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A Tale of Two Sons
By John MacArthur
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 John MacArthur
All rights reserved.
Greatest Short Story. Ever.
"Jesus' intention in telling the story was not to impress His hearers with dramatic artistry. Rather, if we understand the parable correctly, its spiritual lessons leave a far more indelible impression on our hearts and minds than any literary analysis of the parable could accomplish."
—A Tale of Two Sons (p. 14)
Many of the more familiar passages of Scripture are ripe with unnoticed theological truths that, if discovered and applied to our lives, could improve the quality of our relationships with God and each other. One such passage is the parable of the prodigal son.
Prodigal living is characterized by wasteful extravagance and wanton immorality (MacArthur New Testament Commentary, p. 220). The story of the Prodigal Son is more about the loving father than the wayward son and his spiteful brother. Jesus didn't tell the story in order to improve His reputation as a great storyteller; He told it to reveal some characteristics of God that had been veiled by the religious practices of the scribes and Pharisees. The cultural tension between Judaism and Jesus' ministry was underlying every word Jesus spoke.
Before we begin, we must remember that "the meaning of Scripture is not fluid. The truth of the Bible doesn't change with time or mean different things in different cultures. Whatever the text meant when it was originally written, it still means today." Therefore, if we can grasp the original meaning of the parable, we can apply it to our lives today.
1. Before beginning this study, what is your understanding of the meaning of the parable of the prodigal son?
2. We sometimes make the mistake of limiting our understanding of Scripture to what we read about Scripture. Read Mark 12:37b and identify the primary audience to whom Jesus spoke.
If this was Jesus' primary audience, what should be the degree of difficulty in determining the meanings of His words?
__ Only the religious elite can understand.
__ Only the avid Bible student can understand.
__ Only those who know the code can understand.
__ Most anyone can understand.
The parable of the prodigal son was recorded by Luke, but not by the other gospel writers. Luke was the more detailed of the four gospel writers and was intimately familiar with Judaism and the stark contrast between traditional religion and Jesus' message.
3. Place the parable of the prodigal son on the timeline of Jesus' ministry by placing an X at the appropriate place.
4. Luke 9:51 says that Jesus "steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem." What is the significance of this statement?
5. The principle enemies of Jesus' ministry were the scribes and Pharisees. Based on your perception, what are some adjectives that can be used to describe the scribes and Pharisees?
What are the characteristics of modern-day scribes and Pharisees? In what settings might you encounter a modern scribe or Pharisee?
6. On page 10, it is said that the scribes and Pharisees "were legalistic—believing that the way to gain favor with God was by earning merit—and the best way to gain merit in God's eyes, they thought, was through fastidious observance of the law." Thus, they based their salvation on their own self-righteousness. As Christians, we know that our salvation is only based on the finished work of Christ. Yet we can sometimes allow forms of legalism and self-righteousness to creep into our own thinking. What are some ways in which we can become legalistic?
What are the effects of religious legalism in our lives?
7. The scribes and Pharisees "were also hypocritical ... They valued the public display of religion more than private devotion and true righteousness." What are some ways in which this is evident in our society?
8. Jesus never entered into negotiations with the scribes and Pharisees; He stood His ground. Of course, this only heightened the tension. As a result, Jesus was at the top of their "Most Wanted" list. There have been times when we all have backed down rather than suffer the consequences of standing our ground on what we know to be right. In what areas of your life it is often easy to negotiate, or compromise, on our convictions?
What have been some of the consequences of your choosing to negotiate rather than stand for what you knew to be the truth?
9. Read Matthew 23:2–12. Jesus' words regarding the Pharisees should be seen in their context, but also applied across generations. When people begin to turn religion into their god, they inadvertently abandon the worship of the true God. Do your worship practices exalt God? If so, what are some things that direct your attention toward Him?
Tax collectors and gross sinners were the bane of society for the scribes and Pharisees. The very fact that Jesus associated with such undesirables was reason enough to seek to discredit Him and eventually kill Him. On more than one occasion, the Pharisees tried to back Jesus into a theological corner. But it is useless to debate theology with God and to refuse to humbly accept what He says is true. It was useless then; it remains useless today.
10. The scribes and Pharisees looked down their noses at two groups of people—the gross sinners and tax collectors. In that day, the religious elite distanced themselves from society's outcasts. In their world, the outcasts were notorious sinners and tax collectors. Who are the outcasts in our culture and how do you react when you encounter one of them?
11. Luke recorded three parables that explained Jesus' reasons for associating with society's outcasts. Keep in mind that parables were told for the purpose of illustrating one primary point. Read Luke 15:1–7. To reinforce his focus on the average person, Jesus told this story based on a flock of one hundred sheep. In that time, a flock of this size was average. What is the main point of the parable of the lost sheep?
12. Perhaps there were some in the crowd who were unfamiliar with the ways of a shepherd. For those people, Jesus offered a parable to which they could relate. Read Luke 15:8–10. A silver coin (a drachma) was equivalent in value to the Roman denarius, which was a day's wage for a Roman soldier. What is the main point of this parable?
This sets the stage for the parable of the prodigal son, sometimes referred to as the parable of the lost son. The Pharisees continued to question Jesus about His association with society's outcasts. This reflects their misunderstanding of what it meant to be a person of faith. The Pharisees saw the faith culture as exclusive; Jesus showed them that true faith and salvation is available to anyone, even the worst sinner, who will genuinely believe in Him.
13. Think about your church family and the ways in which you live out your Christian faith. How welcoming are you toward those who are different from you in personality, wealth, ethnicity, social status, cultural background, or physical appearance? On the line below, place an X indicating how willing you believe you are to accept those who are different from you.
14. What are some ways in which your exclusiveness toward others sometimes surfaces?
What can you do to keep that from being a persistent problem?
Exclusiveness doesn't have to be intentional. We can inadvertently exclude people from our church family in a variety of ways. How "guest friendly" is your church campus? How do you respond to someone who isn't dressed like everyone else? How do you handle people who need special accommodations? Your answers to these questions will help you determine just how much like the Pharisees you are. You might be surprised. An honest evaluation of your present situation will set the tone for the remainder of this study.
15. Based on what you have learned in this study, what do you expect God to do in your life through the remainder of the study?
__ Nothing; I've already got this figured out.
__ I expect God to use me to change the lives of other people.
__ I might learn something, but I'm not as much in need as others I know.
__ I expect God to conform my thoughts to His thoughts.
16. As you pray, ask God to open your eyes and ears that you might see and hear His desire for you. As the study progresses, keep a journal detailing all of the ways in which God worked in and through this study.CHAPTER 2
A Wide-Angle Preview
Throughout Luke 15, Christ is describing and illustrating the celebratory joy that fills heaven over the repentance of sinners.
— A Tale of Two Sons (p. 20)
The effective study of the parable of the prodigal son begins with a basic understanding of the parable's primary purpose. As we progress through the study, we will have ample opportunity to dig deeper into the specifics of the characters and their actions. Before doing so, however, we must set in our minds the basic meaning of the parable.
Everything we need to know about the parable is contained in the parable itself. There are other passages of Scripture that help us understand the context in which the parable was set, but they are not required for a thorough understanding. The Pharisees were disturbed that Jesus socialized with people they despised—the tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees operated from the belief that godliness was primarily a matter of external appearances. Naturally, their views produced exclusiveness.
1. What are some other situations in which Jesus associated with society's so-called undesirable people?
What was Jesus' reason for spending time with such people?
2. Jesus didn't simply fit the spiritually needy people into His otherwise busy schedule; He sought them out and planned to spend time with them. What are the personal challenges you must overcome in order to be used by God in this way?
The redemptive theme of Jesus' ministry is foundational to the narrative in Luke 15. At no point in His ministry did Jesus ever compromise His holiness. He maintained His purity in spite of the sinfulness of those to whom He ministered. His purpose was not to condone sin. Rather, He released people from the bondage of sin and set them on the path of salvation and true righteousness.
In reaching out to society's downtrodden and outcasts, Jesus was accused of consorting with sinners. This was reason enough for the Pharisees to discredit His ministry. However, it is important to note that Jesus did not approve of the sins of those to whom He ministered.
3. What practical steps can you take to reach out to the spiritually needy people in your life (such as unsaved family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers)?
4. Put yourself in the place of the Pharisees. How do you think you would have responded to Jesus' relationship with society's outcasts?
__ I would have encouraged Him in His ministry.
__ I would have thought poorly of Him.
5. Why do you think so many self-admitted sinners became disciples of Jesus? Why do you think the self-righteous Pharisees resisted His message of salvation?
How should Jesus' example of ministering to those who were spiritually in need (regardless of their social status) affect our ministries to others?
6. Throughout His ministry, many tax collectors and sinners were drawn to Jesus and His teaching. What circumstances did God use to draw you to Jesus (cf. John 6:44)?
What does God use to draw people to Jesus today?
7. The scribes and Pharisees worked hard to convince people not to follow Jesus. Many people listened because they had been taught to respect and honor the scribes and Pharisees. What societal "authorities" today compete with the Holy Spirit for attention (examples: false religion, secular media, Christian traditionalism)? How should we respond to such "authorities" (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:3–6)?
8. The more Jesus dealt with difficult subjects and challenging themes, the more people were persuaded to join in the opposition to His ministry. What is your response when God's Word "steps on your toes"?
__ I agree with God's Word.
__ I justify my attitude or actions as acceptable.
__ I seek out a less restrictive interpretation of the passage.
__ I assume the instructions were intended for a different time or culture.
__ Other: _________________________________________
What have been some of the consequences of your responses identified above?
9. As long as Jesus was feeding His followers and performing miracles, people followed. But when Jesus began challenging their ways of life and their religious hypocrisy, they quickly turned away. Read Luke 14:26–35. How do these words affect you?
__ They weren't spoken to me.
__ They are strong, but have little effect on me.
__ They are a message for me today.
__ This is a part of the Bible we shouldn't really focus on.
The parables in Luke 15 all make the same point. The first two are much shorter than the parable of the prodigal son, but they deserve some investigation. The prime targets of these parables were the scribes and Pharisees. Though Jesus never attacked them, He did attack their hypocrisy and wickedness.
10. Read Luke 15:1–7. List the characteristics of sheep.
What was the primary responsibility of a shepherd?
Why is the image of sheep and a shepherd so relevant to the way in which God deals with us? What does the shepherd's response to finding the sheep reveal about God's response to finding someone who is lost?
11. One of the earliest symbols of Christianity was the shepherd carrying the sheep home. Read Isaiah 40:11 and compare the image in that passage to the image presented in this parable.
In the parable, the shepherd did all the work. In real life, Jesus Christ did the work by dying on the cross for us. Why do so many people still believe that their salvation is based on what they do rather than what Jesus did?
Jesus' second parable teaches the same lesson. This one, however, deals with a lost coin and a woman's desperate search for it. As in the story of the sheep, the woman lost a portion of what she had. But because she lost something valuable, she searched for it.
12. Read Luke 15:8–10, paying attention to the reaction of the woman to finding the lost coin. What does her reaction reveal about God's reaction to a person's salvation?
13. If a person's salvation brings joy to God, how should that reality motivate our desire to share the good news of His love and salvation with those who don't know Him?
Jesus often used parables to keep truths from being understood by unbelievers (see Luke 8:10), but that wasn't His purpose in these parables. Jesus wanted to teach the Pharisees something about themselves that they could not see or refused to see.
14. Review the two earlier parables and identify each of the following:
Something lost and found:
The role of the seeker:
The reaction after the recovery:
15. The parable of the prodigal son presents some additional roles within the same basic theme. Read the information on pages 33–35 and match the role with the element or person in the parable.
__ The younger brother A. God
__ The father
B. The Pharisees
__ The older brother
C. The person who is lost
16. As we move into a deeper study of this parable, carefully evaluate your life as it relates to these parables. Which statement below best represents you?
__ I am like the lost sheep, lost coin, and Prodigal Son. I need God to find me.
__ I am like the shepherd, the woman, and the father—seeking the lost so that they can be brought into a right relationship with God.
__ I am like the older brother—out of harmony with heaven's joy.
Excerpted from A Tale of Two Sons by John MacArthur. Copyright © 2008 John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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