Read an Excerpt
A TALE of TWO SONSDVD Study Series for Individuals or Small Groups
By John MacArthur
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 John MacArthur
All right reserved.
We all love a great story, and as far as I'm concerned there's one story Jesus told that is the greatest of all: the story of the prodigal son. The word parable comes from the Greek for "to lay alongside." Jesus used parables as stories that came alongside spiritual truths-they help us to see the truth of God's kingdom more clearly.
Jesus told this particular story to the Pharisees and the scribes. They were the religious elite, proud of their "righteous" ways, but they didn't know God. They had no idea that Jesus' main joy is the repentance of sinners. When one sinner repents-one sinner!-all of heaven rejoices at his homecoming.
In this story the prodigal son is the most extreme of sinners. Although he was outrageous in his sin, he is reconciled. The father is Jesus Christ, who welcomes the sinner with love. And the older brother is the Pharisees and scribes to whom Jesus was talking. They have no understanding of grace, which is the gospel, and this parable will show them that grace in action.
There are only two possibilities in life-you receive salvation as the reward for your own works, or you depend on the grace and mercy of the Fatherto grant you the gift of eternal life. In which possibility are you trusting?
Questions for Your Small Group
1. What is your concept of the prodigal son story? Do you have any preconceived ideas about the parable?
As you come into this study, encourage the group to drop any preconceived ideas about this story and listen to the teaching with fresh ears. Open your heart to the possibility that God may have a new message for you in this story, and don't rely on the old clichés you've become comfortable with if you've heard this parable your whole life.
2. Jesus told this parable to Pharisees and scribes, the religious elite. If such people existed today-perhaps they do!-what would they look like? Describe them.
Many of us who have been in the church for years are these "elite" and may relate better with the older brother. But those of us who have only recently come to Christ probably identify more with the younger brother, the prodigal son. Be fair as you discuss, and be aware of the feelings and emotions connected to each individual in the group. In fact, before you get too deeply into the discussion, it might be helpful for you each to say whom you identify with most and why.
3. How do your religious traditions and practices obscure a true worship of the living God?
It is possible that our "worship" is actually nothing more than self-promoting, self-assuring tradition masked in grandiose religious packaging. What do you do to prepare your heart for worship? How do you approach God's throne in humility? When do you feel close to Him, able to listen to His voice in your spirit? Do you truly seek Him, or do you just join the crowd and put on a good show?
4. In what ways are you a friend to sinners?
If the prodigal son had been your brother, how would you feel? Imagine he takes part of the inheritance, which you've worked so hard to uphold, and wastes it on beer and strippers. When the money's gone he comes back and your father welcomes him with open arms. Would you resent him? Would you fear he'd take another half of the inheritance when your father dies? Would you be able to trust your father? Encourage the group to look inward and recognize that they also are deeply sinful and in need of God's mercy. Only then can they really be friends to sinners.
5. Why did so many "sinners" flock to Jesus while the "religious" crowd abandoned Him?
Jesus was a controversial figure. In many cases He refused to put on a good show, looking at the heart of what is right or wrong rather than the outer shell of public opinion. His kindness and His offer of hope and redemption were attractive to many who had lost their way and felt hopeless. How are you that kind of person to those seeking a way back to God? Are you willing to open your heart (and home and life) to someone who doesn't fit the mold in your community?
6. Why were you drawn to Jesus?
This question could take quite a while to answer if everyone in the group wants to participate in the discussion. Encourage involvement-by sharing your stories you'll build intimacy as a group. But be sure to plan adequate time for this question.
In the story of the prodigal son, Jesus paints the picture of someone living in a village in first-century Israel becoming the worst sinner imaginable. No one would behave as he did. This young man was a symbol of all the prostitutes, thugs, and tax collectors who were coming to Jesus and repenting. The Pharisees scorned them-and Jesus for His compassion toward them.
The story starts out with the son asking for his share in his father's estate, basically saying to his father, "I wish you were dead." He abandons his family and his country by going to live in a Gentile land, where he spends all his money on wild partying. And worst of all-he planned all this sin; it was all of his own will.
When famine descends on the land, he is left with absolutely nothing. In his darkest hour of desperation he comes to his senses and remembers there is one with great resources who is extremely generous-his father.
He staggers home, ready to beg his father for mercy, ready to work his fields to earn his place as a servant in the house. That's what the Pharisees would have expected. But the father shocks them all by extending forgiveness-he welcomes his beloved son home in celebration. That is grace.
Questions for Your Small Group
1. The younger son is described as the "prodigal" in this story. How have you heard that word used in your life, specifically in your spiritual journey?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines prodigal as someone who is "wastefully extravagant." Let the members of the group consider how that definition applies to them spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically. In what parts of your life do you need to repent and return home to the Father?
2. How does our desire for gratification, and immediate gratification, impact the people with whom we are in relationship?
The son's desire for money now disrespected his father, shamed his family publicly, devalued the family home (as he sold off a portion for quick cash), and created tension in the other family relationships. Have the members of your small group look back at a time they desired immediate gratification. What impact or ramification can they see in their lives as a result?
3. Why do you think God allows people to rebel against Him?
How does rebellion that is forgiven show us God's glory? The idea of humans having free will is something we have struggled with since the advent of humanity, but it is critical to showing us God's glory. Because while we were faithless, He was still faithful. God's glory is so much more radiant in the shadow of human failure.
4. What are some reasons why a person might run away from family, God, and authority?
Allow the group to explore the reasons for their own rebellion. Selfishness, fear, jealousy, anger, greed-these are all reasons why the younger brother may have demanded his inheritance, and they're all reasons why we sin against God every day. We must acknowledge our failure if we are to return to our true home.
5. What do you think was going on in the mind of the older brother? Why didn't he defend his father?
It is likely that the younger brother was not coming to this demand/request out of nowhere. He'd probably been in trouble in the past; perhaps he even needed some of the money to pay off sinful debts. Perhaps the older brother was glad to see him go. Or maybe he'd so removed himself from the situation that he didn't know or care. As you explore the reasons, examine what is wrong about each type of uninvolvement.
6. Life turned quickly for the prodigal-from lavish riches to extreme poverty and famine. How has sin in your life led to personal disaster?
Many in your group may not want to share stories of how their sin has ruined their lives. Be gentle and compassionate as you get to this question, and if no one responds just encourage them to think privately about this. End your time with a reminder that the father ran-ran!-to welcome the son home even after all he had done.
If you know the story of the prodigal son, you probably think of the father as the hero. And you certainly should. He is scorned, betrayed by his son. Rejected and abandoned as the son chooses sin and pleasure over loyalty to the father. Shame is heaped upon him, but when his son returns all he thinks of is the joy of reconciliation.
The son returned, defeated by his own sin, with a speech planned to earn his way back through his own effort. But the father throws convention and dignity out the window. Instead of insisting that the son come to him begging and instead of turning a cold shoulder to one who has so offended him, the father runs to his son to embrace him and welcome him back to the family.
His forgiveness was shocking to those who believed you must earn your way to God through works and self-righteousness. But they couldn't see that God, in Jesus, had come down from His "estate" in heaven and was running through the dusty streets of our world, unashamed to make us His sons.
God the father is the hero. And He is not a reluctant Savior. He celebrates and receives every sinner who comes to Him ... for His own joy.
Questions for Your Small Group
1. How quickly does God forgive? How complete is His forgiveness?
As we see in this story, the father waited anxiously for the lost son to return home. His forgiveness wasn't just instantaneous, it was anticipated. And it was complete-not only was he restored as a son, but he was given authority (symbolized by the ring) within the estate. This is a dramatic example of trust and hope for the son.
Ask the members of your small group to share a time that they experienced God's forgiveness.
2. Describe the importance of Christ's substitutionary atonement for you.
When Christ stepped in the gap for us and paid for our sin, He gave us our only hope for reconciliation with Christ. The idea that we will be "good enough" to earn God's love is ludicrous. That is exactly the point Jesus was trying to make with this story-we cannot be good enough, and the only chance we have is God's mercy.
3. The father restored his son publicly. Why was this necessary?
The father could have accepted the son into his home, been polite and kind to him there, but never ventured out into their community again. But that is not what he did. Why? He wasn't ashamed. God finds great joy in welcoming sinners home in repentance. Forgiveness is His glory. How has God celebrated you publicly?
4. What is the primary goal of your spiritual life-to be religious or to have a relationship with God?
Consider the implications of both options. Who do you associate with in each? What are your daily habits and activities? In which path will you reach the most people with the message of God's love?
5. The father didn't demand that the son clean up before he put on the robes for the celebration. He put it on him as he was. What does this say about our salvation experience?
The beauty of receiving God's mercy is that we do nothing to earn it. We simply receive His amazing gift. We do not have to be perfect before we come to Him; He will embrace us, mess and all. Come to Him now, today, without waiting. There is nothing you need to do-or get right-before you come to Christ.
6. The Pharisees were convinced that God's grace was earned. But Jesus presents a different view of self-righteousness: rather than being necessary for salvation, it is a hindrance to it. How are you self-righteous?
Give your group members time to reflect on this question as you go into a time of prayer and repentance. God longs for us to repent and turn to Him-remember, He's waiting, looking for us to come to Him so He can welcome us home in celebration.
"A certain man had two sons." This is not just the story of the prodigal. Jesus wants us to see two kinds of sinners. First, the openly rebellious, blatant sinner who wants no accountability or authority so he can live a life of hedonism. But there is another sinner-the secretive one. He hides sin, wants to be thought of as moral, religious, spiritual, righteous. He's no less a sinner; he's just better at covering it up.
Secretly the older brother hates the younger. Where was he when the younger brother left and shamed his father? Absent. He never prevents his brother from leaving or protects his father's honor. He has no real relationship with either of them.
The truth of the older brother's heart becomes known when he hears the party. Coming in from the fields, where he's been dutifully and resentfully working, he hears that his brother has returned. And he's angry. He's livid that his father forgives the son who has brought such shame on the family. And this is the point of the story: God receives and reconciles with sinners.
Religious, self-righteous people who are trying to earn their way to heaven are resistant to the only thing that can save them: grace. And that's a sad, sad thing. The older brother's sin is just as real as the prodigal's, but we don't see him return to the father. The religious are very hard to reach because they are so convinced of their own righteousness. Be sure you don't find yourself refusing the forgiveness God offers.
Questions for Your Small Group
1. In what ways was the sin of the older brother similar to that of the younger brother? How are they different?
Both brothers were disloyal to their father, choosing self over others. But where the younger brother chose sins that were proactive, broadcast for all the world to see-drunkenness, fornication, and so forth-the older brother chose to bury his sin deep in his heart. He was jealous, bitter, self-righteous, and angry. The older brother believed he had everyone fooled-yet did he?
2. The celebration was a mystery to the older son. He wasn't involved in the planning and didn't know of the party until it was already underway. He could have expected joyful news but instead he was cynical. How do you respond to others' joy? We live in an increasingly solitary world-we communicate with others on our own terms, through instant messages, Internet networking, cell phones, and e-mail. Most of us no longer visit spontaneously with neighbors or write long personal letters expressing our emotions and experiences to loved ones. How does this affect our reactions to the good (and bad) news others share with us? Do you tend to have a "good for them" mentality, or do you share in their joy on a personal level?
3. The older brother's reaction to the celebration of his brother's return says more about his attitude toward his father than his attitude toward his brother. Why?
At some level the older brother probably expected his younger sibling to come crawling home begging for mercy. He believed he'd been a failure in every other way-why would he be a success now that he had the inheritance? But the older brother didn't expect his father to react the way he did. He'd felt sure his dad would demand that his brother go through the proper repentance and be humiliated. Maybe he would be allowed back on the property but never at the level of a son again.
Excerpted from A TALE of TWO SONS by John MacArthur Copyright © 2009 by John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission.
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