A parable of two sons; of two choices
Jesus tells a story, “The Parable of the Lost Son”. It is a story of a father, and his relationship with his two sons, one son that needs forgiving, and another son who displays a sense of pride. The obvious point of this story is the topic of forgiveness. However, this parable goes much deeper than what is usually considered. Jesus incorporates some subtle topics in the story that are often overlooked. For example, Jesus elegantly intertwined the books Genesis and Revelation into this story to explain why forgiveness is critical to our relationship with God. Jesus also subtly introduces two other people, besides the father and His two sons, who are usually overlooked. By taking a deeper look into this parable, we are able to get a better sense of what Jesus is conveying and the importance of forgiveness.
The Parable of the Lost Son
Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’
“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.
“Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’
“But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’
“And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’”
Jesus starts by introducing three people, “A certain man had two sons.” The first person mentioned, the father, clearly represents the role of God. The two sons, as we will see later, represent one of two types of relationships we have with God; we are either on the path of the younger son, or the path of the older son. Along with the father and the two sons, there are two other people indirectly and directly mentioned. These two other people are typically overlooked within this parable. So let’s take a look at each of the five people.
The younger son, represents our spiritual destitution, and our choice to be on the path that leads back to life through Jesus Christ. So how does Jesus convey our spiritual destitution? To answer this, let’s consider the beginning action of the younger son. The younger son requests from his father his monetary inheritance, “‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’” Although the parable describes “goods”, or monetary wealth, this really represents our relationship with God and how we handle it. A good description for inheritance as it relates to God is: “Our inheritance is, in a word, heaven. It is the sum total of all God has promised us in salvation.” So in effect, the younger son requested he be in control of his own salvation and relationship with God. He asked that he be given His inheritance (in other words, be in control of his own destiny). So what does the younger son do with his Godly inheritance? He squanders it, just like the story of Adam and Eve told in the book of Genesis. The disobedience of Adam and Eve reaching for the forbidden fruit was an act which placed sin as their choice over their inheritance with God. What did the younger son do? He placed his desire for sin over his inheritance with his father. Just like Adam and Eve, the younger son squandered his fellowship with God, and the same is with all of us. We have squandered our true inheritance through sin. And we all know that sin leads us to fall into spiritual destitution, the same situation the younger son found himself in (“And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.”). So the younger son took control of his inheritance, squandered it through sin, and fell into destitution.
However, the younger son recognized his destitution, and he realized that his only way out was returning back home to his father’s place (“I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you,”). So he turned back to God; one of the choices we can make. Through our recognition of our sin and turning back to God we take the path of the younger son; the path of rebuilding our relationship with God to finally claim our true inheritance; our fellowship with God in His Kingdom; heaven.
The next person in this parable is introduced in the following verse: “But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” This sentence is fascinating because when Jesus spoke these words, He must have had a smile on His face. It’s one of those instances when we communicate something to someone without actually being direct. Well, Jesus is doing that very thing in this sentence. We should realize each word in the Bible has great significance. Why would Jesus mention, “…he was still a great way off”? There is great reason for these words. God is “way off.” We know because of our sin there is a great spiritual distance between God and us. On our own, none of us are able to travel this distance. We are not capable to go to the father, God, on our own. So who helps us on this journey? In John 14:16 it is stated, “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”” So who comes out to greet the younger son from a great way off to lead him back home? Who is the one that left Heaven and came to Earth to lead all of God’s children back home? Jesus is the answer. Jesus is the reflection of God’s compassion and mercy towards us, and Jesus is the one who runs to the younger son and kiss’s him and leads him back to the father’s place (“But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.”). Jesus subtly introduced Himself in this story with the word “compassion.” When Jesus told this story to the disciples I imagine they did not realize that Jesus was referring to Himself. He must have smiled at them when he told this portion of the story.
The older son represents a second choice each of us have available to us. The younger son represents the choice to acknowledge our spiritual destitution and return home to God. The older son represents the choice to hold onto our sin because of our pride; rejecting the call of Jesus Christ for us to return to fellowship with God. Let’s take a look at the verse which talks about the father coming out to plead with his older son, “Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.” There is much going on with the dialogue regarding the older son. First, with the words, “the father came out” is a second reference to Jesus returning to claim a son. So Jesus comes out again, but in this case, it is to claim God’s entire family for the father (his second son). This is consistent where God desires all of his children to be saved, 1 Timothy, 4-5: “…who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus…”. This parable clearly shows the second time Jesus “came out” (once for the younger son, and once for the older son). The second coming for the older son is a reference to Jesus second coming as foretold in the book of Revelation. So in this parable and introduction of the older son, much has been brought into play. Unfortunately, though, the older son rejects the plea to go inside and the story is left open-ended (the door is left open for the older son). So the older son represents those who reject the call of Jesus. The good news is that the door remains open for those who have not yet acknowledged the need for forgiveness, but eventually the door will close. So, for now, the older son remains outside the father’s home in the company of his own pride, anger, and resentment.
The final person in the story are the “servants.” The servants are mentioned several times, and we tend to overlook this word. The servants are those who are in the father’s house, in the company of God who are absolutely subservient to God. This is where we are given a glimpse of what it might be like in the Kingdom of God. The word “servant” tends to have a negative connotation to it so let’s clarify the context. We tend to think of servants in the context of slaves or paid servants, but this is not the case with God’s servants. Servant in this context is simply the pleasure we receive when we give up 100% of our own desires to serve another. If you’ve ever held the hand of a dying loved one, this experience provides you an unspoken sense of peace. You served a loved one until they died. We all need to look forward to the day we serve the one we call, “Father”, “God”, “Creator”, the one who provides us life. This is who the servants are in the story and there is much to say regarding servanthood with God. It is a wonderful thought to know that someday we all will be serving God with pleasure.
And lastly, we cannot discuss this parable without discussing forgiveness because it is the core of this story. The younger son asks for forgiveness of the father (“…‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”). The younger son set aside his pride, acknowledged his sin, asked for forgiveness, and so the father forgave him and gave entrance back into His fellowship. We also see the topic of forgiveness coming into play with the older son. The older son was unwilling to grant forgiveness (“‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’”). Jesus asks the older son to forgive his brother, but because of pride, he did not extend it to his brother. The older son was not willing to extend forgiveness to his younger brother and so he remained outside the father’s house.
We’re tempted to think forgiveness is only a one-way street from God to us. We are tempted to think of forgiveness as only in the context that we are the one who needs forgiveness from God. But take a look at the interaction between the father and older son. The father (God) asks his older son (us) to forgive his brother (the person who has wronged us). Remember, God desires all to come into His Kingdom. When God asks us to forgive another, a soul He desires to commune with, will we be able to forgive that person? Will we be like the older brother who is unwilling to forgive and therefore be left out of the celebration? We have no control over who is granted entrance into the Kingdom of God. A person, no matter how terrible we might think they are, that relationship is between God and them. As a servant of God, we must serve, we must be willing to forgive those who have sinned against us, because we are sinners as well. Jesus mentions in this story a great party. I believe this party is a celebratory time of when we finally let go of our resentment, pride, and most of all, our anger, and instead, offer up unconditional forgiveness towards others. I imagine in this parable a great table, let me call it the “Table of Forgiveness” and we will be joyful to sit at this table as part of the celebration.
The process of forgiveness is complex, and this process requires in depth thought and counsel. We need to think of the person we’re angry with, or a person which we harbor resentment towards. This may be an abusive husband, a friend who betrayed us, a child who thinks of us as unworthy, a stranger who physically hurt us, or this may even be ourselves for something we did. In Isaiah 11:6 it is written, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, The leopard shall lie down with the young goat, The calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them.” Our anger is like the wolf and we want to unleash our anger towards the person to whom we’re angry. We desire to release our anger onto the offender like a wolf unleashes its desire for food onto a helpless lamb. We want to inflict the pain we’re experiencing onto the other person; our anger projects an overwhelming desire to consume the offender. But instead of anger, God asks us to offer up forgiveness; God pleads with us to place our anger and resentment to the side. God understands these emotions, but He also understands that anger is destructive. Anger is destructive in our own lives because it causes health issues, it causes us to spread more sinful actions to other areas of our lives, we take it into our future, and it affects our relationship with others. It is understandable that letting go of our anger is a difficult process; especially if we have been greatly wronged. However, we must acknowledge our anger and, through the help of others, from God, from a qualified person, we can overcome our anger. When we forgive, it does not mean we’re condoning the harmful act. Forgiving does not mean our anger is unfounded, forgiving does not mean we are to open ourselves up to be wronged again, nor does forgiving mean we are to simply forget the harm. Forgiveness simply means to stop being angry (def: “stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake”). God never condones sin, but in its place, God is willing to set aside His anger and retribution known as judgement. And because God is willing to extend us mercy (“compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.”), He is pleading with us to do unto others as He is willing to do for us; to forgive. We must allow our anger to melt away so that we are able to find everlasting peace as we join at the Table of Forgiveness; rejoicing together in the place Jesus calls Peace.
This parable is a wonderful story of forgiveness as it’s main theme. And through this story, God demonstrates to us His willingness to allow us to go off and be worldly; His willingness to allow us to witness firsthand the reward of our sin; His willingness to patiently wait for us to return; His willingness to look for us on the horizon; His willingness to send His son out to lead us back home; His willingness to throw us a party to rejoice in our redemption; and finally, His grace to allow all this to happen through forgiveness. Let’s rejoice for God is good, He is patient, and His grace is offered up to us in abundance.