A Tale of Two Sons: The Inside Story of a Father, His Sons, and a Shocking Murder
by Various Authors
Greatest Short Story. Ever
A certain man had two sons ... -Luke 15:11
Charles Dickens (who could spin a fair yarn himself) famously called the parable of the prodigal son the greatest short story ever written. He joins a large chorus of literary geniuses, ranging from William Shakespeare to Garrison Keillor, who expressed admiration for the parable as literature.
Make no mistake: the prodigal son parable is indeed a model of great literature on multiple levels. It is without dispute one of the finest examples of storytelling ever-with its penetrating appeal to hearers' emotions and imaginations; its succinct, tightly crafted form; and its powerful and personally engaging message. It is a gem of concise character and plot development. It manages to leave a lasting impression on most hearers without resorting to maudlin or sensational gimmickry. The parable is focused, clear, colorful, and full of familiar real-life imagery. The message is so simple that even a child can follow the story line, yet it is profound enough to have been the subject of several classic book-length studies.
Of course, the purpose of the parable in the first place was not merely literary, and in its original form it was not even a written work at all. It was delivered orally to an audience that included (on the one hand) a mix of corrupt tax collectors and some of society's most down-and-out sinners who were eager to hear Jesus' good news-along with (on the other hand) a hostile group of hyper religious Pharisees and scribes who were angry with Jesus and grumbled that He "receives sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:1-2). Jesus' answer to their complaint was bound up in the lesson of the prodigal son. The parable therefore had a polemic purpose, delivering a sophisticated and well-aimed rebuke at the religious elite of Jesus' day.
So despite all that might be said to extol the literary form of this parable, Jesus' intention in telling the story was not to impress His hearers with dramatic artistry. Rather, if we understand the parable correctly, its spiritual lessons leave a far more indelible impression on our hearts and minds than any literary analysis of the parable could accomplish. It is therefore of paramount importance to grasp the story's meaning accurately-in its original context and with all the nuances and implications Jesus' original audience would have heard.
Culture and Context
Let's remind ourselves at the outset that the Bible is an ancient Middle Eastern book. Biblical narratives were set in old-style Semitic civilizations very distant from today's Western world. The complex customs of those cultures are not always obvious to the twenty-first-century reader living in an industrialized society rooted in European customs. In fact, despite the ready availability of mass communication today, the typical Christian in the West has little firsthand experience with life in the Middle East, either ancient or modern.
That ignorance often has a detrimental effect on the way Scripture is understood and applied in popular evangelicalism. It is all too easy to rip biblical stories out of their original contexts, force them into a postmodern frame of reference, and miss their full import. Besides that, one of the sad realities of our culture is that we tend to be in a hurry, even when we read the Bible. We want to find practical applications for ourselves hastily, without doing the careful work necessary to interpret Scripture correctly.
Even worse, in a relentless effort to make Scripture seem as contemporary as possible, Bible teachers sometimes deliberately twist, downplay, or ignore the historical context of Scripture. That kind of superficial treatment has been all too common in the popular handling of the prodigal son parable. It leads inevitably to misinterpretation and misapplication, utterly missing the central message Jesus intended to convey. And that is no small matter. Surely this parable deserves more serious consideration. It is the longest of Jesus' parables precisely because it contains nuances, subtleties, cultural attitudes, and other features that illuminate its meaning more fully. Careful study here yields rich rewards.
Bear in mind, too, that the meaning of Scripture is not fluid. The truth of the Bible doesn't change with time or mean different things in different cultures. Whatever the text meant when it was originally written, it still means today. Whatever Jesus intended to communicate to His listeners when He told this parable, that meaning still constitutes its only true message. (See the appendix for a more thorough discussion of this point.)
So if we expect to draw out of this parable what God wants us to learn and what He intended to reveal for our edification, we need to try to hear it the way Jesus' original audience heard it.
When Jesus spoke, "the common people heard Him gladly" (Mark 12:37)-in large part because He spoke their language. He resonated with their culture. He lived and ministered among Middle Eastern peasant people, and the Gospel record reflects that context. Even the most educated people of Jesus' time would be familiar with the conventions of agrarian village life, because the mores and customs that governed society had been imbedded for generations in the common people's sensibilities. (Some of the features of that culture and its social structures still exist even today in Middle Eastern village life.) Such customs governed their way of life, determined their manner of thinking, and therefore shaped their emotional response to a story like the prodigal son.
In Jesus' telling of this parable, for example, He did not explicitly state that the father was a wealthy man, but (as we'll see in our study of the text) He included enough incidental details in the narrative to that make that fact inescapably clear. The fact that this man had hired servants and a fatted calf at his disposal would not have escaped the mind of any listener in that culture. Jesus' hearers all would have the clear mental picture of an important nobleman, even without any exposition of that particular point. Moreover, their conceptualization of such a person would be replete with expectations regarding how he would typically react to certain things or behave in certain circumstances. To understand the subtext of the parable, it is important to understand that the father in the story shattered every stereotype the culture normally associated with such an important person. We'll pay particular attention to those aspects of the father's behavior as we work our way through the parable. But bear in mind that these things were all obvious, unspoken assumptions to Jesus' original audience.
Village life was so deeply ingrained and so clearly understood at every level of that society that the customs reflected in biblical narratives did not usually have to be explained within the narrative. Widely known attitudes did not need to be articulated. Longstanding social customs required no explanation. Nevertheless, these unspoken but culturally understood ideas gave color and meaning to Jesus' stories.
That's why we need to put ourselves (as much as possible) in the same frame of mind as the common people of Jesus' day in order to grasp the significance of His message to them. Also, we must have some fair understanding of their deep-rooted cultural attitudes, the rituals and habits drawn from their religious heritage, various social and national traditions, and the distinctive sensibilities of a patriarchal society, especially where people still placed an extremely high value on the stability and stamina of the extended family.
Those are not peripheral or incidental concerns. The cultural context is what brings this parable to life and allows us to live in it. If we are to grasp the true meaning of this classic story in all its spiritual significance, we must go back and try to put ourselves in that very place and time. Until we begin to comprehend the ideals and attitudes that shaped the culture, we can't expect to gain a full appreciation of the parable's main lesson.
Background and Setting
Luke recorded more parables than any of the other Gospel writers. He alone included a handful of Jesus' longest, most important, most detailed, and most instructive parables, including the Good Samaritan (10:29-37), the friend at midnight (11:5-8), the rich fool (12:13-21), the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31), and the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9-14). Many of these unique parables are embroidered with the themes of prayer, repentance, forgiveness, justification, and divine grace. The parable of the prodigal son is the magnum opus and centerpiece of these uniquely Lucan parables, weaving together several of those same pivotal themes.
Before examining the actual parable in more detail, let's take note of where it fits in the ministry of Christ and the flow of Luke's Gospel. Jesus had been ministering for nearly three years by this time-preaching that the kingdom of God was at hand and calling men and women to enter the kingdom through repentance and faith in Him (Luke 10:9; 12:31; 18:17). Jesus was now on His way to Jerusalem during the final months of His earthly life. He was determined to offer Himself as God's perfect sacrifice for sin, die on the cross, and then rise again from the dead, having accomplished the work He must do to gain redemption for sinners. As Luke relates his account of the latter months of Jesus' life, he portrays Jesus as single-mindedly devoted to that one purpose and intent on seeing it to fruition. That becomes a running theme across the second half of Luke, signaled by Luke 9:51: "[Jesus] steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem."
At that point, Luke's Gospel takes on a new intonation. Luke repeatedly describes the latter portion of Jesus' ministry as a steadfast journey toward Jerusalem (9:53; 13:22)-even when he is recording geographical movements that took Jesus away from Judea and back toward Galilee (cf. 17:11). Jerusalem became the focal point of Jesus' entire ministry. Luke was too careful a historian and writer for that to be a mistake, and he was too familiar with the geography of the Holy Land to be confused about which direction Jesus needed to travel to get to Jerusalem. Instead, what he was describing was the advancement of Jesus' ministry spiritually, not geographically, as His teaching and His increasingly contentious interactions with the Pharisees brought Him ever closer to His true objective-the cross.
The drama, emotions, and pace in Luke's narrative build inexorably from the end of Luke 9 through the Triumphal Entry (19:28ff). Jesus' own earnest expectancy establishes the tone, epitomized in Luke 12:49-50: "I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished!" Everything Jesus does and says in the second half of Luke's Gospel drives the narrative toward the cross. The parable of the prodigal son is no exception to that rule. The prominent themes of forgiveness and divine grace reflect the preoccupation of Jesus' own mind and heart. But more ominously, the clear lesson of the parable provided one more significant incident in a long string of public embarrassments that provoked the scribes' and Pharisees' determination to see Him destroyed. According to Luke 11:54, they were already "lying in wait for Him, and seeking to catch Him in something He might say, that they might accuse Him." This parable did not furnish them that opportunity, but it certainly reinforced their motive and hardened their resolve.
Scribes and Pharisees
As a matter of fact, by chapter 15 of Luke's chronology, the scribes and Pharisees had already become relentless in their pursuit of a reason-any reason-to accuse Christ, and that is why they were on the scene in the first place. They were dogging His steps, listening intently to His every word. But they weren't hearing Him with ears of faith, and they weren't following Him because they admired His teaching. Instead, they were stalking Him because they were desperate to find a way to impeach Him-or, better yet, an excuse to kill Him. The scribes and Pharisees were the chief architects of popular Judaism in that generation. They exercised their influence primarily in the synagogues, where on the weekly Sabbath they taught local assemblies of Jewish people. Scribes were professional copiers, editors, and interpreters of the law. They were also the main custodians of the various traditions that governed how the law was applied. Most of the scribes were themselves also Pharisees by conviction (although some of them belonged to a competing sect known as the Sadducees).
The Pharisees were legalistic, believing that the way to gain favor with God was by earning merit-and the best way to gain merit in God's eyes, they thought, was through fastidious observance of the Law. The Pharisees' approach to religion naturally fostered self-righteousness (Romans 10:3-4) mixed with overt contempt toward anyone who didn't measure up in their eyes (Luke 18:9).
But the Pharisees were also hypocritical. They fastened their hopes chiefly on external and relatively insignificant features of the Law, apparently thinking that the more they stressed the fine points of the Law, the more spiritual they appeared to the people. That's also why they were obsessed with the ceremonial requirements of the Law. They valued the public display of religion more than private devotion and true righteousness. They would, for instance, make a great show of counting tiny seeds in order to make a tithe (Matthew 23:23). But they neglected the weightier matters of the Law, showing little concern for the moral requirements and moral values, such as justice and mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23). Jesus said they were corrupt inwardly: "You are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (vv. 27-28).
Public Antagonism of Jesus
Not surprisingly, the scribes and Pharisees were publicly antagonistic to Jesus, and their hostility increased the more they heard Him teach. Of course, since Jesus' doctrine contradicted many of the ideas they stressed in their teaching, any rise in His influence meant a corresponding decline in theirs. Furthermore, the leading scribes and Pharisees (together with leaders of the Sadducees' sect) had brokered a kind of truce with the Roman system, permitting their joint ruling body, known as the Sanhedrin, to retain some semblance of authority over Israel in spiritual and religious matters-even though Rome actually held the political reins. So they were fearful of what Jesus' ascendancy as Israel's Messiah might mean to their spiritual fiefdom. Therefore, "the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, 'What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation'" (John 11:47-48).
But don't get the idea that the scribes' and Pharisees' resentment was motivated only by pragmatic concerns about the political implications of Jesus' teaching. Their hatred of Him was also intensely personal, owing mainly to the way He constantly, embarrassingly unmasked their hypocrisy in public. Jesus refused to show artificial respect for their artificial righteousness; instead, He condemned it as self-righteousness (Matthew 23:5). He stressed at every opportunity that the pretense of religion the Pharisees had devised was in reality nothing more than a wicked expression of unbelief, and He strictly warned people not to follow their example (v. 3).
The scribes and Pharisees thought of themselves as profound scholars, but Jesus repeatedly castigated them for their ignorance and misunderstanding of the Scriptures, pointedly asking them, "Have you not read ...?" (see, for example, Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31; Mark 12:10). Their whole identity was wrapped up in their religion, but Jesus frankly told them they did not even know God (John 8:47). In fact, He called them offspring of the devil (v. 44). He declared they did not know the true way of salvation (John 10:26-27), likening them to snakes and warning them that they were on the road to hell (Matthew 23:33).