Today, let's look at the parable of the prodigal son - or rather, Jesus' story of a father and his two sons.
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them...
21 “...The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate...
28 “...The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 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 Holy Bible: New International Version, electronic ed., Lk 15: 11–12, 21-23, 28-32 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).]
(I have only included selections from the parable of the prodigal son here; the entire story is found in Luke 15:11-32, with all of Luke 15 as relevant context too.)
In this parable, the older son may seem at first like the responsible one, the good son. And he surely sees himself this way in latter part of the story. But there are at least two red flags that tell us otherwise. At the time of the younger brother demanding his inheritance and leaving their father, the older brother should be stepping forward, seeking to reconcile younger son to the father. (see Kenneth Bailey, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, 168). However, we read no word of the older brother, no interposed words of attempted reconciliation. This silence seems to be significant, seems to speak loudly of something wrong in the relationship of the older son to his own brother and father. Also, later on we read the older son’s complaint to his father: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders...” (v. 29) Instead of being grateful for the relationship he can have with his father, he views his father (who, we see from verses 28 and 31, desires to be with his son) as a taskmaster.
The younger son wanted out, wanted to be gone and do his own thing; the older son thought of father as a taskmaster. So we see that neither had a good relationship with his father. In this way, both sons were far away from home—whether in that distant country in direct rebellion, or out in the field, “slaving” for the father and never disobeying his orders. They both needed to come home to their Father.
C.S. Lewis has a novel called The Great Divorce. In it, he writes about a bus which brings people from hell to visit heaven, and it is the story of why the people in hell have rejected heaven and ultimately God Himself. In one particular conversation, a man on the bus from hell (referred to as the “Big Ghost”) sees a past acquaintance who is in heaven. At this point in the conversation, we have found out that the acquaintance who is now in heaven had apparently committed a murder at one time. The “Big Ghost” from hell is surprised to see this man who had committed a murder, in heaven—while he has found himself in hell:
'Personally,' said the Big Ghost ... ‘I'd have thought you and I ought to be the other way round. That's my personal opinion.'
'Very likely we soon shall be,' said the other. 'If you'll stop thinking about it.'
'Look at me, now,' said the Ghost, slapping its chest...'I gone straight all my life. I don't say I was a religious man and I don't say I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that's the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn't mine by rights... That's the sort I was and I don't care who knows it.'
'It would be much better not to go on about that now.' [said the other]
'Who's going on? I'm not arguing. I'm just telling you the sort of chap I was, see? I'm asking for nothing but my rights. You may think that you can put me down because you're dressed up like that...and I'm only a poor man. But I got to have my rights same as you, see?'
'Oh no. It's not so bad as that. I haven't got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You'll get something far better. Never fear.'
'That's just what I say. I haven't got my rights. I always done my best and I never done anything wrong. And what I don't see is why I should be put below a ... murderer like you.'
'Who knows whether you will be? Only be happy and come with me.'
'What do you keep on arguing for? I'm only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I'm not asking for anybody's bleeding charity.'
'Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.' [Selections from C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 28, quoted here. Emphasis added]
In the parable of the prodigal son, the older brother doesn’t seem to want charity, doesn’t look for grace for himself or his brother, and doesn’t appear to value the father’s love. The younger receives it undeservedly—as the older brother is also called to do. And C.S. Lewis above speaks of Christ and the charity—the grace—that can be had only freely (never bought or earned or toiled for) through His death.
The invitation to come home, to be a child of God, is open to all—to those who are actively rebelling, to those at the end of their resources, to those who recognize an emptiness in their lives like the younger brothers’ hunger early in the parable, to those beginning to come back to God but not sure of how He will receive them, to those like the older brother, working for God but still not having a relationship with Him (or others) defined by His grace and love. The invitation is open to all to trust in Jesus and come home, and be received with God’s love because of Jesus.
We read in Galatians of the futility of our own works to make us acceptable to God. Only faith, confidence, trust in Jesus allowed us to be accepted back when we come home to our Father. Here we read Galatians 3:10-11, and then verses 26-28:
10 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” ... 26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [The Holy Bible: New International Version, electronic ed., Ga 3:10-11, 26–28 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).]
Finally, we can also remember that this way home, this path along which we can return to God, is only through Jesus.
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. [The Holy Bible: New International Version, electronic ed., 1 Jn 2:1–2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).]
The way back home, back to our Father—when we or others wander far from home—has been paved by Jesus Christ. It is only because He bore all the guilt and blame for our rebellion, and allowed for us to be forgiven—this is how we can be welcomed home.