The Prodigal Son

Several months ago I had a discussion with some folks about Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) following a sermon on the same topic.  The discussion revolved around understanding the two sons, and figuring out which one we most identify with.  Am I the younger son who feels entitled to riches but needs to understand my identity as a child of God, always graciously accepted when I repent (younger son)?  Or am I the one who works hard and struggles with jealousy and pride when others are celebrated (older son)? Or, put more simply, do we need to more deeply understand grace and forgiveness, or do we struggle with pride in our works and need to be happy with what we have? But this understanding of the story doesn’t seem to me to get to the heart of our real problem, nor what Jesus was addressing.  To do that we need to understand who each of these characters are, and why Jesus tells this parable in context with the others.

As Christians, we are the 'older brothers'.  Are we loving the Father, or ourselves?

As Christians, we are the ‘older brothers’. Are we loving the Father, or ourselves?

The younger son is not a Christian who struggles with entitlement issues.  He rejects the Father and wants the world.  He is the rebel; the ‘lost coin’ from the previous parable, in that He is all of us before repentance. Yes, this is a very beautiful and instructive picture of redemption. And it is an important truth that Jesus wants to express. But I propose that perhaps Jesus’ main focus here is not on the younger son, but the older, and that this is greatly misunderstood in much of our discussion of this parable.  For those who are believers, the question is not which one are we.  If we claim to be Christians, we are the older brother.  The question is, what kind of brothers (or sisters) are we?

Indeed we are to celebrate the love and forgiveness God shows us when we come running back to Him.  That is vitally important to realize.  But what many of us need to understand is Jesus’ main point of the parable, the sin of the older brother.  The Pharisees are his intended audience here and they are his target.  He is not talking to “lost coins”, but older brothers.

There is a contrast here.  How does the prodigal son come to the father?  He returns claiming no rights, nothing owed (the direct opposite of his claiming his inheritance and wishing the Father dead at the beginning of the parable), but the Father lavishes on him all rights and status as a son.  The son rightly acknowledges that he gave up his rights as a son, squandered his wealth and deserves nothing.  Yet the Father welcomes him back.  This is an amazing picture of rebellious people (all of us at one time) returning to the Father and being welcomed back and given beyond what we deserve.  This is the Gospel.  But it is not Jesus main point here.  He is focused on, and speaking to, the older brothers.

The older brother stands in contrast to the younger, not only in attitude, but in standing.  He is the Pharisee.  He has obeyed and worked hard.  But he is indignant, claiming what he thinks he deserves when the younger is celebrated.  He thinks he deserves more than the younger because he has served and never disobeyed.  But all to earn what?  What is he missing?  “You never even gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends.”  He has completely missed what the Father says next; “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  Notice what the son doesn’t say.  He doesn’t say, “Father, I asked you for a goat but you refused me.”  Perhaps he has not because he asks not.  But more importantly, look at what he’s griping about, compared to the Father’s answer.  He has the Father but he wants a goat!

The younger son was “dead” because of his disobedience and rebellion.  But what was the older son hoping for through his obedience?  Wealth, comfort, luxury, mammon.  He is not serving or loving the Father, but himself, and the rewards he hopes to receive from the Father.  In the very next story, Jesus continues this point, teaching that “You cannot serve God and money.” The older son is serving and loving wealth (and indeed himself), not the Father, just as the younger son had before he repented.

The question we should ask ourselves, if we are Christians, is not “which son do I identify with?”, but ‘who am I serving?”  Jesus is not concerned primarily with us being happy when others come to repentance, or just being happy with what we have.  If we’re not happy with either of these things, it’s not a simple ‘struggling with pride’ issue.  We are serving the wrong master, and so we do not receive from the Father.  We have not because we ask not.  We are asking the wrong things of the wrong king.

Are you serving money, comfort, wealth, and experience?  Are you upset or frustrated when these things are threatened or taken?  What do you spend most of your time thinking about:  how to serve the Father and advance his kingdom, or how to gain and protect your own possessions, wealth and security?  When you pray, what are you mostly praying for?  Providence or presence?  We’re told to pray for both of these things, but first is “Your kingdom come, your will be done…”.  If we’re asking for His providence more than His presence, if we seek to receive more than we seek to sacrifice, we are not truly serving Him, and we do not truly love Him.

It is a mistake to think that the Pharisees are a thing of the past, or that they were simply legalistic hypocrites that were extremely different from us.  Jesus aimed this parable at them, showing their obedience to be right, but their hearts were wrong.  It is possible to serve ourselves under the guise of serving Him. It is possible to love ourselves under the guise of loving Him.  But Jesus still speaks, offering to claim the inside as well as the out.  He still says that ‘if you are serving wealth, experiences, security, comfort, etc., you do not love me.’  But if we are obedient, and love through serving Him alone, seeking first the Kingdom of God, he says “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

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