Will the REAL Prodigal Please Stand Up? (Hint: It’s NOT the Son)

The story of the Prodigal son is fascinating for many reasons. It resonates with many of us in the way it describes the impatience and impetuousness of youth. Young adults still grow restless or rebellious and leave home. People with money still acquire shallow friends who leave them when the money runs out. A fool and his money are still soon parted. Parents still have to deal with disrespect and sibling rivalry. When you fail on your own and hit rock bottom, you still think about going home.

prodigal

The Prodigal Son 1888 John Macallan Swan 1847-1910 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1889 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01569

There are universal themes in this parable that are still alive and fresh. We find it easy to identify with these themes, but like Jesus’ audience, we are surprised by the Father’s reactions: “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ (Luke 15:23-24, NIV)

Tim Keller’s book “The Prodigal God” does an amazing job bringing this parable home to each of us. By definition a prodigal is someone who “spends money or resources freely and recklessly”; or is “wastefully extravagant”. The younger son has always been known to us as “the prodigal son” because he wasted his money on extravagant living, but the real story Jesus told was about two sons, one who was lost and then found, and one who did his duty but secretly resented it. Both sons were disrespectful and rebellious to their Father. Both sons were dysfunctional about family, wrapped up way more in the reality of me rather than the possibility of us. Is your family ever that way? Have YOU ever been that way?

As the story ends, only the younger brother found restoration, while the older brother is left waiting stubbornly in the courtyard, refusing to go in to the party. What happened next? Did the older brother ever escape self-righteousness to find love and peace? There are unanswered questions, and to me the most interesting one is, “Who is really the prodigal in this parable?” The one who shows true extravagance and lavish spending in this story is the FATHER. He spends his resources on both sons, willing to part with his entire estate to sustain one and to reclaim the other.

As he educates us about who the Father really is, Jesus teaches that 1) God is always scanning the horizon, looking for his lost children to come home; 2) the Father wants to restore his rebellious children to the family; 3) When someone has hit rock bottom, but repents and turns upward to God, He greets them not in judgment but in compassion with a hug and a kiss; 4) The Father goes all prodigal on the celebration: He brings out the best robe, his family ring, new sandals, and kills the fatted calf. He not only throws a lavish party for us but he also dresses us up with His finest stuff so that we won’t feel out of place. He clothes us in HIS righteousness and adopts us into HIS family! 5) His home is a place of joy, where it is ok to make merry and celebrate. (And it’s ok to invite other sinners to the party!)

The Prodigal Father is the God who rejoices in finding what is lost, restoring what was broken, and being extravagant with his children. If you’ve been hanging out somewhere else, it really is ok to go home. Repent. Today. Your Father is waiting for you.

A prodigal is extravagant, someone who likes to live
By spending without limit, giving all they have to give!
There was the prodigal son, who went and squandered all he had;
He spent the precious money he’d been given by his dad.
The prodigal father held a party, killed the fatted calf:
“My son is home!” The servants saw him run, and heard him laugh!
The son came home alone and spent, his walk slowed to a plod,
Humbled by his failures, beaten by the miles he’d trod;
His father’s celebration may have seemed a little odd,
But he had learned of grace by worshipping the Prodigal God.

 

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
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Indignation Will Always Keep You From Enjoying the Party

Although the prodigal son squandered his inheritance, his older brother suffered from his own sin, the sin of indignation. “But he [the older son] was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him… “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:28; 31-32, NIV)

In Jesus’ parable, the older son refused to go into the party. His audience probably thought that was the logical response; even the tax collectors realized that the older son would have been bitter and angry. No one in Jesus’ audience was surprised at the older son’s indignation. He had a right to feel that way!

indignation

The listeners all probably realized that the dutiful son who stayed home was similar to the Pharisees, who practiced righteousness until it hurt. They were, however, very surprised to realize that the older son’s actions and indignation made him just as rebellious and insensitive as his younger brother. He wasn’t home because he loved his Dad; he was there because of the payoff that would come his way when his inheritance became fully his. Just as the lost son rejected his Father and left home, the older son now rejected his Father and stayed outside, angry. HIS money was being frittered away on a feast for his undeserving brother! The injustice!

What no one would have expected was how Jesus described the way (once again) the Father responded to the situation. He took the initiative and “came out” to his eldest son. He “pleaded with him”. He was willing to share all that he had, including his daily presence in relationship, and yes, including his willingness to show compassion to his lost child by throwing a party. He gave the older son the opportunity to share in the celebration, to move from callousness to compassion, and from duty to delight. The Father grieved over his older son’s indignation just as he had grieved over his rebellious son’s debauchery.

Since the oldest son represents the Pharisees, Jesus leaves him suspended in the tension of the moment, outside the party and unwilling to come in—just as the Pharisees stayed apart from Jesus, unwilling to accept him. They were wrapped up in being right. They were so busy looking down their noses at everyone that they couldn’t see love right in front of them. Perhaps you can relate. Are you busy “hating the sin and loving the sinner”? Do you feel a little superior to outlaws, addicts, the homeless, divorced people, gays, liberals. etc.? Take a cue from the Father, and reach out in love. There’s room at the party for everyone.

The younger son just had to laugh. His father killed the fatted calf
And he who had deserved it least was honored at a festive feast.
His older brother stayed away, he didn’t understand this day:
It wasn’t even somewhat funny, wasting all that time and money!
The younger brother was a fool. The elder thought it wasn’t cool
To celebrate this prodigal son–something he would not have done!
His feelings were too strong to hide, and so he waited there outside,
Allowing bitterness to reside in every thought, and to abide…
While sinners need to hear the Lord’s commandments, and to heed Him,
Some righteous folks miss God because they think that they don’t need Him…

 

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
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Wherever You’ve Been and Whatever You’ve Done, Come Home

“And he arose and came to his father’s home. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.” (Luke 15:20-24, NIV)

Let’s explore the Father’s response to the younger son, who had recklessly asked for his inheritance, and then taken off and wasted it on “riotous living.” Since his older brother later tells the Father that his younger brother “squandered your property with prostitutes” (How did he know that? Wishful thinking? Maybe what he himself would have done?), it is safe to assume that he was not a good steward of the resources he had taken.

Any good Hebrew Father would have washed his hands of such a son, spit in his direction, and that would have been that. (Which is obviously what the older son expected.) However, THIS Father, the one Jesus knows, reacts very differently to the situation. First, the Father saw him “when he was still a great way off”. This can only mean that the Father was looking for him daily, standing perhaps up on the terrace on the roof and watching the road, hoping against hope to see his son coming home.
This was a Father who loved his sons, and who missed the lost son and longed for him to return. Upon seeing him, the Father had compassion. He didn’t fixate on what the son had done wrong, and he didn’t concentrate on punishment. Instead, he was filled with love. What he did next broke all kinds of cultural rules and expectations. Rather than waiting at home for the son to come crawling back, he did something no proud Jewish man would have EVER done.

home running

He ran down the road, embraced his son, and kissed him. There’s a song by Phillips, Craig, and Dean called “When God Ran” that depicts the moment beautifully, but suffice it to say that this emotional outburst of love by the Father surprised the neighbors, the servants, and the ragged younger son coming home. The son even began to beg forgiveness with his rehearsed speech of contrition, but the Father overruled him. He said, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ Wow.

Perhaps you have wandered away from God. Perhaps you have wasted or squandered His resources. Maybe you think He doesn’t appreciate your behavior, and wouldn’t welcome you back. Jesus has news for you: The Father is watching for you, anxious for your return. He is filled with compassion over anything that hurts you, and he longs for your company. Yes, you should be repentant, and it might even be a good idea for you to rehearse your speech begging for forgiveness. But don’t be surprised if the father Jesus knows runs out to meet you and embraces you before you even get the words out. Come home. You might even get invited to a party! If my Bible is right, you will be the guest of honor.

 

Hebrew Fathers didn't run. They wouldn't break their stride;
Public etiquette required that they be dignified.
Yet Jesus told a story once about a son who left,
And squandered all he had to wind up sad, alone, bereft...
Coming home, he found His Father watching from above,
Then running out to meet his son with unexpected love!
Jesus told this parable, as only Jesus can,
About the way God loves the lost, and about the time He ran!

From “When God Ran” by Benny Ray Hester and John Parenti

And then He ran to me,
He took me in His arms,
Held my head to His chest,
Said “My son’s come home again!”
Lifted my face,
Wiped the tears from my eyes,
With forgiveness in His voice He said
“Son, do you know I still love You?”
© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

 

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread

Bitterness Lingers On the Tongue Long After the Feast Has Begun

As Jesus told this story at Matthew’s party about the lost son, He shifted gears on his audience and changed from the foolishness of the younger son to the secret bitterness of the older one.

“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!’ (Luke 15:25-30)

bitterness

Picture the scene: the feasting in Matthew’s house has paused while Jesus continues his parable about the two sons… As He tells this story, his audience leans in, shaking their heads at the foolishness of the younger son, and also at the permissiveness of the Father. The tax-collector/sinners, reflecting on their lives, wonder quietly if they could go actually choose to go back to God having wandered so far from home.

The lifelong church member/Pharisees in the group put themselves in the shoes of the older son. They keep the law. They’ve done their duty. The Pharisees imagine walking up the driveway only to hear the sounds of feasting from the house, and share the older son’s indignation over his brother’s return. They can easily relate to the bitterness expressed by the Prodigal’s big brother. They barely hide their disgust at the Father’s wimpy attitude, and they look around the room feeling somewhat superior.

Then Jesus explains more about the older son, and there is as much about him in what Jesus DIDN’T say as there is in what he said. He points out that while the older son has stayed home and done his duty, he doesn’t love the Father any more than the younger brother did. He is more concerned with the waste of resources (technically, now, HIS resources, by the way) than he is about his brother’s safe return. In fact, he is harboring bitterness against the Father that bubbles to the surface in quiet rebellion over this welcome home party.

It’s not just wild partying and blatant sin that separates us from the Father; Proud, self-sufficient superiority and bitterness can be just as destructive. Jesus’ parable illustrates that “doing your duty”, being right, and self-sufficiency are no substitute for love, forgiveness, and vulnerability. The Father loves both sons, and both are invited to celebrate. Let’s not be those Christians who stay in a holy huddle away from the party, finding community mainly in the rules they DON’T break together. If you think about it, we are all sons, and we are all sinners. Let’s find joy at the Father’s party with son and sinner alike.

The younger son returned to see them kill the fatted calf;
This younger son was happy–but not so his other half.
The older brother sulked and of this party wanted none:
His bitterness remained long after feasting had begun.
Ask yourself, when sinners prosper and you hear the news,
Could you judge those sinners? Do you think that’s what you’d choose?
Are you ever standing in the older brother’s shoes,
Critical of your Father’s grace, and anxious to accuse?
Be careful that your judgment doesn’t circle back to you…

 

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
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Two Sons: The Story That Is Actually About Us

“A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. He would gladly have eaten what the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘My father’s servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’ (Luke 15:11-19, NIV)

sons

In this parable of the two sons, the younger son dis-respects his Father by asking for his inheritance so that he could leave home and go do whatever he wanted to. If you’ve heard this story, the focus has generally been on those who wander away or live in rebellion before turning back to God. Of these two sons, most of us can relate to the younger son who left home and squandered his inheritance. Maybe it applies to you… Have you ever “taken your inheritance” and told God that YOU are going to run your life, and you don’t need his help?

If you have, you can relate to the younger son. Perhaps you are chafing against the way things are, just waiting for a chance to do your own thing; Perhaps you are in the “prodigal living” phase, too busy partying to care what God thinks; or maybe you have hit bottom, looking at your breakfast of warm beer and cold pizza wondering, “is this all there is?” If you are anywhere in this picture, then remember a couple of things:

1) No matter how alluring the outside world may seem, the Father’s house is still a place of warmth and comfort.

2) Tim Keller’s book “The Prodigal God” explains that “prodigal” means wastefully extravagant. The younger son was “prodigal” because he blew all his money on frivolous things…

3) Fair-weather friends don’t last, and to contradict Robert Earl Keene, all parties come to an end sometime. The laughter of drunken dancing often gives way to the pain of the morning after…

4) You can never go so far from God that it takes more than one repentant decision to go back home.

5) The younger son is only a third of the earthly part of this story. It is ALSO about both sons and their Father, and the way each of us relates to God. Read the whole thing (Luke 15:11-32) and see if you can’t find yourself in there. I bet you can.

 

A certain man in a certain land had a son who didn’t understand,
But made a rather sad demand, and took his inheritance in hand–
The Father and his love be damned– and, lacking any better plan,
Went off and partied with the band from dusk ’til dawn, and
Things were grand until the inheritance was gone,
And he slept with the pigs out on the lawn…
The son was broke and all alone (the friends and party both were done)
And everyone but the pigs moved on,
So he finally thought of going home.
Though this story is well-known, Read it a time or two,
And tell me, when you’re done, which of the characters is YOU?
Have you left your Father’s House to do what you want to do?
Partied like a rock star ’til your funds (and faith) were through?
Have you hit the morning after, feeling somewhat blue?
You’ll be surprised to know that He can throw a party, too,
And waits at home to kill the fatted calf and welcome you.

 

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread