If you were compiling a “Greatest Hits” album of Jesus stories, the Parable of the Prodigal Son would definitely make the cut.
During his three year ministry, Jesus told many parables, or short stories. Parables were a popular form of storytelling and preaching in Jesus’s day.
Most modern religious writing and teaching is meant to change our minds. We’re taught what to think about a certain issue through the transfer of information.
Parables, however, are a completely different animal.
Parables teach us how to think about the world around us.
In The Orthodox Heretic, philosopher Peter Rollins writes,
“A parable does not merely provide information about our world. Rather, if we allow it to do its work within us, it will change our world – breaking it open to ever-new possibilities by refusing to be held by the categories that currently exist within the world. In this way the parable transforms the way we hold reality, and thus changes reality itself.”
Such is the case with the Parable of the Prodigal Son,
or, as it’s also known (for reasons that will become very obvious): The Parable of the Two Sons.
Much like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, if this parable doesn’t make you bleed, then you’re probably not reading it right.
In the parable, the young son of a rich farmer asks for his inheritance early, leaves for the city, hits rock bottom, and returns home in shame. His father forgives him and throws a big party to celebrate the homecoming. Meanwhile, the older son refuses to come to the party because he doesn’t think his brother is worthy of his father’s forgiveness.
The three characters in the story – the older son, younger son, and their father – represent three distinct orientations toward the world – and the consequences of each.
Through immersing ourselves within the perspective of each character, maybe we can – in the words of Peter Rollins – allow the parable to do its work within us and change our world.
The Younger Son
In ancient patriarchal cultures, sons were very important.
They were the ones who would inherit your land, money, and – most importantly – your honor.
As such, respect for one’s father was a paramount virtue. Dishonoring the patriarch of the family was literally punishable by exile or death.
We don’t know why the younger son was unhappy at his rich dad’s farm.
But he broke a huge cultural taboo when he asked to receive his share of the inheritance early.
It was the equivalent of wishing his father dead.
Jesus’s audience would’ve gasped at the son’s naked disdain for his father or rolled their eyes at the folly of youth.
But something equally shocking happens next – the father grants the younger son’s request and gives him his half of the inheritance.
So, with his pockets stuffed full of cash, the younger son packs his bags and heads out to make a name for himself in the big city.
At this point, the story writes itself, doesn’t it?
The younger son gives himself over to all the city has to offer and blows all of his inheritance money on prostitutes, booze, and drugs.
And then we’re told a “severe famine” struck the city and the surrounding countryside.
To Jesus’s Jewish audience, who believed pigs were “unclean animals,” you couldn’t find yourself in a more disgraceful situation. Honestly, the parable could’ve ended right there with a crowd-pleasing moral message – “Don’t be a jerk to your parents.”
But Jesus – like always – has a lot more on his mind than moral grandstanding.
The younger son “comes to his senses” and commences with the damage control.
“I will set out and go back to my father,” the younger son says. “I will say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.”
Sin is a word that has been all but removed from our cultural vocabulary. Or, worse, it has been used by self-righteous religious browbeaters to target and shame other people who “sin” differently than they do.
I know many people find the very concept of sin offensive, and the word’s close association with bigotry, intolerance, and narrow-mindedness are hard (if not impossible) to ignore.
But sin – when stripped of its religiosity – has something very important to say to us.
In The Road to Character, sociologists David Brooks writes,
“Sin is not some demonic thing. It’s just our perverse tendency…to favor the short term over the long term, the lower over the higher. Sin, when it is committed over and over again, hardens into loyalty to a lower love.”
We are all prone to self-sabotage.
Like a ‘Self Destruct’ button imprinted upon us at birth that we can’t help but trigger from time to time, our perverse inclination to destabilize our environment seems hardwired into our DNA.
As much as we may try to deny it, the most important crossroads in our lives hinge on moral choice and personal responsibility.
And, like the younger son, we have all left home.
But, maybe, leaving home is an essential part of the journey.
In Through Painted Deserts, Donald Miller writes,
“Everybody has to leave, everybody has to leave their home and come back so they can love it again for all new reasons.”
The ballad of the younger son is a shameful story. Jesus has crafted a truly reprehensible character – a spoiled and disrespectful millennial brat who gets what he deserves.
But this disgraced son has a plan: He’ll return home, beg for his father’s forgiveness, and ask to work as one of his father’s servants.
At least they don’t go to bed hungry, he reasons.
The Forgiving Father
What an idiot.
If you were listening to this story for the first time in its original first-century context, you would’ve quickly dismissed the father as a foolish and moronic character.
After all, the father endured his younger son’s disrespect and granted him half of his personal wealth.
That the father chose not to discipline his younger son would have been an interesting twist for the original listeners of the parable. And that makes what happens next even more shocking.
As the younger son made his shameful trek back home, we’re told the father spots him from “a long way off.” The father dashes out of the house and down the road to embrace his wayward son.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
The phrase “a long way off” is a hint that the father has no idea why the younger son is returning home.
Remember, the last time the father and younger son spoke, the younger son said that he wished his father was dead. For all the father knows, the younger son is returning to ask for more money.
But the father doesn’t care about his son’s motives.
In first-century Jewish culture, men – especially men of status – did not run. It was considered undignified and childish.
But the father doesn’t care about social decorum.
Furthermore, the father didn’t embrace and forgive his son within the privacy of his home. They’re out in the open; people can see them.
But the father doesn’t care about the judgmental gazes of his neighbors.
After the embrace, the younger son begins his rehearsed apology speech, but he doesn’t reach the part about working as a servant before he’s interrupted by his father.
The father orders his servants to bring out the best robe, a ring, and a pair of sandals.
The best robe would’ve belonged to the father himself.
The ring would’ve been a family signet ring.
And servants didn’t wear sandals.
The gifting of the three items – robe, ring, and sandals – signaled a complete reinstatement of sonship.
These are bold gestures.
And then the father orders the slaughter of the “fattened calf,” a prized piece of livestock reserved only for the grandest of celebrations.
The fattened calf would’ve produced enough meat to feed the entire town.
The father is drawing a line in the sand. He’s inviting (or challenging) everyone to welcome and forgive the younger son as he has.
We tend to demand forgiveness on our terms. And if the person being forgiven doesn’t accept the terms, forgiveness is withheld (or rationed). It’s a transaction.
True forgiveness will always place you in a position of vulnerability.
And true repentance often comes after, not before, true forgiveness.
In The Orthodox Heretic, philosopher Peter Rollins writes,
“Yet is it not true that the unconditional gift of forgiveness, without need of repentance, houses within it the power to evoke forgiveness? As most of us know, it is often impossible to change until we meet someone who says to us, “You don’t have to change. I love you just the way you are.””
True forgiveness is a risky endeavor.
Not only must the father contend with the reality that his younger son might not truly be repentant, but he’s risking the respect of his community for welcoming his sinful son home with open arms.
But it’s a risk Jesus believes is worth taking.
Because those who receive grace are those most likely to give it to others.
The Older Son
Whenever you read a parable, it’s important to discern the contextual why and who of the tale.
To whom is Jesus speaking? And why?
Right before Jesus launches into the Parable of the Two Sons, we’re told Jesus is confronted by a group of religious leaders who accuse him of “welcoming sinners and eating with them.”
So, why this story to this audience?
The answer comes in the form of the father’s eldest son, the older brother to the young son.
The homecoming celebration is in full swing. The tent’s been erected, the fattened calf slaughtered, and the wine poured. But there’s a notable absence among the partygoers.
The older son had spent the day working in his father fields, and he missed his younger brother’s dramatic return. When he notices the party from afar, he asks a servant what’s going on. The servant tells him the party is a celebration for his younger brother’s return.
The older son becomes angry and refuses to attend the celebration. He waits in the outer darkness, and eventually, his father comes out and begs him to join the party.
He asks his eldest son why he won’t welcome his younger brother home.
And the older brother replies, “I’ve worked my ass off for you for years, and you’ve never thrown me and my friends a party.”
And with this statement, the older son reveals the true source of his frustration.
The older brother has lived his entire life by a set of rules.
These rules – or principles – helped the older brother make sense of the world.
And his father – the man whom he has devoted his life – has just broken those rules.
According to the rules, the younger son doesn’t deserve the father’s forgiveness.
To the self-righteous, grace and mercy will always appear foolish and reckless.
Not only can the older brother not forgive his younger brother,
he also can’t see past his own bloated ego.
When we derive our worth and value from our effort and obedience,
we’re also saying that people who don’t share our level of devotion are worth less than us.
And the father replies with what may be some of the most beautiful words in all of Scripture.
“My son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours.”
In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell writes,
“The elder’s son problem isn’t that he doesn’t have anything; it’s that he’s had it all along but refused to trust that it was really true. We cannot earn what we have always had. What we can do is trust that what God keeps insisting is true about us is actually true.”
The older brother made the critical mistake of assuming he deserved what had been freely given to him.
So, instead of gratitude, the older brother reacted with entitlement.
And entitled people quickly become bitter people if they feel their privilege is being threatened.
So, while the father ran to close the gap between himself and his younger son,
the older son decides to keep his distance.
The people to whom Jesus is telling this story are upset that Jesus is spending time with people like the younger brother. For them – just like the older son – forgiveness is still a transactional exchange, a power dynamic designed to balance the books.
But they do not yet understand that you cannot divide what is infinite.
If you’re listening to this story in expectation of a tidy resolution, then Jesus isn’t the storyteller for you.
At the end of the conversation, the father invites the second son to join the party,
but we never find out if he accepts the invitation.
However, though the parable ends with the spotlight focused on the older brother, the younger brother’s story is not finished. It has not yet resolved.
Therefore, the story ends with both sons at a crossroads.
It’s a double cliffhanger.
Will the younger son truly turn over a new leaf, or will he continue to exploit his father’s grace as a weakness?
And will the older son get over himself, stop being a petulant jerk, and join the party?
In other words, will both sons forsake their loyalty to a lower love?
In Jesus Before Christianity, historian Albert Nolan writes,
“To forgive someone is to liberate them from the domination of their past history. Jesus overlooked their past and refused to hold anything at all against them. He treated them as people who were no longer, if ever, indebted to God and therefore no longer deserving of rejection and punishment. They were forgiven.”
There’s a beautiful truth buried at the heart of this parable.
It’s the scandalous notion that if there is nothing we can do to earn the Father’s favor, then there’s nothing we can do to lose it either.
In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen writes,
“Here is the God I want to believe in: a father who, from the beginning of creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms drop on their shoulders. His only desire is to bless.”
In a letter to a young church, the apostle Paul writes that “love keeps no record of wrongs.”
It’s a truth that has the power to break the world.
See, the question at the end of the parable is not to which of the two sons you most closely relate.
Sons have a tendency to become fathers.
And, in a few hours, the party will end.
And each son will be faced with a choice.
The younger son will awake in his old bedroom and be faced with a decision: In the light of my father’s forgiveness, what type of man will I become?
And the older son will awake with his brother in the next room and have to decide: In the light of my father’s forgiveness of my little brother, what type of man will I become?
The challenge built into the Parable of the Two Sons isn’t really about the brothers at all. No, the parable is designed to set the listener on the path to become like the father.
Patient. Kind. Gracious.
In our most shameful and self-righteous moments, it is people like the father who embrace us after a long time from home, challenge us to acknowledge our inner darkness, and direct us toward something greater than ourselves.
Each day, therefore, begins and ends with two questions:
Who are you?
And, who will you become?
In other words,
you get to decide how the parable ends.