2011-10-14 - The Man with Two Sons
Originally Preached 2008-10-29
I'd like to share something that I enjoy studying - parables. Other religious teachers used parables but Jesus was the master parable maker. Two Old Testament examples showing this form of teaching was used before Jesus can be found in Jotham's story of the trees picking a king found in Judges 9:7-15 and Nathan's parable to David about the rich man and the sheep in 2 Samuel 12:1-6. Jesus used this form of teaching many times. Depending on how you count them, there are somewhere between thirty and sixty parables in the four gospels.
A parable is sometimes defined as "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning". That definition is okay but perhaps a better one would be "a story of familiar things representing unfamiliar things". In understanding the unfamiliar things we have to be careful not to make too much of the details as sometimes they may just be there to make the story more real. However, at other times, they may have a deep allegorical point. To confuse things more parables may have layers and a detail at one level of understanding that may have meaning but not at a second level.
The understanding of parables must be balanced. To understand them you must first look at the context and answer these basic questions. What was going on at the time? To whom was Jesus speaking? Why was he talking to them? Sometimes the gospels answer all these questions and other times the parable is presented on its own without clues on context.
Jesus may have told the crowds or his opponents a parable for one purpose but told the same parable to his disciples for another purpose. As an example, the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:4-10 is told to the Scribes and Pharisees to answer criticisms of his work but is viewed as part of the disciple's instruction in Matthew 18:1,12-14. This implies that parables have layers. To me it seems that they often have three layers.
The primary, or immediate, layer is the understanding meant for those he was talking to at the moment. At this level, the parable may just be a story with a moral.
The prophetic, or historic, layer has a deeper meaning for a later audience. It may be looking years into the future of the immediate audience, the world, or the church.
The personal individual layer is the layer that applies to people individually and universally - not just the original audience but also any audience.
With that information in mind let's look at The Parable of the Man with Two Sons
This is the parable that we like to call "The Prodigal Son" but actually it is about two sons. Jesus starts by saying; "A certain man had two sons." That is a detail to not be overlooked; the truth is that if we look only at the "prodigal" son we miss much of the application.
The Primary (Immediate) Meaning
Go back to verses one through three to see who is there: Sinners and Pharisees. These groups are who the parable is about.
The sinners loved the stories because they could see themselves as the lost sheep, coin, or son and said, "Hey! That is me! I was lost and now I'm found because Jesus finds value in me!" That is exciting news. The lost son assumed he couldn't be forgiven but he hoped to be tolerated. According to Old Testament law (see Deuteronomy 21:18-21) the son should have been stoned to death for the disgrace he brought to his father, family, and community. Instead of the thrashing though, he got: a robe, the ceremonial garment of honored guests; a ring that may have been a signet ring which represented the authority to do business for the family; and shoes which showed he was free because only slaves went barefoot. The sinners were thrilled to see themselves in the story.
The Pharisees didn't want to see themselves in the story but, nevertheless, they were there as the older brother.
The Prophetic Meaning
For the prophetic meaning, I looked to members of the early church for some wisdom. In this layer they agree that the father again represents God. Cyril of Alexandria acknowledged that some believe the parable to be about Jews and Gentiles. Peter Chrysologus stated, "Prudent knowledge of the law made the Jewish people his older son, and the folly of paganism made the Gentile world his younger son." He goes on to say that Jews stand outside God's house (the church) because they angrily judge their Gentile brother.
Next time we will begin to examine the personal meaning. Until then ...
All scripture references from KJV unless otherwise noted