Putting the Prodigal in Context

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return-of-prodigalLuke 15 is one of the most famous chapters in the New Testament. In this chapter, Jesus tells three stories about things that are lost. Really it is about one thing, one sheep and a young man. I guess I am not so sure sheep and people are things. Things get lost by no power of their own.

So Jesus tells these three stories and each one ends with the proper celebration of things that were lost being found and that is celebration. That is part of the story but not the whole story. The point is not just that there is celebration, the point is who is celebrating. Those who find things celebrate. Those who refuse to celebrate, when everyone else around them does have issues.

That gets us a bit closer to the point this text was made in its original setting. That should matter to us. Before we know what a text means to us today we must try to understand what it meant to them then. If you are interested in context, as we all should be, these parables are making a particular point to a particular group of people and the hint is found in the only non-red letters in the chapter.

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” – Luke 15:1-2

Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them while the Pharisees complain about it. Sound familiar? God is celebrating the return of these sinners. Jesus celebrates it. Everyone is celebrating except these older brothers who would rather complain because they have been “slaving away all these years” just as Jesus depicted them as saying and doing in the parable itself.

The key point of this parable, in context, is about our attitude toward those who return to God. Do we make comparisons? Do we withhold forgiveness? Are we unwelcoming?

I remember hearing from a young adult once that he was at one point scared to return to church because of what people might say or the questions they might ask him. Isn’t that a shame? Let us never be “older brother Christians. Imagine how much growth the church could sustain through restoration of those who have left but are too ashamed or too afraid to return if only we were just willing to lovingly and gracefully welcome back our own.

Let us replace, “Where have you been?” with “Welcome home.”

Let us replace angry, scornful looks with, “I am glad to see you.”

Let us stop putting scarlet letters on people and start putting on them robes and rings.

This is what we are called to do and it doesn’t mean we are affirming of all things sinful. It does mean we recognize, appreciate and give the same grace to our brothers and sisters that our Father has given us.


3 Responses

  1. The way I have heard it taught is, Suppose your spouse went out to get a gallon milk and never came back. Two years later he comes back, sits down at the table and says “What’s for supper?” Would you expect an explanation? This was used to justify expecting a young man from our congregation who met with a Disciples of Christ congregation for a few months and then came back, to “go forward” and confess his sin of forsaking the assembly and meeting with the evil apostates. It was very much an older brother approach and all of the blame for the unfortunate situation was laid on him.

  2. The feast were celebratory in nature. The Passover remembered God’s deliverance as a celebration of that deliverance, it wasn’t meant to be a somber experience, but happy and joyful. Welcoming someone back to God means they have left God, not that they have left our assembly or even left us. The brother was probably just as mad as his brother leaving as he was coming back, when he should have been sad and then happy. And the brother didn’t have a say in this process even though he probably thought he should. Our home isn’t here but with God and God has open arms for the humble and penitent and we should celebrate with Him.

  3. If you got on the old ex-church of Christ message board, there was a lot of discussion about the invitation song and how people responding were labeled even by kids as a “nasty sinner”. Index cards listing sins were frequently kept in the file cabinet in the church even though God forgives sins. This mentality was prevalent and everyone wondered what the sin was that caused the person to go up the aisle. It was like the gossip column or the supermarket tabloid.
    Now some cofCs have eliminated the invitation song and gone to private responses which kept down the finger pointing. High churches might have one altar call a year but during communion at every service, they have a lay person or a priest who will hear confession, prayer requests, etc. This means that no one hears what is said and there seems to be none of the finger pointing that many of us saw.

    That said, the older brother(s) got so much blame but there are many who feel the same way. I am not saying he was totally in the right, but I see why he felt the way he did. There are many who do what is right, don’t rebel, behave, and yet feel like they get nothing but a life of misery. Some of us got multiple condemnations to hell for the sins of others.There needs to be a celebration of something periodically. I understand that Passover was a celebration for all Jews, but in Christianity that does not occur. Holy communion was supposed to be a celebration but it became a dirge and an individual, lonely act in some churches. Something needs to change.

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