The parable in Luke 15:11-32 is one of the most well-known stories in all the Bible. It’s often called the parable of the “Prodigal Son,” which is not a bad designation. The dictionary defines “prodigal” as being extravagantly wasteful, a fitting description of the younger son in the story, following his foolish squandering of his money until it was all gone. Poor now, and hungry, he offers his services to a pig farmer, not even earning enough to feed himself. Neglected, forsaken, and desperately discouraged, he “comes to himself.” And, as reality sets in, he realizes how foolish he’s been. “The Prodigal Son” seems a fitting title.
But the story could also be called “The Forgiving Father.” A major part of it is about how loving, patient, and forgiving the father is. No matter what his sons do or say, the father continues to respond with graciousness, tenderness, wisdom, and strength. “The Forgiving Father” would be a fitting title.
But then there is another aspect of the story that makes me wonder if it should not be called “The Angry Brother.” In fact, when you look at the context and see whom Jesus was talking to, it seems that this was the major point He wanted to drive home. According to the context, “all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to [Jesus] to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, ‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He spoke this parable to them” (Luke 15:1-3).*
The Pharisees and scribes were angry. How could Jesus be so loving and kind to tax collectors, people who had cooperated with the Romans, taken advantage of their fellow Jews, sold out to the enemy? How could Jesus eat with sinners, people who were clearly immoral?
That’s the context of the parable in Luke 15:11-32.
But based on the importance of the three parties involved, it would seem appropriate to call the story “The Forgiving Father, the Repentant Son, and the Angry Brother.”
The Repentant Son
It’s easy to identify with the younger son. We’ve all experienced the inner desire to live as we please, to do whatever we want whenever we want. Something within us seems attracted to a life of ease.
Growing up in a wealthy home with servants to do much of the work, the younger son (as I imagine it) must have felt his father was a little too demanding. And when the future prodigal failed to fulfill his modest responsibilities, the discipline applied by his father must have seemed too harsh; and negative thoughts began to form: My father is the problem. He must lie awake at night thinking up things for us to do to make our lives miserable. If only I could get away from here, then I’d be happy. If only I could get away from my dad! Sometimes I just wish he was dead. If he really was dead, then I could . . . Wait a minute. That’s not a bad idea! Why didn’t I think of that before?
“Dad, there is something I would like to ask you. You know you have always said that this is a family business. And when you die, it would pass on to us kids. I know you were trying to make us feel as if we are part owners, so we could take our responsibility seriously. But I’ve decided that I don’t want to stay around here anymore. I want to establish my own life and do my own thing. I would like to have my portion of the inheritance now. I’m an adult and I want to live on my own.”
The father knew his younger son was not happy. He loved his son dearly and wanted the best for him. But no matter what he said or how hard he tried to show his love, it was not received. It was as if his son had built up an invisible wall of bitterness, resentment, and anger that shut him out.
The father knew he didn’t have to comply with his son’s unexpected and unreasonable request. However, his concern was not for his own wealth, but for his son’s heart. He must have thought: How can I reach him? How can I help him? Maybe, just maybe, this is the only way he will learn. By suffering from the consequences of his own choices, he might understand his own need and be open to my love.
It would be a huge risk to let his son go. The temptation would be great for him to waste his money. Many people would simply love to take advantage of him and help him spend it. Others would be out to steal from him. There was a great chance he’d lose everything, and maybe even his own life.
If I say yes, the father continues to think, will I ever see my son again? Will he ever want to come back if, indeed, he remains alive? It would be a huge risk. But forcing him to stay would only lead him to harden his heart more!
Finally, the father acquiesces.
The younger son couldn’t believe his ears. A dream come true! All expenses paid! A lifelong vacation! Free from all responsibilities! And soon he was off to see the world. Jesus uses just one phrase to describe the younger son’s actions: he “wasted his possessions with prodigal living” (Luke 15:13).
The Greek word translated “prodigal” (“riotous” in the King James Version) is asotos. In Greek, “a” is like our English “un.” It turns the meaning of a word into the opposite. For example, “loved” versus “unloved.” Sotos comes from the word sozo, meaning “to save” or “to heal.” So we may say that the prodigal wasted his wealth with un-saved or un-healthy living.
Today the world is full of prodigals, people willing to spend their time, money, and energy in all kinds of unhealthy ways—spiritually, physically, and emotionally. But no one ever gets away with sin. Sinful lifestyles will always lead to painful consequences—financially, emotionally, physically, spiritually, socially, or a combination of all of these.
Fortunately, we have a forgiving Father who loves us and reaches out to us, no matter what we have done. And in reality, we have all been “prodigals,” for we have all sinned. We have all wasted our lives in some way with un-saved or un-healthy living.
The Yearning Father
The father genuinely loves his sons. When the younger son leaves, it is easy to read between the lines and see a father who thinks about his son, wonders how he is doing, and hopes he will return. As the father wonders and waits, he often looks into the distance with yearning.
One day he sees him coming! Unable to wait, he runs to welcome him home. And he doesn’t say, “I told you so! It serves you right! Look what you have done to yourself!” Instead, with forgiveness and grace he embraces him. And the robe, the family ring, and the sandals speak their loving message to his boy: “You are still my son!” Then he leads his household in a celebration, saying, “My son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24).
The Angry Brother
The older brother returns. Curious about the music, he learns the reason from one of the hired servants: “Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your ?father has killed the fatted calf” (Luke 15:27).
But instead of rejoicing, the brother gets angry and refuses to join in.
His father comes out and pleads with him: “This is a day of rejoicing: please come in and let us celebrate together as a family.”
The older brother responds with anger toward both his father and his younger brother: “Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him” (Luke 15:29, 30).
The father’s next words are powerful and significant. “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found” (Luke 15:31, 32).
In other words: “My love for you is not lessened by my giving love to your brother. You are always with me. You are always on my heart. You are always on my mind. I love you. Nothing can take that love away. Your brother will not be a threat to your finances. All that I have is yours. If all that we do with our wealth is hoard it and think about ourselves, we will miss out on what truly brings joy and meaning in life—being a blessing to others and serving them out of love. It is right that we celebrate that your brother has come home. He was lost and now is found. Please come in and let us rejoice together.”
The Ending We Often Miss
In Luke 15 the story ends with the older brother remaining outside, refusing to celebrate his younger brother’s return. But the larger story doesn’t end there. As we continue to read the Bible, we learn that the “older brother” focused more and more on his anger, bitterness, envy, jealousy, dissatisfaction, and pride. And the more he thought about his father’s actions and how “easy” his brother got off, the angrier he became.
The story ends, as I picture it theologically, with the older brother rushing into the “celebration,” seizing his father, beating him, mocking him, and, finally, putting him on the cross.
For that older brother represents those who had complained, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” And the reality is that both sons wanted their father dead. One repented; the other crucified him!
* Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Clinton Meharry is a pastor and the health ministries director for the Indiana Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Carmel, Indiana. This article was published October 28, 2010.