The focus of the Prodigal Son story often centers around the wayward younger son (i.e. The Prodigal) who demands his share of his father’s inheritance and leaves home to go spend it on wine and women. Eventually, the son returns home, broken and contrite, and his father welcomes him back with open arms.
But wait! There’s more to this story!
There’s also a score-keeping older son who doesn’t ask for any inheritance and stays home dutifully doing the work his father requires of him. And while, on the surface, he appears the “better”, more obedient, son, when you dig deeper into the text you will find that this son has his own set of issues. While he doesn’t outwardly reject his Father, he inwardly rejects him by harboring resentment.
So why does Jesus tell this parable? Is it just a tale of two angry sons?
Not even close.
Jesus isn’t wanting us to linger too long on the actions of the wayward son, nor those of the compliant son. Jesus wants us to look at the Father. You see, this parable teaches us about the reckless, immense love our Heavenly Father has for us.
In the parable, when the prodigal son finally comes home, the father runs to greet him. Take note: respectable, Middle-Eastern fathers of that time would have never embarrassed themselves by running to their children. But the father of this story is not bothered by cultural norms. No, he enthusiastically greets his son and welcomes him back to the family. And what a welcome he gets! The father throws a party in his honor.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the compliant son is seething. It’s not fair. He does what his father asks of him. He has even put in extra work due to his brother’s absence. No one is throwing him a party! And, adding to the older son’s anger, the father starts the welcome home party without him.
When the older son complains to the father about the unfair treatment, the father again responds in love, reminding the compliant son of the abundant blessings he enjoys every day: ample food, shelter, protection, and love. The son could no longer “see” these blessings because, being surrounded by them every day, he took them for granted.
Now, think about this. We have a father whose younger son demands money so he can leave and “live large” and whose older son inwardly rebels and walks around with a bitter spirit. Looking at this family on the surface, would you invite this father to come to your church to speak on the fundamentals of parenting?
Probably not. I wouldn’t.
This family’s situation is not exactly what I would call exemplary. I mean, there’s rebellion, pride, anger, lust, greed, jealousy (and more) within the hearts of these kids. For a parenting seminar at my church, I would want a more model, polished family to teach me the how-to’s of raising kids. I would want a more capable parent to teach me about healthy family relationships and developing strong bonds among siblings. I would pass over the Prodigal Son family.
Hey, but wait!
The father in this parable represents God! God is the Most Perfect Parent, yet look at his kids!
If Jesus tells a story that illustrates how our Heavenly Father has difficulties with his own children, we shouldn’t be surprised or embarrassed when we have troubles with our own kids. Sometimes our children outwardly rebel. Sometimes they inwardly rebel. Despite our best parenting efforts, sometimes our children choose not to be happy with their situation.
Does this mean we should be hands off when it comes to parenting? Absolutely not!! Our children need time, love, and attention, and lots of it!
But remember, ultimately, our kids aren’t really our kids. They’re God’s. They also happen to have a free will, and sometimes they exercise it in the wrong ways.
Someone once said that parents claim too much credit when their children do something well, and they heap on too much guilt when their children do something bad. I think that’s true.
So train up a child in the way he should go. Pray for them daily. Teach them to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and mind. Rejoice with them in good times, cry with them in bad. But above all, love them. Love them in the wonderful and in the awful. And embrace them with the reckless grace of our loving Heavenly Father.