A Young Man Goes Astray
1. (a) Why did Jesus frequently use illustrations? (b) How did Jesus disclose the real cause of the difficulty?
JESUS gave many illustrations, causing us to wonder why he so frequently used that method of teaching. Usually the purpose of an illustration is to make a thing easily understood in an impressive way. But there can be exceptions to this general rule, as is evident in this case. The disciples asked Jesus: “Why is it you speak to them by the use of illustrations?” When we read his answer, we are at once struck by his reference to the very things we have been stressing, regarding the need to come to one’s senses and the all-important heart attitude. He told his disciples: “To you it is granted to understand the sacred secrets of the kingdom of the heavens, but to those people it is not granted.” This might seem an arbitrary decision on Jesus’ part, but he went on to show that the real cause of the difficulty lay with the people themselves. Quoting from Isaiah’s prophecy as having fulfillment in his day, he said: “For the heart of this people has grown thick, and with their ears they have heard with annoyance, and they have shut their eyes; that they might never see with their eyes and hear with their ears and get the sense of it with their hearts and turn back, and I heal them.”—Matt. 13:10, 11,15, 34.
2. How did Jesus’ method of teaching serve as a test, with what result?
2 Ah, yes! The majority of the people in Jesus’ day enjoyed listening to him as a wonderful storyteller, as he seemed to them. But they did not want to be disturbed in their view of things or way of life. They did not want the message to penetrate to that extent. Hence they shut their mental ears and eyes so as not to come to their senses and have to acknowledge the need to turn their hearts and their feet in a completely different direction. Mark says that Jesus was “thoroughly grieved at the insensibility of their hearts.” (Mark 3:5) Thus Jesus’ method of teaching by illustrations served as a test under which they failed, resulting in losing even what information and opportunities they had. As Jesus said: “Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”—Matt. 13:12.
3. What similar situation obtains today, and what is the wise course to pursue?
3 The same is true today, especially of the people in Christendom. They have their religion and the church of their choice, and many have no intention of changing or of recognizing the need to change. When one of Jehovah’s witnesses calls, seeking to turn their attention to the Bible message for today, at most they listen with annoyance. In effect they shut their ears and eyes, and the door too. They have made up their mind. It is No! to Jehovah’s witnesses, whatever approach is made. Well, that is their privilege and responsibility, but it does not have to be that way. As in Jesus’ day, so now, the decision rests with the individual. As in Jesus’ day, on the request of his disciples, he stopped to explain the meaning of certain of his illustrations. So today, we do well to pause and inquire as to the meaning and present application of these Bible passages. We know they were “written for our instruction,” especially now, when the “ends of the systems of things have arrived.”—Matt. 13:36; Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11.
4. What outline is followed in the illustration of the prodigal son?
4 The illustration of the prodigal son is fraught with meaning. So as to have the picture in mind we will briefly review the story, which is of a man who had two sons. The younger one asked his father for his share of the property. This was granted, and the young man then took all his belongings and went off to a far country, where he squandered all he had in a life of debauchery. Famine hit the country, and in desperate need he got a job herding swine, but was not allowed even to eat their fodder. In sore plight, he came to his senses and decided to return home. He would acknowledge his sinful course and ask to be taken on, not as a son, but as a hired servant. His father, however, seeing his son when far off, ran to meet him and gave him a heartwarming welcome. He was quickly fitted out with the best robe, sandals and a fine ring, followed by a feast with music and dancing. But the older son, on approaching the house and being told what was happening, was furious and would not join in. His father entreated him, but he only argued back. The father again explained his course of action in a most kindly and appealing way. There the story abruptly ends, leaving it open as to the older son’s final reaction.—Luke 15:11-32.
5. In what way is this illustration seen to be unique?
5 There are certain aspects that stamp this illustration as unique. It is one of the longest that Jesus gave, allowing for a more detailed picture and a deeper impression. But the outstanding feature, making for a deeper impression, is the family relationship involved. Other illustrations involved the use of inanimate things, such as different kinds of seed or soil, or the relationship between a master and his slaves. (Matt. 13:18-30; 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27) But here we have the close and intimate relationship between a father and his sons. True, it often happens that a father does not cultivate such a friendly or confidential relationship with his sons, who are brought up to fear and respect him, rather than to love him in a spontaneous way. But we only have to read this illustration to realize what a warmhearted love this father had for both his boys, and freely showed it to each of them, though undeserved as it happened. The story itself makes a warm appeal, as Jesus intended it should, and we therefore look forward with keen anticipation to considering in detail its present fulfillment.
THE SETTING OF THE ILLUSTRATION
6. What circumstances called forth this illustration and two others?
6 First, we must look at the circumstances under which this illustration was given. The time was in the latter part of Jesus’ ministry, while on his way to Jerusalem for the second last time. (Luke 13:22) That which immediately called forth the illustration, also two others, is clearly stated at the beginning of Luke chapter fifteen: “Now all the tax collectors and the sinners kept drawing near to him [Jesus] to hear him. Consequently both the Pharisees and the scribes kept muttering, saying: ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1, 2) As a result, Jesus gave three illustrations, each telling of the recovery of what had been lost, namely, a lost sheep, a lost coin and, most precious of all, a young son who “was lost but has been found.” In each case, too, great emphasis is laid on the rejoicing by the owner when recovery had been made.—Luke 15:32.
7. How did Jesus’ viewpoint and attitude contrast with those of the religious leaders?
7 This muttering and complaining attitude by the religious leaders and others was nothing new. It showed itself from the commencement of John the Baptist’s ministry. As Jesus told them, it was the “tax collectors and the harlots [sinners]” who believed and responded to John’s message. To the religious leaders, so righteous in their own eyes, this class was in a lost condition and greatly despised and unworthy of any consideration. In the eyes of Jesus, however, those of this class, though gone astray and in a lost state, showed a readiness to listen to him and come to their senses, and ‘many of them followed him.’ In fact, as Jesus said, they were “going ahead of you [Pharisees] into the kingdom of God.” And as he also said, when being entertained by Zacchaeus, a “chief tax collector,” the “Son of man came to seek and to save what was lost.”—Matt. 21:31, 32; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 19:10.
8. What aspects are stressed in the foregoing illustrations?
8 Hence we can appreciate the setting when Jesus gave the illustrations concerning the lost sheep and the lost drachma coin, emphasizing the intense search made by the loser for what was lost. The third one, however, the prodigal son, stresses a different aspect. It shows the course that must be taken by the one lost.
9. Why was so much emphasis laid on the aspect of rejoicing?
9 In all three illustrations, please note that, when recovery had been effected, not only the owner rejoiced, as was reasonable and right, but the entire household and friends and neighbors were invited to join in. Jesus explained this, saying: “Thus, I tell you, joy arises among the angels of God over one sinner that repents.” (Luke 15:10) Thus Jesus showed he was following the course of heavenly wisdom in gladly receiving those who were sincerely repentant. He also showed up the religious leaders as being unwise and unjustified in their self-righteous and niggardly attitude toward their less fortunate brothers. Yes, as Jews, they were all brothers, God’s people, belonging to the one Owner, and actually all in need of the services of the Physician, Christ Jesus, in being healed and returning to Jehovah.—Mark 2:17.
10. In what way will the background of these illustrations help us?
10 Keeping this background in mind will help us in our understanding of the modern fulfillment of the illustration of the prodigal son. As the message and work of John the Baptist and Christ Jesus resulted in different classes being made manifest, so today, when a similar message and work are being carried forward by the footstep followers of Jesus, we can look for similar classes being made manifest. These things will be a guide and a comfort to us, also a warning, as they were to Jesus’ disciples, to whom the “sacred secrets of the kingdom of the heavens” were first propounded.—Matt. 13:11.
IDENTIFICATION OF THE CHARACTERS
11. (a) Who is pictured by the “certain man”? (b) What guidance is given respecting God in the relationship of Father?
11 In his opening words of the illustration, Jesus mentioned the three main characters: “A certain man had two sons.” (Luke 15:11) This discloses a family relationship existing between them. The “certain man,” being the father of the two boys, pictures Jehovah as the heavenly Father. The question arises, Of whom is he the Father? The term “father” signifies life-giver, but that alone does not determine the answer. Christendom’s clergy like to speak of the “Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man,” but in this they greatly err. Jesus said to the Pharisees, the Jewish clergy of his day: “You are from your father the Devil,” because they had his spirit of hatred, even to the point of murder. True, Adam was the “son of God,” but, following his willful rebellion, that relationship was no longer recognized by God, either for him or the human family following him. Hence the scripture says: “The whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.” In harmony with this, the Scriptures show that Jehovah acknowledges the relationship of Father only to the household of creatures who are in line for gaining life in his kingdom under Christ Jesus.—John 8:44; Luke 3:38; 1 John 5:19.
12. Who only can properly be spoken of as returning to God, leading to what conclusion regarding the two sons?
12 It is important to recognize this in considering who are pictured by the two sons in the illustration. They do not include those who have never known or found the true God, Jehovah. When Paul spoke to the men of Athens he urged them “to seek God, if they might grope for him and really find him.” (Acts 17:27) But, as previously noted, God did not appeal to the Israelites who had gone astray to grope for him. Rather, he said: “Return to me, and I will return to you,” because they were still his people in covenant relationship with him, even though for long enough they had turned aside to their own crooked ways. (Mal. 3:7) Likewise, the two sons of the “certain man” picture those who have come to know sufficient of Jehovah and his purpose as to constitute a basis for entering into a relationship with him, though quite a number may not take advantage of it and may go astray for some time.
13. To whom did Jesus reveal Jehovah as Father, and how can this class be identified today?
13 It was Jesus who first revealed Jehovah as Father to those who came into union with him. He taught them to pray: “Our Father in the heavens, . . . ” He further said to them: “Have no fear, little flock, because your Father has approved of giving you the kingdom.” This “little flock” takes in the 144,000 who comprise the Christian congregation. They are in line for gaining life in the Kingdom, sharing with Christ in his throne in heaven. These are the ones entitled to partake of the emblems at the annual Lord’s evening meal or Memorial service, and the records show that there is still a remnant of this company right down to this day yet on earth. These are spoken of as “the congregation of the first-born who have been enrolled in the heavens.” Thus, very fittingly, the “older son” in the illustration, the firstborn, represents today those claiming to be of the remnant of the true church or congregation, as just mentioned.—Matt. 6:9; Luke 12:32; Rev. 3:21; 14:1; Heb. 12:23; see also The Watchtower, 1965, page 26.
14. Besides the “little flock,” how did Jesus show that others would come into his favor?
14 But what class is pictured by the “younger son”? Besides the “little flock” with the heavenly hope, Jesus mentioned “other sheep, which are not of this fold.” These are identified with the sheep who are gathered to Christ’s right hand in the illustration of the sheep and goats. Yes, these are in family relationship with God, for the King, Christ Jesus, says to them: “Come, you who have my Father’s blessing . . . ” The period in which they are gathered is shown to be following the time when the ‘Son of man arrives in his glory, and . . . sits down on his glorious throne,’ which event occurred in 1914. The king invites these sheeplike ones to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you,” not by sharing the heavenly throne with him, but they enter as “righteous ones into everlasting life” on earth. As promised, “the righteous themselves will possess the earth, and they will reside forever upon it.”—John 10:16; Matt. 25:31-34, 46; Ps. 37:29.
15. Why does not the younger son picture all the “other sheep”?
15 Hence there are two classes who gain everlasting life in God’s kingdom, and who look to him and call upon him as their heavenly Father. Broadly speaking, these are pictured by the two sons in Jesus’ illustration. It would not be true, however, to say that all the “other sheep” of John 10:16 are pictured by the “younger son.” Many of these, like the men of Athens, originally “had no hope and were without God in the world,” and were not calling on him as their Father. (Eph. 2:12) Maybe they were groping for him and, being sincere and honest-hearted, they responded to the message of truth and “became believers,” as some did at Athens after listening to Paul. (Acts 17:33, 34) From then on they have maintained a steadfast course, and hence would not be pictured by the “younger son.” Who, then, are pictured by him?
THE COURSE OF ACTION THAT LEADS ASTRAY
16. What course did the younger son take, disclosing what attitude?
16 As we follow the course taken by the younger boy we shall see the characteristics that enable us to identify the class pictured by him. At the opening of the story we hear him asking his father for “the part of the property that falls to my share.” The father acquiesced and “divided his means of living to them.” In other words, the younger one wanted then and there what was due to come to him out of his father’s estate. He wanted this in cash, or in goods that he could easily convert into money. He then immediately took all he had and traveled to a far country and soon squandered it all in a wanton indulgence of the sensual appetites, or a life of debauchery. (Luke 15:12, 13) So we see here an impatient young man wanting all he could get in a tangible form for his immediate selfish enjoyment. Living at home under his father’s eye and serving him had no appeal at that time, being far too restricted a life. He wanted to live his own life his own way.
17. In our day, when and how was the earthly hope made manifest?
17 Have there been some in our day in a similar position and who have taken a similar course as just described? Yes. The modern movement of Jehovah’s witnesses began to take shape about forty years before 1914, corresponding to the ministry of John the Baptist. Contrary to the general teaching in Christendom, it began to be seen and taught in those early days that the heavenly hope was not the only means of salvation. The hope of eternal life on earth under restored Edenic conditions for the human family in general, based on Christ’s ransom sacrifice, was an intrinsic part of the message then proclaimed. This was first clearly seen in 1881 and set forth in the booklet Tabernacle Shadows of the Better Sacrifices. It was a prominent feature of the book The Divine Plan of the Ages, published in 1886, which book was widely distributed and studied during the next forty years. More pointed still, the booklet Millions Now Living Will Never Die and the worldwide public talks under that title, commencing early in 1918, gave Scriptural proof that a multitude of people would survive Armageddon and live forever on earth under God’s kingdom.
18. How did some respond to the message, similar to the younger son?
18 Many not only heard the message, but came in close contact with the organization of God’s people proclaiming it. They knew and believed in God’s provision for the restoration of perfect life on earth, but, like the younger son, they did not want to wait to enjoy life in God’s way and time in the “new earth,” under the eye of the “new heaven.” (Rev. 21:1) In other words, they wanted for their immediate enjoyment from the heavenly Father that ‘part of the property that would fall to their share.’ It was a premature request with an unworthy motive.
19. How has the younger son class shown no desire for the firstborn’s part?
19 Notice in the illustration given by Jesus that request was not made for the part falling due to the older brother, the firstborn. According to God’s law, the “right of the first-born” was to inherit “two parts” of his father’s estate, as against one part for the younger son. (Deut. 21:17) So, too, in our day. The younger son class did not entertain for themselves the heavenly hope, knowing that this involved treading the narrow way of self-sacrifice in a life of dedication. They held off from the step of dedication and entering into Jehovah’s service. To appreciate their position, we must keep in mind that until about 1934 the step of dedication of oneself to God was thought to be only for those who would become God’s spiritual children, with the heavenly hope set before them. In that year it was clearly shown in The Watchtower that it was entirely proper for the “other sheep” to dedicate themselves to do God’s will, symbolized by water immersion.—The Watchtower, as of August 15, 1934, page 250.
20. How do some today take a course like that of the younger son?
20 Until 1935, the gathering of the “other sheep” as something to be accomplished before Armageddon was not stressed. But from then on, Scriptural nourishment and help were supplied through the pages of The Watchtower to strengthen those whose hopes were earthly. All the same, it has continued to be true that many have gained a knowledge of Jehovah and his purpose, knowing it to be the truth, but have held off from making any further progress. They have seen what is entailed. Like the younger son, they have wanted something different, now.
21. (a) What questions often arise when young ones take such a course? (b) What should parents keep in mind in this regard? (c) How should dedication be rightly viewed?
21 The facts show that in many cases these have been young people, or perhaps children of dedicated parents, hence well acquainted with the hope of life in a restored paradise. Sometimes these young ones, perhaps in their early teens, have been immersed, claiming to be dedicated. Then shortly they disappear from view as far as Jehovah’s witnesses are concerned. They become wholly absorbed in worldly ways and pleasures, sometimes indulging in shameful conduct, bringing reproach on their parents. Then the parents, in great grief, raise the question as to whether their young son or daughter really understood the significance of dedication and baptism. But is that not a poor time to raise that question? Should they not have made sure about that at the time? It is so easy for young ones to take up something with great enthusiasm for a time, then take up something else with equal zest. They are just getting a taste of what life has to offer, including the attractions of this world with its dreams and vanities. (Eccl. 4:7) They are susceptible to suggestions. They see others of their age being immersed, so why not they? With their knowledge of the truth they feel they can say Yes to the two questions put to them at the time of immersion. But can it be said that at that stage they really appreciate what it means to take the step of dedication as a perpetual “vow to God” to do his will for all time, involving their whole life? The scripture says: “Better is it that you vow not than that you vow and do not pay,” pleading “it was a mistake.” “Why should the true God become indignant on account of your voice and have to wreck the work of your hands?” That is just what happened to the prodigal son.—Eccl. 5:4-6.
22. What should be encouraged with individuals, but what should be avoided?
22 Of course, individuals, including young ones, vary greatly. At a surprisingly early age some can take a serious view of things and hold to it. There are Bible examples of this, such as Samuel. We cannot lay down a general rule or age limit. Each one in the family must be dealt with individually. At the same time, we want to avoid a course that, in effect, tends to produce prodigal sons.
23. What questions arise regarding those who go astray?
23 Many questions arise concerning those who go astray. They are not willful enemies. Is recovery possible for them and, if so, how? How does the illustration of the prodigal son help to answer these questions? What light does it throw, not only on the prodigal son class, but on the attitude and course to be taken by those who stay close to God’s organization? These and other questions will be discussed in a succeeding issue of The Watchtower.