Yesterday I was back for the second week at Carryduff Gospel Hall. It was part two of two on the so-called story of the Prodigal Son. Part of the problem with calling it that is that it means we are in danger of missing the sting in the tail of the story.
I think what happens is that preachers take the story of the younger son as great evangelistic material. No matter how far away you’ve gone from God, he loves you and wants you to come home. That’s a great message. That’s grace. Who knows how many wandering prodigals need to hear it.
But if we read only read the story evangelistically, there is no need to go beyond the feast. The boy came home, and so can we! Ending with the feast means that we have a neat set of three stories with happy endings. The shepherd finds his lost sheep, calls the neighbours and throws a party. The woman finds her lost silver, calls the neighbours and throws a party. The father finds his lost son, calls the neighbours (he and his son were hardly going to eat an entire fattened calf by themselves) and throws a party. What more is there to say? As Jesus says, there is great joy in heaven when one sinner repents.
But Jesus doesn’t stop with the feast. There is something different with this third story.
For one thing there is no mention of joy in heaven – that’s how the first two stories in Luke 15 end. Instead of making such a statement, Jesus adds another episode to the story. There is still an older son and Jesus want to talk about his reaction.
While the tax collectors and sinners who were listening to Jesus would have been thrilled at the grace of this story, they were not the only ones listening. The religious cynics and self-righteous critics were there. They didn’t understand grace. The last part of this story was for them.
On the surface, the older brother looks quite different from his younger brother. He is responsible while his brother is reckless. He stays at home, doing his duty, while the younger brother gets as far away as he can to enjoy his freedom. But beneath the surface, the two boys have a lot more in common than the older brother would dare to admit.
Here are three things:
- Both boys were estranged from their father. It is obvious with the younger brother who lives such an irresponsible life. But look at how the older brother behaves in the last part of the story: there is neither respect nor warmth towards his father. He speaks to him the way a shop steward would speak to management in a trades union dispute. Lesson – you can get far away from God by being bad (younger brother); you can be far away from God by being good (older brother).
- Both boys needed, and were offered, grace. The father left the house twice: first to run to meet the prodigal, second to plead with his brother.
- Both boys had to decide whether to come home. The younger brother made his decision in a distant pigsty; the older brother was given the choice as he stood outside the family home.
Interestingly, the story doesn’t end.
I think that is simply because Jesus was leaving it up to the Pharisees and scribes to decide how to write their ending. Would they decide to celebrate the grace of God? Or would they remain off to the side, lost in their self-righteous cynicism.
Question: do you need to write an ending to the story?