The story of the prodigal son found in Luke 15:11-31 has to be one of the commonly preached passages. The story goes a man had two sons, each with an inheritance but one decides to abandon it and sow oats to his hearts content. But then he’s wasted his inheritance, finds himself wallowing with the pigs and recalls the goodness of his father’s home. He comes back to a party, which his father gladly prepares for him. The passage is commonly used to provide comfort to those who were far off, who have lived in ways that might make them feel ashamed and underserving of the God’s goodness.
Surely the prodigal son’s rebellion, meandering journey and unconditional acceptance comforts those for whom have struggled to find acceptance in God’s eyes and those of his family. To the extent that the prodigal son’s story mirrors our own, it does warm us to know that through Christ, the Father accepts us.
But there’s just one problem…
The story of the prodigal son was not written for those who were far off, it was written for those who never left. Putting this story in it’s context, the Pharisees observed that outcasted tax collectors and sinners were hanging around Jesus. So in their typical Pharisee-ish snarkiness, the said (most likely with nose in air) “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (15:1-2).
So Jesus tells them three stories of what was lost being found: the sheep (vv 3-7); the coin (8-10) and finally the wayward son (vv 11-32). Now let’s understand what exactly Jesus is showing them with these stories, which is Gentile acceptance into the kingdom of God on equal footing with the Jews who had been the original recipients of covenant promises. It goes back to the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:1-3) and the fact that his seed would inherit the promises of God. Cross-referencing with Galatians 3:13-16, the descendents of Abraham were those found in Christ. Through his death, he brought in Gentiles into the fold on equal terms (see Ephesians 2:11-3:11; Galatians 3:28).
He’s letting the Pharisees know that their attitude about those they find unacceptable is wrong because the Father fully accepts those they think should not be accepted. Looking at the prodigal son’s story the main character that Jesus is emphasizing is not the prodigal son but the faithful son. Notice his reaction in vv 25-30.
Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’
He’s ticked off. He doesn’t understand why there is so much attention devoted to this miscreant who wandered off. Moreover, he wants to know why he didn’t get that same attention. Jesus is showing the Pharisees their own attitude.
Well, I’m going to leverage this story for a broader application. Keep in mind the context of which Jesus is addressing and this should not take away from it. But it seems to me that the church today comprises faithful sons and prodigal sons. I’m not referring to the Jew/Gentile categories that the text is, but the fact that there are those who have always just been there. They haven’t really wandered off. They most likely have had family stability: raised in a two-parent Christian home, active in youth ministry, go off to college (or better yet Bible college), meet and marry the man/woman of their dreams, raise kids active in church, no divorce, no life changing bad choices, no substance abuse or other addictions, not too much out of the faithful ordinary.
Contrast that with the “prodigal”s that come into the church: products of broken homes, bad life choices, addictive behaviors, divorce, slow sanctification process, etc. Not everyone’s story is bright, rosy and comfortable. Not everyone has this perfect church background. Some coming into the body have been hurt by life and in turn have some messes in theirs as a result.
The lesson of the faithful son shows us that it is easy for those who have always been there to adopt an attitude of superiority over the ones that might be considered less acceptable. The ones who have always known faith in Christ and stayed on course can question the grace shown towards those who were so far off and even get angry at the baggage that the prodigals bring in. But the lesson Jesus demonstrated then is applicable now: he embraces the ones the faithful might reject when measured by their own standards.
But the beauty of what God did through his Son, is dispense grace to all and none of us are deserving. So faithful ones, have mercy on the prodigals and remember that all in Christ are equal in Christ because of his background, not ours.
It seems to me, the father’s response to the faithful son’s anger is also grace full.
I think you have given an accurate contextual take on the parable. Jesus was indeed trying to show the Pharisees their self-righteous attitude. But are “faithful sons” really faithful? I believe the parable shows that the Pharisees thought themselves to be obedient and faithful sons, but like the elder brother they are actually disobedient and faithless in their hearts, because they don’t share nor understand the Father’s love towards sinners. Because of their basically decent lifestyle, “Pharisees” deceive themselves into thinking they don’t desperately need God’s grace just as much as those who run off and do everything wrong. They really don’t see themselves as sinners (Luke 15:2). Thus they haven’t grasped the grace in God’s heart that would be theirs if they were not so busy trying to make themselves righteous that they reject it. But also I think the parable addresses folks beyond the Pharisees by demonstrating the extravagance of God’s grace towards all sinners– sinners loud and showy, and those more outwardly conforming.