Identifying the Prodigal in Us All

Heritage Presbyterian Church

4th Sunday in Lent 
March 27, 2022

Scripture – Luke 15: 11b-32

The parable of the prodigal son…one of the most famous and best known of the parables Jesus told.  In it, we get a real-life example of love, forgiveness, and restoration…along with foolishness, anger, and stubbornness.  Although written 2000 years ago, this parable still clearly works for us today.  There’s not much of a struggle to make this message personal.

Let’s begin with a definition: a prodigal child is one who is an abuser of grace.  That is our working definition for today’s message.  And despite the well-known identification of the prodigal son, we all know the three characters could easily be the prodigal daughter, the older and obedient sister, and the forgiving mother.  Let’s be clear on that point.

First, notice the audience of listeners who heard Jesus teach and preach this parable: there were tax collectors and sinners; Pharisees and scribes (or men who carefully kept and studies the Law of Moses), and the regular folks who followed and listened to Jesus.  In this crowd, the three characters each had one section of the listeners who were cheering for them:

  • The tax collectors and sinners were cheering for the younger son who had left and was out of the family.  This kid had blown his chance at being in that family, and now he was hoping to get back in somehow; those same tax collectors and sinner clearly recognized themselves as being “outside the family” and also “hoping for a way to get back in somehow.”  The younger son was their hope.
  • The Pharisees and scribes may have identified with the seemingly obedient and righteous older son, the one who stayed home and did the good work, the one who “hung in there” when the temptation to run off and live it up was before him, the one who did the right thing without question…because it was the right thing to do.  In other words, the Pharisees and scribes saw themselves as the true representation of how to act in order to be righteous in the eyes of the father.
  • The rest of crowd, possibly even including some of the Apostles, might have identified with the father.  This man had two sons, and he loved them both.  He didn’t want to lose either one; he didn’t want to do the wrong thing and create a permanent barrier between himself and either of them.  But he also loved his children…because they were his children!  Any parent can identify with that.  So, we can also imagine that the rest of the crowd was secretly cheering for the father in this parable.

So, now we have set the three audiences who heard Jesus teach this lesson.  What about the lesson itself?

First of all, note the specifics of what happened to the younger son.  He asked for his share of his inheritance.  That would equal about a third of what the father had; the eldest son would receive two-thirds and the younger son would receive a third.  This was very common in the days of Jesus.  For this seemingly prosperous man, one-third was a large sum.

Next, this younger son blew the whole thing on wine, women, and song.  And once it was all gone, a famine hit the area in which he was living at the time.  He was truly out of luck with no funds and all his good-time friends gone to the next party.  He most likely had few job skills that would net him a decent income, so he took the lowest possibly job: caring for someone pigs; in the Jewish culture, this would get you removed from the faith and that specific family.  By even touching those pigs and eating their food, that kid was as unclean as he could possibly be.  I would consider this to be “hitting rock bottom”…a phrase that most of us are familiar with in our own culture.  This is when someone’s life can’t get much worse without being dead.

Yet, in his misery and his shame, two amazing things happened:

  1.  Scripture tells us that the younger son “came to himself.”  I love this phrase because it points to this kid coming fully to his senses and realizing he has to do something.
  2. The memory of his father’s goodness brings this kid to full repentance.  His father is a loving man, a generous man, a man who loves his family; this man might give youngest son a second chance. That goodness is what gives kid hope.

Now, the younger son is walking home.  It probably took him weeks of exhausting travel to get there, and along the way there may not have been much to eat.  Perhaps he foraged for food or even begged for it in various towns and villages along the way.  But he is determined to get home and try to gain his father’s favor somehow.

Finally, we have the dramatic scene in which the father spots his son from a long way off.  No doubt the father had looked and looked each day down that same road hoping to see his son returning either in triumph or in loss…I doubt it mattered much.  He spots his son and he takes off running.  I also think the servants followed wondering what could cause the master to take off that way.

So, the son faces not only his father, but also a small group of servants, people he also knew, people who might be judging him at that very moment.

The son then begins with his long-practiced speech, one that was most likelly rehearsed and honed to perfection on that long, lonely trip home.  He tries to begin, but the father waves it off.  He hugs and kisses his son; he calls for the servants to prepare the feast and to come and take immediate care of his son.  He hustles the son back into the home, back into the care, back into the love of his family.  And all is well!

Take a minute, at this point, and imagine the tax collectors and sinner listening wistfully to his part of the parable from Jesus.  Imagine a few tears on their faces as they remember their own homes, perhaps their own fathers.  Imagine how each of them might wish to be reconciled with such love and forgiveness.  Small wonder the tax collectors and sinners loved Jesus so much!

Then we have the final character: the older son, who returns home to hear a loud party.  He meets one of the servants outside and asks, “What in the world is going on?”  When he hears that his worthless excuse for a brother has returned home, he reacts with jealousy and resentment.

And why not!  He did all the right things!  He stayed with his father and kept working and remaining a productive member of the household.  He didn’t blow his inheritance!  He didn’t party with wine, women, and song!  He did what he was supposed to do.  How dare his father welcome this punk brother this way!

And he self-righteously refuses to enter the house.  No wonder the Pharisees and scribes see this parable through this kid’s eyes.  They believed in doing the right thing, the way the Law taught them to.  They stayed true to the course like the Lord wanted them to.  They weren’t like those…tax collectors and sinners – and the rest of that rabble that Jesus always seemed to attract.  They were the good examples!

God MUST love them best!  They had earned it!  They deserved it!

It also raises the following scenario in my mind: What if the older son met the younger son on the road before the father spotted him?  What might have happened?  Numerous theologians have identified this scene with the church judging returning sinners instead of welcoming them home; perhaps even condemning them as “unworthy” of the love of the Father  It is a disturbing thought, but also one that had a certain ring of uncomfortable truth to it.

Yet, after examining all the facets of this story, we learn the most important detail: 

This parable is not about the pitiful prodigal son or the obedient older brother; this parable is about the loving, forgiving father.  

When Jesus told this parable, he was clearly sending a message to all factions of his audience – and to us too.  We can get way too distracted in putting ourselves in the place of either brother:

  • If we were the younger sibling in our family, we can imagine the older sisters and brothers resenting us because we got away with SO many things that the older kids never did.  
  • If we were the older sibling, we can imagine our younger sisters or brothers seeing us as the “good son” or the “good daughter.”  We were the ones who took care of things while they partied hearty.  We were the ones those younger siblings could count on to keep things going.  It’s pretty easy for those younger siblings to be intimidated by us.

Instead, we should be focused on the undeserved forgiveness the Father always offers.  We should also recognize that there is a worse condition than death: being completely lost.  The younger brother returns home hoping for either pity or mercy because either is better than dying.  

But if no one accepted him, if he was scorned and turned away when he arrived, I don’t think death would have been far from his future.  To be lost is worse than death.

On the other side, there is a condition better than life: to be found.  When that younger son came home and received unconditional acceptance, when a loud and joyful celebration was held because he came back, when love was given instead of just pity or mercy, that younger son was home.  Now his future was bright.  Now he was safe and sound.  Now he was loved again.  Now…he was FOUND.

Each and every one of us is the prodigal child at one time or another.  

Each and every one of us in the resentful older sibling at one time or another.

And even if we are not parents, each and every one of us has had the opportunity to be the loving, accepting, forgiving parent at one time or another.

The message is about the lost being joyfully found.

And that is how God operates with all his various children.  Amen!