Luke 15:11-32 is well known to most people as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. That title is something of a misnomer but “The Parable of the Forgiving Father” is not likely to catch on anytime soon. Like so many other things, the people that named it didn’t ask me what I thought. The Lord’s prayer should be called the Disciples’ Prayer or perhaps the Model Prayer, but that’s another subject for another day.
Most of us use the word prodigal incorrectly. (It is prodigal, not protical by the way). Anytime someone leaves and comes back we call that person a prodigal child. Prodigal refers to the way he spent his money, frivolously wasting it away. If he spent all he had and died in the pig slop he would still have been the prodigal son. Those little subject headers, if your Bible has those, are helpful but not words of scripture. Just like chapter and verse numbers, those were added later by various publishers. In this case the result is unfortunate.
More importantly, the point of the story is to illustrate what the heavenly father is like. There would have been good Jewish fathers in the audience the day Jesus told this story. They would have been shocked and perhaps angered by some of the father’s reactions in the parable Jesus shared. When the younger of two sons asked for his inheritance he was practically telling his father that he was tired of waiting for him to die. Such things were just not done in that culture. The father would have been well within his rights to take his son before the council at the city gates and have him stoned to death. Jesus surprised his audience when the father divided all he had and let the younger son take his portion and leave.
When everything was gone and he desired the pods he was feeding pigs, the son came to his senses. He formulated a plan in which he would go back to his father and become one his servants. He had a speech worked out and everything. But before he even reached the house, the father saw him “a long way off” and ran to greet him. In order to see him a long way off, his father must have been watching and waiting. What should have happened – if you were a Jewish father listening in the audience – was the son should have knocked and knocked with no one ever answering the door. The son, if still physically alive, would have been dead to the family. The forgiving father ran to his son and embraced him. He didn’t even let the kid get his speech out. He called for a robe and put shoes on his feet and a ring on his finger. The fatted calf was killed and the whole house began to celebrate.
The older son, the one that stayed with his father and continued working, came home to find a party already in progress. Angered by what he heard he refused to go inside. The father tried to explain that everything he (the father) owns belongs to him (the older son). We are not told how the older son responds. What we know if that the father loves both children, the one that left and the one that stayed. He doesn’t love either son more than the other, but the younger son was lost to him, as good as dead, and has been made alive again. That was cause for celebration.
Some of us are like the younger son, wasting our time, money and health while living it up, enjoying everything the world has to offer. The prodigal son could have never repaid his father for all the wealth he had wasted, just as we cannot repay Father God for what our sins cost him. Some of us are like the older son. We’ve have been in church for a lifetime, teaching Sunday School, volunteering to serve during VBS, going on short term mission trips and so forth. We must be careful not to begrudge the grace and mercy our heavenly Father offers the lost.
Call the story by whatever title you wish. God is watching and waiting for each of his children to come home. Most never will, but each time one does – when the lost are found and the dead are made alive – there is rejoicing among the angels in heaven.