And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
“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!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
Grace is much harder to understand than we think it is.
I remember talking to a friend a few years ago about the parable of the Prodigal son. He couldn’t grasp it. I don’t recall all the details of our conversation, but I remember him remarking how unfair it all seemed.
I found this odd but remarkably perceptive. In my Christian upbringing, “grace” was in the air we breathed and the water we drank. “I’m better than I deserve” as Dave Ramsey puts it so pithily. He could speak for all of us: warehouse churches, independent baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, fundamentalists, progressives, Catholics, Anglicans. We emphasize different aspects of fallenness, injustices and individual sinfulness, but we all seem to agree that we are somehow better off than we deserve. “Have a blessed day.” And we do!
Now, I don’t find this a bad thing. It’s all true, of course. We are better than we deserve. At least theologically understood.
Nonetheless, I’ve never really been able to put away my friend’s confusion about the Prodigal Son. There’s something refreshingly honest about his critique. Most Christians might admit to being an older brother sometimes, but we never question the fundamental goodness of the father’s compassion on the Prodigal and rebuking the older brother’s harshness. But my friend wasn’t willing to concede this point so quickly. Didn’t the older brother deserve better treatment?
Here’s the thing about the Parable: If you’re thinking about what you deserve, eventually you miss the point.
The point is this: even in light of all that is true about you—the good and the bad you’ve done—where do you really want to be? Do you want to be happy?
That’s an odd question, perhaps. Let me explain.
There’s a trick, of course. It requires understanding what kind of happiness the parable offers us. For the Prodigal, it’s finally realizing that happiness was never really possible apart from his father. He realizes that happiness can’t be achieved on one’s own terms. Happiness must be accepted and received, it cannot be manipulated and taken. This is the hard lesson he learns. Even with disposable income, sexual license, and a smorgasbord of pleasures (the things that, if we are honest, all tempt us to some degree), he couldn’t achieve the happiness his soul longed for.
The Prodigal returns, though. The shocking thing about it is that the very man the Prodigal betrayed stands ready and eager to offer lavish forgiveness. His father lays a royal robe on the Prodigal and promises a lavish feast. Happiness indeed!
Perhaps the Prodigal and older brother can be better understood when we understand the two qualities they represent: sins of the flesh and self-righteousness. Both require a different response. Sins of the flesh push us towards guilt; an obsession over our own sinfulness to the point that we fear coming to God for what we have done. Self-righteousness is ignorance of our own sinfulness that leads us to choose not coming to God because we think we don’t need him.
The Prodigal’s sins are all obvious: lust, greed, sloth, selfishness. They’re the kinds of sins we usually recognize for what they are. The very obviousness of them makes repentance easier. Why? Because we can’t hide from the consequences and guilt.
The Prodigal wakes up one day and realizes, “How foolish this all is! Haven’t I been looking for something that, the whole time, my father had in abundance? Aren’t all the riches and treasures I desire with him? Isn’t the affection and love I want in his arms?” The Prodigal wakes up.
Importantly, he shows the right response to feelings of guilt: true repentance, turning back from sinfulness and towards God. The Prodigal realizes that his father is the only man who can heal his wounds. Rather than hiding, he comes into the light—filth and all.
The older brother is given the same opportunity albeit, to a different sin. His is self-righteousness or self-justification. This is a far trickier and more subtle problem. In fact, it’s one that the parable leaves unresolved. We simply don’t know what comes of the older brother.
Self-righteousness is harder to repent of, because, unlike “sins of the flesh,” self-righteousness hides its true nature. Most people, when confronted with their greed, will stop rationalizing and admit to being wrong. But what about when our sinfulness turns out to be following all the rules?
The older brother stands aloof. In his eyes, he was always faithful to the father. But in the end, the older brother’s faithfulness was manipulation. The older brother didn’t share the father’s loves. A truly faithful older brother would have been as overjoyed as the father was that the prodigal returned. But he moped instead. He probably wanted the Prodigal whipped and chastened.
But the father gives the older brother the same offer: “weren’t you with me? Isn’t all that I have yours?” Think about it this way: wouldn’t the father have given the older brother the same treatment as the Prodigal? One is left with the impression that the older brother merely had to ask for it! Yet he stands aloof in his pride.
Now there is a simplistic reading of all of this. It’s something like this: “if following the rules doesn’t matter in the end, why bother with all this religious duty? Won’t the father just take us all back in the end if we say the right thing and are truly sorry?”
Responding to this requires a more contextual reading of the parable. It requires introducing the third son: the parable’s narrator, Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the parable’s unstated third son and the son who loves the Father most completely. While the Prodigal finally returned to the father, Jesus fully obeys and remains completely in the Father’s will. The Prodigal only understands after years of hard living and hurt what Christ already knew from the beginning. Which is that, in the end, all you ever really wanted was the Father’s love and to love the things that the Father loved. The world can offer you nothing!
This answers the grace dilemma i.e. if God forgives me in the end, what’s the point of doing all this hard stuff? Jesus’ life and passion prove that a son who truly understands grace doesn’t ask that question. For Christ, the question was, “what is my Father’s will?” not “what can I get away with?” or “what’s the least I can do to get by?” People who ask those questions don’t know the Father’s love!
Christ’s faithfulness and obedience also passes that of the older brother. Unlike the older brother, Christ shows us what real obedience and faithfulness look like. Christ shows us that obedience is finally about knowing the Father’s heart. “I am the good shepherd. My sheep know the sound of my voice.” The older brother stands back and tisks at the Prodigal. Christ pursues him and lays down his life for him.
Yet, the beauty of it is that Christ dies for the self-righteous too. If only they will come. So whatever end we come from, there is grace for those who really want it.
So the parable puts the question back to us: Do you want to be happy and experience God’s love? Good, don’t worry about how you look when you get there. No one who finds God is clean. But everyone who finds God is honest and let’s Him clean them and finally honor them. It’s humbling but freeing.
“And if he has set you free, you will be free indeed.”