--the 3 main characters, the father, the prodigal, and the elder brother?
Luke 15:11 - 32
ESV - 11 And he said, "There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.' And he divided his property between them.
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In my view, this parable represents the whole world of human creation for all time. God is the Father who gave birth to all human beings, brought every one of us into existence. There are only two groups of people in the world. The first group is those who have become part of God's eternal family through their faith in Jesus Christ. The second group is those who have never experienced the love of God through a personal relationship with Jesus. The prodigal sons and daughters (the unbelievers) come from many different backgrounds and many different exposures to the Christian faith. Some may have grown up in a Christian family or have good friends who are Christian. Some have a general knowledge of who God is and how he has worked in the lives of those who believe. But for many people, the attractions of this world lead them into greater slavery to sin until it reaches the point of desperation. This situation is common in many testimonies I have heard. When people finally call out to God to save them and set them free, they are blown away by the wonder of God's love and grace to them. For the righteous son (representing all Christians) we are being warned that our service of God doesn't entitle us to anything. We can easily become "self-righteous" and expect God to fill our lives with good things as a reward for our faithful service. When God doesn't give us what we want, we can become resentful. Especially when we see how God treats those who call out to him for salvation, and he responds by pouring out his love and grace in great measure. Miraculous healing, deliverance from evil forces, a deep hunger to know God's truth, and opportunities to start great missionary endeavors for the kingdom of God, are all ways that God can lavish his love and grace on new believers. When we see this happening in the lives of new believers, we can become resentful, asking, "Why doesn't God lavish his love on me like that?" Our sense of human justice says we should be rewarded for our efforts to please God, to obey his will for our lives. This issue really comes home in the parable of the workers in the vineyard. God hires workers early in the morning to work in his vineyard and agrees to pay them a denarius. Workers are then hired at various intervals throughout the day until an hour before quitting time. The people hired last are paid first and they are paid the same amount as people who worked for the whole day. The owner of the vineyard declares, "Is it not my money to decide how I will spend it?" Is it not up to God to decide how he will lavish each person with his love and grace? To keep from becoming self-righteous and resentful, we need to remind ourselves that our service is simply an expression of our deep gratitude for the great love and grace that God has lavished on us. As the father said to his righteous son "All I have is Yours"; God has an eternal inheritance for each of us that will never spoil or fade. This parable is the third of Jesus teaching in Luke chapter 15. The Parable of the Lost Sheep and The Parable of the Lost Coin precede this Parable of the Prodigal Son. In the first two parables we have this repeated phrase "I tell you there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent" (Luke 15:7). In the Parable of the Prodigal Son we see the rejoicing lived out as the Prodigal Son returns home. The Father repeats this phrase twice "But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this (son of mine) (brother of yours) was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."
I would say that the father represents God, the prodigal son represents a repentant sinner, and the elder brother represents people who self-righteously believe that they deserve God's love and favor because of how "good" they have been; who consider themselves "better" than others who have not displayed what they consider the same degree of "goodness" as themselves (even though everything that they themselves have is also by God's mercy); and who resent it when God extends His love and forgiveness solely on the basis of repentance and faith to people whom they do not consider as "worthy" of it. God wants them to feel the same sense of joy over a sinner's repentance as He does. (As Jesus said in Luke 15 in the parable of the lost sheep (just prior to the parable of the prodigal son), there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent.)
I believe the original answer to this question is in Luke 15:1-2. Luke tells us that the "tax collectors and sinners" gathered to hear Jesus and "the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered." In Israel, in the first century, there were certain groups of people or trades that were considered "sinners" by the religious leaders. This was regardless as to whether those people had actually done anything wrong. For instance, tax collectors were considered "beyond forgiveness" simply because of the opportunity to steal from others - whether or not they actually stole. Other vocations included "donkey drivers," "sailors," "dung collectors" and "tanners." There is an excellent chapter on this topic in the book "Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus" by Joachim Jeremias. So the religious leaders - by their rulings - branded people "sinner" merely because of their vocation. If you are born "son of a tanner" you are immediately considered unclean and a sinner. Jesus does not like it when religious leaders brand people and keep them out of participating in the community of God. We must also notice what Luke says in Luke 15:3 - "Jesus told them THIS parable." What comes next is ONE parable with three parts. Notice the progression: - 100 sheep, 1 lost - 10 coins, 1 lost - 2 sons, 1 lost Finally, we must note that in the middle east, men don't run. Period. I asked a friend who is from Egypt this question, "Do men run in public?" He said, "No way! It's a shameful act" Jesus has the father run (Luke 15:20). The father shames himself in order to bring his son back into the household. The Father is God. The younger brother represents the "tax collectors and sinners." They were "lost" in part because of the actions of the religious leaders. The religious leaders should have been bending over backward to find ways to bring back into God's house instead of creating rules that keep them out. The older brother represents those religious leaders who get angry that the father is letting those "sinners" back into the house. A few points: 1. God shames himself to bring his children home. God shames himself on the cross - through the death of His Son - so that one lost child might make it back into the household. 2. Religious leaders need to beware that they are not inadvertently keeping people outside God's community by making up rules. 3. We are called to be in "the image of God." Therefore, we should be "running" to find those who have been left out of the community. We are supposed to find ways to bring people back into the fold instead of standing in judgment toward them. "Judge not lest you be judged." (Matt. 7:1)
This is a great question, worthy of our consideration. There are a few different possibilities that can all in a way be correct, simultaneously. Of course the immediate interpretation is the Jews who fancied themselves the chosen people to the exclusion and denigration of all others would be the older brother, juxtaposed with either: 1) Jews who'd left God's family, e.g. the tax collectors and "sinners" 2) Gentiles who, on a different level of being God's children (Acts 17:28-29), had removed themselves from relationship with God. The idea that this is about everyone falling away from God and needing redemption is untenable, because to the older brother, the Father says, "You've always been with me" (Luke 15:31). No one except an innocent child prior to his or her age of accountability (Romans 7:9) could be spoken of as always having been with God. So I lean toward the best application being #1, above. This lead us to a few important conclusions: 1) We have free will. The prodigal (i.e. wasteful) son chooses to leave the family and must "come to his senses" in order to return. Is the Spirit wooing him in ways better felt than told to do this? Perhaps. Is God using his rock-bottom circumstances to induce him to come back? Certainly. But what remains is what has been revealed, and that's that he had to decide to leave and decide to return. 2) God is merciful, wanting none to perish and all to come to repentance (2nd Peter 3:9), and so He is primed and ready to *run* to whomever draws near to Him (James 4:8). This is perhaps the most beautiful and tender part of the story. 3) When we repudiate the covenant relationship we have with God through Christ's blood and our faith, repentance, confession of Him, and our baptism into Him, we lose our standing with God. The Jews were God's chosen people, and yet many of them left their position in His family to live reckless lives, while others, e.g. the Pharisees, left their place in the family through supplanting the Law & the Prophets with their own traditions (Mark 7:6-8). In keeping with this the wasteful son wastes his inheritance just as Esau did (Hebrews 12:15-17). It has been said that this doesn't mean he lost his salvation because he's still referred to as a son, but I question this assertion, and ask in reply "What else would the story referred to him as?" Instead, the most important voice in the story, that of the father who represents God, *twice* refers to him as DEAD and LOST (vss 24 & 31). This isn't someone whose relationship with God has been put on hold, or who God is just temporarily disappointed with. He has forfeited his place in God's family. He has despised his birthright. Salvation cannot be lost as if it might slip out of one's pocket; but we can choose to repudiate our relationship with God. I hope this helps!
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