One of the ways we know that a fictional character has become culturally influential is when they go beyond the stories they reside in. Many people know who Ebenezer Scrooge is, even if they have never read Charles Dickens' 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol.” The stardom of Batman goes far beyond any DC Comic that has ever been published. People know Harry Potter and Mary Poppins without ever interacting with the stories they come from. Some characters like the Easter Bunny or Bigfoot did not even originate in a particular text, but still have cultural influence worldwide.
The prodigal son is a two-thousand-year-old character that is widely familiar, even among people who have never read Jesus’ parable in the Gospel of Luke. Ask anyone to identify a prodigal, and they can almost always do it. It’s the wayward one; the rebel; the one who had drifted away, but has now returned. Perhaps the idea of a prodigal has become so familiar to us that we have forgotten the original context of the story. In the parable of the prodigal son, we see a gracious father and two very different sons. But, although the sons are very different, they both have the same need.
As we engage this story, we begin to collide with our attitude towards God. But, more than that, this parable teaches us about God. By telling us this story, Jesus reveals a heavenly Father who opens His arms to embrace His children with forgiveness and love. It provides hope for the rebel; for those who are a long way off. But, it also provides hope for those who try to earn what can only be freely given.
The Prodigal Son and Culture
In the book of Luke, we see Jesus deconstructing the ideas and pathology of the time. He takes the current economic and social norms and replaces them with a message that is quite different. His message is counter-cultural and it’s the reason why people want to kill Him. You see, you don’t want to kill a man who can cure diseases. You don’t want to kill a man who can miraculously feed thousands of people, and who can bring the dead back to life. That’s someone you want to keep around! But, you may want to kill a man who is tearing down everything you have self-righteously built.
In Luke chapter 15 we see two groups of people: the irreligious and the religious. The irreligious group is made up of tax collectors, sinners and the rebellious. This group did not observe or follow the moral laws of scripture, nor did they follow the ceremonial up-bringing of the Jews. They, like the younger brother, have left home and drifted away from the traditional upbringing in their respective societies. The older son resembles the religious group; the Pharisees and the scribes. This group adhered strictly to the traditional morality of their up-bringing. They read and obeyed scripture, and worshiped and prayed faithfully.
In the chapter, Jesus is responding to the charge made against Him by the religious group: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” In response, He shares the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. The reason why Jesus shared these stories with the religious crowd was to help them understand that salvation will never come through our work, but only by the grace of God. He was teaching them that no one is so “lost” that they cannot be found by God, and that some people, who think they are found, are actually lost. In both cases, the response is to run to the Father in repentance.
Seeing Ourselves in the Story
Looking at both sons, we see that the circumstances of our alienation from God can look very different, but there is only one-way to be brought home. The younger son thought that he could live without his father. He desired things from his father, rather than desiring to be with his father. This led him to request his inheritance early. So, the father divided up all he had and gave it to his sons. A day later, the younger son left home and set out for the far country.
I have spent some time in the far country. Like the younger son, I desired things from God, instead of desiring Him. I too, thought that I knew what I needed and what was best for my life. After chasing after every comfort through sin, and exhausting every avenue in pursuit of satisfaction, I was left more broken than before. “But while he was still a long way off.” God, my Father, saw me and felt compassion for me. In His love, He ran toward and embraced me. He sent his Son (Jesus) to rescue and save me from the penalty of sin and separation from Him. My repentance was met with celebration from my Father, because I was dead and was now alive. I was lost, but now I was found. Isn’t this our story? Isn’t this the gospel? That our heavenly Father gives us what we do not deserve by placing what we do deserve upon Christ's shoulders.
Meanwhile, although the older son had never left his father’s side, we see that he had missed the reality that all the father had belonged also to him. I also relate to the older son in this. I’ve often thought that, since I read my Bible, pray, and live a moral life, I deserve certain things from my Father. This reminds us that we can very easily become self-righteous and believe that our relationship with God is conditionally based on our ability to measure up. The older son was more focused on conforming to a set of rules than he was enjoying intimacy with his father as he experienced his love and provision.
These two sons experienced very different circumstances, but they had the same need to receive and be transformed by the father’s love. The call on both of their lives was to come home and be with the gracious father who loves them. They needed only to run to their father and be with him. The younger son recognized his need for reconciliation and accepted his father’s forgiveness with gratitude. He, who was far off, had been brought near. The older son was hardened toward his brother and father at the revelation of this grace. He, who seemed to be near, was actually far off.
It’s common to read a story like this and see ourselves in the characters. Perhaps you see yourselves in one (or both) of these sons. The question for us is: “How do we respond?” Some of us simply need to return home and be reconciled to the heavenly Father who loves us. To return to a Father who, through Jesus Christ, has made a way for us to know Him as “Abba,” and to receive all that He has for us. Others of us need to join the party and remember all that God has done for us in Christ. We need to remember that all that the Father has is ours, yes! But, more important than that is our ability to enjoy His presence. Regardless of where we find ourselves in this classic story of two sons and a gracious father, the invitation is the same. Come home through repentance and faith to be with the gracious Father who loves us.