The Prodigal Son—a puzzling parable

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by Sandra Coleman

Of the many biblical parables, “The Prodigal Son,” (Luke 15:11-32) is perhaps the most well known… and the most diversely interpreted. Basically it asks us to integrate a contradiction: As important as good works and earnest resolve are, like technology, they can betray and divert our focus, causing us to lose sight of an important simple truth.

In the parable a man has two sons. The younger comes to his father and asks for his inheritance, kinda like “Don’t need you, Dad, but how I could enjoy that money.” We are not told the father’s reaction, except that he did oblige the son. The son took off for distant pagan lands to explore and indulge his hungry hankerings. The older son remained with the father.

As expected, the wayward son eventually depletes his finances, and ends up on a farm, desperate, competing for slop with a herd of pigs.  If the parable had ended here, we would have a simple moral tale that any pagan could grasp.

But this is a parable told by Christ to illustrate a profound spiritual paradox. The son looks up from his nasty gruel, and thinks. I still have a rich dad; I will plead mercy and offer to be his slave.

The son expected to barter with Dad, and make a deal. He would need to humble himself and craft an argument admitting his error and offering atonement (slavery). He heads home and confronts his dad. Incredibly, the Dad runs to meet him, tearfully hugging him, bursting with joy—”get the ring, the robe, the fattest calf. My son was dead, and is now alive. Today we feast and rejoice.” (Beautiful picture of the Gospel)

You guessed it. Someone is standing there miffed,  puffed up with righteous indignation-older son pouting,”I served you all these years, always obeyed and you never gave me a young goat feast. The great delusion that love is earned.

Now let’s examine the analogy. The father is God, the older son who obeyed is you and I; the prodigal son is also you and I. It’s easy to tell when we are the younger son—guilty conscience, maybe even legal problems. The older son analogy is quite deceptive, however. He represents our slavery to God’s Commandments, our trust in good works and the law. Good works, as essential to faith as they are, ironically, can become a subtle and dangerous idol.

When the older son refused the feast, he refused the feast of repentance, trusting instead in his own obedience. The younger son, also, was not truly repentant until he experienced the Father’s lavish love, joy, and mercy. Repentance is something that the Lord gives to us. Salvation, faith, repentance-all gifts from God. Children obey their parents, not as slaves, but as deeply cherished sons and daughters, their faltering and failing efforts, nevertheless, a delight to their parents.

“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:36. A good parable to ponder.

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