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We all have, consciously or unconsciously, a hierarchy of people’s goodness to badness, of people’s worthiness of God’s loving attention or of salvation. Even if we believe in salvation through the work of Christ alone, we probably still can imagine people we think undeserving of eternal life.
This was the problem of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. They were so focused on keeping God’s Law (see my related message on Jesus’ Law) that they could have nothing to do with people who were not righteous, people who were lower down on the hierarchy.
So when the Pharisees see Jesus hanging out with so called ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, they are horrified and mutter, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2). They regarded such behaviour as being absolutely at odds with being a Godly person.
This prompts Jesus to tell three parables, intended to reveal God’s soft heart for “sinners and tax collectors”, for the lost, and to challenge the Pharisees’ misalignment with the God they sincerely followed:
- The lost sheep. “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4-7) Here, Jesus speaks of the lost one in a hundred.
- The lost coin. “Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8-10) Here, Jesus speaks of the one in ten.
- The lost son. “[Suppose] there was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11-32). One of them gets lost. Here, Jesus speaks of the one in two. (Though in truth, both sons get lost.)
In this parable (commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son, ‘prodigal’ meaning financially wasteful) we meet a father and his two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance up front, and then squanders it on wild living. Eventually he comes to his senses and, realising that his fathers servants live better than he is now living, returns to his father, acknowledges his sinfulness and asks to be hired as a servant. The father is overjoyed at the son’s return, hugs him, clothes him and throws a lavish party for him.
In most preaching about this parable, this is what we focus on. Rightly so, because it reveals the extravagantly loving heart of God, God’s willingness to reconcile with anyone who turns to God, God’s unconditional love. It exemplifies Jesus’ ministry, which is to find those who are disconnected from God, and welcome them back into fellowship with God. For example,
- In Jesus’ manifesto – his mission statement – he says (Luke 4:18-19):
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
- And in his reflection on his encounter with the tax collector Zacchaeus (the one who climbs a tree to see Jesus), Jesus concludes (Luke 19:10)
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
But actually, the narrative focus of the story is on the older son, whose attitude towards his wayward brother is the same as that of the Pharisees. Jesus wants the Pharisees (perhaps us also) to recognise themselves in the older son, whose attitude is so at odds with his father (who represents God, who in turn is represented by Jesus):
- The older son is angry, while his father is filled with compassion.
- He refuses to join in the feast the father is hosting, thereby distancing himself from his family.
- His father has to humiliate himself by leaving his guests to come out an plead with the older son.
- In his response to his father, the older son speaks with disrespect, saying “Look!” instead of “Father”.
- The son constructs his role in the family as one of slave, rather than son.
- He distances himself from his younger brother, referring to him as “this son of yours”.
This is exactly what the Pharisees did to Jesus (as the father in the story) in his engagement with sinners and tax collectors (as the younger son in the story). They said to Jesus, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”, just as the father in the story welcomed his younger son and threw a feast for him.
The father, however, recognises that this older son is also, in his own way, lost. He has lost his sense of fellowship with his father. He does not share his father’s values and outlook on the world. He has dissociated himself from his father’s family. But the father says:
- “My son”, even though the older son did not say, “My father”. He speaks with respect to his disrespectful son.
- He affirms that the older son is always with him (in relationship with him) and that everything that is the father’s is the son’s also, affirming his sonship.
- He refers to the younger son as “this brother of yours”, affirming the boys’ brotherhood.
- He reinforces the need to celebrate the return of the lost younger son, perhaps hinting that there would be a further celebration to celebrate the return of the lost older son.
- He concludes the narrative with the words: “He was lost and is found.”
As children of God, we (like the Pharisees) are urged to adopt the heart of God, as evidenced in the behaviour of the father in this parable, and to welcome and eat with so called ‘sinners’.
This painting by Rembrandt van Rijn is called ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ c.1662. The original hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The older son is depicted on the right, in a red cloak, looking rather disapproving, and distanced from the father and younger son on the left.
Notice also the father’s hands – the one on the left is smaller and thinner than the one on the right. Most people think Rembrandt was endeavouring to depict both the fatherhood and motherhood of God.
Henri Nouwen has written a book about this narrative and painting called, ‘The return of the prodigal son’. You can read some of it here on Amazon. Read particularly pages 71 and following, about the older son. Or click here for a brief reflection on this painting.