And he [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons.” (Luke 15:11).
So begins one of the most famous stories ever told. I have read this passage more than 100 times for sure, and still, each time I do, emotion wells up within me.
It is typically called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and the story of his ruin and restoration has spoken, for centuries, to those who need hope that they are not so far from God that there is no way back. His speech of repentance–“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” is practiced but never given in full because the Father forgives his sin (the robe), restores him as a son (the ring, a symbol of authority) and distinguishes him from a servant by giving him sandals (sons had sandals, servants were barefoot).
But Jesus said: “There was a man who had two sons.” They are emblematic of his audience. Luke 15:1&2 tell us: Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
The shocking truth of this story is that the older brother was as lost as his younger brother was; the Pharisees and scribes needed salvation as much as the tax collectors and sinners did.
Both are alienated from the father. The father had to go out to invite each of them to come into his feast.
In his book, Prodigal God, Tim Keller asserts: “It is not his sins that create a barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record.” The older son says: “I’ve never disobeyed you.” In his pride he would not even acknowledge his younger brother–he says, speaking to his father, “this son of yours.” He has zero mercy. He resents the mercy the father shows.
And he [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons.” Both needed forgiveness though one seemed reckless and one respectable. The parable ends with the father making his appeal to the elder brother; there is no resolution. We do not know what he chooses.
By the way, while we often think of prodigal as meaning sinful, the dictionary meaning is: spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant, having or giving something on a lavish scale.
That certainly describes the way the younger brother wasted his inheritance, but it is an apt description of the love and mercy of the God we serve who invites both younger and older brothers to his feast.
All grace to you,