Read Luke 15.1-32
The parable of the Prodigal Son has been called “the gospel within the gospel.” In this beautiful short story we are given a glimpse of what God’s forgiving love looks like. It contains the core message of the gospel — that nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even our own desire to separate ourselves. While we get caught up in the character of the two sons, the story begins and ends with the father and while Jesus does not come right out and say this father represents God, clearly God’s love is evident in the actions of this father.
Not only does the story reveal something about God, but something about the nature of being human. Some can identify with the younger son, who wants to make it on his own, but just doesn’t have what it takes. Others can sympathize with the older son, who is angry that his obedience doesn’t win him favor. I’m sure some parents can imagine what the father goes through, trying to be fair with the two sons and yet not wanting to create more distance.
This is what the younger son in the story hopes to achieve. He goes to the father and says to him, “Father, please give me that part of the inheritance which is mine.” On one level, he simply wants what’s coming to him. Still, as one writer points out, he comes to the father not because of who the father is, but because of what he has.
The father divides up the inheritance among his sons. He gives the younger son the opportunity, the freedom to make it on his own. From here, the son wastes no time selling his share and taking off for a far country. He wants to make it on his own and the only way he knows to do that is to put some distance between him and his family. The story tells us that he “squanders his property in dissolute living.” Some people take this to mean he was out “gallivanting” (as my father calls it), that he used the money for drinking and sleeping around. This is what his older brother accuses him of later in the story.
But there’s no indication of this the way Luke tells the story. To “squander his property in dissolute living” means basically that he spent the money foolishly, not thinking ahead. In no time at all he was broke. Not only was he broke, but he found there was a famine in the land. There was a recession; there were no good jobs to be found.
Still, he doesn’t give up. He hires himself out as a farm hand. In one sense you can admire his willingness to work in a desperate situation. He doesn’t give in to hard times. To take a job feeding pigs, however, would be to move further away from his family. Pigs were considered unclean by Orthodox Jews. It would be like taking a job as a Sunday bartender on the Riverboat when you grew up in a family that didn’t drink or gamble and went to church on Sundays.
Then, there is a turning point. Verse 17 reads, “when he came to himself.” He has hit rock bottom and he looks around and says, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger.” There are two things that make it possible for this turning point. First, the desperateness of his need, the fact that he has hit rock bottom, but more importantly, the memory of his father who was good and kind and saw that even the hired hands were cared for.
We read that he prepares a confession and goes back home, but even before he has the chance to speak, his father, who has been looking off in the distance waiting for him to return, runs up and gives him a hug. He has a robe put on him, a ring on his finger, and shoes on his feet. The celebration begins.
The story could end here and we would have a wonderful story of how the father does not forget his son, even though he has done foolish things. But there’s more to the story. There is the older son, off working in the fields, slaving away under the hot sun while back at home they are preparing for the feast.
It’s great to be able to identify with the prodigal son– to know that no matter how far we stray, God is always there ready to welcome us home. But what if we’re more like the older son?
The older son refuses to join the celebration, so his father seeks him out. The father listens carefully as his first born lays out the concerns of his heart. Yet, mixed with these concerns there is also a spirit of abandonment. He has stayed on the farm not out of love, but out of a sense of pride. He no longer feels the bond with his father, but views his condition as that of a slave, as he says, “I have slaved for you all these years.”
Finally, the father responds. “My child, you are constantly with me. Everything I have is yours.” The father’s love for the younger son does not mean he loves the older son less. The beauty in this story is not that father is inconsistent, but that his message to both sons is the same. You are my children, and I love you. You are welcome here. This is your home. I see in this story hope for everyone.
The amazing love of God is big enough for those who wander away as well as those who stay at home.