by Greg Albrecht
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“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. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 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.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“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. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him.’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 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.'”—Luke 15:11-32
Jesus was teaching the undesirables—the untouchables, the unloved, moral outcasts and discredited people like tax collectors—when the religious teachers expressed their disapproval of what he was doing.
The 15th chapter of Luke records Jesus’ response to their condemnation of his ministry, and the fact that he spent time with the least, the last and the lost via three parables. Some Bibles title them—the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. Perhaps these three parables should be seen as three acts of one play, one parable about God’s amazing grace. They are all about being lost and about being found.
Let’s consider the lost son. Classically, this parable has been called the Prodigal Son. Prodigal is a word that is no longer popularly used. It carries the meaning of being recklessly extravagant, squandering and wasting resources in a foolish manner. Normally, people assume prodigal refers to one of the leading roles in this parable, one of the three characters with which Jesus challenged the neat, tidy, dogmatic and legalistic world of the religious leaders of his day. For that matter, he still does challenge the religious industry.
This story never gets old. No matter how many times we study this parable, we find ourselves looking into a mirror and we say “that’s me.” It’s a story of every family, every generation and every community.
This parable is not only one of the most famous stories Jesus ever told, it may be the most perfect—for it is a telling story of our lives. The two brothers, apart from God’s love and grace, are a perfect illustration of the futility of humanity living apart from God, living without relationship with God.
Jesus starts his parable with the younger, more reckless son. The younger son (and brother) is requesting his share of the family assets so that he can leave home and make his way in the world.
In asking for “his share,” the younger son was saying that he could not stand to live at home with his father, and that he wanted “his share” of the estate before it was rightfully his. He wanted “his share” before his father died. Normally, the father would have the use of those funds to take care of himself and the rest of his family in his old age. What the young son was asking for, and what he eventually did, constitutes a radical rejection of the father and all that his father stood for.
The father did not refuse the son’s request, even though it was disrespectful, ungrateful, self-centered, greedy and immature. He gave his son his inheritance ahead of time.
The young man rejected responsibility. He wanted money, not property. He wanted, as humans naturally do, instant gratification. The younger son doesn’t ask for the family farm. He is not interested in milking cows, cleaning the barn and painting fences for the rest of his life. In his immaturity, he isn’t thinking about the honor or tradition or respect of the family name—he just wants the money.
As we move through this story, the father’s love is the one constant. This parable is about the father’s relationship with his children. This parable is about God’s unconditional and boundless love—his amazing grace. It’s about those who are lost, many times because they have chosen to be lost, yet the Father still loves them.
For that reason this parable is problematic for religion. Christ-less religion operates on the principle, as all religion does, of quid pro quo. We do something for God and he does something for us. God’s love is like an earthquake in the hallowed halls of legalistic religion. God’s love causes huge cracks to form in the foundation of religion, for God’s love does something for us even when we don’t do something for him.
God still loves us even when we are running away from him. The very idea that God loves those who, by their choice have run away from God, removes the club of control from the hands of institutionalized religion. Of course, as illustrated by the older brother, this parable is also about the ugliness and the hatred which represents religious reaction to God’s amazing grace.
So the younger son left for a distant country and squandered his wealth in wild living.
No specifics are given, but in general we can assume that as long as the younger son had money he had many friends. But, when the money ran out so did the friends. Later on, when the younger son returned home, his older brother accused him to their father of squandering your property with prostitutes. This is an unfounded, slanderous accusation, for the parable of Jesus does not say one way or another that this was the kind of life the younger son indulged in. When God’s grace meets religious legalism, the only thing that legalism can do is to disparage, devalue and discredit, because religious legalism cannot fathom or understand the unconditional love of God.
The younger brother ran out of money and in desperation became a hired hand on a pig farm. Working with pigs was about as low as any young Jewish man could go—pigs, and those who raised them, were an abomination.
But it was the only work he could find. We can imagine how scandalized the religious leaders were when they heard how low this son had sunk. Yet, the real scandal (to the human mind) was when Jesus said that the father never stopped being the father no matter what his son had done or was doing. That is the real scandal. God keeps loving us no matter what. That not only doesn’t make human sense, it is the opposite of religion’s assertions. In that sense, the father is also prodigal, as his love is scandalously extravagant.
The Bible says that it was in this low place that the younger son, the younger brother, came to himself. The young man decided to go home—his idea was that he would ask his father for a job—reasoning that if he was going to work as a slave, he might as well be a slave for his father. He knew that his father treated the hired hands with respect and love and any gesture of kindness or acceptance would be welcome news for this disgraced and impoverished son.
The son did not dream of asking his father to restore him to a position of grace, for he couldn’t imagine any human doing that for another who had turned their back on them. Such a reaction would be inhuman, and therefore the son did not, in a million years, expect his father to react to him as graciously as he did.
The younger son merely wanted to say that he was sorry, he wanted his father to forgive him. He was willing to swallow his pride, to come home, having left there with his pockets full of money, snubbing his nose at the relationship that his father offered him, and now, this repentant and remorseful son would return in rags, in abject poverty, willing to be mocked and scorned by his community.
And we know the story of the father’s welcome. It’s interesting that in the other two parables earlier in this chapter the shepherd had left the flock to go and look for the sheep and the woman had looked for the lost coin by sweeping the floor.
Given the two earlier parables in this chapter we might think that Jesus would have told us that the father would have left his home and visited his son in a far country and invited him to return home. But the father waited, perhaps because the only way for the father-son relationship to be restored was for the son to come to his senses and ask forgiveness, for he was the one who had left home, rejecting his father.
I always picture the father sitting on the front porch, gazing wistfully down the long country road, hoping to someday see the distant figure of his son and his familiar gait. The parable doesn’t give us that detail, but it does say that the father did not wait for the son to run the gauntlet of derision and shame as he passed by neighbors on his way home. The father did not require his son to crawl on his knees and kiss his feet, but instead, the father cast all decorum aside, and he ran to meet his barefoot son dressed in rags. Again, we are filled with a picture of the father’s love.
The father’s love calls for a lavish celebration with friends, family and neighbors, for that which was lost has been found. The father does not insist on a public ceremony in which the son gives his “testimony”—with enough lurid details to satisfy the appetite of those who needed their “pound of flesh.” The father is not interested in having his son endure some public spectacle so that the father’s “good name” can be restored.
This parable is the polar opposite from so many religious expectations and requirements called for when someone who has “fallen away” wishes to be “restored to the fold.” There is no witch hunt, trial or hanging in this parable. There is no gauntlet of scorn, abuse and condemnation the young man needs to endure. There is no contract that the young son is forced to sign promising that he will never again be so stupid and silly.
It’s during the celebration, the party that the father throws, that Jesus introduces us to religion, in the person of the older brother. Of course, true to form, Christ-less religion is frowning, unhappy that other people seem to be enjoying themselves.
Jesus could have ended the parable at this point, with the celebration, with a “and they lived happily ever after.” But the parable doesn’t end with pie-in-the-sky idealism, it ends with humanity. The parable ends with religious reaction to God’s grace, with hard-headed and hard-hearted authoritarianism and judgmentalism.
The older son was one of the last ones to hear about the celebration. We are not told why he was one of the last ones to find out, but the parable describes him as not knowing about the party until he heard the music and dancing. Perhaps it was the dancing that got to him, because everybody knows a good religious person should not dance! Perhaps the music wasn’t on his “approved” list. Who knows? We do know he was not happy.
The older brother wanted his father to know that he had continued to do all that he thought his father had wanted. He felt scandalized that he had not been recognized for all his years of what he characterized as slaving for his father (verse 29). The older brother felt that he had done all of the right things and none of the wrong things. That was the older brother’s reaction. “I have been doing and doing and doing, and what do I get?”
The older brother was absolutely appalled that a party was being thrown for his younger brother, the scoundrel that he was, while he, the good son, the rule-keeping son, received no such party. The older brother felt justified in refusing to attend the party, and thus, by his public boycott, perhaps humiliate his father, for everyone would be asking about the older brother. The older brother felt that his younger brother had offended their father in the first place, so why couldn’t he?
The father, who had left the house to greet his returning younger son, now did the same for his older son. The father’s love was the same for both sons. The father had no favorites. The father, once he realized that his older son was offended and self-righteously indignant, left the house to go and reason and plead with his older son.
But the older son would have none of his father’s explanations. The older son publicly castigated his father, humiliating him, implying that his father had not treated him fairly and that his father had not rewarded him in a manner that was commensurate with his work. The older brother attempted to distance himself from his younger brother by telling his father that the younger brother was this son of yours (verse 30), obviously implying that he was no brother of his.
His father continued to reach out to the older brother. We search in vain in this parable for any hint of the angry God that Christ-less religion depicts. There is no hint of a sinner in the hands of an angry God. There is no teaching that would have us think that the father is a God of wrath, whose wrath must be placated so that justice may be done.
In fact, that seems to be what the older brother wanted. He wanted to see his younger brother “get what’s coming to him”—but his father was not interested in seeing the younger son get what he deserved. The father told the older brother that he still had a brother, and that he ought to be happy that this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found (verse 32).
So, seeing that his father would not give his younger brother what he deserved, the older son then demanded what he felt he deserved—and the father told the older son that everything I have is yours (verse 31).
The parable ends with the door to the father’s house wide open. The younger son had left his father’s house by his own choice, and, upon deciding to come home, had entered his father’s house, by grace. The door was wide open. No conditions. No penance. No humiliation.
The older son was scandalized by God’s extravagant, prodigal grace, and the parable ends without us knowing whether the older son graced the party with his presence.
Here is an incredible portrait of God’s infinite love. This parable is a picture of the relationship God offers to everyone, to each one of us, no matter who we are or what we have done. This parable is also a picture of the ugliness of what happens to humans when they think that God owes them something. This parable describes how we as humans, when we think we have earned something from God, condemn someone else who is less deserving, at least in our estimation.
This parable is the gospel of Jesus Christ in miniature. It is the good news of the gospel. It is good news to anyone who thinks that God is so mad at them that he will never accept them back, and it is a warning to us that religion is not what God is after. God is after our heart. God is after a relationship with us.
This parable of two brothers is all about Christianity…without the religion.