The parable of the Prodigal Son. The greatest, most famous parable Jesus ever told. It’s the gospel within the gospel. This is going to take a while, so I will probably be in the story for at least a week. At least it’s a story we all seem to like, amen!
This story still captures our imagination. Shakespeare refers to this parable more than anything else in the gospels because Shakespeare knew a thing or two about telling a good story. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon chose the prodigal son to be the text for his much anticipated 1000th sermon. Some of our greatest artwork has been inspired by this story, including Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal, on display at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg Russia.
The parable of the prodigal son is a story where we see the kingdom of God being announced and enacted. That’s what is happening in the parable. Jesus gives the parable to those who are angry with how he’s announcing and enacting the kingdom of god. The actions of the father in the parable are what Jesus is doing in real life. Jesus is saying “what the father in my story does is what I’m doing because that’s what my father in Heaven is like.”
Don’t forget context of the story. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”” Luke 15:1-2 ESV. This should be a familiar plot line by now. This is a recurring plot that is what drives the drama. First – in Luke Jesus is constantly going from meal to meal and table to table. This is how Jesus primarily announces and enacts the kingdom of god – by healing people, casting out demons, and especially by sharing meals with all the wrong people. Jesus is enacting the kingdom of God in this manner, and the Pharisees are constantly resisting it. They don’t like it, they are uncomfortable with it. They feel Jesus is acting inappropriately. They see Jesus as offering an indiscriminate and irresponsible hospitality. This is what created the drama and tension between Jesus and the Pharisees. He just eats with anyone. (Amen to that! Even me…) Even those who’ve been formally exiled, excluded from the synagogue because they are sinners. Jesus is completely bypassing the prohibition against eating with those types of people and is welcoming them at his table.
Now, there were arrangements made in the law for restoring these people. But they needed to go about things in the proper manner. Go to the chief priests, go the temple, offer their sacrifices and go through the rites of purification. But Jesus just ignored all this. He lets anyone come to him, he eats with them, and then he even dares to proclaim them as forgiven. He’s dangerous, he’s endangering our purity. He’s compromising the integrity of our faith. This is the argument of the Pharisees.
To which Jesus responds says once upon a time…and gives them three stories. One about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, both of these are pretty good stories. But then he gets to the story about a lost son, and it’s way more than pretty good…
It’s the gospel in the gospel. It’s the finest story Jesus ever told. It’s a three act play, each act focused one of the three primary characters in the story. The Prodigal Son, the compassionate father, and the angry brother.
With this, I will stop for today, you can read the entire parable below if you like. I will look at act 1 of this three act play, about the prodigal himself, next time.
“And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'””
Luke 15:11-32 ESV