“A certain man had two sons” (Luke 15:11).
With those words, Jesus began one of the greatest stories the world has ever known. Many of us have asked, who am I in this story? Some of us are the prodigal son. We leave and find our way home when reality smacks us in the face. Some of us are the older brother. Dedicated but for all the wrong reasons. Some of us are the father, patient and forgiving, even though the ones we forgive don’t really deserve it. This story is the crowning achievement of Christ’s teachings in our world. He shows us who we are, who God is, and how we interact with one another. In one simple word, it is priceless. The wisdom found in these few short verses comes from the very heart of God. It possesses the ability to change the most stubborn and soften the most calloused hearts.
We need to study, learn, and embrace the wisdom that is displayed so effortlessly in this story because all men need to be wise. We need to possess the type of wisdom that effortlessly fits into any setting. We need to possess the wisdom that stands true in any generation. We need to possess the wisdom that sheds light on the rarest of situations. We need to possess the type of wisdom that makes sense when nothing else does. Fortunately, God’s wisdom can be clearly seen in His Word. In the Holy Scriptures, God’s messengers share His wisdom with the world. They give us insight into the very mind of God. They share His feelings, His wishes, and even His frustrations. They show who He is and we are better off because of it.
Two of the most prolific writers of the inspired text is the great kings of old, David and Solomon. Combined, they gave us the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and half of the Psalms. These books demonstrate how deeply God wants humanity to see the value of life, love, knowledge, respect, and integrity. They present a simple idea – wisdom is valuable. Consider the following:
The mouth of the righteous speaks wisdom and his tongue talks of justice.
The Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.
For wisdom is better than rubies, and all the things one may desire cannot be compared with her.
Wisdom strengthens the wise more than ten rulers of the city
God gave us an invaluable lesson in what seeking wisdom looks like. Upon ascending the throne of Israel, He gave Solomon the opportunity to have anything his heart desired. After some thought, Solomon responded in First Kings 3:9:
Give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil.
God’s subsequent response just a few verses later (see 3:10-13) validated the wisdom already present in Solomon’s request:
Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked long life for yourself, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have asked the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern justice, behold, I have done according to your words; see, I have given you a wise and understanding heart, so that there has not been anyone like you before you, nor shall any like you arise after you. And I have also given you what you have not asked: both riches and honor so that there shall not be anyone like you among the kings all your days.
In the New Testament, we see a similar interaction between God and His people. James 1:5 says:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.
James told his readers that wisdom can be found if you know where it comes from. What we must do today is ask the question, what is that wisdom? Is it merely knowledge or could it be something more? The Greek word used there is sophia and it literally means “enlightenment.” That same word is used in Colossians 1:9 when Paul says:
For this reason, we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.
Paul and Timothy prayed for the Christians in Colossae to be enlightened by God’s Word. Paul wanted them to be knowledgeable of God’s will in their lives. He wanted them to have the type of understanding and trust that allowed people like David to say at the death of his infant son, “Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, be he shall not return to me” (i.e. First Samuel 12:23). Not content with just imploring the idea upon others, Paul would also find time to demonstrate it in his own life when he said, “I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (see Philippians 1:23-24). In both of these instances, Paul and David saw the pattern of God’s work in their lives and were able to trust the outcome (whatever it might have been). They were able to trust in God’s wisdom and find contentment in God’s will. Unfortunately, that wisdom is lost on many people today.
The appreciation of God’s divine will and providence in our lives should give us hope that lasts beyond this world. It should bring about a wisdom beyond our ability to create but not understand. It should enlighten us about God’s ways. Anytime we think of God’s Word illuminating His children in a symbolical sense, we should remember what John said of Jesus in his prologue:
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend it.
Do not forget also what Jesus said of Himself later in the same gospel:
I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness but have the light of life.
If we want to be wise, we must seek God’s ways. We must seek His Will and direction for our lives to have the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (see Philippians 4:7). We must study His Word, dwell on His teaching, and value the lessons He passed on.
We must begin by looking for His wisdom in the ordinary. It’s often the things we overlook that teach us the most, and the Parables of Jesus Christ are the epitome of that under-appreciated wisdom. They are, in their humble form, a lesson meant to “challenge the listener or reader by urging a response.”¹ You don’t just read the parables, you reflect upon them, and if you’re a good student, you see the depth of their ordinary.
One-third of the recorded sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are in parables so it would do us well to study them diligently.² In these short stories, Jesus educated mankind on the simplest, most mundane things of everyday life. In their application, they illustrate God’s wisdom perfectly. Trees, farmers, and even strangers are used in a theological show-and-tell given from God’s perspective. Much like our childhood moments when we brought a beloved treasure into our classroom to be gawked at (or dismissed) by our peers; God uses these everyday situations we observe to show us how beautiful (and ironic) His wisdom can be. Alongside that wisdom, God’s infinite majesty is captured in these vivid stories of daily life.³
In the classical sense, parables contain six components:
(1) Introduction – Think of the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” found in Matthew 13:24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47, 18:23, 20:1, 22:2; and 25:14. These introductions are meant to set the stage and build anticipation. Something of value is about to come to your consciousness.
(2) Characters – Consider the parable we’re going to study, the Prodigal Son. In Luke 15:11 it begins with the line, “a certain man had two sons.” The characters begin the story of this family. We must realize a careful interpreter of Scripture will pay careful attention to every actor within the drama of the parable.4
(3) Plot – Within the parable, there is often an action that prompts a reaction. These actions are clearly seen (i.e. the lost coin, sheep, boy, the unwise servants, or the sower getting to work), and are not hidden from view. They bring the listeners or readers to a point where they must interact with the characters and their behavior.
(4) Conflict – This part of the parable begs for a solution. It’s the cliffhanger and the moment when invested readers will hold their breath in anticipation. It’s the moment we ask the questions, “what will happen to the lost coin, sheep, or boy?” “What will happen to the seed sown on the thorny ground?” “What will happen to the servant who buried his talent instead of using it wisely?”
(5) Resolution – This is the point when the lesson becomes clear. In the parables of Jesus, we often see a resolution that seems counterintuitive. The Good Samaritan? The boy returns home? These moments give us clarity in a murky world. We see the beauty of God’s wisdom standing in direct contrast to our fuzzy morality. We see the message clearly, God knows better.
(6) Application – The parables require those interacting with them to ask the question, “what now?” “Will I turn away from my prejudice?” “Will I appreciate the patience and diligence of God?” “Will I change and be more like God or remain susceptible to my own ignorance?”
Studying a parable requires a thorough discussion of each section and a proper understanding of what comes next. They are often left open-ended so that you’re required to interact with them. Do not be foolish enough to invest lightly when a diligent response is what’s truly needed.
While Parables have been called earthly stories with a heavenly meaning, we don’t think that moniker does them justice. Instead, they are the stories that illustrate God’s divine dedication to the details of life. They are literally His commentary on the ordinary. We shouldn’t marginalize them as some hokey story. They are theological masterpieces meant for deep study. They were purposely told to people like you and me. They were carefully delivered at the right time to the right people for maximum effect. They were designed to deliver results – results that change the lives of those reading them. They are the closest we’ll ever get to see God’s wisdom from our perspective.
Love them for their simple, repeatable example and their deep theological meaning. Love them for the everyday moments they illuminate and appreciate them for the eternal value they possess. Love them, because they are the embodiment of God’s wisdom.
While each of them deserves our time and effort, some, such as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, are among the greatest stories ever told. It’s easy to find yourself lost in stories like this. It’s so human, so vulnerable, so realistic. This story beautifully sheds light upon the responsibility of sons, fathers, and brothers. Because it so easily covers a wide range of personalities, it’s easy to compare to the lives of God’s children. It might best be called the Parable of the Two Lost Sons because it is a drama in two acts, with Act One entitled “The Lost Younger Brother” and Act Two “The Lost Elder Brother.”5 It has been for centuries a story that gives hope to those outside of God’s grace and those burdened by the weight of faithfulness.
Of all Jesus’ parables, this one is the most richly detailed, powerfully dramatic, and intensely personal.6 It illustrates the patience of a forgiving father, the pettiness of a vengeful brother, and the selfishness of a person devoid of dignity. When all things are said and done, it shows us who we are and who God is. It’s a lesson about family, specifically a broken family. It is the timeless tale of a loving father who had two boys, one who walled himself off from his father’s love by doing evil, the other who walled himself off from that same love by doing good. In both cases, the sons were prodigals for they were estranged from their father, and the relationship between him and his sons was broken.7 The story itself reminds me so very much of a passage from Isaiah 53:6:
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way.
Over the course of the next few lessons, we plan to shed light on both prodigals. The one who left and the one who stayed. As this idea develops, you’ll be able to see that this parable isn’t just about those we deem prodigal. It’s also about those whom only God knows are prodigals. It’s about who we truly are, not just who the world thinks we are. I can’t help but be reminded of the words God said to Samuel in First Samuel 16:7, “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” This parable is all about the heart of men. God sees our hearts clearly even when we cannot. When we survey our misguided journeys honestly, the parables often turn us back in the right direction. As we study this great story, prepare yourself; there is much to learn.
¹ Brad H. Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 34.
² Young, The Parables, 7.
³ Young, The Parables, 3.
4 Young, The Parables, 24.
5 Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), 20.
6 John Maxwell, The Prodigal Son, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008), xii.
7 Leslie D. Weatherhead, In Quest of a Kingdom, (New York: Abingdon, 1944), 87.
Scripture taken from New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Originally published on October 30, 2017. Written by Neal Mathis.