The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most well known parables in the Bible. In fact the phrase prodigal son is a part of popular speech, even for people who never attend church or read the Bible. But this parable is also one of the most misunderstood. I hope to clear up some confusion, as well as demonstrating the relevance for us today.
Let’s start with the phrase prodigal son. What is a prodigal son? Imagine there was a young man who grew up in St Catharines. After going away to seminary, he pastored at a number of churches around Ontario. Eventually, the opportunity came for him to pastor in a church in his hometown. He returns to his old stomping grounds and gets reacquainted with people he hasn’t seen in years. You might think it appropriate to say, “The prodigal son returns!” But you would be wrong. The word prodigal has nothing to do with going away and coming back. It doesn’t mean lost, even though this parable is also called the parable of the lost son. The word parable means wasteful. It only refers to what he did with his inheritance and has nothing to do with leaving his father.
The second thing I want to mention is that we should avoid the temptation to cut off the parable after the younger son returns. Yes it is a beautiful story of a young man who makes bad decisions, repents and receives the grace of his father. The story would work just like that. But Jesus purposely added the conversation with the older brother. This is not a parable about one son but about two sons. The reaction of the older son, even if we think it ruins the beauty of the parable, is essential to the story. We will see how that works out as we look closer at the story.
We are going to spend the rest of our time looking at the application. What I want you to understand is that the interpretation of the parable doesn’t change but the application does depending on the context. We are going to look at three applications.
Jesus originally told this parable to a Jewish audience. He explained how the younger son wanted his inheritance before the death of his father. They would have understood the shame in that. Jesus explained how the young man wasted his inheritance with bad living and how he fell into desperate poverty. They were told about how the man felt and the circumstances led him to humble himself and offer himself to his father as a servant, since he didn’t deserve to be called a son. Instead of taking on another servant, the father lavishes his love upon the son and welcomes him back into the family. All of this seemed so unfair to the older brother, he was bitter and could not speak of his brother, only of the father’s son.
But what point was Jesus trying to make with that original telling of the story? We need to ask who is the younger brother and who is the older brother? That is where the application comes in.
In the original telling, the older brother would have been the religious Jews and the younger brother would be the Jews who were understood as the sinners. This would include prostitutes, tax collectors and basically anyone whom the religious people would have understood as not measuring up. In Jesus’ ministry, he spent his time and developed relationships with this group of sinners. The religious people thought that Jesus was out of his mind. If he really was a godly rabbi, he would avoid those people like the plague. Those were the people who were prodigal, prodigal in the sense of wasting the opportunities God had given them. One of the reason some religious people hated Jesus was because we welcomed and loved the sinners. They were as bitter as the older brother.
When we read this story, we hear a tale of God’s grace. It is. But the religious leaders of the day would have recognized themselves in the description of the older brother, as description that was less than flattering. Jesus was turning everything upside down. Sinners are welcomed and religious people are challenged in their prejudice and exclusion.
Jesus told this parable for a specific reason. But then we need to take it to the next level. Jesus told it for his reason, but Luke recorded it for his own reasons. Although there is much in common between Luke and Matthew and Mark, Luke is the only one to record this parable. To understand Luke’s reasons, we need to understand his context.
In the decades between Jesus told this parable and Luke wrote his Gospel, things had changed. The church was originally all Jewish. But over time, some Gentiles, that is non-Jews, began to join the church. It began as a trickle but eventually became a flood. Although the church would eventually become predominantly Gentile, by the time of Luke, there were significant numbers of both Jews and non-Jews in the church.
I would like to say that the church, as faithful followers of Jesus, were completely free of prejudice and that they openly welcomed all that loved Jesus. The biggest problem of the church is that it is composed of human beings and humans have emotional reactions that lead to bad actions. Jewish people were open to Gentiles, but under certain circumstances. Gentiles were expected to convert to Judaism. This passed over into the early church. Some Jewish Christians expected Gentiles to convert to Judaism before becoming Christians. God, by the giving of the Holy Spirit, made it clear that he was welcoming Gentiles directly as followers of Jesus without the need to become Jewish. This didn’t sit well with some and so there was ongoing conflict.
Why would Luke care about this? It is very likely that Luke was the only Gentile author in our Bible. Who knows what prejudice he experienced? What we do know is that the application of this parable had changed. Now it was the Gentile Christians and the younger son and the Jewish Christians were the older son. We know from Paul’s letters that there were some Jewish Christians who really struggled with and were bitter about Gentiles becoming Christians without first adopting the Jewish law.
It would be very easy for us to point fingers, first at the religious Jews and then at the Jewish Christians. But the fact is, that this lure to be the bitter older brother is not limited to a particular religion, race or generation. There have been many times that Christians have fallen into this trap. A church gathers people who are alike in background, beliefs and status. They begin to feel that they are the proper sort of people. Suspicion arises when people who are different begin to come into the community. I was part of a Christian group during university. I shared my testimony, including my trouble with abusing alcohol and other bad decisions. One of the other Christians in the group really struggled with accepting me as a brother in Christ. Her understanding of the church didn’t include people like me. People were expected to be raised in the church, never stray and to continue to live a Christian lifestyle all their life. That wasn’t me. I have heard other stories of churches who have struggled when large numbers of people who are homeless or struggle with addiction start coming into the church. Their comfortable church seems to be in danger. We can easily become the older son, looking at the prodigals and shaking our heads. But the father longs for both his sons, the younger and older, to be in fellowship, not just with him, but with each other.
In our context, we need to find ourselves in this parable. Are we the younger son or the older son? Are we the prodigal just on our way to come home to the father? Or are we the older son, struggling with the changes and the uncertainty of the way church looks?
Part of our mission as a church is to be a welcoming community. What does that mean? It means that we welcome all people. There may be people who are prodigals. I mean prodigals in the true sense, as people who have perhaps made bad decisions and have wasted the opportunities God has given them. They are seeking to come home. We know from this story that the father will eagerly welcome them. But what about the brother? Will we be as excited as the father to welcome the prodigals? I hope that we will. This parable challenges not only those who need to repent and come home but those who feel like they have never strayed. May we hear this message loud and clear.