Understanding The Bible
Herbert Henry Ehrenstein
HOUSE OF THE THREE PRODIGALS
Parables are picture-stories, drawn from existing situations in life. Jesus spent much of his earthly ministry using parables to teach spiritual truths to his followers. He would see a farmer working in the field and immediately say "A sower went forth to sow…" A wealthy man would be having a wedding reception on the lawn and Jesus pointed to it and said something about a rich man and a wedding feast. Over to one side would be a land-owner struggling to erect a house on his (property and Jesus would draw the lesson about building houses on solid rock or on shifting sand. These object-lesson stories would bring home truth with a dynamic impact.
Perhaps one of the most poignant, probing stories Jesus told was that which we have come… erroneously, I believe… to call "the prodigal son." It's found in Luke 15 and no title could be more deceptive than this. For this account is not the story of one boy who turned out bad at first, sowed his wild oats and then, ultimately turned out good after all. No way! Rather Luke 15:11-32 tells the story of three delinquents: the father of the boys and his two sons. Take time right now to re-read the story before you read any further. This is important. Don't rely on your memory of the story.
Traditionally, we think only of the younger son who drew his inheritance money out of the bank as soon as he came of age, and took off for New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Paris -- or some other hot-shot center of vice and crime. There, he spent -- or squandered -- all his money and came home penniless, a prodigal. But, he was still welcomed by dear old Dad who gave him a nice steak dinner with an "all-is- forgiven" after-dinner speech. Then everyone lived happily ever-after. That's the old familiar stand-by we've all heard ever since we were kids. But, you know, it misses some of the main points of the Biblical parable.
In the first place, I'm not at all convinced that we're only supposed to see that God is always there, ready to forgive, no matter how delinquent or prodigal we may have been. Oh sure, that's true! His great big heart of love never turns away the one who drifts off into waywardness, if that one wants to come back home. But, why should we only zero-in on one of the characters of the story? As if he was the only low-down sneak in the parable!! After all, the elder son who stayed at home while his brother went gallivanting all over Las Vegas, was just as much a prodigal or delinquent in his own way. And the father of the two brothers probably contributed to the delinquency of both of them. So, I see here, not the parable of the prodigal son, but the vivid account of a delinquent family.
Right at the start, we are introduced to the three persons of the household [v. 11]: the man and his two sons. The sons were both self-centered and infantile even though they were both undoubtedly grown men. Let me put it bluntly: they were both babies! See how selfish the younger son seemed to be when he said: "Dad, give me my share of the property." Me… me… me… i… I… I my… my… my. This is the mark of the ? child - concentrating attention on himself. Then see how irresponsible and childish he was when he suddenly took-off and squandered his inheritance carelessly and with no purpose other than the gratification of his own desires. Again -- the mark of a baby, always wanting his own needs met and satisfied. Never mind about others.
Of course, the older son was no better, even though you might have expected him to have more intelligence and common sense. When his father welcomed the wayward son home, the elder brother pouted like a small child and refused to go into the house. When his father came out and reasoned with him, the big baby showed his self-centered streak: "You never gave ME a party like this!!" He plainly indicated a spiteful, jealous spirit -- typical of the spoiled brat -- when he refused to say "my brother". Instead, he said "this son of yours." He further illustrated his smallness of Character by saying "he devoured your money with harlots, yet you kill the fatted calf." Do you see what I mean when I say that both sons were obnoxious and prodigal?
Yet, the term "prodigal" doesn't really fit the two brothers as much as it does the father. For "prodigal" comes from a Latin root meaning "to drive away." Chances are more than likely that the father was the real prodigal of the family and drove both sons away from him. For, although only one young man actually left home to go to a "far country," you don't really have to leave familiar surroundings to be in a far country, you know. Every public speaker, looking out at his audience, after the first 10 minutes of his message or address, sees people who have "gone to a far country." They've never left their seats. That glassy-eyed stare indicates that, although they're present bodily, mentally they're no longer there. They've taken a journey to a far country.
Some time ago, I spent a week in a Christian home consisting of father, mother and teen-aged son. Every night, the boy was home at the precise hour he was told to be home. He sat with us in the living room watching television. But he might as well have been in "a far country." He was cold, hostile, bitter, spiteful and uncommunicative. You see, a person does not have to leave home to be in a "far country." For this is a state of mind as well as a geographical location. One of this father's sons took off physically from home. But the other one was just as tar away from his father, even though he continued to live on the premises. And, I'm venturing the guess that the father was the real prodigal - in the Latin sense of that word's origin: one who drives forth.
Maybe he was too busy to give his sons the attention and love they needed; many fathers fail at this point. Or, it is possible that he was too indulgent, giving the boys everything they wanted. The story seems to favor this idea. For notice how quickly the father gave in to his son's demand for the inheritance. No arguments. Just taking out the check-book and writing out the check and giving it to the boy. And see, also, how quick he was to throw a party when the son came back. And observe how he tried to soothe the angry elder son by telling him "everything I have is yours." You see, some parents go out of their way to give their kids everything -- everything, that is, except themselves. In juvenile courts, many of the kids who are in trouble are rich kids who have everything, but they don't even know their parents. Parents and children stare at each other as they stand before the judge, and act almost as strangers.
I do not claim to know what it is about the father of these two boys which drove them away -- one of them physically; the other one, spiritually, emotionally or mentally. Let it suffice to say the father, here, seems to be the real culprit -- the true prodigal. But, let's return to the story.
The headstrong, adventurous, aggressive younger son left home with great plans. He had conned his dad into an advance on his inheritance as we've seen, and now he planned to tour the world. He rebelled against the restrictions of the home and sought for freedom, without law and order. In short, he was anti-establishment, a young rebel who engaged in loose living in a far-off place where he could bury his past -- or so he thought. But, you know, actually you never bury the past, unless and until that past is blotted out by God's grace and forgiveness. Recall that, even in hell there is the haunting memory of the past. In the very next chapter of Luke's Gospel [16:19-31] is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man wound up in hell and yet he could not forget his relatives who were heading in the same direction because of the lives they were living on earth. The rich man couldn't bury the past. And Abraham -- presented as speaking from far-off -- said to the rich man "Son -- remember!!" So, again I say, you never really escape from your past until the past is blotted out in its unsavory aspects by God's grace. Thus, even though this young rebel sought to forget his background and lose himself in wine, women and song, sooner or later a day of reckoning would come when he would look back nostalgically to the past.
The story tells how he went down, down, down until he hit rock-bottom. This is an excellent illustration of what God often permits in the lives of stubborn rebels against his grace. He allows his erring child to go far, far into a self-centered waywardness. Then, finally, he calls a halt when the wanderer has learned his lesson. We have something of an illustration of this in the verse the Psalmist wrote for us in Psalm 106:15. After describing all the wonderful grace of God in delivering and directing his Old Testament people through their perilous journeys, the Psalmist relates how ungrateful they were. How they deliberately went their own way into rebellious sin -- just like the prodigal son. And the psalmist says sadly: "God gave them what they wanted, but he sent leanness to their souls." And you know, many times, God has to do this to his willful people… send leanness to the soul. There are a lot of fat bodies which contain lean souls. Make no mistake about it.
Thus, in v. 17, we read that this young man "came to himself." This is one of Dr. Luke's frequent Greek medical terms. Luke was a physician and in both his Gospel and The Acts [which he wrote], you find periodic medical terms. This is one of them. For when he says the prodigal "came to himself it's the word a doctor would use to describe a person who "comes to" after fainting, or a state of unconsciousness. The prodigal realized what a mess he had made of his life, and his thoughts turned back to home. How good home had been, after all! What he was missing! And he determined to return humbly and ask forgiveness of his father.
Meanwhile, the older brother had never left home, physically, although we have seen that he was still miles away from his father spiritually or emotionally. He had none of his father's love and tender compassion. Each day, he busied himself in the fields, dutiful, submissive, and outwardly docile. Inwardly, however, he was rebellious, resentful. He was extremely jealous of his younger brother who was enjoying life. Yet he didn't have the courage to make the break as his brother had. The father suffered while the prodigal was away, but the older brother did not. He scorned his kid brother, resented him, and hated him. He thought of him as weak, dissolute, sinful and probably said to others: "I thank God I am not like that prodigal brother of mine." Yet, inwardly, he fervently wished he were like him. His jealousy is clearly seen in his statement to his father [v. 29]: "I never disobeyed any of your orders… but this son of yours has devoured your money with harlots." This is known as "sour grapes." Note, he would not even speak of his brother as "my brother" but only as "this son of yours." So much for real brotherly love. You know, I've often thought that, if the repentant prodigal, on his way home, had met his older brother before he met his father, he would have turned around and gladly gone back to the pig pens.
And, you know -- you and I can be so much like that elder brother. Let's face it! We can be rigid Pharisees who look down the end of our noses at the wayward unfortunates of life and damn them instead of loving them. We all have something of the spirit of the elder brother in us.
The young prodigal had learned his lesson through years of wandering. It's sad that some of us have to learn God's lessons the hard way. In the course of my ministry, I have often had occasion to warn some Christian that he was skating out on thin ice in his actions. Sometimes, such people will listen and avoid tragedy. But oh! So often, we humans can be so obstinate, and God has to let us see the bitter results of being prodigals.
Finally, when the boy decided to come back home, we have a humorous! -- although touching -- scene. He planned out his apology to his father. I suspect he even memorized it. Probably he stood in front of a mirror to get the gestures and facial expressions down just right. He wanted the apology to be letter-perfect, to impress dear old Dad. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer able to be called your son. Treat me like the hired help." Try to visualize the young man going over and over the statements till he could say them without mistake. But the ironic thing is that he never had a chance to complete the speech. Love intervened! For the prodigal's father was far happier to see his son come back home than the boy was to come home. Justice would have demanded what the boy asked -- a place with the hired help. But love thrust justice aside! The "planned confession" dissolved in the tears of a genuine Godly sorrow which led to true repentance.
The return home -- particularly the decision to return home -- must have been a very difficult one to make. For, facing the light is extremely painful to eyes that have become blinded by darkness and self. But, equally difficult must have been the decision of the elder brother who stayed at home to receive back his wandering brother. Indeed, we have no clear indication that the elder brother ever did forgive him. My friend, the situation is so similar to what we find in so many of our churches today.
We have our 20th century "prodigals" who wander away from the Lord in one way or another, squandering their lives in the far countries of all sorts of sin. Consider the girl who gets pregnant before marriage or the kid who travels with the drug crowd and gets hooked, the boy who gets into trouble with the police, the alcoholic, the racist, the divorcee., the homosexual, the person who cares little for the poor, the ex-convict. All sorts of patterns of wrong-doing -- mild or severe -- can trap the Christian and lead him far from God. If such people persist in their sins, God may allow them to descend all the way to the bottom -- to a pig-pen existence! But if they are repentant… if they are ready to come home… they'll be welcome, even though they may return very much the worse for wear.
Then there are those of us who never seriously stray from the straight and narrow path. We pride ourselves on never having done anything more drastically wrong than stealing from the cookie jar. But we, too, can become "elder-brother" prodigals… smug, complacent, self-righteous, ready to sit-in-judgment over others and condemn them. Such a prodigal spirit of Pharisee-ism is just as ugly in the sight of God as that of the wanderer. And, whatever faults the father of these two sons had -- and he did have many and was a prodigal himself, as we have seen -- he did have love and tender compassion which triumphed over his weaknesses. He illustrated—by his love for both his prodigal sons -- what St. Paul later put into words iti Galatians 6:1. For Paul wrote: "Brethren, if one of your number should be guilty of some sin, you who are the 'spiritual ones in outlook' should put him back on the right path, but not with any sense of superiority. Rather, consider yourself! It just might as easily have been YOU!" This is a truly Christian attitude and we must attempt to reach, and maintain, that level. For, this is what Christianity is all about.
Ask yourself right now: what kind of a prodigal are YOU? Are you the he Wayward-Son Type going off into any and every sort of enticing sin to get your kicks and do your thing? Or, are you the Stay-At-Home, Good Pharisee Type of Prodigal? You never really get into any serious sin -- open sin, that is. But you have a heart full of hatred, bitterness, rancor, suspicion, plotting, resentment, bigotry. It all boils and seethes within you. Or, are you the Type of Prodigal who causes others to become prodigals? Somewhere, most of us fall into one of these categories. And we need to come before the Lord who welcomes prodigals home and offers forgiveness for the past, and grace for the future.
A very special thanks is due
late Dr. Herbert Henry Ehrenstein,
of Philadelphia, for his original work.
Dr. Ehrenstein has many Bible study books on the market, and has co-authored and edited many of the Donald Grey Barnhouse books. He was the Barnhouse Bible Teacher for continuing bible studies in New York City, Boston, and many other locations.