The Prodigal Son becomes a new creation – reconciled with his loving father. Among other things, this story is a wonderful story that exhibits the flow of worshipful life perfectly.
All the elements are there – the son turns his back on his parent and heritage – takes his material wealth as if it were his own just reward – squanders it on the things that the worldly things that he knows his father would disapprove of – eventually recognizes his own poverty of spirit – reluctantly returns in contrition to his father, prepared to confess and accept his punishment – and encounters a loving parent, willing to accept the slings and arrows of his culture for forgiving his child, and running to him with arms wide open to accept him back into the household.
If that is not the flow of life, what is? It is a beautiful parable, is it not? It is a true work of art being told by Jesus to illustrate a point. But, sometimes, in appreciating the beauty and warmth of the story, we neglect to realize the real purpose Jesus told it. We gloss over the most important aspects.
This is one of three parables told to the same audience. The first two are small and were not in our reading. Listen again to the first 3 verses of chapter 15.
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable:
Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees and scribes – to those who stuck to a legalistic, rigid, worldly vision of what the Jewish faith meant. They had their rules about who and what was acceptable and who and what wasn’t – and the tax collectors and sinners were certainly not acceptable.
This IS a story of repentance – a story of being welcomed back into the fold. If Jesus was talking to the tax collectors and sinners, then the child who went away and returned repentant would be the more important of the two children. But Jesus wasn’t talking to them – Jesus was talking to the religious leaders who judged them as sinners in the first place – the Pharisees. So, the object of the parable is the son who stayed and what happened to him. This son is the one that Jesus uses to describe his listeners.
The first part of the parable explains to these upright, religious people why Jesus is engaging with sinners in the first place. You are most familiar with that part of the parable, I am sure. The tax collectors and sinners, having followed Jesus and listened to him, were on their own path of repentance. In effect, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Now, don’t worry about them. You worry about yourselves.” Jesus does this with the part about the older son.
The story continues as the older son returns from the field and hears music and dancing. Asking a servant what was happening, he is told that his father is throwing a celebration because his younger brother has returned. Verse 28, “Then he became angry and refused to go in.” This is just like the Pharisees to whom Jesus is talking – they grumbled about Jesus hanging out with sinners. They were angry.
The rest of Verse 28 goes on, “His father came out and began to plead with him.” This is just like Jesus had been trying to reach through the Pharisees legalism and worldly concerns – pleading with them to live out their faith more authentically. Let’s listen – really listen – to the older son’s reply:
29 ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
I have been working like a slave for you. How many of us, when we asked one of our children to help around the house, liked it when they acted like they were a slave? When they begrudged doing what was no more than being part of the family? When they glared at us – or when they stomped around as they did it?
Working for God because it’s an obligation – a duty – a chore – is not attractive to God, either. But that’s what the Pharisees did – just like the older son. They never disobeyed a command, but they also felt no joy in the doing the will of God. They suspected their God of his own divine stinginess. They were so worried about their own standing with God that they never wondered about whether they were reaching out to others who needed God’s love. They were righteous, in their own eyes at least, and that’s all that mattered.
They are also judgmental. The parable tells us that the younger son squandered his money on dissolute living. In Greek the actual word used mean “reckless” living. In the mind of the older son, however, this becomes “devouring your property with prostitutes.” Now, there’s a bit of a leap. And the older son is not the only one who takes it. We do too.
Don’t we assume that the young man lead a wanton and sinful life? But that is not what Jesus’ parable says. It says he led a reckless life. Just like the Pharisees, actually because of the Pharisees, we jump to conclusions about the younger son.
We assume that the young man’s sin has been the kind of life he led when he was away. In reality, however, the only sin described was his turning his back on his father in the first place. That was a sin in Jewish culture – a sin punishable by stoning, by the way.
And now, in his self-righteousness, the older son is doing the same thing – just like the Pharisees who are turning their back on the very God for whom they have slaved. They are repeating the sin of the younger son.
And the parable doesn’t end by telling is what happened. We are left to wonder if the older son repented and embraced the younger son – and in doing so embraced his father’s love.
The story of the young son illustrates for us the rhythm of repentance and reconciliation. The parable, however, tells us about being self-righteous, about being rigid, about being too righteous to embrace the message and love of God. Could we be too self-righteous to accept the love and forgiveness of God?
To answer that, each of us has to do our own self-reflection and soul-searching. We have to examine our own hearts in light of what we believe about God. And that, friends, is a real pattern of worshipful living.
Self-reflection and self-examination
– recognizing our own behavior
– repenting of the things that keep us from realizing God’s forgiveness in our lives
– and embracing God’s love into our lives by embracing God’s other children.
This is a time for taking stock of ourselves. How’s your inventory going?