HE STORY OF THE PRODIGAL FAMILY (Luke 15) is one of my favorites in Scripture. It appeals to our universal need for divine forgiveness and second chances. But most of all, it appeals to our need to belong to God and to each other. It moves us beyond just behaving and believing to the deep joy of fellowship. Oddly, the story has a similar plot to that of Jonah, but shows us even more vividly the heart experiences of both the prodigals (in Jonahs case, the Ninevites) and the do-gooders who, like Jonah, have a problem with Gods lavish mercy. It uncovers the deep estrangements we all have to a loving God.
For those who have forgotten the details, the story is simple: A father had two sons--one who left home, and the other who didnt ever seem to want to be at home, but stayed anyway. The first son ran away. But he was smart enough to get some start-up cash first, pestering his father for his inheritance until the dad gave in. The money flowed, and the son left home to make his fortune. But he ended up broke. Then, after living like a beggar--almost at the point of death--he eventually returned home and was welcomed back by his father. It was a lavish encounter for this son, an overwhelming experience. The Ninevites knew how that felt.
The other son is more complicated, more like Jonah. He was the stay-at-home type. Oddly, we dont discover this sons true character until the end of the story. That was when we saw how displeased he was with both his brother and his father--how much he was not at home with this whole thing called family. In his voice, in his criticism, and in the way he refers to them, he shows that his is conditional love. He reveals a heart that doesnt belong. We feel the sting of his deep estrangement. We see an example of begrudging love.
The story ends in such a way that we dont know what happened to this other brother. As we may also ask of the prophet Jonah, did he make it home? And in our case, have we made it home?
Appealing to the Imagination
Its the inconclusiveness of this story that makes it so powerful. In fact, the whole account leaves much untold. That is exactly what makes it such a great story. By leaving out details the storyteller draws each of us into it. Our own hearts complete the characters, our own choices complete the plot. We wonder, and by wondering we are drawn into the deeper themes of the prodigal family. Jesus, the master storyteller, draws each of us into the heart issues of the great controversy. Are we at home with God? What a deep and penetrating question!
By leaving out details, Jesus subtly encourages us to use our own imagination and become participants in the telling and retelling of this story. In that sense, we become co-tellers with Him. He sweeps us into the characters and plot so imperceptibly that in our questioning and wondering we start to experience the lavish love of this Prodigal Father.
For example, look at the missing elements. First, where were the women?Sometimes biblical writers, because of custom and culture, didnt emphasize women. But Jesus already demonstrated in His life and stories that He saw the women and children and included them. In fact, in the narrative just before this one He tells of a woman whod lost her silver coins. However, from the start of the prodigal story, it seems to just be about the boys.
Luke 15:1, 2 might give us some insight into why. Look at the audience. They were tax collectors and the sinners and the Pharisees and scribes--a good male crowd for a father-son story. Men often act tough and live rough. They often seem to be more into things than relationships.
I can see the men smirking over the story of the silver coins. But then Jesus draws them into this story of money, brother rivalry, and work. Jesus knew how to place His listeners in the story. He knew that men had dreams, dreams with a mix of financial greatness and good times. He knew their lusts. He knew their desire for control. He knew their deep psychological need for belonging. Thus He could see how theyd be drawn either into super responsibility (like the elder brother, afraid to lose it all) or (like the younger brother) into the local bar, seeking cheap friendships. He knew how these men, like their modern counterparts, were all trying to belong.
Jesus wanted to point His listeners back to a deeper belonging. Not a churchy belonging based on good works and conformity. Not a pagan-lifestyle kind of belonging, based on money and good times. He wanted, instead, to hit close to home, with a dad-and-son heart story. Jesus knew the male of the species.
So women shouldnt feel left out here. There were daughters and sisters who were prodigals, and there are today. There were daughters and sisters who stayed home, but never felt at home with their Father. And there were mothers, as there are today, who yearned more for their prodigal children than anyone else in the world.
The Third Son
But here Jesus was trying to reel in the men. And as men are being reeled into this story, we start wondering: Why only two sons?
Jacob had 12 sons. From Genesis 49 we know about them and their bad character. But for Jesus, the world was more simply divided. There are only two types of children: those lost on the inside and those lost on the outside. In fact, for Jesus, there seems to be only one type of sons, lost ones. One was lost in the city. The other was lost at home. But both were lost. One squandered, while the other meticulously counted everything, especially all his good deeds for the father. But both were lost to their dad.
But heres something that came to me. Several years ago, while wondering about why there were only two sons in the story, I felt Jesus draw me even deeper into the account. As the Lord was painfully showing me my own pervasive elder-brother attitudes and my own prodigal ways, I wondered if any son was ever faithful.
And then it hit me: the third Son in the story, the neglected Brother, if you please. I was reminded that no one is righteous, and was shown the faithfulness of Jesus.
Thats when I saw Jesus in the story. He was the son, the faithful son. He was the servant, the faithful servant. He was the heart and hands of the Prodigal Father, visiting every lost brother with love.
There cannot be a story without a storyteller. Jesus, the faithful Son, alone could be the storyteller. He knew firsthand the silent saga of this estranged family. He and the Father are one (John 10:30).
Let me explain:
Any student of the gospel knows that Jesus was faithful in all He did. He accurately knew His Fathers character and accurately revealed it. Where the Father was, there also was the Son. I and the Father are one. When the Father is mentioned, we know the Son is right there. So although the prodigal father represented God, he also stood for Jesus.
But what makes this story so special is that the King became a servant and the Father revealed Himself as a Son. As such, the Faithful Son, our Brother, gave up His inheritance (Luke 15:12) and became a servant (verses 17, 22, 26) to carry out His Fathers love. Accordingly, I would submit that part of the untold reality of this message of the prodigal is that Jesus Himself is everywhere in this story--the Silent Brother who alone could know (as only brothers could) the heart relationships of His brothers. He was the Faithful Brother who kept track of where His brothers had gone and where they were. Then later, He is the servant who gets the best lamb, the servant excited about planning the welcome-home party. Although He existed in the form of God, Jesus emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant (Phil. 2:6, 7, NASB). He is even the sacrifice.
In this story Jesus is everywhere.
A Savior Runs Through It
We have all heard someone repeat a story secondhand. This was not the case here. Jesus told this story in the first person. He was the Father, the Brother, the Servant, the Sacrifice. He was even the Inheritance. That is why Paul could say in Him are all things.
Jesus alone would know firsthand the constant unwillingness of the willing son who stayed home but was never at home. Jesus alone could know of the impatience of the son who left home, his lust and greed, and the total starvation of that life. He knew how that brother felt. He had come to experience our severe famine. Truly we have a priest who is touched with the feelings of our infirmities (John 1:18; 5:19-21; Heb. 4:15).
But most of all, He knew the Father. He knew how much God longed for all His children to belong to Him and to one another. He wanted the prodigals and the uptight elder brothers all to come home, fully and completely. He wanted everyone to see how totally lavish and gracious and scandalous was this Fathers love.
He Knows What Ails Us
Do you get the story? Do you get the Storyteller? Do you see where you fit in?
We have a Faithful Brother who knows our deep wants, our estrangements, and even our pious unwilling willingness. He can handle the truth. He is touched with the feelings of our estrangement and is striving to bring intercession and reconciliation between us and our gracious Father in heaven (Heb. 8:1, 2).
Our Faithful Brother has no easy task. Some of us are sucking on the lusts of sex, money, and fame--they will run dry. Others of us are busy in church and family duties, going through the motions with a deep drudgery of spirit. We work because we are supposed to. We have not experienced the deep Holy Spirit of our heavenly Father. We cant seem to celebrate!
But Jesus knows all this and is still pleased to call us brothers and sisters. He is working with the Father to bring us not only forgiveness but deep joy. John 16:23-28 reminds us of that love. Our Brother, the Faithful Son, continues to speak sweetly to us: For the Father Himself loves you (verse 27).
He invites us returning prodigals to share in His lavish and scandalous love. He wants those of us who are boozed up, burned out, and left out to belong. He invites us pious elder brothers to embrace a piety that is so deep we cannot fathom it. He invites all of us to belong. And as we start to belong, He invites us to share that experience with others, to lavish His love on them.
Remember, there may be as many lost sons next to you in the church pew, seething with self-righteousness, as there are ones outside the church. All need a deep invitation, personalized and genuine. They need someone who feels their part of this great story to invite them to be part of this lavish family of love. Tell them your part in the story, and then point them to the One who makes up the whole story: the seen and unseen One.
Duane Covrig teaches graduate education courses at the University of Akron, Ohio, and worships at the Seventh-day Adventist church in Canton, Ohio.