressed your commandment at any time” (Lk 15:29). Both brothers sought to establish their relationship with their father upon a wrong premise. Both based the foundation of their relationship with their father on meritorious behavior, whether repentance from bad behavior or faithful behavior in staying with the father. One brother sought to restore his relationship with his father through meritorious repentance, and the other sought to maintain the same through the merit of his faithful adherence to the father’s commandments. Both misunderstood the heart of the father in the father’s relationship with his sons through grace. Grace is free, not earned. It is difficult for meritorious religionists to understand that our Father’s grace is always present for those who want to accept it. But we must not forget that God’s grace is not earned through meritorious obedience, neither through meritorious repentance to comply with self-imposed obedience to religious rites.
- The younger brother:
The saga of the story began with one son straying from the father and one son staying with the father. The younger son said to his father, “Father, give me the portion of the inheritance that falls to me” (Lk 15:12). And so the father handed over to him his inheritance. The younger son then “gathered everything together and took his journey to a far country. And there he wasted his inheritance in wild living” (Lk 5:13). Fortunately, as many young men who have sought to spend some time in the wilderness, the younger brother “finally came to himself” after wasting all his inheritance. It was only then that he began to consider his predicament, and then, make a plan to change the environment of his circumstances (Lk 15:17).
Notice what the younger brother said upon his decision to return to his father: “I am dying with hunger … I will arise and go to my father and will say ‘I have sinned … I am no more worthy’” (Lk 15:17-19). He was certainly reflecting on what he had done and where he was. But his reflection was on what he would do in order to change the deplorable circumstances of his predicament. Because his focus was on what he would do in order to earn a reconciled relationship with his father, he sought a meritorious solution that was based on what he could do. “I will arise and go to my father” (Lk 15:18). This was not a repentant response to the “invitation song.” It was the response of one who only wanted to place himself in better circumstances that was based on his performance. He went back to the father to earn something for himself.
The younger brother’s problem was in the fact that he assumed that the father was obligated to receive him back on the merit of what he would do. Upon the merit of his return to be only a servant in his father’s fields, he sought to obligate the father to restore him to a meritorious relationship as a servant, but not as heir as a son. His “repentance” was only a return ticket to at least enjoy again the wealth of his father, even though it was from a distance as a meritorious servant in the servant fields.
Though the younger brother’s desire was commendable in knowing where to find a solution for his problems of life, it might be good to consider also the fact that his return to the father was still self-centered and meritorious. His repentance to servanthood was only an outward effort to earn a limited relationship with his father. Though he would return as a servant to work in his father’s fields, he was still comparing his existing situation of feeding pigs in the field with his father’s fields (Lk 15:15).
In order to change his predicament, the younger son assumed that he would simply change locations. Instead of changing his heart, the younger brother wanted to simply change locations from the pig fields to the father’s fields. His repentance to the servanthood of his father, therefore, was only an outward expression of an inward desire that still focused on himself. He was not dealing with the sin beneath the sin. He thought that if he could only earn a relationship with the father, then he would be right with his father on the basis of his servanthood. If he could “self-sanctify” himself through humble servanthood in doing good in the servant fields, then certainly he would have earned the right to be in a relationship with his father.
Changing his location was in his thinking, not changing his life-style by changing his heart. Changing from pig fields to the father’s fields did not change his heart. His outward change was commendable. However, unless he corrected the sin beneath the sin, he would be the same person in his father’s fields as a meritorious servant as was in the pig fields.
The younger son assumed that he would be forgiven by the father on the merit of his willingness to serve in his servants’ fields, even if it were service with his father’s servants. He sought to merit his acceptance by the father on the condition of his willingness to work only as a servant. He trusted that the father would thus forgive him on the merit of his willingness to serve in the humble location where only servants labor and not sons.
The younger son’s problem, therefore, goes deeper than being a good servant. The “repentant” younger son was willing to trade his sonship in order to be just a simple servant in the fields. He reasoned that if he would simply return to service, he would merit forgiveness from the father. His decision to return was based on being received back by the father only as a faithful servant, but not in the position of a son.
So when the younger son did return, he said to the father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no more worthy to be called your son” (Lk 15:21). The younger son forgot that no one is “worthy” to earn sonship from the father. Sonship is by birth and cannot be changed. It does not come through earning sonship. Doing better in one’s life is not a condition for sonship, for we can never do enough. The Holy Spirit reminds all of us:
The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ (Rm 8:16,17; see Gl 3:26-29; Ep 3:6).
The younger son wanted to obligate the father to at least make himself a worthy servant on the merit of his return to the father’s servant fields. He was seeking to earn his way back into the grace of his father as a servant only, forgetting that he was always a son regardless of his performance of the father’s commandments.
We sometimes forget that our location, or circumstances—pig fields or servant fields—will change our direction of life if we would only change locations. It is true that the pig fields will humble us to the point of repentance. We can have a changed mind in the midst of trying circumstances. But trying circumstances are no guarantee for a changed heart. We forget that God is not expecting us to earn our way back into His heart. To Him, we never left. So for us, it is a matter of recognizing where we always were in His heart as His children by inheritance through creation.
The Gentiles, who would later hear this parable, needed to remember this. We are His sons in the peg fields, as well as in the fields wherein we should be as His sons. The heart of God is not limited to our location, neither is His love for us conditioned on how well we would perform as His servants. He still loves us while we are squandering ourselves away in wild living, or living close by religiously in faithful obedience.
The younger son had thus misread the father’s love. When this son returned, the father said, “And bring here the fattened calf and kill it. Let us eat and be merry, for this my son was dead and is alive again” (Lk 15:23,24). The younger son was dead in his relationship with the father while he was in the pig fields. However, the father’s loving relationship with him had not changed when the son returned. The father’s love toward his son was never dead in his relationship with the son, for the son was always his son. Upon the son’s return, and before he could even speak one word, his father responded in his love for the son. “When he [the younger son] was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion. And he ran and fell on his neck and kissed him” (Lk 15:20).
The younger son underestimated the heart of his father. And for this reason, he was not returning because he was drawn to his father’s heart, but for the purpose of removing himself from the pig fields. His bad experience had changed his mind, but not his heart. We might say that his repentance was initially in reference to changing his situation, rather than changing his heart. But when he experienced his father’s reception upon his return, it is then that we assume his heart was changed. When we experience the gospel of God’s heart, it is then that we truly understand the heart of our Father, and thus, we respond.
The younger son’s reception by the father, therefore, did not depend on the merit of the son’s behavior of returning to the father. The younger son could not merit himself back into the grace of his father, for the father would always receive a wayward son back as a true son and rightful heir. This is simply the heart of a father in relation to all his sons. Being sorry for the bad things we do cannot limit the wealth of the grace that God is willing to pour out upon us. Grace is always there in abundance for us when we are ready to return.
We can only imagine the surprise of the younger son when the true heart of his father was revealed in his forgiveness. The younger son had thought that he had given up his sonship. But the father’s grace was always there. The son was still the father’s son in the pig fields. All the younger son had to do was to come back into the realm of his father’s heart. No meritorious conditions, as the younger son assumed, were necessary in order to receive the fattened calf and the celebration feast. No meritorious conditions were necessary to be worthy of the father’s sonship. The younger son did not earn the celebration for his return. It was always there for his return. The calf simply continued to fatten until the day the son returned.
2. The older brother:
In their struggle to receive that which both sons so earnestly desired from the father, the very good and faithful older son may have been further away from the heart of the father than the younger son who took his wealth and ran away to a far land. The older brother was far away from the heart of his father because he thought he was so close.
In another parable Jesus spoke of the old brother: “Now He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised [judged] others” (Lk 18:9). As the Pharisee in the parable, the old brother would say to the father in reference to the younger brother, “God, I thank You that I am not as other men” (Lk 18:11). The Pharisee boasted of his obedience in comparison to the wayward ways of the tax collector: “I fast twice a week.” The Pharisee bragged. “I give tithes of all that I possess” (Lk 18:12). The conclusion to the behavior of the older brother’s attitude would be as Jesus concluded the parable concerning the self-righteous religionist:
I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down in his house justified rather than the other [self-righteous Pharisee]. For everyone who exalts himself will be abased. And he who humbles himself will be exalted (Lk 18:14).
It is difficult to repent of self-righteousness. It is difficult to turn from one’s confidence in his own self-righteous goodness. The self-confident religionist finds confidence in his religious experiences and legalies. He prides himself in an assortment of self-proclaimed self-righteous deeds that he has faithfully performed and bad things he has not done. But in all these merits of self-righteousness, he has forgotten that living the gospel begins first by recognizing the inadequacy of our meritorious spirituality, which is simply religion in action.
The older brother had forgotten that grace teaches us to stay close to the Father because we want to live in appreciation of the father’s grace. The grace of the Father teaches us that He has always stayed with us, even while we were in sin (See Rm 5:8). But to stay close to the Father, it is not that we stay there because we are so obedient to the commandments of the Father, but because it is there that we find grace for our dysfunctional obedience. Our confession of our violations of His commandments is what keeps us close to the heart of God (See 1 Jn 1:6-10).
When this son heard the noise of the celebrations for the returned brother, “He became angry” (Lk 15:28). His anger revealed the self-righteousness of his heart and moralism by which he judged his younger brother. He complained to the father, “I have been serving you. I have never transgressed your commandment at any time” (Lk 15:29).
He had sought the father’s approval and wealth on the basis of his own faithful behavior as a true son. He thus sought to obligate the father through his own good behavior as a faithful son. He too forgot something that is essential to being a faithful son. He based his faithfulness on his meritorious obedience as a son. He subsequently compared his obedience morally to that of his wayward younger brother. He reasoned that faithful obedience should be rewarded. He forgot, however, that the father also loved him because he was his son, just as he had always loved the younger son who had just returned from disobedience.
Herein was revealed the self-righteousness of those Jews who thought they had an advantage with the heavenly Father over the Gentiles because of their meritorious obedience. Jesus thus cautioned His disciples in view of the self-righteous religionists among them: “Take heed that the light that is in you is not darkness” (Lk 11:35). “Therefore, let him who thinks he stands [in his own self-righteousness] take heed lest he fall” (1 Co 10:12). “For they [the self-righteous] being ignorant of God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rm 10:3). And for this reason, Jesus, as in this parable, spoke to self-righteous religionists “in parables because seeing they do not see and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Mt 13:13).
Because of his “self-righteous faithfulness,” the older brother, as the Pharisees, placed himself in a position of being a moral judge of the younger brother. Descendants of the older brother today would be saying to the descendants of the younger brother, “We have faithfully attended the assemblies of the saints. We have faithfully partaken of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. We gave our contribution, and we prayed and read our Bibles daily. We even performed orderly assemblies according to an outline for assembly in our Father’s house. And we add to this that we have not done bad things as others have. We have not strayed, but stayed.”
In our “faithful” and supposed perfect performance of the Father’s commandments, we too are seeking to continue our sonship with the Father. And by doing such, we seek to obligate God to respond to the performance of our faithfulness. In our self-righteously established sonship we seek to establish ourselves, as the older brother, as moral judges of all the younger brothers who have done this or that which we judge to be contrary to our moral and doctrinal code of brotherhood that we have self-righteously established for ourselves. Because of our supposed righteouness, we have convinced ourselves that we have earned the right to morally judge. We seem to forget this statement by the Holy Spirit: “For Christ is the end of law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rm 10:4). In establishing our own self-righteousness, we have ignored the righteousness of God.
The error of the elder brother was that he trusted in the performance of his obedience to the Father’s will, and thus, he became a moralistic judge who condescended to the “issues” of the younger brother. Descendants of the older brother see issues everywhere by which they would judge their other brothers. They denominate themselves aside as a unique sect of moral judges who would cast judgment on all those who do not conform to the standard of their religious rites. They forget that the Father has other sons living out there in the wilderness of religion for whom He is waiting to return to His loving grace.
It is important, therefore, that the older brothers do not denominate themselves into a unique religion of rites to which they would seek to convert others. Older brother Christians must not deceive themselves into believing that they have earned the right to judge others. We must remember that when we invite others to come to the Lord, that we are not inviting them to join our denomination of moral judges. Our invitation to others must not be to “our religion of judges,” but to the grace of God that exists apart from religious performances that are created after our own desires.
Older brothers are often blinded by their own religious self-sanctification by which they seek to obligate the Father to reward their faithfulness with a fattened calf. In making a moral judgment against his wayward younger brother, the older brother thought he had earned the father’s favor. And in doing so, he shought to move the father’s favor away from the younger, or at least put restrictions on the younger in order to guarantee through religious rites his own acceptance by the father. His anger originated out of his heart when he compared his own self-righteous faithfulness with the unrighteous behavior of his younger brother. But in his jealous comparison, he found himself with an unrighteous heart of anger.
In our efforts to be righteous before God, we must be cautioned that we do not assume that our behavior puts the Father in debt to reward us. We must remember that we are His sons by grace. This is the message of the gospel. “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ep 2:8).
When we live the gospel of grace, we are of the heart of our Father who is seeking to throw a feast for all his sons, wherever they may be. As those who are invited guests to this feast of celebration, we must go out and compel others to come. The Father says, “Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in so that my house may be filled” (Lk 14:23; see 14:15-24). Now we know why the older self-righteous and religiously contented brother never went searching for his young brother while he was in the pig fields. When we are content with our own self-righteousness, we are not moved to go looking around in in pig pens.
[End of series. The book entitle, The Gospel of God’s Heart, will be forthcoming.]