This is an invitation to journey through the parables. This will be a series that runs over the course of many issues. Please click here for all the articles in the Power In Parable series.
Jesus was masterful at telling a story (parable) that vividly illustrated the character of God the Father. This month we are looking at one of the most popular Biblical parables of all time. It is commonly known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” However, a more accurate title would be “The Parable of the Compassionate, Loving Father, and His Two Lost Sons.”
Jesus certainly wanted to convey the message that God is absolute love. In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain, Lewis coined a phrase that everyone needs to commit to memory: “Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.” There are many people today who do not know or understand that statement. Evidently, in first century Israel there were many who did not know God’s love in this way either.
When one’s perception of God is limited to strict rules, do’s and don’ts, chastisements and penalties, He is easily perceived as a referee or umpire. Three strikes and you’re out.
When your own rebellion and sin have taken you far from the protective covering of His Presence, it is easy to project your sense of rejection, loneliness, and emptiness on God.
This parable addresses many of the distorted images of God that people wrapped up in self have attributed to the character of the One who loves us most.
The Parable of The Compassionate Loving Father and His Two Lost Sons Luke 15:11-32
Read the parable aloud, even if you are alone. This is the way a parable is meant to be conveyed. Then, go back and listen to it with your heart.
As in any good story, there are three obvious main characters – the father and his two sons. There is a universal appeal to this structure. Think of fairy tales, classic plots, and even three-point sermons. Something about this rhythm is soothing to our senses. However, what is not soothing is that there is really a fourth character in the story, one who is unidentified. It is you, the listener! It is as though a mirror is placed before you to look at yourself and make a decision about your relationship with God the Father. Which son do you identify with? How do you view the father? How do you view God?
We are presented a slice of life from this family’s album. We all have a “family album” whether it is composed of pictures, stories, or memories. Perhaps this particular family looked “perfect” to everyone around them. But the story reveals there was a huge family problem. One of the sons revealed it. He became the catalyst for an opportunity for the entire family to become whole.
The problem son may have been called the “black sheep” or the “scapegoat” but his acting out revealed a hidden core problem within the rest of the family. He upset the boat, or at the least, he rocked the precarious balance of the family within the boat. Often, only when a family boat collapses does the family seek help.
The story begins: There was a man with two sons…We know from the beginning that it will be important to pay attention to both of the sons.
The Younger Son
Let’s look at the younger son first. He is popularly known as a prodigal. For many years I read this story and thought a prodigal was a wanderer. However the real definition is “a wastrel, one who spends money excessively and extravagantly without necessity.” When you look closely at this young man through the context of first century Jewish life, we see that excessive spending was the least of his problems. Being a prodigal was only a symptom of the real crisis in him and in the family.
The story begins when the young man said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” We probably overlook how much his demand would have shocked first century listeners. It may seem like a selfish and disrespectful action to us, but there was far more at stake in his request. There was an implied wish for the father to die. An inheritance should only have been given when the father died. It was the ultimate insult. Akin to murder. There was murder in his heart.
The son wanted to live without any restrictions his father placed on him. He wanted to “do his own thing, be his own person, do it his way.” He wanted to travel far away from any of the family responsibilities and live his life as if his father did not exist. He viewed his father’s love and protection as a yoke around his neck, keeping him from the many pleasures of life that were out in the world that he was not experiencing.
The father was not only loving and compassionate; he was wise. He knew he could not convince his son to stay by guilt, bribery, or punishment. His love, as C.S. Lewis said, “is splendid but also stern.” He gave him over to his carnal desires. He gave him one-third of his estate. Because there were two sons the estate was divided into three parts. The older son was entitled to the double portion (two-thirds of the estate,) which evidently was given at the same time. “So he divided his property between them.”
According to Jewish law at the time, if a son obtained possession of his inheritance before his father’s death, he allowed his father to maintain a measure of control of the estate’s assets until the father died. Today this is called the usufruct right. This is why the father in the parable was still able to give orders to the servants of the estate after he had assigned ownership of his belongings to his sons. During his lifetime, the father had the right to eat the crops or the herds and to maintain oversight of the estate. He no longer had the right to sell any portion of his estate. If a son sold his portion (as the younger son obviously did to obtain money), the new owners could not take possession of the land until the father’s death. This meant the son probably sold it at a loss.
So, off went the younger son with his newly acquired wealth at his disposal, a life left behind that he had become bored with, and the world before him with no responsibility. The next thing we learn about him was that he squandered everything and was living destitute in a land far away with no family, no protection, no provision, and no hope. In this setting, everything he left behind looked wonderful. He did not appreciate his father’s wisdom while he lived in the house. Now he was vulnerable and helpless. Perhaps you have been there?
This description of desperation was so vivid to the listeners that they could hardly imagine such a dilemma. A young Jewish boy in self-exile from his family and friends, forced to hire out as a day-laborer to a non-Jew to feed his swine! It was all anathema to Jewish listeners.
When the son hit bottom, “He came to his senses” or “He came to himself.” His repentance was real and it ran deep. He wanted to go home. He wanted to work hard. He wanted to repay all he wasted. He knew he had sinned against his father and also against God (Heaven).
However, it was obvious he still did not know his father’s heart. He believed he would be expected to live as a servant in his father’s house. He did not expect to be restored to a father-son relationship. He grossly underestimated how much his father loved him.
When he returned, the father ran towards the son, giving him the robe (a sign of protection), the signet ring (a sign of belonging to the family), forgiveness, restoration, and love – it was almost too much to be believed.
The Older Son
When the precarious balance of this family boat was disturbed, the heart of the older son was revealed as well.
The father gave both sons their inheritance at the same time. Receiving the double portion as oldest son implied also a double portion of responsibilities. A first century Jew would have known this. The older son was responsible for looking out for his siblings, protecting and preserving the family, and laying down his life if necessary.
It is apparent that there was no love and respect for the father from the older son. He was as emotionally distant from the father as his younger brother had been physically. He maintained a façade of doing the right thing and modeling obedience but the father-son relationship was fragmented and the son’s heart was revealed. His initial response to his brother’s return was anger.
When the father attempted to reason with his older son, all the emotions that had been pent up under the guise of being the “perfect son” or the “hero” were let loose. “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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” He was so mad he couldn’t even refer to his brother by any name other than “this son of yours.” He had disowned him as his brother.
The sons get all the attention in the story but the father is the real star. When the sins of both sons are exposed, the father’s character shines even more brightly. When sin is revealed, the holiness of God is even more apparent.
This parable is not subtle. It hits you in the face. No one misses the point. You, as the Father’s child, have free will. You choose to love and obey or not to love and obey. Even if you choose to live your life as if God does not exist, He loves you. Even if you resent what others get and you don’t, God loves you. “My son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours. 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.” Even this reference to “this brother of yours” rather than “my youngest son” shows that the father was making efforts to mend relationships between the brothers. He wanted to restore the family.
Jesus did not tie up the parable in a nice package with a pretty ribbon. It doesn’t have a “feel good” ending. It is disturbing. It ended with the father pleading for a celebration of resurrection life from a tomb of sin. Each listener, both then and today, must wrestle with: What is my relationship with my Father? We insert ourselves into the story. We provide the ending as we make a heart decision.
The certainty is that whatever, the Father is waiting, meeting you more than halfway, and longing for your return home. Whether you have been physically absent from Him or emotionally distant from Him, He has a celebration waiting for you!
Questions to ponder and discuss
- As the fourth person in the parable, how do you respond?
- Are you the one who wants to “do it myself?”
- Are you the one who resents others’ blessings when you feel unappreciated?
- Do you have a difficult time receiving the Father’s love?
- Focus on the symbols in the parable. Elaborate on what these might mean to you.
a. The robe – a covering, protection
b. The ring – a sign of belonging to family
c. The sandals – a sign of not being a slave
d. The feast – a celebration of honor
- Are you allowing God to lavish these upon you?