Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
The Parable of the Lost Son
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
This parable is one of the best-known of all the parables of Jesus. It’s usually called The Parable of the Prodigal Son, but in our NIV Bible it’s called The Parable of the Lost Son, probably because it comes right after the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. This parable is popular with people who lead youth groups, because it has an obvious and easily taught lesson for people who are just beginning their walk of faith. But it has another meaning entirely for those who have been trying to follow Jesus for a substantial part of their lives.
For a person who is just starting out on a life of discipleship – or for someone who is just thinking about making a commitment to follow Jesus – this parable teaches a lesson about God’s unconditional love, and about his willingness to forgive those who repent of their sins and turn back to him.
And for people like that, who are new to the way of faith, the parable has some pretty interesting details to think about. For one thing, the father in the story, who is understood to represent God, sees the boy trudging down the road and runs to embrace his returning son. In ancient Hebrew culture, for the head of a family to lay aside his dignity and break into a run like that would be very surprising – a sign of overwhelming emotion. And the father embraces the son as he is – probably covered in pig filth. He doesn’t insist on having the boy clean up first.
And did you ever notice that the father cuts off the long confession the son has been rehearsing on the way home? To the father, the fact that the boy is back is what matters. Then the father orders the servants to bring the best robe (which was a symbol of hospitality), a ring (a symbol of membership in the family), and shoes (which symbolized that the son is a free person, not a slave).
So for a person at the beginning of their faith journey, this parable would say that God is willing – and even eager – to forgive the sins of your past and welcome you to a new life as a cherished member of his family. So, no wonder it’s popular with the leaders of youth groups.
But my suspicion is that those who are just beginning their life of faith aren’t really the people Jesus most had in mind when he spoke this parable. If you remember, all three of the ‘lost’ parables in Luke 15 – the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son – all were told by Jesus in response to criticism from religious types. They were criticizing him for welcoming and befriending “sinners” – people like the lost son in the story. So in telling this parable, Jesus was talking to people who thought of “sinners” the same way the older brother in the parable thought of the younger one.
So while this parable might have something important to say to people at the beginning of their life of faith, it seems to me that it’s still primarily meant for people like us – people who have been trying to follow Jesus and obey God’s laws for a while already. And for us, I’d say this parable is a warning to us not to let ourselves think that we are better than others in God’s eyes. It also seems like a warning against falling into a sense of entitlement – against thinking that because we don’t run around scandalously getting drunk in public, consorting with prostitutes, stealing, fighting, etc., that God somehow owes us a favored place in his kingdom.
A sense of entitlement is insidious, because if we allow it to take hold in us, we’re bound to wind up being judgmental and condemning, like the older brother in the parable. We figure we’ve been getting up and coming to church for years while the ‘prodigals’ were staying out late and waking up with hangovers on Sunday mornings – doesn’t that earn us something in God’s eyes?
Actually, it turns out that maybe it does. In the parable the father says to the older brother, “You are always with me, and all I have is yours.” But it’s a sad truth that we cheat ourselves out of the privilege of sharing the joy of our God if we stand outside and sulk when the party isn’t about us. It’s wiser to let God worry about whether others are worthy of his love. After all, we can’t claim to be worthy of his love either. Why not just be happy we’ve been invited to the celebration in the first place?
The great Presbyterian preacher and theologian Timothy Keller has written an excellent little book about this parable called The Prodigal God. In that book, Tim Keller suggests that maybe the real lesson Jesus wanted to communicate through this parable is that our God really is prodigal – ‘freely giving’ – when it comes to giving his love, his forgiveness and his blessing. And if the God we love and serve freely gives those things, we probably should, too.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for your great willingness to forgive us and take us back on those occasions when we have wandered away from your ‘fold.’ Touch our hearts, and make us less and less inclined to judge others, and more and more inclined to join in the celebration when they come home to you. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 27 and 80; Joel 2:21-27; and James 1:1-15. Our readings come from the NIV Bible, as posted on Biblica.com, the website of the International Bible Society.)