11Jesus went on:
‘Once there was a man who had two sons. 12The younger son said to the father, “Father, give me my share in the property .” So he divided up his livelihood between them. 13Not many days later the younger son turned his share into cash, and set off for a country far away, where he spent his share in having a riotous good time. 15‘When he had spent it all, a severe famine came on that country, and he found himself destitute. 15So he went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into the fields to feed his pigs. 16He longed to satisfy his hunger with the pods that the pigs were eating, and nobody gave him anything. 17‘He came to his senses. “Just think!” he said to himself. “There are all my father’s hired hands with plenty to eat – and here am I, starving to death! 18I shall get up and go to my father, and I’ll say to him: ‘Father; I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I don’t deserve to be called your son any longer. Make me like one of your hired hands.’” 20And he got up and went to his father. ‘While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and his heart was stirred with love and pity. 21He ran to him, hugged him tight, and kissed him. “Father,” the son began, “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son any longer.” 22But the father said to his servants, “Hurry! Bring the best clothes and put them on him! Put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet! 23And bring the calf that we’ve fattened up, kill it, and let’s eat and have a party! 24This son of mine was dead, and is alive again! He was lost, and now he’s found!” And they began to celebrate.’
We might think that the parable of the prodigal son, as it’s usually known, hardly needs an introduction. It has inspired artists and writers down the years. Rembrandt’s famous painting, with the younger son on his knees before the loving and welcoming father, has become for many almost as much of an inspiration as the story itself. Phrases from the story – the ‘fatted calf’, for instance, in the King James version of the Bible – have become almost proverbial. And yet. People often assume that the story is simply about the wonderful love and forgiving grace of God, ready to welcome back sinners at the first sign of repentance. That is indeed its greatest theme, which is to be enjoyed and celebrated. But the story itself goes deeper than we often assume. Let’s be sure we’ve understood how families like this worked. When the father divided the property between the two sons, and the younger son turned his share into cash, this must have meant that the land the father owned had been split into two, with the younger boy selling off his share to someone else. The shame that this would bring on the family would be added to the shame the son had already brought on the father by asking for his share before the father’s death; it was the equivalent of saying ‘I wish you were dead’. The father bears these two blows without recrimination.
To this day, there are people in traditional cultures, like that of Jesus’ day, who find the story at this point quite incredible. Fathers just don’t behave like that; he should (they think) have beaten him, or thrown him out. There is a depth of mystery already built in to the story before the son even leaves home. Again, in modern Western culture children routinely leave homes in the country to pursue their future and their fortune in big cities, or even abroad; but in Jesus’ culture this would likewise be seen as shameful, with the younger son abandoning his obligation to care for his father in his old age. When the son reaches the foreign country, runs through the money, and finds himself in trouble, his degradation reaches a further low point. For a Jew to have anything to do with pigs is bad enough; for him to be feeding them, and hungry enough to share their food, is worse. But of course the most remarkable character in the story is the father himself. One might even call this ‘the parable of the Running Father’: in a culture where senior figures are far too dignified to run anywhere, this man takes to his heels as soon as he sees his young son dragging himself home. His lavish welcome is of course the point of the story: Jesus is explaining why there is a party, why it’s something to celebrate when people turn from going their own way and begin to go God’s way. Because the young man’s degradation is more or less complete, there can be no question of anything in him commending him to his father, or to any other onlookers; but the father’s closing line says it all. ‘This my son was dead and is alive; he was lost and now is found.’
How could this not be a cause of celebration? Inside this story there is another dimension which we shouldn’t miss. One of the great stories of Israel’s past was of course the Exodus, when Israel was brought out of Egypt and came home to the promised land. Many years later, after long rebellion, Israel was sent into exile in Babylon ; and, though many of the exiles returned, most of Jesus’ contemporaries reckoned that they were still living in virtual exile, in evil and dark days, with pagans ruling over them. They were still waiting for God to produce a new Exodus, a liberation which would bring them out of their spiritual and social exile and restore their fortunes once and for all. For Jesus to tell a story about a wicked son, lost in a foreign land, who was welcomed back with a lavish party – this was bound to be heard as a reference to the hope of Israel. ‘This my son was dead, and is alive’; ever since Ezekiel 37 the idea of resurrection had been used as picture-language for the true return from exile. Yes, says Jesus, and it’s happening right here. When people repent and turn back to God – which, as we’ve seen, meant for Jesus that they responded positively to his gospel message – then and there the ‘return from exile’ is happening, whether or not it looks like what people expected.
His answer to the Pharisees and other critics is simple: if God is fulfilling his promises before your very eyes, you can’t object if I throw a party to celebrate. It’s only right and proper. There is a danger in splitting the story into two, as we’ve done. The second half is vital, and closely interwoven with the first. But in this first section the emphasis is on the father’s costly love. From the moment he generously gives the younger son what he wanted, through to the wonderful homecoming welcome, we have as vivid a picture as anywhere in Jesus’ teaching of what God’s love is like, and of what Jesus himself took as the model for his own ministry of welcome to the outcast and the sinner.
LUKE 15.25– 32 The Parable of the Prodigal: The Father and the Older Son
25‘The older son was out in the fields. When he came home, and got near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27‘“Your brother’s come home!” he said. “And your father has thrown a great party – he’s killed the fattened calf! – because he’s got him back safe and well!” 28‘He flew into a rage, and wouldn’t go in. ‘Then his father came out and pleaded with him. 29“Look here!” he said to his father, “I’ve been slaving for you all these years! I’ve never disobeyed a single commandment of yours. And you never even gave me a young goat so I could have a party with my friends. 30But when this son of yours comes home, once he’s finished gobbling up your livelihood with his whores, you kill the fattened calf for him!” 31‘“My son,” he replied, “you’re always with me. Everything I have belongs to you. 32But we had to celebrate and be happy! This brother of yours was dead and is alive again! He was lost, and now he’s found!”’
A vivid phrase from a schoolboy poem, written by a classmate of mine over thirty years ago, remains with me to this day. He described a park-keeper whose job was to pick up litter on a spiked pole. Surrounded by the glorious beauty of flowers and trees, with the sun sparkling through the leaves, he only had eyes for the garbage he had to collect, and the damage it did. The lines I remember sum up his plight: ‘Destroys the nature in this park, litter,’ he said, without Lifting his head. He could only see the bad, and was blind to the beauty. That sums up the older brother in the story. And it’s the older brother who provides the real punch-line of the parable. This is Jesus ’ response to his critics. They were so focused on the wickedness of the tax-collectors and sinners, and of Jesus himself for daring to eat with them despite claiming to be a prophet of God’s kingdom, that they couldn’t see the sunlight sparkling through the fresh spring leaves of God’s love. Here were all these people being changed, being healed, having their lives transformed physically, emotionally, morally and spiritually; and the grumblers could only see litter, the human garbage that they normally despised and avoided. The portrait of the older brother is brilliantly drawn, with tell-tale little shifts of phrase and meaning. ‘Your brother’, says the servant, ‘has come home’; but he won’t think of him like this. ‘This son of yours,’ he says angrily to his father. ‘This your brother,’ says the father, reminding him gently of the truth of the matter. ‘I’ve been slaving for you,’ he says to his father , whereas in fact they had been working as partners, since the father had already divided his assets between them (verse 12).
Everything the father has belongs to him, since the younger brother has spent his share; and that, presumably, is part of the problem, since the older brother sees all too clearly that anything now spent on his brother will be coming out of his own inheritance. The phrase which ties the story to Jesus’ opponents comes out tellingly: ‘I’ve never disobeyed a single command of yours.’ That was the Pharisees’ boast (compare Philippians 3.6); but the moral superiority which it appears to give melts like snow before the sunshine of God’s love. Where resurrection is occurring – where new life is bursting out all around – it is not only appropriate, it is necessary to celebrate (verse 32). Not to do so is to fail to meet generosity with gratitude. It is to pretend that God has not after all been at work. It is to look only at the garbage and to refuse to smell the flowers. In terms of what God was doing in Israel through Jesus, we can see once more that the new kingdom work which was going forward was indeed like a return from exile. Sinners and outcasts were finding themselves welcomed into fellowship with Jesus, and so with God, in a way they would have thought impossible. But whenever a work of God goes powerfully forwards, there is always someone muttering in the background that things aren’t that easy, that God’s got no right to be generous, that people who’ve done nothing wrong are being overlooked. That happened at the time when the exiles returned from Babylon; several people, not least the Samaritans, didn’t want them back. This story reveals above all the sheer self-centredness of the grumbler. The older brother shows, in his bad temper, that he has had no more real respect for his father than his brother had had. He lectures him in front of his guests, and refuses his plea to come in. Once more the father is generous, this time to his self-righteous older son. At this point we sense that Jesus is not content simply to tell the grumblers that they’re out of line; he, too, wants to reason with the Pharisees and the lawyers, to point out that, though God’s generosity is indeed reaching out to people they didn’t expect, this doesn’t mean there isn’t any left for them. If they insist on staying out of the party because it isn’t the sort of thing they like, that’s up to them; but it won’t be because God doesn’t love them as well. This parable, like some of the others, points, for Luke, beyond the immediate situation of Jesus’ ministry and into the early church. There, Gentiles were coming into the church, and Jews and Jewish Christians often found it very difficult to celebrate the fact. Equally, as Paul realized when writing Romans, it was vital that the new communities never gave the impression to their older brother that God had finished with him. Somehow the balance must be kept. The story is, of course, unfinished. We naturally want to know what happened next. How will the younger brother behave from now on? What arrangements will they make? Will the two sons be reconciled? Sometimes when a storyteller leaves us on the edge of our seats like this it’s because we are supposed to think it through, to ask ourselves where we fit within the story, and to learn more about ourselves and our churches as a result. Which role in the story do you and your church find comes most naturally to you? How can we move towards becoming people through whom ‘resurrection’ happens to others? How can we celebrate the party of God’s love in such a way as to welcome not only the younger brothers who have come back from the dead, but also the older brothers who thought there was nothing wrong with them?
Wright, Tom (2001-01-19). Luke for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) SPCK. Kindle Edition.
“For the situation in the Kingdom of Heaven is like what happened when a householder went out first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. When he had come to an agreement with them that they would work for 4 pence a day, he sent them into his vineyard. He went out again about nine o’clock in the morning, and saw others standing idle in the market-place. He said to them, ‘Go you also into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ And they went. He went out again about twelve o’clock midday, and about three o’clock in the afternoon, and did the same. About five o’clock in the evening he went out and found others standing there, and said to them, ‘Why are you standing here the whole day idle?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘Go you also to the vineyard.’ When evening came, the master of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the workers, and give them their pay, beginning from the last and going on until you come to the first.’ So, when those who had been engaged about five o’clock in the afternoon, came, they received 4 pence each. Those who had come first thought that they would receive more; but they too received 4 pence each. When they received it, they grumblingly complained against the master. ‘These last,’ they said, ‘have only worked for one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who have home the burden and the hot wind of the day.’ He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not come to an agreement with me to work for 4 pence? Take what is yours and go! It is my will to give to this last man the same as to you. Can I not do what I like with my own money? Or, are you grudging because I am generous?’ Even so the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
This parable may sound to us as if it described a purely imaginary situation, but that is far from being the case. Apart from the method of payment, the parable describes the kind of thing that frequently happened at certain times in Palestine. The grape harvest ripened towards the end of September, and then close on its heels the rains came. If the harvest was not ingathered before the rains broke, then it was ruined; and so to get the harvest in was a frantic race against time. Any worker was welcome, even if he could give only an hour to the work.
The pay was perfectly normal; a denarius or a drachma was the normal day’s wage for a working man; and, even allowing for the difference in modern standards and in purchasing power, 4 pence a day was not a wage which left any margin.
The men who were standing in the market-place were not street-corner idlers, lazing away their time. The market-place was the equivalent of the labour exchange. A man came there first thing in the morning, carrying his tools, and waited until someone hired him. The men who stood in the market-place were waiting for work, and the fact that some of them stood on until even five o’clock in the evening is the proof of how desperately they wanted it.
These men were hired labourers; they were the lowest class of workers, and life for them was always desperately precarious. Slaves and servants were regarded as being at least to some extent attached to the family; they were within the group; their fortunes would vary with the fortunes of the family, but they would never be in any imminent danger of starvation in normal times. It was very different with the hired day-labourers. They were not attached to any group; they were entirely at the mercy of chance employment; they were always living on the semi-starvation line. As we have seen, the pay was 4 pence a day; and, if they were unemployed for one day, the children would go hungry at home, for no man ever saved much out of 4 pence a day. With them, to be unemployed for a day was disaster.
The hours in the parable were the normal Jewish hours. The Jewish day began at sunrise, 6 a.m., and the hours were counted from then until 6 p.m., when officially the next day began. Counting from 6 a.m. therefore, the third hour is 9 a.m., the sixth hour is twelve midday, and the eleventh hour is 5 p.m.
This parable gives a vivid picture of the kind of thing which could happen in the market-place of any Jewish village or town any day, when the grape harvest was being rushed in to beat the rains.
C. G. Montefiore calls this parable “one of the greatest and most glorious of all.” It may indeed have had a comparatively limited application when it was spoken for the first time; but it contains truth which goes to the very heart of the Christian religion. We begin with the comparatively limited significance it originally had.
(i) It is in one sense a warning to the disciples. It is as if Jesus said to them, “You have received the great privilege of coming into the Christian Church and fellowship very early, right at the beginning. In later days others will come in. You must not claim a special honour and a special place because you were Christians before they were. All men, no matter when they come, are equally precious to God.”
There are people who think that, because they have been members of a Church for a long time, the Church practically belongs to them and they can dictate its policy. Such people resent what seems to them the intrusion of new blood or the rise of a new generation with different plans and different ways. In the Christian Church seniority does not necessarily mean honour.
(ii) There is an equally definite warning to the Jews. They knew that they were the chosen people, nor would they ever willingly forget that choice. As a consequence they looked down on the Gentiles. Usually they hated and despised them, and hoped for nothing but their destruction. This attitude threatened to be carried forward into the Christian Church. If the Gentiles were to be allowed into the fellowship of the Church at all, they must come in as inferiors.
“In God’s economy,” as someone has said, “there is no such thing as a most favoured nation clause.” Christianity knows nothing of the conception of a herrenvolk, a master race. It may well be that we who have been Christian for so long have much to learn from those younger Churches who are late-comers to the fellowship of the faith.
(iii) These are the original lessons of this parable, but it has very much more to say to us.
In it there is the comfort of God. It means that no matter when a man enters the Kingdom, late or soon, in the first flush of youth, in the strength of the midday, or when the shadows are lengthening, he is equally dear to God. The Rabbis had a saying, “Some enter the Kingdom in an hour; others hardly enter it in a lifetime.” In the picture of the holy city in the Revelation there are twelve gates. There are gates on the East which is the direction of the dawn, and whereby a man may enter in the glad morning of his days; there are gates on the West which is the direction of the setting sun, and whereby a man may enter in his age. No matter when a man comes to Christ, he is equally dear to him.
May we not go even further with this thought of comfort? Sometimes a man dies full of years and full of honour, with his day’s work ended and his task completed. Sometimes a young person dies almost before the door of life and achievement have opened at all. From God they will both receive the same welcome, for both Jesus Christ is waiting, and for neither, in the divine sense, has life ended too soon or too late.
(iv) Here, also, is the infinite compassion of God. There is an element of human tenderness in this parable.
There is nothing more tragic in this world than a man who is unemployed, a man whose talents are rusting in idleness because there is nothing for him to do. Hugh Martin reminds us that a great teacher used to say that the saddest words in all Shakespeare’s plays are the words: “Othello’s occupation’s gone.” In that market-place men stood waiting because no one had hired them; in his compassion the master gave them work to do. He could not bear to see them idle.
Further, in strict justice the fewer hours a man worked, the less pay he should have received. But the master well knew that 4p a day was no great wage; he well knew that, if a workman went home with less, there would be a worried wife and hungry children; and therefore he went beyond justice and gave them more than was their due.
As it has been put, this parable states implicitly two great truths which are the very charter of the working man—the right of every man to work and the right of every man to a living wage for his work.
(v) Here also is the generosity of God. These men did not all do the same work; but they did receive the same pay. There are two great lessons here. The first is, as it has been said, “All service ranks the same with God.” It is not the amount of service given, but the love in which it is given which matters. A man out of his plenty may give us a gift of a hundred pounds, and in truth we are grateful; a child may give us a birthday or Christmas gift which cost only a few pence but which was laboriously and lovingly saved up for—and that gift, with little value of its own, touches our heart far more. God does not look on the amount of our service. So long as it is all we have to give, all service ranks the same with God.
The second lesson is even greater—all God gives is of grace. We cannot earn what God gives us; we cannot deserve it; what God gives us is given out of the goodness of his heart; what God gives is not pay, but a gift; not a reward, but a grace.
(vi) Surely that brings us to the supreme lesson of the parable—the whole point of work is the spirit in which it is done. The servants are clearly divided into two classes. The first came to an agreement with the master; they had a contract; they said, “We work, if you give us so much pay.” As their conduct showed, all they were concerned with was to get as much as possible out of their work. But in the case of those who were engaged later, there is no word of contract; all they wanted was the chance to work and they willingly left the reward to the master.
A man is not a Christian if his first concern is pay. Peter asked: “What do we get out of it?” The Christian works for the joy of serving God and his fellow-men. That is why the first will be last and the last will be first. Many a man in this world, who has earned great rewards, will have a very low place in the Kingdom because rewards were his sole thought. Many a man, who, as the world counts it, is a poor man, will be great in the Kingdom, because he never thought in terms of reward but worked for the thrill of working and for the joy of serving. It is the paradox of the Christian life that he who aims at reward loses it, and he who forgets reward finds it.
Jesus again answered them in parables: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the situation which arose when a man who was a king arranged a wedding for his son. He sent his servants to summon those who had been invited to the wedding, and they refused to come. He again sent other servants. ‘Tell those who have been invited,’ he said, ‘look you, I have my meal all prepared; my oxen and my specially fattened animals have been killed; and everything is ready. Come to the wedding.’ But they disregarded the invitation and went away, one to his estate, and another to his business. The rest seized the servants and treated them shamefully and killed them. The king was angry, and sent his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and set fire to their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready. Those who have been invited did not deserve to come. Go, then, to the highways and invite to the wedding all you may find.’ So the servants went out to the roads, and collected all whom they found, both bad and good; and the wedding was supplied with guests.”
Matt 22:1-14 form not one parable, but two; and we will grasp their meaning far more easily and far more fully if we take them separately.
The events of the first of the two were completely in accordance with normal Jewish customs. When the invitations to a great feast, like a wedding feast, were sent out, the time was not stated; and when everything was ready the servants were sent out with a final summons to tell the guests to come. So, then, the king in this parable had long ago sent out his invitations; but it was not till everything was prepared that the final summons was issued—and insultingly refused. This parable has two meanings.
(i) It has a purely local meaning. Its local meaning was a driving home of what had already been, said in the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen; once again it was an accusation of the Jews. The invited guests who when the time came refused to come, stand for the Jews. Ages ago they had been invited by God to be his chosen people; yet when God’s son came into the world, and they were invited to follow him they contemptuously refused. The result was that the invitation of God went out direct to the highways and the byways; and the people in the highways and the byways stand for the sinners and the Gentiles, who never expected an invitation into the Kingdom.
As the writer of the gospel saw it, the consequences of the refusal were terrible. There is one verse of the parable which is strangely out of place; and that because it is not part of the original parable as Jesus told it, but an interpretation by the writer of the gospel. That is Matt 22:7, which tells how the king sent his armies against those who refused the invitation, and burned their city.
This introduction of armies and the burning of the city seems at first sight completely out of place taken in connexion with invitations to a wedding feast. But Matthew was composing his gospel some time between A.D. 80 and 90. What had happened during the period between the actual life of Jesus and now? The answer is—the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Rome in A.D. 70. The Temple was sacked and burned and the city destroyed stone from stone, so that a plough was drawn across it. Complete disaster had come to those who refused to recognize the Son of God when he came.***
The writer of the gospel adds as his comment the terrible things which did in fact happen to the nation which would not take the way of Christ. And it is indeed the simple historical fact that if the Jews had accepted the way of Christ, and had walked in love, in humility and in sacrifice they would never have been the rebellious, warring people who finally provoked the avenging wrath of Rome, when Rome could stand their political machinations no longer.
(ii) Equally this parable has much to say on a much wider scale.
(a) It reminds us that the invitation of God is to a feast as joyous as a wedding feast. His invitation is to joy. To think of Christianity as a gloomy giving up of everything which brings laughter and sunshine and happy fellowship is to mistake its whole nature. It is to joy that the Christian is invited; and it is joy he misses, if he refuses the invitation.
(b) It reminds us that the things which make men deaf to the invitation of Christ are not necessarily bad in themselves. One man went to his estate; the other to his business. They did not go off on a wild carousal or an immoral adventure. They went off on the [ task], in itself, excellent task of efficiently administering their business life. It is very easy for a man to be so busy with the things of time that he forgets the things of eternity, to be so preoccupied with the things which are seen that he forgets the things which are unseen, to hear so insistently the claims of the world that he cannot hear the soft invitation of the voice of Christ. The tragedy of life is that it is so often the second bests which shut out the bests, that it is things which are good in themselves which shut out the things that are supreme. A man can be so busy making a living that he fails to make a life; he can be so busy with the administration and the organization of life that he forgets life itself.
(c) It reminds us that the appeal of Christ is not so much to consider how we will be punished as it is to see what we will miss, if we do not take his way of things. Those who would not come were punished, but their real tragedy was that they lost the joy of the wedding feast. If we refuse the invitation of Christ, some day our greatest pain will lie, not in the things we suffer, but in the realization of the precious things we have missed.
(d) It reminds us that in the last analysis God’s invitation is the invitation of grace. Those who were gathered in from the highways and the byways had no claim on the king and they could never by any stretch of imagination have expected an invitation to the wedding feast, still less could they ever have deserved it. It came to them from nothing other than the wide-armed, open-hearted, generous hospitality of the king. It was grace which offered the invitation and grace which gathered men in.
The king came in to see those who were sitting at table, and he saw there a man who was not wearing a wedding garment. “Friend,” he said to him, “how did you come here with no wedding garment?” The man was struck silent. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hands and feet, and throw him out into the outer darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth there. For many are called, but few are chosen.”
This is a second parable, but it is also a very close continuation and amplification of the previous one. It is the story of a guest who appeared at a royal wedding feast without a wedding garment.
One of the great interests of this parable is that in it we see Jesus taking a story which was already familiar to his hearers and using it in his own way. The Rabbis had two stories which involved kings and garments. The first told of a king who invited his guests to a feast, without telling them the exact date and time; but he did tell them that they must wash, and anoint, and clothe themselves that they might be ready when the summons came. The wise prepared themselves at once, and took their places waiting at the palace door, for they believed that in a palace a feast could be prepared so quickly that there would be no long warning. The foolish believed that it would take a long time to make the necessary preparations and that they would have plenty of time. So they went, the mason to his lime, the potter to his clay, the smith to his furnace, the fuller to his bleaching-ground, and went on with their work. Then, suddenly, the summons to the feast came without any warning. The wise were ready to sit down, and the king rejoiced over them, and they ate and drank. But those who had not arrayed themselves in their wedding garments had to stand outside, sad and hungry, and look on at the joy that they had lost. That rabbinic parable tells of the duty of preparedness for the summons of God, and the garments stand for the preparation that must be made.
The second rabbinic parable told how a king entrusted to his servants royal robes. Those who were wise took the robes, and carefully stored them away, and kept them in all their pristine loveliness. Those who were foolish wore the robes to their work, and soiled and stained them. The day came when the king demanded the robes back. The wise handed them back fresh and clean; so the king laid up the robes in his treasury and bade them go in peace. The foolish handed them back stained and soiled. The king commanded that the robes should be given to the fuller to cleanse, and that the foolish servants should be cast into prison. This parable teaches that a man must hand back his soul to God in all its original purity; but that the man who has nothing but a stained soul to render back stands condemned.
No doubt Jesus had these two parables in mind when he told his own story. What, then, was he seeking to teach? This parable also contains both a local and a universal lesson.
(i) The local lesson is this. Jesus has just said that the king, to supply his feast with guests, sent his messengers out into the highways and byways to gather all men in. That was the parable of the open door. It told how the Gentiles and the sinners would be gathered in. This parable strikes the necessary balance. It is true that the door is open to all men, but when they come they must bring a life which seeks to fit the love which has been given to them. Grace is not only a gift; it is a grave responsibility. A man cannot go on living the life he lived before he met Jesus Christ. He must be clothed in a new purity and a new holiness and a new goodness. The door is open, but the door is not open for the sinner to come and remain a sinner, but for the sinner to come and become a saint.
(ii) This is the permanent lesson. The way in which a man comes to anything demonstrates the spirit in which he comes. If we go to visit in a friend’s house, we do not go in the clothes we wear in the shipyard or the garden. We know very well that it is not the clothes which matter to the friend. It is not that we want to put on a show. It is simply a matter of respect that we should present ourselves in our friend’s house as neatly as we can. The fact that we prepare ourselves to go there is the way in which we outwardly show our affection and our esteem for our friend. So it is with God’s house. This parable has nothing to do with the clothes in which we go to church; it has everything to do with the spirit in which we go to God’s house. It is profoundly true that church-going must never be a fashion parade. But there are garments of the mind and of the heart and of the soul—the garment of expectation, the garment of humble penitence, the garment of faith, the garment of reverence—and these are the garments without which we ought not to approach God. Too often we go to God’s house with no preparation at all; if every man and woman in our congregations came to church prepared to worship, after a little prayer, a little thought, and a little self-examination, then worship would be worship indeed—the worship in which and through which things happen in men’s souls and in the life of the Church and in the affairs of the world.
***[There is a good argument for an earlier composition of Matthew than Barclay’s 80-90 AD, which makes Jesus prophetic in this parable as Matthew 24 would be as well if this Gospel was penned prior to AD 70 cf., R.C. Sproul, The Last Days of Jesus according to Jesus]
Parable of the Prodigal Son
Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the part of the estate which falls to me.’ So his father divided his living between them. Not many days after, the son realized it all and went away to a far country, and there in wanton recklessness scattered his substance. When he had spent everything a mighty famine arose throughout that country and he began to be in want. He went and attached himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed pigs; and he had a great desire to fill himself with the husks the pigs were eating; and no one gave anything to him. When he had come to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, and I—I am perishing here with hunger. I will get up and I will go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer fit to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.”‘ So he got up and went to his father. While he was still a long way away his father saw him, and was moved to the depths of his being and ran and flung his arms round his neck and kissed him tenderly. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger; put shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and rejoice, for this my son was dead and has come back to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to rejoice.
“Now the elder son was in the field. When he came near the house he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what these things could mean? He said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound.’ He was enraged and refused to come in. His father went out and urged him to come in. He answered his father, ‘Look you, I have served you so many years and I never transgressed your order, and to me you never gave a kid that I might have a good time with my friends. But when this son of yours—this fellow who consumed your living with harlots—came, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ ‘Child,’ he said to him, ‘you are always with me. Everything that is mine is yours. But we had to rejoice and be glad, for your brother was dead and has come back to life again; he was lost and has been found.'”**
Not without reason this has been called the greatest short story in the world. Under Jewish law a father was not free to leave his property as he liked. The elder son must get two-thirds and the younger one-third. (Deut 21:17.) It was by no means unusual for a father to distribute his estate before he died, if he wished to retire from the actual management of affairs. But there is a certain heartless callousness in the request of the younger son. He said in effect, “Give me now the part of the estate I will get anyway when you are dead, and let me get out of this.” The father did not argue. He knew that if the son was ever to learn he must learn the hard way; and he granted his request. Without delay the son realized his share of the property and left home.
He soon ran through the money; and he finished up feeding pigs, a task that was forbidden to a Jew because the law said, “Cursed is he who feeds swine.” Then Jesus paid sinning mankind the greatest compliment it has ever been paid. “When he came to himself,” he said. Jesus believed that so long as a man was away from God he was not truly himself; he was only truly himself when he was on the way home. Beyond a doubt Jesus did not believe in total depravity. He never believed that you could glorify God by blackguarding man; he believed that man was never essentially himself until he came home to God.
So the son decided to come home and plead to be taken back not as a son but in the lowest rank of slaves, the hired servants, the men who were only day labourers. The ordinary slave was in some sense a member of the family, but the hired servant could be dismissed at a day’s notice. He was not one of the family at all. He came home; and, according to the best Greek text, his father never gave him the chance to ask to be a servant. He broke in before that. The robe stands for honour; the ring for authority, for if a man gave to another his signet ring it was the same as giving him the power of attorney; the shoes for a son as opposed to a slave, for children of the family were shod and slaves were not. (The slave’s dream in the negro spiritual is of the time when “all God’s chillun got shoes,” for shoes were the sign of freedom.) And a feast was made that all might rejoice at the wanderer’s return.
Let us stop there and see the truth so far in this parable.
(i) It should never have been called the parable of the Prodigal Son, for the son is not the hero. It should be called the parable of the Loving Father, for it tells us rather about a father’s love than a son’s sin.
(ii) It tells us much about the forgiveness of God. The father must have been waiting and watching for the son to come home, for he saw him a long way off. When he came, he forgave him with no recriminations. There is a way of forgiving, when forgiveness is conferred as a favour. It is even worse, when someone is forgiven, but always by hint and by word and by threat his sin is held over him.
Once Lincoln was asked how he was going to treat the rebellious southerners when they had finally been defeated and had returned to the Union of the United States. The questioner expected that Lincoln would take a dire vengeance, but he answered, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.”
It is the wonder of the love of God that he treats us like that.
That is not the end of the story. There enters the elder brother who was actually sorry that his brother had come home. He stands for the self-righteous Pharisees who would rather see a sinner destroyed than saved. Certain things stand out about him.
(i) His attitude shows that his years of obedience to his father had been years of grim duty and not of loving service.
(ii) His attitude is one of utter lack of sympathy. He refers to the prodigal, not as any brother, but as your son. He was the kind of self-righteous character who would cheerfully have kicked a man farther into the gutter when he was already down.
(iii) He had a peculiarly nasty mind. There is no mention of harlots until he mentions them. He, no doubt, suspected his brother of the sins he himself would have liked to commit.
Once again we have the amazing truth that it is easier to confess to God than it is to many a man; that God is more merciful in his judgments than many an orthodox man; that the love of God is far broader than the love of man; and that God can forgive when men refuse to forgive. In face of a love like that we cannot be other than lost in wonder, love and praise.
The Gospel of Luke, Barclay’s Daily Study Bible (NT).
** William Barclay’s translation.
Jesus said to his disciples, “There was a rich man who had a steward. He received information against the steward which alleged that he was dissipating his goods. He called him, and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’ The steward said to himself, ‘What am I to do? I have not the strength to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I will do, so that, when I am removed from my stewardship, they will receive me into their houses.’ So he summoned each of the people who owed debts to his master. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your account and sit down and write quickly, four hundred and fifty.’ Then he said to another ‘And you—how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A thousand bushels of corn.’ He said to him, ‘Take your accounts and write eight hundred.’ And the master praised the wicked steward because he acted shrewdly; for the sons of this world are shrewder in their own generation than the sons of light. And, I tell you, make for yourselves friends by means of your material possessions, even if they have been unjustly acquired, so that when your money has gone they will receive you into a dwelling which lasts forever. He who is trustworthy in a very little is also trustworthy in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If you have not shown yourself trustworthy in your ordinary business dealings about material things, who will trust you with the genuine wealth? If you have not shown yourselves trustworthy in what belongs to someone else, who will give you what is your own? No household slave can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot be the slave of God and of material things.”
This is a difficult parable to interpret. It is a story about as choice a set of rascals as one could meet anywhere.
The steward was a rascal. He was a slave, but he was nonetheless in charge of the running of his master’s estate. In Palestine there were many absentee landlords. The master may well have been one of these, and his business may well have been entrusted to his steward’s hands. The steward had followed a career of embezzlement.
The debtors were also rascals. No doubt what they owed was rent. Rent was often paid to a landlord, not in money, but in kind. It was often an agreed proportion of the produce of the part of the estate which had been rented. The steward knew that he had lost his job. He, therefore, had a brilliant idea. He falsified the entries in the books so that the debtors were debited with far less than they owed. This would have two effects. First, the debtors would be grateful to him; and second, and much more effective, he had involved the debtors in his own misdemeanours, and, if the worst came to the worst, he was now in a strong position to exercise a little judicious blackmail!
The master himself was something of a rascal, for, instead of being shocked at the whole proceeding, he appreciated the shrewd brain behind it and actually praised the steward for what he had done.
The difficulty of the parable is clearly seen from the fact that Luke attaches no fewer than four different lessons to it.
(i) In Lk 16:8 the lesson is that the sons of this world are wiser in their generation than the sons of light. That means that, if only the Christian was as eager and ingenious in his attempt to attain goodness as the man of the world is in his attempt to attain money and comfort, he would be a much better man. If only men would give as much attention to the things which concern their souls as they do to the things which concern their business, they would be much better men. Over and over again a man will expend twenty times the amount of time and money and effort on his pleasure, his hobby, his garden, his sport as he does on his church. Our Christianity will begin to be real and effective only when we spend as much time and effort on it as we do on our worldly activities.
(ii) In Lk 16:9 the lesson is that material possessions should be used to cement the friendships wherein the real and permanent value of life lies. That could be done in two ways.
(a) It could be done as it affects eternity. The Rabbis had a saying, “The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come.” Ambrose, commenting on the rich fool who built bigger barns to store his goods, said, “The bosoms of the poor, the houses of widows, the mouths of children are the barns which last forever.” It was a Jewish belief that charity given to poor people would stand to a man’s credit in the world to come. A man’s true wealth would consist not in what he kept, but in what he gave away.
(b) It could be done as it affects this world. A man can use his wealth selfishly or he can use it to make life easier, not only for himself, but for his friends and his fellow-men. How many a scholar is forever grateful to a rich man who gave or left money to found bursaries and scholarships which made a university career possible! How many a man is grateful to a better-off friend who saw him through some time of need in the most practical way! Possessions are not in themselves a sin, but they are a great responsibility, and the man who uses them to help his friends has gone far to discharge that responsibility.
(iii) In Lk 16:10-11 the lesson is that a man’s way of fulfilling a small task is the best proof of his fitness or unfitness to be entrusted with a bigger task. That is clearly true of earthly things. No man will be advanced to higher office until he has given proof of his honesty and ability in a smaller position. But Jesus extends the principle to eternity. He says, “Upon earth you are in charge of things which are not really yours. You cannot take them with you when you die. They are only lent to you. You are only a steward over them. They cannot, in the nature of things, be permanently yours. On the other hand, in heaven you will get what is really and eternally yours. And what you get in heaven depends on how you use the things of earth. What you will be given as your very own will depend on how you use the things of which you are only steward.”
(iv) Lk 16:13 lays down the rule that no slave can serve two masters. The master possessed the slave, and possessed him exclusively. Nowadays, a servant or a workman can quite easily do two jobs and work for two people. He can do one job in his working time and another in his spare time. He can, for instance, be a clerk by day and a musician by night. Many a man augments his income or finds his real interest in a spare-time occupation. But a slave had no spare time; every moment of his day, and every ounce of his energy, belonged to his master. He had no time which was his own. So, serving God can never be a part-time or a spare-time job. Once a man chooses to serve God every moment of his time and every atom of his energy belongs to God. God is the most exclusive of masters. We either belong to him totally or not at all.
** William Barclay’s translation.
Who Is My Neighbour? (Luke 10:25-37)
10:25-37 Look you—an expert in the law stood up and asked Jesus a test question. “Teacher,” he said, “What is it I am to do to become the possessor of eternal life?” He said to him, “What stands written in the law? How do you read?” He answered, “You must love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” “Your answer is correct,” said Jesus. But he, wishing to put himself in the right, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus answered, “There was a man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He fell amongst brigands who stripped him and laid blows upon him, and went away and left him half-dead. Now, by chance, a priest came down by that road. He looked at him and passed by on the other side. In the same way when a Levite came to the place he looked at him and passed by on the other side. A Samaritan who was on the road came to where he was. He looked at him and was moved to the depths of his being with pity. So he came up to him and bound up his wounds, pouring in wine and oil; and he put him on his own beast and brought him to an inn and cared for him. On the next day he put down 10p and gave it to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and whatever more you are out of pocket, when I come back this way, I’ll square up with you in full.’ Which of these three, do you think, was neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of brigands?” He said, “He who showed mercy on him.” “Go,” said Jesus to him, “and do likewise.”**
First, let us look at the scene of this story. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a notoriously dangerous road. Jerusalem is 2,300 feet above sea-level; the Dead Sea, near which Jericho stood, is 1,300 feet below sea-level. So then, in somewhat less than 20 miles, this road dropped 3,600 feet. It was a road of narrow, rocky deifies, and of sudden turnings which made it the happy hunting-ground of brigands. In the fifth century Jerome tells us that it was still called “The Red, or Bloody Way.” In the 19th century it was still necessary to pay safety money to the local Sheiks before one could travel on it. As late as the early 1930’s, H. V. Morton tells us that he was warned to get home before dark, if he intended to use the road, because a certain Abu Jildah was an adept at holding up cars and robbing travellers and tourists, and escaping to the hills before the police could arrive. When Jesus told this story, he was telling about the kind of thing that was constantly happening on the Jerusalem to Jericho road.
Second, let us look at the characters.
(a) There was the traveler. He was obviously a reckless and foolhardy character. People seldom attempted the Jerusalem to Jericho road alone if they were carrying goods or valuables. Seeking safety in numbers, they traveled in convoys or caravans. This man had no one but himself to blame for the plight in which he found himself.
(b) There was the priest. He hastened past. No doubt he was remembering that he who touched a dead man was unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:11). He could not be sure but he feared that the man was dead; to touch him would mean losing his turn of duty in the Temple; and he refused to risk that. He set the claims of ceremonial above those of charity. The Temple and its liturgy meant more to him than the pain of man.
(c) There was the Levite. He seems to have gone nearer to the man before he passed on. The bandits were in the habit of using decoys. One of their number would act the part of a wounded man; and when some unsuspecting traveller stopped over him, the others would rush upon him and overpower him. The Levite was a man whose motto was, “Safety first.” He would take no risks to help anyone else.
(d) There was the Samaritan. The listeners would obviously expect that with his arrival the villain had arrived. He may not have been racially a Samaritan at all. The Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans and yet this man seems to have been a kind of commercial traveler who was a regular visitor to the inn. In John 8:48 the Jews call Jesus a Samaritan. The name was sometimes used to describe a man who was a heretic and a breaker of the ceremonial law. Perhaps this man was a Samaritan in the sense of being one whom all orthodox good people despised.
We note two things about him.
(i) His credit was good! Clearly the innkeeper was prepared to trust him. He may have been theologically unsound, but he was an honest man.
(ii) He alone was prepared to help. A heretic he may have been, but the love of God was in his heart. It is no new experience to find the orthodox more interested in dogmas than in help and to find the man the orthodox despise to be the one who loves his fellow-men. In the end we will be judged not by the creed we hold but by the life we live.
Third, let us look at the teaching of the parable. The scribe who asked this question was in earnest. Jesus asked him what was written in the law, and then said, “How do you read?” Strict orthodox Jews wore round their wrists little leather boxes called phylacteries, which contained certain passages of scripture—Ex 13:1-10; Exo 13:11-16; Deut 6:4-9; Deut 11:13-20. “You will love the Lord your God” is from Deut 6:4 and Deut 11:13. So Jesus said to the scribe, “Look at the phylactery on your own wrist and it will answer your question.” To that the scribes added Lev 19:18, which bids a man love his neighbour as himself; but with their passion for definition the Rabbis sought to define who a man’s neighbour was; and at their worst and their narrowest they confined the word neighbour to their fellow Jews. For instance, some of them said that it was illegal to help a gentile woman in her sorest time, the time of childbirth, for that would only have been to bring another gentile into the world. So then the scribe’s question, “Who is my neighbour?” was genuine.
Jesus’ answer involves three things.
(i) We must help a man even when he has brought his trouble on himself, as the traveller had done.
(ii) Any man of any nation who is in need is our neighbour. Our help must be as wide as the love of God.
(iii) The help must be practical and not consist merely in feeling sorry. No doubt the priest and the Levite felt a pang of pity for the wounded man, but they did nothing. Compassion, to be real, must issue in deeds.
What Jesus said to the scribe, he says to us—”Go you and do the same.”
** William Barclay’s translation.