By Catherine A. Deddo
The “Who” Question: The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15)
When Jesus was confronted by the murmurings of the Pharisees over his receiving sinners, He told three parables. The Pharisees were angry with Jesus because they believed that a righteous person would not taint his/her righteousness by hanging out with those who were decidedly not righteous.
Jesus knew that the deeper issue for these Pharisees was their understanding of the character of God. They really didn’t know who the God they served was and it showed in their lives. So He describes the nature of God in these parables. In the first two, God is described as the One who searches diligently for the one who is lost. He persists until the lost one is found and then rejoices and invites others to rejoice with Him.
It is the third of these parables that I want to focus on. This well-known story, though often referred to in terms of the younger son, is really a story that reveals the heart of the Father. It turns out, neither son knew the character and purposes of the one who was their father.
First, the younger son. He viewed his father merely as a means to fulfilling his own ends. He resented having to live under his father's roof and authority.The only good that could come from his father was money. But he must have known something of his father’s love and gentleness, because he decided to ask for his inheritance early, a request that couldn’t have been more insulting. He might as well have said, “I wish you were dead!” His father, rather than denying the request or shaming his son, gave him his share and let him leave.
This son didn’t give another thought to his father until he had run out of money and found himself in desperate straits. As he thought over his despicable situation, he remembered that his father was the kind of person who treated his servants really well. As he started to consider who his father really was, he came up with a plan for how to return home and improve his life. He would go home and ask his father to take him on as a servant, aware now that he was “no longer worthy to be called your son”, but knowing enough of the goodness of his father to hope that he would take him in as a slave.
But what the son finds as he makes his way home is that he still knew very little of the true character of his father. While he was still a long way off from home, he sees his father running out to meet him—the father that he had shamed and insulted was doing something most undignified for his standing and age. He had picked up his robes and was running to meet the young man. I wonder what the son was thinking as he saw his father approaching. Before the son is able to say anything, his father embraces and kisses him. What an unexpected welcome! But the son doesn’t yet hope for more and now launches into his prepared speech.
But the father didn’t even let him finish. And now the son was given a revelation into his father’s heart, his surprising, wonderful heart. The father turned to his servants, who must have coming running after him, and told them to provide his son with, not just any, but the best robe, sandals for his feet, and a ring for his finger. And if that was not enough, the father ordered the fatted calf, the one prepared for special feasts, be killed and that everyone should celebrate the return of his son. "Who is this man?," the son must have wondered. How could he still declare me his son after all that I have done?
But Jesus doesn’t end the story here. He turns now to the older son and shows that he, too, does not know who or does not choose to acknowledge the true character and purposes of his father. Unlike the younger son, the older had stayed home and had obediently worked the fields. But even with all that time living with his father, he had no clue who his father was. When the older son finds out what the music and dancing was about, he refused to go in and welcome his brother home. Rather than leaving him outside, the father comes to him and entreats him. The son’s reply tells us a lot about his understanding of his father’s character, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends…” This son believed that his father was a taskmaster, an order-giver. His relationship with him was as servant to master, it was based on a contract. He believed that he had to work to gain his father’s rewards and was bitter because, compared to his disobedience brother, he had not “earned” even a kid to enjoy with his friends. So, while he was home, working side by side with his father, he was blind to the real heart of this man.
The father’s response is meant to help the eldest son realize his biggest mistake—not his obedience, but his knowledge of his father. “’Son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.’” He tells him that their relationship is not master—servant but father—son. And as the son, the father tells him that he owns all that the father owns. The older son, in other words, had been living as a servant in his own family and home. And this led in the end to his being directly rebellious and defiantly disobeying his father, refusing to go in to the celebration of his brother's return.
Jesus wanted to invite the Pharisees to consider their faulty view of God. They had come, like the older son, to view their relationship with God as contractual, as master—servant. They did their part, they “kept” the law, and God was to do His part. In the parable, we don’t know if the older son eventually came to know his father more truly and so finally went into the feast or not. Jesus leaves it open so that the Pharisees can see that they are in the same place as the older son: being given a clear picture of their heavenly Father and being invited in to enjoy the feast on the younger brother’s return.
For Jesus, the central question He needed to get the Pharisees to consider is the Who question: Who is God? And this is true for us. Over and over we need to reflect on what our understanding of the character and purposes of the triune God are. Are we like the younger son, viewing God as mainly a means to what we want, and not an end in Himself? Or are we like the older son, tempted to believe that God is a taskmaster, only interested in our grudging obedience? We bring no glory to God if we live and obey Him in such a way that gives lie to His true character.