The Parable of the Lost Son
11 Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
13 "Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 "When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.' 20 So he got up and went to his father.
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 "The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
22 "But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
25 "Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
28 "The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
31 " 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "
Years ago now, when I was still a young Christian, and an extremely immature one at that, I was playing in a basketball league that was organized by our church and that consisted of disciples from within our church. As great and fun as that league was, one of the hallmarks of that Saturday morning league was that the refereeing was not of top quality. Of course I look back now and realize that there should have been no such expectation and it didn’t need to be “top of the line.” It was a bunch of brothers having a good time together and the referees consisted of other brothers that were playing in the league that weren’t playing in a particular game. I should have been understanding and patient with that as well as grateful but I wasn’t. Anything that I felt like was not a good call (and I’m sure a lot of calls that I thought were bad were actually just fine) would elicit an extremely negative and vocal response from me. After one such call, I really blew up and screamed and hollered. After getting a well-deserved technical foul, I screamed some more and stomped out of the gym, telling everyone just what I thought of all of them. It was brash, arrogant, and downright sinful, not to mention that what I said was more rooted in emotion and was not at all how I really felt.
But that didn’t matter. I stormed out of the gym and went to my car, only to find out that I had left the lights on and run my battery down. The car wouldn’t start. You just cannot convince me that God doesn’t have a sense of humor. I tried quietly to go to the woman at the front desk of the facility where we were playing and ask her if there were any jumper cables available. She said she would check and I was hoping desperately that she would hurry before any disciples came out and saw me there. She came through the door and said “good news, this gentleman will help you.” I didn’t want to look up because I was sick with the thought that she might have went and found a disciple. Sure enough, it was George. He was a wonderfully mature Christian who had studied the Bible with me and was one of the guys who I had just stomped past and screamed at. I seriously felt like turning around and running out but George walked up to me quickly, put his arms around me, and said “I love you buddy.” That did it. Nothing else he could have said would have broken me down in that moment but his incredible mercy and love that he had just shown were enough. I humbly apologized and made amends as best I could. Looking back now, I’m so glad that day happened because I learned more from George’s love and patience than I ever could have had I not made the glaring mistakes that I did.
Undeserved patience and love like that have the ability to break someone down and show them their need for repentance perhaps more than anything else in the world. As we have already seen, the actions of the son were aggressive, hurtful, shameful, and ultimately selfish. Everything he did was for himself with no consideration of the father. Even his return to the father was for his own advantage. But he then encountered the lavish and unselfish love of the father who saw him at a distance and ran to his son with peace in his heart (echoing the language from Isa. 57:19). The father demonstrated costly love and grace that was given freely. It was not (as some translations imply) because the son had “come to his senses.” The son was still coming back for his own benefit and according to his own plan. But he was stopped in his tracks but the father’s incredible grace that had not one bit of self-seeking behavior to it. His grace was given before the son could say anything, confess anything, or present his plan. And that grace and love caused true repentance on the part of the son who was left with only words of true sorrow and repentance with not hint of his plan to restore his own status and honor.
For the first time, as the son declares himself to be a sinner that was unworthy of the father’s family, he no longer is seeking to gain his own advantage. He no longer has a solution because he now sees that the real problem is not his lost inheritance or honor but the ruptured relationship between he and his loving father. He surrenders his plan and lets his father find him. The only condition that the son needed was to realize that he was lost and needed to be found. He was truly transformed by his father’s costly demonstration of love, not by his own realization of his situation or his own plan.
The father’s response to his son’s humility is nothing short of complete restoration and reconciliation. There is no grilling about what happened to the inheritance. There is no lecture and no demand that the son prove himself. The father quickly called for the best robe that would show that he was once again the rightful recipient of the family inheritance. He demanded that the servants put a ring on his finger which would have had the family insignia and shown that he was restored as a member of the family. And he put sandals on his feet, for it was servants who went around barefoot. Sons wore sandals and this was his son.
Not only that, but the father wanted to have a great celebration. The fattened calf would have been prepared for some major event and the father could not think of something more worthy of a celebration than this one. He would have a feast and invite the entire town to celebrate in his joy. The banquet would be had not just because he had come home but because he was lost and had now been found. He was still dead even at the edge of the village until he accepted that he could not enact reconciliation and would accept being found. That is what brought life back to the son.
As the older brother approached he noticed that an unusual party was going on. He asks the young servant and asked him what was going on. The servant answers from the perspective of the village. The party is going on because the father had received the son with peace and reconciliation. The party was for the father, not the son. It is for the father who had lost and had now found his son. Rather than going through a “Kezahah,” (the shaming ceremony for a son that lost his inheritance) the son was participating in the joy of restoration that was achieved at the great cost of the father. It was the older brother, according to verse 30 that, in his own anger, took the position that the feast was for the younger brother. Even though that was not the case at all, it is often the position that we take. It is important to get the details of Jesus’ parable correct. The banquet was not in honor of the boy but was in honor of the father’s efforts in creating peace, reconciliation, and wholeness in the relationship. It was a lost and found party not a welcome home gala. It was the father, not the son that should be congratulated. We have saved any comment to this point on the meaning of this passage, but it is worth a reminder here that Jesus is using this story to explain the celebrations that was his ministry and why sinners are always welcomed.
As the story moves into the second act, the younger son fades into the background and the older son takes center stage with the father. The older son must have been quite angered and shamed by the actions of the younger son. All that he could see was that money was lost, inheritance had been squandered, and that now he was being reconciled back fully without having to pay back what he shamefully lost. Grace had been offered and accepted rather than the brother meeting the requirements of the law and of societal standards. How could this prodigal be accepted back into the family without making some sort of amends for his behavior? Why, in the eyes of the older brother, this acceptance was more scandalous than the shady behavior of the son.
He was so sure that the younger brother had acted inappropriately and should be dealt with harshly. But the older brother failed to see something rather important. He thought that he was the one in the right. He felt that if the younger brother was reconciled with, through nothing but the grace and love of the father, that he was somehow injured by this. What he failed to see was that he had so set up expectations for how he thought the father should act that he was in very real danger of breaking relationship with the father himself. He started by refusing to go into the banquet. This would have been a major insult to the father but the older brother wanted nothing to do with a father that was going to act like this. The older brother was willing to rupture their relationship not because the father had harmed him in anyway but because of the great patience and love that he was showing to that sinner and the fact that he just could not tolerate a father that would act like that.
The older brother was secure and haughty about his perception that he had always done right by the father. It was the other son who had caused the father grief but not he. Yet, he failed to see that his response to the grace and love that the father was showing to his brother was just as dishonoring, just as presumptive, and just as selfish as anything his brother had done. By cultural standards, the father should have publicly ignored the elder son’s refusal to join the party and then beat him later privately for his insolence, but once again, he fails to act according to cultural expectations. For the second time, the father gave costly and unexpected love. This time he showed it to the law-keeping son rather than the law-breaking son. But the father, once again, publicly shamed himself by acting outside of expectations for the benefit of his son. He went out from the party to find another lost son, the elder son that thought he was anything but lost.
The response to the father’s grace is important. The younger son acted horribly and tried to return to the father only for his own benefit, but the matchless grace and love of the father overwhelmed that desire. All he had to do was to accept being found and he did that. The elder son, however, did not. He attacked both the younger son and his father and continued to cling to the way things should be done according to his perception of the law, the law that he was himself breaking. The father should have, according to the cultural expectations, exploded and publicly lashed the son for his insolence and insults, but again he offers love. If the older son will only accept that love, he will be treated just as the younger son had. The choice was entirely his.
All the father wanted was for the older son to accept that he was as lost as his younger brother and to accept the father’s love and grace for both of them. What would be the response of the older brother? The full answer to that lies in the fact that the ending of this story is missing? We will attempt to solve that mystery in part three, the final section, tomorrow.
Do you ever feel the elder brother in this story where you get very upset at others for the way they are treating God or other people, and completely forget to notice that you can act just as reprehensibly towards God at time? What about this story helps you to keep centered on the fact that you need God’s grace as much as anyone else?