Reflection: Luke 15: 11 – 32.
This family parable is often portrayed as illustrating God’s desire in seeking out the solitary lost, as within the context of Luke’s Gospel the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son are recounted together. However, I will focus on its lateral dynamic to draw out nuanced attitudes and relational identities between the prodigal and his father, the father and his older son, and the two brothers.
In the story, each character is designated relationally as ‘the father,’ a ‘son,’ or a ‘brother,’ and their identity are so intertwined with each other that one is inconceivable without the others. Consequently, when the younger son requested for his inheritance in advance, itself a taboo in Middle Eastern culture, and unilaterally decided to vacate the family home with everything he had (v.13), he blatantly severed his ties with his father’s household and turned his older brother against him – ‘this son of yours’ comment later on (v.30), indicated he no longer considered his younger sibling as a brother. He then behaved not like the son of his father, intent on sullying his own good name, as he dissipated his wealth on a self-indulgent life. The famine and his ensuing poverty was a God-sent, forcing him to rethink his own past identity as someone’s beloved son (v.17). The memory of once belonging in a family gave him hope (vv.17-19).
It’s a surprise that the father acquiesced in dividing his inheritance and allowing his son to leave. He obviously decided not to stand in his son’s way to further alienate him. Permitting him to depart is the most significant segment of the narrative, as he still held on to this relationship in his heart, as evidenced by his searching eyes on the horizon day-and-night (v.20), and the spontaneous embrace and kiss for his prodigal. Note that these actions were not predicated by repentance, as this relationship was not contingent on his son’s morality. However, to restore this relationship, confession has still to be made (v.21). But before the son attempted to present his planned reformed identity as a servant (v.19), his father interrupted him a second time, and changed the ‘no longer worthy to be called your son’ self characterization to a son who was received back with unconditional acceptance.
He was angry at the fuss that was being made over one who no longer had a place in his heart, unlike his father. And for the first time, he addressed his father not as father, but as ‘you’ (vv.29-30), as he distanced himself from them – repeating what his younger brother did earlier! Why should a philandering squanderer be favored over one who had worked faithfully and is obedient? Logically it seemed sound, but for the fact that his brother’s inheritance belonged to him and was given with his father’s assent, and all this time he too was working for his own inheritance. Was he being self-righteous and demonizing his brother? The father extracted his son’s anger on himself, but continued to hold him in his heart, reassuring him that all he has belongs to him (v.31) – implying that the younger sibling has had his share, thereby confronting the older son’s ‘black-and-white’ moralistic thinking. He emphasized that there is a priority of relationship that overrides his younger brother’s depraved actions (v.32) having earlier dealt with his repentance, confession, and living with the consequences of his actions (vv.18-21).
The will to forgive and reconcile in any relational situation is birthed in a desire to make space in our hearts for others for the process to commence. The father’s wisdom and indestructible love in including both his sons in his heart enabled him to navigate successfully his sons’ identity crises to keep his family together. That is God’s example to us as He makes room in His heart for us. A precious lesson for us as we grow to be like Jesus.