I guess this story and the one about the Good Samaritan are the best known of Jesus' parables. Most people think they know it well. A young man, as young men do, gets fed up with his straight-laced family and wants to see the world. He asks his dad for the money that is coming to him when his father dies and he takes it and splits. He spends the next few years in riotous living. You can imagine him doing a Paris Hilton, getting into all kinds of scrapes and having enough money to bail himself out of them. He would have been a popular chap; lots of fair-weather friends.
You can see where it's heading. All good things come to an end. His money runs out, his friends desert him. There's famine in the land. He tries to get a job but the only work he can get is looking after pigs, which for a Jew would have been especially degrading. In the end he comes to his senses, realizes how much better he would have been had he not left home and goes back to mum and dad, who, as parents do, take him back. They may seem a bit soft, but that's what parents are like, a mother’s love has no limits. After all, he is their flesh and blood.
So, it's a cautionary tale about keeping to the straight and narrow, telling us that we ought to obey our parents and warning us about the sort of life that the young man embarked on.
I guess that's how many people see it, but it is a profound misunderstanding of the text.
To understand a text, we have to look at the context - otherwise it becomes a pretext. This is one of three parables in Luke 15 about losing things: a lost coin, a lost sheep and a lost son. It tells us about the concern the owner has about losing things.
I guess most of us have lost something vital. My son was due to fly to Switzerland on Friday, but his girlfriend lost her passport. They searched high and low for it. They tore her place apart, but it was nowhere to be found and the holiday had to be postponed. Most of us have lost our keys. Do you have one of those devices that causes your key ring to emit an electronic noise when you blow a whistle or clap your hands? I wish I did. I'm always putting my keys down somewhere and not remembering where. When I've lost something like that I can't settle at anything else. I must find it. It plays on my mind.
The lady who lost her coin, the shepherd who lost a sheep - these stories are telling us that our Father's concern for a sinner who goes astray is no less.
To simply say that the returning prodigal was accepted, because that's what parents do, misses the point. The German Poet, Heinrich Heine, who had converted from Judaism to Christianity in order to preserve his German citizenship, was asked on his deathbed by a priest whether he thought that God would forgive his sins. He replied, "Dieu me pardonnera; c'est son metier" - God will forgive me; that's His job.
To assume that we are going to get forgiven so perfunctorily, misreads the younger son's heartfelt repentance. The Bible tells us that he ‘came to his senses’. It reminds us of Legion, the man from whom Jesus cast many Demons. The people came out and found the man sitting at Jesus’ feet, ‘dressed and in his right mind’. Repentance is not a formula for getting forgiven – it literally means ‘think again’. It involves starting with a different premise. In all three parables it is repentance that is stressed. In Luke 15:7, the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus says, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” and in Luke 15:10, the parable of the lost coin, He says, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Is the young man truly repentant? These days we see many people who swap sides when the going gets tough. Footballers who are proud to pull on the shirt of Portsmouth (or Tottenham or West Ham) and talk about the history of the club and how proud they are to be thought of in the same lineage as Jimmy Dickinson (or Danny Blanchflower of Bobby Moore). Then Real Madrid or Liverpool or Chelsea flash their check books and loyalty is easily bought. Was this prodigal just seeing which side his bread was buttered on? I don’t think so. He accepted that he had forfeited his sonhood and was eager to be a slave in his father’s house.
And if this attitude belittles the son’s repentance, it also diminishes the hurt done to the father. To ask for your inheritance while your father still lives, is tantamount to saying, "I wish you were dead." To take that amount of capital out of the business must have seriously affected how it was run. Presumably the father would have had to borrow to realize the cash. That would have been an added burden on the revenues of the farm.
We have to remember that this parable would have been shocking to his hearers. They would know all about unreasonable love. They would remember what Isaiah had said in chapter 49 v 15: "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” In illustrating God’s extreme grace, Isaiah turns to a mother’s nature. Ask a mother, “If your son were making false returns on his Income Tax declaration, would you shop him?” or “Supposing your son was a murderer, would you hand him over to the police?” Time and again mothers help their sons to get away – and who would blame a mother?
Notwithstanding, a mother’s love, the Jew’s life was defined by the Law. In Jewish eyes a woman was weak. A Jewish man would thank God everyday that he was not born a woman. In a court of law a woman’s word was worth much less than a man’s. A man was not sentimental. This young man had broken the Fifth Commandment and the Tenth Commandment and probably the Seventh as well. The Jews believed in forgiveness. The young man could have taken an animal to the Temple and made a sin-offering, but no, he traipses back to his father and his father in his weakness rushes out to meet him with open arms like a mere woman.
I imagine a Jew of the day would have found this depiction of God offensive. And in a way I agree with them. It really won’t do to brush away sin as if it didn’t matter. Two weeks ago the Manchester United midfielder, Michael Carrick, burst into the penalty area and was tripped by the Everton center half. United had already scored from a penalty awarded when the same player had been tripped earlier, and this time the referee waved away the claim. When questioned afterwards, Sir Alex Fergusson, the United manager said, “Of course it was a penalty, even more blatant that the first one. But you can’t expect to get two penalties in a match like this.”
Like many fans I was outraged. Surely we have a right to expect the referee to be fair. No matter how much of an advantage United might have had, fouls can’t simply be ignored. I would be very worried by a God who simply ignored sin as if it had never happened. Winking at my indiscretions is one thing, but if my enemy harms me I want him punished. It’s not fair!
It is interesting to note the actions of the father. As well as putting shoes on his feet, a cloak on his back and a ring on his finger, he has the fattened calf slaughtered. Is it special pleading to see the killing of an animal as having a special meaning? The Jews knew all about animal sacrifices. They knew about the nature of surrogacy. The sacrifice on the Day of Atonement was, as here, a young bull.
Looking backwards we can see that it was the very teller of the story who was to be sacrificed as a surrogate for the prodigal son and for all prodigals since. We can see him as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. God doesn’t wink at our sin, but he doesn’t hold them against us. He has taken the punishment for them on himself in the body of the Son.
So, it’s not just a warning for the young; it’s a description of God’s amazing grace; of how the lost can be saved and the damned redeemed. It’s a message that tells us that no-one is too bad to save; that no-one is so far gone that they cannot be rescued and that God in his great love is not willing that any should perish, but that all should turn from their wicked ways and live. And when we look at the context – that Jesus was sitting down with Tax-collectors and sinners – we see that it is a point well made.
But I don’t think that is the main point of the story. The main point concerns the older brother.
When I was younger I had a lot of sympathy for the older brother. After all, he was the sensible one. He’d kept his nose clean, slaved away at home, been a good example, always been there to help around the house, obeyed the rules and now he felt he was being taken for granted. On the other hand his brother had been an absolute wastrel, spent the family money of wicked things, gone missing when his father had to take out a bigger loan to keep the farm going – not only had he been the cause of the loan in the first place, but he’d not been around to help about the farm to pay off the interest – and now his big plans had all collapsed he had come scurrying back to Papa with his tail between his legs. No wonder he felt hard done by.
There is a story of Elizabeth Elliot’s that I have stolen from Chris Kelly. It’s not a Biblical story, but it is a parable. One day Jesus asked his disciples to carry a stone for him. They each picked up a stone from the ground. Clever old Peter picked up a tiny pebble that slipped easily into his pocket. No burden at all to carry that around. After they had been walking around the Galilean countryside all morning they stopped for lunch. Jesus asked them all to brink their stones to him and we waved his hand over them and turned them into bread. “That’s your lunch,” he said. Poor old Peter had less than a mouthful. After lunch Jesus asked the disciples to do the same again. Peter was not going to be fooled a second time. This time he picked up a boulder. As they walked over the hills of Judea, Peter struggled with his load. Shifting it from one shoulder to the other and then holding it next to his chest, then on his head, he fell further and further behind. Eventually, he caught them up. They had been sitting by the side of the lake for half an hour or so. “Ah, Peter,” said the Lord, “You’ve finally got here. You can chuck the rock in the lake now.”
“What? Aren’t you going to turn it into bread?”
“Peter, were you carrying that stone for me, as I asked, or were you carrying it for yourself?”
The older brother wasn’t being the dutiful son because he loved his father. He was doing it for the reward. He liked being thought of as ‘the good son’. He had the respect of the servants and the neighbors. He was a pillar of the community. He had a good image. And what is more he had expectations. Do you remember the oily character in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. William Collins, who was so nauseatingly obsequious to his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh? He too had expectations. The Bennet’s house at Longbourn was entailed to him – if Mr. Bennet were to die, Mrs. Bennet and her five daughters would be turfed out of home and hearth to make way for him. I think Jane Austen had the older brother in mind when she drew Mr. Collins.
The contrast between the two brothers turns on the word ‘slave’. The older brother complains that he has been slaving for his father for years without reward; the younger son regards becoming a slave in his father’s household as the source of his future joy.
Context is all important. Jesus told these three parables because the Pharisees were muttering. Their complaint was that “This man welcomes sinners.” The point Jesus is making is that not only does God welcome sinners, but the Pharisees are like the older brother who doesn’t welcome sinners.
Remember the Pharisee’s prayer, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.”
It is certainly a fine thing not to be a robber, evildoer or an adulterer. But if he thought he was not like other men, he was certainly mistaken.
The Apostle John writing in his old age says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…If we claim we have not sinned we make Him out to be a liar.”
The truth is that even good people need a Savior. Even religious people need salvation. I am afraid that our churches are full of people who think they are safe and are not. They have lived good lives. Everybody thinks well of them. They could stand as MPs and be scrutinized by the scandal sheets and no-one would find anything to make a story about. No hidden mistress, their income tax returns are spotless, no unfortunate ‘perks’ they would be embarrassed by; they go to church twice on Sundays, they tithe religiously, they are always at Holy Communion. They are politically correct, watching their words carefully; “Paki” and “Golliwog” are not even in their vocabulary; they turn their TV off at the mains every night; they drive a hybrid car; their houses have roof insulation nine inches thick and their walls are insulated with polyurethane foam.
Yet these very good people still fall short of the standards Jesus has set. President Carter was a very good man. He may not have been a good President, but his lifestyle was exemplary. He was mocked about the story in Playboy. “Have you ever committed adultery?” he was asked.
“I have committed adultery in my heart,” he replied. He was just being honest. Applying to himself the interpretation of the Ten Commandments that Jesus had opened up in the Sermon on the Mount.
When the prodigal son was yet far off, his father, watching the road, perhaps standing on the roof of his house and scanning the horizon, spotted him. Was there something about the way he walked? Something about his gait or his body shape that he recognized. “I am the good shepherd,” said Jesus elsewhere, “I know my sheep.”
Can’t you feel the excitement, the anticipation, the overwhelming joy as the father ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him? No wonder Jesus said there would be rejoicing in heaven.
What about the older brother? When he heard the music and the dancing he became angry. He skulked around outside and refused to go in. Not a lot of joy there. And it is a characteristic of the Pharisees. Would you not expect them to be pleased, for example, about the story of Zacchaeus, the reformed tax-collector? How about when they saw Lazarus raised from the dead? Or Blind Bartimaeus able to see again?
Supposing Joni Earickson suddenly got up from her wheelchair; would you rejoice? Or would you think it was a trick? When Jonathan Aitken was converted in prison did you suspect he was just trying to curry favor? To re-establish himself as a politician who was accepted in polite society. Did you feel the same about Chuck Colsen, the notorious Watergate plotter?
Have you met joyless Christians; people who are always picking holes in somebody else’s sweater? Oh, they are there. They don’t like the new hymn book. They don’t like the PowerPoint projector. The communion wine should be alcoholic/non-alcoholic (take your choice). They don’t like small groups. They find large meetings too impersonal. Church doesn’t do anything for me.
No wonder they are joyless. Without a Savior they never know whether the good they have done is enough. Is it enough to have double glazing? Should I perhaps get triple glazing? Should I set the house temperature at 68 rather than 70?
The prodigal son was humbled. He fell from a great height. One moment he was surrounded by rich friends, moving in the highest society. In today’s terms he would be lunching at the Savoy with merchant bankers, think it hilarious to send back a £500 bottle of wine because it was ‘corked’; then leave a £1000 tip. In the evening a little dinner party with Jude Law and a bevy of blondes and after the meal, a snort of cocaine. He would be pictured in ‘Hello’ in his Armani suit and Paul Smith shirt.
Just a blink later and he is wallowing with the pigs, his money gone, and he squabbles with the hogs to eat their food. Not difficult for him to be realistic about his situation. Humility comes easy to a man who has been brought down low.
Not so his brother. When you think you’re doing well, when you have a religious ritual to go by, when you’re good, it’s hard to see you need a savior. Did you see David Beckham in the England match on Wednesday? He’s done well to come back to international football hasn’t he? Except that he harassed the referee over what he thought was a wrong decision and got himself a yellow card. When you are convinced you are in the right humility is a hard currency to deal in. Pride keeps us from the kingdom.
Are they irredeemable, these joyless Christians? Listen to what the Apostle Paul says of himself. “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.”
Elsewhere, he describes himself as the ‘chief of sinners’.
Only the Holy Spirit could change Paul, but the Holy Spirit did just that.
As I examine my heart, I invite you to do the same. Am I an older brother? Do I lack joy? Do I lack humility? If any of these accusations stick then turn to the Savior now. Pray that the Holy Spirit will give you the joy of your salvation. For he is not only able to do so, he is more than willing.