Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The Prodigal Son, this story is perhaps one of the best-known parables Jesus spoke. It is a story that resonates with forgiveness and acceptance. Yet, this parable would have been shocking to the people who first heard it. Why, because it violated so many of the cultural norms of Jesus’s day. First, there was the emphasis the culture put on honoring one’s parents. Both sons did not seem to do so. Then there is cultural theology that believed you reap what you sow. Also, in this culture, it was the older brother who was supposed to be celebrated and not the prodigal. So, in many ways, this parable in Jesus’s day was all kinds of wrong.
The word prodigal is not a word we often use. It is a word meaning spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant (I looked it up). Why would Jesus use this parable? Jesus is striving to let people know about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is where all are welcome, where all can be restored, where all are loved no matter what has happened in the past. This parable teaches us about what it means that God is love.
In Jesus’s day, and in ours as well, it is easy to make God into a cultural symbol, a spiritual abstract. The Pharisees and Sadducees used the idea of God to build a religious system and a social control device. They believed they could manipulate the concept of God to serve their interests. They even felt a need to defend God. A god who needs defending is not much of a god at all. These symptoms of spiritual dysfunction seem to still be with us today. God does not want to be a perception but a being who personally cares for us regardless of anything. A God of limitless compassion and patient perseverance.
But what about the questions. Questions can easily arise from this parable. Why did the son want to leave the father’s home? Why did he think he could ask for the money? Why did the father give it to him?
We can also focus on what happens to the young man. How can he be so naïve, so taken in by so-called friends who only want to take advantage of him? Perhaps we can identify with the young man in some of our own foolish choices. I know I can. Was he angry for how he was used? Was he bitter? And then, when “he came to himself” was this not just more a matter of his own self-interest? Was he truly sorry for what he had done? What are our thoughts about this young man?
Then there is the resentment of the older brother. Perhaps some of us can sympathize with his feelings. Have you had feelings of being treated unfairly? Can you think of times you were bitter against someone to whom you are related? Have you ever felt you were owed more for your efforts?
This older brother seems to be caught up in his own party, a pity party.
Sometimes the privileged get upset when they are not recognized for what they see as their right. This son felt his father owed him for being “the good son.” This son was angry. The son seemed to be sickened but the extravagant event thrown by the father for this loser son. Resentment can breed a lot of spiritual problems. Resentment fuels disrespect, disdain, and delivers us into the hands of an egocentric poor-me mindset. Resentment can poison relationships and degrade love. It clouds the mind and feeds the bitterness we find in the older brother’s words.
And then there is the father. Poor gullible father. Don’t you think the father knew this could happen when he gave his son the money? Isn’t the father an enabler of the prodigal behavior? Should he not have done more for the older brother? Was it fair the way he welcomed the son back with no apparent consequences?
Let’s stop our questions and speculations. Our questions do not do justice to the parable. Questions like these miss the point. The Kingdom of God is about God’s love, God’s acceptance, not our social values, not our opinion of ethical references, or any misguided theology. The father has the right to love his son. The father has the right to accept his son back. The father has the right to celebrate. The father has the right to exhort his older son. What the father receives is pure joy.
Listen to the words of Jesus, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Lk. 15:7 ESV)
The father has no preconceived conditions. The father has only joy. The father does not ask for any explanation. The father has no need for any reasons. The father is just elated that his son, his prodigal son, is standing there before him. This is what matters.
From the beginning to the end of the Bible, God is there for people. God accepts people. God waits for people. God loves people. God rejoices when people turn to God for guidance, help, and restoration. Jesus loves people. If any son had reason to question the father, it was Jesus himself. The path for Jesus to come to the Father was not through a “when he came to himself situation,” (Lk. 15:17 ESV) but to a deliberate choice, Jesus himself accepted through the crucifixion and resurrection. For Jesus, the focus was God the Father’s will not his own.
Parables can lead us to reflection. How does this parable make you feel? How do you relate to it? As I relate to the parable, I would like to think I was not the prodigal. I would like to think I was not the older brother, but I know that I am both. I have made many foolish decisions that lead me away from my heavenly Father. I have made foolish evaluations of what I thought God should do or not do. Questioning what I perceived as God’s action, God’s intention.
I am so thankful for a God that is willing to accept me. A God who acts like the father in this parable. A Father Jesus calls, Abba, daddy. That I too can call, Abba, daddy.
Perhaps we want to know more. Did the younger prodigal change his ways and become a faithful son who learned a valuable lesson? Did the older brother come around and allow forgiveness, family, and faith to take the place of resentment? We are not told. Maybe, we are supposed to finish the story in our own lives? What do you think?
I close with these words for the first letter written by the Apostle John, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 Jn. 4:7-11 ESV)