The story of the prodigal son is a beautiful parable told by Yeshua (Jesus) and recorded in the Gospels only in Luke chapter 15. The parable is usually interpreted as describing a Christian believer who backslides, wandering off into sin. After a time, he realizes the folly of what he has done and decides to return to his Heavenly Father. His loving Father then welcomes him back into the fold with great rejoicing and celebration. Sometimes a further explanation is offered concerning the older brother who, having never wandered off into sin, becomes resentful that so much attention is shown to the one who strayed.
We see this very clear meaning in the parable because it fits our paradigm. Even though we picture in our minds a sandal-clad young man wrapped in his tunic and the elderly father with his robe and walking staff, the story takes on an application set in our modern day western culture. It happens all the time – young people brought up in church leave when they become adults, go out and get into all sorts of trouble, then return to the church after they get older.
The parable, told to “the tax collectors and the sinners” (Luke 15:1) and “the Pharisees and the scribes” (Luke 15:2), would have been understood by them in a similar way, but according to their paradigm. I believe that is how Yeshua told the story, and that what these hearers understood in first century, second Temple Jewish culture is what the parable actually reveals.
How the Hearers Understood
As soon as Yeshua said, “A man had two sons” (Luke 15:11), the listeners recognized He was speaking in a parable and that the father in this story was God. In the figurative language of the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament), God’s son was Israel (see Exodus 4:22 and other passages). But this father had two sons, and these religious teachers would have immediately understood these two sons to be the divided kingdom of Israel: the house of Judah and the house of Israel (sometimes called Joseph or Ephraim). You can read my post on the Two Houses of Israel here for a more detailed explanation.
They knew that the northern kingdom of Israel, the house of Ephraim, had forsaken their faith and, like the younger son, had gone “into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living” (Luke 15:13). They also knew, or at least believed, that they as the older brother had remained in the covenant relationship with God while their brother Ephraim was off living like hell.
As soon as the kingdom of Israel was divided, Jeroboam, leader of the northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim), established reforms that would distinguish and separate it from the southern kingdom of Judah.
Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will return to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will return to their lord, even to Rehoboam king of Judah; and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” So the king consulted, and made two golden calves, and he said to them, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:26-28).
Jeroboam believed that he was creating something fully compatible with the worship of the LORD, Yahweh. Notice how similar his declaration is to that of Aaron at the incident of the golden calf at Sinai.
He [Aaron] took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD” (Exodus 32:4-5).
After bringing in idolatry, Jereboam then changed the feast days God had commanded.
Jeroboam instituted a feast in the eighth month on the fifteenth day of the month, like the feast which is in Judah, and he went up to the altar; thus he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves which he had made. And he stationed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made. Then he went up to the altar which he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, even in the month which he had devised in his own heart; and he instituted a feast for the sons of Israel and went up to the altar to burn incense (1 Kings 12:32-33).
Continuing the Practices of Jeroboam
As the gospel spread throughout the known world in the second and third centuries after Yeshua, a similar pattern emerged in the church. This may be difficult to accept, but a look at early church history will prove this true. Idolatry was introduced, with many of the icons of the church taken directly from pagan religions and adapted to Christian saints, customs and worship. The holy celebrations commanded by Yahweh were replaced with a Sunday Sabbath, Christmas, Easter, and a whole liturgical calendar – holidays you will never find mentioned or celebrated in the Bible. Several of these holidays coincided with existing pagan feasts.
Scripture describes Israel’s actions in 2 Kings 17:33, “They feared the LORD and served their own gods according to the custom of the nations from among whom they had been carried away into exile.” And as the northern kingdom of Israel/Ephraim was dispersed among the nations, so also has been the practice of religious people attempting to worship Yahweh using their own symbols and celebrations adapted from pagan cultures.
The Returning House of Israel
There is a revival burning among Christian believers as the Holy Spirit is awakening them and drawing them back to the Hebrew Roots of the faith. In this parable, the awakening of the prodigal son is stated very succinctly, simply saying “when he came to his senses” (Luke 15:17). Realizing that his wandering has left him empty, he sets out to return to the Father. And when his Father sees him return, there is great rejoicing and celebration as the Father runs to embrace him.
This is how those hearing the parable from Yeshua understood it. Make no mistake, the religious leaders knew when Yeshua used a parable to talk about them (see Matthew 21:45). Yeshua was telling them their scattered brothers would be returning home. He was also telling them they would not be welcoming when Ephraim returned.
In Yeshua’s own words, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). The prophet Jeremiah, also quoted in the book of Hebrews, announced “Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31, Hebrews 8:8). We need to know who this “house of Israel” is.
Don’t worry, you aren’t left out. Israel leaving Egypt was a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38). Ephraim is a “multitude of nations” and “the fullness of the Gentiles” (Genesis 48:19, Romans 11:25 – see my post on this here). Those brought near by the blood of Messiah Yeshua are of the “Commonwealth of Israel” (Ephesians 2:11-13). So now, with our faith firmly established in Messiah Yeshua, we need to return to our Father’s house, learn how He instructed Israel to live, and hold fast to the covenant (Isaiah 56:6-7). “The Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, ‘Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered’” (Isaiah 56:8).
This is the message of the parable of the prodigal son.