Who’s the prodigal?

And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. Luke 15:21-24.

When I was a baby Christian, at age 40, I read those passages. The church I had chosen to attend was also not very mature. The parable is about two sons. The older brother is diligent, loyal, and very much the rule follower. The younger brother is wild, profligate, selfish, the rule breaker. The father is apparently fairly wealthy. The younger brother decides he wants his share of the eventual inheritance now. The passages don’t say, but could it be that the father is ill, close to death? If not, what precipitated the request for his share of the inheritance? Given the younger brother‘s selfishness, it would not be surprising if he believed that his father would be soon dead, and that he’d better get what he could now, because more likely than not, his older brother would get it all after his father’s death.

“And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.” Luke 15:12-16.

My church at the time, a Unity Church (I didn’t know any better), taught that the lesson intended by the parable was the younger brother’s repentance and the father’s forgiveness, as a model of Jesus. That much is true. Nothing was said of the older brother, since he was the “good guy”, obedient and loyal, nor of his refusal to celebrate his brother’s return.

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found’.” Luke 15:25-32.

Everyone is more like either the older brother, or the younger brother. When I became more mature as a Christian, and joined a church that taught more thoroughly, I came to realize that the older brother was not the good guy after all; he was the Pharisee. Jesus reserved His harshest words for the Pharisees, making it clear that their hatred of “sinners” and their showy righteousness masked evil hearts. I believe that the parable of the “prodigal son” is actually more about the Pharisical son. The prodigal, he who wastes on pleasure, is most of us, with regards to our own sins. The older brother, the Pharisee, is representative of both the Pharisees, and the judgmentalness that we harbor towards the sins of others. The father of course, is Jesus Christ. The parable is very much misnamed. The prodigal isn’t the main lesson, his fall from grace and his repentance and restoration is only the obvious lesson. Missing the lesson of the older brother condemns us as being blind to our real sin.

The older brother described his brother as “this son of yours”, repudiating both the filial relationship and his father. It is contemptuous. The father reminds him of “your brother”. It’s so easy for us to feel wronged, and thus to sympathize with the older brother, now that we live in an outrage culture, but this is the very reason our culture cultivates outrage. Reading that last sentence, many will think, yep, that’s our culture! Forgetting or excusing our own sins, feeling wronged, taking up offenses, all are the products of pride, the disease, no, the sin, that infects every person, thus every culture, everywhere. We are both the prodigal and the Pharisee. Jesus Christ is the cure. He is risen.