They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Conclusion: Part 5 of a Study of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15

To conclude our study of the stories found in Luke 15 we must now go back to the beginning and summarize what we have learned. As was stated in our introduction, for hundreds of years the Latin tradition has called this parable, “Evangelium in Evangelio“ (the gospel within the gospel) and we have learned that the tradition is wonderfully accurate. But to discover that truth we had to do a lot of digging and searching similar to what archaeologists would have done as they dug through one of the ancient tels. We explored each part of the parable in detail and by doing that we solved some problems that just a casual reading would present. We broke the parable into four segments, ”The Request for the Inheritance”, “The Far Country”, “Return Home”, and the “Banquet and the Older Son”, and looked at each segment carefully. This let us dig up some wonderful new avenues and thoughts that we had probably never noticed before with just a normal reading. Let’s summarize each section and attempt to tie it all together.

When the young man asked to receive his inheritance early while his father was still alive, he was in effect saying in that Middle Eastern Culture, “I cannot wait for you to die.” This request would have greatly humiliated the father and he would have been expected to vehemently refuse this brash request. Instead, the father grants his son’s request. The reader now knows that this is no ordinary earthly father and realizes that something bigger is taking place. The father must be like what God would be! The son severs the relationship with this wonderful father and cashes in his chips and takes off to a far country to do it “his way.”

When his son arrives in the far country, he quickly loses all his inheritance by making poor decisions. He has to go to work for a Gentile feeding his pigs just to survive. The story is telling us in an obvious Jewish manner that he has gone as far away from his family and God as he can possibly get. He realized that his only hope of survival was to get back to his father, so he came up with a plan to try to get back into his good graces. If he can just come up with the right words, maybe his father will take him back. He was trying to keep the law by working his way back to salvation into the good graces of his father and the family.

The turning point in the story comes when the son appears at the edge of his village. His father has been waiting for him all this time to come home. He has been watching day and night. He runs out to meet his wayward child at the edge of the village and falls on his neck and begins to kiss his lost son. He didn’t wait to see what the son had to say for himself. He freely offered his grace first. The father’s grace was sufficient to redeem the son from his lost condition. No payment was required from the son!

The father then orders a huge banquet to celebrate the fact that his son was lost and now is found. The banquet was like the Lord’s Supper in that as sinners we are invited to have fellowship with the Father, who demonstrated such costly love to save us. The older son, who is a law-keeper, is mad because he thinks there should be some compensation from the law-breaking younger son. He didn’t have to pay a price for his sins! Grace was offered without the requirements of the law being met. In fact, at the end of the story, grace was offered to both sons, the law-breaker and the law-keeper.

What a picture of the gospel message! Now, you begin to clearly see who the characters in the story represent. Don’t forget who Jesus was speaking to (the Pharisees and the teachers of the law) and why He offered this story. He was responding to their complaints that He was receiving sinners and even eating with them! By telling a story of a father who orders a banquet so that he can sit down and eat with sinners (prodigal), He was obviously talking about Himself as the father figure. The younger son is definitely a metaphor for the tax collectors and sinners (the law breakers) that Jesus was associating with. The older son is definitely meant to be the Pharisees and the teachers of the law because they were the law-keepers. How could Jesus offer the law-breakers a seat at the table with Him? Jesus, as the father, then offers a seat at the table for the law-keeper (older son) also.

Don’t we now have a much clearer picture of what the gospel really is? God is not some grim authoritative patriarch, but a loving father who will do anything to bring us back to Him. We can’t earn our way back; He has paid it all and at a great personal cost! He is constantly looking, taking on the role of a servant, waiting to run to us and freely offer His grace to us. When we accept His grace He then sits down at the table and eats with us to seal that reconciliation. The question remains at the end of the story – will we accept being found? Will we respond to that costly love? Will we sit down at the table of fellowship with Christ? The answer hangs in the balance as the reader has to respond to the invitation in their own heart. “Evangelium in Evangelio” rings loud and clear. This really is the gospel message and it is wonderfully portrayed in this story from the master story teller Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Banquet and the Older Son: Part 4 of a Study of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15

After the father meets and reconciles with his lost son, he orders a banquet to be held. He says in Luke 15:24, “Lets have a feast and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found”. In the father’s perception, his son was lost and dead at the edge of the village and he went out in a costly demonstration of love to find and save his son. This brings up an important question. Was the banquet held in honor of the prodigal or in honor of the father? We usually think that the banquet is to honor the son. However, is it a celebration of the prodigals successful efforts at reaching home on his own, or is it a celebration of the success of the father’s costly efforts to find and save his lost son? If you compare this celebration to the most important banquet in the gospels, the Last Supper, you see some amazing similarities and truths of the gospel message. A part of the meaning of the Last Supper meal is that we as redeemed sinners are offered continued table fellowship with Jesus. The Last Supper is a celebration of Jesus’ costly sacrifice to reconcile us to himself. Isn’t this banquet that the father gives for his son a foreshadowing of the Holy Communion, where we are invited as sinners to participate in that sacred meal? Jesus is obviously the hero of the Last Supper Banquet and the sinners are not the center of attention. All glory is reserved for the father. Jesus does not eat with sinners to celebrate their sin, but to celebrate his grace. This banquet, ordered by the father, is a celebration of the costly efforts and great sacrifice the father has made and sinners (the lost son and the older son) are invited to come.

The older son has a real problem with the idea of grace being given to the younger brother. He doesn’t think that there should be any reconciliation without compensation. Why didn’t he have to pay back all the money he lost before the father took him back? He wasn’t having to pay for his sins! Grace was offered and accepted without the requirements of the law having been met. Grace is not only amazing, but unbelievable! How can it be true? Don’t we get what we pay for?

The older son refuses to participate in the celebration and attacks both his father and brother in public. In doing so, he insults his father in front of all the guests. A western cultural equivalent would be to have a shouting match with your father at a wedding. Now, the older son has also severed his relationship with the father. What will the father do? Culture would expect that the father would explode and reprimand the older son for the dishonor that he has caused. However, again the father is willing to offer a costly demonstration of his unearned love. Only now it is offered to the law keeper instead of the law breaker! He leaves the banquet and entreats the older son and offers him the same costly undeserved love.

The parable has no ending in that we don’t know what the older son decides. Will the older son now enter the banquet and start acting like his father or will he refuse to accept his father’s offer of costly, unearned love? The reader is invited to provide the ending.

In our final segment we will try to summarize what we have learned and look at the theological themes that are present in this unbelievably complex and fascinating story.

The Return Home: Part 3 of a Study on the Prodigal Son in Luke 15

The turning point in the story comes when the son decides to return home and appears at the edge of the village. He has worked on his speech and is bracing himself for the humiliation he will face when he tries to return to the family. He knows that the “Kezazah” ceremony is coming. He is empty handed and has insulted his family and is a failure in every respect.

But what about the father? He also knew that his son would fail and he also knows how the village will treat his son when he comes home. But, the father is so full of love for his lost son that he has already thought of a plan to save him. Day after day he waits expectantly, looking down the road that leads to the edge of the village. When he sees his son coming, he will run out to meet the boy before he gets too close and welcome him back and protect him from the wrath that will surely await him. If he can reconcile with his son in public, no one will treat his son badly. However, in order to achieve this goal, the father has to humiliate himself in front of everyone.

The father sees the son, “while he was yet at a distance” (Luke 15:20) . This distance is much more a spiritual distance than just the physical gap that separates the father and son. The father again breaks the role of a middle aged eastern patriarch and takes his long robes in his hand and runs through the crowded streets out to the edge of the village to meet his pig herder son. Out of great compassion, he empties himself and becomes a servant and runs to reconcile his son. By the father running, he has greatly humiliated himself. Traditional middle eastern men, wearing long robes, never run in public, because to do so would expose their legs. This was unheard of!

Then as the father reaches the prodigal, he falls on his son’ neck and begins to kiss him before he heard his son’s prepared speech. The father didn’t wait for his son’s confession of sin before he showed his love. He offered his grace first! The young man is totally surprised and is only able to get out the first part of his speech. Overcome with emotion as to what has taken place, he can only say, “I’ve sinned and am unworthy to be called your son”, and leaves out the part ,”will you let me work for you as a hired hand”. He changes his mind about trying to work his father’s love and surrenders his plan to save himself. His father has saved him first! If we are to understand the scene in this light, Jesus story has just demonstrated a new definition of repentance. Instead of having to confess, make compensation and demonstrate sincerity to restore the sinner to God’s favor, Jesus is saying, “I’ve been waiting for you and my grace is sufficient to redeem you from your lost condition”.

Just as the shepherd goes out to find his lost sheep and the woman diligently searches for her lost coin, the father must go out to find his lost son. The father didn’t just sit in the house and wait to hear what the lost son had to say for himself. He gave himself in costly love by running to him at the edge of the village. The son has a choice to make; he can insist that he will work and pay as a solution to the problem, or he can surrender to grace and accept being found like the sheep and coin. The father, as a symbol for God, quietly evolves into a symbol for Jesus. Jesus, as the Father, at great cost, offers reconciliation to each sinner. The image of God and Jesus as the father in this story shows their compassion, love, and life changing form in a way that no other Biblical literature can match. God is, “Love”, and this parable demonstrates it so wonderfully.

Now, to the next act in this beautiful story, the scene of the banquet and the older son. At this point, what is so interesting is that the father in the parable does exactly what Jesus is accused of doing; he receives a sinner and eats with him! In our next lesson we’ll see how the rest of the story plays out!

The Far Country: Part 2 of a Study on the Prodigal Son in Luke 15

After turning his inheritance into cash, the prodigal son sets out for a distant country. This country was definitely not Jewish, so it is obvious to the reader that he is among the Gentiles (goy or goyim pl., in Hebrew). There, the text says he squandered his money in wild living until all of it was gone. The prudent thing to do would have been to go home, back to his own people. But, he has broken the rules of the community and done the unthinkable, losing all his inheritance to the Gentiles. He knows the Kezazah (cutting off) ceremony awaits him unless he can find a paying job and recoup the money he has lost. The prodigal hires himself out to a pig herder to feed his swine, but he is treated so poorly that he is about to starve to death. By going to a Gentile country and working for a gentile feeding his pigs, the story teller is saying, “He has gone as far away from his family and God as he can possibly get.” To feed pigs would have been the ultimate indignity for a Jew not only because the work was distasteful and they are dirty creatures, but God had told the Jews that pigs were unclean animals (Leviticus 11:7). Now there is no other option left but to go home and ask for employment as a hired hand working for his father. But, how can he possibly get his father to trust him and take him back? He has burned all his bridges behind him.

It is at this point in the story that the most theologically damaging misinterpretation of this parable occurs. Luke 15:17 in the NIV says ,”When he came to his senses” and the KJV says, “And when he came to himself”. This is most often interpreted as “He repented”. If this phrase is understood as repentance, then the theological unity of the the three “lost” stories in Luke 15 has been broken. Repentance in the first two stories is merely the “acceptance of being found”. Both the sheep and the coin were hopelessly lost and could do nothing to find themselves. They had to be rescued by a hero figure (savior). If the prodigal manages to save himself and make his own way home by his own efforts, then the third story is the exact opposite of the first two. If he repents in the far country and struggles home on his own, theological confusion sets in and the reader is left to wonder what repentance really is. Can we return to God without His aid or does He have to come after us?

The answer lies in the translation of that phrase, “He came to himself”. Middle Eastern and Arabic translations of this phrase paint an entirely different picture. They translate Luke 15:17 as , “He got smart”, “He thought to himself” and “He took an interest in himself”. They never thought of him as repenting and returning to his father, but returning to himself. In other words, the prodigal has to develop a plan to get himself out of this mess – and he does.

What about his confession that he concocts in verse 18, “I have sinned against heaven and before you”? This is where our lack of knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures gets us in trouble. Well known to the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were hearing this parable was the fact that this is the exact same phrase that Pharaoh said to Moses in Exodus 10:16 when he was trying to manipulate Moses into stopping the plagues! Everyone knew that Pharaoh was not repenting! He just wanted the plagues to stop! The prodigal son’s statement that he had sinned was designed to produce the same result. He was trying to think of how he could soften the expected anger from his father and convince him to let him back on the family farm as an apprentice to one of his hired hands (see verse 19). There is no hint of remorse in his statements; he wants to eat! Evidently, his father’s hired hands made enough money to even have some savings as verse 17 indicates (bread enough to spare). If the son can recover the lost money through working for his father, then he could feel reconciled and would have worked his way back.

This part of the story is so interesting and ties back to the salvation message because the son is trying to “keep the law” by working his way back to salvation. Grace is unnecessary if he can manage it on his own. The prodigal sees it only as matter of lost money, just a broken law. However, the real sin is the broken relationship with his father. The son has done everything wrong to this point. Now he has a plan to work himself back into the good graces of his father. In our next lesson we’ll see how his plan worked out.

The Request For the Inheritance: Part 1 of the Study of the Lost Son Parable in Luke 15

First, let’s look from a cultural perspective at the inheritance that the younger son asks for while his father is still alive and seemingly in good health. Evidently, the father was a man of some means and the inheritance would have involved land, animals, slaves, and other personal property. From our modern day, western perspective, the request for the inheritance certainly seems like a selfish request, but not one that is completely out of bounds. We conclude that he is a young lad who is anxious to make his way in the world, albeit too quickly. However, in traditional Middle Eastern Culture, to ask for the inheritance while the father is still in good health would be to say the the son is anxious for his father to die! He would have brought tremendous shame on himself and his family, not to mention the hardship of having to divide up tangible property and the working assets of the family business prematurely. It was a request that should have never been made and one that no middle eastern father would have agreed to. In fact, what the son was asking for would have been deemed foolish and unreasonable in almost any culture.

Any human father would, of course, be expected to refuse his selfish son’s request. Instead, however, the father grants the son’s request. This unbelievably unselfish action elevates the father figure beyond what a human father would do and reshapes the father into a metaphor for God. This father is different from a human father. His love and compassion for his son knows no limits. This request for the early inheritance severs the relationship between the son and his father and only deepens when the son sells the family property. This broken relationship is the key point in the request for the inheritance.

InsulaNext, let’s look at the stage on which this story is set. Often, this parable is seen as a story involving only the three main characters and nothing more. It is as if the story takes place on a high hill in total isolation, with only the father and his two sons in the play. However, in Bible times, agricultural land was scarce and family farms were not large. Farmers never lived on their farm land because you wouldn’t want to waste good farm land by building on it. Instead, people lived in small, compact villages called insulas and went out to work on their farms. These insulas were made up of family members and close relatives and everyone knew each other well. Children grew up around their grandpas, grandmas, aunts, uncles, and cousins as well as other neighbors. To understand this story in the proper context, we have to know that it took place in front of a watching community of family, relatives, and neighbors. To further cement this idea, think of the first two stories of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. In both stories the community is called together for a celebration when the lost was found. All these stories took place in community, but in the Lost Son story it is assumed until the very end.

With this knowledge of the facts surrounding the inheritance and the idea that the story takes place in a community, some interesting implications follow. When the young mans asks for his share of the inheritance and obtains it, he moves quickly to sell it off. The text says in Luke 15:13, “Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had”. The Greek here implies that the son moved quickly and sold his inheritance, split the family farm, turned it into cash, and got out of the village as quickly as possible. By Jewish custom, at this point he would have been threatened to be disowned by the community. A ceremony called Kezazah (cutting off) would be performed if a Jewish boy lost his inheritance to a Gentile and he would not even be allowed to return or have anything to do with the community. The prodigal knows when he leaves that he better come back with all his inheritance money intact or he will face huge public shame and be completely cut off from his family and his past.

To conclude this segment, we have learned how unusual and unthinkable it was for the son to ask for something that would cause so much pain and humiliation for him and his family. We have also learned how impossible and God-like it was for the father to go ahead and grant the request. However, in the process, the relationship between the father and the son was broken and his reputation in the community was damaged. In our next sessions we will look at the young son as he goes to the far country to make his fortune and the events that lead him to return home.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son: Introduction – Luke 15

We now turn our attention to the most well known of the the three lost and found stories in Luke 15, the story of the lost or prodigal son. No story in the Bible, or any other sacred literature presents such a dynamic and compassionate picture of our Father. For hundreds of years the Latin tradition has called this story, “Evangelium in Evangelio”, which means the gospel within the gospel. However, as we have mentioned in our past posts, the more familiar a story becomes, the more it takes on its own interpretation and special way of seeing the story develop that then become part of the text itself. The basis used to interpret Bible metaphors comes from the cultural assumptions of the story teller and his audience. Often, their world view is the standard from which conclusions are drawn as to what the Bible writers meant. That is why it is so important to place Bible stories into the culture in which they were originally written. Let’s look at the story of the Lost Son in light of the middle eastern culture in which it was written and see if perhaps there is some different conclusions that surface and some new light to be shed on this wonderful story.

First, we need to identify some problems that seem to exist from a casual comparison of the Lost Son story with the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin stories that precede it in Luke 15. At first glance, the first two stories appear to be in conflict with the third. The parable of the prodigal son appears to have no savior! The prodigal , “came to himself”, in the far country and then went home. If God is the Father in the story, then it would seem that God passively waits for us to return home, but does not go after us like the good shepherd and the good woman went after their lost objects. In the first two stories the finder does all the work. The shepherd leaves the flock and goes after the lost sheep till he finds it. The lost sheep cannot find his own way home. In the same way, the good woman diligently looks for the coin until she finds it. The coin can do nothing to be found on its own. Yet, on his own, the prodigal comes to or finds himself and then heads home from the far country. Could this be correct?

How can this be the gospel within the gospel as has been thought for centuries? Do these three stories conflict with each other? Can we come to God, unaided? Where is the seeker and saver of the lost, the ”word becoming flesh”, the heavy price to be paid, the mediator between God and humans and the savior that make up the “gospel” of the New Testament? More than a casual reading is needed if we are to unlock the hidden manna in this wonderful parable from our Messiah, Jesus. So, let’s get our spades and dig into the word and see what shows up. We will break the story into three parts and look at one part for each lesson. In the first lesson we will look at the, “Request for the Inheritance”; the second, “Returning Home”; and third, “The Banquet and the Older Son”. Then we will try to draw some conclusions. Stay tuned for Part 1 next week.