The prodigal son parable, Final
Sep 22, 2014
The father gave the returning prodigal not only “the best robe” but also a ring on his hand. Dr. Bullinger calls it a “signet ring,” that is, a ring which was used to imprint soft wax as a signature or to seal a scroll. When Joseph was given authority over Egypt, “Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand” (Genesis 41:42). It meant that Joseph had the authority to sign official documents in the name of Pharaoh. The purpose of a signet ring is seen in Esther 8:8,
8 Now you write to the Jews as you see fit, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s signet ring; for a decree which is written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s signet ring may not be revoked.
In a New Covenant context, the children of God pray in the name of Jesus because they carry the signet ring of Christ. They have the authority to sign decrees in the name of King Jesus, knowing that such decrees cannot be revoked without their consent. Of course, in such cases, those children of God must be authorized to make such decrees, for God does not often give signet rings to spiritual babes, lest they should use the ring selfishly and for carnal advantage.
Judah also had a signet ring (Genesis 38:25). No doubt it was passed down from generation to generation to each prince of the tribe holding the scepter of Judah. But when the kings of Judah were about to be judged by God for their rebellion, Jeremiah was instructed to go to the king’s house and prophesy against him (Jeremiah 22:18). God tells the prophet in Jeremiah 22:24 and 25,
24 “As I live,” declare the Lord, “even though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah were a signet ring on My right hand, yet I would pull you off; 25 and I shall give you over into the hand of those who are seeking your life, yes, into the hand of those whom you dread, even the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and into the hand of the Chaldeans.”
Here the dominion mandate, which had been given to Judah, was represented by God’s signet ring. The king of Judah was supposed to rule the people by the will of God, as if the king were a signet ring on God’s hand. But God then gave the dominion to the king of Babylon. After the Babylonian captivity, God then made Governor Zerubbabel like a signet ring, for we read in Haggai 2:23,
23 “On that day,” declares the Lord of hosts, “I will take you, Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, my sevant,” declares the Lord, “and I will make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you,” declares the Lord of hosts.
Zerubbabel was the one chosen to lead the captive Judahites back to the old land (Ezra 2:1, 2). In a sense, he represented the company of prodigals who were returning to the Father, and so the prodigals received Zerubbabel as a signet ring.
The Sandals of Peace
The father also gave his returning prodigal “sandals on his feet” (Luke 15:22). Sandals are part of the spiritual armor of God in Ephesians 6:15,
15 and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace.
The gospel of peace on one’s feet means that one’s walk with God brings peace, rather than violence and physical warfare. The contrast is the same as between the Sword of the Spirit and the physical sword. Carnal warfare kills people; spiritual warfare is designed to bring life.
While in the far country, the prodigal had been shod with carnal shoes, but upon his return to the father, he was given new shoes to signify a new walk and a new way of life.
The Fattened Calf
Luke 15:23 says that the prodigal’s father made a feast, saying, “bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and be merry.” The main purpose of this feast was to celebrate the prodigal’s return. Perhaps one might also see in this the sacrifice of Christ, which made grace and forgiveness of sin possible.
The Older Brother
We are now introduced to the older brother in this parable. Up to now, we had not heard of him since the opening statement in verse 11, “a certain man had two sons.” The parable until this point had focused totally upon the younger son. But in Luke 15:25-27 we finally hear of the older brother’s activities:
25 Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things might be. 27 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.”
First, we see that the older brother had not left home in the same way that his younger brother had departed. Both sons were away from home, but the older son was working in the field. He was not present when the prodigal son had returned. Neither did the father send for him. He simply returned at the end of the day from laboring in the field, only to discover then that his brother had returned.
The party was going on without him. He had been forgotten in the joy of celebration. All the attention was going to the foolish son who had returned, instead of to the older son who had never gone into the far country. At first we might have some sympathy for the older brother, because it appeared that he had done all things correctly and had never fallen into open sin and “loose living” as his younger brother had done.
But then we see the older brother’s true character. Though he worked hard, his heart was not right. It is plain that Jesus was identifying the older brother with His critics, the grumbling scribes and Pharisees. Luke 15:28 says,
28 But he became angry, and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began entreating him.
The older son’s refusal to “go in” to the feast is the same as what we have already seen in Jesus’ parable in Luke 14:16-24. In that earlier parable, the main lesson was about priorities, for those who had been invited first claimed to have more important things to do. So the Jews in Jesus’ day had received the first invitation, but when they refused, the house was filled with others who seemed less deserving of such a feast.
In the prodigal son parable, the older brother also refused to attend the feast, but here we are given different reasons. Mostly, he was angry at his father for honoring a repentant sinner more than a righteous worker such as himself. This was, in fact, the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees who grumbled that Jesus would accept into fellowship those who had been excommunicated by the temple as “sinners.”
Yet we see also irony in the picture of the older son’s apparent righteousness. Jesus was careful not to accuse them of having an unrighteous life style. Instead, He took them to task on matters of the heart. They did not have the heart of the Father for whom they were working. They had a religion based upon works, doing acts of righteousness (as seemed good in their understanding of the law), but they did not know God’s heart.
The prodigal represents Joseph first, and by extension all of the “gentiles” with whom the tribes of Israel were associated in their captivity. As “lost sheep,” they were sentenced by the law of tribulation to worship false gods in the lands of their captivity (Deuteronomy 28:64). Judah, however, had not been exiled (yet). Hence, the older brother in the parable had always been at home with his father. And yet he was away from his father as long as he was working in the field. This illustrates how one can be separated from our heavenly Father by our very works that we think are pleasing to Him.
The parable shows clearly that God is more interested in our heart than in our works. If one’s heart is right, his works will be acceptable, but if his heart is not right, his works cannot please God. Hebrews 11:6 says, “without faith it is impossible to please Him.”
The older brother’s anger at his father also pictured Judah’s continued hostility toward God, and also to Christ. Such hostility was condemned in the law of tribulation in Leviticus 26:40-42, as we have already seen. So when the father entreated the older brother to come to the feast and join the celebration, we read of his response in Luke 15:29 and 30,
29 But he answered and said to his father, “Look! For so many years I have been serving you, and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a kid, that I might be merry with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with harlots, you killed the fattened calf for him.”
The older son claimed to “have never neglected a command of yours.” But early in Jesus’ ministry, He said in Luke 5:31, 32,
31 … It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Paul, too, speaks of both kinds of righteousness in Philippians 3:9,
9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from [one's attempt to keep] the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.
Righteousness that is “derived from the law” is always flawed, because “there is none righteous, not even one” (Psalm 14:3; Romans 3:10). It is not the law that is flawed, but man himself. Any man who claims—as did the older brother—to have never neglected one of God’s commands simply does not know his own heart, nor does he know the heart of God.
The older son also refused to recognize the prodigal son as his brother, calling him, “this son of yours.” There was an obvious breach between the two (i.e., Israel and Judah) that needed to be healed. In a more local fulfillment, there was a huge breach between the religious leaders and the excommunicated sinners in the land. The religious leaders used the law to punish sinners. If they had known the heart of God, they would have used the law to restore them to fellowship. In the heart of God, the purpose of the law was to correct sinners, not to destroy them.
The Final Lesson
The father is given the final word in this parable, telling the older brother in Luke 15:31, 32,
31 And he said to him, “My child, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to be merry and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.”
Prophetically speaking, the older brother was the nation of Judah in Jesus’ day. Although they had gone to Babylon for seventy years some centuries earlier, they had never been divorced from God, as we see with the House of Israel (Jeremiah 3:8). Judah’s condition differed from that Israel, in that they remained under a covenant relationship with God. They had continued access to the Scriptures, and if they had truly feasted upon the word, it might have been absolutely true that “all that is mine is yours.” It was available, but as part of the irony, the word had not truly taken root in their hearts at all.
The older brother called the prodigal “this son of yours,” but the father called him “this brother of yours.” The lost House of Israel, having been divorced from God, found themselves as “gentiles” among the nations. From the standpoint of the law, they were classified as the nations, no longer under the covenant, no longer married to God. They were despised by the Judeans, who considered all the nations to be idolaters, dogs, and unclean. The breach was very clear, and Luke’s purpose was to point out Jesus’ teachings that might repair and heal the breaches.
The Judean attitude comes out clearly in the parable of the prodigal son. At the same time, the contrasting attitude of our heavenly Father is set forth. He rejoiced that the son who had been “dead” was now alive, a reference to the prophecy of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37:12,
12 Therefore prophesy and say to them, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I will open your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel’.”
The father also rejoiced that his lost son was now found, a reference to the lost sheep of the House of Israel whom the Good Shepherd personally sought and found, as prophesied in Ezekiel 34:11,
11 For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out.”
This, of course, ties this parable to the first two parables in the series.
This is the final part of a mini-series titled "The Prodigal Son Parable." To view all parts, click the link below.
This is part of the eighty-fourth part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones