We all have misconceptions about God. What are yours? Perhaps without even realizing it, you’ve begun to think of Him as a “transactional god” – one who doles out punishments or rewards based on your behavior. In difficult circumstances, have you, even fleetingly, questioned God’s goodness? Have you ever wondered if hard times are God’s punishment for not getting something right? Are you at all inclined to think financial, career, and parenting success are owed to you by God because of your regular church attendance and tithing? These are the thoughts of someone who, consciously or not, views God as a vending machine. And my guess is that we all fall prey to these thoughts at times.
What many refer to as The Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches just the opposite. This story is actually a parable of two sons who symbolize the two groups of people listening to Jesus speak. The younger, rebellious son represents the “sinners” who were eagerly gathered around Jesus; the older, compliant son signifies the religious leaders grumbling in the background.
At first glance, the two sons, like the two groups of listeners, seem very different. But a more careful reading of the parable reveals they have much in common. Each son wants one thing from the father – their respective share of his estate. However, each son attempts to obtain his share in his own way.
The younger son defiantly demands his portion of the father’s wealth immediately. The older son follows the cultural norm, stays home, and expects to inherit later in time upon his father’s death. Noticeably absent is any mention of love or even affection. Does either son care about the father at all? Or do they merely want what the father can give them?
Ouch! If we are honest, many of us may find our current attitude towards God the Father like that of the older brother (and the grumbling religious leaders): outwardly compliant, attempting to earn an eternal reward through moral behavior – but without the joy of an intimate relationship with Him. Or perhaps we’ve had a season like the younger brother in which we’ve lived in rebellion, suffered the consequences, and now believe the only way back to God is through hard work.
To the culture in which this parable was first heard, the actions of the father are shocking. He appears weak. Not only does he comply with the demands of his insubordinate son, he later watches for him to return – not to dole out punishment, but to run to him and welcome him back with open arms. The father cuts short the son’s apology. He does not seek repayment or even ask his son to clean himself up before bestowing a kiss, a hug, and a beautiful robe upon him. And although the son has totally squandered his share of the estate, the father does not ask to be repaid. Instead he throws an expensive party for the son – just as he is. What a delightful surprise this gift of grace must have been to the younger brother!
But how wrong it must have seemed to the grumbling religious leaders. They knew this grace came at a cost. And that cost was borne by the older brother in the parable. The father’s remaining estate would eventually be re-divided – thus forcing the “good son” to pay for his brother’s sin and wastefulness. “That’s not fair,” the religious leaders must have muttered.
I have no doubt the religious leaders got the message – Jesus was telling them they needed to welcome – as family members, no less – the very people they considered inferior and deserving of punishment. Can you imagine how their grumbling must have escalated? I wonder if they even heard the rest of the parable? You see, the father’s grace is not just for the younger son – he goes to the older brother and invites him to the festivities, saying, “All that is mine is yours.” And there the parable ends…leaving us to guess the older brother’s response…
How about you?
Maybe like the older brother you’ve put your faith in your own moral behavior – in your ability to adhere to socially acceptable conventions. As for the “down and outers” – they’re reaping what they’ve sown, right? You’re willing to offer them a handout, but certainly not a place at your table. And why should their forgiveness come at a sacrificial cost to you?
Maybe like the younger brother you’re just hoping you can work your way back to God. Either way, the parable tells you it’s not about your efforts. Hear what Jesus is saying: Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).
That means we’re ALL invited to the party! In the family of God, Jesus is the older brother of all who are weary from self-effort in any form. For the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross on our behalf. Receive the Father’s kiss of approval and His warm embrace. Wear Jesus’ robe of righteousness. Experience a change in attitude. No longer will you strive to earn salvation or work to repay God’s grace. Instead, you will love and serve others from a grateful and joyful heart. Invite others into the True Story to which the parable points –help them meet the Author who has written Himself into the storyline so that He might have a relationship with each of us.
Director of Children’s Ministries