“We’ve heard it all before.”
That would be an easy reaction to hearing this parable read, wouldn’t it? If there were a league table of parables, this one and the Good Samaritan would probably be the top two. Is there any more to be said? Can we switch off now, please?
Well, I’m a great believer in the words of the Puritan John Robinson who said,
I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.
And the moment you start delving into this parable, you find there is far more too it. You’ll notice that so far I haven’t referred to it as ‘The Parable of the Prodigal Son’. That’s because not everyone would agree that the popular title summarises it accurately. One preacher called it ‘The Parable of the Waiting Father’, and another ‘The Parable of the Father’s Love’. Someone else called it ‘The Parable of the Compassionate Father and the Two Lost Sons.’
Well, at the risk of looking stupid alongside eminent scholars, I’m going to suggest my own title: ‘The Parable of the Three Prodigals.’
Three prodigals? Yes, I think so. For what is it to be prodigal? Is it not to be reckless and extravagant to the point of excess? I want us to consider how not only the younger son is reckless, but the father and the older son too, in different ways.
Anyway, let’s begin with the prodigal younger son. He’s a shocker, isn’t he? He is reckless about his work in the family:
Agricultural work was highly valued, and at least in the minds of some, abandoning agricultural work brought loss of respect.
He isn’t throwing away a meaningless job, but a decent one. He isn’t taking a gap year. He isn’t like the friend of mine whose parents supported her through an expensive secretarial course and became PA to one of Marks and Spencer’s directors, only to leave because she felt God calling her to help plant a church. The young prodigal is different. He says: blow my career and what I am doing to support the family, I want out. I want pleasure. NOW. Psychologists tell us that the willingness and ability to defer personal gratification is a sign of maturity. On that measure, he is a highly immature young man.
Not only that, he is reckless with regard to his whole family relationships. As if leaving the family business won’t damage that enough, his demand for his share of the inheritance to come is as good as saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” He’s a nice boy, isn’t he?
Then when he goes, we see wild recklessness. He spends the inheritance (which has been given to him in the form of property) on ‘dissolute living’ (verse 13). The older son hears he has ‘devoured [the] property with prostitutes’ (verse 30). He is no model of faith. He is the sort of young man that fathers warn their daughters against.
So what do we think of someone like this? Not a lot. We would despise a young man like this. If you want contemporary equivalents, you don’t have to think too hard about various kinds of people we look down our noses at today. Think of the young people out clubbing at the weekend in Chelmsford, blowing their money on binge drinking and drugs. Think of overpaid entertainers and footballers, parading their spending in the celebrity magazines, wasting millions on gambling, having affairs and crashing their sports cars. Think of the couple who had plenty of food in the house but who starved a seven-year-old girl to death, leaving five other children with malnutrition, two of them dangerously so.
And people like that were the context for this parable, and the two immediately preceding it that we didn’t read – about the lost sheep and the lost coin. Remember how chapter 15 begins:
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: (Verses 1-3)
So, secondly, what will the father do with the errant son? We must not minimise the shock in discovering that the father is also a prodigal. Prodigal in a different way, to be sure. But a prodigal nevertheless.
For what should the father do with a young son like this? It certainly shouldn’t involve him looking out for him, running to greet him and then throwing a wild party. Culturally, such a father would never have gone looking for his son. The expectation would be that the father would say, “I’m going to wait at home until that ne’er-do-well comes home and grovels.”
But this father is nothing like that. He is constantly keeping his eyes open for signs of his errant son’s return. He runs to greet him – an act that would be condemned as undignified. For in running you risk showing your legs, and that was considered wrong. (Which begs the odd question about the importance of dignity in church!)
Now if the father in the story makes us think of our heavenly Father – as Jesus, I am sure intends us too – what is the prodigal behaviour here? The father is reckless in grace. God the Father is forever on the lookout for people who are far from him, whose lives are messed up and for whom there is nobody to blame but themselves. He is looking for such people so he can tell them there is a place at home with him, and a party for all who turn back to him.
And so that is our calling through Jesus Christ. Followers of a reckless Father also look out for people who have ruined their lives, and who offer God’s unconditional love and grace.
The other day I read the story of St Mary’s church in Leamington, as told by their then vicar, Morris Rodham, in New Wine Magazine. Here is just a little bit of what he wrote:
Our community engagement started by serving one life at a time, because we looked for the mess, stretched out a hand and built a relationship. The same happened in the severe floods in Leamington in 1998. We started to get a reputation in the local area as a church that did practical things to support the community so we just kept the ball rolling.
Our youth worker, previously a drug addict, was recently awarded a civic award by the local District Council for outstanding contribution to local youth. She’s been working with a small team of people for the last four years doing detached youth work on a nearby estate. This involves befriending young people and families, especially those effected by negative circumstances. She’s also started mentoring in our local secondary school with kids that are in danger of being excluded. She’s already seeing positive changes in attitude in the kids.
She was one the many on our recovery scheme for people addicted to drugs or alcohol, or with offending backgrounds.
He goes on to describe all sorts of other initiatives, and explains that every individual and small group in the church is expected to reach out to the poor and hurting, and that the church gives away 15% of its income to outside causes as an expression of this.
If we believe in a prodigal Father, then, our life as God’s people will be characterised by ‘outrageous grace’ – bringing the love and mercy of God in Christ to the last and the least deserving.
However, that brings us, thirdly and finally, to the prodigal elder son. For he is reckless, too. Tragically reckless. He is reckless in throwing something away. Not the reckless living of his younger brother, which he despises, nor the extravagant application of grace shown by his father. He despises that, too.
And that is what he recklessly discards: grace. His whole complaint is based on being treated not mercifully but according to what he deserves, as in his angry reaction in verse 29:
Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.
Furthermore, he doesn’t even understand that everything his father had was his (verse 31). This is a man who wants to judge everything and everyone on grounds of moral perfection, and leave no room for his father to be merciful and gracious. Because that would be plain shocking. We can’t have that! How does that maintain moral standards? How does that help us keep track of who is the in crowd and who should be excluded?
The great tragedy, of course, is that our churches are filled with prodigal elder sons. Take as an example the question of how churches welcome newcomers. I’ve never known a church that doesn’t say it’s a welcoming congregation. In these days of church decline, few fellowships can afford to be anything other than welcoming (as if they should be the opposite in any circumstances!).
However, look at what happens to some newcomers. What happens to some of them when they get to be known a little better? Once their little foibles are known, the murmurs of disapproval begin, and you can bet that the new person perceives this. They may have habits that don’t fit the received etiquette of the church. They may accidentally trespass onto what an established church member considers to be her territory. Words will be said – perhaps only behind their back, but you can be sure they will pick up on the vibe. Do you think they will hang around?
Probably not. They will have been driven out by a small army of prodigal older sons.
Now let me tie that thought in with another. This parable – like several others – ends without a proper conclusion. We need to supply our own ending. The last part of the parable is the father saying to the prodigal older son,
Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. (verses 31b-32)
However, we don’t know the older son’s response. Will he accept the father’s invitation to celebrate outrageous grace? Or will he stomp off? He is left with a decision to make. So are we. Will we embrace grace, with all its implications, or will we remain stony-hearted moralists?
Except – we do know the end of the parable. Let us remember that Jesus told this in response to the Pharisees and scribes who were complaining that he welcomed ‘tax collectors and sinners’ (verses 1-3). And we know how they responded. They said, “We’re going to kill you.”
Which makes our graceless ‘older son’ behaviour in churches all the more traumatic. Every time we despise others who need the mercy of God, we nail Jesus to the Cross. Every time we think we can live without grace because we’re just so good and worthy, we lay Jesus’ body in the tomb. Whenever we believe that prodigal younger brothers should be judged and denied the love of God, we roll a stone across the entrance to the sepulchre.
We have a choice. Either we embrace grace and offer it to others, whether we like them or not. Or we refuse grace to others and in doing so refuse it for ourselves. The consequences are not only for our own personal eternal destinies; our decisions affect the future life and health of the church.
It is time to stop being prodigal younger or older sons and instead drink from the well of the Father’s prodigal love.
 Morris Rodham, ‘Loving Your Neighbour’, New Wine magazine, Winter 2010, p 29.
 I owe this insight to David Pawson.
There’s a painting on this subject by Rembrandt in a museum in St Petersburg – one of his masterpieces. People line up to get in and see this great work of art but people aren’t lining up to get into our churches to hear this story. Maybe someone should do a sermon about this one day. What do you think Dave?
Oh, they’ve done more than a sermon on the Rembrandt painting, Pam. Henri Nouwen wrote a whole book as a meditation on it!
Yes, I know. I read it recently. 🙂
I’ve never read it, but I have read several other books by Nouwen, and I’ve seen this one discussed extensively. I know some churches have used it for a Lent course, but that keeps it within the church generally, and I take your original point about the magnetism of the painting itself for those who believe and those who don’t.