This morning, I would like to take a look at the well-known parable commonly referred to as the Prodigal son, which is found in Luke 15:11-32. Now most all bible scholars will tell you that you should never push the symbolism or storyline of a parable too far, and that the main thrust of the message is more important that all of the little details one can try to pull from it — and this is true.
And while this is a fairly simple story as far as the amount of details we have, there is still a lot that can be missed simply because we are of a different cultural background than the original hearers.
Lately, we have been learning more and more about the cultural surroundings of the first century writings, especially the Hebrew mindset behind them. This same Hebrew understanding needs to be applied to the parables, like this one.
There would be points and details that they would have immediately grasped and story gaps that they would have filled in simply because of their background and understanding.
So, this morning I would like to dig into this story a bit, and examine this story in light of some of the cultural surroundings and understandings that may escape us, and to fill in some pieces that we may miss.
Many people typical think this is a nice story about forgiveness, and leave it at that. And while this is somewhat a true analogy, there is so much more that never gets considered.
I think the most common application of this parable in the modern church, is to see it as applicable to any repentant sinner coming to God, and the forgiveness he brings. In the latter part of this message I will explain why I believe this understanding of the intent of the original parable is a false one.
For most people I believe, when they think of this story they think of it as mainly a story dealing with the one rebellious son. However, there are actually two stories that need focused on. And honestly, the second one is probably more of the focal point of the story for the audience he is speaking to.
I will mention though, that this parable is the last part of a series of three parables that Yeshua has told right in a row in this section. Some commentators have even shown how all three are interconnected to maintain a main single thread throughout, but I am not able going to take that route today. Instead, I wish to focus on just the third story, but first, I would like to read the opening remarks that start the three story segment.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable. (Luke 15: 1-3 ESV)
So, we see the setting that started this parable trilogy. It is because Yeshua has been hanging out with tax collectors and sinner that the Pharisees were grumbling. And due to their grumbling, he spoke to them the three parables.
Now, let us jump to the third one about the father and his two sons. The story has been read to you this morning, so I will not repeat it now, but will be breaking it down in sections as we go.
And he said, "There was a man who had two sons. 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. (Luke 15:11-12 ESV)
What we find here is a request from the younger son to his father, requesting his portion of the inheritance basically. However, there are a few things that we may miss here by not understanding the cultural significance of the request.
First off, he is not actually asking for his inheritance. Especially in that type of culture, an inheritance is what one receives when the father passes away, and it means that the son was then responsible to handle the father's duties. The son would become the leader and assumes the care and power over what was left to him.
In our day and age, for most of us at least, an inheritance is a chunk of money or goods that we possess. In days of old, if your father's owned a large farm with lots of servants and/or employees, then the responsibility of all of that was turned over to the son.
The son could turn around, close shop and cash it all in, but that rarely happened. To that culture, the land, the business, and the family were all tied to the place they were established, and the sons took over to continue enlarging upon what was previously established.
The Greek word for inheritance is kleronomia, and it is used elsewhere, like the parable of the vineyard in Matt. 21, where the owner put tenants in the vineyard, and when it came time to reap it, he sent servants, and the tenants killed them. So he sent his son to the tenants:
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.' (Matt 21:38 ESV)
They knew that one day the son would be the boss when he inherited the family business. But in our story, that word is not used. In our story, the son is not asking for a piece of the family business. He did not want to assume any responsibility or authority, he simply wanted to cash out and leave on his own.
In the normal course of events, when the father died, the two sons would own it all and continue expanding upon it, but in this case, he had no desire to continue with the family at all.
In our verse, he uses the word ousia, meaning the son is asking for the possessions or wealth that is his portion. In doing this, he is asking to cash out of the whole family. He wants to take what is his and leave, leaving his position in the family, and all future connections and benefits of it. He wants to break all ties and relations and go his own way.
On top of that, what he is asking for something that is not even a consideration that is due to him until his father passes away. Culturally, to ask such a thing as this is the equivalent of wishing his father were dead. The Bible Background Commentary states it this way:
To ask one's father for one's share of the inheritance early was unheard of in antiquity; in effect, one would thereby say, "Father, I wish you were already dead." Such a statement would not go over well even today, and in a society stressing obedience to one's father it would be a serious act of rebellion for which the father could have beaten him or worse. (Bible Background Commentary, pg. 233)
In real life, this request would be met with a refusal, anger and punishment. And of course, we find that to be the very case throughout Scripture whenever Yahweh's people turned their back on Him, it was met with judgment time and time again. However, in this story, the father agrees to let the deal be done, and he divides the possessions and gives him his portion.
One thing to also note is that according to the laws in Deuteronomy, the first born would receive a double portion, and so therefore, in this case, the younger son's portion would only have been a third.
So, after the father has divided things, he gives the son his portion, and then we are told that:
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country… (Luke 15:13a ESV)
Here we find that only a very little time has passed, and the father has given the son his cut, and the son has packed and is leaving. Now, according to some scholars, the original language that is translated as "gathered all" literally means he "turned everything into cash."
This makes more sense in the story, as it would be difficult for the son to have packed up all of the physical possessions and property that would have been bestowed to him. Plus, the verse goes on to say that he spent everything, implying that what he had was in the form of money.
Now, in order for the son to have sold everything, including part of the family land, he most likely would have sold things at a low price in order to liquidate them as quickly as he wanted in order to leave.
This would take a big toll on the family overall too, because now, a big chunk of what was family property, and was most likely tied to the family income, was gone.
Not only would the family have suffered financially due to this, but the father's reputation would surely have been in question. Living in community like they did at the time, the news of something like this would have quickly spread. Everyone would have heard what was going on, especially as the father or son was going around liquidating things.
So for the father, he was not only losing out financially, but the destructive relationship would have brought about public humiliation in town and to the father's name in general. Now, the son has taken everything and left for a far country, and we are told:
…and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. (Luke 15:13b-14 ESV)
Now, after all of that, the son has left and lost everything. Now all of that money is all gone, there is a famine, and he has nothing to survive on. You would think at this point, most kids would run back home with their tail tucked between their legs.
But something we may miss here is that according to Jewish custom, he was almost unable to go home. There was the ceremony known as the Kezazah — which means literally — "the cutting off."
If a Jewish boy lost his family inheritance among the Gentiles and sought to return home, the community would perform the ceremony by breaking a large pot in front of him and declare — "so-in-so is cut off from his people." Once performed, he would be an outcast and no one would have anything to do with him. So going home would not be putting himself in a very favorable situation anyway.
One of the Dead Sea Scrolls gives this example of a fatherly warning that relates here:
And now, my sons, be watchful of your inheritance that has been bequeathed to you, which your fathers gave you. Do not give your inheritance to the Gentiles…lest you be humiliated in their eyes and foolish, and they trample upon you…and become your masters.
This is what the son has done; he has squandered his inheritance among the Gentiles. So, he was now literally a man without a home, and had no way to return to his family or any of the rights he previously held as a member of his community. When it says in the verse that he took a journey, the Greek word used only here by Luke literally means that he "traveled away from his own people."
So, he has left his people, cut all ties and rights to them, took everything he owned and lived recklessly and lost everything. He had nothing left, nowhere to go and of course could not simply call his parents to come and pick him up.
He knows going home would mean dealing with the ridicule of the rest of the village, as well as that of his brother who now has the rights of the rest of the father's possessions.
These options are not ones he can bare to deal with, not at this point and time at least. Instead, he chose another route:
So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. (Luke 11:15 ESV)
It is the fact that pigs are mentioned here that most commentators say he was living, spending, and now working among the Gentiles. The word here translated as hired in our text, is often translated as "joined to" and comes from the root word meaning to glue or attach. It is used elsewhere to refer to everything from dust clinging (Luke 10:11) to joining oneself with a prostitute (1 Cor. 6:16).
Some commentators state that it is not uncommon for a man to join himself to another, even if it is not something the other party desires. Kind of like in some cities where when you stop at a red light, a person will rush over and clean your windshield against your will and expect payment. It is possible that is what this son does. The reason some think this might be the case, is the job he is given.
Chances are the speech and dress of the son would have given him away as being a Hebrew, and in an effort to rid himself of this man, the person assigns him a job he suspects will cause the man to leave. It can be hard for us to fully grasp how this is would be for someone from a culture that loathes pigs. But, the son accepts even this — he is that desperate. So desperate in fact that the next verse tells us:
And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. (Luke 11:16 ESV)
The Greek word here translated as longing is a very strong word and implies a very strong desire. Some say that the pods spoken of here were not something that could even be digested by humans, and thus he was unable to even eat them, but truly and strongly desired to be able to.
Things were getting worse for him, and there was no relief in sight. He couldn't eat what the pigs were eating, and asking others was not working, as no one gave him anything. He was finally at the end of his rope, unable to provide anything for himself.
He was broke and starving, and death was surely in his future, so he decided there was only one option left.
"But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants."' (Luke 11:17-19 ESV)
One thing we should notice here is that the son was not repentant. Many over the years have understood that when it says "he came to himself" that it implies a repentant attitude, but others point out that there is nothing in the language to really reveal that at all. He does not mention being sorry for anything he had done, he simply realizes that he was truly starving and decided enough is enough. He reasons that even his father's servants have food, and that is what he desires to have so he won't perish.
He will acknowledge his sin against the father, but only because it is a means to an end - he desires to eat, even if it is as a servant. The words he chooses to say to his father may have some significance too. Yeshua is talking to an audience that knows the Scriptures; they are quite a scholarly group.
When the son says "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you," The words used here are a paraphrased version of the words of Pharaoh to Moses after the plagues. Pharaoh says:
I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you. (Exodus 10:16 ESV)
Some commentators say that the Aramaic version of this verse is worded even more closely to the way it is stated in our text in Luke. If that is indeed a legitimate link, we all know Pharaoh was not repentant. He simply wanted to manipulate Moses and get away from the bad situation, and that seems a similar attitude that the son in our story has.
Because he was in dire straits with no other options, he would choose what he believes is the right things to say, hoping that his father would have him back as a servant.
Of course, he is not asking to be restored to the family. If he were accepted back as a servant, it would mean he would most likely reside in a nearby village with the other workers, and not in the family home.
He does not ask to be in any way restored to the former relationship as a son, nor does he ask to in any way be a part of any inheritance. He is still not asking for that responsibility or relationship. The son is seeing the root issue to be focused on his losing everything and starving, and not to breaking the relationship or breaking his father's heart.
It seems he is not aware of what he has actually done. The issue of relationship with the Father does not seem to be a focus at all, he simply wants to return and get food. Reconciliation does not seem to be his goal in taking this course of action.
I am sure most of us can see modern ways this type of scenario plays out. For instance, say a child has done something to completely hurt the parents in some way, by breaking their trust or disobeying them directly, and they get caught doing so.
The child will most likely apologize — but most likely the focus of their concern will be with the issue they got caught in. Rarely are they aware of the damaged relationship with the parents, they are simply sorry they got caught and saying what is needed to satisfy the uncomfortable position they are in.
Reconciliation is not usually the thought they have, they simply want to get out of the bad situation of getting caught. Had they not gotten caught, they would probably have done nothing.
If the prodigal son had not ended up like he had, chances are he would not have ever considered returning home. He was only doing so now because he was desperate. And so we are told:
And he arose and came to his father. (Luke 15:20a ESV)
As the son approached the town, he surely would have been thinking more and more on what he would say, maybe even practicing how he would lay it on thick to gain some sympathy.
He probably pondered on how he would handle facing the town's people, who once they had discovered what he did, would perform the Kezazah ceremony against him. This would mean having to take their punishment before he could ever make it over to see his father at all. After who knows how long, he may eventually be summoned to the presence of his father.
By that point, the village would have rejected him, and surely then his father would be very angry, and he would have to plead to be taken back as a servant. After all, not only did he in essence declare a death wish upon his father, but he then left and lost everything among the pagan nations.
However, we know that what does happen is not at all what he would have expected in his situation. The text tells us:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20b ESV)
This action of the father's is very much against what a man in his position would do. He is basically breaking all of the rules of the oriental patriarchy just by running. The Greek word used here for "ran" is the technical term used for the foot races in the stadium. So, we are actually told that the father raced to the son with urgency.
In their culture, a man of his age would always walk slowly and in a dignified manner. They would never, ever run. To do so would require him to reach down and take the front ends of his rode and hike them up so he could run. Doing that would thereby expose his legs, which was considered a humiliating posture for him.
Performing this action would be to bring great shame upon himself, on top of the shame the son's prior actions had already brought upon him and the family name. But obviously the father was not concerned at all about this.
His compassion leads him to do these acts, and knowing how the villagers would treat the son upon his arrival, he probably ran even faster to catch him first. This is the father, leaving his high home, assuming a humiliating posture in order to seek he who was lost and bring about reconciliation.
As parents, we all can learn from this scenario. When our children go astray, how quick are we to run in to say "I told you so," or to berate them with scornful speech? Often the parents will belittle them and bring them to shame. But here, we find pretty much the opposite of that.
We find the father humiliating himself to reconcile with his rebellious son. And the father has done all of this without hearing word one from the son. Is the son repentant? The father doesn't know. Is he coming home to repay all he took? The father doesn't know. Whatever the news is, the father has yet to hear it, yet he humiliates himself to run and love his lost son.
There are those in of the Islam faith who actually use this story to show that man can be saved without a savior — without Yeshua. They claim the boy repents, returns, and the father forgives him. They say therefore there is no need for a cross, no suffering, and no savior needed to get to God. They totally miss the suffering, sacrifice, and humility that is portrayed here.
They also fail to see this story as representing the Father in heaven, sending the son, who is God incarnate, who assumes the humiliating position as a human in order to passionately go out and seek and save those who were lost, and bring them into reconciliation and sonship once again.
They also, like many commentators today, make the mistake of viewing this whole story and the characters involved as basically a representation of God the Father loving and reconciling any repentant sinner unto himself. However, in light of audience relevance and what Yeshua had come to do, I find it hard to agree with that general assessment of the party's involved or the main focus of the story, but I will discuss that a little later. The story continues:
And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' (Luke 15:21 ESV)
Now, in case you don't notice here, the son's planned confession is a bit shorter than he initially decided upon. What happened to the last sentence where he was to say "Treat me as one of your hired servants" as he mentioned back in verse 19? Was he caught off guard by the actions of his father and forgot? Had he along the road decided against that portion?
Can you imagine what may have been going through the son's mind just moments before? He is walking home, knowing he has rejected his family and brought shame to them. Knowing he will most definitely face being outcast by the rest of the village and probably greatly punished.
Now, he reaches the village and here he sees his father running toward him. Not knowing what the father would do, he may have thought that his father was running to take swift vengeance against him. After the way he had rejected him, he knew he deserved such a response.
So, surely he would have been shocked and taken back when his father instead came and threw his arms around him and started kissing him. Maybe that threw him for a loop and caused him to forget his planned speech. Or maybe instead, the son now realized he had no right to ask anything of the father directly.
Instead, he would just throw himself on the mercy of the father and accept whatever happens at his hand. Or it is possible the son was cut short in his speech, as the father interrupts him:
But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:22-24 ESV)
The twist here is that in this situation, it should be the son who was to come bearing gifts. The son is in the wrong, he has committed great wrongdoings against his father, and it is he who owes a major debt. But he comes empty handed with nothing to offer the father.
He basically spat in his father's face and wished him dead, cutting all ties as a son, and now returns, declaring he is unworthy to be called a son still. Instead, he is given a king's return and restored fully to sonship.
Now, being lavished with gifts so quickly and so publically, it would surely stop any idea of the villagers performing the Kezazah ceremony, as the son was now openly reconciled to the father. Unfortunately I cannot spend any time here going into any of the details on the gifts he was given, but suffice it to say they were prime, extravagant gifts from the father.
Now, while all of this is going on, the older son returns home.
"Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.' But he was angry and refused to go in. (Luke 15:25-28a ESV)
In their culture, the eldest brother is the one responsible for assisting in the reconciliation process between the father and younger brothers if the need arose. This older brother should have stepped in way back at the begging of the story, and tried whole heartedly to stop the younger brother from doing what he was doing in breaking the father's heart to begin with, but he did not.
The older brother was obviously not doing his duty — he was not being respectful to the father or loving to the brother. Now that the brother has returned, he is more upset and refuses to even join the party. In doing so he is showing his hatred of his brother, as well as disrespecting the father himself, and he deserves punishment now himself.
Also, the custom in these types of party situations is that the oldest son is usually serving in the place of a kind of head waiter. He is not a waiter in the sense of how the servants serve the guests, but he is in charge and is a visible sign of just how respected the guest are. He would be like a manger, overseeing things and interacting with the guests. So his refusal to do so in this situation is to disrespect his father's guests also.
For the older son, this whole situation is inconceivable. Reconciliation and restoration cannot occur without a penalty being paid by the offending party — that is the way it is to be. Since that is not what has happened, the oldest son is too angry to take part in any of it.
The older son's rebellious attitude is public, and the guests as well as the father are made aware of the attitude he has in this situation, because the father immediately responds, but instead of punishment as the son deserves, the verse tells us:
His father came out and entreated him… (Luke 15:28b ESV)
Again, the father responds in an out of the ordinary fashion. The son's public refusal of duty as well as disrespect for brother and father should be met with sternness, but instead, the father pleads with the son to not act this way. The word used here for entreat means to call to one's side, strive to appease, to exhort, to comfort, to encourage. It is the same word Paul uses in 2 Cor. 5:20:
We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor. 5:20b ESV)
The father is begging the older son to change his mind and be reconciled with his brother as the father has already done. But the oldest instead lays forth his case in frustration:
but he answered his father, 'Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!' (Luke 15:29-30 ESV)
Though this statement, the oldest son exposes a few things. First, he does not even properly respect his father in speech. The normal cultural response from the son should have been something the lines of "O father, these many years…." But the son just blurts out in frustration to "look at what I have done."
Second, extreme jealousy is obvious, as he states how the father has done so much for the rebellious younger son, yet has done nothing for him in all the years of obedience. On top of revealing the jealousy, he is also accusing his father of favoritism here.
His anger for his brother becomes clearly evident when instead of referring to him as his brother he refers to him as "this son of yours." They both have the same father, and yet he will not be associated with him in a family setting.
Again, this outburst of disrespect from the older son should get him immediately arrested and taken away for punishment by the word of the father. That is what normally should happen in that culture. But again, the father does the opposite:
And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'" (Luke 15:31-32 ESV)
The father does not respond in anger, nor is any form of punishment or rebuke mentioned. He overlooks the disrespect, the bitterness, the arrogance, and the accusation of favoritism. Instead, the father reminds the oldest son that what is left of the inheritance all belongs to him. All that he has worked obediently for is still his to possess.
The father also addresses his son here using a different form of the word for son. All through this story, the normal word for son has been used, but here when addressing the older son he uses the term teknon which is a word displaying love and affection.
The only rebuke is that the oldest son should likewise be celebrating at the return of his lost brother. He should be showing appreciation that the lost son has returned and been restored to fellowship with the family.
How does the oldest son respond to this final statement by the father? The story stops and we stand waiting alongside the other party guests wondering just what will be the rebellious son's response. Will he give up his rebellion and likewise be reconciled with the father and return to the house in humility?
We do not know from this story itself, because it is addressed to the audience in Yeshua's day, and their response was being revealed at that time. He was addressing a rebellious group of religious leader who stand in opposition to this message. As with most of his parables, this one to is directed at them.
Will they be reconciled with the father, or will their hardness of heart not allow it? Well, we of course know the ending of the story as it played out in history. I will use the words of Kenneth Bailey here:
Then the older son in great anger took his stick and struck the father. (Kenneth Bailey, The Cross and the Prodigal, pg 87)
This of course is referencing the response of the religious leaders of the day, who stayed in their rebellion, continued to reject the message as well as the messenger from the Father, and took that messenger and nailed him to the cross. They were not favorable nor tolerant of the other brother being brought into the family with them, and we see that struggle throughout the New Testament.
Of course we also know that the Father did not respond in love to them in the end, as he brought fire and destruction down upon them and their city, wiping them out of the family permanently.
Now, at this point I wish to leave the story world to look at this scenario from a different angle than most commentators I have read. As I mentioned earlier, most see this story as an example of how God welcomes and loves any repentant sinner that comes to him.
The problem I have with that assessment is that it does not fit the relevance of what is being said, to whom it is being said, and doesn't fit the players in the story.
As I said, this chapter contains three parables, this being the third in the trilogy of stories. As read earlier, the chapter starts by stating:
And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." (Luke 15:2 ESV)
So, we know some of the main people being addressed here by Yeshua are the Pharisees as usual. One thing that people seem to gloss over in the story is that it is two sons and a father - the father and two children already related to him. They are children of God — part of his family in the beginning. And one of the children forsakes the family and leaves.
The Pharisees represent those two tribes of Israel that are still serving and maintaining a covenant relationship with Yahweh. They are the older brother in the story.
That alone should assist in revealing that the younger son is not representative of just sinners returning to God in general. The one returning is one that beforehand was in close covenant with God — not a stranger to God and the covenant as everyday people coming to God would be.
If that were the case, and this was just representing ordinary people, then this is telling us that they were in close covenant with the father, left the covenant and then came back. That would be to say they were alive in the Father, chose to leave, thus being dead to the Father, and then returned to the Father. Some of course do view this story as focused on people who make a decision for Christ, but stray and then later return, but even this is hard to apply to just ordinary people in the world when we seriously considering all of the things surrounding the story.
A better understanding is that the younger son represents those ten tribes that were removed from the covenant in the past due to their sin and disobedience. These ten northern tribes were:
1. In a covenant relationship with the Father - just as the younger son was
2. Cut off from the Father — just as the younger son was
3. Considered dead to the Father — just as the younger son was
4. Intermingled with the pagan nations — just as the younger son was
5. Being restored to the Father through the Messiah — just as the younger son was
6. Causing the existing tribes to recoil and rebel against the Messiah
God has previously promised that this would happen and it was happening in their day. For some reason, the current religious regime was not seeing that as the plan and were not accepting it, and that is why the story has an open ending — because they were being told what was happening, and were to decide their response.
Let's take a brief look at some of what is said on this topic, with a little background history first. There were the 12 tribes, and they previously split into two separate nations. The two tribes of Judah and Benjamin were considered the Southern Kingdom, and together they were referred to as Judah.
The other ten tribes made up the Northern Kingdom, and they were designated by the name Israel. Now, when we get to the book of Hosea, we see that Hosea is told by the Lord to take a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom.
These children are named names that represent the tribes in various ways. The first son was named Jezreel:
Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. (Hosea 1:4 ESV)
So, here we are told the ten tribes referred to as the house of Israel will be brought to their end — Jezreel means that God has sown — as in the sowing or scattering of seeds. Then we are told the next child was a daughter named No Mercy:
Call her name No Mercy, for I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all. But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God. (Hosea 1:6-7 ESV)
And then another son came:
When she had weaned No Mercy, she conceived and bore a son. And the LORD said, "Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God." (Hosea 1:8-9 ESV)
So, here is what we are told. These children will be the end of the kingdom of the house of Israel, they will be scattered and sown, and they will be called no mercy and not my people. But in verse 11 the promise to them is made:
And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head. (Hosea 1:11a ESV)
This one head they will under is of course the Messiah. So, the promise is that they are no longer a nation and are scattered away from the covenant, but that one day they will be brought back and reconciled unto God through the Messiah.
This idea appears in places throughout the first testament scriptures, but is stated pretty clearly again in one other place I would like to bring into the mix, and that is Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 37 we have the story of the valley of dry bones that most everyone knows.
The prophet is taken to a valley, shown old dry bones, and they are given flesh and brought back to life with the Spirit of God. This is understood as resurrection imagery looking to the day when the people are restored to life in the land of promise. The story is followed by a second, the two sticks story.
"Son of man, take a stick and write on it, 'For Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him'; then take another stick and write on it, 'For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him.' And join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand. And when your people say to you, 'Will you not tell us what you mean by these?' (Ezekiel 37:16-18 ESV)
So, we have two sticks, each representing the kingdom groups of Northern and Southern kingdoms as we've already discussed. He says they will be one day brought back into one stick. When inquired as to what this means, we are told:
Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. "My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. (Ezekiel 37:21-24 ESV)
I wish I could go further to look at the later verses on how God's new covenant will be made and how He will set his sanctuary in their midst to dwell there forever, but that would be a whole other study.
What we have here is a promise of restoring the people of Israel who had been scattered among the nations, and to bring them back and merge them so that there are no longer two kingdoms, but one. And that one kingdom shall be ruled by David — which we understand to be Yeshua, the Messiah, the descendant of David.
They shall be ruled by him, and they shall have one shepherd. Hopefully, the idea of shepherd here is something you have come across frequently in the ministry of the Messiah, who called himself the shepherd, tying it right into to Ezekiel. He stated:
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:14-16 ESV)
Again, we see the Messiah as shepherd, going forth to find the sheep not of the current fold to bring them in and make one flock under one shepherd, instead of the two current flocks. Another time, the Messiah plainly states he is there for one particular and main focus in his ministry. In responding to the pleas of the Caananite woman, Yeshua stated:
I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matthew 15:24 ESV)
Here is the mention of those lost, scattered people of the house of Israel. This is who the Messiah was first interested in retrieving. Earlier in Matthew, when Yeshua was sending out the Apostles to preach, he plainly told them:
These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, "Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matthew 10:5-6 ESV)
Their mission for that time was not to be unto anyone except these lost sheep of the house of Israel, as promised in Hosea. So, the main focus of Christ's work was to retrieve those lost sheep of Israel.
Then we come to our text of the parables in Luke 15, and as I said, it is the third parable in the chapter. And low and behold, the first parable is about a lost sheep being found and the great celebration over that. Same symbolism — Christ came to find those lost sheep of the house of Israel.
So when we jump to our parable later on, the theme is still there. The two sons represent the two houses, Israel and Judah. Israel, the youngest son, starts in covenant, but is broken off, dispersed among the pagan nations, and then later, as a lost sheep, some are brought back in love and mercy from the Father.
In continuing to look at this in the first century, we can jump over into 1 Peter, we see he is writing to these same dispersed people, the house of Israel:
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia… (1 Peter 1:1 ESV)
And what does he say to these dispersed people of the house of Israel? He goes through the rest of chapter one showing them some of the plan of God in salvation, and then we get to chapter 2:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10 ESV)
Remember, in Hosea this house of Israel were called no mercy and not a people, so Peter is directly addressing the promise of Hosea here. He states later in that same chapter to those same people:
For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:25 ESV)
Again, the straying, dispersed people being brought back into the one nation under the Shepherd Messiah as promised. Then we look back to Hosea briefly to pick up verse ten in that first chapter:
Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, "You are not my people," it shall be said to them, "Children of the living God." (Hos 1:10 ESV)
As we read through the ministry of Yeshua, knowing his main task is to the lost house of Israel, and we understand that in Hosea they will be restored and called "Children of the Living God" we should start picking up on that language coming about in his work.
We find for instance, at the announcement of the birth of the John the Baptist, who remember was to prepare the way for the work of the Messiah, the angel states about John:
And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God (Luke 1:16 ESV)
So, we have the people of Israel referred to as children from the start. Then, looking back to the same story already touched upon, when dealing with the Caananite women and stating he was only there for the lost house of Israel, she presses him further, and he states:
It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs. (Matthew 15:26 ESV)
Here, he is connecting the lost house of Israel with the term children directly again. But actually, the language of this same story in Mark adds a tidbit more that shows the fuller ministry of the Messiah:
Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs. (Mark 7:27 ESV)
He is not totally denying the Gentile women permanently; he is saying that his first mission is to the children of Israel. This implies what we know begins to take place later, when that mission stops being about the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and turns to being open to all of the pagan Gentiles nations under Paul.
Now, we jump over to Yeshua as he stands before Caiaphas the high priest, and it is said of Yeshua:
He (Caiaphas) did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. (John 11:51-52 ESV)
So, again, here we have those scattered abroad being referred to as the children of God being brought into one, just as Hosea and Ezekiel promised. The Messiah had come to first save those lost sheep, gathering from among the scattered tribes those that would be brought back as the children of God into one kingdom under the Shepherd.
And of course, to make sure you do not misunderstand this as to say only those of the houses of Israel and Judah would be called children of God, we know from the opening remarks in John, that after Yeshua came to his own, and was rejected in the end, that this grace was granted to others.
He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13 ESV)
These non-bloodline born people, who believed in Messiah, were brought in and given the right to become the children of God. They were not in any way born with that right as the tribes were, but they were born from and through the grace and power of Yahweh, and granted the right to be brought into the same fold with the children of God.
So, to bring all of this to a close, hopefully you can see how the story of the prodigal son is not a story about any and all repentant sinners who come to God. It is in fact the story of two nations and the Father. It is a piece of the final chapter of a long story and promises made long beforehand.
Both nations, represented by two sons, start under the Father's care, in covenant with him. One nation is separated, scattered among the pagans, losing all of their covenant rights, and considered dead and in the world of darkness.
The plan is to bring those scattered people back together under the Father once again. This is only done when the Father takes action, sending himself in to do the job, taking on the humiliation, becoming a man, the Messiah, and going forth to seek and save those which were lost.
The other nation was never separated or scattered like that, yet they had hostility towards the plans of the Father, and therefore they despised the plans of the Son, and rejected him as their Messiah. Like the older son, they were greatly angered by the Father for what he was doing in allowing this sinful nation to come back and be restored on equal footing with them.
They refused fellowship with the nations being received back in, treating them as outcasts, and they rebelled against the plan of Yahweh, which in the end cost them their right to be children, and they were cast out and utterly destroyed along with their house and system of worship.
While the story of the prodigal son does show the extent of love and mercy that the Father has and bestows even to us today as former aliens to his covenant, the story must be first understood as the story relating to the promises of Hosea and Ezekiel, and the bringing together two kingdoms back into one, under one Shepherd.
In accomplishing this, Yeshua then becomes the all-in-all, fulfilling all that the tribes never could, and thus receiving in himself the promises that were given beforehand to the covenant people. He has inherited all that the Father has promised, becoming the light of the world, and bringing reconciliation to any from the nations of the world who turn to him. Amen.