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From a Michigan reader I received the following inquiry: 

“I have this question concerning the Lord’s parable of the prodigal son. Recently I heard this parable interpreted to mean that the elder son, who remained at home, was lost because he did not accept his father’s invitation to go into the feast, which was interpreted to mean the church. Also that the younger son was the only saved one because he returned to the father. Would you please answer in the Standard Bearer, which we as a family enjoy so much because of its Reformed teachings.” 

REPLY 

First of all, thank you for that encouraging last line of your letter. You can pay the Standard Bearer no higher compliment than that! 

In the second place, let the reader look up the text of this parable in Luke 15:11-32. Because of its length, I will not quote the entire parable, but only refer to the text as necessary, assuming that the reader has his Bible open to the passage. 

In the third place, I think it is important to pay careful attention to the occasion of this parable (as of all three parables in this chapter). That occasion is found in vss. 1 and 2: “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” The fact that the publicans and simmers came to hear Jesus was enough to make the Pharisees and scribes, self-righteous as they were, grumble and criticize. And to this all of these parables constitute Jesus’ answer, each time from a different point of view. Briefly, I would say that the purpose of the parable of the prodigal son is to picture the beauty of forgiving love and the joy of a forgiven soul on the dark background of cold, legalistic, sham obedience. 

As to the interpretation suggested by my questioner, I have the following comments: 

1) There is but one point on which I agree, namely, that the younger son in the parable represents a sinner who is saved, while the elder son represents one who is lost. I hasten to add, however, that this is as such not the point of the parable. 

2) The younger son does not represent one who is saved because he repented. Repentance (return to the Father) is never the cause of salvation. One is saved because of Christ’s atonement and because of God’s work of grace in him, and in the way of repentance. In fact, we may say that the younger son’s resolve to arise and go unto his father was due to the drawing power of the father’s love and was motivated by the conviction of his father’s love. Thus it is also in spiritual reality. 

3) The feast in the parable does not represent the church, nor is the elder son lost because he did not accept his father’s invitation to join the feast. In the parable the element of the feast simply serves to represent the idea of rejoicing, of joy over the return of the lost son. In this joy the elder son did not join, thereby manifesting his own wrong attitude and relation to his father as well as to his younger brother. Nor does the parable intend to teach that God invitesscribes and Pharisees to rejoice over the repentance of publicans and sinners, much less invites them into the church. The fact of matter is that the scribes and Pharisees, who are represented by the elder son, werechurch members and considered themselves to be “the cream of the crop.”

All of the above, however, does not say very much of a positive nature as to the meaning of the parable. Hence, I will try to explain briefly. 

We all recognize at once that the picture of this elder son is a very doleful, dismal, gloomy picture. He is a cold, grumbling, servile character. And his unattractive character stands out the more because of the contrast with the younger son and the contrast with the joy that is inside the house as this elder son returns from the field. 

The chief question seems to be: who is that elder son? Whom does he represent? And many answers have been attempted. According to some, he is one of those wicked Pharisees on account of whom Jesus was speaking this parable. We sense at once that there is something about the elder son which points to the Pharisees. But what about some elements in the parable, such as “I never transgressed any of thy commandments,” and, “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine,” if Jesus has in view the Pharisees? We can readily understand that without further definition these elements are hardly intelligible as part of the picture of a wicked Pharisee, a “whitewashed sepulchre.”

Others find in the elder son a picture of the Jew, in distinction from the picture of the Gentile in the younger son. But there is no direct reference to these two in the parable or in the context. The context shows rather plainly that the difference has to do with the publicans and Pharisees. 

Others have even attempted to make of the elder son a faithful covenant child. However, the elder son does not acknowledge his returned brother; and he does not want to enter into the joy of his father. This, therefore, can hardly be. 

Almost desperately, some have referred the elder son to the world of angels. Apart from any other objections, however, the Lord Jesus always pictures the angels as rejoicing, while the elder son’s grumbling dissatisfaction over the reception of the younger son is his chief characteristic in the parable. 

I believe that the elder son is the Pharisee, indeed. But he is the Pharisee as he himself conceived himself to be, that is: the ideal man of Phariseeism, who had obeyed to the last jot and tittle. He is the picture of the perfect son of the law—something like the rich young ruler in his own estimation, who said, “All these things have I kept from my youth up.” And by means of this part of the parable the Lord Jesus brings into sharp focus the dismal features of such an “ideal son of the law” in distinction from the beauty of the repenting sinner. 

(to be continued)