I think many people familiar with the parables (short stories to illustrate or communicate spiritual truth) that Jesus spoke, would agree that the story we refer to as (I think wrongly) the “prodigal son” found in Luke 15, is one of, if not the most, powerfully moving, beautiful parables He ever told. Although, on the other hand, technically speaking, Jesus being the greatest and perfect Teacher doesn’t have some parables that are “better” than others.
But I think you know what I mean. This parable is perhaps the one we most vividly remember or are moved by. The imagery of the father running to his returning son (who had essentially wished his father dead to his face and squandered all his inheritance-a disgrace especially in that culture), embracing him, and restoring him as his son, is incredibly touching. (Luke 15:20-24). And if you have ever read any books on this (I recommend Timothy Keller’s “Prodigal God”) you will see how shocking and countercultural this whole story would have been to the original audience and how it still applies just as powerfully today when understood culturally and contextually.
But I say that I think we wrongly refer to this parable as the “prodigal son” story because Jesus began the story by saying “There was a man who had two sons.” (Luke 15:1). And when you realize that the context in which Jesus spoke this parable, the reason He spoke it, is as Luke 15 begins by informing us:
“Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”.
Jesus actually shared 3 parables (this being the last and longest) in response (and actually more as a rebuke) to the attitude and hearts of the Pharisees and teachers of the law! And by the way, they would have been more closely aligned with Jesus theologically and morally than the “tax collectors and teachers of the law,” which is quite interesting that Jesus reserved His “harshest” words for the “morally religious conservatives” not the “liberal sinners”! (To put this into modern-day cultural war language). That is because although being close, they (the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law) totally missed it in missing who He truly was!
The story therefore is not merely an encouragement to the “sinners” who were beginning to come to know the grace of God, being drawn to fellowship with Jesus. It was as much if not really more a rebuke and reminder to the Pharisees and teachers of the law that they were also (if not more so) prodigal sons…than the ones they called “prodigals”!
That is true because if you read the end of the parable, the “younger-prodigal” has returned to His Father (which by the way is evidence of true repentance, as repentance is not just ceasing from sinful behavior or living; but returning TO our Heavenly Father…which was the real root of sinful behavior) but the “elder-son” though never having “left”, was never really “there” either and is not entering in but arguing technicalities and “fairness” not understanding grace and not at all understanding His Father’s heart. He was trying to earn His Father’s blessing by His actions, though His heart was really with his younger brother. This is revealed in his angry statement to His Father in Luke 15:29-30:
“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!’
I can almost hear him saying, (even beyond the attitude of “I deserve this” and he (my brother) doesn’t so how come he gets it?) “You mean I could have done what is really in my heart but didn’t have the courage to do like my younger brother??!!). Some people like the younger son actually act on or carry out the sin in their heart. But others let others (actors) “act out” their fantasies without actually acting on many things themselves so that they maintain a “good reputation.” (thus feeling entitled and deserving of God’s blessing). But God looks at and knows our hearts. (1 Samuel 16:7).
Anyway…the first point I wanted to make is…there were two prodigals then and there are still two prodigals today. You have the liberals represented in our culture (or media) today in people like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and much of Hollywood.
On the other end you have the “moral conservatives” represented often within Fox News with those like (in the extreme) Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck. Fundamental Evangelical Christians would more identify with some of the beliefs (at least beliefs regarding orthopraxy—Christian practice or behavior, although often lacking is true biblical orthodoxy-Christian doctrine) of the “moral-religious conservatives” than “liberal progressives”.
In many, if not most cases, if one is not blinded by bias and has any discernment to see below the surface you will see that while the “liberals” use what is often real hypocrisy (in conservative circles) as a means of justification for not being a “Christian”, (and it is true that some liberals are clearly hostile/biased/prejudiced against “Christians” or “Christianity”) let’s be honest; many “moral religious conservatives” are more like the elder son in the prodigal son story, “angry, defensive, demanding, and bitter” not understanding God’s grace, thinking they “deserve” better, and are more concerned about their “rights” and being “right” than sharing and showing Jesus to liberal people, because when it comes down to it they really don’t know their Father’s heart.
They know His “rules” but they don’t have a real relationship with Him because they trust in their goodness not simply or only the grace of Jesus Christ received through faith in Him. They trust their righteousness not really submitting to His righteousness.
Dig deeper into many of the true beliefs of the writers of our constitution (and many “conservatives” today) regarding who Jesus Christ is and you will find many do not meet the standard of being a true “orthodox” Christian. Many of them certainly were religious and respected and admired or tried to live Jesus’ teaching on “morality” but they did not believe many essential doctrines concerning Him being God in human flesh, performing miracles, having died a “substitutionary death” on the cross for our sins and rising from the dead). Morality, yes, all for it. Religion, yes, all for it. But lacking in regard to who Jesus is (and therefore who we truly are). (But that’s writing for another time!).
The point is one reason I think the so-called “prodigal son story” is so powerful is because the one who is far away ends up “getting it” and “getting in” while the one who is so close the whole time isn’t “getting it” and isn’t “getting in”. (However, if you read the story carefully, it doesn’t say He never enters it…rather Jesus left it hanging (Luke 15:31-32) because He was challenging the Pharisees and Teachers of the law to repent and enter in!).
The other reason this story is so powerful, is because it not only cuts right to the heart of man, but also reveals so powerfully the heart of God, love of God, and grace of God…towards both sons! His heart never stopped loving or gave up on either son.
(Remember-Jesus died for the Pharisee as much as the “sinner” because the Pharisee needs the grace found in and through Jesus as much as the “sinner”. The problem is, Pharisee’s have a harder time seeing they are sinners who need that grace in Jesus!).
But anyway this parable is as much, if not more, about the Father who “had two sons” as it is about the two sons. This point is often missed. There is awesome and beautiful insight in this story regarding the heart and grace of our heavenly Father in how He deals with each son.
For example, His grace was extended to the younger son in waiting and welcoming Him back when He “came to his senses” (Luke 15:17). And when He came back He didn’t speak down on Him and berate Him and rub it in that his son was wrong and he was right. He wouldn’t let him wallow in guilt. He brought Him into rejoicing in His grace!
His grace is also seen in Him going out to plead with his older son (in essence extending the opportunity for a second chance in having a change of mind and heart…i.e repenting). Jesus certainly rebuked rather strongly the Pharisees and teachers of the law in many places, but actually His rebuking them so precisely and piercingly in revealing the true condition of their hearts; was His grace in calling them to repentance. Jesus rebukes for the purpose of moving us to repentance (because He loves us, even if we are offended!) so that we might know His grace!
Anyway…can you not see this parable playing itself out in our culture today? Generations come and go but the condition of the human heart stays the same. And the heart unredeemed by the love and grace of our Heavenly Father via faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit (whether the reality of a sinful heart manifests in “wild living” or “moral religious conservatism”) is as Jeremiah the prophet said thousands of years ago in Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?”
And may I remind us all that as Jeremiah 17:10 goes on to remind us: “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind…” It’s not just our actions He looks at, but our attitudes (especially towards Him). The older son failed miserably at just this point. (Luke 15:25-30).
We don’t want to be prodigal in the way the older son represents “prodigal” or the way the younger son represented in a season of his life being “prodigal.” And unfortunately, we tend to be a people of extremes and the one extreme is liberal-loose actions; the other extreme is uptight moral hypocrisy, judgmental, condescending harshness, and “holier-than-thou” attitudes. Each of us (at least I do!) probably tends to be prone to struggle at times in one of these two extremes, which reveals we are missing the heart of God and failing to walk in His grace. Some of us (or sometimes we) may even bounce between the two!
But there is another way than these two ways. There is the way of Jesus. There is the path of grace. There is the heart full of the love of God-even for our enemies. There is the way of true humility (instead of pride), righteousness (instead of hypocrisy), and mercy (instead of anger, bitterness, and demanding our “rights”).
This way is not natural. I know it isn’t for me and isn’t in me. It is only possible through being filled with the Spirit. I can’t (and don’t) live it apart from abiding in Christ, drawing on His Spirit, feeding on His Word, depending on His grace, and having my heart continually “tuned” by the revelation of His heart. Without Him I am a lost sinner or a lost Pharisee or Teacher of the Law.
So…I am asking God to help me more consistently not be a prodigal son either way. I am asking Him to help me be more like Jesus. But I am painfully and often daily aware or reminded that I have a long way to go still and need His grace more and more every day. What about you?
Micah 6:8 “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
“Heavenly Father, reveal your heart, your glory, your beauty, your grace, your love to us more fully, that we might walk more fully in reflecting your heart, your glory, your beauty, your grace, and your love more fully. Forgive us for missing your grace and misunderstanding (thus breaking) your heart. Help us “come to our senses” and return to YOU, that we might know experientially, your grace. Help us to remain in your grace; depending not on our righteousness, but Christ’s and Christ’s alone.”