3-13 The Parable Of The Prodigal (2)

Killing The Fatted Calf

" The fatted calf" of Christ is 'killed' by God on our repentance in the sense that He is aware once again of the death of Christ whenever we are granted forgiveness. The spirit of Christ groans for us when we sin, as he did on the cross and in Gethsemane (Rom.8:26). Thus God looks on the travail of Christ's soul when He bears our sins away from us (Is.53:11). To crucify Christ afresh as it were puts Christ through the process of death on behalf of sin once again, but because the believer does not 'resurrect' to newness of life in forsaking the sin, neither does God 'visualize' the Lord's triumph over the sufferings of sin in the resurrection. Such a person has left Christ suffering, travailing in soul, groaning with tears, without any triumph or resurrection.

The son admitted that he had sinned " in thy sight" (Lk.15:21), exactly as David confessed after his sin with Bathsheba (Ps.51:4). In the same way as David openly recognized that he deserved to die, so the prodigal wanted to be made a hireling. Yet in reality, God did not take David's life, the prodigal was not allowed to even get round to saying he wanted to be made a slave (Lk.15:21 cp. 19), shoes being immediately placed on his feet (Lk.15:22) to distinguish him from the barefoot slaves. As God took His repentant wife back to her former status, speaking of her once again as a virgin, so the Father emphasizes: " This my son was dead..." (Lk.15:24). The prodigal was dead, but then became alive (Lk.15:32), in the same way as baptism marks both a one-off coming alive with Christ, and also the start of a newness of life in which we are constantly dying to sin and coming alive to God's righteousness (Rom.6:13). Our repentance and subsequent acceptability with God at our baptisms should therefore be on a similar level to our confessions of sinfulness to God after specific sins in our daily lives, and also related to our doing this at the day of judgment.

Yet in the daily round of sin and failure, it is sometimes difficult to sense the degree to which God is actively seeking our return, and willing to slay the fatted calf. The earlier parables of the lost sheep and coin show God actively working to find us; whilst that of the prodigal implies that He is not doing anything physical. Yet the clear connections with the preceding parables show that the woman zealously turning the house upside down must therefore be a figure of the mental energy expended by the Almighty in seeking out our repentance. In our semi-aware spiritual days and hours, before we 'come to ourselves', the Father's active mind is urgently seeking us. Surely this should motivate us in our stronger moments to be aware of the need not to sleep into the sleepy madness of spiritual indifference and sin. This indifference is effectively spending our substance with whores and riotous living. We have mentioned that Prov. 29:3 is one of the root passages for the prodigal parable: " Whoso loveth wisdom rejoiceth his father: but he that keepeth company with harlots spendeth his substance" . There is a parallel here between wisdom and the Father's substance; continuing a popular Biblical theme that God's spiritual riches are to be found in His words of wisdom. An indifference to the spiritual riches which we have been given in the word of Christ is therefore being likened to the prodigal squandering the Father's substance with whores.

It is hard to appreciate that this parable really is intended to be read as having some reference to our daily turning back from our sins- such is the emotional intensity of the story. Yet such is the seriousness of sin that we must see in it an ideal standard to aim for in this regard. The parable alludes to a passage in Job which helps us better appreciate this. The prodigal's confession " I have sinned...in thy sight" , and his returning from spiritual death to life (Lk. 15:21,32) connect well with Job 33:24-30: " His flesh (of the forgiven sinner) shall be fresher than a child's: he shall return to the days of his youth (cp. the prodigal): he shall pray unto God, and He will be favourable unto him: and he shall see his face with joy...if any say (like the prodigal), I have sinned...and it profited me not; He will deliver his soul from the pit, and his life shall see the light. Lo, all these things worketh God oftentimes with man" . The prodigal's experience will often be worked out in our lives, the fatted calf slain time and again, and as such we will come to know and appreciate the Father's love even more.

The joyous feast around the fatted calf can therefore speak of the full fellowship with God which we enjoy each time we come to repentance. We saw that the return of Israel in Hos.2 was one of the source passages for the parable. The feast at their return is there described as a betrothal feast. This is obviously a one-off act. Yet such is the constant newness of life which we can experience through continued repentance, that the feasts of joy which we experience can all have the intensity of a betrothal feast. In like manner our relation with Christ in the Kingdom is likened to a consummation which lasts eternally.

The Elder Brother

In the same way as the Jews refused to appreciate the spirit in which Christ was feasting with the repentant sinners who responded to his message (Lk.15:2), so the elder brother refused to attend the celebrations. Thus he is set up as representative of hard hearted Israel; and all those in the new Israel who share his characteristics proclaim themselves to be aligned with the legalistic Pharisaism which failed to discern the real spirit of Christ when he was among them. A calf, dancing and music recall the scene on Moses' return from the mount (Ex.32:17-19); the elder brother's response as he returned from the field and beheld this sight may well have been rooted in his attempt to place himself in Moses' place. He zealously protested at what he liked to see as rank apostasy when it was actually the display of the real spirit of Christ, in receiving back a lost soul. For all this, the lesson is never learned. Schism after schism have been experienced over this very issue of having repentant brethren take their place at the memorial feast. The bad grace and bitterness of the elder brother as he stormed away from the happy feast is seen all too often amongst us.

The elder brother coming in from the field must be related to the parable about the servant coming home from the field in Lk.17:7-10. The servant should then have prepared the meal, on the master's command, and then admitted that despite having been perfectly obedient, he was still unprofitable. The prodigal parable points the great contrast. God, while having every right to order the servant/ elder brother to prepare the meal, is the one who has actually prepared it. God asks the elder son to come and eat immediately after returning from the field, rather than ordering him to prepare the meal, as He could so justly have done. Yet despite God's boundless love, the elder son refused to act and think in the spirit of the Father's love.

The corrective to the elder brothers' attitude is provided by the following parable of the unjust steward which comes straight afterwards in Lk.16. The steward was accused of 'wasting' his master's goods (Lk.16:1), using the same Greek word translated " substance" in Lk.15:13, concerning how the son wasted his father's substance. The steward forgave others, and therefore ultimately found a way of escape from his dilemma. The implication is that it was on account of the prodigal being willing to do this, not daring to point the finger at others in the Father's household because of his awareness of his own sins, that he was eventually saved. We can also infer that the elder brother walked out of the Father's fellowship because of his refusal to do this. Again we see how God works through our sins. Because of the prodigal's experience of sin and forgiveness, he was better able to show that vital love and tolerance towards others, without which we cannot receive God's ultimate acceptance. In a sense, it was much more difficult for the elder brother.

Our Elder Brother...

Which leads us to one final thought. It was so much harder for Christ to be as patient with sinners as he was, seeing that he himself never sinned and experienced God's forgiveness. There is good reason to think that Jesus was speaking about the elder brother partly to warn himself. He was the favoured son, having the right of the firstborn. He alone could say to God " neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment" (Lk.15:29). The Father's comment " All that I have is thine" (Lk.15:31) connects with the references to God giving all things into the hands of the Son. His constant abiding in the Father's house echoes Jn.8:35: " The servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever" . Our Lord seems to have been indirectly exhorting himself not to be like the elder brother, thereby setting us the example of framing necessary warning and rebuke of others in terms which are relevant to ourselves. If our perfect Master was so sensitive to his own possibility of failure, how much more should we be, ever analyzing our attitudes to our brethren, " considering (ourselves) lest we also be tempted" .




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