The Prodigal Son

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Luke relates three similar parables of loss and recovery in Luke 15. He sets up the parables by recounting how tax-collectors and sinners were listening to Jesus, and how the Pharisees and scribes grumbled because of it.

The first two parables picture a God who actively seeks the lost. Like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep or a woman looking for a lost coin, God seeks to recover those who belong to him. These images are not meant to draw upon feelings of sentimentality; rather, they are meant to connect the hearers’ own experiences of loss with their understanding of God’s actions in Jesus. I may not have lost a sheep, but I have misplaced checks, important documents and other items of such significance that I am nearly in a panic until I find them. What I still have in my possession at that moment comforts me not at all. My heart pounds and my mind races. My entire focus and energy are concentrated upon locating the lost article. It is with that sense of restlessness, compulsion and heartache that parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are meant to connect. Finding the lost object is one’s only concern until it is found. Recovery of a lost treasure is the cause of great relief and celebration.

If the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin caused the hearers to nod their heads in agreement, the story of the lost son surely caused them to clench their jaws with discomfort. It certainly created a good bit of cognitive dissonance for everyone who heard it.

The third parable is similar to the first two in the sense of painful loss and joyful recovery. It is different, though, in that the lost object is not a sheep or a coin; the lost object is a human being with free will, a rebellious and disloyal son who dishonors his father and throws off his familial obligations.

It may be impossible for people living in modern western cultures to understand the seriousness of the son’s misdeeds. Only those living in a tribal culture with an honor and shame value system can truly understand the depth of the pain that the son causes the father.

The father in the story does the unthinkable. Rather than disown the son, turn his back on him forever and treat him as though he were dead (as would have been expected), the father stands and waits, watching for his son’s return. (One does not snatch up a prodigal son the way one does a lost sheep or a lost coin. One watches and waits for the son to come to his senses).

When his son appears on the horizon, the father runs to him, embraces him, bestows gifts of honor upon him and throws a party to celebrate his return.

Twenty centuries after Jesus told this story, we who hear it today think, “Isn’t that sweet? Of course the father welcomed his son back.” I doubt that Jesus’ audience had the same reaction. The father debases himself in the process. The prodigal son had humiliated his father and dishonored the family name. The father casts aside whatever concern he might have about his own honor and his standing in the eyes of others for the sake of his lost son.

There is, of course, another son in this story. The second son objects that the rebellious one is getting favored treatment at his expense. There is more than simple jealousy about parties and barbecues at work here. Quite understandably, the older son took his father’s actions as a personal insult. The father bestowed more honor on the rebellious son than on the obedient one, an action which was incomprehensible in Jesus’ culture.

The father appeals to his older, obedient son to join the celebration. As the CEV puts it, “he begged him to go in” (15:28). It is “necessary” that the entire family “make merry and rejoice” because the lost one has been found, the “dead” one is now “alive.” (15:32) The parable leaves the hearer wondering: will the son who has “never disobeyed” (15:29) his father now obey his request to celebrate his brother’s return?

By combining these three parables, Luke (and if they originally belong together, Jesus) seems to be asking a question. “If you can understand the value of a lost sheep or coin, why can’t you understand the value of a lost son or daughter of Abraham? If you can understand the effort and cost of finding a lost item, why can’t you understand what it takes to find a lost person? If you can celebrate when a lost object is located, why can’t you rejoice when a lost soul is found?”

Together, these three parables present a number of complementary truths. Our God is both an active, searching God and a waiting, welcoming, willing-to-suffer-humiliation God. Our God is one whose heart aches at the loss of his own and one who rejoices when they are back home where they belong.

We are both sheep who have been found despite ourselves and prodigals who have come to our senses. We are both rebellious ones whom the father longs to embrace and jealous ones whom the father begs to share in his joy.