A Tale of Two Sons
What we call the parable of the Prodigal Son is really the story of two brothers. Both had relationship problems with their father. Obviously, the younger, seemingly more rebellious son represented the tax collectors of Jesus’s day, and the older brother represented the Pharisees. Yet, this 2000-year-old tale still has implications for our lives today. It beautifully illustrates our relationship problems with God. I don’t know about you, but I have been both fellows. I have at times been the rebellious prodigal, but I have also been the self-righteous older brother.
If you have followed this blog, you know I have presented the idea that we resist God not only by doing evil but also with our good (self-righteousness). Jesus’s parable of the two sons paints a vivid picture of this dynamic. It describes human resistance to God, but it also presents the solution which is the relentless love of our Father in Heaven.
We begin our study with questions. Why did the younger brother leave home, and why did the father allow him to go? On the surface, we might say the young man was simply enticed by the lure of a sinful world, and that certainly was true. Yet, the prodigal also seemed to be blind to his father’s love. He had a performance based relationship with his father while his father’s love was extraordinarily unconditional. There was obviously an enormous misunderstanding between the two.
We can speculate that the older brother might have indirectly been part of the problem. He was the “good son,” the one who always did everything right. If you have ever had such a sibling or if you have ever been that sibling, you know it presents problems. Perhaps the younger brother thought he could never measure up to his brother’s standard, and he believed his father looked down upon him the same way he looked down upon himself. He had a paradigm through which he viewed himself, others, and his father, and his father had a very different mindset. Our relationship with God often follows this same course. We project feelings we have about ourselves onto God, only to find our thoughts couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Perceived rejection could have been part of the prodigal’s problem, but he also had false perceptions of the world. Somehow it looked like a better home than his father’s house. The world can be a delight to the eyes, and it may appear more enticing than the unseen God, especially if we believe He does not want us around all that much. We may even believe that those outside our Father’s house are more accepting than those who dwell in the house of the Lord. We always believe such things when we venture away from God, but our wandering always leads to famine in our souls. Even then, we may have to return to the pigsty many times before we realize our true home is in our Father’s presence.
Our second question is why did the father allow his son to leave home? First century Palestine was an honor/shame based culture. While we in the 21st century Western world still value honor and avoid shame, these things do not have the same value they did in that day and still do in some cultures. In many ways to know honor was the greatest treasure and to know shame the greatest curse.
In his book, The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants, Kenneth Baily explains the honor/shame culture wonderfully. By demanding his inheritance, the young man shamed his father. In the first century world, a parent’s normal response would have been severe discipline, not astonishing generosity. The son would not have been allowed to leave home even if it took force to keep him there.
Jesus’s parables were always provocative. They raised eyebrows and probably made people gasp at times. We miss their full impact because we do not understand the culture of the day. This is especially true of the story of the prodigal son.
So, why did the father allow the son to leave? Jesus told this story from a New Covenant perspective. The father was definitely a New Covenant man. In the old way, rewards and punishments served to keep people from straying. In the new, it is love that keeps us home.
The Father could have forced his son to stay, but he still would have lost him. His child would be present in body but his heart would be far from home. Perhaps he could have made his son obey out of fear, but the father wanted love, and he would settle for nothing less, so he let us son go. He did so in faith that his son’s straying would lead him home. Believe it or not, our straying is part of our journey to God. For when we think we are farthest from the Lord, we come face to face with His relentless love. In the pigsty, we come to know grace.
The young son left home and indulged himself, thinking that was the way to a full life. Yet, self-indulgence, when it takes us too far, leads to ruin, and that is where the prodigal found himself. Things got so bad he had to work for a gentile. We know his employer was not Jewish, because he had a pig farm. Jews and unclean pigs don’t mix!
I used to think the young man’s employer was one mean gentile. After all, who assigns a nice Jewish boy the job of feeding pigs? Yet, Kenneth Baily provides an alternate explanation. In an honor/shame culture it was customary to give people a way to avoid shame if possible. Refusing to employee the boy would have shamed him. An honorable boss would give a way to avoid rejection. He would do so by offering the prospective employee a job he couldn’t possibly accept. This gentile pig farmer most likely gave the young man such an offer, but the starving boy didn’t refuse! This is how lowly he had become.
While in the pigsty, the prodigal began to get a revelation. He could go home! He still had his performance based relationship firmly intact. He saw himself as unworthy to be his father’s son. The solution in his mind was yet another performance. He would drag his shame before his father and put it on vivid display. Surly this would win his father’s mercy. How often do we come to God in this same way? Our speeches prepared, we grovel in His presence, thinking that is what pleases Him. Yet, does it?
We can only imagine the young man as he walked home rehearsing his speech, playing his imagined scenario over and over again in his mind. Finally, he was near enough to see his father’s house. The show was about to begin, or so he thought.
As the son approached, the father could hardly believe his eyes. Broken and in rags, his beloved son was coming home. What the father did would more than raise eyebrows. People would expect the father to shame the son and thus regain a bit of his honor. Instead, the father ran to meet his child. Rich people did not run in that day. There was no cardio craze. They got someone to do their running for them. To run themselves would be considered demeaning in more ways than one. The garments of the rich were not made for running. The only way he could have accomplished this feat would be to lift up the front of his robe. This, of course, would expose his underwear for all to see. Could you picture this rich fellow running through town in such a manner? Shameful!
It was as if the father was diverting the son’s shame onto himself, but that was only the beginning. Instead of striking his child, which most would expect, he fell on him and kissed him. Undeterred, the son broke into his well-prepared speech, heaping shame upon himself… and the father ignored him! (Remember, the father represents God. Do you think the Lord ignores our speeches about how unworthy we are?)
The son was expecting shame, but the father refused to give it to him. Instead, he gave him honor! The robe, the shoes, and especially the ring were for honored sons. And there was a party on top of that with the best food the father could provide. The son received the opposite of what he expected in every way imaginable.
This reception provides a wonderful picture of the love God has shown us in Christ. There are many ways to look at the cross, but certainly it is the place Christ took our shame and in return gave us His own honor. Therefore, we honor Him by living as honored sons, recipients of God’s own glory.
Do you think the prodigal ever left home again? It is likely that he finally “got it,” and he would never be fooled again. Nor would he ever doubt his father’s love. His performance was finally over. The Father conquered his son’s rebellion not with fear but with an astonishing act of love.
Most sermons end the story with the prodigal’s return. The lost son was home, and they lived happily ever after. But there was still another brother, and his relationship problems with his father might have been worse than his brother’s! I think we overlook or ignore him because we do not quite know what to do with this young man. He was a good guy, but at the end of the story, we see him isolated from both his father and his brother. The younger brother gained the life-changing revelation that his father’s love defined him, not his own piety, but his brother’s fate was far more uncertain.
When the prodigal returned, the father, overwhelmed with love, threw a grand party for his wayward son; the older brother was the party pooper. The eldest son could not stand his father lavishly loving someone who did not deserve it, and he was angry with his fallen brother, too.
The father, after hearing of his son’s anger and his refusal to join the celebration, left the party to try to convince his son to receive his brother gladly. Again, in our culture we miss the significance of this act. By refusing to join the celebration, the older son brought shame upon his father. Normally, a parent’s response would be to discipline his child, but the father in this story humbled himself instead. It would be considered demeaning for a man of the father’s stature to go out to someone who had dishonored him. It is much more subtle this time, but the father took the son’s shame just as he did for the prodigal. Yet, in return he did not receive love but contempt.
This is where self-righteousness takes us. It leads us to isolation rather than union. It is easy to see how it disconnects us from our neighbor. If we are self-defined, we readily look down upon someone who does not meet our standard. Tragically, we believe we are sharing in God’s contempt for our neighbor, and it is amazing what we become capable of when we think God despises someone. Much of the terrorism in the world today has self-righteousness at its roots.
It is a little more difficult to see how our own good can lead us to isolation from God. One of the great ironies of life is that our efforts to earn God’s acceptance can lead us away from Him or even make us His enemy. This was the path of the Pharisees in Jesus’s day. Their zeal for God blinded them! Their eyes were so on themselves that they couldn’t see the Christ, though He stood in their midst. They held so tight to their own righteousness, that they could not receive God’s gift of His righteousness.
This was the fate of the older brother. He was so consumed by his own good and his brother’s evil, that he could not see His father’s love. He was left an enemy of love, and enemies of love end up alone. The older brother’s only way out would be to change his mind, to redefine himself and his brother according to his father’s love rather than their deeds. In a way, the father beckoned him to come over to the New Covenant, but unlike his younger brother, he had too much to lose. He could not give up self-definition for God-definition. At the end of the story his fate is left unresolved.
The older brother illustrates what is perhaps our greatest relationship problem with God. It is the most difficult, because it is the most deceptive. The endeavor to earn God’s approval appeals to the ego and it seems like wisdom, but Satan can appear as an angel of light. In other words, what we think is for God actually opposes God. This is the problem with self-righteousness. It is flesh masquerading as Spirit or self trying to be God.
When we picture an enemy of God, we don’t envision a son who never did anything wrong or people who are very zealous to keep God’s commands. We think people who are good at being good have no troubles with God, but they are often the most troubled of all! The older son personified this reality beautifully, and in many ways his lot was the saddest.
God wants to give Himself to us, but His gift comes through death and resurrection, not human effort. Our own righteousness dies and we are raised in the righteousness of Christ. This is what Paul meant when he spoke of dying to the Law that He might live to God (Galatians 2:19). When we talk about dying to self, we usually think of the bad things we do, but we should also think of our own good. In a sense the older brother would have had to die and be reborn to enter his Father’s celebration.
The parable of the Prodigal Son demanded that people change their minds about God, themselves, and their neighbors. It presented a stunning illustration of the love of God. The father’s love was so great that many would consider it shocking or unthinkable. A father taking his son’s shame and honoring them as he did was too much for many. Yet, this is the New Covenant. It is the breaking forth of unimaginable love. The old narrative was that we must capture God’s love and the new is that God’s love has captured us.
Additionally, Jesus’s story painted a picture of how we resist our Father in Heaven’s infinite love. Like the younger brother, we can try to gain the world, thinking it will complete us. This is not the way of love but the way of using and being used. God’s love has sacrificed for us, and it is the astonishing revelation of that love that compels us to sacrifice for Him. We can also take the equally perilous path of the older brother who chose self-definition over God-definition. He, in his own way, sought to gain the whole world. Yet, even as we run from God through either good or evil, God pursues us with relentless love until we find our home with Him.