Saturday, June 13, 2015

New perspective on the prodigal son Luke 15:11-18

I was reading the Sunday school manual on the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 and some of the questions asked in it set me on a whole different train of thought that I’d never considered before.

“In the parable of the prodigal son, what did the younger son do with his inheritance?”

Obviously he wasted it, but this got me thinking about how this parable was supposed to be analogous to our brothers and sisters who are lost from the kingdom of God.  I started to wonder, “What does the inheritance really represent?”  In what way do our lost brothers and sisters take their inheritance and run off?

Let’s look at v11-12:

11 ¶And he said, A certain man had two sons:
12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.

An interesting thing we can see here is that the father doesn’t just give the younger son his portion; he seems to give a portion to the older son as well.  We’re used to thinking the younger son was wrong to demand his inheritance, but what if he wasn’t?  (Odd thought, I know, but hear me out.)

On earth, inheritance is distributed upon the death of the father, so a request for inheritance before death is like a request that the father just lay down and die.   But in terms of our Heavenly Father, we can’t receive our inheritance upon His death because He is immortal. So there has to be a distribution of inheritance upon some other basis besides death, so in that respect, the parable is quite analogous to spiritual realities.

The fact that the father divided the living between the two sons makes me think that the younger son’s request might have been a good one and the younger son’s fault lay in not staying. 

It is also interesting to me where the italics are in that verse. The italicized portions represent words that were added by translators to make the translation flow better according to English grammar.  But occasionally it is interesting to try to read the verses without those italicized words and see if the meaning changes ways that have significance.  Without the italics we get “give me the portion of goods that falleth. And he divided unto them living.”  It suggests that the younger son was interested in the less important part of the inheritance.  It also suggests that part of the inheritance was living, or life, which makes me think of eternal life.  (Is eternal life part of our inheritance as members?  Yes..)

13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.

Wasting can happen when one spends profligately, but it can also happen if property is neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair until it is in no condition to be used.  I think this coincides with how our lost brothers and sisters neglect their testimonies and neglect to obey the commandments such that their faith slowly decreases until their knowledge is only a ghost of what it was before.

I’m also intrigued by the repetition of that word “living” in that verse and the contrast between the father’s living and riotous living.  It suggests we compare what we know of the quality of a faithful life with a life completely devoted to the pleasure of the flesh. Which one renews and which one wastes the substance of eternal things?

The next few verses are very interesting because of how the focus is so much on hunger and food and the quality of food.

14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.
15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, (Luke 15:11-18)

What does this hunger represent?  Could this be a famine of hearing the word of the Lord?  Did the famine just conveniently arise once all his substance had been wasted or was it actually there all the time and he never knew until all his own resources were exhausted?

I suspect that the job of feeding the swine was meant to represent something like teaching the commandments of men mingled with scripture, since they aren’t very wholesome or filling.  The swine may represent the unclean gentiles who are content with empty platitudes and what we might call doctrinal twinkies, but notice that the younger son can’t fill his belly with those things.  The pigs might be perfectly happy with that stuff, but having tasted the real nourishment, the younger son can’t stomach it.

Thus, we see what really brings the prodigal son to himself. He realizes he is starving, starving for the truth that he can’t get anywhere else but from his father.  We learn from this parable that some of our lost brothers and sisters leave because they think there are other ways to be saved, other gospels with efficacy besides that of Christ’s, other ways to live fully.  Sooner or later, they are brought to realize the spiritual poverty of all other ways in comparison and then they have a reason to make their way back.  But they have to have tasted the goodness before they left.

Now, the prodigal is not the only one who has trouble.  Remember the elder son?  He got his inheritance too, but even though he stayed, it hasn’t done him much good either. His complaint to his father upon the return of the younger son is “these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends” (v29).

Who prevented the elder son from using his inheritance?  Would his father have gotten irked at him if he had asked for a goat or a fatted calf every so often?  The eldest son’s trouble is that he thinks his father is too stingy to let him use his inheritance. The eldest son has wasted his inheritance in a different way by never using it.  From a spiritual perspective, how many feasts on the word and celebrations could he have enjoyed but didn’t?

For those of us who stay faithful, the eldest son is a warning to us to beware of ingratitude. In the midst of our service we must not forget the privileges we have inherited by becoming sons and daughters in God’s kingdom.  It is worth it to ask the question “When do we inherit and how early can we begin enjoying our inheritance?  Are we only limited to enjoying it after our resurrection or can we begin enjoying it and rejoicing over it earlier than that?”

Also consider the things we learn about our inheritance from what the father does in the parable to reinstate the younger son – he tells his servants to bring the best robe and put it on, to put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.   The robe might symbolize being clothed in temple robes. The ring may have been a signet ring that gave him authority to transact business for his father and therefore might symbolize the priesthood. What might the shoes represent?  All this the elder son would have a right to enjoy too, if he would.

We have the privilege of feasting on the word, of making use of the inheritance our Heavenly Father has divided to each of us, even a piece of eternal life we can feel through the ministrations of the Holy Ghost.  We all have spiritual gifts, we all have a portion of the Spirit, we all are given access to priesthood blessings, and more.  These are all reasons to rejoice and celebrate with our friends in the gospel.  And too, there is the rejoicing we can feel as we repent and feel the forgiveness that comes from God.  Also, consider the father tells the eldest son “you are ever with me.”  To be with the Father is no small blessing. Again, to have the constant companionship of the Spirit is a big part of our inheritance.  So how much do we appreciate that?


Rozy Lass said...

I sure wish you were our Gospel Doctrine teacher; I always gain new insights and perspectives from you. Thanks so much for taking time to share what you've learned I appreciate it.

Michaela Stephens said...

Thanks, Rozy Lass. I really think that a big part of teaching in Gospel Doctrine class is asking inspired questions that make people think and encourage them to share. I don't know that I'm very good at that yet.

Thanks for coming by and commenting. It is nice to know my writing has helped someone.