The “Prodigal Son” is one of the best-known stories in the world: a rebellious child runs away from a loving father; the father mourns; the child returns; the father welcomes; the sibling struggles with the restoration. (Luke 15:11-32)
Now I know the story speaks of “sons,” but because I am a woman and because many who read this blog are women, I want to remind us that we can fully identify with these two sons. We know we can do this because of how Jesus treated women and because of Paul’s words later in the New Testament. So even though I’m going to refer to the two characters as “sons” simply because I think it might be confusing if I didn’t, we can substitute “daughters” if it helps us to identify more easily.
The first “character” in this story is this wonderful Father figure. He loves His children. He longs for them to have fullness of life with Him. There’s no hidden story or sin. He is what we see: the beautiful, perfect Dad.
This Father has two children. (There’s actually a third one, but we’ll get to Him later.)
One of his kids is called the prodigal.
It’s an accurate title. This kid thumbs his nose at all his dad stands for. He is rude and disrespectful to him. We Westerners can’t quite get the full cultural ramifications of what he does in this story, but he is basically saying, “You’re standing in my way, old man. I don’t want to wait until you’re dead to do what I want to do. So fork over now what’s going to be mine when you kick the bucket, and I’m outa’ here. I don’t care about your way. I think all this love and peace stuff is boring and stupid. I want some excitement, and I want it MY way.”
He’s an obvious prodigal. Obvious. Some of us identify with this prodigal. We think, “Yes, that’s me!”
But some of us identify more with the other son. He’s the one working out in his dad’s business. He’s the one who looks like he’s his dad’s right-hand man. This guy appears pretty good, squeaky clean in fact. He’s very focused on pleasing his Dad, and he wants the other brother and everyone else to see that he’s the “good child.”
Somehow we see that as “better” than the prodigal’s attitude.
It’s really not, though.
Because deep down, this son is just as self-serving as the prodigal.
He doesn’t really “get” the Father’s way of living either. He doesn’t think it’s measurable enough, so he adds rules of his own. He wants the Father to look at him and say, “Good job! You’ve come up with such a great system. Why didn’t I think of that? This, yes, this, is how I should measure people’s rightness.”
This child is a legalist.
Not long ago I read a fantastic quote by Max Lucado. “Legalism,” Lucado wrote, “is the search for innocence—not forgiveness.”
The legalist child doesn’t want God to be bigger than he is. He wants to think that his level of “goodness” is better than God’s, so that God has to declare him INNOCENT.
He’s not seeking forgiveness. That would mean he was WRONG!
But he is.
He’s missing the mark just like the prodigal is! Neither of their ways—the lawlessNESS or the nit-picky rule-keeping—is anything like the beautiful GOODNESS of the Father.
The prodigal is at least honest about his waywardness. He leaves.
But the hypocrisy of the “good son” becomes very evident when the prodigal returns and the father’s will and desire are drastically different from the “good son’s.”
The father wants to forgive and restore and love and celebrate and move forward.
Not the “good child.” He wants to hold grudges and remember wrongdoing and use the “rules” to condemn the prodigal and exalt himself. His “goodness” is revealed to be self-serving, bitter, and proud.
They are BOTH prodigals.
WE are prodigals. All of us. Like one or the other of the two kids in this story—or somewhere in between them.
The Father is holding out His arms to all the prodigals. “Come to me!” He calls. “I’m looking for you. I want to hold you in my arms and heal your heart wounds and draw you into right, real relationship with ME! Come into the house and celebrate with me.”
Somewhere inside us we want this—but we also don’t want it. We’re not capable of choosing it for ourselves because we’re not good—and true, unselfish goodness is alien to our core nature.
If we stopped right here—with the Father’s open arms and our inability to be in His embrace—this story would be a tragedy.
And if some regular human were telling the story, it would be nothing more than a fairytale, a story told to entertain for a few minutes before we have to return to “real life.”
But the storyteller, Jesus, is not a regular human being. And he didn’t tell the story as mere entertainment. He told it because He has the power to make it come true—for each of us—and He wants it to become true.
Though He is the narrator of the story, He is also IN it. He’s the Son of the Father’s heart, the perfect representation and exact image of Him. He reveals to us in the flesh the beauty of the Father and the Father’s way. When we look at Him, we see our need for something bigger and better than ourselves.
In the story, the prodigal did both of these in the far country. In the pigpen he realized how lost he was. Then he thought about his Father and saw clearly the Father’s goodness. He went home because he knew the Father would extend mercy. (Little did he know how MUCH mercy the Father would extend.)
At this point, we still have a problem. Jesus awakens in us the realization of the Father’s perfection. In Him we clearly recognize that WE are not perfect. But if He simply told the story, and then didn’t DO anything more, we would still be in the far country like the prodigal or laboring in the fields with bitter hearts like the legalist.
We are simply not capable of true, eternal heart change.
But the Storyteller did more.
And through his death, He became the Way to the Father’s embrace.
He made the story Truth rather than fiction.
He delivered real Life that does not disappoint—unlike any fairytale we can imagine.
He accomplished LIFE through horrific death. That vertical line of His cross created a way for relationship between God and humanity. Clothed in the perfection of Christ, the Father can pull us close to His perfect heart. You and I both know that we couldn’t be there on our own.
Now here’s another wonderful thing about the cross of Christ. Its horizontal line created relationship between humans. When we’re gathered together at the foot of the cross, awed by the Christ and the Father’s perfection and goodness, all our own personal differences fade into nothing. The prodigal and the legalist can have relationship with each other because coming to the Father requires a stripping away of the outer to find we are all the same underneath. Put us in the light of eternity and in the presence of the holy, wholly good God, and those outward differences are GONE! Then we can relate—in reality, in truth and honesty, without pretense and masks, without competition.
Jesus is the Teller of the Best Story, in which He stars as our Way, our Truth, our Life.
NOTE: This is the script of a Gospel presentation I recently prepared, so it may sound more like a “talk” than a blog post in some spots.