I am convinced that Jesus’ parable in Luke 15:11-32 is the most routinely misunderstood of all his parables.
It is traditionally known as The Parable of the Prodigal Son. ‘Prodigal’ means ‘recklessly wasteful’ or ‘lavish,’ and ‘prodigal son’ has come to mean a ‘repentant wastrel’ or ‘returned wanderer.’ More recently, the NIV translation used the section heading ‘The Parable of the Lost Son,’ bringing it in line with the two preceding parables, ‘The Parable of the Lost Sheep’ and ‘The Parable of the Lost Coin.’ The son has been presented as one who turns their back on God, lured away by the pleasures of the world, before eventually coming back to faith. Though the father does not try to force his son to stay against his will, he never gives up hope that one day he will return – and, in both regards, we look to the father as our role model in relation to friends or family who walk away.
But I am convinced that this interpretation misses the point, and therefore misses the proper implications for us.
In Luke 15, we see Jesus engaging in polemic [strong argument] against the Pharisees, who have accused him of welcoming sinners and eating with them. He tells the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost coin. Both end with rejoicing, and the explanation, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” // “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Jesus contrasts the way the Pharisees despise those who do not live up to their own standards with illustrations of how precious each sinner is in God’s eyes. Having established this, he builds on this foundation [that is, the third parable does not underline the first two - note that it does not have the same ending, the same explanation - but goes beyond them] to speak about himself in answer to the accusations levelled against him.
I am convinced that the younger son in Jesus’ story is his way of speaking about himself. The younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, sets off on a long journey to a distant land, and squanders his wealth in wild living. He leaves the Father’s presence in heaven, and comes to earth, where he wastes the resources of heaven not on those who would consider themselves to be deserving of such honour but on the undeserving. He lives in such a way as to be accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners. He does not observe the ritual rules when it comes to eating, or the Sabbath. And his choices come with great personal cost.
Of course, the big objection to such a reading is that the son calls himself one who has sinned against heaven and against God...and Jesus was without sin. But if we understand the context – a polemic against the Pharisees who have accused him of having sinned – then this is part of Jesus’ demolition of their case against him. The one who has clearly lived in such a way as to be rejected by God is, in fact, lavishly accepted by God. The one who did not hold on to his status is highly honoured. The one who was dead is alive again – and if that is not a prophetic reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection, then I don’t know what is...
And Jesus contrasts himself – the younger son – with the Pharisees – the older son, who neither enjoyed the father’s goodness themselves nor shared it with others.
Now, of course, a story can be understood at more than one level. And so it could be argued that we can see the younger son to refer to Jesus at one level while still seeing it as referring at another level to those who walk away from God – as referring to the majority interpretation, the common understanding. But that understanding has such a strong gravitational pull on our imagination, and the context is so clearly a confrontation between two views of Jesus – from the devil or from God? - that I just don’t think a dual interpretation will do. It will always pull us away from who Jesus is.
Rather than the father being our role-model, in letting-go and hoping, I would suggest that the prodigal son is meant to be our role-model.
That we should reclaim ‘prodigal’ as a model for the missional life [that is, living a life defined by mission]: ‘prodigal’ applying not to those we hope to see come back, but to us as we go out.
And that we should ask ourselves:
How much of heaven’s resources are we prepared to ‘squander’ on sinners?
How far from home [from our place of comfort] are we willing to go?
How great a personal cost are we prepared to pay?
Whose rules are we prepared to break, and who are we prepared to offend, in order to live prodigally?