The Story of a Lost Son
HAVING just finished relating illustrations to the Pharisees about regaining a lost sheep and a lost drachma coin, Jesus continues now with another illustration. This one is about a loving father and his treatment of his two sons, each of whom has serious faults.
First, there is the younger son, the principal character of the illustration. He collects his inheritance, which is unhesitatingly given to him by his father. He then leaves home and becomes involved in a very immoral way of life. But listen as Jesus tells the story, and see if you can determine who the characters are meant to represent.
“A certain man,” Jesus begins, “had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the part of the property that falls to my share.’ Then [the father] divided his means of living to them.” What does this younger one do with what he receives?
“Later,” Jesus explains, “after not many days, the younger son gathered all things together and traveled abroad into a distant country, and there squandered his property by living a debauched life.” Actually, he spends his money living with prostitutes. Afterward hard times come, as Jesus goes on to relate:
“When he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred throughout that country, and he started to be in need. He even went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to herd swine. And he used to desire to be filled with the carob pods which the swine were eating, and no one would give him anything.”
How degrading to be forced to take up swineherding, since these animals were unclean according to the Law! But what pained the son the most was the gnawing hunger that even caused him to desire the food that was fed to the pigs. Because of his terrible calamity, Jesus said, “he came to his senses.”
Continuing his story, Jesus explains: “He said [to himself], ‘How many hired men of my father are abounding with bread, while I am perishing here from famine! I will rise and journey to my father and say to him: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Make me as one of your hired men.”’ So he rose and went to his father.”
Here is something to consider: If his father had turned on him and had angrily shouted at him when he left home, the son would not likely have been so single-minded as to what he should do. He may have decided to return and try to find work elsewhere in his home country so that he would not have to face his father. However, no such thought was on his mind. Home was where he wanted to be!
Clearly, the father in Jesus’ illustration represents our loving, merciful heavenly Father, Jehovah God. And you perhaps also recognize that the lost, or prodigal, son represents known sinners. The Pharisees, to whom Jesus is speaking, have previously criticized Jesus for eating with these very ones. But whom does the older son represent?
When the Lost Son Is Found
When the lost, or prodigal, son in Jesus’ illustration returns to his father’s house, what kind of reception does he receive? Listen as Jesus describes it:
“While he was yet a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was moved with pity, and he ran and fell upon his neck and tenderly kissed him.” What a merciful, warmhearted father, so well representing our heavenly Father, Jehovah!
Likely the father had heard of his son’s debauched living. Yet he welcomes him home without waiting for a detailed explanation. Jesus also has such a welcoming spirit, taking the initiative in approaching sinners and tax collectors, who are represented in the illustration by the prodigal son.
True, the discerning father of Jesus’ illustration no doubt has some idea of his son’s repentance by observing his sad, downcast countenance as he returns. But the father’s loving initiative makes it easier for the son to confess his sins, as Jesus relates: “Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Make me as one of your hired men.’”
Yet, the words are hardly off the son’s lips when his father goes into action, ordering his slaves: “Quick! bring out a robe, the best one, and clothe him with it, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fattened young bull, slaughter it and let us eat and enjoy ourselves, because this my son was dead and came to life again; he was lost and was found.” Then they start “to enjoy themselves.”
In the meantime, the father’s “older son was in the field.” See if you can identify whom he represents by listening to the rest of the story. Jesus says of the older son: “As he came and got near the house he heard a music concert and dancing. So he called one of the servants to him and inquired what these things meant. He said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father slaughtered the fattened young bull, because he got him back in good health.’ But he became wrathful and was unwilling to go in. Then his father came out and began to entreat him. In reply he said to his father, ‘Here it is so many years I have slaved for you and never once did I transgress your commandment, and yet to me you never once gave a kid for me to enjoy myself with my friends. But as soon as this your son who ate up your means of living with harlots arrived, you slaughtered the fattened young bull for him.’”
Who, like the older son, has been critical of the mercy and attention accorded sinners? Is it not the scribes and the Pharisees? Since it is their criticism of Jesus because he welcomes sinners that prompted this illustration, they clearly must be the ones represented by the older son.
Jesus concludes his story with the father’s appeal to his older son: “Child, you have always been with me, and all the things that are mine are yours; but we just had to enjoy ourselves and rejoice, because this your brother was dead and came to life, and he was lost and was found.”
Jesus thus leaves unresolved what the older son eventually does. Indeed, later, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, “a great crowd of priests began to be obedient to the faith,” possibly including some of these of the “older son” class to whom Jesus is here speaking.
But who in modern times are represented by the two sons? It must be those who have come to know enough about Jehovah’s purposes to have a basis for their entering into a relationship with him. The older son represents some members of the “little flock,” or “congregation of the firstborn who have been enrolled in the heavens.” These adopted an attitude similar to that of the older son. They had no desire to welcome an earthly class, the “other sheep,” who they felt were stealing the limelight.
The prodigal son, on the other hand, represents those of God’s people who leave to enjoy the pleasures that the world offers. In time, however, these repentantly return and again become active servants of God. Indeed, how loving and merciful the Father is toward those who recognize their need of forgiveness and return to him! Luke 15:11-32; Leviticus 11:7, 8; Acts 6:7; Luke 12:32; Hebrews 12:23; John 10:16.
▪ To whom does Jesus tell this illustration, or story, and why?
▪ Who is the principal character in the story, and what happens to him?
▪ Whom of Jesus’ day do the father and the younger son represent?
▪ How does Jesus imitate the example of the compassionate father of his illustration?
▪ What is the older son’s view of his brother’s welcome, and how do the Pharisees behave like the older son?
▪ What application does Jesus’ illustration have in our day?