Recently, I was asked to teach at a Men’s retreat. The subject? A very familiar parable of Jesus: The Prodigal Son. Easy, right?
The problem, for me, was finding that angle, that insight, that fresh perspective that would turn this familiar story into something that could speak to where these men were. What do you say about a story that we have all heard hundreds, if not thousands of times, a story that has been retold through all kinds of movies and television episodes? I prayed hard over this one… and, then, it hit me.
Recapping the Story
Just in case you’re unfamiliar with Luke 15:11-32, it’s a pretty straightforward story: Wealthy father, two sons, and the younger son gets tired of waiting for his dad to kick off, and, so, decides to say to his dad, “Listen, I need you to just give me my share of the inheritance now, ok?”
The son runs off to a far country, spends all of his money on a wine, women, and, presumably, song. He has lots of friends and everything is going fine. However, pretty soon the money runs out and the friends run off just as a famine hits the land. The son is left with no option but to become the servant of a pig farmer and soon finds himself starving.
The text says, “he came to himself” and decides that, if he’s going to be a servant, he could at least be a servant in his father’s house where the servants have plenty to eat. He practices just the right thing to say and sets off for home.
The father sees the son down the road, even though he is far off, and starts running toward him. He scoops the boy up in his arms and starts kissing him. He is thrilled to have his son home.
Now, the younger son’s heart is truly broken, and he begs to be made a servant in his father’s house, because he, the younger son, has “sinned against God and against you.”
The father, instead, orders his servants to wash the boy, give him the best robe, a ring, and sandals on for the boy’s feet. He also order’s the fatted calf slaughtered so they can have a huge feast.
The older son, out working in the fields comes in and hears a big party going on. He confronts his father and says, essentially, “I’ve been working all this time for you and you never give me anything, not even a little lamb so my friends and I could have a little party.
The father says, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
And, all of a sudden, the story is just over.
Hitting the Highlights
There are a few places I think that people miss key aspects of the story. Either they glaze over it or misunderstand it.
Remember that the younger son asked for his share of the inheritance? This is the first place that many people miss an important aspect of the story. In verse 12, we see that the father’s response to this younger son’s request was “so he divided his property between them.”
Get that? The father divided his property between both sons. That means, the younger son got his share of the inheritance, but so did the older son. This tiny sentence becomes incredibly important later on.
So now, the younger son goes off and lives his lavish lifestyle. He has lots of money and, consequently, lots of friends. This is where he earns the title “prodigal.” This is the second place this story is misunderstood. Often the term “prodigal” is taught to mean “lost,” or “wayward,” but that isn’t its meaning at all. “Prodigal” simply means “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant,” or “having or giving something on a lavish scale.”
This is only important because we have to remember that Jesus never said “let me tell you a story about a prodigal son.” The title of this parable is a completely human addition. It fits in with the other parables, and, indeed, Jesus seemed to tell these parable in succession, but the focus forced on us by the title has been distracting. (More on that in a moment.)
So, eventually, the money dwindles and then a famine hits. The younger son’s money disappears and so do his friends. He is left with no other options than to become a servant of a pig farmer (the boy is Jewish, remember?), where he earns so little money he actually starts thinking about feeding himself with the slop given to the pigs. Now, that’s a perfect description of “how the mighty have fallen.”
There is a third place that people, possibly, misunderstand the text. (I say possibly because I’m not certain that what I am about to say is correct, but, based on my experiences with people I think I’m right.) Verse 17 says, that the younger son “came to himself.” Other translations say he “came to his senses.” Often, this verse is where preachers say that the son repented. I don’t think so.
Remember that the son has a job with a pig farmer, but he makes so little money there that he can’t even feed himself. He would be happy to fill his belly with pig slop. I think this, verse 17, is simply where the younger son says “look, if I’m going to be a slave, at least I can be one in my dad’s house where they get enough food.”
So, as the son goes home, we see who is, I think, the true protagonist of the story: the father. The patient, faithful, loving father who has, we can assume, been watching all this time – who knows exactly how long it has been – in the hope that his wayward son would return. Then, one day, far off in the distance, he sees a tiny silhouette. He knows that walk. He knows that shape. Thinner, yes, more ragged, surely, but still… that’s his boy! And he takes off running!
Now this boy left the pig pen and started walking. He’s covered in mud, pig… stuff, road dust, and who knows what, but his father falls on him, embraces him, and kisses him.
This, I think, is where the boy’s heart broke. You see, he thought if he prepared the right things to say, then maybe, just maybe, his old dad would give him a break.
But, no, the younger son didn’t even have time to get to his spiel before his dad showered him with kisses, overjoyed that his lost son had come back. That’s when that young man declared his true repentance. The words were the same, but, this time, he meant them.
The Biggest Miss
So, now there’s a big party. Look at verse 25. This is the first time since the beginning of the story that we hear about the older son, and what is he doing? He’s out working in the field. This speaks a lot to what kind of man this older son is. He’s a hard worker, and he has been a hard worker for his dad this whole time.
This is the other piece that, I think, people tend to miss. Remember the beginning of the story. The father divided up everything between both sons. That means, the younger son got his share and the older son also got his share.
So why is the older son still out working in the field? More importantly, why is he asking his dad for a young goat to have a party? Did he waste his fortune, too? It doesn’t seem like it. So what does that mean?
Well, we can infer from the rest of the story that, though the father divided up his entire estate between his two sons, the father had built up a considerable fortune again. How can we know this? Look at the text again:
But the father told his slaves, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it, and let’s celebrate with a feast…
Luke 15:22-23 [emphasis mine]
The father gives instructions to his own servants to access his own inventory of clothing to kill his own fatted calf. He tells his servants that the boy is to be cleaned up and, immediately, granted full family authority. That’s the importance of that ring on his finger. It means he can conduct business for the family, and speak in his father’s name.
But let’s get back to the older son. Why is he coming to his father like a servant, complaining that he’s never been loved on by daddy?
You see, this isn’t the parable of “The Prodigal Son” or even, as some translations call it, “The Lost Son.” It’s the parable of (ignoring the best title, “The Faithful Father,” hinted at earlier) “The Two Lost Sons.”
You see, these two sons represent two distinct mindsets. There are those of us who, at various times, may be like the younger son. We want what we want when we want it. It’s our way or no way. If God is involved at all, we want just what we want from Him; no more and certainly no less.
Yes, eventually, we reach a place where we are willing to go back to the father even if we have to be a slave.
But what about when we act like that older son? How often do we act like him?
He was given his entire inheritance, but he never lost his
servant slave mentality. You see it in his approach to the father.
“Dad, what’s going on?!? Your youngest son has been off for so long doing horrible things and wasting your money on prostitutes and now he shows up and you kill the fatted calf for him, you’re having this giant party while I’m out working hard in the fields for you, and you’ve never even offered me a goat so I could have a little Friday night party with my friends!!!”
Why didn’t that boy buy his own goat? He had enough money. Remember that division of all the father’s assets?
But that boy refused to live like a son, choosing, instead, to live like a slave.
How many of us do that? We’re saved, and we know it, but we have this attitude still that we have to earn God’s approval. We have to earn God’s gifts. We have to earn our way into God’s good graces.
We have to hear what the father, a portrait of our Heavenly Father said to both sons, because when we combine the father’s words to his two sons individually, that’s when we start to see the true portrait of our Heavenly father, and hear how He speaks to us:
“My child, you were dead, but now you are alive again; you were lost, but now you are found. I will clean you, and restore you. I will clothe you, and give you authority in my name. Because, my child, all that I have is yours.”
Embrace this truth today: you don’t have to earn God’s favor. He is waiting patiently for you to come to Him. And when you take one step toward Him, He will run to you and fall all over you with kisses even in your filthy state. You don’t have to clean yourself up, but He will clean you. He will put new garments on you and endow you with authority in His name. He will lead a great celebration over you, the one who was lost but now is found. He will grant you access to all that He has. Why? Because He is the Faithful Father and He has ridiculous amounts of love, grace, and favor to shower on us.
[reminder]How have you been like the younger son? How have you been like the older son?[/reminder]