11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” – Luke 15:11-32 ESV
This particular story that Jesus told has come to be known as The Parable of the Prodigal Son. But if one considers the context in which this parable was originally told, it might be better titled, The Parable of the Disgruntled Brother. This entire section of Luke’s gospel, beginning in chapter 14 and continuing through the closing verses of chapter 15, contains a lengthy discourse by Jesus that exposes the true character of the religious leaders of Israel.
It all began with Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. This miracle took place in the home of a ruler of the Pharisees, where Jesus had been invited to dine with other members of the ruling class. It had all been a set-up, designed to put Jesus on the spot. In the middle of the dinner, a man suffering from dropsy just happened to appear, seemingly out of nowhere. But it seems likely that he had been sent for by the host of the party, in order to see if Jesus would attempt to heal him and violate the Mosaic law forbidding work on the Sabbath.
Jesus healed the man and then told a series of parables designed to expose the hearts of these religious leaders who claimed to be the overseers of the people of Israel but who showed little compassion for their spiritual or physical needs. In His first parable, Jesus warned the Pharisees and scribes, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11 ESV). These were men who took great pride in their social standing and what they believed to be their superior spiritual status. They craved recognition and coveted the praise of men.
Jesus publicly rebuked His host for only inviting those to his dinner party who could return the favor. He had stacked his guest list with the names of those who would be most likely to reciprocate his kindness by extending him an invitation to dine in their homes. Yet, Jesus suggested that he do just the opposite.
“…when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” – Luke 14:13-14 ESV
But the Pharisee would have found this advice to be thoroughly appalling and illogical. What possible benefit could he receive from inviting those whom he considered cursed by God? In his perverse way of thinking, the poor, crippled, lame, and blind were suffering because they were sinners. He considered them unclean and unworthy of his attention. And, not only that, even if he did invite them into his home, they had no way of returning the favor. The Pharisee could not imagine a return on his investment. But Jesus told him:
“…you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” – Luke 14:14 ESV
But the Pharisee already considered himself to be just. He had earned his right standing with God through meticulous adherence to the Mosaic Law. But Jesus warned the man that his future standing with God might not be as secure as he supposed. He told another parable about a man sending out invitations to a great banquet. But when the day arrived for the banquet to begin, the invited guests all failed to show up. They each gave an excuse for not being able to attend. In anger, the host sent out his servant to “bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (Luke 14:21 ESV). The servant did as he was told and, before long, the banquet hall was filled with those who couldn’t believe their good fortune to be invited to a feast of this magnitude. And the host declared that his original guests would not be allowed in, even if they showed up.
“…none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.” – Luke 14:24 ESV
Despite all His teachings, the Pharisees continued to view His association with tax collectors and sinners as unacceptable behavior for a religious leader. In their minds, Jesus suffered from poor judgment and was invalidating His ministry through His constant contact with the ceremonially unclean. But Jesus continued to expose their calloused hearts through the use of parables. He used the analogies of the lost sheep and the lost coin to illustrate God’s love and compassion for all those whom the Pharisees had written off as worthless. God had sent His Son into the world to save the lost. He had come to minister to the weak, suffering, sick, and dying. But the Pharisees refused to see themselves as helpless and hopeless. They were self-made men who believed their superior spiritual health rendered them immune from God’s judgment. They were healthy, whole, and in no need of a physician.
At one point, early on in His ministry, Jesus visited the house of Matthew, who happened to be a tax collector. The scribes and Pharisees who witnessed Jesus sharing a meal with Matthew and his fellow tax collectors expressed their disgust that He would associate with such sinners. To this Jesus replied, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Mark 2:17 NLT).
This brings us to the parable of the prodigal son. In this parable, Jesus tells of two brothers who share the same father from whom they hope to one day receive their inheritance. According to the Mosaic Law, the older son was to receive a double portion of the inheritance. The father was to “the rights of his oldest son…by giving him a double portion. He is the first son of his father’s virility, and the rights of the firstborn belong to him” (Deuteronomy 21:17 NLT). But typically, the inheritance was not distributed until the father’s death. But in the parable that Jesus told, the younger son came to his father demanding to receive his inheritance early.
“Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” – Luke 15:12 ESV
The father gave in to his younger son’s demands but chose to award both sons with their designated inheritance. He divided up his wealth between them. This is a point that often gets overlooked. The older brother received his double-portion of the inheritance at the very same time. But the younger brother “packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living” (Luke 15:13 NLT). Before long, he was broke and broken, and ready to return to his father’s house, even if it meant he had to do so as a hired servant. He had been greatly humbled by his experience in the big city and recognized how much he missed his father’s love and affection. So, he came up with a plan.
‘I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’ – Luke 15:18-19 NLT
This is where the story gets interesting. The young man returned and was shocked to find his father not only waiting for him but eager to welcome him back into the family. He exclaimed, “this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found” (Luke 15:24 NLT). In celebration of his son’s return, the father threw a great feast. He even supplied his son with a new robe, sandals, and an expensive ring. The son had expected to be treated as little more than a slave, but instead, he was welcomed back with joy and treated like a celebrity.
But the older brother, who had been working in the fields, returned to this scene of unexpected celebration and was infuriated. And it doesn’t take much imagination to guess who the older brother represents in the story. He had stayed at home, faithfully fulfilling his duties, while his ungrateful brother had been off committing unmentionable sins in faraway lands. While the younger brother had been busy squandering his inheritance, the older brother had played the part of the dutiful son, caring for the land his father had bequeathed to him. As part of his inheritance, the older son would have received the double-portion, which would have included the land. It was his to care for. It now belonged to him. But he painted a very different picture. He became angry at his father’s ostentatious treatment of his younger brother and declared his frustration.
“All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!” – Luke 15:29-30 NLT
In true pharisaical fashion, the older brother denounced the actions of his father. He wrestled with what he believed to be a great injustice and a clear case of inequity. Notice his emphasis on faithful obedience and the years he had spent “slaving” away on this father’s behalf. But, in reality, he had been working his own land. He had been tending his own fields and benefiting from the inheritance he had been given by his father. He viewed himself as the victim in this story. Somehow, he had been aggrieved by his father’s actions. And yet, all along he had been enjoying the gracious gift of his father’s wealth and lands. He had not suffered. He had not gone without. He had not been cheated in any way. But his pride and jealousy prevented him from rejoicing at the return of his brother. Like the Pharisees who could not understand Jesus associating with tax collectors and sinners, the older brother couldn’t comprehend his father’s treatment of his undeserving brother. But the father tried to help him understand the heart behind his actions.
“Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!” – Luke 15:31-32 NLT
This seems to be the crux of Jesus’ message throughout these two chapters. The Pharisees, who viewed themselves as the faithful children of God, refused to show mercy to those who were the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:6). When Jesus saw the crowds of people following Him, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 ESV). But the Pharisees could not bring themselves to care for the shepherdless sheep. Just as the older brother could not understand his father’s over-the-top treatment of his undeserving sibling, the Pharisees could not comprehend Jesus’ care and concern for the undeserving multitudes. But the prodigal son had returned in repentance and humility, fully aware of his sins and ready to beg for his father’s forgiveness. But the older brother revealed his true colors. As long as he remained the center of his father’s attention and the beneficiary of his father’s blessings, he was happy. But his brother’s return and his father’s response were more than he could bear. He may have shared his father’s inheritance, but he did not share his father’s heart.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson