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Two Sons and Lostness

We call it “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” But Jesus’ parable begins this way: There was a man who had two sons. This parable is not just about one son. There is a second son. We are meant to compare both sons to get what Jesus is saying. And while we think of the younger son as being lost, really both sons in this parable are lost. Just in different ways.

The younger son asks his father for his share of the property and inheritance.

Kenneth Bailey has been a missionary in the Middle East for many years and has done some excellent Bible teaching by taking people back to the culture in which Jesus taught and in which these parables would be heard. This is what Kenneth Bailey wrote regarding the younger son asking for his inheritance in this part of the parable:

For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same…the conversation runs as follows.

Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?


Could anyone ever make such a request?


If anyone ever did, what would happen?

His father would beat him, of course!


The request means – he wants his father to die.[1]

Inheritances come after a parent dies. For the younger son to ask for his share while the father is still alive is to say to the father – “I want you to die and I consider you dead!” “The younger son’s request shames both his father and his family. It is a certified public statement that he no longer wishes to live within or be identified by the family.” This is a huge insult and a virtual unforgivable offense in ancient Jewish society.[2]

The younger son takes what the father gives to him and squanders it all in wild living. Hard times hit and he finds himself in deep need. He finds work feeding pigs. Pigs are considered unclean to Jews. It is why Jewish people don’t eat pork. For a Jew you can’t get any lower than feeding pigs. On top of his bad choices, he finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time with the famine, and it says “no one gave him anything.” He is alone and in deep need. He is lost.

Then it says, “he came to himself”. He woke up, got clued in, and came to the realization of who he was and what was going on. It is often when we are in need that we come to ourselves. We come to the end of ourselves. We wake up to our rebellion or selfishness or stupidity. It is then that God can often move in our lives. Until we come to ourselves we remain as we are.

The first son plans to go back to his father and beg him to take him back, not as a son but as a hired worker. He even puts together what he is going to say: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

So the son starts back to the father. Jesus says, “While the son was still a long way off his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.” He runs to his son, throws his arms around him, and kisses him.

It would be normal in a Middle Eastern context for the father to wait be addressed by the son and to receive some sign of respect before he acknowledges the son. And all the more so for a son who had for all practical purposes said he considered the father as good as dead. The ones hearing Jesus tell this story were probably ready to hear the father laid into the son. But before the son can say a word we hear that the father runs to him, embraces him, and kisses his younger son.

Patriarchs didn’t run. It meant they would have had to hike up their gown, show their legs, and how undignified was that. Why else might he throw himself on his son? Because he is protecting the son from the shame of the village. He is protecting the son from the beating others will surely give him for how the son insulted the father in asking for his inheritance, in the first place. He is protecting his son in love for if they do it to the son they will have to do it to the father, too.[3]

The son confesses he is no longer worthy to be called his son and could he be a hired hand. And what does the father do? He commands that the best robe, the family ring, new sandals be brought, and that the fatted calf be slaughtered for a huge feast and celebration. Why? Because he says my son was dead but is alive. He was lost but now is found.

Isn’t this what God has done for us? Hasn’t he lavished his grace upon us! He didn’t give us what we deserved. He gave us, with love and gladness, what we did not deserve. We deserve punishment, hell, having to earn our way back. But God sent his Son to take the penalty of our rebellion and to shower us in his love. He is a prodigal God.

Abraham Lincoln was once asked how he was going to treat the rebellious southerners when they had finally been defeated and had returned to the Union of the United States. They thought Lincoln would take severe vengeance, but he answered, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.”[4]

And many people don’t go any further with this parable. But this is a parable about a father with two sons. There is another son. He hears the music and the celebrating. After finding out that his younger brother has come home and is getting a party…he became angry and refused to go in.

He is offended by the music and dancing. He is offended by the joy. He is offended by the father’s grace and mercy. Remember, Jesus is telling this parable to the religious leaders who are grumbling that Jesus is eating with sinners. How did they hear this when Jesus taught it?

Another piece of cultural background: In Middle Eastern culture it is the duty of the older son to serve the younger ones. To refuse to come into the party is an insult to the father. For the second time this father has been grossly insulted. But this father comes out to the son! He accommodates himself to the older son and pleads with him to come in!

The response of the older son? Pay attention to it: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you…What a statement! “…like a slave…” “I’ve earned my place. I didn’t live like this other son of yours.”The older son doesn’t even call the younger son “my brother” but says “this son of yours.” We hear his contempt. We hear his confidence and pride in himself and his work. His righteousness has come by his works.

One son who was outside is now in while the older son who was on the inside now sits outside refusing to come in.[5]

Maybe some of us work like slaves for God instead of out of a relationship as a son or daughter. Or we think not doing wrong must make us good and that puts us in the right with our heavenly Father. “We can escape God through morality and religion as much as we can escape God through immorality and irreligion.” Most of us think God wants good people. What God wants is new people. The older son thinks he can make himself good with the father with being moral.

Jesus radically redefines what is wrong with all of us. Nearly everyone defines sin as breaking a list of rules. But Jesus shows us that someone who has virtually done everything right, like the older son, can be every bit as spiritually lost as the most rebellious, immoral person. Why? Because sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting ourself in the place of God as Savior, Lord and Judge.[6]

The father tries to explain and reason with the son, “…all that is mine is yours.” We don’t have to work like slaves for God’s love. Relationship to the Father is by grace, mercy, and love not out of the law, works, and slavery.

There was a man who had two sons. He loved two sons. He was insulted by two sons. He went out to meet two sons. He was generous to two sons. He was prodigal – excessive, luxuriant – with two sons.

The younger son was rebellious but came to himself and knew his rebellion. The older son was rebellious but didn’t know it. He never really understood how bad he was. The older brother is more lost than the younger brother. He is lost because 1) he is angry, 2) he thinks he’s superior, 3) he doesn’t know the father’s love for him. It’s not his wrongdoing that keeps the older son from sharing the joyful feast of the father. It’s his responsible, moral, self-confidence that is keeping him out. There are many elder brothers sitting in churches who are actually spiritually dead because they haven’t really understood the gospel.[7]

The gospel is not that good people go to heaven and bad people don’t. The gospel is that everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change. Elder brothers can see the world as the good people, like us, and the bad people who are really the problem in this world. Younger brothers can do the same thing. They think the open-minded and tolerant people are in and the bigoted, narrow-minded people, who are the real problem with the world are out.

Jesus says it’s those who cast themselves on the grace of God are in. The proud are out. Those who think they are just fine are actually quite lost. The way to receive the grace of God is to know you need it.[8]

The younger son confesses his wrong. The older son insists on his rights.

The younger son thinks he doesn’t deserve to be a son anymore and asks to be a servant. The older son complains that what it means to be a son in this house isn’t up to his standards and that he has been nothing but a slave.

The younger son sins and turns from that. The older son lives very morally but is unforgiving.

The younger son distances himself from the father but comes home. The older son stays home with the father but distances himself emotionally.

The younger son receives mercy. The older son accuses the father in resentment and self-righteousness.[9]

To be sure, the older brother would never have been caught dead carousing with prostitutes or wasting his resources in loose living. But in the end his refusal to rejoice and celebrate at the return of his very own brother was offensive to Jesus.[10] Which son was really lost?

But, oh, the compassion of the father. He welcomes all who return. He invites people to his joy. He welcomes them home where there is bread enough and to spare. He pleads for all to come in. He will lower himself in order to regain what was lost. God lowered himself by becoming like us and entering this world.

Why is this parable so well-loved and so well-known? Because it speaks of the very heart of the gospel! Through Jesus Christ, God searches for us, welcomes us, loves us, forgives us. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”[11] 1 John 4:10

The uniqueness of the parable does not consist in the sons. We have known people like them. But we have never known anyone like the father. He is the first to be named and the last to speak.[12]

It is by showing the lostness of both sons that Jesus wanted those hearing this parable, namely the Pharisees and scribes, and good religious people, but us as well, to see the goodness of the father.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, we praise you for your prodigal goodness to us. Never let us presume upon our own goodness, but cast ourselves upon your mercy. Whether we are a younger son or older son, lead us home. Through Jesus Christ, who welcomes us home. Amen.

[1] Taken from Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, p.25 [2] Jim Edwards, commentary on Luke, p.438 [3] from Darrell Johnson [4] William Barclay, Luke, p.205 [5] Darrell Bock, p.414 [6] The Prodigal God, Tim Keller, p.50 [7] The Prodigal God, Tim Keller, pp.56ff [8] Keller, p.52 [9] James Edwards, Commentary on Luke, p.442 [10] Lee Griess, Taking the Risk Out of Dying, CSS Publishing Company, 1997 [11] I John 4:10 [12] Edwards, 437

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