3-12 The Parable Of The Prodigal (1)


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.

Prodigal Israel

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 father falling on the prodigal's neck and kissing him sends the mind back to Joseph weeping on Benjamin's neck (another younger brother), typical of Christ's receiving home of a repentant Israel in the last days. As Joseph commanded his servants " Bring these men home, and slay, and make ready" (Gen.43:16), so the father did likewise (Lk.15:23). Both repentances were celebrated with a meal of fellowship (cp. the breaking of bread). Both the prodigal and the sons humbled themselves to the position of servants. Like the prodigal, Israel were often brought back to their spiritual senses by famine (Ruth 1:1; 1 Kings 8:37; Lk.4:25 etc.). His realization that " I perish with hunger" (Lk.15:17) matches the description of Jacob in Canaan as " A Syrian ready to perish" (Dt.26:5), dwelling in a land that was 'perishing through the famine' (Gen.41:36). This affliction came upon natural Israel because of their 'murder' of Joseph / Jesus. The prodigal's profligacy is therefore to be seen as the crucifying of Christ afresh by the believer.

- The prodigal Israel went " into a far country" (Lk.15:13) - a phrase normally used in the Old Testament concerning the Gentile lands of Israel's dispersion (Dt.29:22; 1 Kings 8:41,46; 2 Kings 20:14; 2 Chron.6:32,36). In passing, the " far country" of Lk.19:12 and 20:9 should also refer to the lands of the Gentiles; this is where Christ has gone (as well as Heaven) , and will return to Israel when they desire him to. As with so many of the parables, this one is packed with allusions to the Proverbs. The " far country" recalls Prov.25:25: " As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country" . Like many Proverbs, this is alluding to the Law- concerning how Israel would return from the " far country" of their dispersion upon their repentance. The sense of refreshment and exhilaration which this gives God should surely motivate us to repent, and also to encourage others to do so. Yet we need to ask whether we feel this same exaltation of spirit as God does " over one sinner that repenteth" . It requires selflessness, and a real desire to see glory given to our Father.

- Our association of the prodigal with Israel in dispersion is strengthened by the mention that the prodigal " wasted" the Father's riches, the Greek meaning 'to scatter abroad'- suggesting that as Israel had wastefully scattered God's riches in the Gospel, so they too were scattered. Note how the prodigal is pictured as ending up with the pigs- well known symbol of the Gentiles. As the Son's return to the Father was matched by His going out to meet the son, when Israel " return unto the Lord...then the Lord thy God will...return and gather thee from all the nations" (Dt.30:2,3).

- The book of Hosea frequently presents prodigal Israel as the one who went astray from God, her loving Father and husband, committing adultery with the surrounding countries, with the result that God cast her off, leaving her to suffer in those very lands whose idols she had worshipped. Her sense of shame and knowledge of God's constant love then brought her to her senses (Hos. 2; 5:11-15; 6:1; 7:8-10). There can be little doubt that our Lord had his eye on this symbology when framing the prodigal parable. Hos.2:7,8 is the clearest example: " She shall follow after her lovers...she shall seek them, but shall not find them: then shall she say, I will go and return to my first husband; for then was it better with me than now. For she did not know that I gave her corn, and wine, and oil, and multiplied her silver and gold (cp. the father giving the son his substance), which they prepared for Baal" . These blessings of corn, wine and oil are referring to the blessings for obedience promised in Dt.28. The point is being made that these blessings were not immediately and totally removed once Israel started to go astray. This demonstrates how material 'blessings' are not necessarily an indication that we have favour with God. Consuming the Father's substance " with harlots" (Lk.15:30) is therefore parallel to giving it to idols. The spiritual riches of being in covenant with God, as well as our every material blessing from Him, were frittered away by Israel. Saying that doctrine doesn't matter, that other churches have fellowship with God, giving our time and money to the surrounding world, all this is flinging with whores and bowing before idols. There is a direct equivalence between these things, in God's sight. God's " hand" worked upon Israel to make them realize the seriousness of their ways (Hos.2:10). This fact starts to plumb the depth of God's love- that even with those who have broken His covenant, God's hand is still working to lead them to repentance.

- Jer.31:18-20 describe how Ephraim moans: " Thou hast chastised me...turn thou me, and I shall be turned...after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed...I was ashamed...because I did bear the reproach of my youth. Is Ephraim my dear son?...since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still...I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord" . We must not think from this that God just chose to turn Israel (the prodigal) back to him at a certain moment. It was because God " spake against him" , through which the prodigal was " instructed" , that he turned back.

- There is reason to see the family portrayed in the parable as being a priestly family- thus representing prodigal Israel, " a Kingdom of priests" . The son did not ask for his share of the inheritance, but  of " the portion of goods" - remember that Levites did not own any land. There is surely an echo of the curse on Eli's priestly family in the prodigal parable: " Every one that is left in thine house shall come and crouch...for a piece of silver and a morsel of bread, and shall say, Put me, I pray thee, into one of the priests offices, that I may eat a piece of bread" (1 Sam.2:36). The Father had " hired servants" , which takes us back to the reference in Lev.22:10 to the priests having " hired servants" in their household, who would have performed the mundane work for them (cp. the Gibeonites). The prodigal was therefore asking to be admitted back into God's service, resigning all the spiritual superiorities he could have enjoyed through being of the priestly line. Similarly latter day Israel will be willing to be accepted by God as Gentiles, having resigned their trust in their natural lineage. Our attitude on repentance ought to be similar- just wanting to quietly, humbly participate in God's family for the joy of being close to Him. Further indication that the hired servants represent the Gentiles is found in the fact that they had " bread enough" (Gk. 'an abundance of loaves'), connecting with the Gentiles of Mt.14:20 being " filled" (same word in Lk.15:16) with the abundance of loaves created by Christ.

- The parable of the lost son complements that of the lost sheep earlier in the same chapter. " My people hath been lost sheep" , " the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Jer. 50:6; Mt.10:6; 15:24). A comparison of the parable with Hos.7:9,10 indicates that most of Israel remain as the prodigal in the pig country: " Strangers have devoured his strength (cp. " devoured thy substance" ), and he knoweth it not...they do not return to the Lord their God, nor seek him for all this" . The illogicality of Israel remaining in their pathetic spiritual position is so apparent to us from this; yet we of the new Israel can also be crazy enough to go on living out of real fellowship with God.

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.

Detailed Proof

Now for some more detailed proof of this powerful analogy of the prodigal's repentance:

- In the pig country, the son lived with " riotous living" (Lk.15:13). The same Greek word occurs in 1 Pet.4:4 concerning Gentiles (and also the latter day apostacy within the ecclesia?) living in " excess of riot" .

- The context of the parable is set by Lk.15:2. It was in response to the Pharisees' criticism of Jesus that he received sinners and ate with them. Jesus is replying by showing that the meal he ate with them was in the spirit of the joyful feasting occasioned by the finding of the lost coin, and the return of the prodigal. The prodigal's repentance is thus likened to those who were responding to Christ's gospel.

- The prodigal " spent all" (Lk.15:14), just as the diseased woman had " spent all" her living (Mk.5:26), and now came to take hold of Christ's mantle of righteousness. This we do at baptism. Other similarities between the prodigal and that widow are to be found in 'Studies In The Gospels' by H.A.W.

- The prodigal's perishing with hunger and desperately needing bread suggests a connection with Jn.6:35: " I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me (cp. the prodigal's return) shall never hunger...him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out" (cp. the receiving back of the prodigal). This coming to Christ is both ongoing and also specifically at baptism.

- The son was attached to a " citizen of that country" , perhaps a personification of the Biblical devil to which we are joined before conversion. He was made free from him the moment he started his journey back. He " was dead, and is alive again" is also baptism language (cp. Rom.6:3-5; Col.2:13). " He arose" from the pigs (Lk.15:20) certainly implies new life and resurrection.

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.





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