The great musical Les Miserables has made it to the cinema twice in the last few years – the Liam Neeson version and most recently with Hugh Jackman. It’s rare that a musical translates well onto the big screen, but this Victor Hugo novel turned musical turned major motion picture is the exception – and it is likely not the great acting or music that are the reason. It is most likely the story that captivates us. It is a story of redemption.
The main character Jean Valjean is a prisoner on the run from the policeman Javert. Javert will not rest until Valjean is brought to justice. But in an amazing act of grace by a bishop, Valjean is given a second chance; and he makes the most of it. He turns his life around. Meanwhile, Javert cannot let it go. When faced with Valjean’s transformed life, he must also face what his merciless insatiable pursuit of justice has turned him into – and it is too much for him – he ends his own life.
WHAT’S GOING ON
That ungracious attitude that characterized Javert, is what Jesus was addressing with some religious people who just didn’t get it, as He told a series of stories in Luke 15. Here we’ll look at the 3rd and last story in that series. It is often called the parable of the Prodigal Son.
I’m actually not a big fan of the title that we’ve given this parable, because it’s not really about one son – it’s about two; and the one we usually focus on was not Jesus’ target audience.
Most of us know the story, so I’ll just summarize the first half before we start reading. Jesus told a parable about a man who had two sons. The younger son decided to go out and sow his wild oats; so he asked his father for his portion of the inheritance early. Amazingly, the father gave it to him. So with a wad of money in his pocket, the younger son went off and partied like a rock star; and eventually blew all the money. In his desperate, homeless, penny-less state; the only job he could get was feeding pigs. That’s when he realized that the pigs were eating better than he was.
At that moment he came to his senses and realized that even the slaves in his father house had it better than he did. He decided at that moment to go home. He knew his father was a gracious man, and even though he had been an ungrateful son, dad just might take him back as a slave. In that culture, by doing what he did, he had completely disrespected his father and would, at the very least, be shunned. However, he was actually guilty of an offense that he could be stoned to death for. So that’s where we’ll pick up the story; in vs. 20 of Luke 15.
- Luk 15:20-24 And he (the younger son) 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. (21) 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.’ (22) 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. (23) And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. (24) For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
What just happened? He is welcomed back without question. His father was waiting the whole time. He graciously and immediately reinstated His son into full sonship. For the prodigal, this is better than any best-case-scenario he had envisioned. Not only did he not get stoned for dishonoring his father, but he received full sonship – really!
Notice that dad doesn’t bring him in the back door quietly, in the middle of the night, keeping it hush hush. He doesn’t seem to be worried that the family name will be disgraced because the black sheep is back from rehab. No way! It’s a party!
What a picture. Fully forgiven. His rags exchanged for a robe that he didn’t earn because of His father’s grace. What an amazing image of what our Father has given us. We can all identify with that. But sometimes we miss the point of this story. Because the prodigal left home and came back, we tend to look at this story as a backsliders tale; as a Christian who walked away and then came back to faith. Sometimes we even call someone who walks away and then comes back; a prodigal. But what does prodigal actually mean? It means wasteful extravagant spender. It’s kind of like a lottery winner that blows through their winnings and ends up broke again or the pro athlete who lands a huge signing bonuses and then runs out of money.
The term prodigal and the main point of this story actually are not about returning at all. God is certainly gracious to the backslider and will welcome them back with open arms, just like the father in the story. That is absolutely true. It’s just not what this parable is about.
In order to understand that, we have to look back at the beginning of the chapter. Jesus actually tells this series of three parables in response to an accusation made against him that starts in verse 1 of Luke 15.
- Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. (2) And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (3) So he told them this parable:
Jesus begins with the parable of the lost sheep and then in verse 8, He told the parable of the lost coin. Finally in verse 11, He begins the parable of the prodigal son.
It seems that the religious folks didn’t like the company that Jesus the rabbi was keeping. Tax collectors and sinners were regularly hanging out with Jesus. (Just a side note – isn’t it kind of messed up if you work for the IRS and your profession is called out like this in the scripture – can you imagine other professions got the same treatment: engineers, nurses, salesmen). OK let’s get off that rabbit trail.
So these tax collectors and sinners would spend time with Jesus and ate with Him. It even seemed like He liked them; imagine that. Meanwhile the scribes and Pharisees were getting all bent out of shape about it. So Jesus told these three parables to address the elitist attitudes of these religious leaders. We’ll see how the parables all fit together in a minute, but for now try to identify the characters in our prodigal story.
Who is God in the story? The Father. That’s an easy one. How about the tax collectors and sinners that Jesus was hanging with? The younger brother, the prodigal; the traditional star of the show. But remember, Jesus is telling this parable and the other two because of an accusation. It wasn’t the tax collectors and sinners that needed and attitude adjustment. That brings us to the religious leaders. Who were they in the story? The older brother. With that, let’s keep reading to see what this older brother does.
- Luk 15:25-32 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. (26) And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. (27) 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.’ (28) But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him,
His brother, who was thought to be dead, is alive. The whole household is celebrating. They were feasting and dancing. But what about the older brother? Hmm, not so much. He’s angry. Why? What’s his problem? Why isn’t he happy? Look at vs. 29.
- (29) 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. (30) But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’
He’s unhappy because he sees all of this as unfair. He feels like, “If there’s anybody around here that deserves a party, it’s me. I’m the one who stuck it out. I’m the one who did all the work and this slacker just rolls back into town, and now we’re going to have a party for him. Well what about me?”
Well what about the older brother? Did he really deserve more than he got? Did he get the short end of the stick from pop? Remember this parable is one in a series of three: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son; and they each have a similar theme. In each of those stories there is something lost and someone goes searching for what is lost and finds it and a party ensues. The third parable has something missing though. Who goes looking for the lost son? No one. So what broke down? Why does Jesus deviate from the pattern of the first two parables? Remember who He is talking to. In this culture, it was the responsibility of the older son to go looking for his brother, but he didn’t go.
For the religious Jews, those that knew God, those that Jesus was talking to, it was their responsible to go out looking for those who didn’t; but instead, they despised them. It turns out the older brother in our story was not as deserving as he claimed to be. God chose Israel to be His representatives on earth. Remember the covenant that God gave to Abraham way back in Genesis 12 – when God was calling the nation of Israel out of nothing. This is what he said in Gen 12:2-3:
- And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (3) I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Did you catch that last phrase? All the families in Israel will be blessed? All the families that keep the law will be blessed? All the kosher families of the earth will be blessed? No. Israel was to be a blessing to the whole earth.
In each of the previous two parables the hero of the story is the one who looks for what was lost until he finds it. So who’s the hero in our story? Remember the younger son in the story represented the tax collectors and sinners. He represents us, and he certainly isn’t the hero. The older brother is the bitter self-righteous one, so He’s not the hero. So who is it?
It’s the Son who actually loves his Father enough to go looking for His prodigal sons; the One who was willing to leave the comforts of His Father’s home to go looking for his lost brothers, to go looking for tax collectors and sinners, and to go looking for you and me. It’s the Son who isn’t mentioned. He is called the Son of man. He is the Son of God.
At this point in the story, the story teller enters the story. Jesus is the missing searcher in the 3rd parable. The Pharisees and scribes, these religious leaders of the Jews had been given the gift of God’s grace themselves, and through them all the nations of the earth were supposed to be blessed. That was the promise and the charge given to Abraham. That was how it was always supposed to be.
These religious Jews no longer saw themselves as recipients of God’s blessings by grace, so they were no longer willing to give it. They saw themselves as deserving sons. They had become the older brother. But the amazing thing is that God still loved them too. In their religious pride, in their rejection of their Savior, in their failure to reach out with the Love of God in His name, He continues to reach out to them. We see that as we keep reading in Luke 15 verse 31.
- (31) And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. (32) It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
Jesus immediately gets to what is at the heart of the Pharisees and all of us who begrudge God or others for His grace. He said, “Son, what’s the big issue with me throwing a party for your brother? We thought he was dead but he’s alive, that’s reason to celebrate. Why does my grace to him make you angry? You were always with me.”
When the Father said that, the veil was removed. It became obvious that there was no heart difference between the older son and his wayward younger brother. On the surface, they were worlds apart. The younger brother was brash and disrespectful and the older brother was obedient and loyal.
But in their hearts, they were both after the same thing. They were both after what their father could give them. Neither one of them valued a relationship with their Father. They valued his stuff. It’s just that the younger brother was bold enough to ask for it in advance, while the older brother was afraid to rock the boat. The older brother actually would get twice the inheritance in that culture; so he didn’t want to mess up a good thing; so he was the “good son.”
But what he didn’t’ realize or value is that all those years his brother was gone, he had access to his father. He had fellowship with his dad. His brother could never get those years back. In the end, the Father loved both of His son, and in the end His sons only loved His stuff – both of them. They just went about getting it two different ways.
If the older brother really loved his Father, he would have valued and cherished all those years he had with Him, instead he saw his brother as getting something he didn’t get. The older brother didn’t realize how privileged he was to have been living with his Father, and experiencing the blessings of his father all those years.
THE TAKE HOME
Let me ask you a question. “Do you have a problem when God is lavishly gracious to people who have completely blown it; when they’ve sinned it up and God restores them to full sonship without punishment?” What is your reaction to free forgiveness given to people who have committed sins that you think you never would. Does it bother you that you have been doing your best all this time and they can waltz in and get the same treatment as you?
If it does, then there are a couple things that are true of you. First, you have put more value on sin than you have your time with God. Let me tell you what I mean. If we truly value our time with God, then nothing this world has to offer can compare to what we have in Christ. If we really believed that, we would feel pity for those caught in sin, even after they are restored, because they missed out on what we have, sweet fellowship with our Father. Instead we sometimes find ourselves wishing we could get away with what they have.
It also means that we are approaching God on some basis other than grace. We believe that we have earned a new status with God based on our faithful service and that others need to earn it too. If we truly believed that God’s blessings were not based on us, and that He blesses us in spite of the fact that we don’t deserve it, then we wouldn’t be shocked or angry when He was extravagantly gracious to others. We would expect Him to be.
We may have started our Christian life seeing ourselves just like the lost son, begging for forgiveness and being astonished that instead we received full acceptance and forgiveness – and being humbled and broken by that amazing grace.
However, after a few years of living in our Father’s house, we no longer see ourselves as the slave who has a position in the Father’s house because it was purchased by another. We start acting like the older brother, thinking we have earned something and dishing out grace in bite-sized portions.
That’s not the nature of our God. Tim Keller’s book on this parable is rightly called The Prodigal God , because God is a luxurious extravagant spender when it comes to His grace. And as we become more like him, as we understand that it is by His grace alone that we are His, we too will let grace flow to others – just like our prodigal God.