March 2, 2015
(All scripture is from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.)
We are going to step back to look at the Prelude of the Three-Act Play. Yes, I know that the Prelude comes before Acts One and Two! But in order to understand the Prelude, or the setting of this parable, we had to learn what we could concerning first the younger son – the Prodigal Son, and then the elder son. Now let’s consider Luke 15:1 through 3:
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him [Jesus] to hear
Him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives
sinners and eats with them.” So He spoke this parable to them….
Actually, the Lord spoke three parables to them: The Lost Sheep (Luke 15:4-7), The Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10), and The Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32). They all had similar themes of something valuable being lost and then recovered.
Who were Jesus’ listeners to these three parables?
• Luke 15:1 – “…the tax collectors and the sinners….” Both were despised by the Pharisees and scribes because of their questionable morals and less-than-righteous living.
The tax collectors were Jews hired by the occupying Romans to collect taxes for the Roman emperor and his underlings. They were specified the amount of money they had to turn over to the government, but whatever they could cheat and extort from fellow Jews above and beyond that amount, they could keep for themselves. Many tax collectors had gotten rich at the expense of their own people, and they were hated and despised because of it! Obviously, they had no morals and they were continually breaking God’s laws. Had not God laid down the principles of financial honesty in Deuteronomy 25:13 through 16 (NIV)?
Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not
have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. You must
have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in
the land the LORD your God is giving you. For the LORD your God detests
anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.
The sinners were those who did not live up to the exacting standards of the Pharisees and scribes! A Pharisee was bound by the 613 spiritual and civil laws delineated in the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament. The most widely accepted list of these laws was compiled by Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, a Jewish medieval scholar. Two of the laws cover the Sabbath: “Do no work on Shabbat,” and “Rest on Shabbat.” But the Pharisees loaded many more of “…the traditions of men…” (Mark 7:8 – NIV) to the laws given by God. Just to ensure these two Sabbath laws were properly kept, they added 39 kinds of work that people must not do on the Sabbath day!
These tax collectors and sinners are represented in the third parable of Luke 15 by the younger son who “…wasted his possessions with prodigal living.” (Luke 15:13). In the eyes of the Pharisees and scribes, these people were spiritual derelicts! They lived by their own rules – obviously not God’s! – and tried to find their way in life by all the wrong roads!
• Luke 15:2 – “…the Pharisees and scribes….” We looked at the Pharisees above – very legalistic, and condemning anyone who did not agree with their own interpretation of the law and righteous living.
The scribes (according to Eerdmans New Bible Dictionary) were experts in the study of the law of Moses – the Torah. They faithfully copied the scriptures, and wrote down the oral laws, traditions and legal decisions of Jewish leaders, claiming this oral law was more important then what had been written by Moses. And they taught rigorously students that they gathered around them. In Jesus’ time, most scribes – also known at lawyers – belonged to the party of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees and scribes were right in their own eyes – the only ones right – which is why they looked down upon others as sinners. They tried to gain God’s favor by obedience to all their rules and regulations – many of which obscured what God was plainly saying!
This second group of listeners are represented by the elder son, the one who despised the father’s gracious reception of his sinful younger sibling! Remember, he refused to go into the feast of celebration that his father had given in honor of his wayward son who had come home! The Pharisees and scribes were the ones whom Jesus address when He told them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.” (Matthew 21:31).
So when Jesus was speaking this parable known as The Prodigal Son, the emphasis was probably laid more upon the rebellion of the good and moral elder son – the Pharisees and scribes – than upon the repentant younger son – the tax collectors and the sinners.
Don’t miss this point as we enter Act Three of the Three-Act Play.