In the famous story Jesus tells, both sons disappoint their father. The younger son geographically separates himself from his loving father; the older brother is emotionally and relationally distant. When the younger son finally comes to his senses and returns home, the older son is not ready to embrace him like their father does.
It has been suggested that perhaps the reason why the younger son does not return home sooner is because he knows his critical, unwelcoming older brother awaits him there. It has been further suggested that many runaway prodigals do not return to their biological or church homes today because of their experience with older brothers – whether biological siblings or brothers (or sisters) in Christ. They would rather remain lost than encounter condemnation back at home.
The older son is such a flawed character in Jesus’ story – and it ought to hurt when we see characteristics of him in us that push other people away.
There is one good thing about the flaws in the older brother, though: He puts a desire within us to have and know a better sort of older brother.
A better sort of older brother who we find in Jesus.
As I’ve said before, knowing Jesus as an older brother offers me profound hope: He is a brother who is strong yet gentle, brilliant yet patient, always present and caring. But more than that, he is the brother who restores my relationship with my heavenly Father. For me he was willing to die to ensure that could happen.
It’s thanks to Jesus that lost sons and daughters (like me and you) are found for now and for eternity.
My series this month on prodigals is indebted
to the profound writing and preaching ministries
of Timothy Keller, who wrote The Prodigal God, and
Darrell W. Johnson, whose sermons on “The Prodigal Father”
can be downloaded as part of his series entitled
“The God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I also deeply appreciate the “Prodigal Son Collection” at
the Calvin College Center Art Gallery.
We’re used to calling it the parable of the prodigal son(s). It would be more accurate to refer to Jesus’ story as the parable of the prodigal father.
The word prodigal literally means to be recklessly extravagant. And it’s true that the younger son is recklessly extravagant with his inheritance until it is all gone and he finds himself friendless and broke. But if we look at the sons’ father, we see that he’s even more recklessly extravagant – He is recklessly extravagant with his grace.
Instead of disowning his younger son or demanding him to repay the debt (something the younger son would never have been able to do), the father hugs and kisses him, throws a banquet for him and invites the whole town to celebrate the homecoming. Instead of sending a servant to demand his older son to co-host the celebration with him (as the original listeners likely expected), the father excuses himself from the party and goes out to the older son to plead with him to join the festivities. In short, the father goes out to find his lost sons. In fact, he keeps constant alert to their return: When the younger son is still a long ways off, the father sees him coming and runs out to embrace him.
In Jesus’ day, it was quite disgraceful for a distinguished gentleman to hike up his robes and run. By running, the father expresses his joy at his son’s return. But it’s quite likely that he also has to run in order to get to his son on time to protect him: Maybe some of the townsfolk feeling like giving the younger son a piece of their mind about how he treated his father; maybe some of the townsfolk want to give the younger son a piece of their fist to teach the younger son a lesson for dishonoring his father. However, by running out to embrace his younger son, the father says to the townsfolk, Whatever you want to do to my son, you first have to do to me. You have to get through me before you can get to my beloved.
I read somewhere that sin looks pretty puny and boring compared to God’s grace. Like the grace shown by the father of the two sons, God’s grace for his lost sons and daughters is beyond measurement. It is recklessly extravagant. In this season of Thanksgiving, I wonder, “How can I ever sufficiently thank my prodigal God?”
”The Prodigal Son” by Edward Riojas.
From the “Prodigal Son Collection” at the Calvin College
Center Art Gallery. For further reading,
check out The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller.
In Jesus’ famous story, both sons are lost. The younger son is lost geographically; we can trace his lost-ness with GPS. The older son is relationally lost; we can trace his lost-ness on the cold and hardened dimensions of his heart.
Despite close proximity, the older son is emotionally distant from his father. When he hears a celebration on the homestead, he is not filled with joy, eager to join the festivities; instead he is immediately suspicious about what his father might be up to. What’s more, he refuses to enter the house – an insult to his father, the host. The younger son upon his return from the far country at least has the decency to address his father respectfully; the older son begins his tirade with “Look here!” The older son sees his work on the farm not as a partnership with his father but as slavery. And when he complains that he’s never been able to throw a party for his friends, the older son betrays his feelings against the people currently celebrating – the friends of the family apparently are not his friends.
It’s ironic. By external appearances, the older son is doing everything right: He’s at home with his father (unlike his younger brother); he’s responsible (unlike his younger brother); he respects the family property and reputation (unlike his younger brother).
Yet this isn’t the relationship the father desires. When the older son says, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you…” I feel the father’s heart break again. I hear him thinking, I don’t want a slave. I want a son.
This parable reminds me that there are different kinds of lost-ness. Some are obvious, others not so much.
And this parable reminds me of how Jesus comes to save the sinful and the righteous. Apart from Him, both kinds of sons and daughters are lost.
For many of the insights in this series of blog posts,
I am indebted to sermons preached by my
Regent College professor, Darrell W. Johnson.
On Sunday I spoke about the “lost and found” stories Jesus tells in Luke 15, including the story of the lost sons. One of my professors at Regent College, Prof. Darrell W. Johnson, calls this familiar story the “Gospel in the Gospel.” He sees within this text a distillation of the entire Gospel story – the story of heartbroken father longing for the return of his children and running out to meet them.
I grew up in the church and have held on to the faith all through life. I’m quick to think of myself as the older brother (who’s just as lost as his younger brother, by the way, but more about that later): I’m like the son who’s stayed with the father, close to home. I’m like the “good” older brother.
But I must also humbly identify with the younger brother. Regardless of how good I’ve been (or how good I’ve convinced others I am), my sin nevertheless is rebellion against God. Because I am fallen, even my best, purest thoughts and deeds are tainted with sin. And any sin – no matter how slight – is repugnant to God and puts me at a great distance from him.
I need to beware of thinking of myself as a “good Christian.” (Just recently I heard someone warn against saying you’re a “good Christian,” that, on this side of the new heaven and new earth, it’s a self-righteous oxymoron!) I’m easily tempted to think that I’m a little better than that no-good, runaway younger brother.
But I need the Father’s grace just as much as he does.
“The Prodigal Son” by Robert Barnum; watercolor, 1998.
From the “Prodigal Son Collection” at the Calvin College Center
Art Gallery. The younger son looks to be in pretty rough shape!
This 4-part series appeared on my blog before
but I feel it’s worth dusting off if for no other reason
to remind me of the beautiful truth of the Gospel.
The first parable Jesus tells is about a farmer who is either new to the agriculture industry or is not too bright. Having grown up on a farm and now being surrounded by smart, industrious farmers in northwest Iowa, I know farmers plant their seeds in fields. In Jesus’ story, the farmer scatters his seed “along the path,” “on rocky places,” “among thorns,” and “on good soil.” Jesus does not say that a little fell in unsuitable places while (thankfully) most ended up in a field with good soil. Just strictly based on what Jesus says, there seems to be a fairly even distributing of the seeds all over. Either the fellow is new to farming or he isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.
Or maybe Jesus is drawing our attention to something else.
The different places in which the seed is sown represents the variety of places and people that receive God’s Word. The conclusion of Jesus’ story highlights how the Word takes root and grows best in good soil. And so I sincerely sing and pray with Handt Hanson, “Lord, let my heart be good soil, open to the seed of your Word.” But (thankfully) the good soil is not the only place God sows the seed. If that were the case, I’d be in a lot of trouble. Sometimes my life is more like the hardened path or the shallow rocky patches or the busy thorny places. But God still risks coming along and giving me his Word. That is, God doesn’t wait for me to be good before he’ll show up and speak to me. He is willing to risk investing in me even when I don’t look like a promising investment.
Is this an excuse not to cultivate the soil of my life? No. It grounds my desire to cultivate the soil of my life in the light of God’s grace, knowing that he loved me before I was of any value or worth to him. I don’t desire for my life to be like good soil so that God will show up; I desire for my life to be like good soil because God has already shown up and risked everything – the life of his own Son, in fact – on me.
So when I celebrate a good crop in my life (such as seeing evidence of the fruit of the Spirit or developing the talents God has given me or nurturing a relationship with someone), it’s a celebration of God’s grace from start to finish. That’s why instead of trying to figure it out on my own, I pray God makes my heart like the good soil in Jesus’ story.
Jesus loves telling stories. Children think Jesus’ stories are great and adults are still left pondering them long after they end.
There’s one story Jesus tells where this person unexpectedly stumbles across a forgotten treasure chest that had been buried in a field. “Finders, Keepers” was not a familiar custom in that time. According to property laws back then, the man needs to buy the field so that everything in it – including the forgotten buried treasure – will belong to him. But land is expensive and the man doesn’t have the cash to purchase it. So he sells all his possessions; he liquidates everything to raise enough money to buy that field. And he doesn’t sell his belongings hesitantly or sadly. No, he’s ecstatic to part with all his old stuff if it means getting his hands on that treasure. And when he finally owns the field and claims the treasure, his joy is complete.
This is a bit like what knowing and following Jesus is like – not that you can buy his friendship like you can buy a field, but that friendship with Jesus is of such great value that it’s worth giving up anything and everything else. In fact, following Jesus eventually and always involves getting rid of old stuff that gets in the way of walking closely with him. He won’t necessarily ask me to sell my house, but he may ask me to give up some “me time” so I can extend hospitality and welcome people into my house for a meal or conversation over coffee. He might suggest that instead of buying that impressive new car, I get something less expensive so I have money to share with the local church or to sponsor an orphan child overseas. He’ll certainly work with me to get rid of things like pride, my desire to be in control, lust, coveting the latest gadget, and selfishness. Friendship with Jesus always outweighs any sacrifices he invites me to make so that nothing gets in between him and me. Jesus’ story helps me remember he is the best treasure I can pursue.
But it occurs to me that I can hear this story another way, too: What if Jesus is the treasure finder and I am the treasure? What if I am not the seeker but the one being sought? Jesus’ story also reminds me how Jesus went and sold all he had so that he might buy me. He gave up everything he had – his life even! – to pay the price of my sin so that I could be friends with him. It was the hardest thing ever, but still he did it willingly – with joy, even – so that he and I can be friends. Anything he calls me to give up so I can follow him more closely pales in comparison with him sacrificing his life for me. And you could say that before I decide to pursue Jesus like a treasure, I discover he has already been pursuing me. I am his treasure.
That’s a story that will keep me smiling today. Hopefully you too.
I wrote this for today’s Perspectives column in the Rock Valley Bee.
I’ve preached on this parable and you can read the manuscript here.