My father liked a good story. In days before visual media took over the planet, radio and books were a source of stories. Jesus was the master at what is now the lost art of storytelling. I think His best is the story of two lost sons. The setting for Luke 15 is that Jesus breaks protocol by eating with and embracing sinners, accepting them on equal status. The religious people were bent out of shape by this infraction. So Jesus tells them three stories of lost items: sheep, coin, and two sons. The last story is called the gospel in a gospel.
Jesus begins the story simply, a father had two sons. As He tells of the younger son, the listeners bristle at the description. The younger son is selfish, greedy, impulsive, rebellious. He states that he can’t wait until the father dies to get his share of the estate, and demands what is coming to him. The father divides the estate between the two of them, the older getting a double portion. Soon the young son gathers his things and takes off for a far country where no one knows him. Away from his father’s watch, he lives out his hedonistic life: gambling, girls, and extravagance. Then the bottom drops out. He is broke and hungry. This Jewish boy is hired to feed pigs, a big insult. He was so hungry he even ate the carob pods he fed the pigs.
The story then takes a turn. It says, “he came to his senses”. He hatched a plan. He would return to his father, and plead to be taken back, not as a son, but as a hired hand. That way he could get his basic needs met without the baggage of family. The father has a different plan. He sees his wayward son a long way off, and runs to meet him, embraces him, and continually kisses him. He gives him best robe, the ring he forfeited by leaving, and sandals on his sore feet. The father ordered a party be given to welcome his son home. They celebrate. As a listener, you are glad the son returned home, but are taken back by the lack of accountability for his wasteful living.
Then there is the other son. He is the obedient one, the one who stayed home and took care of his father and the homestead. He hears the celebration and refuses to go to the party. He is put off by the unfairness of it all. The father leaves his position as host of the party to beg the older son to attend. The older son knows that by attending the party he may sanction what the younger son did. That is the farthest thing from the father’s mind.
As he listens to the older son detail what he has done as opposed to what his father’s other son has done (notice he doesn’t refer to him as his brother) the father prepares his case. This father tells the older son what the older son has. He has all that belongs to the father, all the estate, all the love. Then he defends the celebration with the fact that “your brother was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” Jesus ends the story there. The ending was waiting for the listener to write it. Did the older son go to the party, did he welcome his brother home? Did the older son, like the younger son, realize the love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness of the father?
The story is often called the prodigal son. Prodigal means extravagantly wasteful. While we usually emphasize the wayward son returning home, the heart of the story is the father. He is a patient man who understands you can’t make them sons by keeping them at home. Knowing his son’s ways, he probably realizes what he will do. He still gives him his share, with hopes his son will become aware of his love. That “aha” moment didn’t arrive for the younger son when he came to his senses. It arrived when his father ran to him, embraced and kissed him, clothed him and adorned him. More than the father’s providing necessities, he knew the father’s love.
The celebration was that he had his son back, for good. While the older son stood his ground as being the good son, he was blind to the love the father had for him. The older son concentrated on what the younger son was not supposed to have, and what he through his obedience was entitled to have. The father reminds him of love that goes beyond wrongs done, beyond entitlements. The father’s love, God’s love for us, is simply that. As one so aptly summed it up, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. He just loves us.” It is prodigal love, extravagantly wasteful love.
Do you find yourself somewhere in the story? How does it end for you?