Turning the hearts of sons to fathers.
The Old Testament ends with an amazing promise:
Malachi 4:6 “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”
Indeed, the parable of the prodigal son embodies the spirit of the Gospel because it’s undoubtedly about unmerited favour and the steadfast love of the Father.
Who is the elder son?
However, the story is not over with the return and reconciliation of the prodigal. Enter the elder son. Those listening, would have quickly discerned that the prodigal represents the tax-collectors and sinners but who is the elder son? Clearly, he is the Pharisees and Scribes – the religious, those theoretically close to God.
On another level though, the younger son symbolises the Gentiles and the elder son the people of the promise – Israel (the nation close to God)
Ephesians 2:12 “That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:”
A radical Father
For us though, it’s actually quite hard to appreciate the radical nature of the meaning of this parable as perceived by those of a Jewish culture. Under the law a rebellious son would have been put to death: (Deuteronomy 21.) This gracious Father however, not only forgives and accepts his son back into the family but showers him with kindness and blessings! Through this parable therefore, Jesus is radically changing their law based paradigm of God; the law never truly revealed God’s nature – which is love.
Let’s continue with the story though, which now focuses entirely on the elder son.
Luke 15:25 “Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.
In the field
This son is not as far away as the younger son – he is in the field. Why then is the elder son working a job when he’s received his portion of the inheritance (which as the firstborn would have been the more substantial? ) In reality, his thinking is no different to the prodigal’s, who ends up being sent into the fields to feed pigs. Indeed, this son has already filled the position of hired servant!
As he returns from working in the fields though, to approach the Father’s house, he hears music and dancing – in fact quite a racket of celebration. Then, he smells the aroma of beaf steaks! He thinks to himself: “Maybe, the Father has arranged a surprise party for me?” “It’s not my birthday though? Of course Father’s been fattening up that cow for a while though, yes it must be for me, the Father is recognising everything I do for him – I better check though, one of the servants would know”.
28 “But he was angry and would not go in.”
When he finds out that it’s because his wayward brother is home he explodes with rage and stands outside the door fuming!
Why is he so angry with his brother? I mean, even Esau – the elder of two twins – justifiably angry at the younger Jacob for stealing his blessing and birthright, when meeting several years later, has cooled off to enough to be reconciled with his brother.
Maybe there is some history we don’t know about here? Could the elder son have been partly to blame for the younger son taking off in the first place? Did the elder son overshadow the younger with his self-discipline and high achievements at school? Was the elder son the ‘good’ boy who never put a foot wrong while the younger just wanted a bit of fun!
Grace seems so unfair – even unjust. Why shouldn’t the sinner pay for his mistakes? It’s quite probable that the elder son was thinking that if he had his way the young waster wouldn’t have even been given a bed for the night let alone a fatted calf! “He’s made his bed – let him sleep in it!”
One does wonder though, whether the elder son has in fact been angry all these years after his brother left? Did he feel rejected because his brother who just took off? Was he jealous that his brother had a good time while he was stuck at home left with all the responsibilities?
Anger is often the attitude of the legalistic and religious to the grace of God. Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul the Apostle, is an angry and self-righteous man until he meets the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. He speaks from his own experience when in Romans 10:2 he says this about the Jews:
“For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God but not according to knowledge, for not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God”
Unfortunately, anger is often the reaction of the religious when they realise that all their own works and efforts count for nothing in God’s eyes! As we have discussed before, Cain is the first example of this religious and murderous spirit arising in his heart when his sacrifice to God of the fruit of his labour in the fields is rejected but his brother’s sacrifice of a lamb accepted.
In a way, that’s what the fatted calf represents here: it is the sacrifice of Christ. All we do is partake and eat!
The father entreats
“Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.”
In fact this is pretty amazing and shows that the Father also loves those who are religious and self-righteous – this is how gracious God is! At the end of the Romans 10, Paul describes how, like the Father here entreating his son, God likewise holds out his hands to unbelieving and stubborn Israel.
Romans 10:21 “But to Israel he saith, All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people.”
The Lord Jesus also describes his tender feelings to his own disobedient generation:
Matthew 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”
Interesting enough, this greek word for plead is ‘parakaleo’ or to call to one’s side, is a similar word used to describe the function of the Holy Spirit as the encourager or comforter.
The Holy Spirit was promised by Jesus in John 14 to his disciples (and us) so that they wouldn’t be left feeling like orphans. In the same chapter Jesus promises that the Father’s house would have many rooms – it would be a fantastic home. Both these sons demonstrate an orphan spirit. The younger rejects his home, family and Father. The elder now also rejecting the same and in addition, refusing even to even acknowledge even his brother (family).
Furthermore, instead of listening to the gracious entreaties of the Father, the elder son makes a long speech justifying his anger – what a contrast to the contrite speech of the prodigal!
29 “So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.”
Sadly, this speech is full of his own sense of bitter injustice. He is aggrieved and resentful towards his Father, who hasn’t, in his eyes, sufficiently recognised his faithful long service and perfect obedience. Wait a moment, was the Father even asking for a faithful servant? Surely, the elder son with his inheritance money could have got married and started his own family and business? He’s speaking like a employee not a son!
The parable of the tax-collector and the sinner
Later on in Luke 18, Jesus tells another parable with a similar delineation of truth as this one. Again, like the elder son, the pharisee is full of his own deeds and good performance, comparing himself to the tax-collector who comes broken and repentant.
Luke 18: 9 Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.
12I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’
13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
You never gave me!
The worst sentence of the elder son’s speech, in my opinion, is his resentful accusation: “you never gave me”. This seems particularly petty as this son has already received his part of the inheritance. I mean, what’s to stop him going down Tesco, buying and cooking a fatted calf for himself and his pals? Has he put the money into the bank and forgotten it?
31 “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 32 It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’”
Amazingly, the Father doesn’t answer his accusation but points out the truth – there is no distance. The Father isn’t separating himself from his son, it is his son who is refusing to go in. Furthermore, the son has full access to the bank account!
Even as believers, we can get into the blame game. Why didn’t God heal that person or why did God let my business go under? None of us deserves a dime of God’s blessings anyway so let’s stop believing that we have to twist God’s arm to get blessed. Rather, let’s approach the throne of grace and mercy with confidence; delighted and thankful when we after asking for mercy – instead we receive a robe, ring, sandals and a banquet!,
What have we learnt?
So, what have we learnt from this part of the parable? Do we have any elder son attitudes in our hearts towards God or others? Are we living as orphans rather than sons? Are we angry; do we lack joy?
1 John 4:20 “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?”
Hopefully, we have learnt that God the Father is looking for sons not servants. More than anything he wants relationship! He wants a party!
Romans 8:14 “For all who are being led by the spirit of God these are the sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery again to fear but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out Abba Father! The Spirit himself witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, of God and fellow heirs with Christ”
Of course, the parable ends inconclusively and open ended. We don’t find out whether the elder son repented of his attitude and joined in the party. The story, as it were, leaves the door open!
This is God’s grace, he wants all to come to repentance and a knowledge of the truth – including the self-righteous!
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