04 November 2015

Culturally Understanding the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) Pt 4

In the prior three parts I have been looking into the cultural aspects and understandings of the actual surface level story of the prodigal son. How would those listening in the first century have understood the finer points of the story? By understanding how they understood it, we can better understand it. Now I wish to examine the underlying story, the application side as it was being directed and applied to those hearing it at the time. Sadly this is not the angle or depth that is taken by most commentators that I examined. The cultural and historical application of it seems to have almost been totally lost in mainstream teachings. As mentioned before, most simply see this is an example of how God welcomes and loves any repentant sinner that comes to him.
The problem I have with that assessment is that it does not fit the relevance of what is being said, to whom it is being said, and doesn’t fit the players in the story. If you recall, this chapter contains three parables, this being the third in the trilogy of stories.  The chapter starts by stating:

And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2 ESV)

So, we know some of the main people being addressed here by Yeshua are the Pharisees as usual. One thing that people seem to gloss over in the story is that it is two sons and a father - the father and two children already related to him. The father figure in the story represents Yahweh, and the sons are children of God – part of his family in the beginning. And one of the children forsakes the family and leaves.

The Pharisees listening to this story represent those two tribes of Israel that are still serving and maintaining a covenant relationship with Yahweh. They are the older brother in the story. That alone should assist in revealing that the younger son is not representative of just sinners returning to God in general. The one returning is one that beforehand was in close covenant with God – not a stranger to God and the covenant as everyday people coming to God would be.

If that were the case, and this was just representing ordinary people, then this is telling us that they were in close covenant with the father, left the covenant and then came back. That would be to say they were alive in the Father, chose to leave, thus being dead to the Father, and then returned to the Father. Some of course do view this story as focused on people who make a decision for Christ, but stray and then later return, but even this is hard to apply to just ordinary people in the world when we seriously considering all of the things surrounding the story.

A better understanding is that the younger son represents those ten tribes that were removed from the covenant in the past due to their sin and disobedience. These ten northern tribes were:
1. In a covenant relationship with the Father - just as the younger son was
2. Cut off from the Father – just as the younger son was
3. Considered dead to the Father – just as the younger son was
4. Intermingled with the pagan nations – just as the younger son was
5. Being restored to the Father through the Messiah – just as the younger son was
6. Causing the existing tribes (Pharisee/Israel) to recoil and rebel against the Messiah
God has previously promised that this would happen and it was happening in their day. For some reason, the current religious regime was not seeing that as the promised plan and were therefore not accepting it, and that is why the story has an open ending – because they were being told what was happening, and were to decide their response.

Let’s take a brief look at some of what is said on this topic, with a little background history first. There were the twelve tribes, and they previously split into two separate nations. The two tribes of Judah and Benjamin were considered the Southern Kingdom, and together they were referred to as Judah. 

The other ten tribes made up the Northern Kingdom, and they were designated by the name Israel. Now, when we get to the book of Hosea, we see that Hosea is told by the Lord to take a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom. These children are named names that represent the tribes in various ways. The first son was named Jezreel:

Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. (Hosea 1:4 ESV)  

So, here we are told the ten tribes referred to as the house of Israel will be brought to their end – Jezreel means that God has sown – as in the sowing or scattering of seeds. Then we are told the next child was a daughter named No Mercy:
Call her name No Mercy, for I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all. But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God. (Hosea 1:6-7 ESV)

And then another son came:

When she had weaned No Mercy, she conceived and bore a son. And the LORD said, "Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God." (Hosea 1:8-9 ESV)

So, here is what we are told. These children will be the end of the kingdom of the house of Israel, they will be scattered and sown, and they will be called no mercy and not my people. But in verse 11 the promise to them is made:

And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head.  (Hosea 1:11a ESV)

This one head they will under is of course the Messiah. So, the promise is that they are no longer a nation and are scattered away from the covenant, but that one day they will be brought back and reconciled unto God through the Messiah.

This idea appears in places throughout the first testament scriptures, but is stated pretty clearly again in one other place I would like to bring into the mix, and that is Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 37 we have the story of the valley of dry bones that most everyone knows.

The prophet is taken to a valley, shown old dry bones, and they are given flesh and brought back to life with the Spirit of God. This is understood as resurrection imagery looking to the day when the people are restored to life in the land of promise. The story is followed by a second, the two sticks story.

"Son of man, take a stick and write on it, 'For Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him'; then take another stick and write on it, 'For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him.' And join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand. And when your people say to you, 'Will you not tell us what you mean by these?' (Ezekiel 37:16-18 ESV)

So, we have two sticks, each representing the kingdom groups of Northern and Southern kingdoms as we’ve already discussed. He says they will be one day brought back into one stick. When inquired as to what this means, we are told:

Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. "My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. (Ezekiel 37:21-24 ESV)

I wish I could go further to look at the later verses on how God’s new covenant will be made and how He will set his sanctuary in their midst to dwell there forever, but that would be a whole other study.

What we have here is a promise of restoring the people of Israel who had been scattered among the nations, and to bring them back and merge them so that there are no longer two kingdoms, but one. And that one kingdom shall be ruled by David – which we understand to be Yeshua, the Messiah, the descendant of David.

They shall be ruled by him, and they shall have one shepherd. Hopefully, the idea of shepherd here is something you have come across frequently in the ministry of the Messiah, who called himself the shepherd, tying it right into to Ezekiel. He stated:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:14-16 ESV)

Again, we see the Messiah as shepherd, going forth to find the sheep not of the current fold to bring them in and make one flock under one shepherd, instead of the two current flocks. Another time, the Messiah plainly states he is there for one particular and main focus in his ministry. In responding to the pleas of the Caananite woman, Yeshua stated:

I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matthew 15:24)

Here is the mention of those lost, scattered people of the house of Israel. This is who the Messiah was first interested in retrieving. Earlier in Matthew, when Yeshua was sending out the Apostles to preach, he plainly told them:

These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, "Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matthew 10:5-6 ESV)

And when speaking of Zacchaeus, Yeshua stated:
And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." (Luk 19:9-10 ESV)
So when we see the Bible speaking of "the lost" - instead of thinking this is just a generic term meaning all unbelievers, we must first examine the context to see if it is a direct reference to the gathering ot eh lost sheep of Israel from among the nations. Yeshua sent his disciples out, and their mission for that time was not to be unto anyone except these lost sheep of the house of Israel, as promised in Hosea. So, the main focus of Christ’s work was to retrieve those lost sheep of Israel.

Then we come to our text of the parables in Luke 15, and as I said, it is the third parable in the chapter. And low and behold, the first parable is about a lost sheep being found and the great celebration over that. Same symbolism – Christ came to find those lost sheep of the house of Israel.

So when we jump to our parable later on, the theme is still there. The two sons represent the two houses, Israel and Judah. Israel, the youngest son, starts in covenant, but is broken off, dispersed among the pagan nations, and then later, as a lost sheep, some are brought back in love and mercy from the Father.That was actively happening during his lifetime - the period of the people hearing him speak this parable.

In continuing to look at this in the first century, we can jump over into 1 Peter, we see he is writing to these same dispersed people, the house of Israel:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia… (1 Peter 1:1 ESV)

And what does he say to these dispersed people of the house of Israel? He goes through the rest of chapter one showing them some of the plan of God in salvation, and then we get to chapter 2:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10 ESV)

Remember, in Hosea this house of Israel were called no mercy and not a people, so Peter is directly addressing the promise of Hosea here. He states later in that same chapter to those same people:

For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:25)

Again, the straying, dispersed people being brought back into the one nation under the Shepherd Messiah as promised. Then we look back to Hosea briefly to pick up verse ten in that first chapter:

Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, "You are not my people," it shall be said to them, "Children of the living God." (Hos 1:10)

As we read through the ministry of Yeshua, knowing his main task is to the lost house of Israel, and we understand that in Hosea they will be restored and called “Children of the Living God” we should start picking up on that language coming about in his work.

We find for instance, at the announcement of the birth of the John the Baptist, who remember was to prepare the way for the work of the Messiah, the angel states about John:

And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God (Luke 1:16 ESV)

So, we have the people of Israel referred to as children from the start. Then, looking back to the same story already touched upon, when dealing with the Caananite women and stating he was only there for the lost house of Israel, she presses him further, and he states:

It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs. (Matthew 15:26 ESV)

Here, he is connecting the lost house of Israel with the term children directly again. But actually, the language of this same story in Mark adds a tidbit more that shows the fuller ministry of the Messiah:

Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs. (Mark 7:27)

He is not totally denying the Gentile women permanently; he is saying that his first mission is to the children of Israel. This implies what we know begins to take place later, when that mission stops being about the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and turns to being open to all of the pagan Gentiles nations under Paul.

Now, we jump over to Yeshua as he stands before Caiaphas the high priest, and it is said of Yeshua:

He (Caiaphas) did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. (John 11:51-52 ESV)

So, again, here we have those scattered abroad being referred to as the children of God being brought into one, just as Hosea and Ezekiel promised. The Messiah had come to first save those lost sheep, gathering from among the scattered tribes those that would be brought back as the children of God into one kingdom under the Shepherd. Yes, he died for the nation (Judah - the son who remained in covenant), but also for those scattered.

And of course, to make sure you do not misunderstand this as to say only those of the houses of Israel and Judah would be called children of God, we know from the opening remarks in John, that after Yeshua came to his own, and was rejected in the end, that this grace was granted to others.

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13 ESV)

These non-bloodline born people, who believed in Messiah, were brought in and given the right to become the children of God. They were not in any way born with that right as the tribes were, but they were born from and through the grace and power of Yahweh, and granted the right to be brought into the same fold with the children of God.

So, to bring all of this to a close, hopefully you can see how the story of the prodigal son is not a story about any and all repentant sinners who come to God. It is in fact the story of two nations and the Father. It is a piece of the final chapter of a long story and promises made long beforehand.

Both nations, represented by two sons, start under the Father’s care, in covenant with him. One nation is separated, scattered among the pagans, losing all of their covenant rights, and considered dead and in the world of darkness.

The plan is to bring those scattered people back together under the Father once again. This is only done when the Father takes action, sending himself in to do the job, taking on the humiliation, becoming a man, the Messiah, and going forth to seek and save those which were lost.

The other nation was never separated or scattered like that, yet they had hostility towards the plans of the Father, and therefore they despised the plans of Yeshua, who was God in the flesh, humbled and coming for his people, and they rejected him as their Messiah. Like the older son, they were greatly angered by the Father for what he was doing in allowing this sinful nation to come back and be restored on equal footing with them.

A remnant from among them were indeed faithful, and they were saved, but a large amount of them refused fellowship with the nations being received back in, treating them as outcasts, and they rebelled against the plan of Yahweh, which in the end cost them their right to be children, and they were therefore branches that were cut off, cast out and utterly destroyed along with their house and system of worship when the old covenant was fully ended.

While the story of the prodigal son does show the extent of love and mercy that the Father has and bestows even to us today as former aliens to his covenant, the story must be first understood as the story relating to the promises of Hosea and Ezekiel, and the bringing together two kingdoms back into one, under one Shepherd.

In accomplishing this, Yeshua then becomes the all-in-all, fulfilling all that the tribes never could, and thus receiving in himself the promises that were given beforehand to the covenant people. He has inherited all that the Father has promised, becoming the light of the world, and bringing reconciliation to any from the nations of the world who turn to him. Amen.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4