. The Real Christ...
Forgiveness is something which man receives both in a one off sense at baptism, and also in an ongoing stream throughout daily life. Both these aspects of forgiveness are brought home to us in this parable of the prodigal. Because the wonder of forgiveness is so hard to fully appreciate, seeing that we experience so much of it so frequently, the parable of the prodigal son uses a variety of Biblical allusions to bring home the reality of forgiveness to us. The series of three 'forgiveness' parables which the prodigal concludes is set in the context of Lk.15:1: " Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him" , the double mention of " him" indicating the spiritual charisma which the Lord holds over those desperately seeking righteousness. These parables were therefore designed to motivate these sinners to repent, highlighting the joy which true repentance can give to our Father. If only we would realize the gravity of our every day sins, the parables of the prodigal should have a like effect on us.
As with most of the parables, the prodigal has a primary reference to the nation of Israel. The many Old Testament allusions bring this home without doubt. In practice, this means that the intensity of repentance which Israel will eventually manifest should be seen in our contrition at sin. In this lies a real challenge. The following allusions demonstrate that our Lord clearly intended us to make a connection between the prodigal and apostate Israel- and therefore with ourselves:
The reason for presenting such a catalogue of evidence is to show that prodigal Israel's latter day repentance will be of a similar intensity of repentance to ours in this life. They will mourn and weep with a rare intensity of self-hate and self-knowledge- even as a father for his only son. Do we shed tears on repentance? Do we realize, as they will, how our sins brought about the crucifixion? Do we appreciate that our spiritual indifference and lack of perception means that we, like Israel, " did esteem him stricken" , seeing no beauty in him (Is.53:2-5) as we march through our lives, unthinking as to the power and beauty of the cross?
The Spirit Of The Law
There are a number of other Old Testament bases for the prodigal parable. Significantly, several of these in the Proverbs portray the younger son's repentance as a model fulfillment of the spirit of the Mosaic law (upon which Proverbs is so often a commentary). For example, it is the wise son who is told: " Hear thou, my son, and be wise...be not among winebibbers...a whore is a deep ditch...the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags. Hearken unto thy father...the father of the righteous shall greatly rejoice: and he that begetteth a wise child shall have joy of him" (Prov.23:19-26). There are evident connections here with the prodigal. God's rejoicing over his return was therefore on account of the son's wisdom through hearkening to the Father's word. Thus God's joy is not just in the emotional recognition of the fact that we are in bad con science with Him, and want to do something about it. True repentance is a result of really grasping the true wisdom of God, applying ourselves intellectually to it.
We are left to conclude that it was the son's reflection upon the Father's word which lead him to return to Him, as will be true of prodigal Israel in the last days. " Whoso loveth wisdom rejoiceth his father: but he that keepeth company with harlots spendeth his substance" (Prov.29:3) was clearly in the Lord's mind when constructing his parable. He evidently saw this proverb as applying to the same person in time of sin and repentance. Repenting and loving wisdom are therefore paralleled, showing again that repentance is not just a twinge of conscience, but involves coming to really know God. The prodigal wished to return home so that he could share in the loaves which the servants had " to spare" , or (better), " had in abundance" . This same word occurs in Jn.6:12 concerning the bread which " remained" , i.e. was in abundance, after the feeding of the five thousand. In that acted parable, the bread represented the abundance of spiritual food which is in the spirit-words of Christ. It was this which the truly repentant sinner earnestly seeks, rather than a mere salving of conscience. " Whoso keepeth the law is a wise son: but he that is a companion of riotous men shameth his father" (Prov. 28:7) shows that such genuine repentance and knowing of God's wisdom is effectively reckoned as keeping the letter of the Law. " A wise servant shall have rule over a son that causeth shame, and shall have part of the inheritance" (Prov.17:2) seems to also connect with our parable; implying that the wise son who was willing to be a servant was ultimately greater than the son who appeared to be technically obedient to the letter of the law. Likewise, the son desiring to be fed with the husks of the pig food may connect with Lazarus desiring to be fed with the crumbs from the rich man's table (Lk.16:21). Yet Lazarus is representative of the repentant sinner who is ultimately justified. The degree to which God will so totally impute righteousness to us is indeed hard to come to terms with. But it is faith in this which will be our ultimate salvation.
The Prodigal's Repentance: Baptism?
This parable describes the general principle of repentance; yet we are repentant at many times and varying circumstances. Because of this, there are a number of well sustainable interpretations possible. There are a number of reasons for associating the prodigal's leaving the pigs of the Gentile world with baptism; after the pattern of Israel's exodus, we understand that our repentance and exit from the world and its thinking is symbolized by baptism (1 Cor.10:1). In this case, our whole life after baptism is like the journey home of the prodigal- with nervousness, growing confidence and bitter regret and realization of our sins, we are stumbling home, desperately willing for just the humblest place of acceptance in God's family. And every step of our difficult, hungry journey the Father is having compassion upon us, and running out to meet us, searching for the lost sheep. There are so many references to God seeking out His people, and also to our seeking God. All our lives this process is working out; we seek for God, as He seeks for the development of a true spirituality in us. " Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you" (James 4:8) is surely an allusion to the prodigal parable. Every day of our lives, as we struggle with our natural fear and faithlessness, this fact should gloriously motivate us in our spiritual strivings. The first thing which the prodigal says at his meeting with the Father is " Father, I have sinned" (Lk.15:21). Surely our first stammerings at judgment day may be similar? Think of it. As you behold the glory of the Father in the face of Jesus Christ, what will the first thoughts and words really be? Yet the overflowing love of the Father almost brushed all that aside in assuring that timid boy of his acceptance and vital place in the Father's mind. The Father's speed and zeal is captured by the repeated use of the conjunction " and" : " His father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him" . The son's careful preparation of his request for mercy was needful for him, but not for the Father. This is a precise allusion to the spirit of Is.65:24: " Before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear" . This is primarily concerning God's relationship with men in the Millennium. Yet our daily experience of forgiveness now should give us a foretaste of the glorious sense of restoration with God which will be ours in the Kingdom.
The joyful homecoming and celebration feast after the prodigal's repentance then equates with the marriage feast which will begin the Millennium. The fatted calf which was killed therefore connects with the " fatlings" which were killed for the marriage supper of the Kingdom in Mt.22:4. And those Jews who refused the invitation to join in that feast easily equate with the elder brother. " Let us eat and be merry" (Lk.15:23) is alluded to by the Lord in his later description of the marriage supper: " Let us be glad and rejoice...for the marriage of the lamb is come" (Rev.19:7). " Enter thou into the joy of thy lord" (Mt.25:21) is the equivalent in the parable of the virgins. There is good reason to think that our Lord consciously designed his parables to allude to each other, and thus build up a more complete picture of his teaching.
Now for some more detailed proof of this powerful analogy of the prodigal's repentance:
The record of the prodigal's treatment at the homecoming suggests that we are to see in this the sharing of Christ's personal reward with repentant sinners. Removing his rags and clothing him with the best robe recalls Zech.3:4, concerning the very same thing happening to Christ at his glorification. Being given a robe, ring and shoes takes us back to Joseph/Jesus being similarly arrayed in the day of his glory (Gen.41:42). We earlier showed that this parable is rich in reference to the Joseph story, with Joseph's brothers typifying Israel and all sinners. But now there is a powerful twist in the imagery. The sinners (cp. the brothers) now share the reward of the saint (cp. Joseph). This is the very basis of the Gospel of justification in Christ, through having his righteousness imputed to us, so that we can share in his rewards. This will fully be realized at the marriage supper of the lamb, although it also occurs in a sense each time we repent, and live out the parable of the prodigal's repentance again.
Living Out The Parable
It must be evident that apart from at baptism, we each live out the experience of the prodigal in our daily lives, as we come to realize the extent and nature of our sins, and summon the faith in God's love to walk with quickening step back to Him. Association with harlots is a common Biblical symbol of committing sin (see James 1:13-15); all our sins are unfaithfulness against Christ our husband. They are not just passing adulteries; the Spirit uses the even more powerful figure of harlotries. There are quite a number of other references in James to this parable, which indicate that the prodigal's experience can apply in an ongoing sense to the believer after baptism. The son 'spending all' uses the same word which occurs in James 4:3 concerning the believer who 'asks amiss' (cp. the prodigal's request to his father), that he might " consume it (same word) upon (his) lusts" . James 4:4 continues: " Ye adulterers...know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?" . This is all prodigal language. The next verses then seem to go in their allusions, implying that the prodigal is ultimately far more acceptable than the elder brother in the ecclesia: " The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy (cp. the elder brother)...God...giveth grace (forgiveness?) unto the humble...draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you (cp. the prodigal's return being matched by the Father coming to meet him)...let your laughter (cp. the son's " riotous living" ) be turned to mourning...he that speaketh evil of his brother (is) not a doer of the law (as the elder brother thought he was), but a judge" (James 4:5-11).
The sense that the prodigal had of having come to a complete end, realizing the ultimate wretchedness of sin, should be ours when we repent. The prodigal's repentance is ours. The prodigal among the pigs, rising up to return, should be a cameo of our repentances throughout each day. The allusion to the Septuagint of Prov.29:21 shows how that despite having reached such an " end" , there is still a way back: " He that lives wantonly from a child shall be a servant, and in the end shall grieve over himself" . Yet we know that after that " end" , the prodigal returned.
The son 'coming to himself' in the prodigal's repentance (Lk.15:17) implies that his life of sin was madness, lived in a haze of semi-consciousness of his real spiritual self. This spiritual anaesthesia is always present when we sin. Yet it does not mean that God sees and feels our sins as we do; He has a constancy of spiritual awareness. An appreciation of this may help us in our struggle to sense the true seriousness of sin.
Duncan Heaster has written over 20 books, some of which contain material relevant to The Real Christ. And there is a host of other relevant material...