Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son is well-known, not only in the church but in the wider culture. It is a story of failure, rebellion, forgiveness, grace and love. It serves as a metaphor of our human relationships as well as our relationship with God. Jesus uses it in a series of three stories of losing something and finding it once more – a shepherd who had a hundred sheep and lost one, a woman with ten coins who lost one, and the joy of finding them again. Jesus says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7).
But there is much more to the story of the prodigal. There are three primary characters – the prodigal who leaves and returns, the father who is waiting, and the older son who remains. But there is also a fourth part to this story often overlooked – the workers, neighbors and community who watched all of this unfold. Here is a retelling of this famous parable – in four parts.
The younger son is headstrong, arrogant, self-centered, corrupt, young and naïve. He represents the worst in us: the part that believes we know better than everyone else, including our elders, our parents, even God. His wrongdoing is centered in the lie that he controls his own destiny, can make his own path, and can make decisions (even bad ones) without impacting anyone else. He takes his father’s property which he calls inheritance and leaves home for a far off place. N.T. Wright suggests that it is the equivalent of telling his father “to drop dead” (N.T. Wright. Luke for Everyone. [Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], 187). Yet the prodigal is the dead one. He surrounds himself with “yes men,” “wild women” and “dissolute living” until he is broke – dead broke. The only job he can get is feeding pigs – significant as a Jewish boy, for he would be feeding the “unclean” animals. He himself is unclean, starving, and alone. He comes up with a plan to return home and work for his father as one of his workers. “At least they eat and have a roof over their heads,” he tells himself. He comes up with a plan to repent, throwing himself at his father for mercy. We might doubt his sincerity – since we doubt our own sincerity sometimes. Like the prodigal we have wasted what we’ve been given (or taken for ourselves). We have dishonored God through our rebellion and corruption. We have not always honored our parents and others in authority. We think we know better than anyone else to our own destruction, which does impact everyone else – leaving us unclean, naked and alone. The story turns on itself when the prodigal returns only to be welcomed back by his father who scoops him up in his arms, clothes him in finest robes, puts a ring on his finger (the family seal of approval) and summons the whole household to a grand feast, “for this son of mine was dead but is now alive, was lost but now is found” (Luke 15:24). The implication is that no matter how far or how long we have strayed, God is waiting for us. Not to scold us, put us in our place, or send us away – but to welcome us to where we belong. If there is an image of grace, forgiveness and pure love in any of the stories Jesus tells – this scene is that image. Jesus invites us to consider that we were once lost but now found, or at least are on the way back home where our heavenly Father will be waiting. This is the kingdom of God, and we are a part of the feast. The time is now. What are you waiting for?
The Waiting Father
The father who waits is patient, just and righteous, just like God. The Godlike figure Jesus introduces to us however overturns all our preconceived ideas and expectations. When the prodigal asks for his inheritance we would expect him to throw him out, and yet he gives him everything. When the boy returns we expect him to shame him, punish him, retaliate, and yell – all the things we would do. We would expect the father to tell him, “As I am dead to you, you are dead to me.” We expect that if he would allow the prodigal to work for him – he would never speak to him or of this situation again. These are the things we think are just and expect from God. We expect the father to ask the prodigal, “Why can’t you be like your older brother – responsible and trustworthy?” We expect the father to call the prodigal “worthless.” This is why I think some people stay away from churches. They expect to be judged, to feel uncomfortable, to be called out on their stuff and surrounded by people like the older brother who can only condescend with eyes of hatred. But the father undoes all these notions with an overpowering joy and love for the return of his son, and showing the older brother not to get wrapped-up in his own self-righteousness. When he sees his missing son, “while he was still far off” (Luke 15:20), the father drops what he is doing and runs to him. This is what we can expect from God – to lift us in his arms, clothe us with his righteousness, mark us as his children and throw us the feast of restoration. The father also shows us that our piety, commitment and morality are not how we claim a seat at his table – the same grace showed the prodigal is revealed to older sibling, and to all of us. Love, not judgment is God’s final word. Do you see him running to meet you?
The One Who Remains
The older son who remains (like his brother) is headstrong and arrogant, but in ways we believe to be more acceptable. He represents the perceived justice of the entire community. The older brother left behind is responsible, hard-working, faithful. If he as a churchgoer he would be there every Sunday, part of every committee, tired, and exhausted from pulling the weight of those who have left or stay away. He wants something better but isn’t sure what it is or how to go after it. Like him, we know our standing – we will inherit the kingdom. It’s ours. We believe we’ve earned it and are in our rightful place no matter what anybody else says. If our church closes, if the family farm dies, if our business goes sour, we believe we’ll be the last one standing, we’ll be the one to turn off the lights and hand over the keys when it is time to leave. But we would never surrender – we have worked too hard for this. When the prodigal among us shows up we are furious. He has abdicated his place in the family and at the table. He no longer belongs – even as a hired hand. Do we treat others like this when we meet them? Whatever it is they want – it must be made known that we were here first, that we’ve done the work, that if they want a place at the table it will be a tough long slog to get there. When father hands over the robe, the ring, the fatted calf and throws a party for this delinquent; words cannot express our fury. This is why churches fight I think – the prodigal has no right to be welcomed. Yet the father reminds us that the prodigal is the reason we are here. That we ourselves have already enjoyed by being this close to him. We wonder – have we missed the point of faith? Do we understand grace at all? Have we really ever experienced forgiveness? Have we replaced the opportunity to serve with the disdain of obligation? Can we welcome the outsider, however outside they are? Are we prepared to include the undeserving? Especially those who we perceive have wronged us or made us look the fool? Jesus ends the story before we decide. The true brilliance of the story is its open-endedness. It’s the place where we live day-to-day and must continue to ask ourselves – “Am I here to save myself or welcome others?”
There is a wide group of people who watched this entire scenario take place – the workers on the field, the neighbors down the road, the community in which this family lives. These onlookers represent the world. What did they think of the younger son and the father who gave into his demands? What were the rumors when he returned? How was their sense of justice challenged when the older son didn’t receive a party but the younger one did upon his return? What would people think of this family? What do people think of us as the church, the God we follow, and the mercy, grace and forgiveness that are so central to our faith? These are the lingering questions for us to continue to explore in our witness to the foolishness of the cross. It is the reason this story continues to be so challenging and so full of good news. It is our story, God’s story, the church’s story, and a story to bear witness in the world.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)
For further reading:
Henri Nouwen. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. New York: Doubleday, 1994.