Parables – The Prodigal Son
Parables themselves present clear stories from everyday events that many in the crowd in Jesus’ time would recognize. Jesus did not code His teaching to prevent some people from understanding, since all equally would understand the imagery. All those gathered there certainly comprehended the aspects of the stories related to their everyday lives. The meaning of His teaching was cloaked because (as Jesus Himself stated) only certain people were intended to understand the meaning. By the revelation of the Holy Spirit, believers are able to understand the meaning of His parables.
The question is why Jesus would let most people wonder about the meaning of His parables. The first instance of this is in His telling the parable of the Sower and the Seed. Before He interpreted this parable, He drew His disciples away from the crowd. They said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,
Isaiah 6:9-10 (NKJV)*
9 And He said, “Go, and tell this people:
‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
10 “Make the heart of this people dull,
And their ears heavy,
And shut their eyes;
Lest they see with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart,
And return and be healed.”
The Purpose of Parables
10 And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”
11 He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.13 Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says:
‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand,
And seeing you will see and not perceive;
15 For the hearts of this people have grown dull.
Their ears are hard of hearing,
And their eyes they have closed,
Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
So that I should heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; 17 for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
Compared to His earlier teaching during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s turn to parables might seem odd. He’d used clear instruction to teach His followers how to live and about the Kingdom of God, and He’d exhibited the Kingdom in a tangible way through His miracles. But suddenly, when the crowds come to hear Him, He hops into a boat and speaks in parables, stories about sowing seeds and gathering wheat. In other words, the parables are meant to divide the crowd. While this may seem as if Jesus denied some people access, the difference He means is not in the message—but in the response.
His miracles had attracted many, and others had perhaps been astonished by His earlier teaching. But the parables themselves, just as in the story of the seed falling on various places revealed the true nature of their responses and their real decisions. Those committed to the Kingdom of God would seek and find further understanding. But those uncommitted—perhaps listening only because of the initial excitement—would reject the teaching as unintelligible.(1)
From this point on in Jesus’ ministry, when He spoke in parables, He explained them only to His disciples. But those who had continually rejected His message were left in their spiritual blindness to wonder as to His meaning. He made a clear distinction between those who had been given “ears to hear” and those who persisted in unbelief—ever hearing, but never actually perceiving.
2 Timothy 3:7
7 always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
The disciples had been given the gift of spiritual discernment by which things of the spirit were made clear to them. Because they accepted truth from Jesus, they were given more and more truth. The same is true today of believers who have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth.
13 However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.
He has opened our eyes to the light of truth and our ears to the sweet words of eternal life.
The Prodigal Son
As we begin this story we should draw our attention to something most of us probably have missed in all the times we previously read this parable. We could say this parable is misnamed. If we look closely this is not a parable about a son, but instead it is about two sons. Look at verses 11.and 12.
11 Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.
This is the story about a man, the father of a wealthy estate, and his two sons.
The story is usually called the prodigal son because the protagonist in the story is a son who squanders his inheritance. That is what prodigal means: wastefully extravagant. But that title ignores the antagonist of the story, the other son, the righteous son or perhaps the dutiful son would be a more appropriate term. In fact, if you count the number of verses of the story, the prodigal son’s story is told in 13 verses. While the older son’s story takes up 8 verses. So the parable is basically a story of two sons.
So the first son (younger) decides to ask the father for his share of the inheritance. By inheritance, the son literally means his portion of all the father owns in life. The portion of his father’s estate that would legally pass to him upon his father’s death. Under Jewish law, the older son was entitled to a double portion of whatever was due the rest of the siblings. Thus, we can see in this scenario, the older son would have received two-thirds of the estate while the younger son would received one-third.
This is a very interesting request. Basically, the son is saying, I wish you were dead. Or the son considered the father dead to him. It is a completely selfish, self-centered act. It shows no regard for the interests or wishes of the father. It is utterly disrespectful and shameful. And since the father’s wealth was wrapped up in his way of life, the son’s statement also means he has no interest in the father’s business or in the father’s name. He wishes to completely disassociate himself from the father.
This request is so brash and unprecedented that the only thing that could be more shocking of hearing of such a demand was to hear the father’s response. In an even more surprising move, the father agrees to the request. The father agrees to allow the separation the son requests.
The story implies that without the Father’s consent, then the son’s fall into a life of misery could never have happened. Then the son would have remained at the family home much like the older son. But consider, if the father denied the son’s request and the son remained behind never leaving the home what kind of relationship would the father have with that son. He would be there in body but not in spirit. And the father would have him by his side, but knowing all along that the son didn’t want to be there and resented the father’s control. Had the father simply kicked he son out penniless for his insurrection against his authority then the son would have been destitute from the start. And from then on, he would have blamed the heartless father for his pitiful condition. Rather than do that, the father did the one thing be could do if he wanted to preserve a chance for reconciliation. He gave the son the freedom he demanded.
It is helpful to understand what must have been involved in Jesus’s day for a Father to divide the inheritance in this way. The inheritance was the family’s wealth, which meant it was the home, the land, the farm buildings, the equipment, the salves, the servants, and the animals.Everything the father owned. So, if the father was to truly honor this request, the father must first liquidate the family’s assets. In that day, much as we do today, you could sell a future interest in something of value. Therefore, the father could have found buyers willing to purchase the rights to the family property upon the death of the father. So the family would receive payment immediately, but hold onto the property until the father’s death, at which time the new owner would take possession. Because this was a future interest, it meant that the inheritance was sold at a discount. A future interest is worth less in the current day as opposed to a future day – like a savings bond. As a result, this son’s demand for his inheritance amounted to a demand that the father liquidate his assets at a loss (a discount) and immediately give the younger son his one-third of his inheritance. This makes the father’s agreement even more remarkable in this story.
However, remembering how all these parables were pictures of God’s desire for repentance of sinners and His redemption of the lost. Then let’s consider how this story up to this point represents the story of God’s relationship with His lost children. All those who will one day be redeemed, must begin as lost sinners. We are all like this son who runs away from God, the Father. If our heavenly Father restricted us from going out into the world then we would have resentment and anger. Even though we were with the Father our true desires would be out in the world. Therefore we would never be focused on the Father’s word and His truth, not understanding the true value of our eternal inheritance. However, our Father’s love for us, He did the only thing He could and let us go into the world. It would be the only way for the Father to have reconciliation with us and for us to receive redemption. Not because He agreed with it. But, because there was no other way to restore His children to Himself. This how we all start out as sinners from birth, loss in a world that only brings misery.
In Jesus’s day, the Pharisees were unable to see why God shows favor to sinners. Jesus teaching how sinners are a thing of value to God and worthy of being counted, of being found and restored. Of a story where a rebellious son longs to distance himself from a Father’s authority and a patient father willing to grant the son his distance so He might ultimately preserve the relationship.
– Next week we see what happens to the son when he leaves the father.
“The author’s biblical interpretations and conclusions presented in this document rely on original teaching used by permission of Verse By Verse Ministry International (VBVMI). The author’s views may not represent the views of VBVMI, it’s Directors or staff. Original VBVMI teaching may be found at http://www.vbvmi.org.”
(1) adapted from The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim (Book III, Chapter XXIII).
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