Tons of people love the scripture passage that we frequently call the Parable of the Prodigal Son. And yet I wonder how many people would include it in even a list of Top 50 Bible Stories if we had called it the Parable of the Religious Jerk. I say this because the more aptly named Parable of Two Sons includes two related lessons. (Luke 15:11b-32)
The first lesson is about God’s free gift of love and forgiveness.
A man’s youngest son tells his dad that he wants to strike out on his own. He asks for his inheritance before the old man dies. In that context, this amounted to telling his dad to go fly a kite. The youngest son couldn’t have cared less about his father.
The father cuts him a check, and the young man heads for Vegas. Before long, he’s blown all of his money, and he’s rummaging through dumpsters for lunch.
The young man finally decides to go back home, grovel a little, and worm his way back into his father’s good graces. Before setting out, he practices a little speech about contrition and humility. Honestly, it sounds sort of phony and manipulative.
The younger son shuffles back to his dad’s ranch. But before he can try out his lines on his father the old man says, “I’m really glad you’re back. I’ve kept your old room just how you left it. It’s time to party!”
Jesus’s listeners would have expected this. He had prefaced this parable with two shorter parables. One about a lost sheep. Another about a lost coin. The picture of God is clear. God goes to unimaginable lengths to include everybody. Not because of what they have done but because that’s just how God is.
No wonder the crowds around Jesus were swelling with nobodies and notorious somebodies. With sinners and tax collectors. Receiving love as a free gift is an enormous relief, a healing balm, especially to those of us who admit how messy our lives are.
The second lesson shifts gears. It’s about how our relationships with others suffer when we have a transactional relationship with God.
The parable itself says nothing about the older brother’s religious practices. But it’s significant that Jesus told this parable—and the two preceding parables—in response to criticism leveled at him by members of the religious-political establishment.
To undermine Jesus’s authority and to drive a wedge between him and his followers, some grumpy religious leaders said, “Don’t take this guy seriously. He hangs out with lowlifes.”
In other words, they took it upon themselves to say who was in and who was out of the God club. After all, they said all the right prayers, recited all the right doctrines, and scrupulously followed all the moral rules. God owed them some status.
So, Jesus tells the first two parables and the beginning of the Parable of the Two Sons to drive home God’s inclusive love. Then, he turned his gaze toward his critics as he started talking about the older brother.
The older brother was confident that he was entitled to say who was in and who was out of the family. After all, he had stuck it out with his dad. Every day. Day in and day out. Never missed a chore. Did everything that was asked of him. He did everything right, so his father owes him a reward.
When his father welcomes his younger brother back without so much as a tongue lashing, the older brother feels betrayed and diminished. He experiences his loss of power to say who is in and who is out as a loss of status.
He cannot accept that his father loves both sons equally. So he says to his father, “I’ve worked like a dog for you and you’ve given me nothing. Not so much as a Happy Meal!”
Paradoxically, the older son experiences the father’s unwarranted love and boundless inclusion as a personal slight, as a moral insult.
The father’s response is a reminder about God’s healing, nurturing love for all of God’s creatures. He says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” In other words, “I’ve given you all that I’ve got. I haven’t held back a thing and I never will.”
Jesus realizes that we will not be perfect about this. But he sends us into the world to love everybody. Or at least to acknowledge that God does.