Thursday, August 27, 2009

A New Understanding of the Prodigal Story

I've heard many sermons on Luke 15, the story often called the parable of the Prodigal Son or even the Prodigal Father. Years ago I read Henri Nouwen's book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, which examines the story from several different perspectives. I've studied the parable many times on my own and in groups. But I had never seen Christ as the "renewed older brother" until this week.

I am reading The Prodigal God by Tim Keller, and late in the book, he writes that when Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal (wasteful) Son, He preceded it with two other parables. In the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, someone goes and looks for what was lost, searching desperately until they find it. But in the prodigal son's case, no one goes looking, and when the wasteful son returns to the father, his self-righteous brother is angry. His brother coming back and being restored as a son means less inheritance for him. Jesus was telling these parables in the presence of the Pharisees (religious elite) and "tax collectors and sinners" (religious outcasts), and clearly the role of the older brother in the story is meant for the Pharisees.

The end of Jesus' story, it's punchline, shows us how the older brother misses the true heart of God, the heart of compassion and mercy, as he refuses to celebrate the return of the lost brother. But his misunderstanding of the Father's heart was revealed much earlier in the story when the older brother does not go out and search for the younger. If the older brother truly knew the father's love for him and for his brother, that love would have compelled him to go and find his little brother. If the older brother had known the celebratory spirit of the father that rejoices when lost things are found, he would have tried to get the welcome-home party started much sooner.

Jesus is the older brother as he should have been, and we are all the younger. If any brother had the right to say to the Father, "I've done it all right, and I'm not going to share my inheritance with those losers who have already squandered what you gave them," it was Jesus. Yet Christ is the true Son, and He knows the Father's heart intimately. He knows that the Father's love and inheritance are things to be shared, and He knows the joy of celebratory love. And so Christ went to find us, right in the midst of our lostness, before we knew we needed to come home, and invited us back. He is an ambassador of the loving and merciful heart of the Father, who longs to restore us to our place as sons and daughters of the King.

As I read Luke 15 this morning, I wept. They weren't tears of guilt that said, "Man, I just don't seek out the lost younger brothers enough." They seemed to be tears of understanding. Somehow the older brother missing the heart of the Father revealed more clearly to me how Jesus embraces and emobodies it. We were sought, we were given life and sonship. And that gift didn't just cost the Father, it cost the Older Brother. To welcome us back as sons means that we now have an inheritance, an inheritance that should be Christ's alone, but that He joyfully shares with us. And to give us that inheritance cost Jesus unbroken fellowship with the Father. It cost Him heartache and rejection. and it cost His very life. I want to make my home in Christ and in the Father, that I might join in the search party. Not out guilt or shame, but compelled by love, a son who has been welcomed and wants to welcome others, even at cost to myself.


Kelly said...

Oh, wonderful... thank you so much for sharing! I had never considered it this way. (I hope you don't mind my linking this post from my blog...)

B-U-R-L-Y said...

When I first flipped through Keller's "The Prodigal God", I saw the chapter title "The True Older Brother" and thought "I wonder who that is?" After reading it, I had the realization you did! We went through the book with our small group last Spring. It helped us all start to see the older and younger brother in all of us and pushed us to pursue the "true older brother" ... my prayer now is that as we continue to look to the "true older brother" that we'll become like him in our pursuit of our fellow younger brothers ... great post, Marshall ...