We all know the story, the youngest son is sick of being part of the family team and demands his inheritance, squanders it and comes home with his tail between his legs pleading forgiveness, to be met by a loving father and a bitter older brother. This is one of the most famous stories Jesus ever told, but what was it really all about?
Most times it is told as a way of describing our personal journey back from a self-centred existence to our loving heavenly father. However the reality, like a lot of the New Testament, is more complicated.
It is very likely Jesus had in mind two large sub-groups of the Jewish population when he told this story. The bitter older son represented the Pharisees and ruling elite who thought they had the inside running on God. They were cold, hard, indifferent and bitter toward those who didn’t do the right thing. The wayward son represented “publicans and sinners” who had largely given up on the Old Covenant system of Judaism. They wanted the blessings of the covenant and wanted out of the covenant at the same time.
Both brothers were lost to the father, both sections of Jewish society were outside the New Covenant, one through pleasure and self indulgence and the other through religious doctrine, works and many added rituals. One knew it was lost while the other didn’t and that was why Jesus had to tell this story and many others like it. The message was not lost on its original hearers.
The responsibility of an older brother in Judaism was to go after those siblings who went off the rails, and this brother did not, he only judged him. Perhaps it was this Pharisaic pride of place in society that turned many of the poor and free spirited Jews off their religion and into sin.
This is a good lesson for us today at three levels:
First, the system hasn’t changed much really as when the Christian Church becomes proud and judgemental the rest of society turns very quickly away from our message. Which son are you?
Second, most mega religions, such as Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism expect you to work out your salvation by good works. Christianity alone speaks of grace and forgiveness.
Third, all of us fall are prodigal sons of our father. We have walked away and they only way back is through a humbling of our heat and a walk back to our father, who is desperately longing for a restoration of relationship.