This story has been worked over so many times and so thoroughly, it’s tough to bring anything new to the table. Along with the Good Samaritan, it’s one of Jesus’ most famous stories and a classic of the story-telling genre. About the only thing I think I can emphasize, though many others have also said so, is that it’s really a story about the father more than about the son. All three of these lost stories are not so much about the loss, but about the finding, rejoicing, and celebration. So also here, but more powerfully than in the previous two.
It starts off, “There was a man…” He could have started off, “There was a son…”, but the story is really about the father. The two brothers represent the two basic ways people try to make life work, a theme running through all of Luke. The younger one relishes self-discovery and self-orientation (“I’ll do things my way”), and the older one is more socially respectable, moral conformity, the “religious” option (“I’ll do whatever you say”). In the spiritual metaphor, the first doesn’t care about salvation, and the second is going to earn it.
The father has resources to spare, and the younger son wants to exploit that. “Give me free stuff, so I can do with it as I please.” He doesn’t need the dad beyond what the father will do for him to make his life happy, fun, and completely independent from Dad. The father doesn’t deny his son the good resources at his disposal. He gives freely—to both of his sons (v. 12).
You know the story: the younger son burned his bridges and burned through his cash in fun but destructive ways, accomplishing nothing except having a good time, living the vida loca. As we all know, the party has to end sometime, and it does for the kid. It turns out he’s not so self-sufficient after all, as he thought. He has sunk to the bottom of degradation, symbolized by a good Jewish boy caring for pigs. The irony is not lost.
v. 16: “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” Funny, his father gave him everything, but his friends, his decisions, his choices, and his lifestyle give him nothing. The irony is not lost.
The turning point comes in v. 17: “He came to his senses.” It turns out that the deep desires of his soul were not satisfied, and reality slapped him hard. He decides to try to return to his dad. He took his father’s inheritance as if the father was dead; now he returns broke and alone, starving and humiliated, as if he himself is dead. The irony is not lost.
V. 20 makes the heart leap with the kind of emotion that both surprises (wouldn’t the father hold a grudge?) and comforts (parents never stop loving their kids). It’s Jesus’ picture of God (just as in the previous two stories). This guy is WATCHING for his son. In this story, in contrast to the previous two where the main character seeks, the father won’t go against the free will of his son. But he is seeking in the only way he can, by watching every day for his son to come back. “While he is still a long way off, the father saw him, and was filled with compassion (not anger); he RAN to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” There can hardly be a more poignant image of love and acceptance, of joy and grace. The son had left saying “Give me,” and returned saying “Forgive me.” The irony is not lost.
The father is exuberant in honor. Fancy clothes to replace the rags he no doubt walked home in; the accessories of a son to replace his request to be a slave; compassion instead of disapproval. There is no such thing as “undesirable” to God. And notice the strong death/rebirth motif. The father has been the one to suffer; the father has been the one who lost. A sheep runs away—whose is the loss? The Shepherd. A coin is lost—whose is the loss? The woman’s. A son is lost—whose is the loss? The Dad.
The older son enters the story. We see anger. He sees violated standards and injustice, and he is dripping with contempt (30). The father didn’t shut him out; he shut himself out. But this story is about THE FATHER. V. 28: The father goes out to him, just as he had to the younger son, not in disapproval, but compassion. God is both the one who waits, and the one who seeks. He will do whatever is necessary and appropriate for each situation, for each person. “The only thing that matters,” the father pleads, “is that he’s here.” The point is not lost.