It’s a classic parable. Perhaps, a “tale as old as time.”
Two siblings, each with a promised inheritance, and both trying to do what they believe is best for themselves and their family. The older son stays at home to “look after the farm.” He knew a good portion of his father’s land would be his one day. The younger son, knowing the land would produce a considerable fortune in any economy, decides he wants it all now. If he received it now, he believes the lucrative inheritance would produce fortunes his father had never imagined.
We all know how this story turns out.
The younger son asks for the inheritance. He heads off to the “big city” with the desire to invest in real estate and commodities. Instead of doubling his inheritance, the money “burned a hole in his pocket.” He spent it all. He gambled it away at the casinos, the horse tracks, and hosted wild nightly parties. The younger son was broke and alone. He had to find a minimum wage job so he could eat, and he barely had enough money to pay the large debts he had amassed. If there was anyone who needed Dave Ramsey’s tutelage, it was this guy.
On the other hand, we have the upstanding older son. He stayed at home. He did what was asked of him. He made sure that he never made an error in action or judgment. He was responsive to his family’s wishes. The older son was “a respectable citizen” in the community. Everyone looked up to him, because of his character and morals.
We all know how this story turns out … or do we?
What is going on here? Is this parable actually about comparing the wrongs of the younger son to the ethics of the older? For many of us, this is how we have often heard the passage. The younger son wastes his money, repents, and moves back into relationship with his Father. We end the story here, because it gives us a warm feeling of a homecoming. We want the older son to be the parable’s champion. I wonder, does the older son’s actions warrant our respect? Is Jesus not challenging the older son’s actions, as well as those of the younger?
Maybe, this parable doesn’t say what we’ve wanted it to say all this time.
So, what is Jesus trying to tell us in this parable?
In order to understand this parable, we need to put the it in its proper context. Jesus is addressing a group of Pharisees and Scribes, so the interaction he had with these two groups is central to understanding the parable. Also, there are a few Jewish customs at play here. For the most part, inheritance and property would pass to the son. Jewish law made an exception if a father did not have a son. In those cases, it would go to the daughter. For the most part, the sons would inherit the family’s fortune. There was also a ratio of how the wealth would be divided. The older son would receive the larger share of two-thirds of all the father’s property and finances, while the younger son would receive a third of the property and finances.
This is what the young son is wanting. He goes to his father and says, “Father, I love you, but I want to go see the world. There is a world out there I want to experience. I believe I can make a large investment with what you will give me. Please, father, let me have my inheritance now, so I can live how I want to live.”
In that time, to ask for this inheritance would have dishonored his father. He is saying, “Father, I can’t wait for you to die. Give me my money, now.” The Father could have written the son out of the family. Instead, he does something odd, even for us today. He gives his son the inheritance, even though doing so would dishonor him and create a large financial loss.
So, the son leaves and goes out to make this huge investment. But, he is caught up in the things of this world. What we see is that the younger son is attracted to the things that he can get his hands on. In his classic book on this parable entitled The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller says what the younger son attempts is the path of self-discovery. The younger son wanted to go out into this world, and figure things out on his own, as if to say, “I do not need my Father to tell me how to live my life. I know what I am doing.”
It’s a path many of us have chosen at some point in our lives. We bought into this idea that we do not need a community to support us in our faith or in our lives, even tough Jesus, himself, needed a group of 12 men to support him, and an even smaller group of three to closely walk beside him. We believe the world is our guide, and we are more apt to listen to the world’s suggestions than the guidance of our loving Father. We want it our way.
What Christ is saying is that this path of wanting the good life on our own terms doesn’t lead to spiritual or personal growth, but only destruction. Away from his family and those who would keep him honest, the younger son lost it all. The younger son, and we as well, did what is detestable when we chose this path. When we decide to do things our way and ignore the support of our community, we chose the path of personal and spiritual destruction. The younger son had no choice but to like a swine because had hit rock bottom. It was symbolic of becoming like a Gentile. This younger son had no choice but to eat like the extreme poor of his day. When we chose this path, we become the picture of spiritual darkness. Even if we have it all together, this is a path that will leave us broken.
The younger son needed the love of his Father. In a moment of contrition he makes a move back toward relationship with his Father. As if he was echoing the words of Psalm 51, the younger son admits that he has sinned against God, and his Father, by not doing right. The younger son recognizes that without this relationship with the Father, without God, we are nothing. When we chose the path of spiritual destruction, we must repent and find our way back to the Father’s arms.
But, Jesus does not use the younger son as if to exalt the virtues of the older son. The older son is not without his faults, even though we want him to be seen as the prime example. He did everything that was right. He never disobeyed his Father. He worked hard and produced good works. The older son was about moral ethical behavior and conformity to his high standards. In this parable, the older son was like the Pharisees and Scribes. They believed the only way to the Father was by strict ethical rigidness to the Torah, the Law of Moses. The Pharisees and Scribes created the talmud, which was an ethical code that surrounded the Scripture so that no one would violate the “will of God.”
While the younger son sought to find the good life on his own term, so did the older son. It devastated his relationship with the Father. The older son was so intent on doing good works and doing right that it no longer was about joy of honoring his Father, but a burden and task to receive a reward, which never came as he intended. The older son believed that good works were the way to a good life and relationship with the Father, instead of believing that salvation and relationship with the Father comes from faith and love. In the process, he grew to despise the Father.
Just like the older son, we will grow to despise our Heavenly Father if we believe the only path to Him is through a strict ethical guideline, or good works. We cannot earn God’s love. It is already there for us. Our good works are not to earn God’s love, but must be a response to the unmerited and free love God has bestowed upon us. If we chose this path of self-righteousness, nothing will bring us closer to God. Instead, we will constantly feel a distance in our relationship with God. We will never fill the joy of a true love and fellowship with the Father. When we are in a period of being like the older son, we must repent just like the younger son had to repent.
Here we have two extremes of living. These are extremes many of us have tried at some point in our lives. We may even be living in one of these extremes today. We’ve tried the way of self-discovery and only come to find that we are broken in our own efforts. We’ve tried the way of good works, and only found that it leaves us despising the Father. Living in the extremes is no way to live, and it puts us at a distance of true relationship with the Father.
This is the message Christ is attempting to get across. Christ is pointing all of us to a better way. It is a way that recognizes the depths of the Father’s love. The Father never stopped loving his children, but sought them out and offered them both free and unmerited grace.
See how the Father embraced the younger son. When the younger son came home, it was the Father who ran after him and received him in joy. He brings him back into relationship, and forgives the sins of the younger son. The greatness of our Father’s love is such that no matter the depths of our sin, no matter the distances we have placed in our relationship with God, the Father is running out to embrace us, and bring us back to the family.
All it takes is for us to admit our sin and make that move of repentance, and accept the grace God gives us. When we seek God, we recognize we cannot live without the love of the Father. What a joyful moment it is when we recognize our need of God in our life, and the reality that without God we are nothing. What a joyful moment it is when the sinner confesses and turns their heart towards the Triune God.
The Father does not just embrace the younger son, but he also embraces the older son as well. When the older son stands outside the party and refuses to celebrate the younger sons return, it is the Father who reaches out to his son. The Father says, “I have always loved you, and I will always love you.” In this intimate moment, the Father tells the older son, and us, that we do not have to do anything to earn His love. It is always there for us. God loves us simply because we are His children.
In the middle of these two extremes of living, Jesus says to us all that the way to a full life is to embrace the love of the Father. It is not through going out on our own, or through a strict ethical behavior. But, when we embrace God’s love for us, we will see the world in a new way, and we will want to do good deeds in response to God’s love and grace for us. In this story, Jesus invites all of us back to a relationship with the Father – those who have sinned through wild living, and those who have sinned through replacing obedience to God with their own definitions of obedience.
So, where do you find yourself in this parable today? Are you the younger son who has tried to do things on your own, and have tried to find God in your own ways? Or are you that older son who believed that everything must be done perfectly in order to receive God’s love, or you must do good, not out of a response to God’s love, but in order to receive it? No matter who you are in this story, here these words: Jesus is telling us that the love of God the Father is for us all, regardless of what we have done, and regardless of the distance in our relationship with God.
The question is: Are we going to accept the depths of the Father’s love for us?