Does Jesus care about syntax? We need only to look at the parable of the prodigal son to see that He does. We tend to read His parables as their own, isolated units. Yet, often more is going on outside the parable than inside it. Take the example of the prodigal son parable (Luke 15:11-31). You must cycle through 3 different “intents” to determine the single meaning:
- The parable’s intent;
- Jesus’ intent in telling it; and,
- Luke’s intent for including it.
The first two are important, but the third—Luke’s intent—is our final destination. To get there, Jesus’ syntactical arrangement is vital.
The Prodigal Son
The prodigal son in Luke 15:11-31 often is viewed as one of the most beautiful passages in Scripture: A heartwarming story of heart-felt repentance, glorious renewal, and jubilant restoration. It’s about a wayward son who realizes the unconditional love of his father. It’s about music and dancing and happy times . . . but is it truly about happy times?
A closer look reveals a rather sad ending, not a happy one. We do see repentance, renewal, and restoration of the younger brother. Yet, when we ask ourselves (1) “What is Jesus’ purpose in the story?” and (2) “What was Luke’s purpose for including it?” we discover Jesus’ purpose is not to highlight the happy times. Quite the opposite: His purpose was to uncover the jealousy of the older brother. You see, everyone in the whole chapter is happy and excited except for one person: the older brother. He’s angry, jealous, critical, and unforgiving. To see it, you must consider the syntax.
The Prodigal Son’s Context
Luke 15:1-2 provides the context. Jesus was talking to sinners and tax collectors. The hyper-critical Pharisees begin grumbling about Jesus eating with such sinners. Jesus responds with three parables, but it’s really one story.
First, a sheep that was lost and then found. There was great rejoicing. Next, a coin that was lost and then found. There was great rejoicing. Finally, a son who was lost and then found. There was great rejoicing . . . but then the scene turns ugly: The closing scene of a jealous, hyper-critical, bitter older brother leaves a lasting impression. That the situation is left unresolved is equally troublesome. Luke 15:25-32:
25 Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.” 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” 31 And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
Do you see what Jesus is saying? This whole 3-parable set is in response to a condescending comment by the Pharisees, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (15:2). Jesus points His divine finger at the Pharisees and says, in effect: “You, Pharisees, are acting like the older brother!” This “break” in the parable-pattern is the syntactical clue which sets-off the unforgiving, critical spirit as the main point.
The Prodigal Son’s Syntax
Jesus is telling the Pharisees: You are the older brother. You are the “angry” ones (15:28). You are resentful—he refused to go in (15:28). You claim you have served your father these many years (15:29). You claim you never disobeyed the commands (15:29). You did this ritual and followed these rules and those regulations, but your heart is calloused. You’ve got critical spirits, resentful spirits, prideful spirits. Look at the personal pronouns of the older brother: “I” have served you (15:29); “I” never disobeyed (15:29); You never gave “me” a young goat (15:29).
Syntactically, Jesus structures all three parables in the set to feed into that final scene. If the question is, “Why do I eat with the sinners and tax collectors?” The answer comes in the third parable: Because “it is fitting to celebrate and be glad, for” these sinner and tax collectors (like the younger brother in the parable) were spiritually dead and now are alive; they were spiritually lost and now have been found. You (Pharisees) are acting like the older brother: hyper-critical and selfish while sinners joyfully receive God’s grace by faith.”
If there were any doubts, Jesus makes it plain in Luke 16:14: The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed Him. And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination to God.”
The Parable’s Relevance
The root problem was diagnosed by the father in the parable: A jealous, unforgiving heart. The father really got to the heart of the matter: “I forgave your brother,” he pleads, “Why can’t you?” And so it was with the Pharisees: Jesus was saying, “God has forgiven these sinners and tax collectors. Why can’t you?” To discover the abiding relevance, we must filter through the three intents.
- Parable’s intent: Uncover the jealous, unforgiving heart of the brother.
- Jesus’ intent: Uncover the jealous, unforgiving heart of the Pharisees.
- Luke’s intent: Luke’s stated purpose is found in 1:4: To provide certainty of faith to Theophilus. This parable-set serves that purpose by showing why the Pharisees were seeking to silence Jesus: Their jealous, unforgiving hearts despised Jesus and all He represented, which ultimately led them to murder Him. This provides certainty to Theophilus (and all Christians) of Jesus’ complete innocence and the world’s hostility toward the Righteous One, as well as those who identify with Him.
Does Jesus care about syntax? The arrangement of His parable-set suggests He does.