THEOLOGY & APOLOGETICS
Misunderstood Teachings of Jesus Part 2
The Prodigal and his Brother
By Christopher Schwinger
Misunderstood Teachings of Jesus, the Series
Reconciliation with God and Man
The Prodigal and his Brother
Blasphemy and Forgiveness
Luke 15:11-32: The Parable of the Prodigal Son
The person who sent me this question through Got Questions worded his confusion this way:
I have been studying the parable of the prodigal son. There are several things that strike me about it. He seems to be oblivious to all the good that his father does for him and only wants the party lifestyle until he hits rock bottom in the pigpen, at which point his eyes are opened to the truth. When he regains his senses he finally learns the true emotional makeup of his father, who represents God. I don't understand why the father never went after the son to bring him home, but just waited. The brother seems to actually be the one slighted, and after years of "being good" he is made to look like a selfish person in the story. There are aspects I do not understand about this. I sense that at one time the prodigal loved his father; however, I do not even know that, because when he finally decided to go home, it was just so he would have something to eat and a nice place to sleep. He does appear to repent by acknowledging that he sinned against the father, but I don't see any emotional bonding on the part of the son. It's all done on the part of the father and I cannot tell what is really going on inside the mind of the prodigal once he determines to "go back" other than getting his physical needs taken care of. What is the meaning of the parable of the prodigal son?The dutiful brother in the parable of the prodigal son is supposed to represent the Jews who followed the Mosaic Law. Jesus had two primary audiences: the reprobate and the good Jews. The message of the parable, made easier to interpret because of the lost sheep and lost coin parables just before it, is that while God is pleased when people diligently stay righteous, He is overjoyed when the sinner repents. I think the plot element of the prodigal taking his inheritance and going off to do his own thing signifies how Jesus viewed those who live for themselves. Because of the sin within them, they withdraw from God, the source of their blessings and security. He doesn't force them to stay with Him because a relationship can't be forced.
Many of Jesus' teachings say you can't be selfish if you're serving God, but in the parable of the prodigal son, the dutiful brother's error wasn't so much selfishness (for he was serving his father, who represents God), but pride. It is pride about working hard to perfect oneself which causes anger when others get what seems like an easy way into favor with God. This was very hard for Peter to accept in Acts 10. The parable of the prodigal son is a New Testament variant on the story of Jonah. The Book of Jonah's theme is that God wants people from any nation to repent, and Jonah is made an example in the story of how not to be: He is unhappy when God accepts Gentiles' repentance — especially because Nineveh is extremely morally corrupt. The two sociocultural elements of the New Testament era which Jesus was speaking to were the Jews' exclusivism about automatically being better than the rest of the world, and their cold attitude toward those Jews, Gentiles, and Samaritans with lower moral standards than their own. Instead of seeking out the reprobate with love, the good Jews withdrew from them. The reasons that the father in the parable doesn't seek out his son are because the son's whereabouts are unknown, and because Jesus is teaching that we have an individual responsibility to seek God instead of Him forcing Himself on us. Jesus was trying to communicate what the prophets of the Old Testament had, about how much God desires our repentance and is delighted when we are restored to fellowship with Him.
The questioner made an interesting point about the prodigal returning to his father (representing God) only for selfish purposes. I don't think Jesus' point was about the motivation for the son's return, for the Bible never has the attitude that you have to love God outside of any expectation of blessing. Expectation of blessings and recognition that misfortune was God's warning sign of one's folly are what lead people to God. The parable is not about the meaning of a relationship with God but instead about how glad God is when people repent.
Image Credit: Duccio di Buoninsegna; "Appearance of Christ on Mt. Galilee"; 1308-1311; Public Domain
Tags: Biblical-Truth | Christian-Life | Controversial-Issues | False-Teaching | Jesus-Christ
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