Thanks for the prayers, everyone. I’m back from my mini-vacation. Let me tell you – I love my home, but central Colorado is some spectacular driving. Also, I may or may not have filled my car up with gas one time and then gotten back in the car to find it still running.
What? It was a long trip. It won’t happen again, Mom, I promise.
You know what else I love? The Prodigal Son story.
I’m gonna have to do a series here, for the Prodigal Son passage from Luke 15 is stuffed to bursting with symbolism and meaning. Here we find the haunting testimony of every fallen human, a solemn warning against religious pride, hints of the kingdom’s treasures, and perhaps most importantly, a poignant glimpse of God’s sheer emotion towards his children, one which has comforted me many times. There’s so much here to dig into; the treasures are more than worth the time.
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.”
Our senior pastor always riffs on a few basic Scriptural interpretation tips on Sunday mornings, and one of them is, If it says “therefore”, ask what it’s there for. In other words, when you want context for a passage, look at the previous passages.
Although the actual word “therefore” doesn’t appear here, the look-back trick works, for we see that this parable is the third in a trilogy, kicked off when the Pharisees were silly enough to grumble about Jesus associating with sinners. It’s always glorious watching Jesus triggered.
Verses 3 through 7 are the Parable of the Lost Sheep; verses 8 through 10 are the Parable of the Lost Coin. A sheep and coin were bearable (and proportionally smaller) losses, but now it’s a lost son – an undeniable trauma for a father. This is the emotional high point of the chapter.
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons.”
Knowing all this allows us to guess the symbolism of the older and younger sons – Pharisees and sinners, respectively. (Some commentators also have them representing the Gentiles and the Jews respectively; the firstborn son would have fit the Jewish nation better, and acted in a traditional manner more befitting their customs).
“The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.”
You’ve got to admire the generosity of this father. I mean, he has to know his son. He has to know that his portion of the inheritance probably isn’t headed anywhere good. But he grants his son’s request anyway. He’s not bound to do so while still living; it is his free gift.
He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matt. 5:45)
The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made. (Psalm 145:9)
God’s generosity is scandalous. The light of the sun, the abundance of the earth’s resources, the reliability of the laws of nature, the joy of human companionship, his mercy to anyone who would believe, drowning out the sorrow of death. Even the poor benefit from these.
My pastor once said to me, “If forest fires were to creep over that mountain range and threaten our entire valley with destruction, we’d still be getting far better than we deserve.” The perspective is healthy, and it’s a good answer to those who see Earth’s suffering and accuse God of neglect. The very breath we draw is evidence of God’s mercy.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.”
It’s interesting that the son does not leave immediately. Does he try at first to enjoy his inheritance in the father’s presence?
“A man who wishes to enjoy worldly good without reference to God is obliged, in self-defence, to hustle God out of his thoughts as soon and as completely as possible.” – MacLaren’s Expositions
It’s an echo of James, who nails down a significant source of unanswered prayer:
When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:3)
How many things are we requesting without any thought of how to enjoy them in God’s presence?
Can we even handle the answer to our prayers?
I want to be one who can.
Let us be careful what we wish for. As the Prodigal Son parable opens, Jesus depicts his Father as immensely generous…and his gifts as non-saving. God is not stingy. He is not annoyed at our requests. He’s asking one simple thing: that we enjoy this life, a remarkable gift, on his terms. It’s not as if gifts from the God of the universe would fail to be enjoyable.
If we can’t appreciate this, we’ve got bigger problems than not getting gifts. An independent heart always finds itself distant from the protection of God, not dissimilar to like poles of magnets. It is the heart that must be changed, not the bank account.