I was going to launch this blog by explaining its title, but you’re going to have to wait for that one. Instead I’m going to start with some thoughts on one of the Bible’s most well-known and well-loved stories.
First things first – “Prodigal” means “wastefully or recklessly extravagant”, according to Dictionary.com. This doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the post, but I can never remember what it means and so I’m writing it down for once.
Anyway, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The story of a young man who, in a moment of extreme jerkishness, asks his dad for his share of the inheritance. His dad, who isn’t dead and who therefore had every right to be just a tad offended, gives him the money and waves goodbye to his son as he disappears to a far off land.
He promptly blows all the money on hookers and blackjack and, in order to make ends meet, finds himself feeding pigs, which is sinking about as far as a good Jewish boy can sink. Coming to his senses, he realises that he still has the option to return home, and decides to throw himself on his father’s mercy. He goes home, but before he can start grovelling to dad, his father runs to meet him, dresses him in fancy clothes and throws a big welcome home party. So far, so heart-warming.
But this is where Jesus throws in a twist. There he is, telling a story, but he doesn’t stop where you’d expect him to stop. Instead he introduces a whole new plot arc – there’s another son, the eldest, and he’s not happy that his waster of a brother has come crawling back. The elder son has been working his father’s farm for years with little to show for it, and now his dad has added insult to injury by serving up the best steak money can buy, all to celebrate the return of Mr. Swine-Feeder. The bitterness is palpable.
And that’s where Jesus ends the story, the eldest son mouthing off at his dad while the Prodigal parties the night away. And while it’s a parable of grace, showing God as the forgiving father who forgives and restores his children, I don’t think that’s the whole point. Because really it’s a story about two different views of the father, and therefore two different ways of relating to God.
Look at how the two sons relate to their dad – the younger sees him as soft, an easy touch, someone to be exploited. The kid’s cocky enough to ask for his inheritance and confident enough to think he’ll get it. The dad comes across as a weak old man, only good for dishing out the goodies when necessary.
But the same man is seen completely differently by the elder son. He sees his dad as a hardass, someone who holds back his rewards. Sure the son works for him, but it’s out of duty. He never gets the offer of a party.
Are the two sons really talking about the same man?
Well, yes, because they’re really describing two ways of looking at God – the ineffective wimp and the hardnosed taskdriver, shiny hippy vs lightning-chucking tyrant. And yet, over the course of the story, both are proved false, leaving a third image as the truth – the one who offers forgiveness, who welcomes home those who are lost, who wants a relationship with his children. Both sons are guilty of misrepresenting their father – it’s only when their images of him are put to the test and found wanting that they discover the truth.
Or do they? The younger son does, certainly, but we don’t know what conclusion is reached by the elder. Jesus ends the story on a cliffhanger – he doesn’t tell us if the elder son relents and joins the party or stays outside and wallows in his bitterness. There’s a reason for this.
See, Jesus is telling this story to a particular audience – religious leaders who were furious at Jesus befriending those they saw as worthless sinners. In their mind, God was a judge to be appeased, and Jesus hanging out with corrupt tax collectors was seen as hopeless compromise.
Remind you of the elder son at all?
Jesus ends the story on a cliffhanger, leaving those who probably found themselves identifying with the elder son to fill in his reaction. Were they willing to accept the idea of a forgiving God of grace? Or were they going to continue in judgement and anger?
Jesus doesn’t give them an answer. That was for them to figure out. But it’s a lesson for us all – is our view of God the truth, or do we need to look at him in a brand new way?