June 28th, 2018
The parable of the prodigal son demonstrates how both rebellion and religion separate us from God and His Kingdom. Since the parable addresses rebellion first and religion second, I will write about the concepts in that same order. Before looking at what the parable teaches about rebellion, however, it is important to understand the group of audience members with whom this concept resonates.
According to the gospel of Luke, some of the people present when Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son are “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 15:1, NIV). Tax collectors were often associated with sinners and pagans by the Jews because the Jews saw them as traitors. Paying tribute to Rome was seen as an acknowledgment of the emperor’s sovereignty, and so tax collectors whose jobs involved acquiring this tribute were deemed as tools of Rome and the emperor. Oftentimes they took extra payment to enrich themselves, which only served to add to their status as traitors in the eyes of the Jews. This general attitude explains why the Pharisees appeared contemptuous toward Jesus building relationships with such people. Society, and especially the Pharisees, saw tax collectors as being in the same position as other sinners: lost and cut off from God’s favor (Douglas & Tenney, 2011, p. 1043).
Rebellion manifests itself in the actions of the younger son in the parable. The issue of rebellion arises as soon as the parable begins when the younger son confronts his father and demands his share of the inheritance. To understand the severity of this request, it will help to understand it in its historical context. Since children would only have received their inheritance after the father died, the son’s demand of his inheritance implies that he wishes his father dead (Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, p. 1779). On top of this horrid request, the younger son “sets off for a distant country” (Luke 15:13, NIV). He not only wants nothing to do with his father, but he also shows no desire to upkeep his father’s estate. Lastly, the younger son wastes all of his inheritance satisfying his sinful desires. The squandering of one’s inheritance was condemned by moralists during this time period, and so this too conveyed an act of rebellion (Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, p. 1780).
The consequences of the younger son’s rebellious actions present themselves clearly in the next part of the story. Soon after the inheritance is squandered, there is a famine and the rebellious son finds himself starving, and so he finds a job working for a pig farmer. Jewish culture deemed pigs unclean, and so this job would have been seen as an utter humiliation (Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, p. 1780). Not only this, but the younger son soon finds himself indulging in the food of these unclean animals. The rebellion against his father leaves the younger son in a state of starvation and despair. If we understand that the father represents God and that his home represents the Kingdom of God, we realize what this part of the parable reveals: rebellion leaves a person separate from God and His Kingdom.
The latter part of the parable addresses the concept of religion. This concept enters the story through the older son. Before analyzing the attitude and actions of the older son, however, it will help to understand the audience members to whom this portion of the story pertains.
The other group of people present when Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son is the Pharisees. They likely originated from the Hasidim movement in the second century B.C. that hoped to maintain Jewish tradition in the face of other ideologies (Douglas & Tenney, 2011, p. 1117). The Pharisees strongly believed in strict adherence to all 613 laws found in the Old Testament. Their strict adherence often resulted in a bitter and judgmental attitude toward those who were not as successful in keeping the laws. They believed that since their external life was in check, they were members of the Kingdom of Heaven. Due to their tendency toward legalism, the Pharisees regularly clashed against Jesus and His ministry (Douglas & Tenney, 2011, pp. 1118-1119).
The older son in the parable, who in part represents the Pharisees, reflects the general nature of religion. The word “religion” comes from the Latin word “religare” where “re” means “to return” and “ligare” means “to bind” (Cavey, 2017, p. 141). Combining these gives a simple meaning: a return to bondage. This succinctly expresses the general nature of religion: it seeks to bind one’s self to a system of tasks in order to achieve holiness and rightness with God. These tasks within the system become the measure by which individuals’ rightness with God is evaluated. Ultimately, God is no longer the focus because the system functions adequately without Him (Cavey, 2017, pp. 141-142).
The older son displays this religious, systematic understanding in his conversation with his father: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29b-30, NIV). The older son sees hard work and obeying orders as the necessary tasks to acquire the father’s approval. By applying this system, he determines that he remains in right standing with the father while his younger brother does not. Even though the father accepts the younger son, the system, or religion, that the older son set in place for himself overrides what the father says. Religion, not the father, has become the guiding principle in the older son’s life.
The consequences of religion reveal themselves in this last sequence of the parable. The older son refuses to go and attend the celebration taking place. His own system keeps him standing outside his own home, away from both the father and the feast. If we see that the father represents God and that his home represents the Kingdom of God, we see what this section reveals: religion leaves the older son as separate from God and His Kingdom as rebellion did for the younger son.
The idea that both rebellion and religion work to separate us from God is not always clear among followers of Christ. Christians certainly believe in the destructive consequences of rebellion against God. Religion, however, has become so conflated with following Christ that many categorize the Christian faith as a religion. While the Christian faith may share certain aspects with religions, the fundamental principles and functions differ. Religion offers systems and formulas that seek to unite a person with God, the divine, or some spiritual dimension. Christianity, on the other hand, recognizes that God, in Christ, comes to us which renders the systems of religion as superfluous endeavors.
The problem of religious systems involves a shift in focus into legalism. This problem can be found in churches across the world. A shift in focus occurs because adherence to the systems eventually replaces God as the primary focus. Following the correct rituals and procedures becomes the goal. The more intensely one complies with the regulations, the better. This essentially defines legalism: an excessive adherence to laws and regulations.
Legalism eventually leads into judgment. Once the core of Christianity involves following regulations, it becomes easy to create a hierarchical structure within the faith. Since the performance of external tasks is clearly visible, ranking people by this performance occurs with ease. Once a person is ranked, it becomes easy to pass judgment and condemnation on the person based on their placement in the hierarchical structure. The older brother in the parable does exactly this. Since the younger brother fails to adhere to the father’s rules, the older brother condemns the younger brother as unworthy and refuses to associate with him. Ultimately this religious attitude that the older brother holds on to leaves him separate from his father as well as the ongoing feast. If the church is not careful, religion will ultimately create an identical rift between itself and the Father.
Cavey, B. (2017). Reunion: the good news of Jesus for seekers, saints, and sinners.
Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press.
Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Douglas, J.D., & Tenney, M.C. (2011). Zondervan illustrated bible dictionary. Grand Rapids,
Image taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_(Rembrandt)