“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Aside from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is probably the most well known and beloved story Jesus told. Some might even call it the gospel within the gospel as it so beautifully represents the compassionate character of God while revealing the ugliness we his children can sink to.
As we’ve noted in previous months, how we name things matters – names and titles highlight certain features of stories and direct our attention to a certain place. In most Bible translations for many years, this story was called The Parable of the Prodigal Son and the choice is understandable.
The story opens with the youngest of two sons approaching his father and demanding his share of his inheritance. Normally, a sons share of his father’s estate was given to him upon his father’s death. He then leaves his father’s home with his newly-acquired inheritance, travels to a far off country, and soon wasted all he was given in a binge of extravagant and reckless living (v.13, TPT).
New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass notes that
“The request [for an early share of inheritance] is imaginable, but at the very least we must recognize that the boy’s request and especially his departure would have been viewed negatively by all Mediterranean societies...It is no accident that v.12 reads literally ‘He divided to them the life (ton bion)’ for these resources were the father’s means of maintaining his life, especially in old age. The boy may not have literally wished his father dead, but his actions show that he did not really care for his father or desire a relationship with him. He wanted the father’s money, not the father.”
Inevitably, the prodigal son runs out of money and a severe famine plagues the land he’s living in. He hires himself out to care for a man’s pigs (working for a Gentile and caring for pigs were two big no-no’s according to Jewish law) and yearns to eat the slop being given to the pigs, he is so hungry.
Eventually he comes to his senses, remembering that even the servants in his father’s house had fuller bellies than he, so he hatches a plan to return home, admit he was wrong, and beg his father to hire him as a servant in his house.
And here we have maybe one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture. Reading these words I feel my heart beat faster, my palms start to sweat, and my throat constrict as the tears well up…
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son starts in on his earnest speech of repentance but the father interrupts him and calling to his servants, asks for the best robe, his ring, and sandals to be brought for his son and the fattened calf to be slaughtered for a celebratory feast was in order because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!
But the story doesn’t end here with the younger son being welcomed home and enjoying a feast with his family.
As the celebration is underway, the older son returns home from a day working in the field and hearing the party, asks what’s going on. A servant tells him his younger brother has returned home and their father has killed the fattened calf to celebrate. At this, the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him.
The elder son lashes out at his father – years of bottled-up bitterness exploding at the news that his father was throwing a lavish celebration for a brother he viewed with total disdain. With heart-breaking gentleness, the father reminds him, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.”
And this is where the story ends. While the youngest son is restored into relationship with his father and family, the fate of the elder son is left hanging.
Can you see how this is really a story not just of one lost son, but two? Can you see yourself – your behavior, beliefs, maybe even exact words – in the characters of this story?
Snodgrass goes on to write that,
“If Scripture seeks to give us an identity, which it does, this parable is a prime identity-shaping text. It says, in effect, that humans are not legitimately inhabitants of the far country, that they are not prodigals or slaves. Rather, they are children of their father and belong with their father. The prodigal declares that he is not worthy of his own identity and wants something less, but he is no hired hand. Grace lets you be who you are supposed to be even though you do not deserve to or may not want to. The elder son is suspicious of joy and sees himself as equivalent to a servant, but the father insists that he is a son as well.”
As I reflect on the two lost sons in this story, the writings of Henri Nouwen come to mind. In his book, The Return of The Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming he writes,
“I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.”
Can you fill in this blank yourself:
I am the prodigal son every time I ___________________
I am the prodigal son every time I believe that God’s best for me is somewhere else.
I am the prodigal son every time I desire God’s blessing and provision more than I desire relationship with him.
I am the prodigal son every time I think my place in God’s house is to be a slave and not a daughter.
Let’s look at this through the lense of the elder son:
I am the elder son every time I ___________________
I am the elder son every time I believe God owes me something.
I am the elder son every time I do something “for” God that I think will run up points in my column in his book.
I am the elder son every time I believe the father’s love and affection is conditional upon good behavior and obedience.
Both sons in this story are lost – the one that left home and the one that stayed. And yet, the father extends compassion and seeks restoration of relationship with both of them.
Will we accept his invitation of reconciliation? Will we humble ourselves and return home? Will we drop our disdain and participate in the celebration?
May you find yourself seated at the celebratory feast with the compassionate father this month.