The Prodigal Son, Part II
Today we enter into the long parable of the prodigal son itself, the third parable in Luke 15, concerning losing and finding. If you missed yesterday’s teaching, you might want to look back at it, so that you understand the context of this story.
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that
will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.
A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’
So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found’” (Luke 15:11-32).
There are many, many ways in which we could study this central parable of Jesus.
• Today, let’s concentrate on how it fits in with the parables from yesterday. You will recall that what the seeker (God) did in each of the stories was unexpected, generous, wholehearted – or wasteful, illogical, unwise – depending on your point of view (Pharisee, scribe, disciple of Jesus).
• In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the father’s attention is riveted upon the son who has squandered his inheritance.
• We have the sense that the father cannot rest until that son is safely home. On the other hand, the father has had the forbearance to wait for the younger son to repent and turn definitively for home before rushing out to greet him.
• The father never packed up and went to the “distant country” to persuade his son to come home.
In this way, the story illustrates the difficult and time-consuming “dance” of forgiveness and reconciliation:
• Clearly, the father had forgiven his son in his heart long before the son
returned. We know this because of the way in which the father appears poised to run out onto the road to greet his son as soon as he comes into view.
• But the father does not compromise his younger son’s painful process of
maturing by rushing out to save him.
• Reconciliation with the younger son brings with it a potential rift between the father and his older son. The father then has to speak clearly to the older son about his value, while not allowing him to maintain his sense of aggrieved superiority over the younger son.
• One way to study the dynamics of the reconciliation in the story is to watch how the characters refer to one another, and the father’s steady determination to establish the two young men as brothers: “your brother,” “this son of yours,” “this brother of yours, “Son,…”.
The most significant point of the story is the sonship of the two brothers.
• Note that the father gives all the signs of sonship to the younger son upon his return (signet ring, robe, sandals).
• The father does not want slaves, who will simply carry out orders, but sons, who are deeply committed to the values of the father and who act from those values.
• As sons of their father, their role is to further their father’s work in the world.
• The son who has remained and the son who has just returned now share
equally in the work of their father.
• The “work” of the father in this parable has been shown to be not so much the farm the family lives on as the work of reconciliation. This is the work that the two sons are invited, or commissioned by virtue of their sonship, to share in.
Questions for Reflection
• This story is told to the Pharisees and scribes, who have complained that Jesus welcomes sinners. How do you think Jesus intended them to hear this story? Who (or what various kinds of people) would have been the “younger son” in their social context? What keeps them from wanting to welcome this “younger son”?
• What qualities are required of the father as he is waiting for his younger son to repent and return? What qualities does the father exhibit when the younger son has returned? What qualities are required of the father relative to his older son?
• If you are a follower of Jesus (a son of the Father), then you have been
commissioned into this very work of forgiveness and reconciliation. Who is it that you are specifically called to reconcile to the family of God? Is it time for you to wait for that person, or time to rush out and welcome him or her? Who might not appreciate your forgiveness of another?
God of Forgiveness, you have welcomed me and made me a valued son or daughter in your family. Give me the courage and grace to be a means of your reconciling love in the community where I live, no matter the cost. I pray this in the name of Jesus, who shows me the way. Amen.