The Lost and Prodigal Son

Jacques Tissot (1836-1902) tried to make the Parable of the Prodigal Son understandable by bringing it up to date in a sort of mini-series.  Did it work? Here the son asks for his inheritance.

Jacques Tissot (1836-1902) tried to make the Parable of the Prodigal Son understandable by bringing it up to date in a sort of mini-series. Did it work? Here the son asks for his inheritance.

By Stephen Green

First Published in Christian Voice April 2017

Luke 15:11 And he said, A certain man had two sons:

I looked at the Lord’s parable of the lost son, or ‘prodigal son’ six years ago, drawing lessons about prayer and action. But there is a lot more to be seen in it, and much which prophesies our Lord’s redemptive ministry.

Understand their culture

Firstly may I acknowledge a debt to the American John MacArthur for his teaching on this subject. It spurred me to investigate the cultural aspects of the parable. Rather than ‘bring Bible stories up-to-date’ Pastor MacArtthur tells us to go back and understand the norms of that time. I totally agree with that. It’s not hard to do. We are used to seeing archeological programmes now on TV.

Archeologists have an over-riding rule: ‘Remember, these were people like us’. And indeed they were, because they share our humanity, our dislike of being cold, wet or hungry, our need for fellowship and family, our ambitions and inventiveness. When archeologists study ancient settlements, for instance, they discover the pople farm, they build, they mine, they create, they trade and they bury their dead. But they find the people also had different ways from us of looking at themselves and their community and different ways of relating to what they see as divine.

Faith-building and informative

When we look at the Holy Land in the first century, at least we see our own Christian faith developing out of Judaism, so we have a head start over looking at a pagan, let alone a pan-theistic culture. But equally, although they are ‘people like us’ somewhat in their faith and in their hopes and human condition, they view some things very much in their own way.

Understanding the first century AD and rooting our faith there is faith-building and informative in itself. But looking through a cultural lens at this particular parable also brings Christ’s own sacrifice to greater life, as we shall see.

Previously I said, ‘I hesitate to write about the so-called prodigal son, because we all know it so well,’ and that hesitation remains. So many of our esteemed Christian Voice members know far more than I do about our Lord’s parables in general, and will have studied this one in particular. But there may be something you can take away from what follows. If so, let us credit the Lord of life, and not me.

Receiving publicans and sinners

Chapter fifteen of Luke’s Gospel begins like this:

Luke 15:1 Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.

The previous chapter contained some straightforward teaching about humility, the Kingdom of God, self-sacrifice, repentance and Kingdom priorities and prophetic duty.

Perhaps it was our Lord’s clarity and authority that drew an audience of ‘publicans and sinners.’ Clearly he was not disposed to send them away. Some Pharisees may well have done exactly that. Many of them held the common people in contempt. This attitude is seen in their comment recorded in John’s Gospel:

John 7:49 But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed.

And if the Pharisees scorned the common people, ‘publicans and sinners’ were below that. ‘Sinners’ is self-explanatory, and in an ‘adulterous generation’ they were presumably not hard to find. ‘Publicans’ were not inn-keepers but educated men who had accepted a franchise from the Romans to collect taxes. The taxes were hated in principle and in quantity. There was what we should think of as a low income tax of 1%.

But there were also import and export taxes, crop taxes, sales tax, property tax, poll tax and so on. There were even emergency taxes. Maintaining a standing army of occupation costs a lot of money. Those who collected the taxes were hated and despised, with their extortionate calculations and what we are told were some of the methods they used to collect them.

Dinner invitations

In Luke’s Gospel (Luke 5:27-30) we read that Levi, or Matthew, threw a party when the Lord Jesus called him as a disciple. Even at that time there was criticism from the local Pharisees, to which Jesus responded briefly and calmly:

Luke 5:31 And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. 32 I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

Undeterred by the criticism either there in Galilee or here on the way to Jerusalem, the Lord Jesus accepted another invitation from a publican, Zacchaeus, after the latter’s conversion. We read about it in Luke 19.

In Middle Eastern culture, even today, extending an invitation implies full acceptance of the person invited. A guest could criticise a host, but it would be rude for the host to criticise a guest. You invited him! But for both the host and the guest, eating together is a sign of fellowship. Equally, it is the height of rudeness to refuse an invitation. So given all that, the Pharisees were being rather churlish in their criticism.

They even appeared to forget that on three previous occasions we know of the Lord Jesus had accepted invitations from Pharisees. We see this at the beginning of Luke 14, at Luke 11:37 and back at Luke 7:36. They may not have known about the Luke 7 occasion. That was probably in Capernaum. But they would certainly have remembered the Rabbi from Galilee sitting down with a whole bunch of Pharisees and lawyers, or dining with one of ‘the chief Pharisees’ around Jerusalem.

Hillel and Shammai

Observing the ritual law, avoiding ‘uncleanness’ and being in right standing with God was very important to first century Jews. In response to demand, a class of teachers had arisen to attempt to explain every aspect of the ceremonial and sacrificial law, laws of equity and family, indeed every aspect of civil law. Criminal law was reserved to the Romans. Some of these teachers were static, others peripatetic. As they were ‘set apart’ for this task, they became known as the ‘Pharisees’.

It is pertinent to us to remember now that two schools or ‘houses’ (‘Bet’) of teaching Pharisees had arisen. They were named after Rabbis Shammai and Hillel. Hillel lived from around 100BC to 20AD, so it is said, and Shammai from 50 BC to 30AD. They attracted disciples. One of Hillel’s most famous disciples was his grandson Gamaliel, contemporary of Nicodemus and teacher of Paul:

Acts 22:3 I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.

Jerusalem and Galilee

Beit Shammai was very concerned with the Temple and its offerings, with correct tithing and everything to do with ritual purity. Beit Hillel emphasised the Jew’s duty to his fellow man. When our Lord taught about humility and reconciliation with one’s brother, these were direct Hillel teachings. When he criticised Pharisees over ritual hand-washing and obsessive tithing, these were Shammai positions.

Interestingly, Beit Shammai was strongest around Jerusalem, while the power base of Beit Hillel was Galilee. The Lord Jesus’s sympathy with Beit Hillel may explain his gentle response to the criticism presumably from Beit Hillel Pharisees about accepting Levi’s invitation in Luke 5. Conversely, I assume the Pharisees in Luke 15:2 are from Beit Shammai. If this is so, and it seems reasonable from what has just happened, our Lord’s irritation with Beit Shammai may well be expressed in the extended teaching we see about those ‘lost’ and ‘found’ in Luke 15. It is our Lord’s response to their criticism.

At the risk of providing a ‘spoiler’, the elder son in the prodigal son parable is plainly, on one level at least, the Pharisees. And the position he will take, standing on his dignity, wanting to rake over his brother’s sins, is typical Beit Shammai. But there is a lot more, as we shall see.

Rabbinic teaching form

The form of our Lord’s teaching in Luke 15 is very ‘Rabbinic’ as it were. Two short parables are followed by a longer one. All are on the same theme. All teach the same point. The shorter first two parables prepare the audience for the demanding third. The lost sheep and the lost coin are repentant sinners. The friends and neighbours are the angels of heaven. These two parables are easily understood and, from the starting point of the value of repentance, uncontroversial.

The parable of the prodigal son starts conventionally enough:

Luke 15:11 And he said, A certain man had two sons:

We know already there is going to be a contrast between the behaviour of the two sons. The Jewish audience will be remembering Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, perhaps Moses and Aaron. But it will not be the only time the Lord Jesus will start a parable like that. In Matthew 21:28-32 he spoke of one son who refused to work in the vineyard but then repented and went, and another who said he would go but did not. The former son was ‘the publicans and the harlots’, going into the kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests and elders. Our Lord presents a challenging contrast. Moreover, there are strong parallels with the parable of ‘the prodigal son.’

Shameful behaviour

The Prodigal Son brought shame on his family - but his shame will be taken away...

The Prodigal Son brought shame on his family – but his shame will be taken away…

But the prodigal son parable ramps it up and also points to Christ’s crucifixion, as we shall see.

Luke 15:12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.

It was unheard of for children to demand their father’s inheritance. The late Kenneth Bailey was a New Testament scholar who spent over 15 years in the Middle East. Dr Bailey asked people he met what it meant for a son to request his inheritance while the father was still alive and well. He always received the same answer. The son wanted his father dead.

Even to make the request brought shame on the family. This society, and Middle Eastern society today, was built on principles of family honour versus family shame. Honour is good, shame is bad. Every member of the family is obliged to bring honour to it and never shame. That is precisely what is behind so-called ‘honour killings’ today. And the mere existence of ‘honour killings’ shows how important the honour vs shame principle is to them even today, and was to us, not so long ago.

The father was within his rights in that system to refuse the dishonourable request. Even the elder brother could and should have stepped in as a mediator. According to cultural rules, he was due respect from his younger brother. As I write, across the Middle East and Africa, these norms persist. A younger brother or sister will never ‘talk back’ to an elder one. And answering back to an uncle or aunt, let alone your parents, well, woe betide the child – of any age – who tries that.

Ironically, even if the younger son wanted his father dead, or at the very least did not care if he was dead or alive, it would be he who ends up as good as dead, not the father.

You can go your own way

The father agreed to the request, bringing down even more shame on the family. There is an indication here of Almighty God never standing in someone’s way if they really want to ruin their life. ‘God is a perfect gentleman. He will not force His way into your life’, one commentator has said. Equally there are examples of God just breaking in with irresistible grace right into someone’s life. Indeed, we may see this happening in the parable later.

But clearly, for this story to work, the father will not stand in the way of the younger son. You think you can go your own way outside the father’s protection and influence? OK, try it.

Luke 15:13a And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, …

The younger son appears quickly to have liquidated the assets he was given. He must have done that at a discount, receiving in money only a portion of the true value of his share of the estate. In addition, he was not entitled to do that by Jewish law. The father must have acquiesced in the process. That is more shame.

The status of the firstborn

It is worth reminding ourselves that the younger son will have started off with one third of the estate in any case. The rule and the reasoning is laid down in Deuteronomy as a clarification in a case where a man has two wives and prefers one to the other:

Deut 21:17 But he (the father) shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.

The word translated ‘firstborn’ is the Hebrew ‘bekor’, H1060 in Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary. We also see it rendered into English lettering as ‘bechor’ or bekhor’. It is related to H1061 ‘bikkur’ or ‘firstfruits’ and to H1602 ‘bekorah’ ‘birthright’.

So when Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a meal he gave away half his property, one third of Isaac’s estate. Esau had two-thirds, Jacob one-third. That switched around. At least in theory. It fell to Esau to manage the estate when Jacob fled in Genesis 28. By the time they met again in Genesis 33 Esau, like Jacob, appeared to have done alright for himself.

But be that as it may. Suffice to say the Bekhor has a significant standing in Jewish law to this day.

Squandering your inheritance

Luke 15:13b … and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.

Taken with the detail about ‘harlots’ in verse 30 it is clear the son lived a life of depravity. The word translated ‘riotous’, the Greek ‘asotoce,’ also means ‘dissolute’. The audience already think the father was too generous. Their poor impression of the younger son was further diminished not just by his shocking lifestyle, but by the fact that he wasted all his money on it. Being ‘prodigal’ or ‘spending money freely and recklessly’; was a dreadful thing to do. In their culture.

It still is, across vast swathes of the world. The Armenian theologian John Roussas Rushdooney once recalled seeing a bumper sticker in his adopted USA on an elderly couple’s car: ‘We’re spending our children’s inheritance’. He was appalled.

The worst sinner of all

The value of money and the virtue of wealth is drummed into Jewish boys and girls at a very early age even to this day. It is a major theme in the Wisdom literature. For example:

Psalm 112:1 Praise ye the LORD. Blessed is the man that feareth the LORD, that delighteth greatly in his commandments. … 3 Wealth and riches shall be in his house: and his righteousness endureth for ever.
Proverbs 14:23 In all labour there is profit: but the talk of the lips tendeth only to penury. 24 The crown of the wise is their riches: but the foolishness of fools is folly.

The younger son had spurned his father and now he had scorned the law and his culture. John MacArthur says he is the worst sinner in the whole of the New Testament. Even remembering characters like Herod, Caiaphas and Judas, it is hard to argue.

Snouts in the trough

Carob seeds may be ground for flour. The pods are inedible to humans and are generally fed to pigs.

Carob seeds may be ground for flour. The pods are inedible to humans and are generally fed to pigs.

It gets no better. The money goes and famine descends. The younger son is in the sort of game where when you start losing, you go on losing:

Luke 15:14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. 15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.

Presumably he had enslaved himself as some kind of bond-servant. We don’t have a lot of detail. It isn’t necessary. All we need to know is he wasn’t being fed much. But then, there was a famine. Pigs can eat and digest things we can’t. So the son could not even scavenge in the trough. But in our Lord’s detail about feeding swine he is now laying it on with a trowel. The younger son has acted disgracefully, brought shame on himself and his family, cashed in his stock at a discount, squandered it, broken the moral law, ruined himself and become ritually unclean tending pigs to boot. He was cut off from his community. To them he was dead.

Author Donald Gowan says: ‘Every aspect of the story is extreme’. And of course it is. It’s a parable. A story told to make a point. Don’t expect subtlety. This is gong to be black and white.

Coming to himself

It is curious that the Lord presents the young man as ‘coming to himself.’ Whence did that thought to return arise? If you have a son or daughter estranged from the faith – or from yourself – you will be praying constantly for them. Specifically you will be praying for the Lord to put that clarity of thought into their mind, or for some coincidences to build up to the truth of which the son or daughter must respond in the way spoken of here.

You may be praying for God to break in with his grace to make them an offer they just cannot refuse. Do so with confidence that there is more to life than the natural.  Behind any temporal situation there is a spiritual reality. God can change the spiritual atmosphere miraculously in answer to prayer. Then the material sphere will simply follow.

Luke 15:17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!

Realisation has broken in. The father is well-to-do. He deals well with his servants. They have food to spare. Our Lord is saying, ‘This is what your Father in heaven is like.’ Any salesman must establish a need in the customer before he can explain how the product fulfills the need. Only when the customer really wants the product can he close the deal. It is the same with the Gospel. We have to show the person his need for salvation.

There is a saying in sales: ‘Don’t sell the features, sell the benefits’. Well, the benefit is forgiveness, a new life, release from bondage. Rarely do evangelists sell the benefit of a better material life. Yet that is the very benefit the prodigal son lights upon. ‘Even my father’s servants are doing better than me.’

Repentance and acceptance

So the prodigal son rehearses a speech, which he will deliver to his father. It is a frank confession of his sin. Jewish people do not speak the name of the Almighty, and they do not even like to say ‘God’. So they often say ‘heaven’ instead. You might ask if he was really repentant but I think that would be lacking generosity. I see the speech filled not just with remorse but with true repentance.

That after all would be consistent with the whole theme of the Luke 15 teaching. Sinners are shown repentant. They are lost, then found. The son turned from his wicked ways and set a course for home. That’s repentance if anything is:

Luke 15:18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, 19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. 20a And he arose, and came to his father. …

Reception committee forestalled

The prodigal son knew what was awaiting him. There would be a cold reception committee in the village. He would probably have to sit outside for a week. He might be beaten. His acceptance back in the village would come at a price.

Luke 15:20b … But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, …

Astonishingly the father forestalled the reception committee. He had been looking out for his son from the day he left. God is always looking out for sinners to come to their senses and return The father saw him and had compassion. He got to his son before the accusers and belittlers, the reminders of shame and disgrace. Our Lord is saying: ‘In the kingdom of heaven there is no finger-pointing at repentant sinners. Those who do so are not looking at things the way God does’:

Psalm 103:14 For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.

Taking our shame

Tissot's 19th-century representation of the son's homecoming does not quite capture the father running to the son.

Tissot’s 19th-century representation of the son’s homecoming does not quite capture the father running to the son.

If the parable had been shocking so far for the audience, here it took an even more dramatic turn:

Luke 15:20c … and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.

To this day, Middle Eastern noblemen do not run. It is undignified, it reveals you are in a hurry, and as you have to hitch up your clothing, it shows your legs. It would bring shame on the father to run. But he was willing to take that shame to spare his son from shame. In those two words ‘and ran’ we see the cross:

Hebrews 12:2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Crucifixion was shameful

Crucifixion, as well as being agony, was a shameful way to die. But Christ endured it, like the father in the parable, ‘despising the shame’, in order to bring ‘many sons unto glory’, as Heb 2:10 puts it.  Paul quotes Isaiah 49:23 to the church in Rome:

Romans 10:11 For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.

Dealing with our shame by placing our belief in Jesus and our trust in his blood is foreshadowed in the Psalms as well:

Psalm 25:2 O my God, I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed, let not mine enemies triumph over me.
Psalm 119:6 Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all thy commandments.

Full restoration

Shame is inherent in sin, but it is swallowed up by the cross. Despite Christ’s sacrifice, some Christians still feel shame for their past life. It is unnecessary, but probably part of our human condition. ‘If I could only have my time over again.’ But you cannot. You can only start from here. And by Christ Jesus, you can. The prodigal son began his rehearsed confession:

Luke 15:21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.

But astonishingly, the father allowed him to speak no further. He had said enough. Christ’s sacrifice together with our repentance expressed in confession expels the shame. Let us not be so proud of our sin that we think it has not really been forgiven. The cross and the blood shed on it has power to forgive every sin, including the sins of the worst sinner, seen right here. The shame has gone. The dirty rags are taken away, replaced by the best robe:

Luke 15:22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:

Prodigal son has his authority back

Christ took our shame

Christ took our shame

The ring speaks of authority. The son can act on behalf of the father once again. So it speaks of our authority in Christ. You do not need to say ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen’ at the end of your prayer to be praying with his authority. All you need is to pray in accordance with his word. And if you say it and it isn’t, then you you aren’t.

The shoes too speak of the restoration of the familial relationship. The son has his father back, and the father his son. God likes that, quite apart from the deep meanings of this parable:

Malachi 4:5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: 6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

Killing the fatted calf

Luke 15:23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

To this day, if you turn up at your auntie’s house anywhere in rural Asia or Africa, she will rush out to the yard, pick on some hapless chicken and kill it there and then. She or the house girl will then pluck and dress it and two hours later you will be trying to eat it. And remember, to refuse is the greatest insult. The sheer time involved means many people avoid their relatives when on a trip. A step up for a proper party will see a goat or sheep slaughtered, dressed and roasted.

But this story involves a aristocratic family of some substance. They have a young steer, a tender bullock, ready for slaughter. Even a veal calf is possessed of a considerable quantity of meat. Invitations will not go merely around friends and neighbours, as when the sheep or the coin were found, but around the extended family and the whole village.

It’s a parable, stupid!

Luke 15:25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.

I know the time it takes to slaughter and prepare an animal.  Given that, it is puzzling to me that the first the elder son knew of his brother’s return was when he heard the celebrations on return from a field, even from a distant pasture. How can that be?

The answer is, ‘it’s a parable, stupid’. As in an opera, when those annoying brother and sister do not immediately recognise each other for the sake of the story, the plot of the prodigal son is not to be dissected for continuity like War and Peace.

Patience with the elder son

the Lord is making a point. And his point here is the elder son is miffed his brother has been received so well.

Luke 15:28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him.

By refusing to go in and making his father come out to him, now it is the turn of the elder son to bring shame on the father. The father is undaunted. Not only is he compassionate with his younger son, he is patient with his elder. And the elder son is now in such a mood he totally forgets his manners:

Luke 15:29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: 30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.

A Middle Eastern son does not address his father with ‘Lo’ or ‘See here’. He is respectful. He says, ‘Father’, as the younger son did, or ‘Sir’.

Shammai Pharisee position

Now, being in full-time service for God and being confident he has kept all God’s commandments is a very Shammai Pharisee position. Despite that, the father had not even given him that goat we read about earlier to celebrate with his friends. It is possible he had not ever asked for one:

James 4:2b … ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.

Given the context, we know the younger son is the ‘publicans and sinners’ and the elder son is the Beit Shammai Pharisees. The audience at the time may be spotting this by now. The Lord is casting the Pharisees as insolent to God the Father because of their rejection of his mercy and forgiveness. But even in response to his son’s impudence, the father did not give him a back-hander across the face, as he had every right to do. Instead he graciously reminded him of their relationship and appealed to whatever there was of his sense of compassion:

Luke 15:31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. 32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

‘All that I have is thine’

A rebellious younger son to watch the horizon for, then an insolent elder son to plead with. God has to put up with a lot from his people. Thank God for his grace and patience.

A rebellious younger son to watch the horizon for, then an insolent elder son to plead with. God has to put up with a lot from his people. Thank God for his grace and patience.

We must mention the uncomfortable detail that when the father told his elder son ‘All that I have is thine’, it was literally true. The younger son had spent his inheritance. He would have to work for everything now. But at least he was back in the family, back in the Father’s love and care, saved from sin and spiritual death.

‘Thou art ever with me’ is interesting. Our Lord would never say the Shammai Pharisees were not fully-fledged believers and indeed authentic teachers. They sat in Moses seat just as much as the Beit Hillel men. They, too, were ‘ever with’ the Father, despite their hypocrisy. That is yet another lesson for us, if we are ever tempted to say such-and-such a person is not a believer because he is in the wrong church.

Israel and Gentiles?

Now forgive me if this sounds pre-millennial, because it isn’t meant to be, but I have an idea that on another level, it is possible to argue the older son is Israel and the younger son is the Gentiles:

Exodus 4:22 And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn:

If this further quirk of an interpretation is not helpful to you, then leave it. But there is a sense for me in which, despite their rebellion, Israel herself was ‘always with’ the Father. At least the Rabbis believed that to be so. The Gentiles were even below ‘this people who know not the law’ in the minds of the Jerusalem Pharisees. And yet who became the Apostle to the Gentiles? It was a Pharisee, Shaul, now known as Paul. Significantly, as we know, he was the student of Gamaliel who was not just Hillel’s student but his grandson. Such is the grace of God, arranging every single detail in advance.

What did the elder son do?

Having made his point, our Lord left the parable hanging. What would the elder son do?  To ask that asks, ‘What would the Pharisees do?’  Would they repent of their judgmental attitude? Would they also now start rejoicing that publicans and sinners were being saved?

We should like to think so. Indeed we know many did. Paul was clearly not the only Pharisee in the early church. In fact it seems tensions between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai spilled over into the church. Paul, of Beit Hillel, proposed that Gentiles could join the fellowship of the Cross and become full believers in Jesus Christ without adopting Jewish ceremonial law, above all being circumcised. Beit Shammai Pharisees disagreed. Thank God they lost that particular debate:

Acts 15:5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.

But leaving the believing Pharisees apart, what of their unbelieving brethren? Did they repent? What would the concluding verse say? Would the elder son go in and join the feast?

John McArthur says no. He says if there were a next verse it would show the elder son killing the father with a lump of wood. Because the truth is, the religious leaders, including it must be said the Pharisees in Jerusalem, agitated for the Lord of life, the God of all compassion, to be crucified on a wooden cross.

Thank God even that would not be the last verse.

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