I was recently asked to speak on the story of the Prodigal Son, a story which you can find in any Bible. The story is a famous one and often used proverbially in words like, “the prodigal returns”. Some literary giants have described this story as the greatest story ever written. For me it is the greatest story I have never really addressed. So in this article I thought I would invite you into the story that Jesus tells.
The story is really about three shameful people.
The first is a son who asks for his inheritance which was tantamount to saying to his father, “Listen I want your stuff but I don’t want you.” The shame of that request would have spread across town as quickly as this boy wanted to get out of town. To get out of town quickly would of course require that he liquidate his share of the estate at speed. The only way to do that is to sell cheaply which indicates just how little respect the boy had for his father or anything of real value, including himself. Well the outcome was dreadful and the boy was ruined. His rise to the fun life quickly crashed into the empty and broke life and it was not long before he came to his senses, making an accurate assessment of himself, realising home and dad were a better option. So he travels home to walk a gauntlet of village shame, reciting a speech, “Father I am no longer worthy to be called you son, treat me as one of your hired servants.”
Now the second shameful person in the story is the Father himself. Remember the context of the story is an ancient village where it was shameful for a father to run, to show his legs or be willing to embrace a son who in normal circumstances would have been considered dead to the family. However, in this story that is exactly what this father does. He runs the village gauntlet, bearing the shame that should be reserved for this shameful young man. I love the fact that the story says the father saw him in the distance. It would seem this father never stopped scouring the horizon in the hope of finding his lost son. When you lose something of great value you will always make a great search. If you read the story, it is worth noticing that the father’s run, embrace and kisses come before the boy’s speech. And when the hugs and kisses are over, the boy’s speech changes. In the love of the father he will acknowledge his unworthiness but in the father’s love he knows he will not be required to work off his bad mistakes. That’s what grace does: it takes the shame, loves without price and forgives without reprisals, and if you read the story, it ends in celebration because a lost son is found.
I will need to be quick on the third shameful participant. He is the stay at home son angered by the love of a father who shows grace to the undeserving. Interestingly, he speak like a hired servant who thinks he has worked hard enough to get his return. In one sense he is no different to the other son and just as lost. He expects that his dad’s stuff should be his but he cares nothing for the dad. The tragedy of this stay at home son is that he never paused to embrace the love of the father who comes out to him to draw him to the celebration as well.Well, what the point of the story? The original audience of sinners and teachers of the law give it away. We live in a world where people want God’s stuff but don’t want God. We can squander what he gives in reckless living or self-righteous entitlement. What this story tells us is that God reaches out to both with his love and grace. The story begins with sinners who want to hear Jesus and the self-righteous who grumble about him spending time with sinners. Interestingly, Jesus lays down his life for sinners who want to hear him, being to death by the mumbling entitled.