God’s Triune nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is illustrated in patterns of threes found throughout Scripture. As we saw last week, Jesus told three parables about the loss of a treasured animal, object or person, and the rejoicing that follows when the lost treasure is found (Luke 15).
The third and most detailed of these salvation parables, often referred to as the Prodigal Son, shows most clearly that to be found, we must first confess that we are lost; we must want to be found; and we must know the person who will find us. Jesus taught this parable not only for the benefit of the sinners who knew they were lost, but also for the Pharisees and scribes who thought they were superior, self-righteous, and in no need of help (v. 2).
The parable has three main characters: a father, his younger son, and his older son (v. 11-12). We can safely assume that the father, like the scribes and Pharisees Jesus was attempting to reach, was a religiously observant Jew The younger son disowned, disrespected, and disgraced his father in three ways.
First, he disowned his father by demanding that he give him his portion of the inheritance (v. 12), which was essentially the same as telling his father that he wished he were already dead. Second, he left Israel and traveled to a pagan nation, thereby disrespecting his father, his heritage, and Jehovah God. Third, he disgraced his family by wasting his fortune on the pleasures of sin (v. 13).
This chain of three events resulted in his extreme poverty, which in turn led to three consequences of his sins. Because there was a great famine in the foreign country, he had to enter into bondage as a slave; he defiled himself by having to feed swine (considered by Jews to be unclean (Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8) because of the Mosaic law); and he was about to die from hunger, for no one would give him so much as a corn husk to eat (Luke 15:14-16).
But then, miraculously, a threefold process of salvation began. First, he “came to himself” (v. 17), realizing how far he had fallen. Second, he admitted three things: that he needed his father to save him, that he had sinned against God, and that he was unworthy to be his father’s son (v. 17-19). Third, he reached out to his father in three ways: he was willing to humble himself by being his father’s servant; he journeyed home to his father; and he confessed his sins to the father (v. 18-21).
The parable then illustrates how God seeks out the sinner who takes the first step toward Him! The father had been on the lookout for the son from a great distance, he had compassion the moment he came into view; and he ran to meet him (v. 20). No doubt the scribes and Pharisees gasped in shock when they heard of this behavior, in stark contrast to the typical Jewish patriarch who would maintain his reserve and dignity and wait for the son to fall prostrate at his feet!
Instead, this Father hugged his son’s neck, kissed him, and forgave his sin (v. 20-22). Because of His grace, He answered the son’s prayer far beyond his expectations (Ephesians 3:20), accepting him as His son, writing off his debt (of having squandered part of the family estate), and clothing him with the finest robe, a ring, and shoes (Luke 15:22). He brought forth the fatted calf that was being kept for a special occasion, sacrificed it, and had it prepared for dinner (v. 23).
The Father rejoiced over his son with a great celebration that included not only feasting, but also music and dancing (v. 23-25), because He received him from danger to being safe and sound, from death to life, from being lost to being found (v. 24-27).
But sadly, the tale does not end here, but turns instead to the elder son. John MacArthur refers to this parable as the “Tale of Two Sons,” because the fate of the elder son is as much at stake as that of the prodigal. The elder son was a “good” son, hard-working in the field (v. 25), serving his father for many years, and saying that he never disobeyed any of his father’s commandments (v. 29).
No doubt the scribes and Pharisees listening to this story identified with the elder son, for they worked hard at being “good” Jews, prided themselves on their years of religious works and service (Matthew 23:1-7), and thought they were self-righteous (Matthew 5:20) and able to keep the law perfectly.
Yet Jesus criticized them for following the letter of the law, tithing even the tenth part of their garden herbs, while being far from God in their hearts and lacking judgment (discernment), mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23-29). They had substituted their own traditions for God’s law (Matthew 15:1-10); they did not recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah Who was God’s Son; and they had no true love for God or for one another (Matthew 23:13-15).
So the scribes and Pharisees were correct in identifying with the elder son in the parable, for all were far from the Father’s heart. When he heard of the great celebration over his long-lost brother, the elder son got angry, refused to take part in the feast, and criticized his family -- his brother for wasting the family fortune on prostitutes, and his Father for celebrating the prodigal’s return rather than his own self-righteousness (Luke 15: 28-29).
Perhaps this part of the story pricked the hearts of some of the scribes and Pharisees, if their consciences were not already too seared (1 Timothy 4:2). Did any of them recognize that they were angry with Jesus and His followers, that they had no joy over the salvation of others or the opportunity they had to be saved by trusting Jesus, and that they were judgmental to Jesus and His followers (Matthew 12:2,14,24), when judgment is solely the province of God? (James 5:9; Matthew 7::1-5; Romans 12:19)
But instead of rebuking the elder son, the Father sought him out, begged him to join the party (v. 28), and explained the situation. He told the elder son that he was continually in the presence of the Father and exposed to His love, teachings and blessings; that he was still the rightful heir to all the Father owned; and that it was appropriate to celebrate his brother’s safe return, restoration to the family, and regeneration from spiritual death to life (v. 31-32).
During His earthly ministry, Jesus spoke predominantly to the Jews, so I believe the intended parallel here is to the relationship between God and His chosen nation of Israel. God continually sought out Israel despite her unfaithfulness, begged her to be faithful, and patiently explained the nature of their covenant relationship, as we see throughout the book of Judges and elsewhere, as well as allegorically in the book of Hosea.
Jesus blessed the Jews with His presence during His earthly ministry, promised that He would return as their King even though they rejected Him during His first coming (Mark 15), and found joy even in the shame of the cross (Hebrews 12:2). He knew that His suffering at Calvary would open the gates of Heaven to all, Jews and Gentiles (Matthew 12:18-21), who placed their faith in His death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) as the only Way (John 14:6).
This parable therefore speaks to all three classes of mankind: the Jews of Israel, the Gentiles of all other nations, and the Church, representing all, either Jew or Gentile, who receive His freely given gift of salvation by trusting Him (1 Corinthians 1:2; 10:32)..
Knowing that the Father in the parable represents the Triune God -- Father, Son, and Spirit – we should ask ourselves whether our relationship to Him is more like that of the younger or the elder son. Do we know, like the prodigal, that we strayed far from God and were doomed to hell (John 3:18); that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves (Ephesians 2:8-9); and that we want the blessings of forgiveness, abundant life, and eternal life (John 3:16) that only He can provide?
If so, we have the living hope (1 Peter 1:3) that God, in His mercy, love and grace (2 John 1:3) has forgiven us (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; 1 John 1:9), credited us with the perfect righteousness of His Son (Romans 3:22; 4:6,11; 5:17,21) and made us a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17): His children (Romans 8:16-21), His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), and joint heirs with Christ! (Romans 8:17)
But if we are more like the elder son, we must let the Father change our hearts before it is too late (Luke 13:25-28). How many in churches today are like the “good” son, dutifully occupying the pew, tithing, and calling themselves Christian, but having no relationship with, faith in, or love for the Father, His Son, and the brethren?
Trusting in our own good works to get to Heaven will forever separate us from the Father (2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5). Believing in our own self-righteousness is like filthy rags in His sight (Isaiah 64:6). Instead of joy, peace and love that comes from trusting the Father, we will be consumed by anger, bitterness and hatred. The choice is freely available to all, so may we all open our hearts to Jesus and turn from death to life today!
© 2015 Laurie Collett