And He said, ‘A man had two sons.’ (Luke 15:11)
In Luke 15, Jesus tells two stories about repentance. In one, a man leaves his flock of ninety-nine sheep to go find the one that is lost. In the other story, a woman searches her whole house to find one of ten coins. When the lost sheep and coin are found, there is great rejoicing. Jesus provided commentary, saying, “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Then, he tells the familiar story of the prodigal son. “A man had two sons,” Jesus began. That most of the story focuses on the younger son makes it appear that the repentance of the wayward son is the only point of the story. Indeed, at the end, the father rejoices that he has finally found his son. If that were the only point of the story, then there would be no need to tell it, since Jesus had already told, not one, but two stories that demonstrate the extraordinary value of repentance.
The man went out searching for one sheep. The woman tore her house apart looking for one coin. But Jesus began the story of the prodigal son with, “A man had two sons.” We know all about the younger son. He is famous for his ingratitude and debauchery and disobedience. It is obvious to everyone, from the start, that this son needed saving, in all senses of the word. But Jesus put a second son into the story, whose need was not quite so obvious. The older son became part of the story as a result of the great compassion that Christ had for some of his listeners:
Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 11:1-2)
There were two sons. There were two groups of people that warm evening in Palestine. When Jesus told about the younger son, the tax gatherers and sinners thought, “Yup, that’s me.” And what good news! God offers salvation through repentance, and there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents! The Pharisees, on the other hand, had never had any personal experience with the lifestyle of the younger son. They would never waste God’s money. They had never “lived loosely” or been with a prostitute. And they had never, ever, God forbid!, eaten pig’s food. For the sake of the Pharisees, Jesus inserted the older son into the story, a person with whom they could identify.
Tim Keller wrote a whole book about the prodigal son, and almost certainly, his was not the first and it will not be the last. However, tens of thousands of words are not required to understand this story, otherwise, what hope would there have been for enlightenment in Palestine on the night that Jesus sat around telling stories?
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When the older son came in from working in the field he heard all the commotion, the music and dancing and celebrating. After discovering that the party was being thrown for his rotten, little brother, he got angry 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 young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends. The older son’s relationship with the father, if you can call it that, was based on obedience, or legalism. But, that is not what the father wanted from his son: Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. The older son did not see it this way. He thought his responsibility to the father comprised being a “good son,” obeying his father in all things, which he apparently did quite successfully. The relationships in his life were reserved for his friends. As the story unfolds, we see the younger son being brought to his knees, whereupon he found it necessary, if not easy, to repent. However, the story ends without resolution for the older son.
The older son, unlike his younger brother, could not grasp the need for, or the value of repentance. And this is why Jesus includes the older son in the story. The tax gatherers and sinners would immediately see themselves in the younger son, and appreciate the need for repentance and the impact it would have in heaven. The Pharisees would be disgusted with the younger son’s life, just as they were disgusted with the tax gatherers and sinners listening to Jesus. Of the two groups in Jesus’ audience that night, the tax gatherers and sinners were, by far, the easiest to reach with an offer of salvation. The Pharisees, however, were not inclined to think that they were in need of repentance. They believed in God, and were fine upstanding individuals, defenders of the pure faith, fastidious in following the Law. They attended synagogue every week, said grace at every meal, had daily devotions, gave sacrificially at the temple, and studied and memorized the Scriptures. They were the older son.
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Repentance was the theme of all the stories Jesus told that night. He began the story of the prodigal son with, “A man had two sons,” because two sons needed to repent. Most of us who have been around the church for a long time are more like the older son than the younger one. We do not live lives of debauchery, but live upright lives, living as best we know how as laid out in the Word of God. We are the older son. And like the older son, we find it very, very difficult to feel a need to repent because our lives are already religious. What more could God want?! Everyone can easily see of what the younger son should repent. But, pray tell, of what does the older son need to repent?
And isn’t that the $64,000 question? Of what do religious people, especially devout and serious religious people, need to repent?