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A Prodigal Son and His Equally Prodigal Brother (a study of Luke 15:20-32)

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Luke 15:20-32

The Pharisees are downright upset that Jesus is suggesting that God would accept sinners in His kingdom, so Jesus tells them a parable about a loving father and his two sons: a sinner who repents, and a hard-hearted one who needs to.

But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again. Luke 15:32

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Getting Started: Things to Think About

The World's Favorite Stories

This week, we're studying one of my very favorite stories -- the Parable of the Prodigal Son. And that got me thinking -- what are everybody's favorite stories? I thought the internet might help with this.

I found a list of the 100 most influential stories of all time. The top ten were

  1. The Odyssey -- an epic story of a man trying to get home after a war.

  2. Uncle Tom's Cabin -- a world-shaking story of slavery.

  3. Frankenstein -- a brilliant scientist creates life only for the world to reject it.

  4. 1984 -- the story of a man's struggle to live in an all-powerful regime.

  5. Things Fall Apart -- the story of an African tribal leader on the eve of colonialism.

  6. 1001 Nights -- a collection of Arabian stories built on the power of storytelling.

  7. Don Quixote -- the comedy of a man who revives chivalry by becoming a hero.

  8. Hamlet -- "to be or not to be", that is all I need to say.

  9. One Hundred Years of Solitude -- the history of an isolated town.

  10. The Iliad -- the story of the Trojan War and the lead-in to The Odyssey.

That's a great list, but those are kinda long. And heavy. So, I looked up "most popular stories of all time" and got this list from Brittanica:

  1. Anna Karenina -- a towering reflection on love and society in pre-communist Russia.

  2. To Kill a Mockingbird -- the incomparable view of life in the Jim Crow south.

  3. The Great Gatsby -- a story of the Roaring Twenties and the American Dream.

  4. A Passage to India -- a story of the possibilities of friendship in colonial India.

  5. Invisible Man -- a surreal examination of adversity and discrimination for black males.

  6. Beloved -- a haunting story of life for a freed slave.

  7. Mrs. Dalloway -- a story of a day in the life of a British socialite post-WWI.

  8. Jane Eyre -- the story of an orphan and the challenges she overcomes.

  9. The Color Purple -- an exploration of race, gender, and disability in the post-war south.

Wow. Some great stories on that list. But still heavy. So, I tried "the most iconic stories of all time" and got this list (here's some of it):

  • Rip Van Winkle

  • The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

  • The Tell-Tale Heart

  • An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

  • The Monkey's Paw

  • The Gift of the Magi

  • The Metamorphosis

Those are still a bit too heavy, but I realized what I was looking for: short stories. Stories that you know the whole story to and can tell it quickly and can identify just from the title.

What are your favorite stories? When a child asks you "tell me a story", what comes to your mind? Maybe it's a fable or a bedtime story or a nursery rhyme. Don't worry about genre or length or theme. What are your favorite stories? And why?

For Christians, and maybe even for most of the world, the parable of the prodigal son is probably pretty close to the top of most of our lists. (A surreal experience for me was discovering that the Rolling Stones did a cover of this parable.) You probably know the whole story without reading up on it. (That's a mark of a great story, btw.) What is it about that particular parable that makes it so popular, and how does it compare with some of the other stories you personally like? Are there themes in common, maybe a lesson?

This is a great week to reminisce about your favorite stories.

-Or- Idea 2: A Broken Item, a Lost Sign

There are two scenarios that work for introducing this parable: a time you found something you had lost, and a time you had something fixed that was broken. Those are the emotions that Jesus is tapping into in these parables. Bring in something that looks broken. Ask a simple question: when you have something fixed that was broken, how does it make you feel? Or, show a "lost" sign and talk about the great hurt and fear that goes with looking for something important that is lost. If our heart rejoices when we find something that was lost, or we have something fixed that was broken, how do we think God feels when someone who has gone away from Him returns?


This Week's Big Idea: Parables

A few years ago when we studied the Parable of the Four Soils, I included a "big idea" on parables which included a list of all of Jesus' parables. I don't need to repeat everything I said there, but I would like to redo that list to make it easier to follow.

In summary, I said that a parable is a simile that provides a vision of kingdom life by comparing it to life here and now. It is not an allegory (allegories rely on one-to-one correspondence). It is not a fable (fables teach generic morality using talking animals). It is a memorable story that teaches God's values.

Here is a list of Jesus' parables. See how many of them you already kind of know (you might know them by a different name). If you aren't sure about one, take a few minutes to look it up and learn it. If we want to know what kingdom life should be like, this is how to learn it.

I'm going to start with the parables found in Matthew, listing their parallels in Mark and Luke (these are the synoptic Gospels). There is one parable found only in Mark, and there are a bunch of parables (like ours this week) found only in Luke.

Matthew Mark Luke

Lamp on a Stand Mt 5:14 Mk 4:21-22 Lk 8:16, 11:33

Wise and Foolish Builders Mt 7:24-27

New Cloth on an Old Coat Mt 9:16 Mk 2:21 Lk 5:36

New Wine in Old Wineskins Mt 9:17 Mk 2:22 Lk 5:37

The Sower and Four Soils Mt 13:3-8 Mk 4:3-8 Lk 8:5-8

Wheat and Weeds Mt 13:24-30

A Mustard Seed Mt 13:31-32 Mk 4:30-32 Lk 13:18-19

Yeast Mt 13:33

Hidden Treasure Mt 13:44

Valuable Pearl Mt 13:45-46

Fishing Net Mt 13:47

Owner of a House Mt 13:52

Lost Sheep Mt 18:12-13 Lk 15:4-7

The Unmerciful Servant Mt 18:23-34

Workers in the Vineyard Mt 20:1-16

The Two Sons Mt 21:28-32

Wicked Tenants Mt 21:33-44 Mk 12:1-11 Lk 20:9-18

Wedding Banquet Mt 22:2-14

A Fig Tree Mt 24:32-35 Mk 13:28-29 Lk 21:29-31

The Faithful Servant Mt 24:45-51 Mk 12:42-48

The Ten Virgins Mt 25:1-13

The Ten Talents Mt 25:14-30 Lk 19:12-27

The Sheep and Goats Mt 25:31-46

A Growing Seed Mk 4:26-29

The Watchful Servant Mk 13:35-37 Lk 12:35-40

The Forgiving Moneylender Lk 7:41-43

The Good Samaritan Lk 10:30-37

A Friend in Need Lk 11:5-8

The Rich Fool Lk 12:16-21

Unfruitful Fig Tree Lk 13:6-9

Lowest Seat at the Feast Lk 14:7-14

Invitation to a Great Banquet Lk 14:16-24

The Cost of Discipleship Lk 14:28-33

The Lost Coin Lk 15:8-10

The Prodigal Son Lk 15:11

The Shrewd Manager Lk 16:1-8

The Rich Man and Lazarus Lk 16:19-31

Master and His Servant Lk 17:7-10

The Persistent Widow Lk 18:2-8

A Pharisee and Tax Collector Lk 18:10-14

When we covered the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, I noted that there are only 7 parables that appear in all three synoptics, and 5 of those have to do with the Jewish rejection of Jesus (and the consequences they will face for doing so).

This week's parable also has to do with the difference between Jews and Gentiles, but it takes a very different approach. Just remember that we have to read all of the parables together to get the full picture of what's going on in God's kingdom.


Where We Are in Luke

Shockingly, our Bible study basically skips four chapters, and we're about to skip two more next week! It's clear that they want to spend the bulk of our remaining time in Luke focused on the final chapters, but wow that's a lot of material to jump over. We're going from the Parable of the Good Samaritan to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Here's what we skip:

  • Mary and Martha (10:38-42)

  • Prayer (11:1-13)

  • Jesus and Beelzebul (11:14-28)

  • The Sign of Jonah (11:29-32)

  • The Lamp of the Body (11:33-36)

  • Woe on the Leaders (11:37-54)

  • Warnings (12:1-12)

  • The Parable of the Rich Fool (12:13-21)

  • Do Not Worry (12:22-34)

  • Be Watchful (12:35-48)

  • Not Peace but Division (12:49-53)

  • Interpreting the Times (12:54-59)

  • Repent or Perish (13:1-9)

  • A Crippled Woman on the Sabbath (13:10-17)

  • The Parable of the Mustard Seed (13:18-21)

  • The Narrow Door (13:22-30)

  • Weeping for Jerusalem (13:31-35)

  • At a Pharisee's House (14:1-14)

  • The Parable of the Great Banquet (14:15-24)

  • The Cost of Discipleship (14:25-35)

  • The Parable of the Lost Sheep (15:1-7)

  • The Parable of the Lost Coin (15:8-10)

So, yeah. That's a lot. Here's one way to summarize it all: as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, opposition (particularly from the Jewish leaders) increases. But He will never stop calling people to repent and follow Him. I mentioned that The Bible Project interprets this entire section of Luke based on this parable. If you didn't watch it a few weeks ago, please watch it now!

Jesus used the perspectives of three relatable people -- a father and two sons -- to confront the Jewish leaders in their selfish perspective of God's kingdom. Just as the older son could not stop the father from loving his brother, Jews could not control God's love for the entire world.

Chapters 14 and 15 set up our parable for the week.

  • Chapter 14 is set at a banquet. A Pharisee has invited Jesus to a banquet, and Jesus observes that the Jews were worried about getting places of honor for themselves and humiliating the poor and the outcast. That becomes the setting for His parables about banquets in God's kingdom, culminating in the two powerful warnings "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled" (14:11) and "For I tell you that none of the men who were invited will taste my banquet" (14:24).

  • Chapter 15 consists of three famous parables: The Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son. In 15:1-2, Pharisees continue to grumble that Jesus has befriended sinners, and so Jesus responds with three stories about lost things. Don't people look for things they had lost, and rejoice when they find them? Cannot God feel the same? The shepherd leaves the 99 to find 1 lost sheep. The homeowner spends all night carefully searching for 1 lost coin. The father welcomes back the lost son with open arms.

There's a key phrase in the first two parables that is not repeated in ours -- there is more rejoicing in heaven over a sinner who repents than a righteous person who does not need to. Jesus forces His audience to connect those dots on their own, but the way He told the story forces us to ask a key question: is the older brother actually righteous?

For space reasons (I guess), our lesson picks up halfway through the parable. It will take no time at all to read the whole thing, and I say to just read the whole chapter. It's short, and it helps us understand Jesus' point.


Part 1: Forgiveness Granted (Luke 15:20-24)

20 So he got up and went to his father. But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. 21 The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father told his servants, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it, and let’s celebrate with a feast, 24 because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.

There are some key difference between this and the other two parables of the lost. In this one, the son has to repent and return -- the father doesn't go looking for him. This is about human responsibility. (And a key element is that the older brother also has to "repent and return" to his father, in a manner of speaking, and he fails to realize that.)

Inheritance did not come to a son until after the death of the father (Num 27:8-11, Num 15:19-31), so the setup of this parable is very stark. By taking everything and leaving, the son wants to be completely cut off from his family. (Note that as the younger son, he would have received half of the portion of the older.) It's really not important where the younger son went or what he was doing. He squandered everything he had in reckless and sinful living. Because Jesus tends to push illustrations to their extreme (like last week), this son ends up feeding pigs -- an action considered cursed by Jews. And then he came to his senses.

I love that phrase. Have you ever had the experience of "coming to your senses"? I have. If you can keep it short, share a story of when you had that aha moment of your sin or mistake and how you could make it right. For my part, I believe that this parable proves that people can come to their senses. We don't have to view every confession as self-serving. Sure, this son could be using this to manipulate his way into the rest of his father's estate, but that's not what's going on. He truly came to his senses. He truly repented. He truly returned.

And that's the added element of this parable. The lost sheep and the lost coin had to be searched for -- they were not agents. But the son had to come to his senses. And the return cost him something. Yes, he had to give up his pride. And I'm sure that in his awful condition, it was embarrassing to be seen by former neighbors as he got closer to home. But think about it -- he was hungry enough to eat pig slop. That meant he was emaciated. He had no money for food or protection on the journey. And he could have been a long, long way from home. He could have died on the way.

[Theological Aside on Salvation by Works: remember that this is a parable, not an allegory. Yes, the son's return home makes us think of repentance unto salvation, but if we push it too hard we might think that we have the power to return to God on our own. That's not what Jesus is suggesting. Jesus is simply telling us that the younger son repented and God forgave. There was a big argument between Augustine and Pelagius in the 4th century in which Pelagius argued that people must take the initiative in salvation; Augustine countered that we are powerless in salvation, leading to the traditional doctrine of predestination. If we insist on making this parable line up with a biblical theology of salvation, perhaps we could say that the son heard through the grapevine that the father wanted him home? Our doctrine of "prevenient grace" says that the Holy Spirit is at work in all people all over the world, enabling them to respond to the offer of salvation when they hear it. Most simply choose to refuse.]

Have you ever been too proud to repent of something, or to go to someone and apologize? It's an epidemic in our culture. Why do you think that is? Why is it so hard to go to someone and apologize and ask for forgiveness?

Well, this son had gotten far past that. In fact, he wasn't even looking for forgiveness. He was just looking for mercy. And maybe that's our problem -- maybe we hold on too tightly to our own pride, failing to see ow worthless our self-righteousness really is.

But this son would learn that his father's compassion and love far exceeded his own sin and guilt. The father offered true forgiveness and true restoration. That's not to say that there weren't very rough days on his transition back home! (The next sections indicate that things would be awkward around the house for a while.) But repenting and returning home was exactly what the son should have done.

The "fattened calf" reference is interesting. A calf would be kept in a stall so that its meat would be tender. Was the father preparing for another banquet, or had he always kept a calf "at the ready" for when his son returned home? The note about "when he was a long way off" implies that the father was keeping vigil for him. How much time had passed?

Again, while this is not an allegory, the actions of the father make us think of some clear and obvious things. The father embracing the son is a demonstration of love and compassion. The robe is a new identity (we might think of Christ's righteousness). The ring is being a part of the family again. The sandals are a mark of provision and protection. The feast is God's celebration of the sinner returning home. The son was dead to the father (by his own choice), but now he has returned -- "is alive again" (from the father's perspective). He was lost but now is found. Makes you want to sing, doesn't it? (Newton believed that if God could forgive the prodigal son, He could forgive a slaver like Newton. It was to Newton's great shame that he did not officially renounce slavery for another 34 years.)


Aside: A Father's Love

But even though the son took the initiative of returning, the father still came running out to him. As you've probably heard before, that's not normal behavior for a wealthy patriarch -- certainly not in public.

That's not entirely the way we think of father/child interaction today. What father do you know would let blood or filth or danger prevent him from rescuing his child in need? None! One of my favorite images from the Olympics is of Derek Redmond who tore his hamstring in his race but tried (and failed) to finish. Out from the stands bounds his dad, who barrels his way through the guards to get to his son and help him finish the race. Absolutely outstanding. That's the image of dadship we have today. In fact, the cold, heartless, uncaring father is a common villain trope in entertainment! (Take a moment and think of villainous dads you've watched on tv. It's a driving plot point of multiple popular shows out there!) But that's the way dads were in the ancient near east. Reserved. Aloof, even.

The dad in the parable is more like Derek's dad (Jim, btw). His love and compassion for his son cannot be contained by social norms. The son tries to give his speech acknowledging guilt and repentance, but the father doesn't even let him get through the whole thing! The simple fact of returning home in need was proof enough to the father of the son's change in heart. And the father was right -- the son had truly had a change in heart.


Part 2: Resentment Expressed (Luke 15:25-30)

25 “Now his older son was in the field; as he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he summoned one of the servants, questioning what these things meant. 27 ‘Your brother is here,’ he told him, ‘and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ 28 “Then he became angry and didn’t want to go in. So his father came out and pleaded with him. 29 But he replied to his father, ‘Look, I have been slaving many years for you, and I have never disobeyed your orders, yet you never gave me a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’

Lifeway wants us to focus on this portion of the parable, the portion that often times we gloss over. You see, now we realize that it wasn't just the younger son who was lost; the older son was lost too, but he had just stayed at home.

To add flavor to your discussion, you might be tempted to talk about sibling rivalry. It's absolutely a thing, and it can be very destructive to sibling relationships. You could also talk about favoritism and the cancer it is to a family. (Genesis alone is filled with multiple stories of rivalry and favoritism, and it doesn't try to sugarcoat the damage that resulted.) But I don't think this story is about either of those. At least, it's clear that Jesus doesn't intend us to think that the father favored the younger son or that there was some history of rivalry between the brothers. Rather, this passage is simply about the resentment the older son has for the father's generosity and forgiveness. The older son is so out of his mind as to accuse the father of irresponsibility with the father's own emotions and possessions!

Think about it. When (in the next section) the father says to the older son "everything I have is yours", he's being literal. The younger son already took his portion of the inheritance. Everything left belongs to the older son. When the father throws a banquet for the younger son, it's roundaboutly coming out of the older son's inheritance. The older son is more upset about losing what he thinks is rightfully his than celebrating his brothers return.

I think that's why this parable is so effective. Humans cannot help but look at the world with an economy of scarcity. There's only so much to go around. What the father gives to the younger son can no longer be given to the older son. (Or so we tend to think.) That leads to jealousy and animosity when we see God bless someone else that we think is less deserving. (And there's more to this lesson, but see below.) But let me ask the key question: does God ever actually run out of blessing?

The older son does not just harbor resentment for the father's generosity, but also for the father's forgiveness. The older son didn't think the younger son deserved to be forgiven. He can't even call him his brother! ("This son of yours." I always knew it was trouble when my mom said to my dad "this son of yours".) He throws out this accusation about prostitutes (that we have no other confirmation for). But he, on the other hand, never disobeyed the father in any way. He was so much better than this other "son of yours".

And that's where we all tend to get in trouble.

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:10-14) helps us understand that those kinds of comparisons simply don't work. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness. We've already hit this theme multiple times - like when we studied Jesus' encounter with the Pharisee and the sinful woman a few weeks ago. Thinking that you are "better", that you "deserve" more, that you've "earned" good treatment, those things take you further and further away from God and His love and mercy.

Look at the scenario again. The older brother is standing outside -- he won't go in. The father has to come out to him, just like he went out to the younger son! And the older son immediately demonstrates that he has no idea what compassion or family means, which makes him just as big of a sinner as his brother -- just in another way.

His words drip of self-righteousness and ungratefulness. He has been "slaving" for his father -- showing us what he thinks of that relationship. He has "never disobeyed" his father. And he was never rewarded for his obedience. (What? Did he not live in the house and eat at the table? Did he ever even ask for a goat?) And he resented that.

Wow, this is bad.

Of course, the older son is the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. Their acts of obedience had become their god. Legalism had become their religion. But that's not what God ever wanted. It had hardened their hearts so much that when Jesus presented them with the possibility of sinful Gentiles repenting and entering the kingdom of God, they basically responded with "over my dead body" #notmymessiah.


Aside: Making Room for New Christians

As much as we tear down the older son for his very wrong reaction to his brother's redemption, we need to keep an eye on ourselves that we don't react the same way when lost people become found around us.

Part of what broke the father's heart was the fact that the older son clearly was unwilling to share any of his own blessing with his brother. "This is mine, and he shouldn't get any of it." I see that attitude drift into some churches.

It usually goes something like this: people come to faith in Christ and join the church. They have different mannerisms and behaviors and interests than the people who had been in the church for a long time. Leadership in the church seems to be celebrating these new people and spending time and energy with them more than the long-term members, and that leads to resentment. "This is our church -- we built it with our tithes and effort. They need to adapt to our rules and pay us proper respect."

Have you ever heard someone give off that vibe? Can you identify the error in that mindset?

To be clear, I'm not talking about favoritism. Jesus is dead-set against favoritism. I'm talking about the willing embrace of a repentant sinner and the sacrifice necessary to integrate that person into the church family. Are we in favor of that?


Part 3: Reality Defined (Luke 15:31-32)

“‘Son,’ he said to him, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

The denouement of the parable is intentionally vague and unsatisfying. The older brother's actions were clearly out of line, and they probably hurt the father just as much as the younger brother's had when he left. The older brother didn't really want to be a part of the family, either; he just wanted what was coming to him (just like the younger brother).

The father is gentle. I love the "this brother of yours" comeback. Celebrating his return takes nothing away from the older brother (at least, nothing of lasting importance). But refusing to celebrate his return takes everything away from his relationship with the father. It is a slap in the face of the father.

Did the older brother eventually come to his senses? Jesus doesn't tell us. Why do you think that is?

In digesting this parable, you might get sidetracked by a very important question: what if the younger brother's repentance is fake? Isn't it right to be skeptical? To make them "prove" repentance by groveling for a while? Remember -- we believe that the sacrifice and humiliation in the nature of the son's return is proof of true repentance. But even if we're not sure, should we react in any other way than celebration?

Thank God for your salvation. Pray for those around you who need to "come to their senses". And take heart in being reminded that with God, all things are possible.


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