Luke 15 is one of my favorite chapters in the Gospels, because it contains my favorite parable, the one known as the Prodigal Son. The name is not exactly accurate; there is much more to the parable. There are three characters in it, and all are important. But it’s proceeded by two shorter parables which I think often get overlooked.
As always, it’s important to know the context. The Pharisees are once more criticizing Jesus for eating with tax collectors and “sinners”. Theirs was a self-righteous, do it yourself religion. The Pharisees already considered themselves a cut above everyone else, since Israel was God’s “chosen” people. But since they were so good at keeping their own rules along with outward observance of the letter of the law, they looked down on those considered less “holy” than themselves. Jesus proceeds to disabuse them of that conceit and give them a lesson on heaven’s value system.
First he tells of a shepherd who has a hundred sheep. One has wandered off, as sheep sometimes do. He looks high and low, and finally finds the lost sheep. He comes back and tells his fellow shepherds it’s time to rejoice because the lost sheep has been found. Next Jesus tells of a woman who had ten coins and lost one somewhere in her house. She does a thorough search (and house cleaning) and finally finds the coin. Since this no doubt represented a great sum to her, she calls her friends to come celebrate its retrieval.
But these are the warmup for the main event. The last parable involves three characters: a father, an older son, and a younger son. The younger, being impatient and disrespectful, demands his share of the inheritance from the father, who gives it to him without question or discussion. The younger son cashes it in, wanders off to a distant land, and proceeds to waste all of it on what in one version is called ‘riotous living’. Life was one big party as long as the money held out.
There’s an old Billie Holliday song that perfectly describes what comes next: “When the money’s gone, and all your spending ends, they won’t be comin’ around any more”. The circumstances change and just keep getting worse. About the time the money runs dry, a famine breaks out. The son is reduced to manual labor as a servant to a Gentile master, feeding pigs and starving to death. For the Pharisees, this is the trifecta that demonstrates this guy is cursed by God. It just couldn’t get any worse than this. He’s a “sinner” and there’s no hope for him.
But then the story takes an amazing turn on a short, simple phrase. Watch closely or you’ll miss it. “When he came to himself”. All the pride, insolence, and rebellion were gone. All of the excuses and rationalizations disappear. He finally takes a long, hard look at his situation and realizes even the lowliest slave in his father’s house has a better life than him. He’s willing to risk humiliation and rejection just to come home. But his father has a different idea. He welcomes the son with open arms and throws a big party to celebrate his return. The son who had been dead, but is now alive. My boy is home; that’s all that mattered.
This would have been the happy ending, but the parable isn’t finished yet. Jesus has told us about the father and the rebellious son. But he turns the story on the Pharisees in the guise of the older son. Angry, bitter because of the perception of having never been celebrated in spite of what he saw as his loyalty and service. Accusing the father of honoring his son (not my brother) who wasted his life and his father’s resources, refusing to join the celebration for his brother who’s come home. You can almost see him with his finger in the father’s face screaming, “It’s not fair!” Despite his father’s pleadings, the elder son refuses to come in the house.
There’s a reason this is my favorite parable. I’ve been both the younger and the older brother. I was the older brother, proud and angry, until God in his mercy showed me I was also the younger brother precisely because that false pride had caused me to make a wreck of my life. When I came to my senses I realized just how far from home I’d wandered. I was in the pig pen, starving, and wanted to come home.
The first two parables show us the nature of God. He is relentless in His desire to find us and bring us home. Not because we’re more valuable than the other ninety-nine sheep or nine coins, But because we are his creation who wandered away and he wants us back. He’ll keep at it as long as there’s a chance of getting us back. God never gives up on us.
The last parable is about us. We may be the younger brother, far from home and living in the pig pen, spiritually starving and wondering if we can ever come home. We might be the older brother, proud, bitter, willing to condemn our younger brother for making a mess of his life, wondering how our Father could honor such a loser, refusing to celebrate the return of a brother who was good as dead. And the Father stands, waiting for both, wanting us to come in the house. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been, or where you are now. You can always come home. Heaven is waiting for you, and it’s going to be a great party.