May God’s name be glorified! Recently, I happened to hear Tim Keller's sermon on the parable of prodigal son and it greatly influenced me. I went through the parable bit more deeply and wrote my observations and thoughts.
Passage: Passage Luke 15:11-32
Context: Jesus says this parable as part of the series of parables. Jesus was doing his ministry. Lot of sinners, tax collectors got interested and they came near to Him to hear him. They were the people who found the ministry of Jesus useful. When Pharisees saw that Jesus was surrounded with sinners and tax collectors, they did not like it they said “This man receives sinners and eats with them”. They themselves were the king of sinners and they are saying, he receives sinners and eats with them. What they expected is a person like Jesus Christ, should gang with the Pharisees and scribes, He should join their club. Things were the opposite. Jesus knew their heart and he said to them 3 parables – Parable of the lost sheep, parable of the lost coin and parable of the prodigal son. After saying the each parable Jesus says a key statement in as a conclusion of the parable in v7 and v10. I find these verses as the key verse in understanding these 3 parables. We need to think of the parable of the prodigal son in this context. There is more joy in the heaven over the repentance of one sinner than the 99 just people who need no repentance.
The Pharisees and scribes had a wrong understanding about God. They thought God would side with the just people, or God would be happy to be with the good guys. But Jesus is redefining their concept about God, and telling them what creates joy in the heaven is the repentance of a sinner than the just people who don’t need any repentance. This is the context in brief.
Let’s come to the parable, it’s a beautiful story. Let’s read it Luke 15:11-32. It’s a story about a Father and his two sons. We have heard that we can relate to the God like a son to the father. But even in that relationship also we can go wrong. Lets see that in this parable. The two sons represent two ways of relating to the Father. Two wrong ways.
Redefining the relationship with God
The lost younger son - Self discovery way
This is the first half of the story. Let’s look at the first way of relating to the Father – that is the way of the younger son.
In this story, we see the younger son asking for his possessions from his Father. Possessions were given to the children normally after the death of the Father. The decision to divide the properties and writing the will is normally taken by the Father when he is almost nearing the death. But here we see the son is asking for his portions. Asking for the possessions when the Father is alive is just wishing him dead.
The crux of his request is, Father, I want your stuffs, I want your money, I want the status, I want the wealth but I don't want you. I don’t want to live with you as your son, but I want to get out of your control and live in my own way. Or I don’t want you to control my life or I don’t want you to involve in my life but I need your possessions. This is one way of relating to the Father, loving the Father’s stuffs and Father’s possessions rather than loving the Father or loving the blessings of the Father rather than the Father. When they get what they are looking for they will end the relationship and live as they like. That’s what the younger son did, He asked for the stuffs of the Father and once he got it, he started his way to live his own way.
The story progresses the younger son, get away from his Father and goes to a different country and squanders everything. The one who decided to find happiness and pleasure fails miserably. He thought he can find happiness and joy he gets the freedom to live in His own way. He thought he can find happiness and joy if he is out of the control of the father. This is a kind of liberal thinking that people has. There are people among believers itself of this kind. They wanted to break free from the father. They wanted to break free from God but need the possessions of God. They will find it a big struggle to lead a Christian life.
These kind of people are not atheists but want Gods stuffs and live their own way. It's too difficult for them to live under the control the father. That's the reason this prodigal squanders everything when he is independent, he spends in his own way, he went to the prostitutes to get pleasure and happiness. The fundamental idea behind philosophy is that if we do whatever we wish we can find happiness, but there is a flaw in this philosophy, this view is based on the assumption that you can control everything if you have money and independent. It's based on the assumption that you have the power to control things. But things are not in your control. God controls everything. See what happened, famine happened, things went out of control for the son. He was ruined. The way of life which he thought would give him pleasure and happiness has become his ultimate pain and sorrow now.
The lost elder son - The religious way
The second half of the story is about the elder son, who also loved his Father's possessions or wanted to get control of the Father’s stuff by living a good life. This is another way in which people relate to the Father – the ones who wanted to control God or to get control of his blessings through their obedience and service. When they don’t get that their true image will come out, they will be angry at God, they cannot accept the works of God, cannot accept others also. That’s what exactly happens with the elder son.
He is on the way back home and he finds there is a party going on at house. He gets to know from the servant that his younger brother had returned and his father is celebrating and giving a feast by killing a fattened calf. The elder brother couldn't accept it. He couldn't accept the actions of the Father (v29) – he is keeping himself away from the party; he could not accept his younger brother who had returned (v30). “This son of yours”. He is angry at his Father; he expresses his anger by not attending the party which His father is throwing.
What do you think is the reason for his anger? The reason for his anger is the obedience and the service he has done to the Father. That’s what he says, he says v29 “Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; yet you never gave me a young goat that I might make merry with my friends”. He is extremely angry. He is not even addressing his Father as Father but says “Look you”. Then he says, I deserved lot more from you because of my obedience and my service to you all these years. He dint like Father spending money for the celebration of his younger brother.
The younger brother already took his possessions, now the rest of the portion belongs to the elder son. All these are going to come to the elder son after the death of the Father. He is asking “How dare you give the wealth?” I also have a say in this. That’s the attitude of the elder brother. His primary love is the stuffs of the Father rather than the Father, his way to attain it was by living a morally good life. While his younger brother decided to live in his own way. But that good life that he lived is now preventing him from accepting the return of his lost brother and Father's decisions.
This is a danger that can happen to us too those if we are relating to the Father in this way. We really need to examine the real reason why we are obedient to him and serving him. Is it to get hold of the possessions and wealth of the Father? Is it to control the Father with our good works?
This is what has happened to the Pharisees, they related to the Father in this way. They thought the sinners, tax collectors does not deserve anything and they deserve much more because of the moral conformities.
As we said in the beginning, Jesus was surrounded by 2 groups of people – the sinners, tax collectors and Pharisees, religious people in the second group.
The Pharisees or religious, were having a wrong concept about God. They thought of God as someone who loves only the just people and hates the sinners.
The sinners might have thought that God cannot accept sinners like them. God won’t forgive them.
But here we see Jesus addressing both the groups and correct their understanding about God by comparing him with a Father of this parable.
Let’s reaction of the Father towards his younger son, he is standing before the son who just wanted him to be dead. The father has all right of his possessions and he can drive the boy out of the house but he is not doing that. Understand the heart of the Father, he is enduring the most painful thing that human can endure. His own son, whom he loved so much and cared so much and brought him up. The Father is getting to know that his son loved his possessions more than him - Rejected love. If we were in that situation, we would have done to overcome this. But this is his love towards the people who breaks the Father’s heart by demanding the Father’s possession and not him.
And later when the younger son was aware of his mistakes and later thought of coming back we can see how this Father receives him. The Father saw him from afar. Father was always looking eagerly for the return of his lost son. That's why he runs to him. The father at those times was not supposed to run. The brother used to run but the father never he was supposed to maintain some dignity. But here we see the father whom the son disowned is running towards him breaking the social and cultural barriers to reach his son. Even before the son repents, the father kissed him, hugged him even when he was in his filthy dress. The father didn't wait for him to take a bath and change the dress. This initiating love of the Father made the son truly repent of his sins. The sons say his plans to come back to the family. But before he finish off his plans of paying him back the Father says to put the best robe, ring and shoes. Putting the ring is the sign of authority, putting the ring on him is the sign of acceptance. His Father dint want his son to earn his way back to home, but unconditionally accepted him, kissed him, treated him like the son without remembering his past actions. This is our father in heaven. This is the way in which he had accepted us. He He didn't want us to earn our way back to home back to home. He just accepted us as we are. This is radically different view compared to other religions. This is radically different from the picture of the God which other religions portray. He didn't want us to earn our way back to home. This is the picture of God that Jesus is giving to the sinners and tax collectors.
Father’s reaction towards elder son: We have seen that the elder son is equally lost as his younger one because of his self-righteousness. Father knew the elder son also wanted his possessions more than him. He is publicly insulting the Father by keeping himself away from the party which his Father planned. Even still the initiating love of the Father reaches out to his elder son. The elder son didn’t treat the father with respect. He didn’t even address him as Father. Even still, the father is calling him "my son". This is the words of the Father to those who are obeying and serving him not because of love but to get control of his Father’s possessions- “All I have is yours”.. This is how Jesus is showing the picture of God to those religious groups. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of this fact that we are heirs of that heavenly inheritance. And remind ourselves to obey him and serve him not to control his possessions but because of love.
The first act of the youngest son we can see it as sin - squandering the wealth, living with the prostitutes. That's the traditional definition of sin. We don't have problem with that. Then his repentance makes sense. Because that’s the way he should come back to the Father by repenting of his sins. He has lot of things in the list to repent for wasting the wealth, living with prostitutes etc.
But look at the second son, he has nothing in the list to repent for unlike the younger son. The younger son produced a big list to repent for but the elder son has an empty list. What a situation! He has only the list of the things which he has done – the list of obedience, the list of service. Nothing to repent for - totally lost. The father is not denying anything. This is something which we hear often when we share with the catholics, I don’t see anything in our life to repent for. We are good people, we don’t need to repent about anything. This is the state of the elder brother. They have nothing to repent for. They don’t need a saviour because their works are their own saviours. Sometimes we have to repent for the good works that we are doing just because the motive behind the good works are wrong. Trusting in the good works is also a sin which needs repentance but sadly we don’t see any repentance from the elder son. That’s why Jesus saying in the key verse v7, 10 – Heaven rejoices at the repentance of 1 sinner than the 99 just people who don’t need repentance.
Lastly and quickly, what’s the application?
We should be motivated by the price that was paid to bring us home. In this parable, the elder brother was extremely angry when a part of his possession was taken by the Father to celebrate the return of the younger son. If he was a true elder brother, he would have understood the heart of the Father. He would have understood that the Father is longing for the return of his lost son. Then he would have gone by himself looking for him city after cities to bring back his lost young son even if it would cost some of his possessions. But sadly he was not the true elder brother. But we had a true elder brother Jesus Christ he paid the price to bring us back home. Jesus Christ knowing the heart of the Father, knowing the father’s deep love for his lost sons, came voluntarily to bring us back to the Father.
Today we are playing the role of that elder brother. What do we feel in our heart towards our lost younger brothers? Can we see the heart of our father? Can we feel the pain of our Father towards his lost children? Or are we like the lost elder brother filling up our list with the list of obedience and service and looking down with contempt on the sinners and tax collectors of today’s society. Being the elder brother let us reach our lost younger brothers. And heaven will rejoice when his lost ones come back to Him. May God help us.