Jesus told a story that is famously known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is found in the Bible in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15. In the story, Jesus is teaching the Jewish religious leaders about his mission, which is to seek and save those who are lost. The people who are sinners, estranged from God the Father, in need of being rescued out of their terrible condition of hopelessness and despair. These are the ones that Jesus has come to serve and to save. Throughout the centuries, Christians and others have grown to love this parable because of the way it portrays the lavish love of God for penitent people that return to him. But the one whom the story is focused on for most of the parable (the wayward, rebellious, profligate son of the father) is only one of the major characters. Tim Keller, in his beautiful little book The Prodigal God, reminds us that there are two Acts in the play. In the first Act, the younger brother rebels against his father by asking for his share of the inheritance and moves to a far country to do his thing. When his spend-thrift life bottoms out, he comes to his senses and penitently returns to his father hoping merely for a servant’s position in his father’s house. But before he arrives at the door, the father runs to greet his son and forgive him. The son is brought back and restored as a son, not a servant. And there is much rejoicing in the household as they celebrate the son who was lost but is now found.
Ah, but wait! There is more to the story.
Jesus has included his audience, the religious leaders who despise the “sinners” in their midst, in the parable. They are represented as the elder brother who, although never rebellious like his profligate younger brother, is equally estranged from his father. Whereas the younger brother had been selfishly alienated from his father, the elder brother is self-righteously alienated from his father and younger brother. He is upset that the father would take the younger son back into the family and restore his place in the family. He is jealous for the celebration over his younger brother, and refuses to come into the feast because he thinks he deserves better for all he has done in serving his father. This second Act of the play is, according to Keller, the key to unlocking the parable’s meaning. Jesus never intended to focus on the story of the younger brother at the expense of ignoring the elder brother. Taken together, the sin of the brothers demonstrate there are not two ways to live, but three.
There are two ways to be estranged from God, to disobey the Father. One is by being bad, and one is by being good. Neither self-discovery nor morality will bring us to a place of fellowship with God. Jesus meant to teach religious moralists and irreligious rebels that these ways of life leave us outside the feast of the Father. One way leads far away from God. The other way never strays too far. But both are outside of his loving presence, and therefore both are wrong. Both ways of living lead nowhere. By putting the religious leaders (Pharisees) in the story, Jesus is inviting them to see himself as a third way to live. He is calling the good and the bad away from their chosen path to God to a new way. The gospel that Jesus preached, embodied and lived by him, is that third way–which is the only way to the Heavenly Father. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by him (John 14:6).
Most Christians will likely think this parable is about other people: religious legalists and unbelievers. But I was surprised at how relevant Jesus’ parable is for revealing the rebellious and moralistic sin that remains in my heart. They say that the gospel is not just for conversion, but for the Christian life as well. Keller’s insights into the parable may serve to convert you for the first time, or remind you in a potent way of how lavish the Father’s love is for sinners. Indeed, he is a “prodigal” God in the manner he gives grace to the undeserving.
Read Keller’s The Prodigal God to discover how Jesus, in this parable of two lost sons, redefines sin, lostness, and hope. In doing so he explains that the character who is absent from the parable (but should be included) is the true elder brother (Jesus himself) who has come to bring salvation, to bring home “younger” and “elder” brother types to the feast of the Father.