In Luke 15, Jesus depicts God’s compassion for the lost by telling one long story with three chapters. The last of these is popularly called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”
We all know the story of a young son who dishonors his family by claiming his inheritance while his father was alive and then squandering it. He returns home to the open arms of his loving father. Many use the story as a warning about the pain of rebellion and the forgiveness of God. These are fine points, and even true. However, this reading misses a key point – in fact, it misses what I think is the main point of Jesus teaching.
Take a few minutes and read the story in Luke 15: 11-31.
Did you notice how abruptly the story ends? One son is at home and another in the field. Despite the joyful return, one son remains lost. You see, the prodigal is not the son we usually label, the one who came back home. The prodigal son stubbornly remains in the field — he is the older son who refuses to celebrate with the father.
This parable shows us that it is possible to be a child of the Father, but live a lost and prodigal life. Let’s not do this. In 2017, let us become sons and daughters that reflect the heart of our father.
So – what did the real prodigal do — what are we not going to do this year.
- He rejected the father’s joy when the lost came home – God is happy when unbelievers come to faith. He does not look at their past and wait to see if they will “really change.” This year, let’s invest ourselves in the thing that brings our Father the greatest joy. Let’s find those who are wandering and guide them home.
- He looked at his own righteousness without realizing that everything he had was because of what the Father had given him. – One of the funniest, and most embarrassing, statements in this story is when the older son says: “I have never disobeyed you. . .” This is the perfect attitude of self-righteousness. I am better than “those people.” We are right and good because of God, not because of ourselves. When we use ourselves as the standard for judging others, we are neglecting this important gospel truth.
- He was quick to label and gossip about others – He told his father that the younger brother had been with prostitutes. He was unclean. First, the older brother probably didn’t know this. Second, it wasn’t relevant. The lost son was home and the father had forgiven him. It is easy to label and gossip about others. This is not Christian behavior. Let’s simply quit doing it.
- He refused to identify with the returned son. – I think that the saddest part of this passage is when the father continues to remind the older prodigal that the younger is his brother. The older son keeps saying “This son of yours,” and the father says, “your brother.” We will never love those we refuse to identify with and we will never win those we refuse to love.
- He would rather be “right” with himself than with the Father. – Guess what the most painful part of this post is. Nothing I have written is new. It isn’t even surprising. . . We know this stuff. We bypass these teachings and say, “Well, I am not in the pig pen.” This is Jesus’s point. The Father rejoices over those who repent more than those who don’t feel they have a need to repent.
Jesus tells this story to show that it is easy to be outside of the will of God and feel justified. We are so happy that God sought us and welcomed us home. But, when we consider those who worship differently, those who choose different lifestyles, or those who align themselves against us, we don’t appreciate that God loves them too. The prophet Jonah experienced a similar crisis of faith. God did not destroy his enemies and Jonah said: “isn’t this what I said while I was still in my country? . . . I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster.” (Jonah 4:2)
Our broken world needs Jesus. We dare not push away those who are trying to come home. This year, let’s choose to celebrate with the Father rather than being the prodigal in the field.
Scott Hildreth is the director of the Lewis A. Drummond Center for Great Commission Studies. He frequently speaks on issues of missions, spiritual formation, missiology, and theology. Scott also contributes to SEBTS faculty blog www.betweenthetimes.com