Which Son Are You?
April 9, 2011
The story of The Prodigal Son found in the Gospel According to Luke is well known to most people. The parable is one of the Bible stories that have been heard so often that we can breeze over it and all too easily miss many of the lessons it has for us. I am sure that most of us can give the basic overview of the story if we think about it. A man has two sons. One son stays home and does what he thinks is the right thing to do while the other demands his inheritance and goes off to live in the world. He squanders the money on a party lifestyle and ends up feeding swine. He realizes that his father’s servants are better off than he is and eventually humbles himself enough to go back home and ask to be a hired hand. His father wouldn’t hear of it and called for a robe, shoes and a ring for the wayward son. The father had the fatted calf slaughtered and a feast was held for the son that had returned home. The older brother was upset that after he had done everything the father had asked, the father held a feast to honor the younger brother who had run off.
So my question today is, which brother are you? Which brother am I?
One aspect of this parable is often overlooked when it is used as an illustration of forgiveness and redemption. Who was Jesus talking to? The story itself is found in Luke 15:11-32, but we need to back up to verse 1.
Luke 15:1-3 (King James Version)
1Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.
2And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.”
3And he spake this parable unto them, saying,
Verses 4 through 7 tell the story of the lost sheep and the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine to find the one that is lost. Verses 8 through 10 tell the story of the woman who had ten pieces of silver and searched the house for the one that was lost. Then is the story of the prodigal son.
The thing that each of these stories has in common is finding the lost and rejoicing with celebration. What about the ninety-nine sheep, the nine coins and the older brother? Are they not worthy of celebration?
The stories had a message for the Pharisees and scribes who were murmuring about the behavior of Jesus. They saw themselves as righteous, doing the correct thing by being set apart while they saw Jesus mingling with sinners, even eating with them. Jesus clearly was not one of them. We see another example of this in the Gospel According to Matthew.
Matthew 9:10-11 (King James Version)
10And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.
11And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, “Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?”
Again it appears that the Pharisees are not included in the meal but rather observing the behavior of Jesus. Jesus answers them directly in the following verses.
12But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.
13But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
The self-righteous Pharisees were often judgmental and Jesus called them on it. They focused mainly on the outward appearance or the ceremonial aspects of the law but they often missed the internal and moral or eternal principles. I find it interesting that in verse 13 Jesus says, “But go ye and learn what that meaneth.” The Pharisees thought that they were whole and not in need of a physician. Salvation cannot come to the self-righteous because they see no need for it. The sinner who is aware of sin and unworthiness is the one who can receive the gift of salvation.
Likewise, the three stories in Luke are directed in one aspect to the Pharisees. Let’s look at the older son.
We see in verse 11 that the man had two sons and for the sake of this parable I think we can assume that there were only the two. Verses 12 through 24 tell the story of the younger son as he left and returned home. Verses 25 through 27 introduce us to the older son, the second half of the story.
Luke 15:25-27 (King James Version)
25Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.
26And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.
27And he said unto him, “Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.”
The older son had been doing that which he believed was required, in a sense fulfilling the letter of the law. He was the son that stayed home and did the works that his father required. He was unaware of what had happened until he neared the house. However, this son apparently did not share the heart of his father as we see in the following verses.
Luke 15:28-30 (King James Version)
28And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.
29And he answering said to his father, “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:
30But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.”
The older son was angry and refused to participate in the celebration. He did not have the love for his brother that would allow him to rejoice in the safe return and joyful reunion with the father. The father was aware of the issue and went out to the son and tried to persuade him to join the reunion and party. The older son continued to resist and reiterated his self-righteousness saying, “neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment.” Even if this son was perfectly obedient, he was lacking in love and compassion. This is the picture we see of the Pharisee time and again in Scripture. They were proud to adhere to the letter of the law but they fell short when it came to loving the less fortunate in society. Those who needed compassion and mercy were outcasts in their eyes.
Another issue we see here is their sense of entitlement. Not unlike our society today, they believed that they were entitled to receive the reward because they saw themselves as good. The problem then as now is that seeing ourselves the way that we want to see ourselves is not necessarily the way that God sees us. It is only when we see ourselves as God sees us that we will know the truth of our need for salvation. It is in that truth that we are able to receive the gift of salvation. A sinner with a broken and contrite heart will know that he or she is unworthy but needy of the salvation that is offered by the sacrifice of the cross.
The older son then goes into the comparison game and further establishes his self-righteousness. The story concludes with the father still trying to convince the son that the celebration is a good and worthy thing.
Luke 15:31-32 (King James Version)
31And he said unto him, “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.
32It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
Like the Pharisees in the Gospels, we never see the older son enter into the celebration. They depended on their works, their behavior, to gain their reward. They would not let go of that mindset and move to a heart of compassion and care for those around them. They would not humble themselves and confess their need for a Savior. Religion can do this and over many years of serving the law it is hard to let go and see the simplicity of the Gospel.
So which son are we and which son do we want to be? The older son was dependent upon himself, his behavior, his works and his own righteousness. The younger son was broken, humbled and dependent upon the mercies of the father. He knew that he was undeserving and his relationship with his father was restored.
We are all sinners and Scripture states that we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We have gone off to live the way that we wanted to live. God came to earth in the form of man, Jesus Christ. He paid a debt that he did not owe. He paid our debt that we could not pay. He left the majesty of heaven, came to earth and offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice to spare us the punishment for our sin. For those who believe on Christ and confess their sinfulness with a humble and contrite heart, there is forgiveness. Jesus came to restore our relationship with God. While some will accept this, sadly others will continue to rely on their self-righteousness, their own works and their religion.
Which brother are you?