The Good Son Is Going to Perish

 Interpreting Parables

Jesus used parables to teach one primary lesson for each parable. Those who teach principles of interpretation rightly caution us against trying to make parables walk on all fours. If we try to press all the details of a parable, we are destined to teach doctrines that are contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture. This is an important rule of biblical interpretation concerning parables of which many seem to be unaware and many others simply choose to ignore. If we find teachings clearly delineated in didactic, theological, passages, there is nothing wrong with recognizing allusions to those teachings in the parables. Still, those doctrines must first be established by didactic passages. Like all illustrations, parables break down in points of detail. Our task is to discern the primary lesson Jesus intended to teach in each parable. This is more difficult to discern with some parables than with others.

The Parables of Luke Fifteen

In the case of the parables of Luke fifteen, the primary lesson Jesus is teaching is easy discover. Jesus spoke the trilogy of parables we find in this chapter in response to a charge made by the Pharisees and scribes. “Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So He spoke this parable to them, . . .” (Luke 15:1-3). Jesus was always approachable. Sinners did not shy away from him but felt comfortable in his presence. He received them and ate with them. From the perspective of the Pharisees and Scribes, this complaint was perhaps the worst insult they could have hurled at Jesus. In reality, their complaint is the best news we sinners could receive. This man receives sinners. He does not wait to receive us until the grace he infuses as the result of his redemptive work produces obedience to his commands. He receives us as sinners with no righteousness of our own. The main point of the parable is that Jesus is interested in seeking and saving the lost. In all three of these parables [or all three parts of the parable], Jesus speaks of lost things. The first is a lost sheep, the second a lost coin, the third is a lost son. It is important that we understand that the distinction Jesus draws between the righteous and sinners in the Gospels is not one of reality but one of perception. In reality, there is no one who is righteous, not even one. Jesus speaks of those who perceive themselves to be righteous and those who understand themselves to be sinners. Those who perceive themselves to be righteous are without hope. Jesus only came to redeem the lost.

Both Sons are the Focus of the Parable

The so called “parable of the prodigal son” is really as much about the older son as it is about the younger son. It is the contrast between the two that Jesus intends to grab our attention. The older son clearly believes he deserves a party thrown in his honor. In his view, the younger son deserves nothing but the Father’s disgust and rejection. In reality, he is right. What he fails to understand is that he, too, deserves the father’s rejection. We clearly cannot deduce that fact from the parable since there is nothing that would indicate that he was undeserving; we must learn it from other biblical passages. Remember, it is the sinner’s perception of himself that Jesus is talking about, not the reality of the sinner’s standing before God. In Jesus’ parable, it is the one who knows he is lost that the father receives and showers with his good things. The older brother receives nothing. In truth, he is the one who is lost. He saw no need for a Savior. In his perception, he had merited the father’s blessing since he had never left his father’s house. The Pharisees and Scribes, as religious as they were would die in their sins because they saw no need for a Savior.

An Illustration of Repentance

Our Lord’s account of the younger brother’s experience in the far country provides an excellent illustration of the nature of repentance. The younger son, in his arrogance had received his inheritance and left his father’s house. He traveled to a distant country and there threw away his inheritance with both hands, living with harlots. When he had spent all the money, a great famine began in that region and he began to be in need. He even went so far as to get a job feeding pigs and was so hungry that he would have eaten the pig food rather than return to his father’s house. Sinners will do anything to avoid returning to the Father. Then, the text tells us he came to his senses. The rest of the New Testament Scriptures teach us that sinners do not just “come to their senses” on their own. This must be God’s work. But, this is not the primary lesson taught in the parable. At this point, Jesus was not concerned with how he came to his senses. His point was that this young man began to understand that he would perish if he did not return to the father’s house. Consider what was involved in his return.

1. He decided to return to his father’s house. Someone has said, “Repentance is not something God requires us to do before we can return to him; it is returning to him.”

2. He acknowledged that he was not worthy to be called the father’s son.

3. He was willing to be treated as a hired servant in his father’s house. The passage says nothing of performing meritorious works to earn the father’s favor. It says nothing about doing penitence so that he might be freed from his post-baptismal sins. It says nothing about keeping the sacraments so that grace might be dispensed to him through them. It says nothing about making a pilgrimage to gain blessings for himself Verse twenty simply says, “So he began his journey and went to the father. He returned with empty hands. He returned without arguments as to why the father should accept him. He returned without any right to the inheritance. He returned with the purpose of serving in the father’s house as an obedient servant for the rest of his life. This is the way sinners repent. We return to the Father without any intention of offering anything as an incentive for his acceptance. We have no arguments of our own as to why he should receive us. We return understanding that we have squandered our inheritance and now deserve no inheritance at all. We return with a heart purpose to serve him for the rest of our days as obedient servants. There is one great difference here between his experience and the sinner’s return. This young man returned without any promise of acceptance. He had no reason for confidence. He returned with a fond but unfounded hope that he would be received. When, as sinners we return to God in saving faith and godly repentance, we do so with a well founded confidence based on God’s salvation promises. He has said, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). The heavenly Father cannot turn sinners away since to do so would make him unfaithful to his promises. The good news is that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. He doesn’t ask you to change yourself; he simply commands you to return. He invites you to come just as you are so that he might cleanse you from your sins and conform you to his likeness. If you continue to insist you are worthy to receive God’s blessing and the eternal inheritance because you are worthy in yourself, you, like the good son, will perish in your sins.


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