The Third Prodigal

Most of us know the first prodigal in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15). We know this so guy well because he all of us, all of humankind, every son and daughter that has fled God and wallowed in sin. Adam and Eve were the first prodigals who wasted all God had given them.

In some ways, the parable of the prodigal son is a tale of two parties. Although we commonly refer to any wandering soul as a prodigal, the word prodigal actually means recklessly or extravagantly wasteful. The younger son recklessly wastes his inheritance on harlots and what today we call “partying”. Those parties left him longing to eat pig food. Later he comes home to a different kind of party—one thrown by his father to celebrate his return.

The second prodigal is the father who lavishes love and resources on the son. It is likely that the father knew what the younger son would do with his inheritance but gave it anyway. Since we are told the father saw his son from afar, it is also likely that the father wasted time looking for his son and longing for his return. There were probably sleepless nights praying and worrying about his son.

The father wasted his dignity. I am an old man with bad knees. I look silly and, I suspect, a little pathetic when I run, especially if I have on sandals. I am sure the older son thought his father looked ridiculous running down the road to his brat of a brother.

The father wasted a great opportunity to fold his arms and give a lecture; instead, the father enfolded his son in his arms. The father started down the road before he had any proof of his son’s repentance and change of heart. What if the son quickly went back to his old ways? Don’t we need some tough love here? Shouldn’t the younger son have to prove he has changed? Isn’t the father taking a stupid risk here? There are consequences! But love sweeps aside lectures.  

And, of course, the father is also prodigal in giving the son his best robe, his ring, sandals, and then a feast. He is a little over-the-top in his celebration and joy. There is music and dancing. Everyone is invited to come celebrate the return of the son who wasted his inheritance.

The third prodigal, the older son, is one we might overlook. He refuses to join the celebration and accuses the father of never doing for him what his father is doing for his rebellious brother. The older son points out that he has never left and that he has obeyed all the father’s commands.

The father answers that everything he has belongs to his oldest son. The father makes clear that his oldest son should not think loving the returning son diminishes his love for his oldest son. It is also clear that the oldest son could have at any point enjoyed himself just as his brother at feast was.  

The older son is prodigal because he had wasted the opportunity to know his father and his father’s heart. Although a child of the Sixties, I never went through a time of rebellion toward my parents, but  like most teenagers, I was quick to view them as irrelevant. In high school I soon spent more time with friends and a girlfriend. I had little or no interest in doing things with Dad. And like many teens, I gave one-word answers to my parents’ questions.

Then I was off to college, and then off to graduate school, and then married and off to a job in Kansas. Of course, Teckla and I visited, and they made some trips to Kansas. After thirteen years in the Midwest, we got word that Dad was dying of cancer. I quit my job and we moved back to Myrtle Point as quickly as possible to help with Dad. But Dad went more quickly than predicted. Teckla and I pulled into the driveway just as Mom and my brother, Stanley, came home from the hospital where Dad had died. Since that day in 1993 I have wished that I had not wasted my teen years avoiding Mom and Dad. In a sense, I left home my sophomore year of high school.

I wish I had taken more time to feel and know the heart of my father—who had the heart of a shepherd. My father was also an English teacher, so I wish I hadn’t wasted the opportunity to talk to him about faith, reason, and culture. He was a man of prayer; I wish he and I had prayed together. There is so much I could have learned from him. Even though I wasn’t a rebellious son, I failed to know and enjoy my father and my inheritance as fully as I might have. I identify with how the older son wasted his opportunity.

Despite all the attention given the younger son, this parable is mostly about the older son. At the beginning of the Luke 15 we are told the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling that Jesus was spending time with sinners and tax-collectors. Jesus responds with a series of parables about how God rejoices over every sinner that repents and returns to God. Like the older son, the scribes and Pharisees wasted the opportunity to join the party and share in their heavenly Father’s joy.

The oldest son, like the scribes and Pharisees, also missed the reason for the blessings and inheritance they had received. As Jesus pointed out, the Scriptures the Pharisees loved so much all pointed to Jesus and his ministry as the Messiah. Most Pharisees missed the whole purpose of all the promises given to Israel. They were blessed to become a blessing to the sinner and outcast, and eventually the Gentiles. Clearly the father and son had been blessed with some wealth and abundance, but only the father understood that the purpose of the blessing was to bless others, especially a wayward son.

The elder son missed the opportunity to run with his father down the road. Had he shared his father’s longing for the return of his brother, he could have shared in the joy and joined party celebrating his return. It is possible that the elder brother thought his father had been wronged by his brother who had caused his father so much grief. He may have justified his anger toward his younger brother as a defense of his father, but all his complaint is about himself.  

The eldest son, although never leaving home, was just as far from the father as the younger son who had gone to a distant land. He wasted the opportunity to fully enjoy the goodness and the purpose of his inheritance. He really didn’t know his father or understand his father’s heart.

It is interesting that the elder son argues that he had kept all the Father’s commands. It is easy for church folks, especially those have gone to church for years, to become like the elder brother who thinks everything should be about them. We can get so caught up in our programs, our buildings, and our righteousness that we forget about the extravagant and prodigal love our Father has for the lost. We can know about our heavenly father but fail to understand His heart.

Let’s look ridiculous and run with our Father. Let’s join the party. Let’s dance, even if we have bad knees. Let’s love our brothers.

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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