It has been called the pearl and crown of all the parables. The gospel within the Gospels. The Christian world’s most loved story. The parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32, is the story of a young man who tires of being under his father’s authority, leaves, and returns to the welcoming and loving arms of his father. His older brother? Not so much.
The story, however, is not really about either the wayward son or the bitter son. It is about the lavish love of the father.
The father loves his sons enough to allow them to make poor decisions – the younger son leaves, the elder son sulks. Neither one is coerced nor cajoled into doing the will of the father. They are left to decide for themselves.
The father loves his sons enough to suffer insult at their hands. Asking for one’s inheritance before the father’s death was extremely offensive. It was against every standard of decency. In essence, the younger son was saying, “I wish you were dead.” In a case like this it was the elder son’s responsibility to help his father save face. He didn’t.
The father loves his sons enough to give generously to them. He gave the younger his inheritance and when he came back home, he returned his authority to him by giving him the family seal. To the elder he said, “All that I have is yours.”
The father loves his sons enough to embarrass himself for them. In the Ancient Near East, an elder did not run. It was beneath his dignity. Yet, the father runs to welcome the younger son home. When the elder son refused to attend his brother’s welcome home party, the father left to talk to his son. It was considered very rude behavior for the host to leave his guests.
The father loves his sons enough to dismiss the charges he has against them. The prodigal son sold the land he inherited, therefore it was forever lost to all the family’s future generations. The elder brother assumed the worst about his younger sibling and wanted nothing to do with his restoration.
What if this is NOT a story about a life-long sinner who makes his way to a loving God? And, what if it is not about a bitter man who feels neglected, overlooked, used, and unappreciated? What if it is really about two faithful and obedient sons, one of whom rebels against the rule of the father, and the other who grows cold and indifferent to the heart of the father?
Allow me to suggest a different story. Oh, the character and the love of the father does not change, but the sons are wearing different clothes.
A second century Jewish scholar, R. Judah ben Tema, gave a list at what age it could be assumed a man was ready for certain responsibilities. He wrote that 18 was the age for marriage, 20 for work, and 30 for authority. Perhaps, then, the “prodigal” was over 30 years old since he already was wearing the father’s signet ring. He is a man who has faithfully served the father his entire life – not the young teenager we often picture. Rather, he is married, hard at work, and has gained authority in his family and community.
If so, this second son becomes a once faithful man who has willingly fallen into sin. A faithful husband who leaves his wife and family for the tawdry pleasures of brothels. A faithful worker who quits his job for bar parties. A man of authority who gives it all up to chase some youthful fantasy.
The first son was an equally faithful man. He was faithful and committed to his wife and family, but it was more to garner favor with the father than out of any sense of personal conviction. He was a faithful worker and served the father well, but he expected public acknowledgement and recognition in return. He was a man of authority and never abused his position, but he guarded it fiercely against all rivals.
The vast majority agree that the “father” of Jesus’ parable is a picture of the Heavenly Father and His great love for all humankind. If you accept my possible image of the sons, then the younger is not a lifelong sinner, but a faithful follower of Jesus who falls in the most dramatic and public way. The elder is a faithful follower of Jesus who trades the soul of the Gospel – redemption and restoration – for sanitized reputation and disinfected community.
There is something unusual about this parable – Jesus leaves it unfinished. Is the younger son kicked to the curb to appease the elder? Does the elder son recognize the all-encompassing joy of the father over a lost and dead son being found and restored to life? The story is left for us to finish. How are you, how am I writing the ending?