The Licentious vs. The Legalist
Observations from the Prodigal Son
The parable of the Prodigal Son has provided a plethora of instruction, application, and edification. To grasp the fullest understanding of the parable you must take a glance backward to verses 1-10. There is the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. In the first, there is a shepherd who ventures off to look for the lost sheep. Noticeably, he is the only person who is aware the sheep is lost. The emphasis seems to be placed upon the lost sheep, but is that the most accurate portrayal of the passage???
In the lost coin parable, the coin is “lost” by the woman. She lost her own coin. She then is the only person to know it is lost. Therefore she is the only one to know to look for it. In both of the first two parables the item became lost, and then found. The other interesting idea about these first two parables, the two “lost” items are very unaware of their lostness.
Jesus seemingly places the first two parables together with the preposition, “or” between verses 7 and 8. Then He transitions into a new idea in verse 11 when it says, “And He said.” Have we tried to draw to close a relationship with these three parables? Are there some similarities and some ideas that can be placed upon all three, sure, but is that the best exegetical approach?
We often hear that the main part of this passage is the reflection upon the younger son. There is also the notion that the father is the primary figure. I propose someone not seen or spoken of in the passage might actually play the leading role.
As we look at verses 24 and 32 the father speaks of his son in a unique way. He said his son was “dead” not physically but in a spiritual sense. The father that wanted him back, pronounced him DEAD. However, he has come to life again, a verbal idea of a resurrection. He is also described as being “lost,” but has been found. Not that he found himself, but the implication is someone helped him. That someone initiated the younger son to “come to his senses,” as recorded earlier in the passage. There was someone working on the son’s behalf to find him. Much like the shepherd and the woman in the earlier two parables, there was an active agent in the finding of the “lost” son. My proposal is the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s writings, when he talks like the father, in the parable is talking, he is refers to a work of the Holy Spirit in the life of an individual that was once alive, physically, dead spiritually, and now brought to new life.
Lets look at some observations about the younger brother. Initially he was blatant, forthright, and possessed an “I do not care attitude.” He longed to live a licentious lifestyle with consequential “external” sin. The lifestyle he chose to live was visible to the naked eye. He fits the persona of ever lost person you and I know. They live for self and self-gratification. It is the norm and should be expected. Lost people do not care about anything or anyone else. This younger brother departed for some time from the family, maybe many years, squandered the inheritance, and eventually ended up prostituting himself for hire to a pig farmer. Sin will always lead someone to disbar his faculties and dropped to the lowest common denominator of his wicked, deceitful, and depraved heart. The younger brother was more or less out of his mind, as he was about to eat pig slop! THEN, at the lowest of place in life, totally senseless, the active unseen agent steps in and opens the eyes of this young man’s heart to see the senselessness of his condition. He realizes that going home to the father is better than where he is. Paul wrote in Romans 1 we have the invisible qualities of our heavenly father written on our hearts, but only when the Holy Spirit illuminates the mind’s eye are we able to respond and “return” to the Father in a repentant way. That is the picture of the younger son. He begins to yearn to get home and see his father. He can’t wait to get home and spend time with his father, even as the lowest of the persons of his father’s house. He left as a thoughtless son, and returns a humbled and contrite son. This only happens when the Holy Spirit encounters you.
But what about the Father… He willingly gave the younger son the portion of the estate. This was not a common practice. As he watched the son run off into the sunset, I imagine he must have sat or stood waiting at the gate day after day, longing for his son to come home. He never went out to find him. We see the humanity of this father, he must have hurt, wept, and longed for the son to return. It is almost as if the father knew in some innate way the son would come back, it was just a matter of when. Then that day came, and from afar he sees his son and the emotional episode that breaks forth over the next few verses is atypical. He; felt compassion, ran to him, embraced him, kissed him, clothes him (in the best), put a ring upon his finger, and through a large celebration. A celebration that involved a “prepared” fattened calf. The father knew a feast was on the horizon so he got ready. All of these things were totally out of character, context, and social order for that day and time. I wonder how many fathers today would have given their estate away, and then longed for the day that their son returns only to display these types of emotions and affections to that son? The father had two sons. Look how he deals with the older son after he finds out that his brother has been given a celebration. The father came to the older brother outside. He WENT to the older son, and pleaded with him to come inside and celebrate the “NEW BIRTH” of his brother.
In the beginning, the Older brother doesn’t appear to be blatant and forthright, but is apparently compliant and willing to work. We meet him after the fact. He is a hard worker, and follows all the father’s commands. Quickly we see there have been some internal sin issues for this brother. He displays jealousy and anger problems in v. 28. He was not willing to go inside to celebrate the brother’s return. All these years the internal struggle of legalism, of “serving, and never neglecting any commands” comes forth. He was like a ticking time bomb of internal unnoticed sin. On the outside; he looked like, sounded like, and was thought to be the “good” son. He was the son that respected the father and did not run off with all the money. As we come to v. 30 we notice he was aware of some of his brothers lifestyle. I wonder how he knew such detail??? We aren’t told, but maybe the servant knew more than the passage tells his he said to the brother.
There are two brothers. Two very different brothers. Two brothers that provide us with some unique ideas and truths. So what is the difference between the licentious lifestyle and the legalist lifestyle?
1. V. 29 – sin is not only disobedience to commands, but also the motive of the heart. The younger brother’s sin was visible, the older brother’s was not visible. Both were equally “lost” and equally needing to be found. But the Spirit only worked in one that we see in the story.
2. Remember whom Jesus is talking to in the passage, v. 2 – Pharisees and scribes, while tax collectors and sinners were coming to him. Could it be that Jesus was drawing the connection between the younger brother and the tax collectors and sinners? And then the older brother with the Pharisees and scribes? The first had great external and visible sin, but LOST, the later internal and nonvisible, but equally LOST! The Pharisees and scribes accused Jesus or RECIVING sinners and eating with them. What did the father in the story do, receive his son very openly, and then eat with him.
3. Back to verses 24 and 32, there MUST be a celebration and rejoicing when a dead man begins to live, and when a lost man has been found.
I would be curious to know what are some of your observations from the parable of the Prodigal Son????