12.03.06 Lk. 15:11-32
PARABLE OF THE TWO SONS (or the PARABLE OF THE LOVING FATHER)
(The first son: 15:11-24)
11 He also said:
“A man had two sons.
A 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father,
give me the share of the estate I have coming to me.’
So he divided the assets to them.
B 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a
distant country, where he squandered his wealth in foolish living.
C 14 After he had spent everything,
severe famine struck that country,
and he had nothing.
D 15 Then he went to work for
one of the citizens of that country,
who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.
E 16 He longed to eat his fill from the carob pods the pigs were eating, but no one would give him any.
F 17 When he came to his senses, he said,
“How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, and here I am dying of hunger!
F’ 18 I’ll get up, go back to my father, and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. 19 I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired hands.’
E’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him.
D’ 21 The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in
your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’
C’ 22 “But the father told his slaves, ‘Quick!’
Bring out the best robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet,
B’ 23 Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it.
and let’s celebrate
with a feast.
A’ 24 because this son of mine was dead and is alive again;
he was lost and is found.’
So they began to celebrate.
(This parable is continued below)
Literary Style The parallel stanzas in this poem have opposite themes. In line A the son is lost and in line A’ he is found. In line B and in line B’ the inheritance is lost and then found. In C and in C,’ everything is lost and then gained. In D and in D’ there is sin and repentance. In E and in E’ there is rejection and acceptance, and finally the theme of the parable is where F equals F’. At this point the young man has a change of mind, which is the same as repentance. Again, Jesus presented His story in the form of a chiastic poetic structure, although a rather big one compared to some of the others.
This parable is similar to a king and a wedding story or a rich man and poor man story; it was created to teach a lesson. Everyone could relate to these realistic life experiences because they were so easy to remember. His parables were
- First in poetic form, and
- Similar to real life situations, common to people since the dawn of civilization.
The meaning of this parable given by Jesus is given first, followed by two short secular accounts.
Cast of Characters
Father = God
Youngest son = Jews and Gentiles in faith with Jesus
Oldest son = Opposing Jews
Jesus was the Master Teacher whose lessons went from the “known” (human qualities) to the “unknown” (divine qualities). This and His other 37 parables teach that man is to respond to a loving God and to train each other with God-like compassion.
The few assets any family acquired were incredibly important in day to day survival. However, the family described in this parable was not an ordinary family, but one of wealth and financial security. In a case such as this, the ancients had two ways for an inheritance to be passed on to a son.
- The most common was the traditional way; when, after the death of the father, the eldest son received twice as much as any other son.
- The other option was that while the father was still alive, he could divide his estate as he wished. This option was usually an equal share to all his male children (see 12.03.06.Q1).
In the biblical story, it was the second choice but only because of the son’s request. In this culture, for a young man to ask his father for his inheritance was an incredible insult. It was paramount to saying, “I wish you were dead.” Politeness and courtesies are, to this day, supreme. His request is unthinkable and consequently, a request of this nature was extremely rare. Since the oldest son always received a double inheritance (Deut. 21:17), the younger son received a third of his father’s wealth, sold it, and soon disappeared.
In the parable there is no mention of the son’s insult to his father, but the audience would have recognized that immediately. Likewise, there is no mention that the father became angry or was grieved over the request, but that too, was understood by the audience. He simply permitted the son to go on his way, but was always ready to receive him on his return. The father knew that his son’s immaturity and foolishness would soon lead to poverty, yet he allowed him to do as he wished.
This parable is reflective of many situations families have experienced throughout history, and is similar to other stories and parables. In these stories the younger son usually represents the youngest of the family, a class of people, or a degenerate; all of whom have an undesirable moral condition and who desire the wealth of their family more than the family. The father is a figure of compassionate authority who gives his son the freedom of choice. The young man then makes some wrong decisions. While there are a wide variety of endings, in this account, Jesus presented the heart of God. The story as a whole reflects the small peasant economy of the time.
Unique to this story is that the son took immediate possession of his wealth. According to the Oral Law, if a son desired to sell his share, the buyer could not take possession until the father passed away. The purpose of this regulation was because the family’s income was often generated by the estate. However, for the purpose of making His point, Jesus structured the parable as to captivate everyone’s attention.
“Father.” The term father (Gk. pater 3962) is from a root word that signifies a nourisher, protector, and upholder. It is considerably more protective of family and loved ones than is commonly understood today in Western culture. One who does not have a loving influence of a father was known as an orphan (Gk. orphanos 3737; Jas. 1:27) or as is sometimes translated as desolate as in John 14:18. If one who had no genealogical record (Gk. agenealogetos 35) as in Hebrews 7:3, he was also considered to be an orphan. The role of the father was so important, that a child whose father was dead was considered an orphan even if his mother was still alive (Job 24:9). Clearly the role of a loving father was profoundly important in biblical times.
“He longed to eat his fill from the carob pods.” The young man not only had to feed pigs, but his food rations were so low that he had to eat the food given to the pigs. His life was so low, that in Jewish terms, he had to work for a Gentile pagan, feed unclean animals – the worst of all unclean animals, and do so on the Sabbath — essentially abandoning his religious customs. In essence, he was humiliated beyond measure.
Carob pods are the husks of the seedpods of the carob tree (ceratonia siqua). It is also known as the locust tree. These pods are generally used for animal feed, but were also consumed by people who lived in deep poverty. This same pod was referred to as “locusts” in the life of John the Baptist. There is a rabbinical proverb that says, “When the Israelites are reduced to eating carob pods, then they repent.” That is precisely what this young man did.
“Threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him.” This phrase literally means that he kissed his son on the neck. Two forms of greetings need to be discussed here:
- When two equals met, they exchanged three kisses on the cheek: first on the right cheek, then on the left cheek, then again on the right side.
- When a servant met a master, the servant never kissed the master on the cheek, but on the neck.
But in this parable, it was the father who accepted and kissed the wayward son. By this action, the father elevated him above himself. Furthermore, in doing so, the father reconciled the son to himself.
“Bring out the best robe … ring … sandals … fattened calf … feast.” Jesus did not end there. Notice the elements of ownership, family, and of sonship that the father bestowed upon the son:
- His once-lost son was given a robe – the symbol of sonship (1 Sam. 18:4). Even though the son had squandered much of the father’s wealth, his robe was restored. Clothing was also symbolic of wealth and identity.
- He placed a ring upon his son’s finger, the symbol of authority (the father’s authority).
- He placed sandals on his son’s feet; the symbol of social-class that underscored sonship (Deut. 25:9), for his son was not to be barefoot as a child or considered to be a servant. The curse of cultural defilement of walking barefoot was removed.
- Then they were to enjoy the dinner of a fatted calf, symbolic of the ultimate festival and celebration. The “fatted calf” was not only the prized meat but was also a figure of speech that indicated only the best foods would be served. It was the pinnacle of hospitality. A young goat or calf, for example, was a feast of most valuable food – reserved for only the most important occasion.
When the father and wayward son met, the father reconciled the son to himself. In roasting the fatted calf and having a village celebration, the father demonstrated the reconciliation to the community. Since everyone was aware of the son’s wayward actions, this festival was to announce forgiveness and restoration.
This is the attitude God has for the lost. As mentioned previously, these gifts were all signs of high position and acceptance. Nothing was withheld from the father’s expression of his love for the wayward, but now repentant son. Likewise, our Father in heaven and the angels rejoice when a lost soul is found. But the story did not end there, as the faithful older son became jealous and angry concerning the attention given to the return of his younger brother. Hence, this parable is an illustration of the two people groups: Gentiles and Jews, and it is a parable that continues to live today.
“This son of mine was dead.” The word “dead” can have one of two meanings as follows:
- Dead as in physically dead.
- Dead as in no longer as part of the household. That is the applied definition in this passage.
(The second son: 15:25-32)
25 “Now his older son was in the field; as he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he summoned one of the servants and asked what these things meant.
A 27 ‘Your brother is here,’ he told him,
‘and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.”
B 28 “Then he became angry and didn’t want to go in. So his father came out
and pleaded with him.
C 29 But he replied to his father, “Look! I have been slaving many years for you, and I never disobeyed your orders, yet you never gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.
B’ 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your assests with
prostitutes, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
A’ 31 “‘Son,’ he said to him, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The theme of the parable continues as follows: The younger son entered the house, joined in the celebration and dancing, and was reconciled with his father. The father rejoiced with his two sons. However, the elder son was quite upset with the attitude his father had for the younger sibling, so much so, that he charged his father with injustice. Everything the father gave to the younger son (ring, robe, etc.), was at one time available to the elder son. Notice the contrasting themes written in poetic form:
The first son went astray,
But he eventually returned to the father.
The second son stayed
In his appointed position within the family, he had an arrogant attitude.
The first son represents the Gentiles,
Who went astray but returned to their heavenly Father, while
The second son represented the scribes, Sadducees and leading Pharisees
In appointed religious positions, but had an arrogant attitude.
Since the younger son refused to enter the festivities of the celebration, Jesus is said that the Jews chose not to have a part in the celebration of life and the Messianic Wedding Banquet that someday awaits all believers.
Jesus, a Jewish theologian, described the attributes of God in human terms. His words are easy to understand, while difficult for His critics to comprehend. Directly, parables teach that man is to respond to a loving God, as well as respond to one another with God-like compassion. Indirectly, parables indicate that God is aware of the human condition but desires that man follow His ways for salvation and a fulfilled life.
This parable may be better called the Parable of a Loving Father, because the focus is on the father, not his sons. The illustrative theme is that the caring love of this father toward his prodigal son is God’s attitude toward lost men and women. As to the conclusion, Jesus left it open-ended. No one knows if the older son repented and came to the feast. Those who heard this story could identify with one of these characters. Today, as in the past, many families have a “younger or older son.”
Finally, all three parables – the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son – are in sharp contrast of how Jesus looked upon sinners, in comparison to how the leading Pharisees looked upon them. A similar contrast was portrayed by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount message. God permits His people to go their own way, but He calls them back. When they return they should be welcomed, not shunned, since their return represents a recovery from death that deserves celebration.
12.03.06.Q1 How could an inheritance be given prior to a death?
The laws of inheritance in the ancient world pre-existed Abraham and Moses. Biblical laws were established by Moses but later enhanced in the Oral Law and recorded in the Mishnah. Some of these laws permitted for an inheritance to be received prior to the death of the parent as is the case in this parable. For example:
If a man assigned his goods to his sons he must write, “From today and after my death.” So R. Judah and R. Jose say: He need not do so. If a man assigned his goods to his son to be his after his death, the father cannot sell them since they are assigned to his son, and the son cannot sell them since they are in the father’s possession. If the father sold them, they are sold [only] until he dies; if the son sold them, the buyer had no claim on them until the father dies.
Mishnah, Baba Bathra 8.7
The Mishnah continues to say that the father can harvest the crops on his estate. However, this custom was the cause of considerable difficulties, which is why Ben Sirach advised against giving and inheritance prior to death.
To son or wife, to brother or friend
give not power over yourself while you live;
And do not give your goods to another
So as you have to ask for them again…
For it is better that your children ask you
Than you should look to the hand of your sons
When your days of this life are ended,
In the day of death, then distribute your inheritance.
Ben Sirach 33:19-23
The common laws of the time dictated that if a son left his home with his inheritance, he was in effect rejecting his home and forever leaving his family. The Sumerian Code from Mesopotamia was two thousand years old at the time of Christ and reflects the cultural norm that was still honored in the first century. It reads,
If a son say to his father and his mother, you are not my father, not my mother, (he shall leave) from the house, field, plantations, servants, property, animals he shall go leave, and his portion to its full amount he (the father) shall give him. His father and his mother shall say to him “not our son.” From the neighborhood of the house he shall go.
In effect, the son who ran away was rejecting his parents, as if to curse them. In the parable, Jesus said that God continues to love the son who despised Him and desires to see him return to his home. The following story was also popular in the first century,
Tell me, what sort of a father would give an inheritance to his son, and having received the money (the son) goes away leaving his father, and becomes an alien and in the service of aliens. The father then, seeing that the son has forsaken him (and gone away), darkens his heart and going away, he retrieves his wealth and banishes his son from his glory because he forsook his father. How is it that I, the wondrous and jealous God, have given everything to him, but he, having received them became an adulterer and sinner?
Apocalypse of Sedrach 6:4-6
While there were many stories similar to those that Jesus told, His accounts always present an image of God with great love and compassion. The leading Pharisees scoffed at His ideas of wealth and poverty because they believed that God promised to bless His obedient people (Deut. 28:1-14) and that the more obedient they were, the more they would be blessed. They and the Sadducees alike had perverted the interpretation of this passage to mean that whom God loves He would make wealthy, an early form of prosperity theology. Conversely, those whom He did not love or who were guilty of some sin were condemned to live in poverty.
. Bailey, Poet and Peasant. Part I, 158, 191; Fleming, The Parables of Jesus. 83, 87.
. See “Chiastic Literary Structure” in Appendix 26.
. Bailey, Poet and Peasant. Part I, 161-62; Spangler and Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. 140.
. Bailey, Poet and Peasant. Part I, 161-66.
. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. 140-41.
. Mishnah, Baba Bathra 8:7. (See below).
. Vine, “Father.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:227.
. Vine, “Genealogy.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:262.
. Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, eds., “Orphan.” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. 615.
. Lev. 11:7; Deut. 14:8; 1 Macc. 1:47.
. Geikie, The Life and Works of Christ. 2:351.
. See 05.01.03.A.
. Major, Manson, and Wright, The Mission and Message of Jesus. 580.
. Another example is found in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where the victim was found naked along the side of the road. He had no ethnic identification.
. Gen. 41:42; Hag. 2:23; Esther 8:2.
. The evening meal was the “chief” meal of the day, usually held in the evening. It was the primary meal during the feasts, such as the Passover meal and marriage feast.
. Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ. 333-37.
. While the cultural norm is to favor the oldest son, in this case the younger son is favored. This was also the case with Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers.
. This title was suggested by Brad Young.
. Bock, Jesus According to Scripture. 283.
. Cited by Clay, “The Prodigal Son.” 10-12.
. Prosperity theology is a 20th century American doctrine that is sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel or the health and wealth gospel. It essentially states that wealth and health is the will of God for all believers but they must have faith, a positive attitude and speech, and of course, cheerfully make all the necessary financial donations.