The Triple Meaning of the Story of the Lost Son
[Luke chapter 15, verses 11-32]
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Last week when we completed the first part of Luke 15, we found ourselves with our Lord and Savior as he was teaching a large crowd of followers and those in need of healing, together with his apostles. When the Pharisees saw all this they started muttering to each other about the Jesus’ clientele and how they felt that all ‘those people’ didn’t measure up from their religious points of view. So Jesus cites three different examples of why he preached and taught the common, everyday people that the Pharisees shunned. The first is that of a lost sheep, and the second is that of a lost coin, as you recall from last week’s study. This week we’ll discuss the last example of our Lord, that of a lost and wayward son or daughter. So let’s begin our study starting at verse 11.
“Jesus continued. ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate’. So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.’” (Luke 15, verses 11-19)
Although I have no doubt that most, if not nearly all, of those reading this have heard this story taught in church, or they read it as part of their school curriculum or maybe they heard it colloquially, I’m going to give this parable of the Lord’s a progressive interpretation that explores this old story from a more relevant perspective. To condense this story, this guy gets his inheritance ahead of time, probably after extensive pleadings with his father and just as many ‘no’s to his son. Instead of following his father’s example by turning his part of the estate into a profitable enterprise, this young man, probably in his teens or twenties, liquidates everything he can and sets off to the big city to seek fame and fortune. Everything goes great for a while, but when the economy turns sour, so do the young man’s fortunes and he winds up broke and hungry. The financial and religious aspects of this story have already been discussed a thousand different ways, so I decline to be redundant as far as that goes. But I’m seeing other angles that you seldom hear taught in mainstream churches.
Every preacher I’ve ever heard, right up to Rev. Billy Graham himself, emphasizes the moral of the story as being that of the mercy of the young man’s father when he allowed his wayward son to come back home. While this is a good and correct teaching, I’m also seeing that the young man had enough humility and a good enough conscience to be man enough to admit that he had erred, that he was wrong to do what he had done, and that he had made a bad decision by deciding to leave home in the first place. But he did not arrive at his decision to return home until after he had exhausted all his resources. It was the shock of falling from being the son of a prosperous farmer to that of a migrant farm worker in what must have been a relatively short period of time, perhaps only months or even weeks. The young man’s drastic change of scenery and great reversal of fortune are what forced him to make his decision to make his way home. Let me also say that it is only the stubborn and the ornery who refuse to learn from their mistakes. Unfortunately, they are also the ones who end up homeless most frequently – not simply from bad addictions but also because of a poor attitude. Bearing that in mind, let’s move on to the 2nd half of our study starting at verse 20.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead but is alive again; he was lost but is found.’ So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come’, he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’” (Luke 15, verses 20-27)
The young man’s father could have reacted to his wayward son’s return in any one of a number of different ways. ‘I told you so’, and, ‘OK wise guy, have you finally learned your lesson?’, are only 2 examples. His dad could also have been hard and mean, exercising his authority as head of his household and the family business to punish his son. Or he could have been smug and condescending in his rebuke, making his words hurt worse than a slap across the face. He could have acted like a drill sergeant and got up in his son’s face and yelled sarcastic obscenities for being so disobedient and using such miserable judgment. Or, he could have refused to forgive his son and sent him away empty handed, and maybe with an empty stomach too. But the young man’s father did none of those things. He embraced him though he did not have to. He welcomed him unconditionally without judging him. He had already forgiven him so judgment wasn’t necessary as far as the father was concerned. Next, he is brought back home where the older brother learns of the younger sibling’s return, starting at verse 28.
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never even gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ‘My son’, the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything that I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost but is found.’” (Luke 15, verses 28-32)
The older brother in this parable of our Lord’s reminds me of modern-day capitalists, especially those whose politics and economics are far to the political right. ‘Hey, I’ve worked hard for what I’ve got! Let him get his own like I did!’ I can practically hear the derision in the older brother’s voice. It reminds me of how the rich conservatives view the poor; as lazy bums, freaking’ mooches, freeloaders, plus a lot of other stuff I won’t print here. ‘I’ve got mine’, they are saying by their actions and their words. ‘How are you doing? Oh gee, that’s too bad.’
But it is the father of that household who corrects the older son while sparing the younger any form of judgment. Notice now God’s ways are very different than ours! Instead of focusing on all the things the younger son had done wrong, the father used this as a teaching moment for both sons. In much the same way, Jesus used this as a teachable moment for the crowd of listeners, followers and the Twelve. So that’s one aspect of this teaching that stands out to me, and this is not something commonly heard in many contemporary churches. The most common aspect of this parable taught is that of the father forgiving the son the way Jesus forgives those who turn away from sinful and evil ways, and give the rest of their lives to him. The word often used here is ‘repentance’, but a modern way would be to say, “I’ve turned and walked away from that”, whatever ‘that’ might be. This act of turning and walking away from our old selves and our old natures is the very essence of repentance.
But the third and final aspect of this parable is prophetic in nature, and is seldom discussed in most theological circles. When the younger son was returning home, the father saw him while he was still very far away and he ran to him. He met his lost son while he was still a long way off, being unable to wait until his return. Then, after meeting him on the final leg of his journey, he accompanies his son the rest of the way back home. In the end times that we are currently living in, there will be many who will realize that they have lost their way and will begin making their way ‘back home’ to Jesus Christ. While it is true that many, many more will turn away forever, the Bible – the Word of Almighty God (see John 1: 1-5) – says that many will turn to him and have their names added to “the Lamb’s Book of Life” (see Rev. 20: 11-15) during these end times. Those that do still won’t be able to make it all the way to heaven (home) on our own. Only the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross can get us the rest of the way there, like a bridge. So the father running out to meet the son in the middle of the ‘bridge’ and walking him the rest of the way home symbolizes the Blood of Jesus, and the home with many fields and vineyards represents heaven. Jesus was speaking prophetically, and there’s no way to tell for sure if any of the apostles picked up on the triple meaning of the Parable of the Lost Son back then, but now you know! And next week we’ll start on Luke chapter 16.