The familiar story, The Prodigal Son, could be told from the very first verse.
And Jesus said, “A man had two sons.” Luke 15:11 (NAS)
I feel inadequate to add my two cents to it because scholars, preachers, professors, and teachers have already set us straight on what this parable does and does not say. They are careful to warn against the urge to allegorize from its characters and elements. The less didactic, present company included, should glean from its low hanging fruit and let it teach itself. Why tell a 20 minute story to start your sermon about a story the Lord himself cleverly crafted, or get lost in the theological weeds telling it? So succinctly, it is a masterful tale of human nature, grace and disgrace, hoping and believing all things, forgiveness, pride and jealousy, and repentance and restoration,.
All this being said, I thought it might be interesting to profile the starring characters, to reverently build their backstories from clues in the text. One thought is clear though, only when the Lord has invoked a change of heart can a change of heart occur. Sadly, as this story ends, some serious issues in the heart of the eldest son are unresolved and deserve an epilogue.
As a father of four, the first three being boys, I am well aware of the tricky dynamics of budding masculinity. I am also the first born of two sons, so I can understand the psyche of the prodigal’s crotchety brother. The second born was a free spirit, early on itching to sow wild oats. He was not responsible but likable and lovable. His brother towed the line, expecting reward for good behavior. The eldest enjoyed too much adult conversation early on by rank and thought himself to be wiser than he was, and was quietly building a dossier of his father’s shortcomings and foibles. He certainly had his brother’s predilections pegged.
The “old man” was generous to a fault. He desired to please and obviously had difficulty saying no. There is no hint that he wanted the young whippersnapper to learn the hard way. He probably admired his oldest and thought of him as an ally, but was oblivious to his glibness. He had a soft spot for the youngest and probably thought him to be delightful and entertaining. When wayward, he’d talk his way back into the father’s good graces. It is no wonder that when presented with the youngest’s bold request, he quickly acquiesced without sensing that this was a very bad idea. It is important to note the story makes no mention of a discerning wife and partner who might have seen things a different way!
It is clear that the youngest had a plan he needed to fund. He only had a third of his father’s estate coming and the proceeds had to be transportable, fungible, and liquid, so he cashed out. He therefore left a lot on the table to do what he did, to be able to gather it up and go. If he had stayed put, his inheritance would have grown, with access to fixed assets later on. The clear recipient of his rashness was his older brother, who probably thought and vocalized the idea to be hairbrained and shortsighted when he heard of it, and likely predicted his brother would squander it in no time based on past experience.
In the end, the budding prodigal was enabled and in a short matter of time on his way. It’d be unlikely that he’d be cut any slack if he returned, though, as his father stuck with protocol in doling out his lot in life, and his big brother would hold his feet to the fire. He had passed the point of no return.
In a distant foreign land, sans any semblance of the ethical and moral restraints of his father’s faith, the prodigal plunged into riotous living. The money he had in his bag flowed through his fingers like water. For a brief time he was high on life and pleasure, but in the morning reality and regret set in with his hangover. He had lost everything. To eat he’d have to find a job, and it’d be slopping pigs, the ultimate humiliation. That he got himself hired in a foreign country in a time of famine is indicative of his powers to persuade, and it was at this dead end that he came to his senses.
If the prodigal had not “come to his senses” and admitted he had sinned against God, it would have been just another artful way of extricating himself from a self-inflicted jam. His plan in the Lord’s story is absent any angle to restore his privileges. If accepted back he’d be a hired hand first to his father and then to his brother. There was no way around it. He was focused on that sole objective and no other scenario crossed his mind as he set a course to return. It was on that slog back home that he, now a shadow of himself, appealed even more desperately for God’s mercy.
There was not a day gone by that the father was not hoping that his son would return. He did not know how far he’d fallen or if he was even alive. The absence must have been long enough to start losing hope given his reaction when the son returned. He always had one eye on the winding road below. It had become an obsession to cast a glance there repeatedly like a nervous twitch. He finally saw a lonely figure moving toward the house and he quickly gathered up his tunic and sprinted down the path, casting any care aside for the potential humiliation that this act might bring, let alone that he was up in years.
When they met the father loudly wept on the son’s neck. As the wayward son gave his well-rehearsed speech, his father was preoccupied with unbridled joy. In his exuberance he ordered the servants to fetch a festal robe (Zechariah 3:4) and sandals, and put his signet ring (Genesis 41:42) on his son’s finger. These were clear signs of full restoration to the family.
In those days, there was always one calf that was fattened in anticipation of an unplanned celebration, and this would be one for the ages, for his son was dead and now alive!
The older son was unaware of his brother’s return as he arrived back from his dutiful labor in what would eventually be his field. He asked a servant about the ruckus inside and was told the news. Rather than be joyous himself, he was ticked, and turned and began walking away fuming. It might be better said in a jealous rage. Hearing that his older son had been told the happy news, the father immediately went outside to fetch him. Despite his pleading, the older son could only compare and contrast his loyalty and righteousness with the hedonism of his brother. The father rightfully fired back, reminding him that all he had was his, and that what was lost had been found!
This is our God, who puts our sins as far as the east is from the west and remembers them no more. He does not exact his pound of flesh when we go astray as we all do, but restores us to our rightful place in His presence. This is his response to repentance and confession. He does not walk away in disgust but weeps on our neck and then celebrates. He is full of compassion, mercy and grace.
9 He will not always strive with us,Psalm 103:9–14 (NAS)
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.
12 As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
13 Just as a father has compassion on his children,
So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.
14 For He Himself knows our frame;
He is mindful that we are but dust.