A quick examination of the famous parable, and why a couple of common interpretations just don’t fit the context.
Parables, analogies, and metaphors are as common as they are useful. They can communicate a concept far deeper than a simple description. We can know something much better when we can see it played out, feel its force, and watch it act. But they have limitations. A picture has a purpose: some central aspect of it is intended to communicate a truth. So, it’s important to determine the primary truth, and to not stretch it beyond its intent. Don’t take analogies too far, and don’t lose sight of the context.
Unfortunately, this is a common mistake in the study of Jesus’s parables. Let’s briefly examine one of the most famous parables, and see why a couple interpretations just don’t fit.
A better name for this parable might be, the Parable of the Lost Son, or better yet, the Parable of the Two Sons. But since context is the key to interpretation, let’s back up a bit. Luke 15 starts with:
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. 2 And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2 )
Jesus answers them with the parable of the lost sheep, then the parable of the lost coin, and then finishes answering them with the parable of the two sons. So really, all three parables answer the same question; all three help illustrate the same point. After the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus states plainly what He is illustrating to the Pharisees:
Likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.
After the next parable, the one about the lost coin, He reiterates by saying, “Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
At this point, He tells the parable of the two sons. Now, the first portion of this parable is very similar to the first two, but this time, it’s more example and less analogy. The picture of the sinners and tax collectors isn’t just a lost sheep, or a lost coin, but now a young man. Sheep and coins make fine illustrations, but are not in and of themselves morally guilty of anything. A sheep is not a moral being, guilty of getting itself lost, a coin isn’t even a living creature. But when Jesus moves beyond those metaphors to a story of a man, He deepens the illustration. The life He describes could easily have described one of the “sinners and tax collectors” about whom the Pharisees complained. So Jesus moves from examples that the Pharisees could directly empathize with (each of us has lost and regained cherished possessions), to one which illustrates not only the lost more vividly, but most importantly, more vividly shows the heart of the Father. Not only is it deeper, but Jesus adds an element to this last Parable: it now describes the Pharisees themselves.
This parable is rich, and is justifiably popular. It beautifully describes the Father’s love for the lost, and His forgiveness and acceptance of those who repent. I doubt many readers or teachers have missed the significance of the way Jesus describes the Father character, and I won’t dig into that here. I think, however, it’s important to bring to attention two aspects of this chapter that are often missed: 1) the older son in the parable represents the Pharisees, and even constitutes an invitation to them, and 2) all three parables have the same point, and the point is stated plainly by Jesus: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 just persons who [think they] need no repentance.”
So how can missing the context lead us to misinterpret the parable of the two sons? Let’s look at just two examples:
“It’s about a saved son who falls into sin, and was restored.”
Why people say this: They say this because the parable is about sons, and usually, when the bible portrays humans as being sons of the Father, it is referring to saved, adopted children who are sons because they are in Christ.
Why this is wrong: Since all three parables illustrate the sinners and tax collectors coming to Jesus, to the chagrin of the Pharisees, the prodigal son is representative of these sinners, and the older son is representative of the Pharisees. If that is the case, these are “Sons of creation, not sons of redemption,” as William MacDonald points out.
“The son isn’t really repenting, he’s manipulating.”
I’m not sure how old this interpretation is, but it seems to be popular more recently.
Why people say this: This comes from reading verses 17-19 in a certain way, so that he sounds selfish and manipulative. “It’s like he’s scheming.” I really can’t see any other justification for it, and I’ve only heard it asserted, without evidence. Good, godly Christians have said this, so I’m not trying to disparage teachers who may have presented this view, but I haven’t heard good reasons for it.
The view might stem from a desire to find a novel interpretation, which is a terrible justification for any idea. That an idea is novel or traditional are not good reasons for holding a belief. It might also stem from prior theological commitments, paired with the idea that this parable, by itself, is intended to be a comprehensive description of salvation.
Why this is wrong: This view fails to understand the purpose of the parable. If the younger son is manipulative and insincere in his return to the Father, that would imply that Jesus is calling the sinners and tax collectors insincere and manipulative for coming to Him. This would tend to strengthen, rather than oppose, the complaints of the Pharisees. The whole point was to show the Father’s heart toward the lowly, and humble: those who know they need repentance. As Jesus said in Luke 5:31-32, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
“But where’s the Holy Spirit’s conviction? Or the work of Christ?” (In the previous two parables, actually!) The point is, the parable of the two sons is just not illustrating those things. It’s not a comprehensive description of salvation. It is, however, a beautiful picture of the Father’s love for the lost, the joy over and reception of a humble repenting sinner, and the Father’s pleading with the proud religious person to stop toiling, and come inside.
There is much more in this rich chapter we could explore, but the point is this: whatever else is there in meaning, or application, it won’t contradict the primary meaning that Jesus Himself states. Analogies, metaphors, parables, and allegories can be rich, especially in God’s living word, and Luke chapter 15 is no different. So much more could be said, about the terrible insult of turning from your Creator and living for yourself, the emptiness of a life lived for yourself, the seeking Son of God who carries the weight of the lost sheep, the Spirit who lights a lamp and sweeps away the dust to find the lost coin, the vivid picture of Israel in the older son, the open ending that invites the listener like Jonah chapter 4… But whatever additional insights may be brought out of this chapter, they should not overshadow the primary purpose, and if they contradict what is clearly there, they aren’t true. The clearly stated parts of scripture must interpret the difficult parts, the prose of the Bible must interpret the pictures, and analogies must not be taken too far. Like the rest of scripture, parables have context!