For most followers of Jesus, the story of the prodigal son found in Luke 15 is a familiar tale: Starting in verse 11, we read about the youngest son of a father, who demands his inheritance from his father early, essentially saying he doesn’t love his father, he just loves what he can get from his father.
He then proceeds to leave home and spend his inheritance unwisely, on “wild living”, and ends up with nothing, feeding pigs just to survive and wishing he could eat their food. Upon “coming to his senses”, he realizes the wrong he has done and that even his father’s hired men are better off than he. He resolves to go and apologize to his father, and ask that he be hired as a servant: “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.”
It is as this son returns home that we see a beautiful picture of God’s forgiveness and His restoring grace: when he sees his son, “still a long way off”, the father runs to him and throws his arms around him and kisses him. The father is “filled with compassion” for his son.
The son confesses his wrong, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But before he can request to be a hired man, the father interjects with a call for robes to be placed on the son, for sandals for his feet and a ring for his finger, for the fattened calf to be prepared, for a celebration to take place. A celebration for the return of his son. His son, who “was dead and is alive again”, who “was lost and is found.”
And thus concludes “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” However, that actually isn’t where the story ends. The above telling only takes us through verse 24, but this passage actually spans all the way to verse 32, the end of the chapter.
In my Bible, this passage is titled “The Parable of the Lost Son”. But really, the story could be titled “The Parable of the Lost Sons.”
Because the last eight verses are about the older son and his own wandering. He doesn’t travel away and live recklessly like his younger brother. But he is still so far away, so lost in his travels, so in need of returning to real living.
This son is often overlooked in our learning from this passage. But I personally can relate to him much, much more than the younger. And I think there are a lot of us good girls who can relate to the older son.
At the beginning of Luke 15, “sinners” are all gathering around Jesus. There are also Pharisees and teachers of the law gathered. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were the religious leaders of the time. They knew the Scriptures backwards and forwards, and followed the commands to a “T”. They found their worth, their identity, their eternal security in this.
Having two such contrasting groups around Him, Jesus proceeds to tell a series of three parables, one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and finally the parable of the lost son. In these three parables, Jesus masterfully paints a picture of God’s grace, revealing truth to both parties.
I’d like to think I’m not like the Pharisees. But when I read about the older son, I wonder if there may be some similarities. Because through this parable, truth is revealed to me as well. Let’s take a closer look at those last eight verses:
The older son comes in from his work, and hears the festivities taking place. After finding out the reason for the party, he becomes angry. We find the source of this son’s anger in his words to his father: “I’ve been always working for you, obeying you, slaving for you! Yet I have gotten nothing, no celebration!”
How many of us have thought such things about God? How often has this been our heart cry to our Father?
Just as the younger son’s demanding of the inheritance early spoke of his lack of love for his father, so does the older son’s speech tell of his lack of love for the father. In fact, he doesn’t even really view his father as a father, but rather a master. He is not serving and obeying out of love, but out of the sense that he must earn favor.
I’ve been following Jesus pretty much my whole life. There is not a time in my memory that I did not believe in God, and when I was five I chose to serve Him. Like the older son, I’ve stayed “home” and been a good kid. Like the Pharisees, I’ve gone to church and memorized Bible verses and strive to follow the rules.
And there are times that, like the older son, I become consumed with working. Like the Pharisees, I find my identity in my doing. Like the older son, I say to God, “I’m living for you, I’m doing what you want, I’m following your commands, so why am I not getting what I want? Why am I not being blessed with success and prosperity and a boyfriend?” Like the older son I fall for the lie that God is withholding from me and that if I am just good enough, He’ll unleash His blessing.
And when I believe that lie, like the older son, I turn God, the Beginning and the End, into a means to an end. I am no longer striving for Jesus, for deeper communion with Him, for deeper knowing of Him. I am striving for what I want, and using Jesus to get there. And when I am living in such a way, I miss the real celebration. The celebration of God’s forgiveness, grace and love. The celebration of knowing Him.
But, like the father coming out to his son and pleading with him to come to the celebration, God comes to me. To you. He constantly pursues. Nothing we do could make Him love us less and nothing we do could make Him love us more. He is love. He promises, “You are always with Me, nothing can take you from Me, and everything I have is yours. My love, My grace, My strength, My joy, My peace…”
He asks, “Will you dance with Me? Will you join My celebration?”
This story is just as much about the older son as the younger. Ultimately, this story is about the Father, and His continual pursuing of His children and His bringing them to life, to celebration. Really, the story could be titled, “The Parable of the Loving Father”.