The Point of the Prodigal Son
by Matthew W. Bassford
I know that one should not have high expectations of religious memes, but the one below grinds my gears. Every time I saw it, I rolled my eyes a little bit harder, until I knew that either I’d have to write about it, or my eyes would get stuck that way permanently, just like my Communications teacher said they would.
Certainly, the meme is in line with the pop-culture understanding of the parable, and even in line with the hymns we sing. I think “Love for All” is a moving hymn. Indeed, it makes a better hymn than a hymn about the actual point of the parable would!
However, we need to be better Bible students than that. First, I don’t think Jesus ever said anything to make “one simple point”. His teaching has so many layers to it that I think it’s the most difficult thing in the Bible to understand fully. You can get the surface meaning pretty quickly, but the deeper aspects take years or decades (or never, this side of Jordan) to understand.
Second, if the parable of the prodigal son has a simple point, “Just come home,” isn’t it. I think you could make the argument that “Just come home,” is the point of Jesus’ entire ministry (as per Luke 19:9), but He’s doing something different here. Luke 15:1-3 tells the story:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." So He told them this parable:
Then, immediately following, you’ve got the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son.
Notice that the context begins with the observation that the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to listen to Jesus. There was no need to tell those prodigals to come home. They already were coming!
The problem was that the religious elites who saw all this, rather than rejoicing, were grumbling because Jesus was associating with riff-raff, which they themselves surely would not have done! They are so obviously in need of a dramatic attitude adjustment that it is to the “righteous”, rather than to the sinners and tax collectors, that Jesus relates His trio of parables.
First, He uses the parables of the sheep and the coin to show that even if the Pharisees aren’t rejoicing over all the repentant sinners, all of heaven is. God has invited the angels to share in His celebration! Contextually, then, the point of the parable of the prodigal son is that if the Pharisees don’t join in the rejoicing (as the older brother didn’t), they will remove themselves from the household of the Father, refusing to come in, even as He begs them to do so.
The parable of the prodigal son, then, isn’t a lighthearted offer of reconciliation, complete with cute cartoon pigs. It’s a sobering warning from Jesus to the Pharisees (and indeed to everyone who is “religious”) to check their hearts. We, not the sinners around us, are the ones who are in danger of ending up on the wrong end of the parable.
The only people who are going to enter the kingdom of heaven are the ones who share the goals of the King of heaven. Even though sinners have grieved Him by their rebellion, He longs to be reconciled with them. We are His chosen instruments for doing exactly that.
How do we feel about our work? Are we as zealous for the lost as God is? Or, instead, are we indifferent to them, or even actively hostile, like the Pharisees were? Are we the kind of Christians who, deep down, don’t want messy people in our neat little church?
Jesus wants us to understand that that spirit will leave us on the outside looking in too.