3-14 The Parable Of The Prodigal (3):

The Unreality In Luke 15

The three parables of the lost which climax in the parable of the lost son all exemplify the principles we have spoken about throughout these studies. They all depend for their power upon the many elements of unreality found within them; and the lost son parable requires us to fill in many details, try to finish the story, and to take due note of the crescendo of ‘end stress’ which there is. To appreciate the full power and import of these parables, we need to try to read them through the eyes of the Palestinian peasants who first heard them. Correct understanding of Scripture requires us to read it and feel it within the context in which it was first given. Bombarded as we are by billions of pieces of information each day, especially from the internet, we only cope with it all by letting it all fit into the worldviews and assumptions which we’ve adopted. Words and information and ideas tend to only fit in to what we’ve already prepared to house them, rather than us seeing God’s word as something radically different, and allowing it to totally upset and change our cherished worldviews, constructs and approaches to life. God’s word is still words- although they are inspired words. The problem with words is that we read or hear them, and interpret them within our frames of reference and culture. Take an example: “She’s mad about her flat!”. An American takes this to mean that she’s angry and frustrated about the puncture / ‘flat tire’ which she has on her car. But in British English, the phrase would mean: ‘She’s really happy and enthusiastic about her apartment’. To understand what the speaker or writer means by those words, we have to understand their cultural background. And so it is with the Lord’s teaching, aimed as it was to first century peasants.  

The Thankless Sons

For those Palestinian peasants, politeness and respect to your father was paramount. Even if you didn’t obey your father, you had to be polite to him. Rudeness to your father or public disobedience to him was the worst thing you could do, and you shamed yourself. The Lord turned that understanding on its head in His parable of the two sons in Mt. 21:28-32. He taught that the better son was the one who rudely refused to do what his father asked, but later relented and did it. The Lord saw this son as better than the one who politely agreed, and yet never fulfilled his promise. Perhaps that parable needs reflection upon today, where ‘nicespeak’ has become paramount- so long as you say something nicely, what you actually are saying and what you do isn’t so important. How we speak is of course important; but it can be exalted to the point where words rather than real action become paramount. But that aside, the point is that both the sons were extremely rude to their Father. And he was the most loving, self-sacrificial dad that two kids ever could’ve had. We feel hurt for the lovely old boy. And we sense something of his hurt, our heart starts to bleed for him, and we think of our Heavenly Father’s hurt. And then the penny drops- those two boys are us.  

The younger son was more than rude in demanding his actual share of the inheritance immediately. He was effectively wishing that his father was dead. He had the neck to treat his lovely father as if he were already dead. There arose in Europe after the second world war the ‘Death of God’ philosophy and theology. We may distance ourselves from it in disgust, finding even the words grating and inappropriate, but let’s remember that the younger son ends up the son who is found in the end abiding in the Father’s house and joyful fellowship. This is how we have treated our wonderful Father. We know from the examples of Abraham (Gen. 25:5-8) and Jacob (Gen. 48-49) that the actual division of the inheritance was made by the father as his death approached. For the son to take the initiative was disgusting. Although the sons could have some legal right to what their father gave them before his death, they were strictly denied the right of actually having it in possession [i.e. the right of disposition](1). This awful son was therefore each of us. And the father responds with an unreal grace. He agrees. He did what he surely knew was not really for the spiritual good of the son. And according to Dt. 21:7, the younger son’s share was one third. But the father gives him half. The younger son turns it all into cash within a few days [the Greek for “gathered all” definitely means ‘to turn into cash’]. This would’ve meant selling the fields and property quickly- and the father would’ve had to give agreement for this and have been involved in the contracts. Buying and selling takes a long time in peasant culture- selling quickly would’ve meant selling very cheaply. It would’ve been the laughing stock of the whole area. The way the son sells the inheritance would've been a more awful and unreal thing in the ears of the Lord's first hearers than it is to us. Naboth would rather have died than sell his inheritance- even to the King (1 Kings 21:3). The lifetime’s hard work of the father and family was wasted. And the father went along with it all. This was more than unusual; it would’ve been outrageous in the ears of the Lord’s hearers. But this is the outrageous nature of God’s grace. He must be so torn by our prayers- as a loving Father, wanting to give us what we ask for materially, whilst knowing it’s not for our good… and sometimes doing so. The father made himself look a fool because of his enormous love for this obnoxious son who wished him dead, this young man who clearly thought solely in terms of ‘Gimme the money and I’m outta here for good’. And he thought this with no thought to the huge damage he was bringing upon the rest of the family. For they would’ve lost so much through losing half the property. We sense the pain of the father, of the family, and the selfishness of the son. And time and again we are breathless at the love and grace of the father.  

Significantly, the son asked for his share of the property- not his inheritance. To receive inheritance carried with it responsibility, of building the house of your father, upholding the family name etc. But this son didn’t want that. And the father could quite rightly have said ‘No, you get the inheritance when you take the responsibilities that come with it’. But no, this son wants to quit with his lovely father and the whole family name. In that culture, to cut your ties with your home family, your inheritance, your land… was almost unheard of. It was almost impossible to do. But that’s what this angry young man wanted. The incredible thing is, the father allowed him to do this! That element of unreality signposts the extent to which God allows us freewill, genuine freedom of determination- and how much it costs Him emotionally and as a person to do so. This is the frightening thing about freewill- how much it hurts and costs God to give it to us. This insight alone should lead to a far more careful and responsible use of our freewill. William Temple said somewhere, something to the effect that God gives us freedom even to reject His love. It’s no good reflecting on the younger son and thinking ‘But I’m not that kinda guy’. The whole point of the parable is that yes, we are. That’s us. We’re either like that son, or the self-righteous son who is left standing outside of the father’s fellowship. Clearly enough, the God whom Jesus was revealing was not based upon some village patriarch. Freud rightly observed that many people’s image of God is based upon their experience of human father figures. For the true believer however, the Lord Jesus is revealing a Father-figure radically different to anything they’ve ever met. 

Our Desperation

We don’t like to think of ourselves as that thankless young man; but even more do we revolt at the idea that we were and are at times out there feeding pigs. Anyone who’s travelled in the Middle East will know the annoyance of a beggar attaching themselves to you and just refusing to leave you. But watch how the locals deal with those types. They don’t shout at them, or chase them. They will ask them to do something which is beneath even their dignity as a beggar to do. And they walk away shamefaced. I knew a brother who was a schoolteacher. The boss wanted to fire him because of his Christianity. The boss didn’t say ‘You’re fired! Clear off!’. He simply transferred him to a remote village in the middle of nowhere. And so the brother did the only reasonable thing- he resigned. The young man ‘joining’ or ‘gluing’ himself to the rich Gentile citizen was like the beggar who glues himself to you, and you don’t know how to shake him off. The pig owner told him to go and feed his pigs- thinking that this would surely be beneath this once-wealthy Jew who was hassling him. But so desperate was the young man, that he had to swallow every drop of pride, national and personal- and go do it. And he felt like a pig- he was willing to eat what they ate. This is the picture of our desperation at every sin- but we need to feel it, if we are to experience the path back to the Father. In an age when sin is often more about the words you type on your keyboard than actual physical debauchery, this parable hits home hard. Of course it was pride which was in the way for the son, and it is swallowing pride which is the essence of repentance. And again, it was fear of shame that delayed the young man’s return- fear of having to go through the kezazah ceremony of being officially disowned, fear of how the mob of young kids which roam every village street would whistle and shout and sing insults at him. And we need to pause and reflect whether we contribute to this significant barrier which surely hinders so many from returning to the Father’s house.  

But the young man hadn’t quite learnt the lesson when he decided to return home. He decided to return and ask to be made “as one of your skilled craftsmen” (Lk. 15:19 Gk.- he uses misthios rather than doulos, the usual word for ‘slave’). Presumably he figured that he could work and pay off what he had wasted. His plan was to use the phrase “I have sinned against heaven and against you” (Lk. 15:18)- but this is almost quoting verbatim from Pharaoh’s words of insincere repentance in Ex. 10:16! He still failed to grasp that he was his father’s son- he didn’t ‘get it’, that this would be the basis of his salvation, rather than a master-servant relationship with his father based on hard work. It was the father’s amazing grace which swept him off his feet just along the street from his father’s home; it was the father’s unconditional acceptance of him which made him realize what sonship and repentance was really all about.  

The Older Son

To refuse a father’s invitation to a family celebration was seen as totally unacceptable, rude, and a rejection of one’s father. Hence the rudeness of the guests refusing the King’s invitations. The older brother would usually have played a prominent role in such feasts. But this son refuses to attend. This would’ve struck the Lord’s initial audience as incredibly rude. Remember how Vashti’s refusal to attend her husband’s feast resulted in her being rejected (Esther 1). What the older son did would’ve been seen as an insult to all the guests; and many fathers would simply have rejected and disowned their son for this, or at least, expressed significant disapproval. Indeed, this was expected of him by society and the other guests. But yet again, the father humiliates himself and breaks all Jewish norms and expectations of correctness and decency. He leaves the feast! For the host to walk out was yet again seen as totally rude to the other guests- it of course echoes the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep and going off after the one lost sheep.  The father doesn’t go out and giving the arrogant, unloving, disobedient son a good talking to, as the audience would expect. Again, as so often, the Lord’s parables set up an expectation- and then dash it. The father goes out into the darkness of the courtyard, and “entreats” his son (Lk. 15:28). The Greek parakaleo means literally to come alongside, as if the father is inviting the son to stand alongside him in his extension of grace. Perhaps Paul is making one of his many allusions to the Lord’s parables when he uses the same word to speak of how he ‘beseeches’ his legalistic brethren (2 Cor. 5:20).  

But all this grace is ignored by the elder son. He insults his father. It may not be so apparent to us, but it would’ve been picked up by the Lord’s first hearers. A son should always address his father in this context with the term “O Father”. But he doesn’t. He speaks of his brother as “Your son” rather than his brother. He speaks of how the prodigal “devoured your living”. And he speaks of how he has faithfully served his father as a servant- like his younger brother, he failed to perceive the wonder of sonship. His awful outburst is doing in essence what his younger brother had done some time before. He was saying that he didn’t want a part in his father’s family. The “living” or wealth of the family was no longer his. He wasn’t going to respect his father as his father any more. He didn’t want to be in the family, so he wouldn’t go to the family reunion. That poor, dear father. And what is the father’s response? He calls him his teknon, his dearly loved son. Notice how the more common huios is used for “son” throughout the story (Lk. 15:11,13,19,21,24,25,30). In the face of such awful rejection, he shows his special love. It’s like the Lord giving “the sop”, the sign of special love and favouritism, to Judas- as he betrays Him. There’s a powerful lesson here for those of us who find ourselves irked and angered by legalistic, arrogant brethren who refuse to fellowship with the rest of us. There was no anger and irksomeness in the father’s attitude. He was only deeply sorry, hurt, cut up… but he so loved that arrogant elder brother. He goes on to say that he gives that son all that he has. But he could only actually do that through being dead! The father is willing to die for that arrogant older brother, whose pride and anger stops him wanting anything to do with his father, whom he has just openly shamed and rejected. And the father wants to die for him. This is to be our attitude to the self-righteous, the divisive, those who reject their brethren.  

But of course, there’s a real and obvious warning not to be like the older brother. It worries me, it turns me, right in my very gut, when I see so many of our community refusing to fellowship with their brethren because ‘He’s in that ecclesia… they’ve had her back… she’s divorced and remarried… he’s never said sorry, his motives aren’t right, she only said those words…’. And those attitudes are made out to be expressions of righteousness. It is not for me to judge anyone; I seek to love those who act like this with the love and grief of the father for the elder son. But they must be gently warned as to the implications of their position. By refusing to fellowship with the rest of the family, by making such a fuss about the return of the prodigals, they fail to realize that they are in essence doing what the prodigals have done; and they are de facto signing themselves out of the Father’s family. The issues are that serious. The parable isn’t just a story with a possible interpretation which we can shrug our shoulders at and get on with life. The Lord’s teaching, His ‘doctrine’, was and is in these parables.  

The lost son story finishes, as do the other stories, with a banquet of rejoicing- rejoicing in the father’s love. But it’s no accident that Luke 15 is preceded by the parable of Lk. 14:15-24, where we have another great banquet- symbolic of our communion in the future Kingdom of God. The connection is clear. We will “eat bread in the Kingdom of God” if we eat bread with the Lord in the banquets of this life. And yet so, so often it is said amongst us: ‘I won’t break bread there. They have X or Z… who is divorced… who’s not repentant… they have Q from that fellowship attending there… I’m not going in there’. It is not for us to judge. And I do not do so in what I write here. But it is the fairly obvious teaching of the Lord here that if we won’t eat bread with Him in joy now, if we won’t celebrate His grace and love for the lost in this life, then we will not in the future banquet. His grace is likely large enough to cover even the self-righteous; but we need to realize the eternal gravity of our decisions and feelings about our brethren in this life. Especially must we come to see ourselves as the prodigal. If we plan on being in the Kingdom, we must identify ourselves with the prodigal, and not with the self-righteous elder son who is left outside of the Father’s fellowship, because he placed himself there. 

An Unreal Father

The father whom we meet in the lost son parable is prefigured by the shepherd and woman of the earlier parables. The three parables are described as one singular parable (Lk. 15:3).

Personal Passion

The man who owned 100 sheep was rich. Shepherds were the lowest of the low. If you owned 100 sheep, you employed a shepherd to look after them and take responsibility for chasing the lost. But there’s something unreal- the owner of the sheep is the one who is the shepherd. This actually is the point of the Ezekiel 34 passage upon which the Lord built the parable- having fired the unworthy shepherds of Israel, “Thus saith the Lord God: Behold, I myself, even I, will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will deliver them … I will bring them … I will feed them … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep” (Ez. 34:11-15). The remarkable thing is that the owner of the sheep decides to become the personal shepherd, feeding, seeking, delivering, bringing the sheep himself personally. A Palestinian wealthy enough to own a whole flock of sheep simply wouldn’t do this. He always hired someone else to do this- because being a shepherd was so despised. Behold the humility of God. But see too His personal passion for us. Hence the Lord’s question: Which one of you would act like this? The Father and His Son take such passionate personal responsibility for us, that God was willing in Christ to shame and humiliate Himself in order to get us back into the fold.  

Personal Responsibility

There’s also something odd about the way the Lord speaks of the shepherd: “He has lost one of them”. Translations of the Bible into semitic languages, especially Arabic, tend to read: “If one of them is lost” (passive). In the language and concepts of the Middle East, a speaker never blames himself. As in Spanish, they would not say “I lost my book”- rather, “the book went from me”. Likewise “I missed the train” is expressed as “the train left me”. And I would even speculate that preaching Christ in Arabic and even Hispanic cultures comes up against the problem of people strongly disliking taking ultimate responsibility, or to own up to the personal guilt of sin; the shifting of blame away from oneself is reflected even in their languages. And so when the Lord puts words in the shepherd’s mouth whereby he takes direct responsibility for the loss of the sheep, this would’ve sounded strange even grammatically. Apparently to this day, it’s hard to translate that actual phrase into Arabic. Likewise with the idea of the woman saying that she had found the coin which she had lost. The Lord is labouring how God, and God in Christ, feel an extraordinary personal responsibility for the lost.  

If we imagine the woman who lost the coin, we sense something of her remorse and desperation as she searches the cracks in the floor for it. It could’ve been part of her dowry- all that she owned for herself, all that was her very own. Not even her body was hers- it was her husband’s, to do what he wished with. But the dowry coins were hers- her very own. If the allusion were to one of these coins, it would speak of how much we mean to the Lord… that I, one of 6 billion, actually mean everything to Him, for whom I am His very own. But the allusion may also be to coins which the peasant women would keep bound up in a rag, close to their body. With this money, the woman would’ve had to feed the family for the next week or so. But… she’d let the rag come loose, and a coin had slipped out. In either case, we are to imagine the woman searching for it with a sense of remorse, taking responsibility that she was accountable for the loss. And this, we are invited to understand, is how the Lord feels for those who are lost. Notice how the woman searches in the house- presumably, she’d not been out of the house since she last had the coin. By filling out this little detail, we perhaps have a picture of how the Lord took responsibility, or felt responsible, for the loss of those ‘within the house’ of Israel.  

The Joy Of The Lord

Hence the joy of the shepherd when the sheep is found- he lays it on his shoulders rejoicing. To carry a sheep on your shoulders, fighting and struggling with you, as you climb down a mountainside in the dark… isn’t something which is usually done rejoicing. But this is the unusual, humanly inexplicable, joy which there is in the Father and Son when day by day they‘find’ us and bring us back. And where would a shepherd usually take such a lost animal? Back to the flock, whom he’s left in the wilderness. But then comes another unreal element. The shepherd takes the sheep home to his very own house. This sheep had such extraordinary value to this wealthy man. He came back dirty and exhausted- he humiliated himself and made himself a fool in the eyes of the world, all because of this humanly senseless love and joy which he had over this lost sheep. And we have to fill in the details, answering the unasked but implied questions- what about the 99 left out in the wilderness? The story ends with them out of the house- paving the way for how the elder son is left standing outside of the house. Note how Lk. 15:3 speaks of the three parables as one, in the singular, “parable”.  

The Lord’s Grace

The shepherd-owner calls his “friends” together. This surely refers to the clubs the Pharisees formed in villages, called the Khaburim [‘friends’]. They ought to have rejoiced to be eating with sinners, as the Lord was- but they wouldn’t. The whole context of the three parables is the Lord justifying why he ate at home with sinners, thereby showing that He considered them as somehow ‘in fellowship’ with Him. The Pharisees wouldn’t do this unless those people repented and learnt Torah in great depth. But the Lord is surely saying that He sees those men who ate with Him as the sheep which has already been brought home. He reflected the gracious outlook with which He saw people; and His hopefulness that by treating a person as if they had ‘come home’, then they would indeed do so. Probing this line further, the Lord Jesus speaks of the found sheep as being symbolic of the repentant. But the sheep did nothing- it was simply acceptant of having been found. To accept being found is, therefore, seen by the Lord as what He calls ‘repentance’. Now surely that’s grace- salvation without works.  

Radical Acceptance

There was a Jewish custom called Kezazah, ‘the cutting off’. If a Jew lost the family fortune amongst Gentiles, he would be greeted at home by the whole family, who would break a pot and scream ‘XYZ is cut off from his people’(2). The family and community would have no more fellowship with the person(3). Moulton and Milligan describe the record of a public notice by which parents declare their dissociation from their son who had wasted their wealth(4). This is what the Lord’s Jewish audience would’ve expected to come next in the story, when the son returns. But no! There is the very opposite. Law and traditional expectation and even human perception of justice is thrown away, as the father races along the street towards his son and accepts him. For an elderly man to run publicly was yet again an unreal element in the story- mature men always walk, at a slow and dignified pace. Not gather up their robes and run, let alone publicly. Actually the Greek word translated “run” in Lk. 15:20 is that used about sprinting (1 Cor. 9:24,26; Gal. 2:2; 5:7; 2 Thess. 3:1; Heb. 12:1). Here again we see the self-humiliation of the father before men, as he expressed a radical acceptance. Even we from our distance expect there to be a ‘telling off’, a facing of the issues. But there isn’t. The grace of God which meets the returning sinner leads him to repentance. It of itself, by its sheer magnitude, elicits the state of contrition which is indeed vital; but this is inspired  by the huge initiative of the Father and Son.  

The father’s radical acceptance is the very basis of our salvation. It is challenging, supremely so. Perhaps we handle ‘classic’ repentance easier- someone does wrong, goes off for a long time, is out of sight and out of mind, comes back, asks for our forgiveness with tears and humility. It’s actually psychologically hard to say ‘No’. That kind of forgiveness is relatively easy. But what is so much harder is to show forgiveness and the nature of the father’s love and grace time and again in daily life; to keep looking and hoping for the one who has offended us, ruined us, destroyed us, used and abused us… to be coming home. Actually I know virtually none amongst us who rise up to the father’s love and grace in this. It remains a stark, sobering challenge to us all.  

It needs to be understood that the father had to act as the village expected him to. They expected him to enact the kezazah , to hand the son over to them in some form for judgment, to make an example of this awful man. No village member is an island, all have to act within the expectations of the group. But the father breaks through all that. He again humiliates himself before the villagers by doing what he did. He likely angers them- for anger so often comes as a result of being confronted by the grace shown by others. We see it so often in the life of our spiritual community. Indeed, the Lord got at this in another parable, where He speaks of how some were angry at the extreme grace shown by the generous vineyard owner (Mt. 20:1-16).  

The honour bestowed upon the son by the father is totally unreal. Without the slightest sign that the son is now responsible, is truly repentant, has the right motives… the father gives him the best robe, which is what was done for the person whom a leader wished to honour above all (Esther 6:1-9). And the father gives the son his signet ring (cp. Gen. 41:41,42). All this, before the prodigal has in any way proved himself. All he’s done is come home, still not wanting to be a son, just a craftsman; and he was only driven home by his desperation. Such is the huge significance attached by the Lord to our turning up home. And in our dealing with returning sinners, which is every one of us day by day, we should reflect the same attitude.

 We are left, as so often, to imagine how the story finished. How hard it would’ve been for the younger son to live with the older brother! And one day, dear, darling dad would’ve died. The younger son would’ve had his sons, been called upon to uphold the family honour, make decisions in the village. We are left to imagine how his experience of grace would’ve made him judge differently to all others.

 A Window Onto The Cross

Who does the father represent? The context for the three stories is the Lord Jesus justifying his eating with sinners. The fact that the father had received the sinful younger brother is phrased in the same way as the Pharisees’ complaint about the Lord Jesus receiving sinners (Lk. 15:2 = Lk. 15:27). And each of the stories involve a closing scene featuring a joyful meal of celebration. The father would appear therefore to refer to Jesus; and yet clearly enough we are intended to see the father as also our Heavenly Father. As you likely know, I don’t go for the primitive equation ‘Jesus = God’. I’m not a Trinitarian. So I take this to be an exemplification of how “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their iniquities unto them” (2 Cor. 5:19). Notice in how many ways the father humiliates himself before everyone, and breaks all traditional Jewish expectations to do so. He gives the younger son what he asks, and more than the Law allowed; he runs to meet the son; he accepts the son; he leaves the banquet where he is the host in order to plead with his older son; he doesn’t discipline either of his sons as expected. He makes a fool of himself time and again, upsetting Jewish rules and norms. And the younger son pestering the father to divide up the inheritance may indicate that the father was about to die. Likewise, when the father says to the older son that he gives him there and then all that is his… this is language only really appropriate if the father is about to die, or has actually died. Does not all this speak of the cross as the basis for the Father’s love, grace and acceptance? That there, God was in Christ to reconcile us to Himself, not imputing sin to us… there the Father was humiliated in Christ, made a fool of, ridiculed. The Almighty God came this low… to the public shame and death of the cross. The suffering of God in the cross was all about rejected and unaccepted love; and so it is to this day.


(1) Joachim Jeremias, The Parables Of Jesus (New York: Scribners, 1963) p. 128.

(2) Kenneth E. Bailey, The Cross And The Prodigal (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005) p. 52.

(3) Kenneth E. Bailey, Jacob And The Prodigal (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003) p. 102.

(4) J.H. Moulton & G. Milligan, The Vocabulary Of The Greek New Testament Illustrated From the Papyri And Other Non-Literary Sources (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952) p. 89.

Jacob, Esau And The Prodigal

The parable of the prodigal contains multiple allusions to the record of Jacob and Esau, their estrangement, and the anger of the older brother [Esau] against the younger brother (1). There is a younger and an elder son, who both break their relationships with their father, and have an argument over the inheritance issue. Jacob like the prodigal son insults his father in order to get his inheritance. As Jacob joined himself to Laban in the far country, leaving his older brother Esau living at home, so the prodigal glued himself to a Gentile and worked for him by minding his flocks, whilst his older brother remained at home with the father. The fear of the prodigal as he returned home matches that of Jacob as he finally prepares to meet the angry Esau. Jacob's unexpected meeting with the Angel and clinging to him physically is matched by the prodigal being embraced and hugged by his father. Notice how Gen. 33:10 records how Jacob felt he saw the face of Esau as the face of an Angel. By being given the ring, the prodigal "has in effect now supplanted his older brother" (2); just as Jacob did. As Esau was "in the field" (Gen. 27:5), so was the older brother.

What was the Lord Jesus getting at by framing His story in terms of Jacob and Esau? The Jews saw Jacob as an unblemished hero, and Esau / Edom as the epitome of wickedness and all that was anti-Jewish and anti-God. The Book of Jubilees has much to say about all this, as does the Genesis Rabbah (3). The Lord is radically and bravely re-interpeting all this. Jacob is the younger son, who went seriously wrong during his time with Laban. We have shown elsewhere how weak Jacob was at that time. Jacob was saved by grace, the grace shown in the end by the Angel with whom he wrestled, and yet who finally blessed him. As Hos. 12:4 had made clear, Jacob weeping in the Angel's arms and receiving the blessing of gracious forgiveness is all God speaking to us. The older brother who refused to eat with his sinful brother clearly represented, in the context of the parable, the Jewish religious leaders. They were equated with Esau- the very epitome of all that was anti-Jewish. And in any case, according to the parable, the hero of the story is the younger son, Jacob, who is extremely abusive and unspiritual towards his loving father, and is saved by sheer grace alone. This too was a radical challenge to the Jewish perception of their ancestral father Jacob.

The parable demonstrates that both the sons despised their father and their inheritance in the same way. They both wish him dead, treat him as if he isn't their father, abuse his gracious love, shame him to the world. Both finally come to their father from working in the fields. Jacob, the younger son, told Laban that "All these years I have served you... and you have not treated me justly" (Gen. 31:36-42). But these are exactly the words of the older son in the parable! The confusion is surely to demonstrate that both younger and elder son essentially held the same wrong attitudes. And the Father, clearly representing God, and God as He was manifested in Christ, sought so earnestly to reconcile both the younger and elder sons. The Lord Jesus so wished the hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees to fellowship with the repenting sinners that He wept over Jerusalem; He didn't shrug them off as self-righteous bigots, as we tend to do with such people. He wept for them, as the Father so passionately pours out His love to them. And perhaps on another level we see in all this the desperate desire of the Father and Son for Jewish-Arab unity in Christ. For the promises to Ishmael show that although Messiah's line was to come through Isaac, God still has an especial interest in and love for all the children of Abraham- and that includes the Arabs. Only a joint recognition of the Father's grace will bring about Jewish-Arab unity. But in the end, it will happen- for there will be a highway from Assyria to Judah to Egypt in the Millennium. The anger of the elder brother was because the younger son had been reconciled to the Father without compensating for what he had done wrong. It's the same anger at God's grace which is shown by the workers who objected to those who had worked less receiving the same pay. And it's the same anger which is shown every time a believer storms out of an ecclesia because some sinner has been accepted back...


(1) K.E. Bailey, Jacob And The Prodigal (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003) lists 51 points of contact between the Jacob / Esau record and the prodigal parable.
(2) A.J. Hultgren, The Parables Of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) p. 79.
(3) See e.g. Jacob Neusner, Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary To The Book Of Genesis (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985) Vol. 3 p. 176.




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