The story of the prodigal son is well known. It’s essentially the heart of the gospel message. Grace. Except I’m willing to bet you’ve probably met some Christians who resembled the Prodigal son’s brother much more than they resemble the Prodigal son.
Jesus tells a story of a father who has two sons. The younger son asks his father for his portion of the family inheritance. In ancient times one usually waits till the father dies to receive his inheritance, but this son was impatient. The father then divides his inheritance between his two sons, and the younger son sets off on a journey and wastes his fortune on wild living. After spending everything he eventually finds himself in the middle of a famine, working as a hired man feeding pigs. So poor was he that "he longed to fill his stomach with food the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything".
He came to his senses and thought how better it would be at his father’s house, where there is food to spare. He decided to go back to his 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 workers." So he got up and started his journey home.
Now while he was a still long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The father told his workers, “Quick, bring the best robe, the signet ring, new sandals, and prepare the fattened calf in celebration. For this son of mine was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
This right here is the heart of the gospel message. I have long wondered what the prodigal son was thinking when he saw his father sprinting toward him from afar. The son knew he did not deserve his father’s love. Honestly, he probably thought the father had been weighing his foolish actions and was running to give him what he deserved. Justice. Except the father shows the son he won’t allow him to earn his way back. Rather, he’ll give him a place of honor and throw a feast.
Now there will be a day when each of us sees God running toward us. I wonder what you picture when you see that meeting. What emotion do you see on God’s face as he sprints toward you? No matter who you are, no matter how awful you are, know that God loves and accepts you. It’s all sheer grace alone. But Jesus did not end the story there. He continues on about an older second son. It's in the telling of this son that Jesus turns everything we think about following God upside-down.
The older son came near the house and heard the music and dancing. He asked one of the workers what was going on, who responded, “Your brother has come; and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound”
The older son became angry and refused to go in. His father came out of the celebration and pleaded with him to come in. But the older son yelled at his father “Look at all these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed you. Yet you never even gave me a goat. But when this son of yours who squanders your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” Now meat was a delicacy in those days. If the fattened calf was killed, the whole village was probably at this feast.
Now the father responds, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
The story of the older son resonates with our culture, and it resonates with me. When I first came to the faith, I came as the younger son in awe of the amazing love of the father. But when I remained in the faith long enough, I saw myself easily becoming the older brother. If you’ve ever met a religious person, someone with a “holier than thou” attitude, then you’ve met the older son. This is the son who does all the right things, who’s right next to the father the whole time, but doesn’t even know what the father is like! He doesn’t know his own father’s heart. You can be so close, yet so far. For the older son, what kept him from his father was not his sin like we think of sin. It was his self-righteousness, his goodness. It’s scary that you can be within the house of God, and still try to establish your own righteousness apart from God, despising the younger brothers of the world as unworthy of God’s love. When you remain in the faith long enough following all the rules, attending all the services, going through all the motions, but ultimately not seeking the father, you easily find yourself developing a toxic self-righteous attitude.
You see at the core of this story, a story about TWO sons, we see the FULL depiction of sin, and the true difference between a religion versus a relationship.
Both sons wanted the father’s things, but not the father. One had been doing it by being very bad. The other was doing it by being very good. There are two kinds of lostness. We can escape God as much through morality and religion as much as we can escape God through immorality and irreligion.
We can be the younger brother who lives a licentious life and jumps head first into sin - forsaking righteous. Or we can be the older brother, hiding behind religion, and be so close yet so far. A third option is being one of the father's workers who delights along with him in the return of the lost.
Do we really know the father’s heart? Are we really after it? Do we obey God just to get to God, just to know him, just to delight in him? You see the way this story ends is profound. We don’t know what happens to the older brother. We don’t know if he ever goes into the feast. Jesus never tells us. The lover of prostitutes is saved, the man or moral restitutes is lost.
Who is God? You will never hear this phrase in any other faith: He is your holy father. He offers you that relationship. I challenge you to think about it. Read the gospel of John and see what is he talks to you about in seeking to show you that love.
Who will you choose to be in this story?
1. Luke 15: 11-32