Here we go. Let's look at our first parable.
But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe, and put it on him. Put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat, and celebrate; for this, my son, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.’ They began to celebrate.
Now his elder son was in the field. As he came near to the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants to him, and asked what was going on. He said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and healthy.’ But he was angry, and would not go in. Therefore his father came out, and begged him. But he answered his father, ‘Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed a commandment of yours, but you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this, your son, came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’
He said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.’ (Luke 15:11-32 WEB)
Jesus loved to tell stories that held within their seemingly simple message a profound set of truths. He told a lot of stories and he was a masterful storyteller. I am sure the crowds gathered around eagerly when they heard Jesus say, “Now, there was a man with two sons…”
Jesus is traveling, and large crowds are following Him, including the “tax collectors and ‘sinners’”—those people who were considered evil by the respectable sorts.
Tax collectors handled the unclean coins of the Romans, and were, in effect, in league with the Roman government, who was bitterly oppressive towards the Jewish people. These tax collectors not only collected money to finance such a government, but they were not above pocketing some money for themselves.
The NIV Study Bible puts it well: “Notoriously evil people as well as those who refused to follow the Mosaic law as interpreted by the teachers of the law. The term was commonly used of tax collectors, adulterers, robbers and the like.” Not a label anyone would want to have pinned on them.
Can't you just hear the "good folks" following Jesus in the crowd, saying in their heads,
Those people deserve our scorn. Who would dare collect money for a pagan government that oppresses you, your family and your nation? Why should we, the good people of God, allow those people who are unfaithful, have sex for money, steal and engage in God-knows-what to join us as we follow Jesus? I am just perplexed that our Rabbi would allow such people to follow Him.
It’s normal to have revulsion for what these people do. Jesus, however, wants to get through the outer sinful behavior and get to the inner person. He removes a person from a culturally-imposed category. He then stands that person in front of us as a fellow human being. He is reestablishing that person’s humanity that we all share, good or bad behavior aside. As soon as we categorize a person--Oh, he’s a sinner, a tax collector, a drug addict, an alcoholic, an abuser, etc.--we disconnect from that person.
We are thinking, We’re not as outrageously sinful as that! Then we have no guilt casting that person aside.
So, do we forget what this person is doing/has done? No, Jesus always confronts sin and never minimizes it, but He never strips a person of his or her humanity either.
People are jostling for position to hear Jesus teach. Some are casting scornful looks at the tax collectors and the prostitutes. Once in position, the good folks are smiling up at Jesus, with a Look, Lord, here I am. Yeah, I occasionally sin, but thank God I am not like that woman over there! I am ready to listen…
Add to the mix the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, hanging back at a distance, for fear of standing amongst the unclean masses. They are muttering to themselves (but loud enough for people to hear) how they just cannot understand how a teacher can associate with those people:
Well, Rabbi Jesus, we deal with them too, but look with whom you are willing to eat! Prostitutes! Sinners! Tax Collectors! And you call yourself a rabbi, acting as one who follows Moses’ law and who claims to walk uprightly with God. Eating with someone, may we remind you, isn’t just lifting a morsel of bread at a table with someone—it is a sign of friendship. You are befriending those whom God has judged to be beyond hope, in our humble opinion, of course. If you really want to be a rabbi, one whom we could respect, you would teach these people—at a safe distance, of course--and then leave to dine with us. We are the ones that God really favors. We are the good and decent sorts, not those disgusting people you seem so fond of as you travel from town to town.
Then Luke says, “Then Jesus told them this parable…” He waited until the mumbling Pharisees quieted down. He waited for all of the jostling to cease. Jesus could see into all of the people's hearts and telling a parable would cut through pious exteriors as well as shame-filled ones. Jesus went directly to the heart of the matter.
Jesus is asking, in effect: What do we do with those whose behavior disgusts us? What kind of attitude must we have when interacting with them? As Jesus’ story unfolds, did the "sinners," (whose faces were anxiously watching the crowd) along with those who wouldn’t even look up, (let alone look at Jesus), soften as they heard His words? He starts to tell the story, and a hush descends.
“A certain man has two sons…” Everyone can relate to having a sibling, especially with large families being the cultural norm in this time. The younger son decides it’s time to strike off on his own—that’s not a problem. But how is he to finance his launch? Now, there’s the problem. The NIV Study Bible notes that in Jewish culture, the older son possessed double the portion of the father’s inheritance based on Deuteronomy 21:17.
It is interesting that earlier, in Luke 12:13, an angry young man comes up to Jesus, and wants Him to settle a family dispute: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” The NIV notes that rabbis regularly settled such disputes, but Jesus’ response to the young man's request is when was He “appointed judge or an arbiter between you?” Then Jesus warns the young man, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
Did this young man’s face flash into Jesus’ mind as He started telling the story?
Was greed likewise in the heart of the young man in the parable?
The NIV Study Bible says this is a “highly unusual” request to make, for the father may divide the inheritance, but that the father “retains the income from it until his death.” So, by lessening the total of the inheritance by giving some of it to the younger son, will the income that the father will live on be less? Will the older son’s inheritance provide the sole income for the father?
But, of course, the younger son wasn’t thinking of his father’s welfare—he was thinking of himself.
That’s how we work, right?
What’s good for me: That is a good question! I am tired of worrying about others, and now I need to look after myself. Being good. Get real. Being a good son ain’t it’s all cracked up to be. I want to be my own person, and look to what I can do for ME.
The younger son didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to leave. He had left in his mind a long time ago. Did he watch his older brother working day after day on behalf of the father, and say, That will not be me. Being good all the time? No way. Look where it’s getting my brother—fast track to No-Wheres-Ville.
We will find out later that the older brother was battling with his own negative attitude not only about his life but also about his younger brother.
So, the younger son packs up and gets “together all he had.” Given that his resources are going to be limited (he’s young, he hasn’t made his way in the world yet), “all he had” wasn’t much.
But is Jesus looking deeper than what was in the younger son’s backpack? Was “all he had” just that… himself? He had his self-confidence, his pride and his arrogance to carry him through. Did he look at himself and say, Hey, I am good enough to make it on my own. No slaving in a field and dealing with Dad. I am my own man, and whatever life throws at me, I can handle it. I am young, strong, and I’ve got my wits about me.
How often do we say to God: Enough. I can handle this. You’ve asked too much of me, I am tired of being good all the time—it’s not getting me anywhere, and I need to try this out based on what I think. I’ve got my wits about me, God!
So, our younger son leaves “for a distant country.” No living next door to Dad and brother.
Hey! I need to reinvent myself—I am tired of being the son of So and So, and the younger brother of So and So. I need to be ME and I must do it away from the prying eyes of my family. I am outta here and look out world! Here I come!
So, within some period of time, after his first foot fall in Anywhere-But-Here-Ville, he starts to spend his inheritance. He didn’t go looking for a job right away—oh no, he’s got money. A few inns here and there, some new friends to spend time with and soon he’s the center of the party. You always have plenty of friends if you are paying. All that money will last a long time, right?
And all those pretty women, who light up when he walks into a room…All those guys, who pat him on the back, clear a place at the table, and signal him to sit down. He then orders the endless rounds of drinks.
No worries…I’ve got people around me who really care—just look at them. Everyone in this town knows my name. I am no longer the younger brother…I am ME. I’ve got friends to prove it...no blisters on my hands from the plow, or dirt in my teeth. I have arrived.The money does run out…it always does. He spent “everything.”
The money does run out…it always does. He spent “everything.” This necessarily would not have been a problem, if he had been seeking gainful employment, or had found a job already. But that would have meant looking ahead, and our younger brother is all about NOW: Thinking about the future? Nah--that's for kill-joys like my father and older brother.
Now, outside forces invade his world—forces he has no control over. Famine hits the land. When people are starving, normal activities screech to a halt. People focus on themselves, understandably so, for worrying about the next meal is overwhelming. Where are all of his friends now? It’s every man for himself, and our younger son goes looking for SOMETHING. His resources could have been a hedge against such calamity, but it hits him hard now that he has nothing.
He goes to a “citizen of that country” and asks for a job—any job. (Desperation deflates arrogance and self-sufficiency rather quickly!) This man is probably not a fellow Jew—this man is raising pigs, a taboo animal and a forbidden food source for the Jews. The younger son shows up at this man's door, with his Jewish dress and demeanor and probably looks as much out of place as a nudist at a fashion show.
The man has some pity for this young man, and looks out over his farm. "You want a job? OK, you can go feed the pigs." Did our younger son wince at the suggestion? Unclean is as unclean does, and here he is, going into a kosher nightmare. Did the man even know of the Jewish aversion to pigs? Did he even care? Was he looking into the eyes of the young man and thinking, "This kid is desperate, and will do any job I send him to!" Was the man playing with him...or was the man genuinely sympathetic to this kid on his doorstep?
How the mighty have fallen. Out to the pigpen our younger son goes. He’s hungry as all get-out. It’s not like he can nip into McDonald’s for a value menu item. He sees the pods the pigs are munching, and they start looking awfully inviting. Note: “no one gave him anything.”
Interesting—this young man, whose money jingled in the pockets of prostitutes and innkeepers all over town, this young man who was well known, is now refused all help. No food, no offers of assistance, no bed to sleep on.
Sometimes, when we are deep in our sin, God allows pain to come in and smack us into reality. Our pride has indeed led us to a fall, and in order for us to get up and out of our circumstances, the Lord closes all the doors, except one: the one that opens up to the road that leads to Him. Sometimes, that very road is paved with pain.