The Parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s an old favorite. Beginning with chapter 10 and going all the way through 20, Luke basically recalls one parable after another. There’s a lot of good stuff in there, but this story is perhaps the best known; and most frequently taught. There are still good lessons we can learn from it.
Let’s begin by looking at the father in this story. He’s not your typical Jewish father. When the younger son asks for his inheritance, he’s saying in essence that he is tired of waiting for the old man to die. It would have been an appropriate response to take the young man to the gates of the city and stone him to death. This type of parental disrespect would not have been tolerated in Old Testament days for sure. Not only does this father let him live, he lets him leave with half of everything. Skip to the part where the kid comes back home. This son should have been dead to him; he not only speaks to him, he meets him on the road, having seen him a long way off. There’s only one way he saw the son a long way down the road; he must have been watching and waiting for his return. Think about it. By now the first century Pharisees hearing this story in Jesus’ audience would have been shaking their heads. There’s something not right about this guy. Obviously the father in the parable represents God the Father. It was the Pharisees who didn’t understand God, and that was the point Jesus was making. God the Father is patient, longsuffering, and is figuratively watching and waiting by the window for his children to come to him. Read Numbers 14:18. All the way back in the Old Testament God was loving and forgiving; the first century religious leaders often misrepresented him in their teaching.
I believe there are still lessons to be learned by us today in the Prodigal Parable. Lesson #1 God doesn’t want our deal. In v. 18-19, the son decides what he will tell his father upon his return. He is no longer worthy to be a son, but will work as a servant. He plans to earn his keep in his father’s house, possibly even to repay the wealth he has squandered. From a legal standpoint, he should be dead. He can never repay working in the field all that he has spent; but he has a plan all worked out in his head. In v. 22, the father doesn’t even listen to it. He cuts the son’s plan off in the middle, and calls for the robe, ring and shoes. Whatever we offer God in return for his blessing, or what we promise to do to earn our salvation, it will never be enough. God doesn’t want to hear our plan, he wants us to admit we can’t do it on our own and depend on his mercy and grace.
Lesson #2 Don’t ever think we have God figured out. The maturation process of our faith takes a lifetime. Even if you understand everything in the entire Bible (and you don’t, but let’s imagine), all that is God is not even in there. The Bible is what God chose to reveal to us, but our mind is not capable of understanding the mind and being of God. I can’t recall right now who first said the Bible is like God leaning over our crib and saying “goo-goo ga-ga.” The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were pretty sure they had a lock on what God was like, but his radical teachings and ideas turned their world upside down. Everything from the Sermon on the Mount to this very parable shows the flaws in their mental image. We get closer and closer the more we read and study as the years go by, but we never perfect in our mind the true picture of what God is like, and must not fool ourselves. Never get to a point of arrogance that you cannot be taught by the lessons and instruction of Jesus. The Pharisees were so blinded by their own paradigm they couldn’t see God standing right in front of them.
Lesson #3 Maybe you’re the older son. Read verses 25-32. This son represents the nation of Israel, who considered themselves God’s chosen people. His only chosen people. In our day, it is anyone who is jealous that another is offered forgiveness. Have you ever felt jealousy over someone being offered forgiveness after committing way more sins than yourself? Ever felt like you’ve been in church obeying all the rules your whole life, and other people get blessed that shouldn’t be? Then perhaps you’re the older son in the parable. Kind of like the rich young ruler that told Jesus he had obeyed all the commandments from his youth (yeah, right). Instead of reminding his son of every mistake he’d ever made, this atypical Jewish father explained that his younger son was alive again after being dead, had been lost and now found. Just like the shepherd who leaves the 99 to find and bring back the one, God rejoices with the angels in heaven over each soul who comes to the family. We’re not told if the older son comes in the house and joins the party or not, but that’s the final lesson. Join the party.
My grandfather lived to be 78 years old. He had over 1,000 movies on about 400 or so VHS tapes. They were catalogued in a computer database. Gramps would turn on the computer, look up what movie he wanted to see, and pull the appropriate tape from the shelf. My point is that late in life he was still learning new things. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a clear presentation of the gospel message. Never let that story get old.
p.s. It’s good to be back at the table.