‘If you only had the parable of the prodigal son, what would be the main take away of the story?’ This is a question I ask of my Introduction to the Gospels and Acts class that I teach each year at Perth Bible College. As you might imagine, I’ve heard some interesting answers over the years:
- Wisdom (wise living; the younger son did not live wisely).
- (In)justice (the father acted unreasonably toward the younger brother).
- Repentance (the younger son returns).
- Forgiveness/reconciliation (the father embraces the younger son).
The lost sheep gets a search party The lost coin gets a search party. The rebellious son in the story does not get a search party.
Not one person suggested the celebration! Interesting. What falls off the radar without the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin is, apparently, the scene of celebration. Yet it is the scene of celebration and rejoicing that threads all three together.
That said, there is also a critical difference between the first two parables and the parable of the prodigal; a difference that would otherwise go overlooked if the first two parables were not there. Note that each of the first two parables follows the same pattern. In each instance:
- Something valuable is lost
- There’s a search
- That which was lost is found
- There’s a celebration
This makes total sense. When you lose something of value, you look for it.
What then to make of the Prodigal Son for whom there is no search? The lost sheep gets a search party The lost coin gets a search party. The rebellious son in the story does not get a search party. So, what is going on?
Let’s consider the narrative. The younger brother requests his inheritance early and (incredibly) his request is granted! He then squanders his wealth in wild living before famine strikes the land. He has nothing left and—apparently finding himself in gentile territory—ends up feeding pigs to survive. We know he’s at rock bottom when we hear that he longed to eat the pig’s food.
It is at this point, if we’ve paid attention to the earlier parables, that we should expect—a search party! And yet, we don’t get one. Why?
Hold on to that question and let’s continue …
Before he can even get his little speech out, the prodigal is joyfully embraced by his father.
By verses 17-19, the younger son comes to his senses and begins the long journey home. Note his mindset (v 18): he no longer sees himself as a son and so determines to seek out the position of a hired servant.
And yet, before he can even get his little speech out, the prodigal is joyfully embraced by his father. The father runs to embrace him. He tries to confess, but within the blink of an eye, he is back in the family as a beloved son. He’s given a robe, a ring, sandals; there’s feasting and celebrating. This son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is now found.
To re-cap: we’ve had scenes of departure, debauchery, tragedy, return, and restoration. Now the younger brother is back inside the house, enjoying the celebrations. There’s singing, dancing, revelry, because of his return.
What of the Elder Brother?
But the elder brother is not pleased. The father, having gone out to the younger brother earlier, must now go out to the elder brother. He implores him to join the celebration but the elder brother refuses. His response is worth noting in full:
But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:29–30)
Notice that …
- Like the younger brother earlier, the elder brother has lost any sense of sonship, seeing himself as a servant/slave, ‘All these years I’ve been slaving for you…’
- He is outside the house because of his obedience, ‘[I’ve] never disobeyed your orders’.
- Like the younger brother, the elder son also wants the father’s stuff, ‘you never gave me even a young goat…’
- The elder brother disowns the younger brother, ‘This son of yours…’ (i.e., not this brother of mine).
- He accuses the father of playing favourites, ‘[Your son] squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, [and] you kill the fattened calf for him!’
The parable ends with both the father and the elder brother outside the party, the father urging his eldest to join. No resolution.
Where’s the Search Party?
A person can be a prodigal in one of two ways: through rebellion or through obedience.
All this leads us back to our question about the search party. Because this was his job. A true elder brother would have honoured his father by leaving the comfort and safety of home to go in search of and bring back the lost younger brother. Instead, he stays at home—safe and ‘obedient’—waiting for his father’s stuff; perhaps hoping his younger brother would never return.
Acknowledging the failure of the elder brother allows us to see that a person can be a so-called prodigal in one of two ways: (1) through rebellion (‘Give me my share of the inheritance’), lost away from home much like the lost sheep; or (2) through obedience (‘all these years I’ve slaved for you and never disobeyed your orders’), lost at home much like the lost coin.
Notice that both sons see themselves as servants or slaves. The younger brother returns hoping to work as a hired hand (i.e., a servant; a slave). The elder brother complains: ‘all these years I’ve slaved for you’. In each case, the father asserts their sonship. There is nothing they can do to earn or lose the father’s love.
This is why Jesus opens the three parables with the following sentiment: ‘Which of you men wouldn’t go looking for that which is valuable?’ And this is the point being driven home. This is exactly the failure of Israel’s religious establishment. The so-called ‘shepherds’ of Israel have not looked after the sheep. They have not gone looking for that which is most valuable. They are the ‘elder brother’ who failed to go after the younger brother to bring him home.
In the OT, Ezekiel proclaimed harsh words from Yahweh for those shepherds who failed in their duty by feeding only themselves, and promised that the Lord himself would be the one to search for and shepherd his sheep:
(7) “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: (8) As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, (9) therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: (10) Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.
(11) “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out . . . (15) I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. (16) I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice (Ezek 34:7–16).
Jesus Our True Brother
Who, then, is the true elder brother who will leave the comfort and glory of his father’s house to rescue rebel sons? JESUS! Jesus is the one who leaves the glory and sanctuary of his father’s presence to rescue prodigals like you and me.[i]
Jesus, as he looked at the crowd of 5,000, saw them as ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6:34). That is—scattered, no one to care for them, no search party looking for them. The disciples wanted to send them away, but Jesus took pity on them and fed them. In short, he practised hospitality.
So, what does Jesus’ example mean for us as believers and churches today?
No doubt our answer largely depends on context, but I do think that in an increasingly polarized social climate, following Jesus in terms of his hospitality is a wonderful start. Opening one’s life and home over a good meal goes a long way. Most people just want to know you love them—even after everything in their life has hit the fan. Hospitality is a great way to demonstrate such sentiments over the long term, and when the pandemic winds down this must be a priority.
In the meantime, churches and believers must get creative in the manner in which they love and serve their respective communities.
Originally published at https://elegantlydishevelled.substack.com/p/lost-and-found