The Return of the Prodigal Son: Themes of Personal Impact, Challenges Posed to Faith and How the Contemporary Church
The story begins by introducing the audience to a father who had two sons. Immediately after the introduction, the narrator takes the reader on the journey of the younger son, his return to the father, and the response of the brother. For many years, the action carried my interpretation of the story. Then, one day, I slowed down and read the parable, focusing on the father. I realized that the father was the protagonist. The parable centers on the response of the father rather than the actions of the sons. When the youngest son demands his inheritance, the father actively responds. He divides the property between the brothers. According to Old Testament law, the younger son would receive one third of the property. The son then leaves his father, only to squander his wealth and succumb to the perils of natural disaster. He reaches his breaking point when he is starving and has to take work feeding pigs, an animal Jewish people regarded as unclean under dietary laws.
he parable of the Prodigal Son is a story about God’s redemptive grace and mercy. It is a story of His unconditional love and forgiveness. It is about God seeking sinners. In Luke 15, Jesus tells about the youngest son coming to his father to ask for his inheritance ahead of time. The youngest son would only receive one-third of the father’s inheritance in accord to the Old Testament laws in Deuteronomy 21:17. He then took the inheritance and ran away to spend it all on having a good time. He had plenty of “friends” to help him spend it but quickly ran out of his inheritance funds. Then he was reduced to working in a pig pen and the pigs ate better than he. For a Jew, to tend to pigs was the height of humiliation since they were deemed unclean according to the Old Testament dietary laws. He thought of his father’s servants who were at least fed well and had shelter at night. The young son had reached the end of his rope and came back home. He was accepted with open arms by his father. The older son was outraged; he was angry that his father had allowed his brother to return and even more disturbing was the gift of a rob, a ring, and a pair of sandals and a huge feast, in his honor, with the choicest of the fatted calves. When the young son came to his father to ask for his inheritance, in the Jewish culture of that day, it was like he was saying, “I wish you were dead!” This was highly unconventional and was insulting of the father. This is what the Jewish leaders understood and in their minds, they would not have received the young son back into the family. In fact he would have been disinherited or even stoned as was done in the ancient Jewish culture in the Old Testament. He would have been disowned and he would not have been allowed to return at part of the father’s family. The youngest son represents all of those who have been called by God and for whatever reason; they have placed one foot in the world and one foot in the church. When God chastises those Who He has redeemed, as any loving father would, He brings them to their knees and they see their need for repentance and return to God and ask for His forgiveness. This can not be a picture of the lost because they would never have been a child of the father in the first place. Unbelievers are children of the devil as Jesus said in John 8:42-44, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. “To the Father’s own, does He give “the right to become children of God”.
The letter ends with the same thought that concludes 2 John. John has things to communicate that would be better said face to face than in pen and ink (3 John 13–14). But there is a twist in 3 John that offers another insight for our daily work. At the very end, John adds, “Greet the friends there, each by name.” Speaking a person’s name adds further to the personal touch that John recognizes is needed in communication. Many of us come face to face with hundreds of people in the course of our work. To some degree, we need to communicate with each of them, even if only to avoid knocking into each other in the hallway. How many of them do we know well enough to greet by name? Do you know your boss’s boss’s boss’s name? Probably. Do you know the name of the person who empties the trash in your workplace? Do you greet people by name when you are in conflict with them? Do you learn the names of newcomers to the organization who may need your help at some point? The names you bother to learn and those you don’t can reveal a lot about your level of respect and compassion for people. John cares enough to greet “each” person by name. James exhorts us to confess our sins to one another, so that we may be healed (James 5:16). The most interesting words for the workplace are “to one another.” The assumption is that people sin against each other, not just against God, and at work that is certainly the case. We face daily pressure to produce and perform, and we have limited time to act, so we often act without listening, marginalize those who disagree, compete unfairly, hog resources, leave a mess for the next person to clean up, and take out our frustrations on co-workers. We wound and get wounded. The only way to be healed is to confess our sins to one another. If someone just shot down a co-worker’s promotion by inaccurately criticizing that person’s performance, the wrongdoer needs to confess it to the one wronged at work, not just to God in private prayer time. The wrongdoer may have to confess it to the rest of the department too, if he or she is really going to heal the damage.
In summary, the parable of the prodigal son and the elder brother concludes by the father teaching the elder brother through his fatherly wisdom that its important to look past the previous mistakes of his younger brother and to celebrate the repentance and return of a fellow family member. Just like then, the Parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates the forgiveness of the Father in Heaven. When his children slip and fall from the grace of God, God does not turn his back on his children and forget about them. Instead, God is always waiting for us to return. Moreover, when we do return, He will welcome us into his arms and place us back at the table where we belong.
John 13–14 (NRSV)
James 5:16 (NRSV)
Peter 1:1 (NRSV)