It is one of Jesus’ best-known and best-loved stories. It has inspired art, including Rembrandt’s famous The Return of the Prodigal Son, housed at the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, and music. Charles Dickens is reputed to have described it (though no one has quite been able to put their finger on any precise details) as the finest short story every written.
And the story of the Prodigal Son is a brilliant story.
There is something about us that is stirred at the story of someone who has hit rock bottom, has seen the error of their ways, and has returned home to discover acceptance and unconditional love. Stories like that of the hit song in the seventies when Tony Orlando sang about yellow ribbons. There is something moving about that kind of love. No matter what you’ve done, you are still loved and there is still a place for you at home.
Preachers love to preach the story evangelistically. The gospel is an invitation for prodigals to come home.
But there is more to the story than that. A closer look at the story and the context in which it is set in Luke 15 suggests that it may not be quite as heart-warming as we tend to think. For there were two sons and not just one; and where evangelistic preaching is tempted to stop with the feast of celebration at the younger son’s return, Jesus actually goes on to shine the spotlight on the other son. When the story ends the elder brother is outside and as the curtain falls, we don’t know whether he will go in.
Once again the setting of the parable is important.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’
Tax collectors are hardly popular in any era, but in Jesus’ day tax collectors were regarded as being on the low end of the moral spectrum. They collaborated with the Romans. Tax gathering was a murky business and there were dishonest practicioners who found a way to get rich.
To the strictly religious Pharisees, the tax collectors were part of great unwashed: unclean sinners that no righteous person would ever want to share a table with.
Kenneth Bailey, who has made significant contributions to our understanding of many of the cultural details behind the gospels, points out that sharing a meal with another person in the Middle East is not simply a question of eating food. It is deeply symbolic; a gesture of deep acceptance. So when Jesus was eating with sinners, he was engaged in a form of fellowship with them. For the Pharisees, this was wrong. It was scandalous that Jesus would spend time in such close contact with people who had such terrible reputations.
It is worth pointing out that in the days of Jesus’ ministry, the sinners and outcasts were drawn to him while the religious people were offended by him. The capacity of Jesus’ followers down through the years to reverse that is striking. How many churches have been filled with religious people while sinners and outcasts stay away?
In response to their grumbling Jesus tells three stories.
- In each story something or someone is lost. A sheep, some silver and a son.
- In each story what was lost is found.
- In each story the recovery of what was lost is a cause for celebration.
In the first two stories Jesus says that the celebration at finding what was lost is a reflection of the joy that God experiences when one of his lost children – like the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus is eating – is found.
That is what the Pharisees don’t understand. That is why they grumble as sinners gather round Jesus to eat and listen to his teaching. At the end of the day, the Pharisees don’t understand grace.
The story that we have come to know as the story of the Prodigal Son is a story about grace. It is also a story about family; about jealousy; and duty and responsibility; about freedom and rebellion. It’s a story about sin and forgiveness.
There are actually three main characters in the story. There are two brothers and there is their father. The spotlight falls on each of the three characters in turn. The younger son and his rebellion; the father and his forgiveness; the elder brother and his hard-heartedness. There is something to learn about grace from each of the three.
- The younger brother’s story: the scope of grace.
- The father’s story: the scandal of grace.
- The elder brother’s story: the stumbling-block of grace.
We will take a look at each of these. But first, a definition of grace (suggested by J.John):
Grace is unconditional kindness given to an undeserving recipient at an uncomfortable cost.