Today’s Gospel is about a man who had two sons, both of whom forsook him and refused to relive in relationship with him. Although the sons seem to have very different personalities (one outwardly rebellious, the other outwardly obedient) they actually have similar internal struggles. In effect, neither one of them really wants a relationship with the father. Both prefer what their father has or can give them to their father himself.
In the end, one son repents and finds his way to the father’s heart. We are not so sure what happens to the second son because the story ends before that detail is supplied. Why did it end without telling us what happened? Because the story is really about you and me; it is we who must finish the story. The question we must answer is this: What do I really want: the consolation of God, or the God of all consolation? Do I want the gifts of God, or the giver of every good and perfect gift?
Let’s look at this Gospel in four parts.
I. Renegade Son – Most of us are quite familiar with today’s Gospel (the Parable of the Prodigal Son). In this story, most of us focus on the younger (and obviously sinful) son rather than the older one. This is interesting because it would seem that the Lord Jesus has His focus on the older son (the parable is addressed to the scribes and Pharisees, who see themselves as obedient). Nevertheless, let’s observe three things about this renegade son, also known as the Prodigal Son.
A. Corruption – This is an angry young man, alienated from his father. He wishes to possess what his father has, yet wants nothing to do with his father. In effect, he tells his father to drop dead. Yes, in effect he says, “Old man, you’re not dying fast enough. I want my inheritance now; I want to be done with you and cash in what is coming to me right now.”
His effrontery is even more astonishing given where and when it happened. Today we live in times when reverence for parents and elders is tragically lacking. But if our times are extreme in the one direction, ancient times in the Middle East were at the opposite extreme. In telling this parable as He does, Jesus shocks His listeners, who lived in a culture where no son would dream of speaking to his father in this way. Indeed, a son could be killed by his father for such insolence! Even to this day, so-called “honor killings” still occur in many parts of the Middle East. If a child brings dishonor to the family, it is not unheard of for the father to kill him or her. And while most governments forbid these practices, in many cultures people will look the other way and governments will seldom prosecute in such cases.
Thus, Jesus must have shocked his listeners with such a parable. Here was a son who did something so bold and daring as to be practically unthinkable. He was as insolent as he was insensitive, ungrateful, and wicked.
So hateful is this son that he has to go to a distant land to live. For even if his father does not kill him, his neighbors would surely set upon him and have him stoned for such insolence.
Even more astonishing than the son’s behavior, however, is the fact that father actually gives him his inheritance and allows him to leave.
This is Jesus’ veiled description of the patience and mercy of our Father, who endures even worse insolence from us, His often ungrateful children. We demand His gifts and grasp them with ingratitude; we want what God has, but do not want Him.
B. Consequences – The text says that the renegade son sets off “to a distant country.” It is always in a distant country that we dwell apart from God. The consequences of his action are great indeed.
This parable does not make light of sin. The Lord Jesus describes well a young man who chooses to live apart from God and in sinful rebellion. The result is that this renegade son lives in anguish and depravity. Once he runs out of money, he has no friends, no family, and no experience of his father.
So low is he that ends up looking up to pigs! So awful is his state that he becomes hungry for the disgusting mash that pigs eat. Yes, he is lower than an unclean animal—the most unclean animal that Jews can imagine—a swine.
Sin debases the human person and if its effects are not avoided, it orients us increasingly toward depravity. What was once unthinkable too easily becomes a common occurrence.
St. Augustine wrote of sin’s hold on individuals in his Confessions: “For of a forward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity. By which links, as it were, joined together (whence I called it a chain) a hard bondage held me enthralled” (Confessions, 8.5.10).
The renegade son is locked in to the consequences of his sinful choices. He is debased, debauched, and nearly dead.
C. Conversion – In an almost miraculous turn of events, the text says that he comes to his senses at last. Too many, especially today, suffer a darkened intellect due to the debasing effects of their sin; it would seem that no matter how debased, confused, and even enslaved they become, they still do not come to their senses, for their senseless minds have become darkened (cf Romans 1:21).
But thanks be to God, the renegade son does come to his senses and he says, I shall arise and go to my father! In this passage, the Greek text uses the word anistemi, here translated as “arise”—the same word used to describe the resurrection of Jesus. The young man’s father will later joyfully describe him as having been dead but then coming back to life.
St. Paul reminds us that we were dead in our sins, but God made us alive in Christ (cf Col 2:13). Thanks be to God for His mercy and for the conversion that He alone can effect in all of us, His renegade children, who ourselves have been debased, debauched, and dead in our sins. The conversion of this renegade son, we pray, is also our conversion, our rising and going back to the Father.
II. Rejoicing Father – The astonishment in this parable is only just beginning, for Jesus goes on to describe a father who is so merciful as to be shocking. He ascribes to the father things that no ancient father would ever do. And as He describes this ancient father, so filled with love and mercy that he casts aside personal dignity, we must remember that Jesus is saying, “This is what my Father is like.”
As the parable continues to unfold, we hear that the father sees the son while he’s still a long way off. This tells us that he was looking for his son, praying and hoping for his return.
In a human being such mercy is rare. The average person who is hurt and has his dignity scorned becomes resentful and avoidant, saying, “Never darken my door again!”
But how shockingly different this father is, lovingly and longingly waiting for the day when his son will appear on the horizon, looking for him day after day.
The text next tells us that when he saw his son, the father ran out to meet him, something no ancient nobleman would ever do. Running was a sign of being in flight or of being a slave on some errand. Further, in order to run, the ancients (who wore long garments) had to bare their legs—a disgraceful thing for nobility. Only common workers and slaves had their legs exposed.
Thus, here is the portrait of a father willing to debase himself in order to run and greet his returning son. When I take one step God takes two or more; he comes running to me!
In the parable, the robe and the ring that the father puts on his son are signs of family belonging or restoration. This is the full restoration of a young man who was willing to live as a slave in his own father’s house. But the father will have none of it. “You are my son! And my Son you have always been, whatever your sins. They are forgotten. You are my beloved son!”
What kind of Father is this? No earthly father would behave this way. This is the heavenly Father. Jesus is saying, “This is what my Father is like!”
III. Resentful Son – Now we turn our attention to the older brother. His sinfulness is more subtle. Outwardly, he follows his father’s rules; he does not sin in overt ways. His sins are more hidden.
Unlike his prodigal brother, he has never openly rejected his father. But inwardly, as we shall see, he is not so different.
Like his younger brother, the older son wants his father’s goods, not his father himself. To understand the subtlety of his struggle, let’s look at some of the details of the story. Notice the following fundamental issues with the resentful son:
- Distant – It is interesting that the last person to find out about the feast (and the reason for it) is the older son. This is the description of a son who is far away from his father, who is unaware of the happenings in his father’s life.
Off on some far-flung part of the property, he is going about his duties, which he seems to fulfill adequately. But we also get the feeling that there is a sense of distance between father and son.
Did this son not know that his father worried about his younger brother and was looking for him each day? It seems not! Even the lowly slaves in the household are drawn into the preparations for this great feast celebrating the return of the renegade son. It appears that the older son is the only one in the whole area who knows nothing about it. Even more telling is that he is unaware of his father’s joy at the return of his brother.
Yes, the resentful son is distant, a thousand miles away from the heart of his father.
- Disaffected – When this resentful son learns of the feast and the reason for it, he becomes sullen, angry, and resentful. He is disaffected. He stays away from the feast and refuses to enter.
So bitter is his resentment that his father will soon hear of it and come out to plead with him. Yes, this is a bitter, angry, and disaffected son.
But, dear reader, do not scorn him, for too easily we are he. Too easily, we die the death of a thousand cuts as we see sinners finding mercy. Too quickly do we become envious when others are blessed.
- Disconsolate – The father emerges from the feast to plead with his son to come in! Again, such a thing would be unheard of in the ancient world! Every father in those times would have commanded his son to come in to the feast and would expect to be obeyed immediately.
But this father is different, for he represents the heavenly Father, rooted in love more than in prerogatives and privileges. He has already demonstrated his love for his renegade son and now he does so for his resentful son.
The fact is, he loves both of his sons. Yes, the heavenly Father loves you and He loves me.
Tragically, the resentful son is unmoved by this demonstration of love. He remains disconsolate and must be confronted in his resentful anger.
- Disrespectful – Now we see the ugly side of the apparently obedient son. He does not really love or respect his father; he doesn’t really know him at all. He disrespects him to his face. He speaks of him as a slave master saying, “I have slaved for you … I have never disobeyed any one of your orders.”
Orders? I have slaved for you? Where is his love for his father? He does not see himself as a son but as an unwilling slave, one who follows orders only because he has to. In effect, he calls his father (to his face) a slave master, a despot.
Further, he accuses his father of injustice. Somehow he views the mercy his father showed to his brother as evidence of a lack of due mercy shown to himself. He considers his father unreasonable, unjust—even despicable. How dare his father show mercy to someone that he, the “obedient” son, does not think deserves it!
In calling his father an unjust slave owner and taskmaster, the son disrespects him to his face. But the father stays in the conversation, pleading with his son to reconsider.
- Disordered – Among the older son’s complaints is that his father never even gave him a kid goat to celebrate with his friends. But the goal in life is not to celebrate with friends; the goal is to celebrate with our heavenly Father.
Note how similar the two sons actually are. At one point the renegade son saw his father only in terms of what his father could give him; his father was only valuable to him in terms of the “stuff” he could get from him. And despite all his obedience, the older son—the resentful one—has the same problem. He seems to value only what his father can give him. It is not his father he really loves or even knows. It is the “stuff” that really interests him. He is concerned only what his father can give him.
In this way, the resentful son is disordered. He misses the whole point, which is not the “things” of his father but the relationship with his father. This is the point, the goal in life: to live with the Father forever in a relationship of love.
But again, be very careful before you condemn the resentful son. Too easily, we are he. It is so easy for us to want the good things of God but not God Himself. We want God’s blessings and benefits, but not His beloved self. We want the gifts of God, but not the God who is the giver of every good and perfect gift.
Yes, the disorder of this resentful son is too easily our disorder. There is something about our flesh that wants God to rain down blessings, yet once we have received them we want to run away and keep our distance from God. Relationships are complicated and dynamic. Our flesh prefers trinkets. We prefer to receive gifts on our own terms. Our flesh says, “Give me the priceless pearls, but begone with the powerful person who gives them!”
IV. Response – The father is outside pleading with his resentful son to enter the feast. And then, abruptly, Jesus ends the parable. Yes, the story ends! Does the resentful son go into the party or not? Why is the story left unfinished?
Simply put, it’s because you and I must finish the story. For we are so easily the resentful son.
Right now, the heavenly Father is pleading with you and me to enter the feast. Too easily we can brood and say that we have our reasons for not wanting to go into the feast. After all, that renegade son is in there. My enemy is in there. If Heaven involves meeting our enemy and celebrating with him, then too easily does our flesh say, “I’ll have nothing to do with it!”
Here is the great drama: will we enter the real Heaven? For the real Heaven is not merely a heaven of our own making, a heaven of our own parameters. Heaven is not a “members only” place.
Am I willing to enter on God’s terms? Or will I resentfully stand outside, demanding that Heaven be on my terms? Further, do I see Heaven as being with the Father, or is Heaven merely having the “stuff” I want?
The heart of Heaven is to be with the Father, to be with the Trinity. The danger with so many, even the religiously observant, is becoming the resentful son. The Father is pleading, pleading with us to enter the feast, pleading with us to set aside our prejudices and notions of exclusivity.
To the resentful son who said, “this son of yours …,” the father says, “your brother was lost and is found, was dead, and has come back to life.”
The Father is pleading for us to enter the feast—not some made-up feast where we choose the attendees—but the real, actual feast of Heaven, where some surprising people may be in attendance.
Will you enter the feast? The Father is pleading with you. He is saying, “Come in before it’s finally time to rise and close the door.” How will you answer Him? What is your response?
This parable is unfinished; you and I must finish it. What is your response to the Father’s pleading? Answer him!
Just for fun, here is a “retelling” of the parable in the “key” of F:
Feeling footloose and frisky, a feather-brained fellow forced his fond father to fork over the farthings and flew to foreign fields and frittered his fortune, feasting fabulously with faithless friends.
Fleeced by his fellows, fallen by fornication, and facing famine, he found himself a feed-flinger in a filthy farmyard. Fairly famishing, he fain would have filled his frame with foraged food from fodder fragments. “Fooey! My father’s flunkies fare finer,” the frazzled fugitive forlornly fumbled, frankly facing facts. Frustrated by failure and filled with foreboding, he fled forthwith to his family. Falling at his father’s feet, he forlornly fumbled, “Father, I’ve flunked and fruitlessly forfeited family favor!”
The farsighted father, forestalling further flinching, frantically flagged the flunkies to fetch a fatling from the flock and fix a feast.
The fugitive’s fault-finding brother frowned on fickle forgiveness of former folderol. But the faithful father figured, “Filial fidelity is fine, but the fugitive is found! What forbids fervent festivity? Let flags be unfurled. Let fanfares flare.”
And the father’s forgiveness formed the foundation for the former fugitive’s future faith and fortitude.