Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s criticism of him fraternizing with outcasts and unclean tax-collectors and sinners is in not one, but three parables. Its trajectory is deliberate to radically redefine what it means to be ‘lost’ and to reveal God’s heart for the lost. The prodigal asks for his portion of the inheritance prematurely, goes to a ‘far away country’ and squanders it. Then he is destitute, in desperate need and no one helps him. He ends up feeding pigs where he comes to his sense, repents and returns to Father’s house
The father takes several steps that teach us how to reclaim a ‘lost’ loved one: (1) In truth he allows his boy to make his choice to leave, yet waits in hope (2) In loving compassion he suffers with the wayward boy and never gives up on him (3) In faith, he prepares for his return and takes giant strides to welcome, pardon and receive him back (5) With unrestrained joy he publicly display his acceptance and invites others to join the celebration. Compared with the former two, the second half of this story focuses on the older son or ‘elder brother’ and has three surprises with regard to the prodigal’s return:
The reaction of the elder brother is detailed for us. Notice his stubborn withdrawal and anger, not managed (v.28). He flaunts his self-righteous, good works through which his selfish motive for service is exposed (v.29). He nurtures an unforgiving, judgmental spirit toward his brother and is full of self-pity believing he deserved more (v.30). His holier-than-thou attitude reveals he was jealous of goodness shown to ‘this son of yours’ and envious of ‘worldly’ experiences his brother has had with pigs and prostitutes? What unfolds is his true relationship with his father is: he is bound to publicly shame him, in thought, word and deed [Hey you, listen] and has served him with a ‘slave’ mentality trying to gain acceptance through accomplishment.
The reasoning of the loving father pervades the story: ‘we had to celebrate!’ This patriarch, doubly dishonored, takes the brunt yet lavishes his love, this time on his older son. He leaves his guests at home to go out and look for this one son, then pleads with him to come in to fulfill his honorable duties. He doesn’t punish, intimidate, or argue but extends his mercy; grace upon grace! He assures him: ‘everything I have is yours’ and shows him why joy is naturally called for when something lost is found, certainly when someone thought ‘dead is now alive’! The father clarifies how acceptance and sonship is not based on what one does, but whether one desires what the father has done (‘in Christ’ cf. Rom.7:25;8:15). Did the elder brother go in, or not?
The response of sincere listeners is solicited by the story’s unfinished ending. Jesus abruptly stops and leaves his audience dangling so they can write-in their own ending. He challenges all self-righteous ‘Pharisaic’ people with a performance-driven faith. Such socially and morally revered ‘teachers of the law’ represent religious, hard-working, tax-paying, friendly, tolerant, neighbors who find their identity, security and worth in good works. This son was in the father’s house but far from the father’s heart and also ‘lost’. He was ‘enslaved’, an enemy of his father’s grace for if he shared his father’s concern and did his duty, he should have gone looking for his brother. Are we respectable ‘elder brothers’ but irresponsible in our mission to seek the lost? For in Christ, we are our brother’s keepers! Imagine what the story would look like if the prodigal had a ‘true elder brother’!
Jesus’ parable reveals both sons as valid caricatures for lostness, though at extremes. We may find ourselves somewhere in between yet are more sinful than we are willing to admit and more loved than we will ever imagine! The only way anyone is accepted before Father God is by abandoning one’s self-pursuit, admitting sins and acknowledging the need for his forgiving grace. This parable is about three sons: the prodigal son, his pouting elder brother and a third ‘Son’ – our true Elder Brother who the Father did send to seek and save all the lost (19:10). It is the Story-teller, God’s perfect Son who is not ashamed to call us his ‘brothers’ (Heb.2:11-12).
Our Brother and Lord Jesus, commissions us, in turn, to go be ‘elder brothers’ to lost humanity(Jn.20:21). I’ve had three ‘conversions’: from external ‘prodigal sinfulness’, from self-righteous ‘elder brotherliness’ and from a heartless Church-ianity to a mission of compassion for the lost! How many turning points have you had?